Living Large on Lebanon’s Ski Slopes

It’s been a while since I last posted. But ski season is finally at its end in Lebanon, so I finally have a little more free time on the weekends…

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As you might imagine, this snow has been pretty irresistible.

When I say “ski”, “Middle East” may not be what pops to mind for you. Yet Lebanon’s ski season started mid-December this winter, and lasted a full three months. Smaller than the state of Connecticut, the country has five ski stations, one of which still had a couple of lifts open last week. Not bad.

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At the Mzaar ski station near the village of Faraya, it’s a scene like no other. Snow bunnies forgo gloves or goggles in order to show off their fake nails and lashes. The “après-ski” scene starts warming up at noon. Crowds mob the baby slopes while there’s no line at all for any other lift.

I know, it’s not sounding very much like a serious ski scene. There is, however, a small group of elite skiers, and Lebanon has sent skiers to the Olympics since 1948.

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According to the Lebanese Ski Federation, the first skier in the country was a man named Ramez Ghazzaoui. After studying in Switzerland, Ghazzaoui returned to Lebanon in 1913, determined to recreate his Alpine skiing experience on Lebanon’s snowy slopes. It didn’t much catch on. When the French arrived a decade later under the post WWI “mandate”, they brought their love of skiing. The country’s first ski school was established in the Cedars region of northern Lebanon in the 1930s.

Skiing in central Lebanon, where the Mzaar station is located, took a while longer. An hour from Beirut, the village of Faraya sits on the flanks of the Mount Lebanon range, and the peaks of what is now the Mzaar ski station are an additional twenty-minute drive up a narrow road of hairpin turns. Drawn to the beauty of the peaks and undeterred by the challenges of summiting, European visitors in the 1950s hired locals from Faraya to lug their skis to the top of the slopes.

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These holiday decorations remained in place for the entire ski season.

Mahmoud Khalil of Faraya was one of those locals. Paid to do the work without the chance to share in the thrills, Mahmoud decided that he wanted in on the fun. Chopping down a tree in his front yard, Mahmoud hewed his own pair of skis.

Mahmoud passed his passion for skiing on to his three sons: Nabil went on to represent Lebanon in the Olympics, while Tony and Louis became ski instructors. While Tony and Louis share their father’s story on their website Lebanon Slopes, the best way to get the inside scoop is by booking one of them as an instructor. I know, because that’s what I did.

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Tony Khalil, ski instructor at Mzaar

Despite growing up in Seattle, an hour from the snowy slopes of the Cascade mountain range, I had never skied before arriving to Lebanon. After years living far from any ski resorts, my husband Luca was thrilled to end his 20-year skiing hiatus. Our first winter in Lebanon, Luca organized a fortieth birthday bash for me in the mountains: a family weekend where the kids and I learned how to ski and Luca got to rekindle his old love of skiing.

After the first weekend, the kids rarely took an instructor, but as might be expected of a not-especially-athletic-40-year-old, it took me a little longer. Now finishing my fifth winter in Lebanon, I still hire an instructor occasionally (I’ll make it to the advanced slopes one day!). Tony is by far the best instructor I’ve hired. First and foremost for his skiing and teaching skills, but it’s a nice bonus that he has good stories to share during those long lift rides up the slopes.

The first lift was installed at Mzaar in 1959 or 1960 (depending on who you talk to), and Tony says that he and his brothers were “born with skis on our feet.” They learned to ski the way most of us learn to walk—as a basic expectation for getting through life. His brother Nabil went on to become a national champion, and represented Lebanon in the Olympic Games in Sarajevo in 1984.

Nabil’s accomplishment is all the more noteworthy given that it occurred while Lebanon was in the midst of Civil War, which stretched from 1975 to 1990. The airport runway was shelled as the plane carrying Nabil and other Olympians was departing. (Read this incredible article from 1984 for more details.) One of the hotels at the base of the slope was occupied by a militia.

“You see that stretch right there?” Tony said, pointing to a slope nearby as we rode the ski lift. “For the most part we could ski without problems, but in that part right there, we were visible to snipers from the other side. So we just went as fast as we could and hoped for the best.”

Unlike Beirut, where the destruction of war is still visible in buildings punctured by bullet holes, there are few vestiges of the war in Faraya and Mzaar. One exception is at the top of the eponymous Mzaar peak, at 8,087 feet (2,465m), the highest point of the ski resort. On clear days you can see the sea from the summit.

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My husband at the summit of Mzaar with the sea in the background.

Mzaar means ‘shrine’ in English, and the peak was named for a Roman temple that once sat atop the mountain. The temple had been converted into a chapel, but the structure was destroyed during the civil war. All that remains is a bell that skiers love to ring when they reach the summit.

