Burkinis, Bikinis, and the Best Family Beach in Lebanon

It’s been a long time since I last posted, mainly because I joined the flood of expat spouses that desert the duty station for the summer. Since we don’t see family most of the year, those golden months are our chance to spend quality time with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

I’m not sorry to miss out on the hottest days (more than the temperatures, it’s the humidity that’s a killer in Beirut mid-August), but for those who stay behind, there is plenty to do. Summer in Lebanon is filled with concert series that take place against the backdrops of millennia-old ruins. This summer, pop superstar Sia sang at Byblos, and the Baalbek Festival was reinstated after a four-year hiatus.

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Carcalla Dance Theater performed at the ruins of Baalbek in July.

But Lebanon’s biggest summer attractions are, of course, its beaches.

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San Stefano resort near Batroun.

I thought a lot about Lebanese beaches this August, as I read about the burkini battle raging in France. I got comfortable wearing bikinis after marrying an Italian and spending time on Mediterranean beaches where few women under the age of sixty wear a one-piece. But growing up in Seattle, I wore one-piece suits, and there are still plenty of days I prefer a swimsuit that covers more as opposed to less. During a visit this summer to a waterslide park in the Seattle area, I noticed that some boys wore sun shirts along with their trunks even though the waterpark was indoors, and while plenty of teenage girls were in bikinis, most younger girls and adult women wore one piece suits. A bit more coverage is our cultural norm in the Pacific Northwest.

When I visited southern Portugal as a teenager, I was surprised by how many women went topless—even grandmothers. In Italy, young girls go topless—most swimsuits for girls under the age of five or so are just bikini bottoms. I don’t have a problem with those choices, but they aren’t ones I would want imposed on myself or my daughter.

Although the ban has been overturned by the French courts, this week’s news of another woman in burkini being forced by angry locals to leave a beach in France made me realize that this story is far from over.

In Lebanon, standard beach attire depends on where you show up to swim. There are a few public beaches, but most are private, with resort establishments set up similar to the lidos of Italy: lounge chairs, sun umbrellas, lifeguards, a restaurant, often a swimming pool (or two), and sometimes a hotel.

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Edde Sands, a posh resort near Byblos.

Lots of these private beaches are quite posh, and entrance fees are priced accordingly. Some are distinctly designed to be a place for Lebanese in the 20-40 age range to see and be seen. High heels, make-up and jewelry with a bikini are just not for me. Other spots are more kid-friendly, but still have entrance fees that can cost up to $40 per adult and $25 per child ($130 for a family of four!). And that’s before you even get into the shish taouk sandwiches, French fries and cold beers that our family tends to order. It feels exorbitant for a day at the beach.

So I was happy when, on a recent weekend, a friend proposed meeting at my personal favorite, Al Jisr beach. It boasts one of the widest swathes of sand that I’ve seen in Lebanon, a huge swimming pool, and entrance fees of a mere $13/ adult and $7/child. And, no one looks at your funny no matter how much (or how little) your swimsuit covers.

Which brings me back to the battle of burkini versus bikini. Even in Lebanon there are places where sporting either may be uncomfortable. I know of one posh beach resort where a few customers complain any time a woman shows up in a burkini. (I’m happy to report that their complaints go nowhere.) And I myself wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a bikini to Beirut’s public beach Ramlet el Bayda. But this picture taken on a beach near the northern city of Tripoli recently went viral, precisely because it captured the laissez-faire attitude of most Lebanese. (Photo by Jad Ghorayeb, who has lots more great shots of Lebanon on his Instagram feed.)

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His shot is way better than my iPhone snap at Al Jisr:

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I wore a bikini to Al Jisr, and was one of many women there wearing one. There were also plenty of women in one-pieces, and several more in burkinis. Everyone out to enjoy the warm weather and play in the sea with their families.

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You can see one lady swimming in a burkini, in between her two children with red and blue water wings.

It was actually one of the few times this summer that I have worn a bikini. In March, I discovered a cancerous spot on my skin and had it removed. Most of the summer I alternated between tankinis (covering my midriff), or a bikini with a short-sleeve sun shirt over the top.

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Me, ready for a day in the sun.

