Meet Amanda Saab, The Lebanese on US’ Masterchef: Changing Stereotypes & Shining With Lebanese Food


The Lebanese are proud of their compatriot Amanda Saab on MasterChef. She is also a Seattleite, and as a fellow Seattleite, I am also proud!

Originally posted on A Separate State of Mind | A Lebanese Blog:

Amanda Saab Masterchef USA

Meet the awesome Amanda Saab.

A few weeks ago, an acquaintance of mine was gushing about how excited he was that there was a Lebanese candidate on this season’s Masterchef, which airs on FOX every Wednesday in the US.

On that episode, Amanda Saab had done a fusion cuisine dish, based on our very own Lebanese pride and joy: it was kefta with sumac aioli and jalapeño-dusted potatoes. Her favorite comfort food? Kebbeh nayye.

From that moment on, it’s only been looking up for her. She’s now considered by many to be one of the show’s front-runners. Amanda and I have spoken a couple of times on Twitter, and I’ve noticed how many people are rooting for her whenever a new episode airs. She keeps getting attention the more she progresses. But this is not only what’s impressive about Mrs. Saab.

Originally Lebanese and born in Michigan, when Amanda Saab does not cook…

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Welcome Ramadan


Ramadan Kareem! A time for coming together….

Originally posted on Beyond Beirut:

Ramadan is once again upon us. It seems like only yesterday that we were fasting and yet it is here and we just completed the first day for this year. It is a month of reflection and prayer and being thankful for all the blessings we have- and I couldn’t be more grateful that my loved ones are all in good health and happy.

This month is also heavily intertwined with its traditions and customs and family gatherings, and of course, the food!

To mark the first day, my mother-in-law invited us over for iftar and it was a feast. She is an amazing cook and goes all out when she is hosting people over. Today was no exception as she made her signature dish of waraa enab (dolma to those more familiar with the term) as the whole family, or at least those of us who are here in…

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Beirut: What to See, Eat and Buy (from Hipster to Homemade)

Beirut, City by the Sea

Last week the U.S. State Department updated its travel warning to Lebanon. A friend called me to check if I am evacuating. Um, no. The travel warning has some new bits and pieces of information, but the State Department has officially discouraged travel to Lebanon the entire time I have been living here. It’s probably been discouraging it since the bombing of the US Marine Barracks in 1982. So while I always read the travel warnings, I’m still here, don’t feel any less safe than I did the week before, and am not going anywhere…..

Having established in my last post that yes, you should come visit Beirut, your next question may be what to do while here. So I’ve put together a list of a few of my favorite spots for you to try when you come. J

  1. Bars of Beirut – In a city famed for its nightlife, the choice of where to go out can get overwhelming. Mar Mikhael is the current “it” neighborhood, and two of my favorite spots are: Internazionale – a classy but unpretentious cocktail bar on Armenia Street whose crowd spills out onto the street on warm evenings; and Junkyard – a restaurant made of repurposed shipping containers, whose mood and crowd are far more glam than grunge. I love its cocktails and the retro bartenders in vest and tie. Tables spill out onto a large open-air garden, making summer the time to go.
  2. Al-Omari Mosque – in an easy-to reach location downtown, this mosque encapsulates Beirut’s history in a single structure. The building began as a Byzantine church that was built on the ruins of Roman baths. It was converted into a mosque in 635, which lasted until the Crusaders turned it into the Cathedral of St. John in 1115. It was turned back into a mosque by the Mamluks in 1291, and remains a lovely mosque to visit, with its old stone walls and beautifully painted ceiling. It welcomes visitors, and has a rack of hooded black robes available at the entrance for female tourists who may not have arrived appropriately attired.

    Interior of Al Omari Mosque

    Interior of Al Omari Mosque

  3. Homecooked meals – Lebanon is famed for its food, and like everywhere else in the Mediterranean, tends to be at its best when prepared by someone’s mom or grandma. Those of us who don’t have relatives here can head to restaurants like Achghalouna, where underprivileged women prepare a traditional lunch that is served in the garden of a lovely old Lebanese house, or Tawlet, where women from different parts of Lebanon come to share their regional specialties.

