With no mention of Baalbek, this is not your typical tourist guide to Lebanon. Half city guide and half cultural snapshot, “Boho Beirut: A guide to the Middle East’s most sophisticated city,” highlights the urban, youthful energy of a transforming capital, with a focus on attractions well off the beaten tourist track.
“The whole premise of the book was to reflect the young vibe of the city because there really is a powerful energy despite all of the problems and uncertainty. There’s a group of young people that is very dynamic,” says author Shirine Saad, who has compiled an insider’s urban guide, complementing recommendations with profiles of the up-and-coming artists and trendsetters who are making their mark on the country.
The Beirut-born but Brooklyn-based journalist set her sights on writing a guide to Beirut because she felt that other books have failed to reflect the real energy of the city where culture and travel writing intersect.
“I wanted it to be as much about culture as about places to shop, eat and go out. I didn’t just want to represent the cliche of Beirut as just this party city where we drink until the wee hours,” she continues.
In her mind, the readers attracted to the book are her many friends over the years who have asked her for her personal recommendations on what to do in Beirut – they are artists, gallery owners, seasoned travelers and those who want to delve into the city and don’t need yet another book explaining how to catch a bus to Beiteddine or Baalbek.
With a sleek, magazine-like design by Laurent Saad el Khoury and beautiful photographs from Tanya Traboulsi, the guide is divided into sections on arts and culture, architecture and design, and introductions to various neighborhoods, as well as shopping, dining and nightlife. Profiles and interviews with 16 significant “tastemakers” as identified by Saad in each of these fields are peppered throughout the book.
“The idea was to try to find the new leaders in each area,” Saad explains, including many of Beirut’s well-known innovators, such as Lebanese architectural star Bernard Khoury, alongside new or lesser-known talents.
For instance, Saad chose to profile improvisational jazz artist Sharif Sehnaoui, who has been the leading force behind Beirut’s experimental music scene, including the annual Irtijal Festival and concerts at the Beirut Art Center, but is little-known outside this community.
“[Sehnaoui] has been working in improvised jazz for more than 10 years and relentlessly supporting the underground, experimental scene in Beirut, bringing in artists from abroad and organizing events. He never stops,” enthuses Saad, adding that she hopes figures like Sehnaoui will appeal to foreign tourists and Beirut residents alike.
“These people are going to change the country, in a subtle way, but in a lasting way,” she says of the tastemakers and their influence on everything from the city’s skyline to the fashions Beirutis don and how Lebanese think about food and art.
Unlike other books simply about art or travel in Lebanon, Saad’s guide also puts a lot of emphasis on design and architectural innovators, an especially dynamic field for Beirut as the city continues to be reconstructed and revamped after decades of war.
“I think we’re getting a lot of energy in the design scene, a lot of new architecture offices are opening up, which is interesting in terms of the future of the city and cityscape.”
By including trendsetters and these unique themes, Saad hopes that her book will serve as a “cultural document as well as a guidebook.”
“I think people in Beirut can appreciate it and learn from it as well, perhaps giving them a different perspective on the city.”
Tracking Beirut’s urban culture has led Saad through various neighborhoods, from Hamra to Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhail, as well as Jisr al-Wati and Karantina, pinpointing studios, galleries, restaurants and performance spaces around the capital.
Unable to say where the next trendy neighborhood will rise, Saad instead believes that Lebanese are starting to become more expansive, sampling culture from different areas – a paradoxical observation given the other tendency of Beirutis traditionally to hold on to the prejudices and socioeconomic or confessional connotations about certain areas of the city.
“People are mixing more and more and they’re opening up,” she says, but warns that there is still a long way to go, lamenting that some people continue to refrain from visiting a certain bar or gallery because of its location, meaning that they miss out on “amazing talents, so much creativity and so much history.”
When asked about her favorite Beirut discovery in the process of writing the guide, Saad is thoughtful but unable to come up with just one.
Rather than a single, unexpected gem, the author says she is constantly surprised by Lebanon’s general, cultural overdrive.
“Sometimes you tend to think, ‘Oh Beirut, it’s always the same thing or the same people,’ but I was really amazed by all the things that people are doing here – all the festivals, projects and exhibitions. People are constantly working in Beirut, they never stop and never get discouraged and that’s really powerful. They don’t let anything stop them from achieving what they want to do.”
The book will be sold at Antoine, Virgin and Paper Cup bookstores starting Monday and will also be available to order via Amazon in a month’s time.