Bye Bye Beirut

Azar Nafisi - Leaving

Yes, it’s time.

That’s how my husband’s job with the United Nations works—three, four or five years in a place, then it’s time to set our sights on a new adventure. We are headed to take another bite out of that beautiful Big Apple, New York.

Westchester County to be more precise. Because life in New York with two kids in tow just isn’t the same as it was when my husband and I were footloose and fancy-free (and could fit into a one-bedroom apartment).

These last days are frenetic, selling 220V appliances, sorting out clothes and household goods to donate to Syrian refugees, seeing every doctor one last time (three filling replacements last week, a check-up was today, kids’ pediatricians later this week). Thankfully the mundane trials of moving have been punctuated by great gatherings with friends – several farewell meals, plus:

The beach

A little of Beirut’s famous nightlife

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The famous BO-18 in Beirut, an underground club with a retractable roof.

A vineyard picnic

The kids have been asking questions about what daily life will be like. What will be different, what will be the same? Will there be consistent 24-hour electricity? Potable tap water? Yes and yes. (Yaaay!) But the days of a full-time cleaner/cook are over, and everyone is going to have to pitch in with chores. (Booooo!)

Many friends have commented that I must be happy to be going “home.” But home for me is Seattle,  and it’s a five-hour flight away from New York. We’ll also be doubling the time it takes to get to the in-laws in Italy, so overall, that one is a bit of a toss-up.

And yes, I’m a little apprehensive about returning to an America that seems increasingly divided and increasingly dangerous. (Does that sound strange coming from someone living in Beirut? Petty crime rates are low here, and school shootings are unheard of. See this earlier post and this one for more about safety in Beirut.) But the challenges facing the U.S. today are also a motivation for me. After thirteen years of being a bystander, I look forward to being able to speak up, to engage, to exercise my civic duty. No single person can change the world, but if we each do our part…. This will be a chance to do mine.

Even if it’s Westchester, and even if the weather is pretty sucky compared to the places I’ve been living in recent years (sunny Lebanon, tropical Honduras, mild Ecuador…), I’m sure I am going to have a great time in New York—because it’s still NEW YORK BABY!

But right now, as I wind things down in Lebanon, it’s hard to get excited about NYC. Yes, Beirut has terrible traffic and an ongoing garbage crisis and a refugee crisis and learning the language has been about as easy as climbing Mt Everest. But the way I feel about the place reminds me of the way I feel about childbirth. In the end, the hard parts fade while the good things remain bright.

And good things abound:

Extraordinary hospitality (which is usually accompanied by an abundance of delicious food).

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Everything from wineries to skiing to ancient ruins just a short drive away.

Of course, the beaches

And the most important—the dear friends I have made.

Thank you Lebanon. I’ve loved living here.

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.

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.

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

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!

A New Normal

This week our family celebrated our second anniversary of life in Lebanon. We returned to the waterfront restaurant La Plage, the same restaurant we ate the very night we arrived to Beirut.

In French (which many Lebanese speak), the word anniversaire means both anniversary and birthday. Either occasion can nudge us to stop and take stock, and this week’s anniversary was no exception for me.

Some things haven’t changed.

Families stroll the Corniche (waterfront walkway) day and night, enjoying the fresh sea air.

The weather and the food are always wonderful.

Local politics continue to baffle me.

Other things are different. Two years in, and I’m far from conversational in Arabic, which is not what I was anticipating when I arrived. (This list made me realize (1) I’m not alone – see #36; and (2) not understanding the Bedouin desert guide in Jordan wasn’t a reflection on my Arabic skills – see #17). But, this time when the waiter at La Plage asked, in Arabic, if we wanted our wine by the glass or the bottle, we understood. And could even answer. None of us are conversational yet, but we’re getting the important stuff down.

I have some new favorite foods. Many of the dishes that we ordered on that first visit to La Plage have become our favorites of Lebanese cuisine: eggplant raheb, cheese rolls, fried fish. (The French fries were the kids’ pick, and hardly a new favorite.) I now refuse to go a week without a good fattoush (green salad with fresh thyme, mint, sumac and toasted pita chips).