I’m only in my early 40s, so maybe I’ll need to move to a long-sleeve sun shirt in the future, something like this:

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Sun shirt for sale at swimoutlet.com

I think it´s safe to assume that this sun shirt would pass muster on any beach in France, but who’s say, given that the line drawn in the sand seems to keep moving. After activists (and slacktivists) posted countless pictures of Western women wearing long sleeves and head coverings on beaches across Europe:

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Vildana Maisa/Twitter

the deputy mayor of Nice declared that nuns in habit wouldn´t be allowed on the public beaches either.

What’s next, a wet suit ban?

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These Speedo wetsuits are designed for triathletes.

There are many reasons why I think that Al Jisr is the best family beach in Lebanon. It’s cheap, it’s clean, the swimming pool is big and the lifeguards are alert and, as I discovered after one of the kids suffered a minor injury playing “soap soccer” on our last visit, they even have a doctor on duty.

But Al Jisr is also a place where you can sport a bikini or cover up fully without anyone batting an eye. And after this summer’s burkini brouhaha, I am more grateful than ever for beaches where I can wear whatever I want.

Check out my earlier post on Beirut Beaches.

 

Ramadan Kareem – Observing Ramadan and Feeding Refugees

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Beirut’s Pigeon Rocks. Image by Roatana Hotels, which are hosting nightly iftars.

On Monday, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan began. Ramadan’s timing Is according to the Islamic calendar, which is based on lunar months that don’t correspond to the Gregorian calendar. This means that the start date of Ramadan moves back by about 11 days every year, and that although my family recently began our fifth year in Lebanon, this is the first time we’ve been in town for very much of it (since the kids and I travel every summer).

Last week, my daughter asked me why Muslims fast during Ramadan. My off the cuff answer was that fasting gives Muslims a constant physical reminder that they should be thinking about God during this month. Kind of like how Christians fast during Lent. (Fasting is common among Maronite and Orthodox Christians in Lebanon, who give up meat and dairy for the 40 days of Lent.)

Thankfully, the New York Times and Vox have published a couple of good pieces on the basics of Ramadan, so that I could get my story straight.

Fasting is one of the five pillars, or duties, of Islam. According to Jennifer Williams, Muslim convert and author of the Vox article, “The practice of fasting serves several spiritual and social purposes: to remind you of your human frailty and your dependence on God for sustenance, to show you what it feels like to be hungry and thirsty so you feel compassion for (and a duty to help) the poor and needy, and to reduce the distractions in life so you can more clearly focus on your relationship with God.”

Love this video of the Muslim in Paris who is fasting all day and handing out sandwiches to the homeless and hungry at night.

Ramadan lasts 29 to 30 days, depending on the moon. It’s the month during which Muslims believe the word of God was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad and “the gates of heaven are open wider than ever.” Practicing Muslims are urged to abstain from food, drink, smoking or sexual activity from dawn to dusk. Exceptions are made for anyone who should not fast for health reasons, whether it’s diabetes, pregnancy, or old age. Children aren’t expected to fast until they reach the age of “religious observance” – the exact age varies between Shia and Sunni and according to each family, but around age 12. Younger children are encouraged to fast as much as they are able.

Now that my daughter is in Grade 6, many more of her Muslim classmates are fasting – roughly half, she estimates. Some of the non-Muslims were curious about fasting – wanted to try it out, to show solidarity. They aren’t the only ones curious about it – this post by Alex Teplitzky on Medium.com about observing Ramadan as a non-Muslim came into my inbox this week too. I told my daughter she could try it, as long as it wasn’t on an exam day – because final exams started today.

My daughter skipped breakfast Wednesday, but was feeling dizzy by midday. Her Muslim science teacher insisted that if she was becoming ill, she needed to break the fast, so my daughter headed to the cafeteria and bought some lunch. It was clear to her that abstaining from even a sip of water is no easy feat, particularly in the 85-degree (30C) weather.

In many other Middle Eastern countries, the rhythm of life slows way down during Ramadan. Not so in multi-religious Lebanon. I feel for the students who have to take their final exams on hollow stomachs. The same teacher handed out exam preparation tips that included a note for fasting students: suhoor, the pre-dawn meal, should include foods rich in fiber that can help sustain energy levels and the feeling of fullness – fiber-rich fruits and vegetables, brown rice and wholegrain bread, and low-fat protein sources including skinless chicken, fish and low-fat dairy. Dawn in Lebanon was 5:27 am today, but calling it a “pre-dawn” meal is a bit misleading. Suhoor is supposed to be eaten before the first prayer time of the day – which today in Beirut was 3:43 am. Apparently some Muslims skip this meal, as getting up in the middle of the night to eat is even tougher than skipping the meal…

The other, better known Ramadan meal is iftar. This is the meal that occurs just after sundown, to break the fast. Today in Lebanon, sunset is at 7:48 pm. According to Hossein Kamaly, professor of Islamic Studies at Barnard College and interviewee of the New York Times article, “an important development, especially in the United States, is to welcome non-Muslims to ifṭars.”

