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.

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!

Is It Safe to Travel to Beirut?

This question has been popping up on my radar recently. Some friends cancelled a plan to visit because of concerns over safety. A US-based reader of my blog contacted me to ask me if I found it safe. On the Facebook page of a fellow expat in Lebanon, I saw the same question posed by one of his friends. Every time I’m back in Seattle, it’s the first question my mother’s friends ask, clucking over me and my family with worry.

Here’s my short answer:

If my posts are still coming from Beirut, I still feel safe here.

The seaside restaurant we ate at our first evening in Beirut. We dined here again last night, to commemorate our arrival to Lebanon.

Yesterday my family celebrated three years of life in Beirut (!!!). To date, the situation felt really dicey only once so far in those three years, back in the fall of 2013, when Obama was threatening Syria with air strikes (everyone was worried what the spillover into Lebanon would be).

The rest of the time, life is surprisingly normal, almost mundane. We go to restaurants and the movies, take hikes in the mountains and swim on the shore. The kids go to school and gymnastics classes, I write, hubby heads to the office. For the most part, incidents that make headlines happen far from central Beirut, where we live.

A friend of mine recently post to Facebook a video of people dancing in the street at a festival in the hipster neighborhood of Mar Mikhael. This was how my friend answered the question:

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While some cities and countries are safer than others (of course!), there is hardly anywhere that is perfectly safe all the time. We’ve seen mass shootings everywhere from a movie theater in Colorado to a youth camp in Norway, terrorist attacks in cities from Mumbai to Nairobi to New York, and “regular” violent crime, well, nearly everywhere.

Beirut’s violence is infrequent, but when it occurs, it is headline-grabbing spectacular. Like airline accidents, a car bomb is incredibly unlikely to occur, but the dramatic and heartbreaking results leave their imprint on us and, as terrorists hope, instill fear.

So is it safe to travel to Beirut?

Here is how the American who found my blog expressed her fears:

“My concern is primarily risks that I would face because I’m American. The crazy stories of kidnappings are the biggest fear factor, though I know those kinds of things are rare, especially in Lebanon.”

And my answer:

“While there are never any guarantees, Beirut is really totally fine, as is much of the country.

Kidnapping of foreigners is not an issue in Lebanon. So don’t stress about that. Not even pickpocketing is an issue. The worst case scenario is to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. But things are calm enough now that even that is not a reason that I feel is worth getting dissuaded over.

There’s plenty to see in Beirut – the downtown area has a couple of nice mosques, the Robert Mouawad museum and the National Museum are interesting, and you can’t miss a night on the town in Mar Mikhael, the current hipster center of Beirut. Rooftop bars are opening soon too, and those are world-famous. Byblos is a must-see, and not far from Tripoli. As I mentioned, your colleagues would be best suited to tell you how safe Tripoli is. They know their own city well, and would be able to ensure to keep you out of the sketchy neighborhoods. If there is any kind of flare-up in Tripoli, an alternative could be to meet them in Byblos, which is only a 20 minute drive away, but VERY safe at all times.

If you have a day to spare, you may want to consider visiting the Roman ruins of Baalbek. They are absolutely amazing, but a 3-hour drive away. If you’re on your own, you can book a day trip through an agency like Nakhal or Kurban travel.

And if you’re traveling in the next few months, pack a swimsuit, because it’s beach weather here now!”

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Staff prepare a waterfront cocktail bar for the evening guests.

So if you’re thinking about visiting Beirut, here’s my advice: leave your fears behind, and come!

We’ll be here, soldiering on. 😉

Note: No matter where in the globe you find yourself, it pays to seek out and heed local advice on safety questions such as where to go and where to avoid, how late at night to stay out, and how well you need to hide valuables when out and about.

Biking in Beirut

Over a recent coffee with two Lebanese friends, I discovered that neither of their daughters, ages 8 and 9, know how to ride a bike.

It seemed surprising, until you think about the lack of public spaces in this concrete jungle. Narrow sidewalks are overtaken by parked cars when they aren’t full of people, and streets are equally narrow and clogged with traffic. There isn’t much place to take a bike ride in Beirut.

The exception is the waterfront. At the famed Corniche, bikes are best ridden at off-peak times, when you don’t risk running down any of the hundreds of men, women and children that love to take a morning/afternoon/evening stroll along the boardwalk that lines the seafront. A better choice for an easy bike ride in Beirut is at the bland but uncrowded waterfront at BIEL. The company Beirut by Bike noticed that too, and have set up shop with hundreds of bikes for rent.

