After having our passports scrutinized for the dreaded Israeli stamp (which warrants immediate deportation), we wandered through to collect our bags and were greeted by a nightclub’s worth of exhaled smoke. Passengers and pilots all getting their fix after the long journey. But right there in the public areas of the airport? It just seemed so lawless, such an olden-days-before-the-international-ban type atmosphere…
In a way, it seemed like rebellious teenager, and my later impressions of Beirut as a city stayed true to that initial perception.
As we weaved our way through the streets that night I tried to soak it all in. Every sight, every building, person, smell, colour, curb… to compare what I saw to all of the stereotypes that had been built up in the collective mind of the westerner.
When I mentioned heading to Lebanon to many North American friends, the reactions were all negative or at least bemused.
“Will you be safe?”
“Interesting choice of holiday destination…”
What images came to their minds?
- Hezbollah – dangerous terrorists
- War – building rubble and wailing women
- Black veils oppressing women
- Anti Christian, anti Jewish, anti democracy-progress-development.
And the truth is that if I’d never met the amazing Lebanese people that I have in Ghana, I never would have gone.
But how wrong everyone was!
I must say though, that the streets of Beirut are not for the faint hearted when it comes to driving – and by extension, walking! There are no rules or at least no adherence to lanes, lights, right of way.. it is survival of the fittest and fastest. If you can hit the accelerator and the horn at the same time, you are on the right path.
But the more surprising feature of the roads is the actual cars. Bling bling bling… we learned quickly that it’s all about keeping up with the Khourys when it comes to your car in Beirut. The streets were full of the latest Porsche Cayenne, Ferraris, high end Audis and GMCs… Everywhere there is valet parking (including at McDonalds – no joke), and at the end of an evening at a club it’s a Hollywood scene as all the fancy cars pull up and the groups get in one by one, silently screaming “Look at us!”.
I later learned that many of these cars are on credit, but it’s all about living large in the here and now, and that general lust for life attitude carries over into all aspects of life. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much in the same period of time. We were in the hospitable hands of the greatest friends and every extended family member or friend we visited had a feast awaiting us.
Food itself is a phenomenon in Lebanon. The flavours are fresh and vibrant and indulgent. Food is not about hunger and digestion but socialization, fun, people. A good dose of Arak (Lebanon’s version of Pastis or Ouzo) also goes a long way to make a mezze meal stretch smoothly on for hours. It’s amazing to witness and take part in, even if your Arabic is limited to Inshallah, and Shukran…
As a matter of fact, most Lebanese are fluent in at least three languages. Everyone speaks French, English and Arabic, and many speak others like Italian, Spanish or even Chinese!
There is a true affection between the Lebanese and the French and it is evident everywhere. One night, as we walked along the busy, bar lined streets of Gemmayze, we came to one of our friend’s favourite places. The windows were perspiring and we could see a lively crowd within – separate tables of families and friends all joining in together to sing along with the performer, her backup piano squished in the semi circle of tables, backed onto the washrooms. We opened the door and the flood of voices hit us. They were singing French ‘classics’ and everyone knew the words. It was a vision of what Paris would be like if it’s population was Lebanese! We joined the crowd and ate, drank and tried to sing along. It was a spectacular evening, of the type it seems only the Lebanese know how to carry off so naturally.
The more time we spent in Beirut, the more I realized that due to CNN and it’s sisters, the West has a warped and uninformed idea of what Lebanon is about.
- Women in Beirut are all about glamour – eyebrows are tattooed perfectly, (if severely) nails are done, hair shines with not a lock out of place and the high heeled shoes made me unsteady on my feet just looking at them. I barely saw abayas and hijabs, let alone the niqabs that cover the whole face. I also have never seen more facial plastic surgery in my life – and I have been to Los Angeles! Dr. 90210 has nothing on this place ☺
I don't know how they feast so much and stay so fit... the gyms must be busy!
- The biggest KFC I’ve ever seen, like a a KFC Mega Mall, spanning a full city block – I saw in Beirut.
- Dunkin’ Donuts is everywhere, and police (like their American counterparts) can be found hovering with a coffee in hand.
- The sound of Christian Church bells rivals the Muslim call to prayer all around Lebanon
- Skiing is a popular winter sport in the mountains of Lebanon
- Most signboards around the city of Beirut are in English or French
- Popeye’s Chicken and Biscuits is a popular fast food joint (and I thought it was too regional to come to Canada!)
Beirut is a modern city, but it has character. It has many battle scars. It cannot completely hide the years of bombings, of invasions and civil wars, and there are many buildings, their facades pock marked with bullet wounds. It’s so difficult for an outsider to imagine what the place and the people have gone through, and so recently, when you meet the open, friendly kind-hearted masses.
I think that being through trauma makes us appreciate each day, each flower, each fruit.
We saw vibrant red poppies, sprouting up through concrete landscapes, and tasted exotic fruits like escadinia (a small oblong yellow fruit, like a plum, with shiny rich brown seeds inside), and bomali, a huge citrus fruit, somewhat like a grapefruit but larger and sweeter, and the sharp tang of fresh almonds, green and slightly fuzzy, eaten with salt.
When friends took us to the hills outside the concrete jungle of Beirut (where there is no free standing homes, just miles and miles of highrises), we came to a different world. We drove through tiny Druze villages perched atop cliffs and wound our way to a magical home, built into the side of a mountain. It took my breath away.
Artichokes and orange trees and huge fresh green beans grew all around and the house itself, like a secret cabin, peeked out, fully open to the trees and blooming flowers that sheltered it.
There was a feast there too – a luncheon where the guests poured in from the city, and the drinks and food poured out of the open kitchen just as fast.
There was an Easter egg hunt for the kids as it was Easter Sunday, and trays of baklawa for us adults. Yum.
This is the Lebanon we were embraced by – the fast and the slow, the sad and the joyous, the vibrancy that flows in the people, the places, the soul of the country.
Some great links about Lebanon: