It is very difficult to recall a single version of Lebanon considering the unpredictable experiences I have had visiting the country over the years. Not having any water to wash with and blindly walking up stairs when electricity would go out and generators would exhaust its supply may be expected in some parts of the world. Escaping blasts by demonstrators and mistaking the roars of bombs as fireworks, not so common.
My heart goes out to those who often face these conditions but I realize living life to the fullest is taken seriously by the Lebanese. This skill is perfected through a combination of celebrating the present and forgiving the past. Their warm spirits and swelling pride, regardless of the unyielding political strife, rubs off on you. People somehow manage to be the most hospitable, grounded, and vivacious they are capable of being and you realize, you envy them a bit.
Lebanon is a country unique of its Arab neighbors. Nuzzled between Syria and Israel, the land is quite small, less than the size of Connecticut. The topography varies with rolling hills sweeping over metropolitan nooks to rural landscapes of stretched ranches and vineyards, drawing in all types of visitors. The cities are dense with apartments and cars stacked like Legos, folks peeking through their balconies with cigarettes and coffee cups at hand; the country side, a sweet escape from the relentless urban hustle.
Lebanon and its citizens have embraced a progressive and liberal identity, contrary to the stereotypes of the Middle East. The youth sport the latest fashion and adore music and films from the west. The country welcomes more than a dozen different religious entities including Christian, Sunni and Shia Muslim, Catholic, Druze, Maronites, Greek and Armenian Orthodox, and others allowing Lebanon to remain strictly secular. Constantly facing reconstruction, only so much of Lebanon’s rugged past of Civil war, political instability and conflict with its neighbors can be concealed. Torn buildings and bullet holes still stain much of the land.
The capital, Beirut, has been dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East” not only due to its history of French rule and required second language but because of its European influenced architecture, the ease of a Mediterranean lifestyle ingrained in the culture, and its overly chic establishments. Downtown Beirut is the best representation of what the city once was and wishes to personify again. It has faced quite a bit of hardship for the center is initially recognized as the last sighting of Rafiq Hariri, former beloved Lebanese Prime Minister prior to his assassination in 2005. Now a part of history, it is where the young and hip go to indulge in three course meals, smoke hookahs boldly made of watermelons, snack on Dunkin donuts (which is wildly popular) or gaze at the Rolex clock tower. Show offs.
Beaches and marinas are easily accessible from Beirut. Since competitively tanning is the national sport, everyone happens to place a bronze or gold, literally. The unforgiving summer heat strictly forces participation in such leisure of basking in sun either on public or private beaches. The difference? A few plastic chairs and tables are all that is needed for public beaches serving Almaza, Lebanon’s proudest brew, and some mixed nuts. Private beaches require a small cover or membership but offers the swankiest amenities such as infinity pools with bars centered in the middle with access to the tamed ocean.