THE CITIES THAT most enchant me wear their histories on their sleeves. I once visited a fashionable boutique in a hidden courtyard in Berlin, its facade pockmarked with bullet holes from World War II. In Jerusalem, I had an epic multi-course meal at a throbbing cafe with all-white decor, then ended the night watching black-clad pilgrims rock back and forth in front of the Wailing Wall. It was an exhilarating and disquieting experience, like finding a portal that could transport me between centuries.
This fascination with places where the past rubs provocatively against the present is the reason I couldn’t wait to see Beirut, an ancient port city that has survived centuries of violent conflict and destruction. I was told that it was a place where you might walk by a sleek Japanese-inspired bar on your way to an 18th-century villa built on top of Roman baths.
When I finally got the chance to visit in January of last year, I decided that not even the ongoing protests were going to get in my way. Lebanon’s most recent revolution was ignited in October 2019 by wildfires that burned thousands of acres of trees—a catastrophe many Lebanese felt the government did next to nothing to stop—as well as a new tax on platforms like WhatsApp, FaceTime, and Skype. But the unrest had been brewing for years, born out of multiple government corruption scandals and the gradual breakdown of basic infrastructure.
Of course, last year would prove to be one of the country’s most challenging: the outbreak of the global pandemic was followed in August by a massive explosion in the port that killed more than 200 people and damaged or destroyed more than 100 buildings within a one-kilometer radius. Much of the country blamed the government for the blast, which was caused by the improper storage of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate.
But, that January before the blast, I decided not to let the protests prevent me from visiting. And I trusted the reassuring words of the art patrons Zoe and Nabil Debs, whom I was traveling to Beirut to interview. The couple—she’s British, he’s Lebanese—met almost three decades ago in London and lived in Europe for many years. They share a love of saving and transforming timeworn spaces. By the time they decided to move to Beirut in 2010, they had already renovated more than a dozen properties in England, France, and Lebanon.
For the past 10 years, the Debses have been converting an 18th-century villa that has belonged to Nabil’s family for several generations into Arthaus Beirut, an intimate hotel in the bohemian Gemmayze neighborhood. The main building’s 12 rooms and suites are filled with antiques, family heirlooms, and furnishings sourced from around the globe, as well as some pieces by Lebanon’s most talented up-and-coming designers. The hotel also showcases works from the couple’s remarkable art collection, ranging from Byzantine funerary busts to contemporary murals by world-renowned street artists. The Debses plan to add 11 more rooms in three surrounding buildings.
In August, just as the hotel was about to open, the port explosion damaged the windows, roof, and facade of the main building and tore the roof off a second building behind the garden courtyard. “Our way of reacting was to fix everything as soon as we could,” Nabil told me. They replaced lost artworks with new pieces and repaired much of the property in just five weeks.
In October, a month before finally opening to guests, Arthaus hosted an exhibition of works by 60 Middle Eastern artists. “A journalist friend commented that Beirut is at its best during the worst of times,” Nabil said. After all, the city, inhabited for more than five millennia and built upon the remains of Phoenician, Greek, Roman, and Ottoman civilisations, has, according to legend, been destroyed and rebuilt at least nine times.
For my visit, the Debses had arranged three whirlwind days of introductions to the artists and designers with whom they collaborate. “We organize visits to private ateliers, houses, and museums throughout Beirut and beyond,” Zoe said. “The hospitality and creativity of this country are exceptional, and we want our guests to experience it all as if they were family friends.”
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