Category Archives: Lebanon

High-end shopping and barbed wire.

Subtitle: Church bells and calls to prayer.

I walked everywhere today, all over Beirut. It truly is a fascinating (I used that word twice yesterday; that’s it, I’m retiring it) city. It’s chain stores (H&M, Zara, Dunkin’ Donuts), broken sidewalks, lush cafes, speeding cars, military-fatigued policemen, proliferations of checkpoints and sentry stands, barbed wire, bombed buildings, French and Italian and sushi restaurants, churches, mosques, construction and cranes, Roman, Ottoman, European architecture, pictures of Rafik Hariri, and the constant constant smell of engine exhaust. And that’s just the area I walked in, between Hamra and Downtown.

Me and Beirut, in front of Martyrs’ Square.

A sampling of Beirut buildings.

The city is rebuilding. I don’t know how else to put it. The civil war lasted 15 years (1975-1990) and the evidence is everywhere. Most notably, the Holiday Inn, which became a central fighting zone during the war and stands today completely hollowed out and filled with bullet holes. When I read about Beirut, I thought that made it special. But (as noted yesterday) such buildings are all over, everywhere. The Holiday Inn, standing between Downtown and the Mediterranean, is just one of the bigger and more historically notable ones.

Holiday Inn

There are lots of cranes, building things like luxury apartment towers and new shopping centers. The Downtown area centers on the Place d’Etoile, out of which spirals a circular shopping and restaurant district with beautiful European architecture that was completely constructed from scratch in the last few years—so it feels a bit inauthentic, you know.

Place d’Etoile

Arches in shopping district

Immediately adjacent to that area are two famous mosques and a famous church: the al-Omari and Mohammed al-Amin, the St. George Maronite Cathedral. The al-Amin mosque is gorgeous and gigantic. It borders Place des Martyrs, or Martyrs’ Square. Also dotting the Downtown area, the occasional Roman ruin.

Al-Omari mosque, al-Amin mosque in background

Mohammed al-Amin Mosque

St. George Maronite Cathedral

I will say that walking Beirut, as doable as it is supposed to be, is quite an experience of the ordeal kind. Sidewalks are not pedestrian-friendly. They unexpectedly narrow, or drop off completely, or are filled with potholes or strewn with debris from a neighboring lot. I can’t count how many times today I squeezed between tightly parked cars, between ill-placed sapling trees and buildings, tightrope walked on curb edges.

The statue in Martyrs’ Square. Built in 1918 to commemorate Lebanese killed by Ottomans in WWI. Filled with bullet holes from the civil war.

Roman baths.

Aside from sidewalks, the police presence in Beirut is off the charts. The police wear black and white fatigues and hold giant guns (the guy guarding the Main Gate at AUB was no fluke, it seems). Their checkpoints are everywhere, everywhere. I was told several times that I either could not walk where I was planning to walk, or that I could not take a picture in that area, or I could take a picture facing that way, but not that way. It made me a little paranoid. They weren’t entirely threatening in demeanor, but it’s just discomfiting to constantly be under the watch of guys with giant guns.

Shirin, my co-explorer for the day, and Lebanese coffee.

In the evening I took a last walk around Hamra. Rue Hamra was hopping with families and university students. I went down to the Corniche, the seaside walkway adjacent to AUB. I was hoping to get some good street food before I left (which I totally saw them do on Globe Trekker), but there wasn’t much in the way of options, and I ended up stopping on Rue Bliss on my way back at a hot dog place (there are a ton here!) that made Lebanese-style wraps out of what basically looked like American sandwich ingredients. The best I could do in my present state (hint: exhaustion).

The Corniche.

Tomorrow I fly to Paris early. I can’t quite wrap my head around that. Who goes to both Lebanon and France in one trip? They’re two different places. I need to get in the zone.

Note: This was written Sunday night at 9PM but it is now Monday morning at 5AM and I am about to take a taxi to the Rafik Hariri to fly to Paris. Just a note.

