Lebanon - Yalla habibi!

Trip Start Feb 04, 2011
Trip End Nov 04, 2011

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Where I stayed
La Maison de Hamra

Flag of Lebanon  , Beyrouth,
Sunday, May 29, 2011

It's now been almost a month since I first set foot in Lebanon and it's been a very memorable experience, I must say. Sometimes you arrive in a different country on the wrong foot as I must have done in Italy a few months ago and sometimes it's on the right foot. I've obviously arrived in this country on the right foot and since my first day it's been fantastic.

The service taxi from Damascus dropped me off near the port of Beirut and I made my way by local taxi to my hotel on the other side of the city in the suburb of Raouche'. The hotel was located right on the beach and there's nothing like seeing water after being inland for a while. It's hard to imagine that only a few years ago this city was being bombed by the Israelis and even harder to imagine that only decades ago, this whole area near the hotel was off limits and under frequent attack by different warring factions. While walking around the beachside suburbs of Beirut I felt a strange sensation of deja vu and then it occurred to me. This is Brazil. The architecture, the coastline, the traffic and the people. This could be Rio.

My initial plan was to stay in Beirut for a few days and then head back to Syria but why would I want to leave a place like this? I didn't feel this elated about being in Damascus and the situation there was deteriorating on a daily basis, yet here in Beirut I felt like I could definitely live here and so, while walking down a busy downtown street on my second day in the city, I came across a serviced apartment building and I went inside to enquire. After seeing the room and its facilities, I made a decision. I'm going to stay here for a whole month. From that moment on, I declared Beirut my new home.

After several months of being on the road and constantly packing and unpacking my suitcase, I unloaded all the contents of the big red suitcase and put it away in a closet where I wouldn't have to see it again for another month. This was quite a turning point in the trip because in the last few weeks up until now, I'd only stayed in one place for a day or two at the most. At the very beginning, when I was studying at schools in Paris or Barcelona, it was a maximum of one week. It just felt right being here and finally I had something that resembled a home with a laundry in the building, a cafe' downstairs, free wi-fi, a separate bedroom and living room and most importantly - a kitchen! After all, my purpose for being in this part of the world is to write about its cuisine so it's important that I can at least have access to something to cook food at home.

The first few days in Beirut were slow. Apart from writing, I had nothing really planned. No language school, no cooking school. I had to start from zero. I had the contact details of a few people through friends back in Sydney so I always knew that somehow, this experience in Lebanon would be a very positive one. I met up with Imad, the cousin of a friend of mine in Sydney and we instantly became great friends. Imad has been a tremendous friend and has shown me parts of Lebanon that I wouldn't have been able to find on my own - from the mountainside town of Harissa in the north to the city of Sour (Tyre) in the south. This is a small country so it's great to be able to cover half the country in a day and still have time to be back in the buzzing capital in time for some mezze (homous, tabouleh, kibbeh, vine leaves, pita bread etc).

I spent the first few days walking around the city, exploring and also looking for a camera shop for this very high maintenance camera of mine which goes through so many lithium batteries that it's become both tedious and uneconomical. I eventually found the ABC Shopping Mall in Achrafieh and sat down in a cafe' to go through my Arabic notes from the book I'd recently bought. The cafe' waitress started chatting with me and told me I'd bought a really bad book for studying Arabic. I agreed. The book looked like it was printed fifty years ago and it was really boring to read. She offered to help me with my Arabic and we arranged to meet after she finished her shift at the cafe'.

I'm not very good at guessing people's ages but clearly, Vanessa was much younger than me and when we met up in another nearby cafe' to have a few snacks and smoke some agileh (hookah) she told me her age and I think I choked on my pipe. I have friends who range in age from being in their twenties to being in their fifties but I don't have any friends who are eighteen years old. I just turned forty! This was a bit awkward. After a few hours of getting to know her though, I thought, "Maybe I'm being a bit prejudiced. After all, she just wants to help me with my Arabic, doesn't she?" Vanessa had a plan for my Arabic studies and she became my "language bodyguard".

My language bodyguard was very mature for her age and she made sure no one spoke to me in English or French. I should point out that in Beirut most people speak Arabic as well as French and English which can sometimes make it difficult to communicate in Arabic because most people, particularly those working in shops or restaurants, can speak fluent English. The older Lebanese are usually fluent in French whereas the younger ones prefer to speak English. Thankfully, my language bodyguard put a stop to that and being a little crazy made it easier for her to force people to switch languages. I have to say, she was an excellent teacher and in one restaurant, when I was struggling to find the word in Arabic to explain something, she said to me, "You know this word. We've practiced it several times already. You're just pretending not to know it to get some attention from the staff here. If you can't remember the word in Arabic, you'll starve because I've told them not to serve you if you can't speak". Wow - I was being scolded by an eighteen year old. I had to remember the word I'd learnt or I risked being grounded for a week.

