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.
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.
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.
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 find 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.
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
After 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 Fashion 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.
Starch Foundation Fashion Show, Ready To Wear Fall Winter 2016 Collection in Fashion Forward Dubai
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 surprisingly 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.
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.
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).
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.
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:
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.