When we arrived to Lebanon, there were almost no beggars and few street vendors. Two years later, with more than a million refugees from Syria, there are some neighborhoods where women sell packs of tissue paper at every stoplight and boys hound to shine your shoes on every block. Tens of thousands of refugees in Beirut alone, just a small fraction of them visible on street corners to remind us of their difficult plight. Hundreds of thousands more hidden away in villages and informal settlements across the country, struggling to survive.

Security has changed too. Concrete barriers have been placed around town to discourage parking and therefore the possibility of car bombs. No bombs in recent months, but many of the barriers are becoming permanent nevertheless, like these exceptionally tall ones that were recently painted with the Lebanese flag.

Perhaps the rise of the concrete barriers is due in part to the discrediting of the bomb detector “wands” that security guards use at the entrances of mall and grocery store parking around the city. At my last visit to City Centre shopping mall in Beirut, I found that they had abandoned the wand in favor of an explosives detector similar to the kind I have seen at airports – the guard first swiped my car door with what looked like a small piece of paper, then put the paper into a handheld reader that can apparently register explosives. So City Centre, at least, is taking its precautions more seriously. On the other hand, the grocery store near my house has simply given up altogether, and gone back to allowing cars into its garage without any kind of check. Somehow both scenarios seem perfectly normal to me now.

I had coffee with three Lebanese friends yesterday. When the waiter came to our table, two ordered in Arabic, one in a mix of Arabic and French (we were in the Francophile coffee shop Paul, after all), and I ordered in English. The waiter didn’t bat an eye, but easily switched between languages as he spoke with each of us. Trilingual waiters and conversations don’t surprise me anymore either.

When we left Honduras two years ago, I found it hard to let go of what I knew before, and to see things here in Lebanon for what they are, rather than constantly comparing and evaluating things for what they are not. But I think I can finally say that I’ve adjusted here, and for better or for worse, the fattoush and fried fish, the refugees and the car bombs, the sunshine and the sea air all come together to make up my new normal. Beirut is like a family member now and I love her, warts and all.

Lost in Translation

You say potato, I say po-TAH-to.

You say “Jew mallow”, I say “excuse me?”

The other day I saw a box of dried leaves labeled “Jew mallow” in the supermarket, and was baffled. What on earth was a mallow, and what made it Jewish? They looked like oversized tea leaves, in a box big enough to make about a thousand cups of tea. Curious.

fresh “Jew’s Mallow” (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

Then last week I saw orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in the supermarket, a special import for Thanksgiving (local sweet potatoes have white flesh and are less flavorful). These were labeled “SWEET POTATOES JEW.”

This in Lebanon, a country that is not even on speaking terms with its Jewish neighbor to the south. What gives? Are mallow and yams some kind of Jewish specialty?

When in doubt, Google to the rescue. According to The Free Dictionary, Jew’s mallow is “an annual herb (Corchorus olitorius) cultivated in Syria and Egypt as a pot herb, and in India for its fiber.” Some say that the name “Jew’s mallow” comes from the term “jute mallow,” while others assert that the name for its role as a food staple in ancient Jewish cuisine. It’s a cousin of the plant that used to be an ingredient of marshmallow. It’s also a bit like spinach, and is sometimes also called Egyptian spinach.

Here in Lebanon, Jew mallow is normally called by its Arabic name, mouloukhieh. It is used in a dish of the same name, together with rice, and chicken or meat. I have yet to try it, because mouloukhieh is one of myriad Lebanese specialties that seems to be only be made at home (restaurants generally stick to a repertoire of mezze and grilled meats).

I found a recipe online for the dish. Maybe I’ll try it one day. But I might have the chance a lot sooner if you know of a restaurant in Beirut that serves it….

Lebanese “mouloukhiya” (photo courtesy Wikipedia)

I couldn’t, however, find a mention online of “Jew potatoes” (although I did come up with lots of recipes for latkes using sweet potatoes). I was stumped.

I returned to my grocery store yesterday, looking for those orange-fleshed sweet potatoes to make for Thanksgiving. Panic set in when I realized that the small supply had been wiped out. I resigned myself to a sweet potato quest through the supermarkets of Beirut, and headed to the counter where a young woman weighs and prices your bags of produce.