    Homemade specialties at Tawlet

    Homemade specialties at Tawlet

  4. Souvenir Shopping – while the streets of Hamra are filled with stereotypical kitsch such as t-shirts and jangly belly-dancing scarves, those looking for a more creative memento of Beirut should head back to Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael during the day, and try one of the following: Plan Bey – an “arts and culture concept store,” Plan Bey sells postcards of images from the civil war, modern prints and graphic novels by local authors, and hand-printed notebooks. Their neighboring exhibition space offers an ever-changing supply of souvenirs, such as Kudrish-Syrian kilims and hand-painted ceramics. Artisan du Liban – brimming with hammered pewter plates, ancient fish fossils and hand-painted Arabic coffee cups, this is my go-to shop when I’m preparing to bring presents back home.

Enjoy your stay!

Is It Safe to Travel to Beirut?

This question has been popping up on my radar recently. Some friends cancelled a plan to visit because of concerns over safety. A US-based reader of my blog contacted me to ask me if I found it safe. On the Facebook page of a fellow expat in Lebanon, I saw the same question posed by one of his friends. Every time I’m back in Seattle, it’s the first question my mother’s friends ask, clucking over me and my family with worry.

Here’s my short answer:

If my posts are still coming from Beirut, I still feel safe here.

The seaside restaurant we ate at our first evening in Beirut. We dined here again last night, to commemorate our arrival to Lebanon.

Yesterday my family celebrated three years of life in Beirut (!!!). To date, the situation felt really dicey only once so far in those three years, back in the fall of 2013, when Obama was threatening Syria with air strikes (everyone was worried what the spillover into Lebanon would be).

The rest of the time, life is surprisingly normal, almost mundane. We go to restaurants and the movies, take hikes in the mountains and swim on the shore. The kids go to school and gymnastics classes, I write, hubby heads to the office. For the most part, incidents that make headlines happen far from central Beirut, where we live.

A friend of mine recently post to Facebook a video of people dancing in the street at a festival in the hipster neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. This was how my friend answered the question:


While some cities and countries are safer than others (of course!), there is hardly anywhere that is perfectly safe all the time. We’ve seen mass shootings everywhere from a movie theater in Colorado to a youth camp in Norway, terrorist attacks in cities from Mumbai to Nairobi to New York, and “regular” violent crime, well, nearly everywhere.

Beirut’s violence is infrequent, but when it occurs, it is headline-grabbing spectacular. Like airline accidents, a car bomb is incredibly unlikely to occur, but the dramatic and heartbreaking results leave their imprint on us and, as terrorists hope, instill fear.

So is it safe to travel to Beirut?

Here is how the American who found my blog expressed her fears:

“My concern is primarily risks that I would face because I’m American. The crazy stories of kidnappings are the biggest fear factor, though I know those kinds of things are rare, especially in Lebanon.”

And my answer:

“While there are never any guarantees, Beirut is really totally fine, as is much of the country.

Kidnapping of foreigners is not an issue in Lebanon. So don’t stress about that. Not even pickpocketing is an issue. The worst case scenario is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But things are calm enough now that even that is not a reason that I feel is worth getting dissuaded over.

There’s plenty to see in Beirut – the downtown area has a couple of nice mosques, the Robert Mouawad museum and the National Museum are interesting, and you can’t miss a night on the town in Mar Mikhael, the current hipster center of Beirut. Rooftop bars are opening soon too, and those are world-famous. Byblos is a must-see, and not far from Tripoli. As I mentioned, your colleagues would be best suited to tell you how safe Tripoli is. They know their own city well, and would be able to ensure to keep you out of the sketchy neighborhoods. If there is any kind of flare-up in Tripoli, an alternative could be to meet them in Byblos, which is only a 20 minute drive away, but VERY safe at all times.

If you have a day to spare, you may want to consider visiting the Roman ruins of Baalbek. They are absolutely amazing, but a 3-hour drive away. If you’re on your own, you can book a day trip through an agency like Nakhal or Kurban travel.

And if you’re traveling in the next few months, pack a swimsuit, because it’s beach weather here now!”


Staff prepare a waterfront cocktail bar for the evening guests.

So if you’re thinking about visiting Beirut, here’s my advice: leave your fears behind, and come!

We’ll be here, soldiering on. ;)

Note: No matter where in the globe you find yourself, it pays to seek out and heed local advice on safety questions such as where to go and where to avoid, how late at night to stay out, and how well you need to hide valuables when out and about.

Lebanon, the Safe Haven – for Armenians too


This month marks 100 years since the Ottoman Empire initiated systematic massacres of the Armenians in its midst.


