55m - It’s hard to walk past Joon on the Moon and not step into this...
Home in the Heart of the City
Walking up the stairs to Dar Al Ashrafieh with the late afternoon sun shining through, one can see the reflection of the artful balustrades on the walls. Wrought-ironwork of balconies and stairways were a distinctive architectural component of buildings built in Beirut in the 1940s and 50s, of which sadly, few are left.
Waking up the next morning, Beirut, which appears far more than three floors down below, is stuck in traffic. The balcony outside the guest room however is scented with sweet jasmine, yellow hibiscus bloom.
The flat to which Jamil Azar warmly welcomes his guests has preserved much of the spirit and the style of an almost obliterated era. The lounge, typically divided into two areas – one for entertaining, one for eating – features high painted ceilings and an eye-catching art deco sofa with many side-drawers and quite possibly a secret compartment or two…
Among the paintings on the walls of Jamil’s home, there are quite a few signed by his friend Elie Philipp Shéhadé. The art works liven the place up. The mix of old furniture and objects as well as more modern art, works well in this grand place, filled with beautiful carpets and furniture and great attention to detail. That said, it is great to see original features, such as windows and door handles. Especially when finding out the story of Jamil’s home…
“The family of my father rented the flat on the first floor and then around 1940 or 1942, they bought the block and extended it up,” Jamil explained. “It’s very close to Tabaris (a dangerous crossing during the civil war) so during the war it was impossible to keep living here. We moved to the mountain.” The war left some traces on Jamil’s walls, windows and on a big wooden table that are still visible today.
Jamil speaks French and English besides his native Arabic and is a kind, very generous and accommodating host – in fact so much so, that one feels very quickly at home. He used to be a creator, working with fabric and has been welcoming guests in his home since 2005. “I love the connection I get to make with people from all over the world,” he said. “I wouldn’t meet them otherwise. I became friends with many who have stayed here. Especially over breakfast – that is the time one gets to connect.”
“This allows me to promote my country and culture,” Jamil explained, when asked why he had decided to open his home to travellers from around the world. “I enjoy being an ambassador of sorts. This is not a terrorist country. People always ask if they can go to Baalbek and about Hezbollah and I tell them to go and help them arrange the trip. The one-on-one interaction is what usually leads to a sea change. When guests ask me about Hezbollah I point out the school killings (in the US). In the end, people are very impressed by the Lebanese people.”
Over breakfast or coffee, Jamil helps guests in setting up an itinerary based on their interests, time and budget. It was indeed over such a typical Lebanese breakfast that Jamil – fresh from his Tai Chi class – shared insights and tips and some of his personal interests. One of his favourite places in Lebanon are the beaches outside of Beirut, notably Helwe and Barbara. Given that there are many springs in this area, the water tends to be a bit cooler but also cleaner.
The location of Dar Al Ashrafieh, especially for those who want to get a bit lost, explore, wander around various neighbourhoods, visit museums, galleries, historic sites and dip into Beirut’s nightlife, is simply fantastic. It takes 10 minutes to Martyr’s Square and Nejmeh Square and the same time to reach Gemmayzeh, or Sassine Square up the hill on top of Achrafieh. The re-opened Sursock Museum nearby is a must-see.
Popular bars such as Demo or Torino are literally just down the road. To get to Mar Mikhael or Hamra takes a short servis ride. One place Jamil always recommends guests to go visit is the Robert Mouawad Private Museum just up from the Grand Serail. He also recommends going to Mar Mikhael for its colourful stairs, which have added a certain cachet. For travellers with smaller budgets, it’s ideal to eat at Le Chef, and at Abdel Wahab, the nearby Mandaloun and especially Mayrig at the end of Gemmyzeh, if they can afford to. “Besides Mayrig, Divan du Sultan is one of my favoured eating spots. Sometimes I join my guests.”