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Wednesday, 14 August, 2002, 16:34 GMT 17:34 UK
Beirut's downtown revival
Visitors to Beirut centre
Sister act: regular visitors to the new central district

It is a scene repeated in dozens of cities around the Mediterranean - residents taking an evening stroll after the sweltering heat and humidity of a summer's day.

Open-air cafes fill up with families, while groups of youngsters chat and preen themselves on street corners and parade along streets lined with expensive boutiques.

The Lebanese people are coming out of war. It is good to see them, mixing and loving each other

Beirut resident
A familiar scene perhaps, but for most of those who flock to Beirut's recently restored central district this is a new and sweet experience.

This summer has marked the return of central Beirut as the beating heart of the Lebanese capital after decades of neglect.

"This is a very special place, new and historic at the same time. You can't find places like this in other Arab countries," said one of two smartly-dressed sisters who are regular downtown visitors.

Riad Solh Square, Beirut
Riad Solh Square is at the centre of the development
"I come to meet all my friends here. There are nightclubs, and pubs, and coffee shops, so there's something for everybody."

"The Lebanese people are coming out of war," says her sibling. "It is good to see them, mixing and loving each other. They want to make Lebanon one of the best countries in the world, and this is the start."

Indeed, it is a remarkable turnaround - Beirut, once synonymous with war and anarchy, now an oasis of tolerance and carefree enjoyment in a turbulent region.

City divided

The area is called al-Aswaq in Arabic, from the word "suq" or market, although it's increasingly known as "downtown" by an Americanised, younger generation.

The way people have taken it to their hearts must be especially satisfying for Rafiq al-Hariri, Lebanon's prime minister and the billionaire businessman behind the regeneration.

Fighter in Lebanese civil war
War left devastation in the heart of Beirut
For much of the 1975-91 civil war, the Aswaq, which straddles the Christian east and Muslim west of the city, was the main urban battleground.

By the time peace came, it had become a devastated and strange landscape: bombed-out buildings, facades eaten away by years of gun and rocket fire, giant weeds and self-seeding trees growing over the rubble.

Muslims and Christians had developed their own leisure areas either side of the front line - the Corniche the focus for West Beirutis, while fashionable bars and restaurants in Achrafiyeh served a predominantly Christian clientele.

With everyone restricted to his own sectarian neighbourhood, few people believed the hype when Mr Hariri's plan was launched in 1994 that it would reunite the divided city.

Hubble-bubble heaven

Through the late 1990s wrecking balls and bulldozers finished the job started by the fighters, clearing huge swathes of land and erasing all traces of war (not to mention many ruins from earlier centuries of peace and prosperity).

Cynicism remained high, with allegations of corruption, graft, and the massive undervaluing of the properties of compulsorily-evicted owners.

Liquid nightclub in Beirut
The feel-good factor is spreading to other parts of Lebanon
But the expectation that downtown would become a soulless steel-and-concrete jungle of banks, government offices and embassies has proved unfounded.

Beirutis have been offered a genuine amenity - a pedestrianised city centre that, refreshingly for this country, is not dominated by one sectarian group.

The open-air cafes are ideal for indulging in the Lebanese craze for (in fact addiction to) the Nargila, or hubble-bubble pipe, and the atmosphere is heavy with its sickly sweet charcoal-and-tobacco aroma.

Even the Virgin Megastore has a hubble-bubble cafe, with customers puffing on Nargilas shaped like musical instruments.

Just like old times?

After midnight, as the restaurants and coffee shops begin closing, the nightclubs take over and throb to the pulsating rhythms of Rai and Arabo-Latin music until dawn.

Beirut street cafe
Water pipe smokers in the downtown cafes
Amid this euphoric party atmosphere, it really does feel like some of Lebanon's deepest wounds are finally healing, at the very place where they were at their most gaping.

And the feel-good factor fanning out from here has led many people to start talking again about the "Old Lebanon", when tourists came to Lebanon in droves and the country was a playground for the international jet-set.

Fittingly, the numbers of tourists in 2002 - mostly Arabs from the Gulf - are said to have reached pre-war levels.

But not everyone shares the euphoria. One veteran Beiruti visiting Downtown said dismissively, "yes, it's fantastic, but it's not Beirut".

See also:

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