Personally, I love this development. I was privileged to have been invited to two iftars in my last four years in Lebanon, but this year, I have been invited to two iftars just in the first week of Ramadan. Iftars remind me of Thanksgiving or Christmas in the US, where families and friends gather for an abundant meal. My friend who invited me to an iftar at her home today admonished me, “but this time, you have to fast!”

I was all for that until I received an invitation to a farewell cocktail party that I need to stop by in the hour before arriving to the iftar. Breaking the fast with a cocktail seems like a recipe for trouble. I guess my friend would tell me I should just not eat or drink anything at the cocktail party…

However, I’ve also read that if Muslims break their fast, they are expected to either make up with a day of fasting at another time of year OR provide a meal to a needy person. Phew. With all the Syrian refugee families in need here in Beirut, I can easily do the latter.

And if you’d like, you can help feed a Syrian refugee too.

If you are Muslim and have broken your fast, I have just the app for you. Last November, the World Food Programme launched an app called Share The Meal. One tap donates US$0.50, feeding a child for a day. The current campaign is raising funds to feed 1,400 Syrian refugee children in Lebanon for a full year. So Muslim, Christian or other, fasting or not, here is an easy way to help provide a child with an iftar (or a few) in one easy tap.

I’ve made my first donation, and am off to have that drink now… Can you spare a meal or two too?

Ramadan Kareem is one of the traditional greetings for this month, and it means “Generous Ramadan”. May Ramadan be generous to you, and may we all be generous to one another.

Heroes of Lebanon: Meet 4

So many of the news stories reported out of Lebanon are dispiriting: the ongoing garbage crisis, the lack of a president, the tensions and strife. And like any place in the world, those aren’t all the stories to be told, not even the majority. Most people in Lebanon are decent folks going around their everyday business, trying to create, provide, love.

And then there are those folks that go above and beyond. People who seek to create and provide for the greater community, for the environment, for the most marginalized. People who are doing something special to share their love for life, for the earth, for peace, for one another.

I recently had the chance to talk with 4 people like that, interviewing them for the website Matador Network. Barbara Abdeni Masssad, Michael Haddad, Sarah Beydoun, and the activist group Fighters for Peace. (Okay, so that’s really 3 people plus one group, but as you will see, that group makes a difference precisely because they work together, not alone.)

You can read their stories here:

4 Heroes Creating Positive Change in Lebanon

I hope you find them as inspiring as I did.

 

 

 

 

This is Aleppo: In A World Where Doctors Have Become Martyrs & Hospitals Battlegrounds

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A post by a Lebanese blogger about the bombing of a hospital in Aleppo. A heartbreaking but important read…

A Separate State of Mind | A Blog by Elie Fares

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Tucked in the lower floor of a building was Al-Quds hospital in Aleppo, Syria, a small 34 bed facility in the Sukkari neighborhood. Its windows and entrance were fortified with mostly sandbags for extra protection despite the many buildings around it that, in theory, protected it from being attacked.

The hospital was not a rebel-run hospital, despite it existing in a rebel-controlled neighborhood. It was a Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) and International Red Cross affiliated institution with an emergency room and an 8 bed pediatrics ward. It was as fully equipped as a hospital in times of war could be.

In the rules of warfare, horrifying as such a notion’s existence is, and as dictated by multiple conventions, notably the Geneva ones, attacks on medical institutions by any side of a conflict is considered a severe violation.

A few hours ago, a fighter jet, flying at low altitude, charged…

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Beirut in a Snapshot: Garbage, Glitz and Refugees

I got a fancy single lens reflex camera for my birthday, and am so excited to be learning how to use it. My goal is to take better and better images to accompany my writing. I’ve done some traveling lately both in and outside of Lebanon, which has given me lots of opportunities to practice, but I also wander around Beirut from time to time, camera in hand, trying to capture moments.