After several occasions of meeting with my language bodyguard in Achrafieh it became clear to me that she had other intentions and the jokes about "we should get married" were starting to bother me a little. Obviously, when someone approaches you in a cafe' and offers to help you with your studies, there's a high chance something will eventuate and I'm not stupid. I was cautious of this from the start. It's a shame she wasn't a bit older because she's a good looking girl and we got along really well (I think) but I just can't do it. I used to live in Bangkok and it really annoyed me to see old caucasian men holding hands with young Thai girls and I swore I'd never become like that. It's blatantly obvious that someone is being exploited (or possibly both of them?) and although I'm no expert at guessing people's ages, I didn't feel comfortable knowing that I was "dating" an eighteen year old. Were we dating? I guess we were. Without realising it, I was going on dates with someone who was half my age. She could have been my daughter, for goodness sake. Also, the golden rule across the globe for dating is to never mention marriage. That's just desperate and it's the perfect way to scare a guy away. So for anyone who's dating a guy and wants to get rid of him, just mention marriage. Oh no! Was she trying to get rid of me? I didn't think of it that way.

Around the same time that I was trying to avoid my language bodyguard who wanted to meet me every single day, I also made contact with Barbara Massaad who is an acclaimed author and photographer of Lebanese cuisine and she took me under her wing and introduced me to her wonderful family, her husband Serge and their three children, as well as many of her friends on several road trips we did together. Thanks to Barbara, I was able to put together so much material in my book for learning Arabic with Lebanese cuisine at a time when I couldn't find a single cooking class in Beirut and the language school I found and almost paid to study there for two weeks didn't feel right, so I refrained from enrolling there. This was coincidentally at a time when some people in Damascus were almost begging me to go back there to study with them and learn about Syrian cuisine. Had it not have been for Barbara, I would have been compelled to go back to Syria as I didn't have any reason for being in Lebanon when so much was happening in Syria, despite all the political protests going on there.

Barbara also has her own TV programme on LBC, which is a television station in Lebanon and once a week she chooses a location somewhere in Lebanon to interview people about Lebanese food and each time there's a different theme. On one occasion I was invited to go with her and her TV crew to a farm in the south of Lebanon where they cultivate thyme (similar to oregano) to make zaatar, which is a spice mixture of thyme, sumac and sesame. Zaatar is popular all over this region and it's used on different types of breads as well as being an important part of a Lebanese breakfast with olives and yoghurt. On another occasion I went with her to the Chouf region to see goats being milked to produce labneh, which is a strained yoghurt also well known all over the Levant region, but particularly in Lebanon. My favourite outing was when I met many of her friends for a picnic in the mountains where we had harisseh (a type of oatmeal porridge with meat), houmos, olives and the most amazing tabouleh I've ever tasted. All this was washed down with some of the local brew - arak, which is similar to Greek ouzo or French Pernod and made of aniseed.

Lebanon turned out to be better than I anticipated and I was already imagining it to be a great place before I arrived so it definitely didn't disappoint. My many images of Lebanon relate to the food which is perfect because the theme of this part of the trip is to understand the local cuisine and how it is made, so I feel like it's "mission accomplished" or "fait accompli" as some people here might say. I must also thank Imad for being a great friend and helping me with my Arabic, which is a tough language to learn - and this is coming from someone who has a natural talent for languages. Thanks Imad for also not asking to marry me! I would recommend anyone to come to this region and learn more about this part of the world. Yes, it's unpredictable and yes, the news reports never paint a pretty picture about the Arab world but being here at a time when the whole region is transforming, commonly known as the Arab Spring, is quite exciting. It's like being in Eastern Europe when the Iron Curtain disappeared and witnessing people experience freedom for the first time in many of their lives.

My stay in Lebanon is almost at an end and I must now prepare myself for the next big adventure - Russia. I already have my visa which I obtained here at their Beirut embassy by telling a few jokes with the staff. Result - I got a visa in record time for a quarter of the price. I have no idea how that happened but it only shows that by being nice with people, things happen. However, Russia is very far from here and I have a lot of ground to cover before that. So in a few days from now I'll be in Istanbul with my big red suitcase that hasn't seen the light of day in a very long time. Beirut deserves to be back on the map as the Paris of the Middle East that it once was, so come and discover this part of the world and find out why it's the most happening place in the Arab world. I'll definitely be back - insh'allah.
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