But what about those girls who haven’t learned how to ride a bike? Do they have to miss out on the fun?

Cleverly, Beirut by Bike’s stock of rentals isn’t limited to two-wheelers. Tricycles are as popular with adults as they are with kids, and BbB stocks the trikes in a variety of sizes.

While there a couple of other bike rental shops around town, BbB is single-handedly managing to change the conception of biking in Beirut. They sponsor night bikes on Friday evenings. Hosted a 13km bike-a-thon on October 5 with 1,650 participants. This Saturday (the 18th), BbB is the sponsor of a fundraiser for the National Organization for Organ & Tissue Donation & Transplantation (NOD), where L.L. 10,000 (US$7) gets you a bike & helmet rental, plus water and a t-shirt from NOD, with all proceeds going to the charity. Sunday (the 19th) BbB will be back on the roads, this time in Dbayeh, co-sponsoring with the sporting goods store Decathlon a fun ride with professional cyclists. They even offer free lessons to teach you how to ride a bike (by appointment and weekdays only). Beirut by Bike is doing an admirable job of making biking a sport accessible to all.

Other noteworthy efforts include the company Outdoor Generation, which offers cycling classes and tours for children and adults; a feasibility study by the Beirut municipality to develop a bike route through the city, and another study for a bike route along the northern coastal road; Deghri, the Arab world’s first bicycle courier service; and Cycling Circle, a club that organizes events such as the upcoming costumed Halloween ride on October 31st (event details available here).

The Lebanese are a determined bunch. Despite pollution, traffic, and general lawlessness on the roads, they are managing to develop a vibrant biking culture. I’m impressed.

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.

Where a Wanderer Calls Home

Our family just came back from a spring break vacation in Jordan. Floating in the Dead Sea, wandering the ruins of Petra (remember the temple in Indiana Jones and the Last Cruisade?), and a night in the desert at a Bedouin camp were the highlights of our trip.

visitors bob in the Dead Sea, buoyed by the water’s high salinity

our Bedouin guide, in the Wadi Rum desert

Petra, an ancient Nabatean tomb

Whenever we got asked where we are from, my 11-year-old son would pipe up “Lebanon.”

It is a much easier answer, of course, than “My mom is from Seattle, my dad is from Rome, I was born in New York and my sister in Ecuador.” (Not to mention that although the kids haven’t spent longer than a vacation in either the US or Italy, they are citizens of both.)

But given our mediocre Arabic skills, the Jordanians were never quite convinced by “I’m from Lebanon.”

When my son was a toddler and my husband and I were embarking on this itinerant lifestyle, a colleague gave us some sage advice. “You will always feel that Italy and the US are ‘home,’ but your kids won’t feel that way. For them, wherever you are will be home. So make it home for them. Settle in. Ship the important things from place to place. Don’t always talk about your home country as if it is home for the kids as well. Let your country of residence be home.”

I realized that my son’s response showed just how settled in he feels in Lebanon. At home.

And I thought about the desert Bedouins, making their home in a tent under the stars, moving it as needed to keep their goats or sheep near food and water. Our children are like the Bedouins – with souls prepared to wander and travel, but making each stop home.

Near the end of the trip a Lebanese friend sent me a Facebook message: “I wish you a safe journey home. (Lebanon, I hope you call Lebanon home.)”

It’s clear my son does. And I realized that I do too.

Jordan was an amazing trip. But returning to Lebanon, it felt good to come home.

Beirut Essential Reading (Part I)

When my husband first proposed Lebanon as a possible destination for our family, I embarrassed myself by momentarily confusing it with Libya. (Cringe.) A little internet research cleared up that confusion, and also let me know that Lebanon is also not the tragic and war-torn place that it had been during its 15-year civil war. (It’s been nearly a quarter-century since that ended – and for now the Lebanese people are holding out against the forces trying to destabilize the country once again.)

Once we made the decision to move here, I upgraded my reading from internet to books, to familiarize myself with the region, its history and culture. I’ve kept on reading about Beirut and the region in the 20-odd months I’ve been here, in everything from children’s books to graphic novels, light fiction to academic treatises. Most helped me better understand the region, its culture and its history, and a few were real gems. (Look for those marked with an asterisk below.*) If you have a suggestion to add or a comment on any of the books, please add your voice, I’d love to hear your opinion!