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Not far from my house, I saw these overflowing trash bin – which were really not that bad by current Lebanese standards, given that the country is in the midst of a garbage crisis. What struck me about these bins in particular was the billboard behind it – an advertisement for a summer concert by AVICII, the world-famous Swedish musician known for his club music. The juxtaposition of glamour and grunge. As I was clicking away, a Syrian refugee holding her child walked into the frame. And there I had it – garbage, glitz and refugees – the complexity of Lebanon encapsulated in a single frame.

Lebanon’s garbage crisis is fading from international news, but the stench of rotting garbage wafting through the air every day doesn’t let the locals forget it. Solutions are possible though, and I hope that more politicians will find inspiration from the transformation of Saida’s notorious mountain of garbage..

into a city park.

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(c) UNDP Lebanon

International experts were brought in, and under the supervision of UNDP Lebanon, the garbage was carefully processed, properly disposed of when possible, contained and buried when not. A lovely public park was built over the space.

There is a nice launch video here (there are some subtitles in English partway through) that gives a good idea of the enormity of the project and all the work that went into eliminating this mountain of waste.

Of course, this park didn’t get make nearly as much news as the garbage disaster preceding it. I know about the project because my husband helped support it through his work for UNDP.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way. Let’s hope the Saida transformation can inspire more change.

Baalbek, Ksara, Anjar: Lebanon’s Top Tourist Circuit

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Baalbek: once an epicenter of Roman religious life, a temple complex dating back two millennia, boasting the world’s best-preserved Roman temple.

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Ksara: a 159-year-old winery and Lebanon’s largest, producing some 2 million bottles per year.

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Anjar: a sprawling 8th century complex of ruins from the Umayyad caliphate, the first but most short-lived of the Arab dynasties.

Each a remarkable place to visit. None of which I had heard of before living in Lebanon. I was in Beirut two years before visiting Baalbek and Ksara. And it wasn’t until recently that I returned, and visited Anjar as well.

Baalbek/Ksara/Anjar is a standard day trip sold by travel agencies in Beirut, but the long shadow of war stretches across the Antilebanon mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon, casting a gloom across the businesses of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, tourism most of all.

My family and I arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, and skirmishes near the border made a visit to the famed ruins of Baalbek out of the question. Although war continues to simmer in neighboring Syria, Lebanon has clung to its fragile peace, and by the spring of 2014 we felt it was safe enough to finally visit the World Heritage Site temples.

I recently returned with my parents, who just ended their second visit to Lebanon. Not much had changed since I first saw Baalbek in 2014. Arriving just after 9am, we were the first tourists in town. Someone must have alerted the ticket seller, who pulled into the parking lot just after us and sprinted ahead to open up the ticket window. In turn, he must have given a call to another local, because we’d been inside the complex only a few minutes when a guide materialized to offer his services. It was just us and our guide Khalil. Extraordinary to have these magnificent world class ruins all to ourselves.

Magnificent and heartbreaking. Our guide recounted that three to four hundred tourists used to arrive daily. These days they were averaging ten. We tried to spread our few tourist dollars around: a generous tip to our guide, a couple of souvenir guidebooks from one merchant lurking outside, a few replicas of ancient coins from another merchant. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take a ride on the camel someone had trotted out to the ruins though.

Before leaving Baalbek, I insisted that we stop by the Palmyra Hotel, intrigued by this fantastic two and a half minute video which I had recently seen.

Political leaders Charles de Gaulle and German Kaiser Wilhelm II once stayed at the Palmyra, singers Ella Fitzgerald, Fairouz and Sabah (both Lebanese legends) were guests, and the French poet and painter Jean Cocteau lived in the Palmyra for a month. In continuous business since 1874, it was if time had stopped 75 years before our visit. The bellhop (the same one who appears in the video) has been working for them more than 40 years, and proudly showed us the rooms and the spectacular view from the terrace. For another detailed article about the Palmyra, check out this one from a couple of years ago on the Beirut news site Al Akhbar.

