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.

Soup for Syria, from Seattle to Beirut

I am a food writer and a photographer. How can I use my trade to help the unfortunate and send a message of peace?… If I were a barber, I would have offered to cut their hair.” – Barbara Abdeni Massaad, editor of Soup for Syria: Recipes to Celebrate Our Shared Humanity.

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Soup for Syria is a gorgeous cookbook, equal parts appetizing recipes and luminous images. The pictures, taken by Massaad herself, are of both food and Syrian refugees. The refugees are people Massaad knows well, living in a makeshift camp not far from her home in Lebanon. Her commitment to them began with visits to the camps with a trunk full of food. The visits became weekly, the refugees became part of her extended family.

As a cookbook author, the natural next step for Massaad was to put together her photography and culinary talents into a project that could give more. She reached out to a combination of renowned chefs and dear friends to create a mouthwatering collection of soups. Culinary superstars Mark Bittman, Anthony Bourdain, Greg Malouf, Yotam Ottolenghi, Claudia Roden and Alice Waters are among the contributors. Massaad donated her time and images, and chefs donated their recipes. What a fitting choice, to use soup, the ultimate comfort food to raise funds to provide comfort to those in need.

Last night I had a chance to taste some soup and hear from Massaad at a book launch-slash-fundraiser organized at Station Beirut. Chef Wael Lazkani of Jai and Chef Alexis Couquelet of Couqley were among those who had brought soup to share, while 961 Beer and the Syrian wine Bargylus were on tap (check out the fascinating story of Bargylus in this article from The Telegraph). Funds raised by book sales were bolstered by donations for the food and drink.  Massaad’s photographs of refugee neighbors adorned the walls.

Barbara Abdeni Massaad addresses the crowd gathered in support of Syrian refugees

Barbara Abdeni Massaad addresses the crowd gathered in support of Syrian refugees

Massaad shone as she recounted her impetus for the project, two young friends from the Syrian encampment at her side. She reiterated her message, “Compassion for Syrian refugees is not a political stance but a human obligation.”

It was a fun evening out for my husband and I, but much more than that, it was a meaningful one. I picked up my copy of Soup for Syria. Guess what’s for dinner tonight?

Buy the Book

In the US, UK and everywhere else outside of Lebanon, 100% of profits go to helping refugees. The book is available on Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk.

In Lebanon, thanks to some special donations, 100% of sales go toward helping refugees. The book will be available at Librarie Antoine starting tomorrow, and soon at Virigin stores as well.

These funds are being channeled through the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, which is providing critical aid to more than four million Syrian refugees. Soup for Syria funds are earmarked for medical care and food relief.

Do A Little More

It would be a mistake to think that Massaad’s commitment has culminated with the publication of this cookbook, because it’s clear that she’s in for the long haul. And there are a million ways that she hopes you’ll join her. The book’s website details eight ways anyone can use Soup for Syria to further support refugees, from hosting a “foodraiser” to giving copies of the cookbook as presents.

While book proceeds support UNCHR’s efforts, you can use your fundraiser to support your own favorite agency working with refugees. (Mine is The International Rescue Committee, where I worked for five years and saw their efficiency and efficacy first hand.)

Seattle Supports Syrians

For anyone in my hometown of Seattle, the next opportunity to support Syrian refugees is tomorrow, October 22, at Mamnoon restaurant on Capitol Hill. I finally got to dine there this summer, and was dazzled by their creative take on the cuisines of Lebanon and Syria. (Massaad was a menu consultant there.) Mamnoon is hosting a casual soup tasting at their street-side window and community table, starting at 5:30pm, no reservation required.  Ethan Stowell RestaurantsTom Douglas RestaurantsThe Whale WinsHitchcockModernist CuisineTerra Plata, Blind Pig Bistro and NAKA are all contributing delicious soups. (So many of my Seattle favorites all in one place! Wish I could be there too to taste it all…) Mamnoon is asking for a “donation of $35 to enjoy these soups and feel the warmth all over.“

At the same time, Mamnoon will host a multicourse benefit dinner with beverage pairings in its dining room, for $250 per person. Each dining guest will receive a copy of Soup for Syria to take home. Chef Garrett Melkonian, in charge of Creative Culinary Development at Mamnoon, contributed his recipe for Spicy Clam Soup with Basturma.

For both of these events, 100% of the money raised will be used in support of refugees, channeled through three organizations: Mercy CorpsMedecins Sans Frontières and Karam Foundation.

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Chef Wael Lazkani dishes up a delicious Thai coconut-chicken soup in support of Syrian refugees.