Can Beirut Be Paris Again?

Michael J. Totten in City Journal:

BeirutBefore it became the poster child for urban disaster areas in the mid-1970s, Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East. With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part. Then civil war broke out in 1975 and tore city and country to pieces. More than 100,000 people were killed during a period when Lebanon’s population was under 4 million. The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party. Today, the shoe is on the other foot. Syria, not Lebanon, is suffering the horrors of civil war. With Syria’s Bashar al-Assad possibly on his way out—or at least too busy to export mayhem to his neighbors—will Beirut have the chance to regain its lost glory?

…In fact, much of the city may be doing that. In the name of postwar progress, many of Beirut’s most beautiful buildings and even entire streets are being demolished and replaced with high-rises. Some of the towers, like those along the city’s new waterfront, are outstanding architecturally; others are generic blocks, little more than vertical placeholders, that are replacing some of the most charming urban vistas in the Middle East.

…Beirut sometimes looks like what you’d get if you put Paris, Miami, and Baghdad into a blender and pressed PUREE. Gleaming glass skyscrapers rise above French-style villas adjacent to bullet-pocked walls and mortar-shattered towers. Hip entrepreneurs set up luxury boutiques next to crumbling modern-day ruins. A Ferrari showroom sits across the street from a parking lot that was recently a rubble field. Beirut’s fabulous cuisine never went away; neither did its high-end shopping districts, cafés, nightclubs, and bars. But English has eclipsed French as the second-most-spoken language. None of the new construction looks even the slightest bit French.

More here.