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After five years I finally became a good enough skier to try the Mzaar slope. Okay, truth be told, they opened a back route down from Mzaar this year that is easier than the front descent.

Indeed, the Mzaar of yesteryear would scarcely be recognizable today to Mahmoud Khalil. While there were only three lifts by the end of the civil war in 1990, there are now more than 20. The four chalets that were built in 1960 have multiplied into dozens of hotels and vacation apartments.  Mzaar hosts Red Bull challenges (jump and freeze anyone?) and lingerie fashion shows (yes, seriously) on the snow. (Lebanese Olympic skier Jackie Chamoun scandalized the nation by appearing in a 2014 pre-Sochi photo shoot at Mzaar with nothing but her skis and a pair of pink panties.)

Thousands show up every weekend to join the party. So next winter, if you’re still skiing on the bunny slopes, as cute as those bunnies might be, follow my lead and hire an instructor. You’ll get away from the beginner slope mobs, and have the chance to admire views of the Mediterranean Sea from the peak of Mzaar on a clear day. If you’re lucky, you’ll get Tony, and have the chance to hear a little more about Lebanon’s unexpected skiing history.

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The Best Christmas Gifts from Beirut

Christmas in Beirut is a marvel. Holiday markets, concerts, and lights, lights, lights. I’ve written about it in the past, but every year I fall in love with it all over again.

I live in a predominantly Christian quarter of Beirut, so in my neighborhood, it’s all out. Like the clock tower and cross that was recently added to the main Maronite Catholic church downtown to outdo the neighboring mosque, there is an element of religious one-upmanship.

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Note the clock tower just behind the mosque. It looks smaller only because of the perspective – it was carefully calculated to be (at least) equal in height.

That said, Jesus is also respected as a prophet in Islam, and as in the US, you don’t have to be a Christian to enjoy the Christmas spirit. Shopping centers in Muslim quarters also get decked out, and some Muslims put up Christmas trees in their homes.

Holiday markets are held all over town, and those are always my favorite place to shop, especially for made-in-Lebanon gifts to bring to family and friends when we travel home for Christmas. (If you’re in Lebanon, search Beirut Christmas in Facebook to find those – most markets have set up event pages.) But a market isn’t always the most convenient to get to, so here is my suggested list for easy-to-find special presents that bring the spirit of Lebanon to the recipient.

And for Lebanon-lovers who aren’t in Beirut this holiday, you’re in luck because some of these items are available internationally as well.

Home décor

The dishes and tableware by Images d’Orient wash traditional Arabesque designs with modern colors. I’ve seen them in Rome and they have a branch in France, but Lebanon is where this gorgeous home décor line all began.  I use the tiny handle-less cups that are meant for Arabic coffee as tea light holders, and have brought the silicone coaster to friends outside of Lebanon many times. Their Facebook page has all their latest designs. Images d’Orient products are available in Beirut at ABC, Artisan du Liban, BHV and in small quantities at the airport.lebanon-home-decor

Scene Beirut has these fantastic pillows with “Beirut” written in stylized pillows. I bought
my own pillow at a Christmas market, but was delighted to scpl1014find out that they will deliver to your home in Beirut on purchases of $40 or more, so no need to fight the snarled-up Christmas traffic. And, they have many more items on their website – laptop sleeves, iPhone cases, purses, mugs and more.

Haute Couture

I’m not normally a fashionista. When I lived in Honduras, t-shirts and flip-flops were my “uniform”, but I felt like I had to step up my game when I moved to fashion-conscious Lebanon. (My concession? Sandals with  bling. Sparkle goes a long way toward dressing up an outfit.)

However, through my writing I’ve had the chance to interview some amazing designers in Lebanon, and if I were going to splurge on fashion, their special pieces that showcase Lebanon are the ones I’d love to own, and I think would make great gifts as well.

Purses: Sarah’s Bags

sarahsbagarabesqueAfter visiting a local women’s prison in Lebanon as a sociology student, Sarah Beydoun decided to return with a way to help the incarcerated women make a living. Her instantly-recognizable purses now provide a living to some “50 female prisoners and 150 underprivileged women in Lebanon who bead, crochet, sequin and embroider around 300 pieces per month,” as I noted in my article for Matador Network. She was named a 2016 Honouree of the Oslo Business for Peace Award in recognition of the social impact of her work. Her website lists the stores in Beirut and around the globe (as well as the online outlets) where the bags are sold.

Inspiration for the bag designs range from pop culture to Arabesque designs, and the purses in the Oriental collection are my favorites.