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The South of Lebanon.

The field trip to the South was kind of once-in-a-lifetime. Aside from a bakery break in Saida (Sidon), it took place entirely in Hezbollah territory. We visited Mleeta, the Hezbollah museum; Beaufort Castle, a former Crusader fortress; and the Fatima Gate, the border with Israel. It rained much of the time but for the most part that only affected enjoyment of the Castle, where I got soaked and toted my camera in a plastic bag.

Saida (Sidon) from the bus

Baklava from Kanaan bakery in Saida

I was pretty excited to have any kind of guided tour outside of Beirut. Lebanon is an extremely small country– only about 2 hours drive, on non-freeway type roads, from Beirut to the southern border. So I was able to see a lot of it out the bus window: towns and villages, mountains, the Mediterranean, trees, farms, snow.

views on the road

Everywhere you go in Lebanon– maybe slightly less so in the remote villages– there are abandoned buildings, bombed buildings, buildings riddled with bullet holes. There are half-finished concrete structures. There are images of party leaders, martyrs, Rafik Hariri (PM assassinated in 2005 and airport namesake). And in the South, plenty of images of Nasrallah, the head of Hezbollah, as well as anti-Israel art and graffiti.

But there’s also beautiful landscapes, even though for me they were partly obscured by fog and rain. Mountains are green and sparsely rocky. Oak trees, pine trees and trees I haven’t seen before. A whole flock of sheep that camoflauged as rocks into the hillside. Snow-covered peaks. And villages dotting the whole area, “village” meaning small rural town and not cluster of huts, because some of those village houses were pretty darn fancy.

Mleeta

The Hezbollah museum at Mleeta, by the way, is probably one of the most fascinating places I’ve ever visited. For one thing, it was beautifully designed. For another, it shows what they want to show to the world. So much going on there. It merits another post, and one that will probably be invitation-only, due to delicate subject matter. (I normally wouldn’t be so cautious but after looking at my WordPress stats I’m convinced random people are ending up here, which both pleases and concerns me.)

“exhibits” at Mleeta, and the view

Beaufort Castle was lovely but completely covered in mist and rain. According to our guide there are twenty Crusader castles in Lebanon, the more famous ones being in Byblos, Tripoli, and Sidon, on the coast. This one was built up in the mountains, and is mostly in ruins. I only got a few pictures due to the wetness.

Taking shelter in Crusader ruins

The Fatima Gate was also fascinating. Everyone had to have their passports checked before we arrived. (The conference procured special visas for all of us non-Lebanese.) The border was lined with soldiers, UN vehicles, and, surprisingly, a pleasant little park with metal exercise equipment. Basically a lot of barbed wire, fences, and more Hezbollah memorials. From what I could see, Israel was fog.

The Fatima Gate, Hezbollah sign

The fence, Israel

Had “lunch” at 6 PM in a village called Hasbaya. The mezzeh was fantastic, scores better than the ones at the post-conference dinner last night, and the falafel, cheese pastry, and meats were delicious as well. I must confess I was completely burned out by that point. Bus sickness, exhaustion, and oversocialization (I cannot produce another coherent sentence of small talk to save my life) made me grumpy and I slept the two hours home to Beirut.

Mezzeh

Dessert

Tomorrow I am doing sightseeing around Beirut with Shirin, a co-conferencer and professor of English from Pakistan. Now, I am going to bed.

Presentation today, the South tomorrow.

Today was extraordinarily productive in that I a) explored more of Hamra, b) visited the AUB archives, c) gave my paper presentation, d) attended two other presentations, e) had interesting conversations with co-conferencers, and f) went to a Beiruti Starbucks.

Starbucks, Liban-style.

