“I piled my stuff into a car just after Christmas in 1974 and drove to Lebanon in a little Renault 4, battering my way through Europe in the middle of winter. I was sleeping in the car. It took about a week and I arrived on a Saturday morning in Martyrs’ Square. It was the real heart of Beirut. I didn’t know anything about the geography; I ended up there by chance. I was amazed by the vitality of the market – everybody shouting, pushing, vending their wares; the colours and smells.
Beirut gets under your skin. You get a feeling that you don’t get in many places. You meet a lot of people from different backgrounds, who come together here. It’s been a sort of refuge. There are so many people here who can’t live in places like Iraq or Palestine. It has a sense of history – human history.
I’ve known this restaurant for a long time. Before it was called Casablanca it was Rigoletto. It was run by the son of somebody I knew. The restaurant next door, Spaghetteria, is the first place that I went to when I arrived here. This area was a frontline [of the Lebanese Civil War], so at times there was shelling and we had to throw ourselves on the floor.
I didn’t have a break from January 1975 to January 1976 [the first year of war]. Gastronomically, my main memory from that time is Ramek processed cheese, which comes in triangles, with stale Arabic bread. That was the plat du jour.
I’m from a Scottish background, where frying is a thing. My mum’s frying pan saw a lot of action: kippers and kippers. This was an era when spaghetti came out of tins and wine was something that foreigners drank. So it wasn’t exactly haute cuisine at ‘Beit Muir’ but my mum did make some meals that I’ve adopted. My signature dish? Kedgeree.
Then I came here and discovered things like labneh, hummus, mtabbal [aubergine dip]. I was living in the mountains and the neighbours used to make their own. There was a lady who’d bake flatbread. My boys who came here are still addicted to man’ouche [flatbread with topping]. One’s in Western Australia now. When I go to visit I have to take a suitcase full of za’atar [a dried wild thyme mix]. They make their own man’ouche at least once a week right there in Perth.
When I was in Iran from 1999 to 2004, that was the best time. The bbc had been closed there since 1979 because the government was worried about it fomenting a counter-revolution. So I reopened the office. It was a liberal period and we were kind of banging on an open door. I was amazed how much freedom we had. You couldn’t do that now – there’s virtually no foreign press in Tehran.
Old-fashioned journalism has become even more important. It’s a hugely different world from before. Social media affects the way that stories are told and the way things happen. Twitter is like a drop of oil: you drop oil on water and it spreads everywhere straight away.
When you’ve done this for years it becomes part of your dna; this constant sense of pounding and of being pushed is hard to drop. It’s very stressful. If I were giving advice, it would be to leave yourself some space. Go in for a bit of ‘self care’, which I never did. I paid the price for that because I was running on adrenaline for years, which is damaging physically. It’s like when they do the safety stuff on a plane: put your safety mask on first, then save other people.
I’ve never thought of myself as having a career. There was never any plan except to get out here. Then things happened and I was around. When war breaks out on your doorstep and keeps going for 15 years, you don’t have to wonder, ‘Where is my next story coming from?’ because it would be banging on your door. If I’d been more careerist, I probably would have moved on by now. But what interests me is things on the ground.”
After studying Arabic at Cambridge and working in publishing in London, Jim Muir moved to Lebanon in January 1975. Within weeks a civil war erupted and raged for 15 years. Muir became the bbc’s man in Beirut, also covering the conflict for The Daily Telegraph, The Sunday Times and others. After relative peace returned in 1990 he reported on the Gulf War, Kurdish uprisings in Iraq and the conflict in Bosnia. Stints running the bbc’s Cairo, Tehran and Baghdad bureaux followed, before he returned to Lebanon, covering the 2006 war with Israel. He still writes about the region, splitting his time between Beirut and visiting family in Cyprus, Scotland, Andorra and Australia.Grilled calamari and octopus with a mixed wild salad.
Stir-fried chicken and courgette; salmon steak with grilled aubergine.
Sparkling water and an espresso.
Casablanca opened its doors in 1997 after owner Johnny Farah brought his Chinese-American wife to Lebanon. “I can’t stay here unless I have somewhere to eat my food,” she told him. Since then the restaurant has served distinctive Asian-inspired dishes using fresh seafood to its mostly Lebanese regulars. Much of the produce comes straight from Farah’s farm in the Chouf Mountains. “We eat here most days,” he says. He knows most of his customers by face if not by name. “So we always know if the food is reaching the standard.”
Rue Dar el Mreisseh, Ain el Mreisseh Qaddoura Building 2nd floor, Beirut, Lebanon