Jewelry: Ralph Masri

One of Lebanon’s hottest designers, Masri nominated for a UK Jewelry at the age of 20, nominated for the 2016 Dubai Design and Fashion Council/Vogue Faralph-masris-jewelry-phoenicianshion Prize this past August, and a participant in New York’s Fashion Week in September. His latest collection, Phoenician Script, is inspired by the world’s oldest verified alphabet, found in the ruins of Lebanon. The Phoenician alphabet dates back three millennia, and has been registered by UNESCO as a heritage of Lebanon. Masri has reinterpreted the bold strokes of these ancient letters into utterly wearable jewelry.

In Beirut, you can stop by Masri’s Mar Mikael outlet or check out the special collection he designed for the Sursock Museum at their gift shop. Masri all sells his jewelry in the UK, US, UAE and Kuwait.

Clothing: Salim Azzam

A lot of great fashion comes out of Lebanon (Elie Saab and Zuhair Murad being the two most famous examples), but the one who stole my heart was emerging designer and 2016 STARCH Foundation fellow Azzam, who immortalized the stories and sights of his home village of Bater on his collection of crisp blouses and dresses. Azzam translates the stories into vibrant images, then hires local village women to embroider the designs onto his clothing—preserving both local history and a heritage craft by evolving it into modern fashion.

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Starch Foundation Fashion Show, Ready To Wear Fall Winter 2016 Collection in Fashion Forward Dubai

Tasteful Treats

The Fair Trade products by Terroir du Liban include jars of heritage foods such as sumac (a citrusy-powder of crushed dried berries) and rose petal jam to bottles of dscn0082surprisingly good wines. They have a shop in Hazmieh that stocks their entire line of products, but you can also find them in Beirut at Carrefour, Bou Khalil and Charcuterie Aoun supermarkets.

One of the most unusual wines you can bring your oenophile friends back home comes from Bargylus, Syria’s only winery. The vineyars are owned by the Lebanese-Syrian Saadé family who have vineyards on both sides of the border. Grape samples are put on ice and brought by taxi to the Saadé family offices in Beirut for them to taste and decide when to harvest. I shared more of their story in a piece I wrote for Vice MUNCHIES, and highly recommend their Lebanese Marsyas and B-Qa labels as well.

My two food recommendations can both be picked up at the airport. One is baklava from Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, a Tripoli institution which has been selling Lebanese sweets since 1881. At the airport they have souvenir gift tins in which to pack the honey-laden sweets, and they vacuum-pack the baklava which keeps it fresh.

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The other suggestion is Al Rifai’s new trays of chocolate bark. I can’t find a picture of it online, but I had the chance to taste it at Beirut’s Salon du Chocolat. It was delicious, and they promised me that it was available at the airport.

For Cooks

While we’re on the subject of food, here are a couple of gift suggestions for folks who love cooking as much as they love eating.

I always recommend Soup for Syria, which is a cookbook, coffee table book and charitable contribution all rolled up into one. Cookbook author and photographer Barbara Abdeni Massaad collected more than 70 soup recipes from home cooks to food stars (Alice Waters, Anthony Bourdain and Yotam Ottolenghi are among the contributors), and created a cookbook whose entire proceeds go to support Syrian refugees. Recipes are accompanied by Massaad’s gorgeous pictures not only of the soups, but also of some of the Syrians that the book benefits. For more details about this amazing project, check out the story I wrote about Massaad for Middle East Eye. In Beirut Soup for Syria is available at Antoine and Virgin, but if you want to avoid packing a heavy book in your suitcase, there are locally-published versions available in the US, UK, Italy and the Netherlands (versions will hit shelves in Germany and Turkey come spring).

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For a real taste of Lebanon, try Lebanese Home Cooking: Simple, Delicious, Mostly Vegetarian Recipes from the Founder of Beirut’s Souk El Tayeb Market. The cookbook is chock-full of traditional recipes such as tabbouleh, kibbe and lentils, as well as home-style specialties such as stews. In addition to founding Beirut’s biggest farmer’s market, Kamal Mouzawak helped launched the Tawlet restaurants which serve food prepared by village women, the Beit mini-chain of guest houses committed to traditional cultural heritage, and a handful of catering organizations run by marginalized women, including Syrian and Palestinian refugees.

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For Bookworms

Let me take the short-cut here and point you to my posts on recommended reading for Beirut here and here. To these lists I’ll add two more from my current “to-read” list:

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The Penguin’s Song by Hassan Daoud, a novel about a physically deformed young man’s life on the margins during the Lebanese Civil War, earned accolades for its original Arabic version, and was finally translated into English in 2014.

Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War by Robert Fisk. First published in 1990 and last updated in 2001, this tome remains one of the classic accounts of the Lebanese Civil War.

