Live Love Lebanon!
There are countries that call you. You might not realise it at first but then the call becomes stronger and at certain point you just know you have no choice – you have to go! Lebanon has been calling me for a few years. I got signed up to the mailing list of one of Beirut’s contemporary art centres and every time I was close to forgetting about the idea an odd email would pop out and remind me of its existence. Beirut was there at the back of my head and a visit somehow inevitable.
And then suddenly it all came together. A new swimming suit had been bought, favourite summer dresses packed and my brand new passport was ready to welcome its first stamp, and a special one, at the Rafic Hariri International.
I am a lucky one. To encounter people who are passionate about life and willing to open their hearts and home is a rare thing. And this is what I was experiencing every single day of my stay in Lebanon. Did I mention Rhea*? Our ITP friend and the best guide ever? She was driving it. Well, literally, as I would not dare compete with the local drivers, who must follow some seventh sense to avoid crashing into each other every second minute. So there was me, relaxed, feet on the dashboard, sunglasses on, drinking ayran and Rhea tirelessly driving us around the country, up and down the mountains, through Druze villages, past old Maronite churches, Roman bridges, new developments, mosques, bullet ridden houses, pine forests and valleys with historical meanings. It felt like every square meter of this small country is ripe with history, ancient or so fresh that it‘s hard to separate it from the present.
Thus visiting the museums felt sometimes not like contemplating the past but experiencing the present extended backwards. Let’s take Mleeta for example, a national museum in Mount A’mel south Lebanon that tells a story of the Islamic resistance against the Israelis since its occupation of Beirut in 1982. Visiting this well structured site felt to me like it was almost ‘too fresh too soon’ to make it into a museum. But apparently there was a need to narrate the history (or rather a certain part of it) of the region and its people. In Lebanon, doesn’t matter how much you would try to turn a blind eye on its past everything around you reminds you of it. Wounded, abandoned buildings in Beirut have become part of the city’s fabric. Some radiate a unique aura and reveal strong personalities. One of my favourite Beirut buildings is a ‘dome’, an old, partly destroyed cinema with the most bizzare structure. This giant mushroom at the side of Place des Martyres is not accessible to the public but welcomed us anyway. We took advantage of a special treatment given to foreigners (Rhea was constantly taken for one due to her unusual red hair and the way she carries herself) and followed a friendly security guard inside. There was something hypnotising about this building. And mysterious… despite its central location nobody was able to tell us anything about it.
I think we did well on the heritage front: Byblos, the National Museum of Beirut, Archeological Museum of AUB, Mineral Museum, Mleeta, Baalbeck, Mhaidthe and … surprise, surprise! the Archaeological Museum of St. George Cathedral whose archaeological site had been Rhea’s playground long before it was turned into a museum.
And definitely we did an excellent job when it came to the food heritage too! Yes, Lebanon and its addictive cuisine, all those mankoushehs prepared for us from the scratch, knefehs, fattoushes, spicy fish, ashtas and jazzariehs! My days started with olives and labneh and I never knew how they would end. Sometimes it was dinner in a tiny ‘secret’ restaurant hidden in Bourj-Hammoud, the Armenian district, sometimes a surprise midnight dinner at a house of a friend of a friend in Verdun, another time a calorie bomb ‘avocado ashta-honey’ cocktail on the way home (a local tradition!) at 2:30 a.m. My appetite for the Lebanese culture and cuisine was constantly being fed. And remained insatiable …
The days were packed with activities but some allowed for more leisure. OK, there was a price tag. Getting up at 5:30 a.m. may not sound exactly like a lazy holiday but reaching Anfeh, a costal village in the north early in the morning was worth it. Otherwise we would not have had a chance to chat to a sea salt marcher, who comes there every morning to tend to what was left from a once thriving sea salt business. Or walk through a quiet village, still half asleep and take a plunge into the sea before everyone else got there. The beaches of Anfeh are very different from the Beirut ones. The crystal water invites you to take a dip and relax while Beirut is mostly about the BBQs on the shore, loud music, rappers, summer flirts and continuous buzz. I was leaving Anfeh with a feeling that I should stay longer. And maybe I should have…
But there was so much else to see, so much to live through!
How did we manage to pack in a concert of the National Symphonic Orchestra into it I have no idea. And listen to the impromptu session of the local rappers in the Corniche? And do the wine tasting in the stunning vinery of Chateau Khour? And go to a friend’s DJ-ing session in Mar Mikhael? And pick up strawberries and taste Syrian tea in the garden at the sun set? And visit the Jeita Grotto? Somehow there was time for all. Except for one thing: my visit to the Beirut Art Center. I hope I’ll be kept on their mailing list and reminded that I need to go back. And hopefully sooner rather than later.
* Rhea is Rhea Dagher, Lebanon, ITP 2014. I would like to thank Rhea and her family for welcoming me to Lebanon with an incredible hospitality, sharing their passion for life and the country and making me fall in love with it.