Next to her scale was a Styrofoam tray of five sweet potatoes wrapped in plastic wrap. I quickly poked through to check if the potato was white or orange inside. Orange! The remaining stock of “Jew potatoes.” We would have my famous Bourbon Yams this Thanksgiving after all.

When the young lady printed my price sticker, I noticed it said “SWEET POTATO JEWELLED.” Wait a minute. So the sign the week before shouldn’t have said “sweet potato Jew,” but “Jewel sweet potato”? (America’s leading sweet potato variety, as I read online.)

Mystery solved.

Hiking in Lebanon – Horsh Ehden

Last week Lebanon celebrated Eid-al-Adha, which (according to Wikipedia) honors the willingness of the prophet Ibrahim (Abraham) to sacrifice his young son as an act of submission to God’s command and his son’s acceptance to being sacrificed, before God intervened to provide Abraham with a lamb to sacrifice instead. It’s one of the most important Muslim holidays of the year. My husband only had one day off from work, but my kids had four (!) off from school, so I was determined to make the most of it.

(Wikipedia also revealed that Eid-al-Adha lasts four days – I guess that’s why the school break stretched out so long.)

Anyway, the official day off for Eid was last Tuesday, so I convinced my husband to leave work early on Monday, and we packed the kids into the car and drove north to the town of Ehden. It’s only about 90 minutes away, but when you live in a postage-stamp country, 90 minutes seems farther than one can manage in a day trip, so we had decided to stay the night.

We turned east off the highway just a few miles before Tripoli – a city we have yet to visit because of the on and off fighting that takes place there as a spillover from the war in Syria. We could see Tripoli from the highway as we drove up into the mountains. From a distance it looked calm and lovely.

We reached Ehden, which could pass for a mountain town in Italy or Croatia – narrow winding streets, little businesses around a main plaza, a chapel reputed to be the oldest Maronite church in Lebanon

St. Mama Chapel, dating from 749 A.D.

There are an inordinate number of hotels for such a tiny town, reflecting its popularity as a summer destination to escape from the heat. It was “only” in the 80s when we left Beirut, but escape from the heat we did – it was downright cold when we reached Ehden, and we were all happy to have taken sweaters along at the last minute.

The hotel seemed outrageously overpriced by American/European standards, but it’s par for the course in Lebanon (apparently dramatically declining numbers of wealthy Gulf tourists over the past year and a half don’t lead hoteliers to lower prices by much). It was charming though, a traditional Lebanese home renovated into a boutique hotel right on the square. (The location wasn’t so fun at 3am when the last of the Eid revelers were shouting to one another across the square, but it was nice when we went for a walk in the evening.)

Because it was now off-season, the hotel’s restaurant was closed. The lovely staff instead walked us over to a tiny, two-table hole-in-the-wall called Abou Simon’s. Abou Simon (Simon’s Father) is a single older guy (widower? divorcée? it seemed impertinent to ask) who makes his own pickles and jams, and barbecues up any number of kebabs over coals lit outside the shop, without ever removing his plaid tweed blazer. We were all slightly strained as the hotel staff dropped us off, because his English was as limited as our French. Then we discovered that he had lived for more than a decade in Venezuela. With relief we all switched to Spanish, and by the end of the meal (comprised of vegetables, cheeses, skewers of chicken, mutton and meatballs, all ultra-fresh and ultra-delicious), we were fast friends.

The next day we headed to Horsh Ehden, a nature reserve, for a hike. Being that we were in the mountains, the first hour or so was tortuously uphill (if you’re thinking about going and won’t be hiking with a reluctant eight-year-old, note that the first part takes half the time to hike). Our efforts were rewarded with beautiful scenery of deciduous trees that had turned golden with the season, with a forest of Lebanon’s famed cedars as the backdrop.


After all that hiking we were famished, but wanted to start towards home. We descended from the mountains to the sea, and got as far as the seaside town of Batroun. At first I wished that I’d packed my kids’ swim suits, but I shouldn’t have worried. My daughter wasn’t about to let anything stop her, and after eating decided to take a dip in the sea just as she was, sneakers and all. Sweaters in the evening, and swimmers the next day. A glorious day.