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the view from the rooftop terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

After admiring the view, we headed on to Ksara, the first official winery to build on Lebanon’s 5,000-year old winemaking tradition. The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 (a few years before the Palmyra opened in nearby Baalbek), and sold into private hands in 1973, after the Vatican encouraged its monasteries to sell off any commercial activities. The ancient Roman tunnels under the winery’s chateau were expanded by men that lived in them during a war, explained our guide. (I wish I could remember which war! The Ksara website mentions that the winery was occupied by soldiers 1982-83, during the Lebanese Civil War, maybe it was then…) There are now just over 2.1km (1.3 mi) of tunnels, housing oak barrels of aged wine and special collection bottles. The tour ends with a generous tasting. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of wines that I hadn’t had the chance to taste before and liked a lot – I bought a Cabernet Sauvignon to take home.

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wine barrels in the tunnels of Ksara winery

To soak up some of the wine, we made a quick stop for a man’oushe (baked dough with toppings such as cheese, ground lamb, or dried wild thyme), then drove on to Anjar, the ruins of a trading center that is estimated to have flourished roughly 700-750 A.D. It was built by the Umayyads, the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Like Baalbek, it is a World Heritage Site.

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the ruins of Anjar

Although Anjar turned out to be only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from some restaurants and wineries that we had visited in the past, it is only 10 more kilometers to the Lebanon-Syria border, and we hadn’t dared get quite that close in the past. The lack of tourists was even more acute here than Baalbek. While the ticket office was staffed by a friendly Lebanese who had returned to Anjar after years of living in Nashville, he told us that we were the first tourists to arrive to the site in a few days. Sure, the ruins of Anjar pale next to Baalbek, but frankly even the Forum of Rome isn’t as impressive as Baalbek, so that’s a hard neighbor to keep up with. There are still crumbling walls of palaces and a mosque, scraps of mosaics, elegant archways and towering columns. Anjar was a marketplace of an estimated 600 shops, and was an important stop on the Baalbek-Damascus trade route.

My parents told me that the day was a highlight of their month-long stay in Lebanon. “Top tourist circuit”? Not in numbers. But Baalbek or Anjar are extraordinary world treasures. (And Ksara was just plain fun.) This Beirut day trip is, without a doubt, a “top tourist circuit”.

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three happy tourists

Is It Safe (or even Sane) to Travel to Beirut?

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Beirut Souks decked out for Christmas

Since my May 2015 post on safety in Beirut is my most popular ever, I wanted to post an update on the situation. Some of you are reading because you know me personally, and like to stay in touch and worry about me and my family living here. And some of you are reading because you’re planning a trip to Beirut – for work, or to visit your spouse’s family for the holidays. (And maybe someone somewhere is planning a trip for pure tourism, but I have to admit, that seems highly unlikely.)  You may have seen the U.S. State Department’s most recent travel warning, issued December 11th, and are wondering if you are in your right mind to come visit.

As I wrote this week for the Wall Street Journal Expat blog about hosting visitors, “If I thought we were at risk, I wouldn’t have my kids here.”

I acknowledge that the peace Lebanon does have is fragile. And it’s true that a bomb could go off at any time. There hadn’t been a bomb in over a year, and on the same day in November that I had scheduled a tweet linking to my post on safety in Beirut, there was a bomb. (I pray I’m not jinxing anything now by writing about the topic again!)

On the other hand, if I were living in the U.S., a guy with a gun could walk into my movie theater or my kids’ school and start randomly shooting at any time. There have been hundreds of mass shootings in the U.S. in the past year,* and one bombing in Lebanon in the same time frame. If I were living in Paris, I would have risked getting caught in the horrifying massacre that took place two days after Beirut’s tragedy. All terrible things, but not a reason to run away from Beirut or Paris or Aurora or Newtown.

I don’t embrace danger, but I also refuse to be paralyzed by fear.

Life holds no guarantees, but we can confront our fears rather than let them rule us. The Lebanese do an amazing job of demonstrating that principle, and in this regard, I hope to keep taking my cues from them.

My mother-in-law sent worried messages to my husband when the U.S. travel warning made the news in Italy. He sent back pictures of us having dessert on the terrace of the newly-opened Cheescake Factory here in Beirut. I’ll leave you instead with a few more images of Beirut decked out for the holiday season.

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Creative lighting at a posh clothing store in downtown Beirut. I love it!

 

 

*Mass shootings are defined as those in which 4 or more people have been shot (either wounded or killed). ShootingTracker lists 353 mass shootings in the U.s. in 2015 as of December 2nd, and Gun Violence Archive has recorded another 8 since then.