Armenian civilians, escorted by armed Ottoman soldiers, are marched through Harput (Kharpert), to a prison in the nearby Mezireh (present-day Elâzığ), April 1915. Source: Wikipedia

I don’t remember ever hearing of the Armenian Genocide before moving to Lebanon. It was all over the news, however, when I was in Italy last week. Pope Francis referred to the tragedy as a genocide during a special mass of remembrance. His pronouncement was all the news could talk about for the remainder of the afternoon, bringing the history of the Armenians back to my attention.

My lack of knowledge about the genocide prior to living in Lebanon turns out to have been no accident. The massacres are now widely recognized internationally – and even by some within Turkey (the former Ottoman Empire) – as a genocide by historians and scholars. But Turkey has always denied that the targeting and killings were systematic, and take umbrage at the term genocide. The Turkish government has run an effective and proactive campaign to keep it from being officially recognized by the US national government (despite its recognition by 43 of our 50 states), discussed at the UN, taught in Canadian schools or acknowledged in London museums (see this piece from the Los Angeles Times for a more detailed discussion).

For a quick history lesson (in case you, like me, missed it): the traditional Armenian homeland was once split between Eastern and Western Armenia – the former conquered by Russia, the latter under Ottoman rule. Armenians were also concentrated in Cilicia, an Armenian Kingdom in the Middle Ages, and a region of modern-day Turkey which borders the Mediterranean Sea.

Between 1915 and 1922, an estimated 1 to 1.5 million Armenians were killed in the Ottoman Empire.

According to Wikipedia, “The genocide was implemented in two phases: the wholesale killing of the able-bodied male population through massacre and subjection of army conscripts to forced labor, followed by the deportation of women, children, the elderly and infirm on death marches leading to the Syrian desert. Driven forward by military escorts, the deportees were deprived of food and water and subjected to periodic robbery, rape, and massacre.”

Survivors fled. The Armenian diaspora is now estimated at 8 to 10 million people (triple that of modern-day Armenia’s population). Many of the diaspora are direct descendants of genocide victims.

And the reason I started hearing about the genocide after arriving to Lebanon? As it has done for Syrians over the past few years, Lebanon opened its borders and provided refuge to countless Armenians. There are an estimated 230,000 Armenians in Lebanon today. Uniquely, they were granted Lebanese nationality in 1924 by the French mandate, and became a vibrant part of the fabric of Lebanese society. They are renowned in particular for their craftsmanship. Lebanon today is home to the only Armenian university outside of Armenia, and to the Catholicosate (Holy See) of Cilicia. The Catholicos (head of church) fled Cilicia in 1921.

When my parents visited me in 2013, we took headed just north of Beirut to Antelias, to visit the Catholicosate, which we knew had a museum.


The main church (right) is surprisingly small. (c) Amy E. Robertson

A young woman in her twenties greeted us, told us the museum was free of charge, and accompanied us to unlock the rooms housing the Armenian treasures. The three of us were the only visitors that morning. We asked a couple of questions as we entered, and she offered a guided tour. We jumped at the opportunity.


the Cilicia Museum (c) Amy E. Robertson

Room after room housed beautifully displayed artifacts from Cilicia, primarily relics and religious art of its churches. Richly woven tapestries, liturgical garments threaded with gold, delicately illustrated Bibles, silver wrought into chalices and crosses, and more. Some had been smuggled out as refugees fled the genocide; more has been recovered by devout Armenians who travel to Turkey to track down their historical treasures from antiquarians and collectors. The third floor of the museum houses its painting and sculpture collection, described on the museum website as follows: “Primarily as a post-Genocide phenomenon, the collection stands as a witness to the special circumstances and experiences of Armenians in exile.”


the seminary (c) Amy E. Robertson 


priests (c) Amy E. Robertson

Pictures were not allowed inside of the museum, so I cannot share with you the treasures. I can only urge you, if ever in Beirut, to find a few hours to visit the museum.

And you may be well-versed in Armenian history, but if, like me, you are not – I would also like to urge you, whether you are in Beirut or anywhere else around the globe, to find a few minutes this week, as we mark the centenary of the Armenian Genocide, to learn more about the history of the Armenians.

Official Observation of the centenary of the Armenian Genocide on April 24, 2015.

Museum Information  and official website of the Cilicia Museum

For a taste of Armenia when in Beirut, here are my favorites:

Mayrig – Traditional Armenian cooking. Cozy restaurant with stone walls, stained glass lamps and impeccable service. Now with a branch also in Dubai,

Batchig – Mayrig’s more stylish younger sister, with twists on tradition and a more casual atmosphere. Located in the Beirut suburb of Dbayeh.

