Telling You What's Good

The Rough Guide to Lebanon (Introduction)

So I’m back, wish I were still there, but c’est la vie, habibi.  Lebanon and Beirut have got a lot of press in the last couple years, as parodied brilliantly on the Now Lebanon! blog:

First, I will romanticize Lebanon into a chic, post-war brand so you can buy into this cliché article about why “Beirut is back.” I will tell you that there was a 15-year civil war in the country from 1975-1990, and then contrast several buzzwords and phrases like “battered” “bruised” and “once-divided” with notions of “rebirth” “glamorous” and “united.”

As sharp as Ms Nassar is, this series shall be nothing of the sort.  Rather, it shall highlight the realities of Lebanon and how to get the most out of it.  Rule 1: develop a strong sense of patience…

…because despite the buzz, despite the glamour, despite my intense attachment to it, it’s still a developing country.  Say goodbye to modern-world standards of punctuality, efficiency, and convenience.  Say goodbye to reliable, easily-walked sidewalks, or speedy transport in and around Beirut.  And oh my God, say goodbye to sane driving.  Stick to Rule 1, and keep an open mind, and you too will love Lebanon.

Rule 2, accordingly, is take it as it comes and slip into the swing of things.  Learn to enjoy life and appreciate the moment, and the frustrations will seem less. Yeah you may be stuck in traffic like this:

(Rule 3, avoid the coastal highway north of Beirut in rush hour at all costs)

But the payoff could be something like this:

All the better with wonderful friends and the lovely food!

Or maybe a heaving good time like this:

Does this guy look like he cares about the traffic?

While they may get road rage and express equal frustration with their slow internet, the Lebanese know how to party, how to relax, and generally how to have a good time.  It’s often been said they party as if there’s no tomorrow because given the history, that could be true, and there may be something to that. But I think there’s also a sense of go with the flow, there’s a time and place for everything.  Sometimes you have to work hard, sometimes you have to be stuck in traffic, and sometimes you have to eat, drink, dance, and be merry. If this sounds slightly zen, it’s really not meant to be, it’s just reality for most people there.

Rule 4 then, would be “expect the unexpected.”  This last time, heading up the mountain, at a height of only about 800 feet above sea level, the snow and ice began:

So we buckled through it until it became an impenetrable mess, bought some snow chains off an enterprising vendor, crawled to the nearest turnaround, and headed back down and said “hell with it” and went to one of my favorite cafés in Beirut.

Snow chain ($60) removal ($2). Did I say enterprising vendor? I meant extortionary!

A family friend, Lebanese but resident in the US for quite a time, once said, while explaining  a recent attempt to move back which wasn’t going so well: “Lebanon is like this.  Let’s say you’re very happily married, you love your wife, and you have no complaints.  But you meet this other woman, and she takes your breath away and you become hopelessly in love with her, but at every step she breaks your heart and tortures you, but no matter what you do you just can’t stay away, despite your happy relationship at home.  Lebanon is like that woman – you’re madly in love with her, but she drives you crazy.”  It’s quite true.  Nowhere else have I been that has such inherent beauty that at times is so thoughtlessly ignored, with such an amazing history that’s often neglected. For every amazing view like this…

or this:

…there’s a hillside covered in half-finished concrete apartment blocks, and coastline neglected in a way that seems unimaginable for such an astonishing resource.

For the thousands of years of history here…

Roman-era ruins of Tyre (Sour)

…there’s almost nothing to tell you what it is.

And for the grand old architecture of Beirut:

Century-or-so old mansion in Ashrafiye

it seems that most of it is crumbling away while money pours in for ultra modern, characterless skyscrapers:

Abandoned antique house in Hamra

The Lebanese themselves, some of them, anyway, are quite aware of this and rather aghast – I’ve seen graffiti in multiple places that says, in Arabic, “Beirut is not Dubai,” and this doctored sign speaks volumes:

“WAS a street of traditional character,” Rue Sursock, Ashrafiye

So why do I love the place so much?

Well first, if I haven’t made it clear before, I like having fun.  And Beirut is fucking fun.  The Lebanese are a lively, humorous, often hilariously sarcastic people, always ready for a laugh and a good time.  Want to just sit in a café, drink beers and smoke argile (hookah) all night long and bullshit with your buddies?  Do it!  Want to party like a rock star and dance till the sun rises in a bomb shelter or on the roof of a building? Word! The Lebanese specialize in that!  Want to have a delicious dinner with people that appreciate and are passionate about good food?  Easy, and relatively cheap to boot.  Beirut is absolutely littered with cafés, restaurants, clubs, and bars.  The live music scene is awesome too, with lots of  venues and good local performers playing rock, jazz, Arabic, or a fusion of all the above.  It wouldn’t be a stretch to say you could do all of that in one afternoon/night, and nobody would think twice about it.

Headbanging and air guitar at Baromètre, a lovely bar in Beirut

On a more respectable level, despite all the despair above, in many cases and places Lebanon is a truly beautiful country, unreasonably so for such a tiny place, and its history is sometimes overwhelming.  Just look:

Beirut beach

Byblos (Jbeil), one of the oldest cities in the world

Tyre again

The famous mountain village of Deir al-Qamar

Snowy mountains of the Shouf

View from the Tripoli castle

Raouché, Beirut

Cannon of the Crusader Castle, Sidon (Saida)

The hidden houses and gardens of Gemmayze, Beirut

In the hills above Beirut

Wall fountain at Beiteddine Palace

Finally (well, let’s not be too definitive here), I love the spirit of the place and the people.  Lebanon has been through a lot of shit, and what’s left, both the people and institutions, have a strong survival instinct that knows how to make do in adversity and thrive in times of peace.  In nothing is this better illustrated than one of the internationally recognized symbols of Beirut, the 1970s Mercedes taxis:

These bad mothers SURVIVED THE CIVIL WAR AND ARE STILL RUNNING AND IN SERVICE! How badass is that?  Despite the profusion of newer (and much shittier) cars as taxis, I’ll wait until one of the Indestructible Mercs comes along.  Another good example of the enterprising spirit is this picture:

Yes, that’s a broken down motorcycle and its rider in the center being helped up the hill by two buddies pushing it along with their free legs.  Only in Lebanon!

Give Lebanon your heart, and she’ll never let go.  More to follow.

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