Lost Beirut: Long Beach Plage

Beaches are a sort of institution in Lebanon. For many, they symbolize the country’s relatively liberal social norms when compared to other Middle East states where having a dip in public is often the preserve of foreign tourists rather than locals.

The Lebanese beach, of course is a key component in romantic notions of 1950s Beirut as the “Paris of the Middle East”–even in times of crisis, it would not be unusual for Western peacekeepers to be bedazzled by the sight of Lebanese women in bikinis when landing their military craft ashore during one flare up or another.

Whether or not one agrees that Lebanese beaches are a cause for celebration, it is clear that the institution has only become more hedonistic as the decades have passed. Today, resorts like La Rivera and Oceana are the site of wanton displays of steroid injections and silicone implants–at Edde Sands, Fashion TV Arabia sets up a catwalk for lingerie models. Thousands of dollars in champagne are sprayed over the bare skinned revelers every Sunday as adult pools are turned into daytime nightclubs, VIP sections and all.

But recently I was asked to go back in time when some Lebanese friends in New York, who have not been back to Beirut since the 1960s, begged me to photograph their all time favorite resort: Long Beach Plage. Being more familiar with the current “Miami” type spots of today, I had never heard of Long Beach, and was surprised to find it still existed. It was virtually hidden behind a crumbling amusement park near the seaside promenade.

I pulled up to the front gate, thinking it had been completely restored (and thus boring) due to the kitsch Pepsi sponsorship:

Though the outer walls bore the scares of decade’s old street battles:

But as I drew closer to the entrance booth…

I spotted some vintage material and was intrigued:

Behind the reception desk, the ‘golden days’ had been immortalized in a giant photograph on the wall:

Then more vintage signage:

For some reason, I just love this stuff–fragments of ‘glorious’ Beirut, which was in the midst of being destroyed when I was born.

The overall sitting area had been somewhat restored with new parasols:

But the cabins (a fancy French term for lockers) looked as though they hadn’t changed much since the pre-war days:

At this point, I was pretty happy with my find. But then I discovered the ultimate prize… the kiddie pool:

This thing had retro written all over it:

Growing up with the PVC type slides of Six Flags, I was shocked to find that old slides like this were actually made with concrete:

I wonder how that felt going down!

Beyond the kiddie pool though, much of Long Beach Plage was quite run down. The gym wasn’t looking too hot:

Neither was the basketball court:

In fact, only a handful of people were milling around during a beautiful sunny day. When compared with today’s glitzy resorts, Long Beach remains but a patch of forgotten cement in the shadow of Beirut’s ever changing skyline.

I met Mohammad, who told me he had worked at Long Beach since the 1960s as a waiter. He reminisced about the ‘good old days’ before the war in 1975–back when the Lebanese lira was strong and he made a small fortune in tips, enough to travel to Europe, he said, and buy a new car.

He lamented the loss of Long Beach’s luster as one of the Beirut’s premiere resorts, once boasting a giant pool, possibly the city’s largest, seen here in the center of the old photo:

This was confirmed by Lebanese friends in New York who referred to it as “Al Jahash” because of its size.

But now the giant pool had been concreted over, Mohammad explained, pointing out that the water had run flush up against the curved wall shown here:

and out across the central area:

Still, despite the changes, Long Beach seems to continue to draw some of its old regulars:

And it’s still beautiful to watch the waves crash routinely against its sea walls…

over and over again, in between brief intervals of calm…

…perhaps the only constant element of life in Long Beach’s turbulent past.

For those, like my New York friends, who wonder what has become of Beirut beach life, here is a sample I found online from a typical event at Edde Sands. Caution, this video is not for the squeamish:

And a less produced piece: