The Rough Guide to Lebanon (Part 2)
Now that I’ve introduced you all to Lebanon, its complexities, frustrations, beauty, and dichotomies, here’s some practical information. To review from last post, my rules for Lebanon are 1) keep an open mind; 2) take things as they come; 3) avoid the coastal highway at rush hour (this is a BS rule, but good advice); 4) expect the unexpected. I’m convinced that if you keep all that inmind, you’ll have a much more enjoyable visit. Here are some other tips.
Communication: Arabic is the official language, but French is often used alongside it for official purposes, while English is fast becoming the preferred second language of the people – with many young, educated Lebanese often being more fluent in English than formal Arabic. It’s a cliché that the Lebanese are trilingual, and while it’s not always true, it’s certainly easy to hear conversations with at least a few random words of all three languages if not complete sentences. So what does this mean for the non-Arabic speaking visitor? It means that in Beirut, it’s reasonably easy to get by in English or French, with younger people across the country generally knowing at least some English. For the older generation, assume at a minimum some knowledge of French. A few token, useful phrases:
- Please: please. (Really! You can say s’il vous plait, but the English is more common. Arabic min fadhlak is old-fashioned, but you can say min al ma’rouf, where the ‘ represents a sort of swallowing sound.)
- Thanks: merci or sometimes “thanks”. Arabic shukran is much less common. “Thanks very much” is merci kteer. When offered some kind of service (such as when a waiter brings your food) another common word of thanks is tislem, the response to which is tikram.
- How are you? Keefak (to a male), Keefik (to a female), Keefkun (to a group)
- Where is X? Wayn X or X wayn?
- How much is X? Addaysh X?
- Do you have X? ‘Endak X?
- Yes: Eh
- No: La (the a is clipped off at the end)
- That’s too much! hayda kteer! also, hayda mish aleel! (literally “that’s not a little!”) – useful for negotiating with taxi drivers.
Money: Overall, Lebanon is pretty cheap. Beirut is cheaper than any big Western city (except maybe for Berlin), and outside Beirut is even cheaper. Helpful to know: US Dollars are interchangeable with the Lebanese Lira anywhere at a rate of 1500 Lira to the Dollar. You can pay for anything in dollars, usually receiving change in Lebanese, or sometimes even pay in Lebanese and get change in dollars, or give and receive a mix. Restaurant bills and prices quoted at large shops will typically be in both currencies. For taxis and stuff it’s better to pay with small bills, whether they be USD or LL.
- Walking: People say Beirut is a great walking city – to me that means they’ve never done it. Within a given neighborhood, or in rush hour, when the alternative is an hour stuck in traffic, fine. However, sidewalks are often missing, people have little respect for pedestrians, and walking as a means to get from point A to point B (as opposed to say, shopping), can often be a hassle. Beirut is also super-hilly, so you can easily end up soaked with sweat by the time you get to your destination in the warmer months. That being said, there are some cool, picturesque walks around Beirut, especially in the Gemmayze/Ashrafiye areas, as well as on side streets elsewhere. Outside Beirut, in the hills and mountains, it’s a bit more conducive to being on foot.
- Taxis: The obvious choice. Identifiable by the fact that if they see you walking, they WILL honk at you, as if that’s an enticement or something. Also, they have red license plates. Anything else, even if it looks like one, is not an official taxi. Taxis traditionally were beat up 1970s Mercs:But in the last several years, as Beirut has grown, a lot of other cars operate as taxis. Most of them are tiny and shitty. Be a baller and wait for an old Mercedes to roll by – one will sooner or later. The important thing to remember about taxis is that there are two kinds, “taxi” and “service” (pronounced serveess) – a “taxi” takes just you and your companion(s), to wherever you tell them to go. Within Beirut the going rate tends to be 10,000 LL ($6.67), but this can sometimes be bargained down to 7,000 or 8,000 especially if you’re not going very far. Services on the other hand, are shared taxis that ostensibly follow nebulous routes. You get in, but other random people can get in too, and can get out where they want along the route. Fare is 2,000 LL per person. Sometimes they’ll say “service-ayn” (two services), meaning they want double fare. Fuck them. Wait to find an honest driver. Services and “Taxis” are indistinguishable from each other, so when one slows down when he sees you walking, you holler out “SERVIIIICE??” if that’s what you want. If he’s a “taxi” he’ll raise his head and drive on. If he’s a service, the driver will usually ask ” ‘a/li wayn?” (where to?), and then you say where you want to go. If your destination suits him, he’ll nod or motion for you to come in, and off you go. It’s usually 50-50 whether you get the whole ride to yourself, which makes it an awesome value, given that otherwise you’d pay five times as much. There are also pre-book taxis, which you call in advance to pick you up. They tend to be newer, nicer cars. Popular pre-book companies are Charlie Taxi, Gerges Taxi, and Allo Taxi. Prices tend to be a bit more expensive than a hail taxi.
- Driving. God save you. Often it’s the best way to get around, because it’s the only way of getting around if you don’t want to wrestle with the bizarre bus system (which isn’t even worth mentioning), or have to deal with taxi drivers’ fees to go longer distances. What you should know: The Lebanese are HORRIBLE, INSANE drivers. For the most part they have no respect for Western standards of road etiquette, they’ll drive far faster than is safe, they’ll make all kinds of erratic manoeuvres, and create 5 lanes on a 3-lane highway. Oddly enough, in all my time there, I have yet to see a serious accident, so maybe everyone is equally crazy and it cancels out? For you to survive, you need to really take things as they come, adjust to what happens on the road as it happens, and be assertive. If you wait for someone to let you merge, it’ll never happened, so go on and stick your nose out.
Where to Stay:
Beirut, obviously. The country is tiny and almost everything can be done in a day trip. The caveat is that it gets miserably crowded in the summer, and many Lebanese own property in the mountains, so you can also stay in places like Aley, Brummana, Beit Mery, Shimlan, etc, which are lovely mountain towns. However, don’t expect a huge amount of excitement. For longer trips further out to the northern mountains or the Bekaa valley, stay in places like Ehden, or Zahle, respectively. For proper 19th century Bekaa Baller status, stay at one of the hotels overlooking the site (the Palmyra is the classic choice but appears to have declined in recent years).
Within Beirut: my vote goes for Hamra, which is really the heart of activity for Beirutis. Hip, young, and lively without being pretentious, this is hands down my favorite part of Beirut, and also one of the most useful neighborhoods if you live here due to its various amenities. The good news is hotels in Hamra are pretty reasonably priced by Western standards. If you really want to dish out, you can stay at some of the 4 and 5 star hotels Downtown, such as the Four Seasons, Monroe, Phoenicia, or the achingly hip Le Gray. Be warned that these places are serious poser territory and charge accordingly. Also, Downtown is very nice, but slightly sterile and you may tire of it after a couple nights. For a more authentic upscale experience, find a good hotel in Ashrafiye, in East Beirut, which is a relatively genteel area with lots of old architecture and a surprising number of trees. If you’re really on your last few lira, check out the Saifi Urban Gardens hostel, a street over from the noisy nighttime riot of Gemmayze.
What to do:
- Sightsee. This sounds like a no-brainer but so many come to Beirut just to party and that’s not fair to Lebanon. The country is absolutely brimming with ancient sites, beautiful views, and living history. Go on a tour: see Baalbak, Zahle, Anjar, Jbeil, Saida, and Sour, Tripoli (not at time of writing, however…), the Qadisha Valley, the Cedars, go hike in the mountains….once you’ve done that there are so many other natural and historical sights that you could spend years trying to see them all. So get outside the club!
- Relax. Take a stroll along the Corniche, breathe in the sea breeze, enjoy coffee after coffee at any of the millions of cafés, while away an hour smoking an argileh, and just generally chill out. This is arguably what’s done best here.
- Eat. Lebanese food is justifiably world famous. The produce here tastes better than just about anywhere – you’ll be spoiled for cucumbers forever. I strongly suggest you stick to Lebanese food unless you have a baller bankroll – good non-Lebanese food, while quite present, is also quite costly. Lebanese food, even at the high end, comes with a bill that elicits at smile. You must try these: Man’ooshi from the saaj:falafel from Sahyoun or Arax, shawarma from Barbar, ka’ak on the Corniche, (all the aforementioned are street foods and will set you back no more than about $2.50 at the maximum), kibbe neyye, kibbe bi siniye, lahme bi ‘ajin, halloum mashwi, shanklish, the best hummus in the world, knafeh, and stretchy ice cream (bouza). There’s a strong culture of street snacks, of which I’ve mentioned a few. These make great light lunches or late night snacks, while mana’ish (plural of man’ooshi) are a breakfast favorite. For proper meals, the typical thing to do is order a bunch of small dishes, called mezze,and share them, followed if you feel like it by grilled meat. The mezze are usually more interesting.
- Drink. Lebanese beer, Almaza, is OK, but the real fun lies in arak, or ‘araq, as it ought to be, but isn’t, spelt. Nothing goes with mezze like ‘araq – a few glasses knocked back over the course of a big meal is de rigeur. Outside of that, Hamra and Gemmayze are loaded with casual bars and pubs, some with live music, some without, that go late into the night. Stumble around and see what you find. Other than Almaza and ‘araq, and the standard international variety of booze, there’s also Lebanese wine, most of which is decent, some of which is quite good. Notable châteaux included Ksara, Kefraya, Musar, and Massaya. Bonus – they do vineyard tours.
- Party. This is what you’ve read about. When the Lebanese go out, they fucking mean it. Hours to get ready and gather your friends, table service reservations at clubs that would make a dedicated Miami partier feel at home, and dancing until sunrise. Popular choices are Skybar, which, as the name suggests, is open air, White, and BO18, which Russell Peters made internationally famous, and is indeed in a bomb shelter. Also, any of the places on Monot Street… It’s quite common to see posters for huge DJs like Armin van Buuren or Paul van Dyk, advertising an upcoming Beirut gig.
That should suffice for a Rough Guide. Further posts will address specific stuff. “Yalla byyye!”