Important things first. The Starbucks was on the waterfront and was bigger than the ones at home. The barista was cute and when I asked him if they had vanilla lattes he suggested the Winter Spice Latte, which for me might as well be a Lebanese delicacy because they don’t have them at home. It was super good. As I left I berated myself for not practicing any of my Arabic (“Where you from?” “America.” Why didn’t I say Amreeka? “Thank you.” Why didn’t I say shukran?) (I’m joking about this being important, by the way. Kind of. It’s part of my Starbucks ethnography.)

My paper presentation went pretty well. I got two business cards and a few recommendations, plus several compliments (which I take less seriously because politeness is cheap!). Two of my co-panelists also work on Beirut and the American University, one as a PhD student at Amherst and one as a professor at BU. The third was a Tehran professor with a bone to pick and a Wikipedia page that points to pro-Iran controversies. Overall things went smooth but I need to work on projection and polytone.

I spent an hour in the archives, but you don’t want to hear about that.

Mezzeh spread at the post-conference dinner.

Surprising things from my further ventures into Beirut:
1)      You have to cross streets like a jaywalking frog. Crosswalks are few, crosswalks with signals are fewer.
2)      As you cross streets, taxis honk at you constantly to see if you are looking for a taxi, which you never are. This probably means that one day I will need a taxi and will not be able to find one.
3)      Men stare at you openly as you walk down the street. Not in a leery way, per se, but there’s an entitlement to the gaze that doesn’t exist in avert-your-eyes-from-strangers America. It’s particularly so if you are female, alone, non-Lebanese, taking pictures with a big-ass camera.

Me at AUB.

Tomorrow is the conference field trip to the South of Lebanon, home to you-know-who. Passport and heavy jacket are required. Because of the political situation and the cold, respectively.

A few photos from around Hamra.

Hurried and few but real live visuals.

The view from my window.

Breakfast plate at hotel. They have a lovely little buffet with pita bread and a million bowls. I put lebaneh, tomato and mint on one, and cheese, almond butter (?) and honey on the other.

Posters on Abdel Aziz Street.

Graffiti on Abdel Aziz Street.

College Hall at the entrance to American University of Beirut.

A view of the Mediterranean from campus

A few more surprising things:
1) The man who stands at the AUB Main Gate has a very large gun.
2) There are more things in English than in French.
3) The bookstore across the street from AUB features both Edward Said and Lauren Conrad in its window display.

It’s 5 AM in Beirut.

Or at least it was when I started this post.

I’m in my hotel room and I’ve slept for 8 hours and now I finally have a bar of Internet.

So far I’ve only attended the opening talk at the conference. I split before the cocktail reception because I was so damned tired, even though I was also a little hungry.

In total my trip here was about 25.5 hours (door to door), during which time I slept for maybe 3 hours and ate one solid meal (at SFO) and otherwise peanuts, parts of muffins, and half of a Turkish kind of wrap.

***

I can’t say too much about Beirut yet because I haven’t seen much. The buildings are beige and blocky, 1960s-ish, except for the occasional ornate Mediterranean structure. The hotel is accented in red velvet and is highly decorative. The traffic is aggressive, but I’m pretty sure traffic in most parts of the world feels chaotic for the first-timer. Some buildings look extremely rundown or abandoned. Hamra, the AUB neighborhood where I’m staying, has yuppie coffee shops and people wear peacoats and scarves, so it’s a little bit like home.

My red velvet hotel room. Most of what I’ve seen so far.

Things That Have Surprised Me:
1) The girls who sat in front of me on the Beirut flight were not American but slipped fluidly back and forth between Arabic and English.
2) The in-flight magazine told me that the Pink Floyd Laser Show was coming to Lebanon for the first time.
3) I passed a novelty shop in the taxi that prints messages on roses.

Today is the first day of the conference. I’m not presenting till tomorrow. Goals: watch panels, mildly revise presentation, pay for field trip (Saturday), eat good Lebanese food, visit library/archive, take a few pictures even though it’s raining, check out Hamra. But first, breakfast, because I’m freaking starving.