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Friday, 03 February 2012

Nothing Short of Exquisite: Lebanon at its Worst and Finest

Written by Vana Kouyoumji
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BaalbakruinsIt 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.


DowntownbeirutLebanon 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. 


Typical%20lebanese%20weekendBeaches 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.




Lebanese%20nightlife%20skybarIn Beirut, night life is the way of life. Every visit, I find myself in Jemeyze, a stretch of inviting Irish pubs, dive bars, and restaurants, crammed underneath apartments, compete to provide its patrons with the utmost possible service.  You must be able to hang with the Lebanese by taking back countless “Doodoo” shots, peppered tequila and Tabasco, and outlasting the sunrise. Among all, beach parties, blurring lines of age and status, are where locals congregate to dance on table tops to some of the hottest international DJs.



For a change of pace, Jbeil, or Byblos, should be taken in slow motion. Located in the Mount Lebanon region, the Phoenician port has stood still in time possessing a medieval charm uncommon in other fisherman towns. Colorful boats with Lebanese flags swaying in the breeze are parked along the grimy docks as trails of cobble stones branch out to quaint storefronts selling souvenirs stamped with a cedar tree, the national symbol. The freshest seafood can be eaten here. The preparation of assorted marine delicacies and hospitality prove to be nothing short of exquisite. A more indigenous version of Jbeil is Tripoli. It is what is imagined in tales as an exotic Arab marketplace. Located in the Northern tip of Lebanon, the old city contains Turkish baths, mosques and depleted citadels and though it not as restored, wealthy, or touristic, Tripoli is a sensory kaleidoscope.

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Bourj%20hammoudEach district in Lebanon has its own personality with traces of congeniality among its inhabitants. Bourj Hammoud is possibly the most vibrant and happens to be where I grew up. As a former refugee camp, Armenians escaping genocide in 1915 have planted their remnants in the thick suburb. Residents carry on their ancestors’ legacies, occupations, and traits since their initial settlements and are given nicknames to be easily identified. “Photographer Carol” will print your pictures, “Soujoukh Bedros” will have the best cuts of soujoukh, or dried spiced sausages, ready before you walk in, and “Barber Tony” will give your hair style while discussing the latest news all for a few liras. Think of it and you will find it in Bourj Hammoud, and then some. It is considered one of the most underdeveloped parts of Lebanon, but is easily the most welcoming. Just be sure to stay away from “Jackass Kevork”.




Harissa%20daytimeFor spiritual restoration, I seek Harissa located near the quaint beach front of Jounieh.  The colossal statue of the Virgin Mary, preferably accessible by Teleferique or air lift cable car, is placed on top of this pedestal of a mountain taking peoples breaths away with its stretching panorama of Beirut’s worst and finest. It can be compared to the statue of Jesus Christ in Rio de Janero, Brazil. By no means am I religious, however a visit to the impressive pilgrimage site is guaranteed when I find myself in Lebanon. Jeita Grotto, stored among the jagged cliffs in Nahr-al-Kelb valley is also a divine encounter. Limestone and water droplets have crystallized in hollow caves to form a natural wonder. Only accessible by boat on a tour, it is like entering something out of Indiana Jones movies, completely suspenseful.





Touring the countryside, serenity is absorbed almost immediately upon arrival. Noise of loud honking reduces and roads are less lively yet beaten paths have surprised me with blooming nature. Farms are eclipsed over the vacant lands as fruit vendors are posted at every corner of winding roads with the freshest produce in season. Restaurants, serving “mezze”, an array of tapas style dishes of home grown greens, cured and fresh meats, cheese spreads, and other flavorful recipes, are strategically placed near rivers and lush fields to capture the villages in the best light. The valleys are untouched, the people unspoiled by luxuries. However, Beit-ed-Din, a gorgeous aged palace meaning “House of Religion”, is a true contradiction worthy of notice. With artifacts from the Ottoman era, shimmering marble and mosaic tiles decorate the interior as fountains and coiffed landscape surround it.


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The Bekaa Valley is where I have been rewarded with the best memories. Visiting Baalbak in the east is one, feeling a sense of elation unachievable elsewhere. The ancient yet preserved Roman temple with its assembly of massive pillars left me speechless at first sight. A full day will not be enough to cover the playground of history but lasting pictures pretending to hold the ruins are encouraged by the tour guide himself. It is best to be taken by someone who speaks Arabic since a majority of extremists are found, skeptical of foreigners.

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Another is picking grapes at a vineyard hidden in the deep mountains bordering Syria. I had to take advantage of the reception of the locals to get my hands dirty and contribute to Lebanon’s finest wine, Ksara. Manakish, a doughy pastry sprinkled with zaatar spice blend, was offered as a token of appreciation by the toothless winery owner in what looked like an opium den, confirming my belief that kindness trumps language barriers.


Sajj%20breadLebanon masters the combination of modernity and tradition. The deep heritage and the pride for the country are celebrated among the rich and poor and in between, transferring this attitude to future generations. Raillery is shared among friends, families, and visitors yet the guilt of not providing the maximum hospitality is an unbearable thought. Lebanon has and will struggle to settle for peace but the Lebanese lifestyle is a true testament that they are all in it together.

(c)Vana Kouyoumji


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Last modified on Sunday, 16 December 2012