Thursday, April 22, 2010

My Lebanon - a feisty, feasting flurry of fun

My first impression of Lebanon was hatched through a cloud of smoke at the luggage carousel at Beirut’s Hariri airport.

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.

“Why Lebanon??!"

“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:

Blogging Beirut
Lonely Planet
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Travel & Dive Girl said...

Wow! It sounds like a great place and it sounds like you were able to appreciate the greatness of what it had to offer you - especially given your hosts were Lebanese and were able to show you what other visitors might not be able to experience.

Kathleen said...

So beautiful - what an amazing city!

Brian Miller said...

what a neat place...that evening pic, the main road looks like a fire running through the many laces i would love to go some day...enjoy me some lebanese food too...

Solvang Sherrie said...

This is so NOT the way I imagined this country! I love that I always get a new world view when I visit your blog :)

Anonymous said...

Holli, I would like you to comment on the active involvement of Lebanese in the present business and economic life of Ghana. Going back to the 60's through the mid 70's lebanese and Syrians were a driving force on the commerial business scene. They were the goto people when it came to local investments. What is the situation now?

Argentum Vulgaris said...

AN amazingly different view of Lebanon, thank you.


The pale observer said...

Thanks for the comments all -

Sherrie and AV - it was also very different than I would have imagined and wanted to share what I discovered!

Anon - the Lebanese are still a very strong community in Ghana and all across West Africa. They came in the 60's and 70's and invested. They are at the forefront of many import businesses, timber and retail.

deb said...

This was so fabulous. These are rich diverse and fascinating places.
The disservice that is done to them via media is sad.
Feeds a certain political agenda I suppose.

Thank you so so much. The world truly hold so much splendour.

Miss Footloose said...

Holli, I thoroughly enjoyed reading about your trip. Nothing compares to Middle-Eastern hospitality. And the food is fabulous!

It's so great to get to see the reality of a place when it's such a wonderful surprise, and it's so true that CNN sand other media give us such skewed or downright wrong impressions of place.

We lived in Ramallah, Palestine for more than a year and I was rather apprehensive to go, but it was a eye-opening experience.

Looking forward to reading about the rest of your travels.

Anonymous said...

I owe you another bottle of Kefraya Arak {John,s Airak} for a smooth and real great Article

dufmanno said...

Years ago I heard a story from someone returning from Beirut that was terrifying.
Just reading this made me realize that even from the proverbial ashes a city can rise again.
I would never have imagined that Lebanon was such a glorious place.
Thank you.

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Sam said...

I'm glad i got to read this article. I'm lebanese and i understand what stereotypes you're talking about. Indeed the media doesn't always show the bright aspects of lebanon or beirut in specific, but luckily we've got visitors like you to talk about it :)

(hope u got to vist the shouf area ;))

MSR Hubba Hubba 2 said...

wow some beautiful pictures.

Anonymous said...

Not Saying this cause i am Lebanese But because ive been around and there is nothing like spending time on the beach, then drive to the mountains to a completely different climate, then having a choice of over 300 places to club in... and Everyone just wants to move on from the sad past we had and still rise from beneath the rubble.

enjoy it

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