The holidays are filled with enough stresses as it is. I hope this gift list can alleviate  the stress of shopping. And maybe you’ll want to pick a little something out for yourself as well.

Presidential Elections (no, not in the US!… here in Lebanon)

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Lebanese Flag. Image by Nicolas Raymond

Today, after two years and a half years without a head of government, Lebanon finally elected a president.

All schools and universities were closed for the day. I had a doctor’s appointment at noon – the clinic called this morning to tell me it was better I stayed home. My husband, whose office is a stone’s throw from the Lebanese Parliament building. worked from home. In Lebanon it is the parliament which elects the president. The parliament itself hasn’t seen elections since 2009. Elections were controversially postponed since June 2103, during which time parliamentarians voted to extend their own mandate until 2017.

Today was the 45th time since May 2014 (when the former president’s mandate expired), that the parliament had met to vote on a president. But it was the first time that there was any expectation of someone getting elected.

Lebanese politics are notoriously complicated. Political affiliation is tied up with religion, in a system called “confessional democracy.” Parliament seats are allocated half to Christians and half to Muslim, making the Christians somewhat overrepresented (there hasn’t been a census since 1932, but Muslims are now estimated to be about two thirds of Lebanon’s population). To divide the pie of power, the Speaker of the Parliament is Shia, the Prime Minister is Sunni, and the President is always Christian Maronite.

There are simplistic summaries of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) that incorrectly describe it as Christian versus Muslim. It was far more complex than that, a grueling and vicious war during which every party allied with and fought against every other party at some point.  If we are going to simplify, let’s say instead that the war was about power and control, with the multiple militias backed by foreign powers.

Although it took nearly twenty years, it eventually became clear that there would be no winners in Lebanon’s Civil War. (If you’ve ever wondered why Lebanon has been so diligent about not getting sucked into the war in neighboring Syria, that is one clue.) The power-sharing agreement was revisited, dialing down the powers of the president and the number of parliamentary seats allocated to Christians, and peace was agreed upon. Warlords became politicians.

The end of the war didn’t signal the end of shifting alliances. I once tried to make a chart of political parties and alliances to post on this blog, but it became such a cobwebbed mess of crossed lines that I gave up.

In recent months, previously sworn enemies (and civil war opponents) have created alliances that finally opened up a path for Michel Aoun to become president. Aoun was a general in the Lebanese Army during the Lebanese Civil war, who also had ties to other Christian militias. And was backed at a certain point by Saddam Hussein.

The parliamentarian vote was televised and we watched the first round of voting. I was surprised to see that it was a pen and paper ballot, rather than electronic. The name of each parliamentarian was called aloud, and a glass box brought in front of each parliamentarian for him (or her – but there are only 4 women of 127 parliamentarians) to drop his vote into.

Aoun needed 85 votes to win in the first round. He got 82. All but two of the other votes were blank. Voting moved to a second round, in which Aoun only needed a simple majority, or 65 votes.

It was then that mayhem ensued. Once ballots were collected and counted, it was discovered that there was one more ballot than voters. Invalid. Start over.

Round three, same thing.

The crowd got rowdy. Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri quipped, “We haven’t voted in a long time. We’re learning again.”

It was decided that rather than the glass box coming being brought to each parliamentarian’s seat, he (or she) would have to get up and deposit his or her vote into the glass box now at the front of the parliament, where everyone could see.

Finally, 127 ballots for 127 voters.

I hope that next time they consider using the electronic voting system that they apparently have but chose not to use.

While there were again many blank votes (and even one for Zorba the Great), Michel Aoun soon managed to collect the requisite 65 votes.

I was relieved, because we’d been waiting for the voting to finish before going out to lunch, and it had taken over two hours instead of the originally anticipated half an hour. I was starving. But no more had the votes been counted, then a ruckus erupted.

I live in Ashrafieh, the heartland of Christian Beirut, and the celebratory fireworks were deafening. In Beirut, fireworks are often accompanied by celebratory shooting. Sure, they shoot into the sky, but since what goes up must come down, setting foot outside suddenly seemed like a bad idea.

We spent the rest of the afternoon at home. Fireworks soon gave way to celebratory honking. When we ate dinner at 8 at night, we had to shut the dining room windows to cut down on the noise.

As I was writing this, I thought things had finally calmed down, but now it’s nearly midnight, and I hear a new round of fireworks going off.

 

For a visual chronology of the Lebanese Civil War, check out this site.

For a straightforward explanation of Lebanese government and politics, check out Living Lebanon (be sure to click through on the sidebar links too).

And for anyone who wants to know more, I suggest reading Pity the Nation by Robert Fisk.

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.

 

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.

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.