Badguer – homey restaurant and cultural center with homestyle cooking, located in the Armenian quarter of Beirut, Bourj Hammoud.

Nothing says “I love you, Mom” like a discounted African housekeeper


Seems like that’s what this Lebanese agency that brings domestic workers into the country wants you to think:


The image of the SMS above was reproduced today on the Facebook page for KAFA, an NGO in Lebanon that fights to eliminate all forms of exploitation and violence against women in Lebanon. (Mother’s Day is celebrated in Lebanon on March 21.)

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), there are an estimated 250,000 domestic migrant workers in Lebanon (that’s about 100,000 more than what the Lebanese government says are registered). They hail from Kenya and Ethiopia, Togo, Senegal, Madagascar, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and more….

Filipinas are the preferred domestic worker here, and receive the highest wages. As far as I can tell, there seems to be an assumption about Filipinas being better educated, and they usually speak English, (a sought-after skill for the Lebanese who want their kids to practice English with their nannies). College educated and English-speaking from Bangladesh or Nepal? Sorry, based on your nationality, you’re at the bottom of the pay scale. Kenyans and Ethiopians fall somewhere in the middle.

Shortly after I arrived to Beirut, one Lebanese woman expressed her concern when I told her I’d hired an Ethiopian to help around the house.

“Do you lock the house when you go out?” she asked me.

“You mean, with my worker inside?”


It took me a second to gather my thoughts, blown away as they were by this casual dismissal of basic human rights.

“I could never lock anyone inside the house. I mean, what if there was a fire, or an accident?”

The Lebanese lady tried to break it to me gently. “It’s for her protection, so that she doesn’t mix with the wrong people.” She paused. “It’s that the Ethiopians aren’t mentally stable.”

An Ethiopian domestic worker in Beirut. (c) Ester van dan Berg, flickr Creative Commons

According to a recent study by KAFA of Bangladeshi and Nepali domestic workers in Lebanon, “Clear indications of forced labor are found when examining the work and living conditions in Lebanon. About 77% of those surveyed worked at least 14 hours a day and were denied rest periods during the day. The personal identification of 96% were retained by their employers and 90% were prohibited from going out alone, while 91% were denied the right to a day off. Moreover, 50% were locked inside the house, and 43% were not allowed to contact their families.”

Yeah, with those conditions, I don’t think I’d be so mentally stable either.

The dismal report continues, “Domestic workers are also the victims of emotional, physical, and sexual violence exercised by the employers or the placement agencies. The survey showed that 46% of the MDWs were threatened, including threats of physical violence, denunciation to the police, deportation, in addition to being denied basic rights such as access to food, receiving their due salary or contacting people. About 62% were subjected to verbal abuse by a household member, a relative, or someone from the recruitment agency. Over half that amount, or 36%, were subjected to physical violence such as beating, pushing, slapping, hair pulling, stick or belt beating, biting and hair cutting. Moreover 10% of the surveyed claimed sexual violence such as unwanted sexual advances, molesting, or rape. The survey found that 82% of the workers declared that they felt they were forced to work.”

Migrant workers arrive to Lebanon and other Arab countries through a system called kafala, which is a sponsorship program.  According to the ILO, “Employers justify the retention of passports and confinement in the home on the basis of the kafala system, which gives them legal responsibility for the residency and employment of their domestic workers. Their sense of entitlement over the worker is heightened by the significant cash outlay they have made to recruit him or her from another country. In the countries of the Middle East, some of which lack affordable public provision for the care of children and the elderly, even families with very limited financial means are left with little choice but to hire external help… Employers also prevent their employees from leaving by requiring them to pay high fees for their release, withholding their wages as well as personal documents.” This four-minute video by KAFA illustrates how the system functions.

The situation is such that both Ethiopia and the Philippines have banned their citizens from coming to Lebanon as domestic workers. But they arrive anyway, sometimes smuggled in illegally – an act which can result in incarceration.

According to the NGO Caritas International, migrant workers (male and female) comprise fifteen to twenty percent of Lebanon’s total prison population. “Most are charged for irregular entry or stay, escaping from the employer, falsification of documents or theft. However, a large majority of complaints that employers file against their domestic workers accusing them for theft are false, or even abusive.”

At the end of last year I came to realize that all incarcerated female foreign workers are kept at Adlieh: a dungeon of a prison built underneath a highway flyover not far from where I live. Formerly an underground parking lot, this prison was created to house 250 inmates, but hundreds more are crammed in.

