‘The Paris of the Middle East’: Remembering the Lebanese Jet Set

Forget Gstaad or St Tropez — in the 1960s, Lebanon was the real place to see and be seen, learns Chris Cotonou

It seems a world away now, but from 1955 until the outbreak of civil war in 1975, Lebanon was experiencing a period of glamour and optimism known as the Lebanese Golden Age. As with St. Tropez and Gstaad, Beirut and its environs attracted the European and American jet set, with hotels, restaurants, and clubs built for the purpose of entertaining the foreigners and an emerging middle-class. While St. Tropez and Gstaad were immortalised by the likes of Slim Aarons and Gunter Sachs, the Lebanese moment has been largely forgotten — blighted by the state’s ensuing war and sectarian strife. 

Most of these establishments are gone forever. Others, by the will of those who own them or have inherited them, have continued to survive. Amidst a feeling of revolution and instability, I spent time visiting these places on a trip to Lebanon before the pandemic, and there remains a lot of pride attached to them. Even now, as the nation finishes celebrating its hundredth birthday, struggling with the political fallout from last year’s explosion, the pandemic, and an unemployment crisis, the Lebanese Golden Age survives in some peoples’ minds as a searing what-could-have-been. The bars, clubs, and hotels are remnants of a time when saying you were Lebanese meant another, more glamorous, thing to people in the West. 

One of the most resilient of these hotels is the Mayflower in the Hamra district of Beirut – one of few to have remained open during the civil war. Founded by Mr Mounir Samaha in the fifties, today it is run by his son Sherif, who has preserved the hotel’s most curious feature: an English pub called The Duke of Wellington.

“During the Golden Age, it could only accommodate three people,” Sherif tells me. “Over time, it expanded and became a famous attraction.” Mr Mounir himself was an Anglophile, who began his career at a hotel in British-controlled Palestine. “When he opened the Mayflower, he wanted a pub to accommodate his foreign guests. So, he flew to London, studying the pubs in the city, using a tape measure on the bar, the chairs, and noting the decorations.” It’s a bizarre but comforting scene to encounter as an Englishman in the Levant – a bolthole favoured by author Graham Greene and infamous double agent Kim Philby, among others. It also sparked a trend of English-style pubs throughout the city, of which very few now remain. “At the time, Beirut was known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’,” Sherif adds. Thanks to his father, the Hamra district became associated with intellectual café society. “It was a cultural crossroads — the centre of the world. The rich Arabs arrived to party and the Europeans came for the culture.” 

When the civil war began in 1975, the party stopped. Prominent luxury hotels shut, or were refashioned into militia hideouts. But in the midst of sectarian warfare, Mr Mounir stayed behind. “Hamra was majority Muslim and he was a Catholic. But he fought to defend his property,” says Sherif: “He was smart – hosting foreign charities and agencies, and reporters covering the war. He knew that if any of them were hurt, the militia might face repercussions.” His father’s story convinced Sherif to keep the Mayflower open during the Israel war in 2006. Following another short-lived economic miracle, Beirut once again fell to chaos: “I could have left, but I tried to think of my father’s courage. And in two days, the hotel was fully-booked with reporters from all over the world.” Sherif used his father’s same underground network from the 70s’ to supply the journalists with booze. He earned more than he would have without the war. 

Like The Mayflower, a lot of the remaining hotels from The Golden Age survive on the efforts of the founder’s family. A personal favourite of mine, and perhaps the most famous, is an hour’s drive from Beirut. Nestled in the caves near a quiet Maronite harbour, the Byblos Fishing Club was founded in 1962 by eccentric playboy and adventurer, Youssef ‘Pepe’ Abed. Like Mr Samaha, Pepe’s name epitomises the era. Also like The Mayflower, it is now run by his son Roger.

The stone floors, terracotta pots, and white chairs resemble every Mediterranean guest house you have ever known. But in the sixties, a visitor might have spotted Bardot dancing barefoot with Gunter Sachs, or JFK eating a fish lunch with his officials. Thanks in part to his good friend Marlon Brando, Pepe himself is credited with sparking the jet set’s arrival in Lebanon. As the story goes: The Byblos Fishing Club was conceived after a night of drunk sailing with Brando, who Pepe met while partying in Acapulco, Mexico. The actor spotted the fishermen’s caves and suggested that Abed buy and convert them into a hideout for his celebrity friends. It’s a story that seems far-fetched, until you notice the photos of them grinning like schoolboys in the dining room – today covered with snaps that commemorate their famous guests’ visits. It is an impressive collection of sixties cultural icons.

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