According to a 2012 report in the local newspaper, those in Adlieh are not technically prisoners, but ‘administrative detainees’ – trapped in limbo because they cannot afford to buy a ticket home but lack the papers to work and earn money for their ticket, or because they have no identification. Or because they have run away from their employers but require their approval to go home.

Detainees are kept in groups according to nationality and gender. Caritas helps arrange food for the prisoners, and a woman I know helps support this effort. I offered to help out with one meal, and I prepared a vegetarian rice dish, bulgur salad, fruit, juice and cookies for 50 women one day.

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“Would you like to give the meal to the Filipinas or the Bangladeshis?”

I was seriously supposed to choose? “Either is fine. Whoever needs it most.”

“Bless you. Label it for the Bangladeshis then, because the Filipinas receive more support.”

Maybe that’s because the Filipinas earn the most on average, and so can better help their compatriots in prison. My Ethiopian employee told me that at the church she attends, they take up a collection from time to time to pay for plane tickets for those who are entitled to go home but lack the funds. Being at the bottom of the pay scale, it’s no surprise that the Bangladeshis would end up most in need. Heartbreaking.

Certainly not all Lebanese are comfortable with the kafala system, nor with the racism that was perpetuated in the Mother’s Day ad above. In addition to the admirable staff and volunteers of organizations like KAFA, Caritas the Lebanese Center for Human Rights (CLDH), the Anti-Racism Movement, and the Migrant Workers Task Force (MWTF), there are thousands of people in and out of Lebanon who would like to see the system changed. (Elie Fares, author of the blog A Separate State of Mind is just one of them – it was thanks to his blog that the SMS came to my attention today.) Let’s join their ranks.

If you’re interested in doing something more than reading about the issue, financial contributions can be made to CDLH to help amplify their efforts, or to the Migrant Community Center to help provide workshops, classes and events for migrant workers in Beirut. Make the donation in your mother’s honor.

New Year’s Resolutions

It’s that time of year, when resolutions are on the minds of many. Do you resolve to travel more next year? Do you resolve to do something more for others in 2015? Or maybe make your next travels more meaningful by combining the two….

Sea turtles and school children seem to grab the spotlight in conversations about volunteer vacations, while more traditional service opportunities often get lost in the shadows. No matter where you are in the world, though, the hungry need meals, the elderly need companionship, and rescued pets need care. These are meaningful ways to contribute that often don’t require special skills.


The first time that I showed up to volunteer at a soup kitchen in Beirut, I wasn’t sure what my role would be, but I had volunteered before in soup kitchens in my hometown of Seattle and I knew that I could do everything from cook to clean. As it turned out, the biggest need was for someone to simply put equal portions of rice and stew on plates. I could do that. On the days that bakery cakes were donated, my expertise cutting birthday cakes came in handy. I served lunch at the soup kitchen for four months.


It wasn’t earth-shattering work, but it met a need. Thirty elderly Lebanese went home every Thursday afternoon with full stomachs, thanks in part to my efforts. Sure, a long-term solution for hunger is ideal, but in the meantime, hungry people got fed. I was proud to be a part of that.

As a bonus, I met people that I never would have gotten to know otherwise. As a work-from-home mom living abroad, my social circuit is dominated to other moms and expats. Through volunteering, I met local college students and young adults committed to a new Lebanon, elderly people who needed a listening ear as much as they needed the food, and the sturdy-shoed nuns who were the humble hosts of the weekly luncheon. I got to practice my budding Arabic skills to boot.


My educational background is in international development, so I love to see organizations that are “teaching a man [or woman] to fish.” But immediate needs don’t disappear while long-term solutions are being developed, and ladling meals at a soup kitchen, providing companionship to the elderly, mentoring young adults or reminding hardship survivors that the world hasn’t abandoned them all can make great volunteer opportunities while traveling as well as while at home. No matter where you find yourself, this kind of volunteering can open the door for the kind of authentic person-to-person exchanges that many other forms of volunteering don’t foster.

This post is my contribution to Adventures Less Ordinary: How to Travel and Do Good, a guide to impactful adventures, edited by Ethan Gelber. Drawing on the combined expertise of two dozen leading voices advocating for travel that makes a difference, it is a guide for compassionate people seeking the ultimate adventure – one guided as much by the good you give as the good you get. To order your free copy, go to and register your email address.

For more information about FoodBlessed and its work feeding the hungry in Beirut, Lebanon, check out their Facebook page at and website at