Today’s list focuses on culture, memoirs, and other non-fiction; my next post will include books for children, literary fiction and guidebooks. Peruse, and you’ll surely find a book or two to pique your own interest — residency in the Middle East not required.

Culture

* One Thousand and One Nights: A Retelling by Hanan Al-Shaykh (2013)

A ribald retelling of what is perhaps the Arab world’s most famed piece of fiction, the centuries-old One Thousand and One Nights. In order to keep herself and the women of the kingdom alive, Shahrazad tells the king a new story each evening. Some tales date as far back as 850 AD, and Arabian, Persian and Indian tales were added over the centuries. Al-Shaykh has selected 19 of them. Modern language makes them accessible and entertaining, but Al-Shaykh did not edit out the eroticism, so this classic is adults-only. (Here is a version that for the most part looks more family-friendly, and also contains more stories.)

* The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran (2010)

Kahlil Gibran is Lebanon’s most famous writer, and The Prophet is his masterpiece, with some 100 million copies sold since its original publication in 1923. A compilation of poetic essays, The Prophet recounts the advice of the prophet, Almustafa to the people of the city of Orphalese as he is about to depart for home. He holds forth on topics such from love to laws, passion to pain. While some of Almustafa’s recommendations felt ordinary or even trite, others are inspiring and given its premiere place in Lebanese literature, it should not be missed. This version in particular is worth seeking out, as it is accompanied by beautiful Persian artwork. (Published by Arcturus and available on Amazon and in the Antoine chain of bookstores in Beirut. Note, while his name is usually spelled “Khalil“, this edition puts the “h” after the “a,” and so I have done so here.)


The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generational Odyssey by Fouad Ajami (1999)

Fouad Ajami is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins University, and is widely regarded within Lebanon as one of the region’s foremost scholars. The book is an “amalgamation of literary criticism, history and political commentary” that starts with a recounting of the life of Lebanese poet and Arab nationalist Khalil Hawi. It then moves on to discuss Khomeini’s revolution, modern Egypt and more, but I have to admit that I abandoned the book after the second chapter, when the focus on Lebanon ended. Not a light read, but a good fit for those interested in Middle Eastern studies.

Graphic novel

*Bye Bye Babylon: Beirut 1975-1979 by Lamia Ziadé (2011)

Well-executed graphic novel about the early years of Lebanon’s civil war, told through images from the author’s own childhood memories. Pictures are both simple and vivid, making it a great and easy-to-grasp introduction to the complexities of Lebanon’s civil war. This is a fantastic book.

Memoir

Beirut I Love You by Zena El Khalil (2008)

After growing up in Lagos and New York, El Khalil moved back to Lebanon post 9/11, and was in Beirut at the time of the 31-day war with Israel in 2006. Anecdotes such as her friend Maya trying to escape the city for a day at the beach in the midst of the war, each time turned back at a military or militia check-point, highlight the struggle to lead a “normal” life in a decidedly abnormal situation. Her writing felt tinged by self-pity, but given that she was writing about living through a bombardment, it’s hard to blame her for that.


War Diary: Lebanon 2006 by Rami Zurayk (2011)

This slim book is the diary of a Lebanese university professor from the 33-day war in 2006 (known both as the Israel-Lebanon war, and as the Israel-Hezbollah war). According to his diary, Zurayk is “a veteran activist from the Lebanese left,” and not affiliated with a particular religion or political party. Among the elements of the book, Zurayk writes about how he came to support Hezbollah. Life during either this war or the civil war is not something that is easy to bring up and chat about over a cup of coffee with Lebanese friends, and I found it helpful for understanding a perspective that I might not otherwise have a chance to hear about first-hand.


Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut by Salma Abdelnour (2012)

A light read about a Lebanese-American woman’s return to Beirut. As a food and travel writer, Abdelnour is adept at bringing the sights and sounds and smells of the streets of Beirut to life. She struggles to find her place amongst expats and Lebanese, and to start a life in a new place. Although I found it a bit hard to sympathize with her struggles (you speak the language! you already have an apartment in Beirut before you arrive! you have aunts and cousins and childhood friends here!), I enjoyed seeing Beirut through her eyes, and those about to embark on a life as an expat might find some insight about what to expect.

Non-fiction


From Beirut to Jerusalem by Thomas Friedman (1989)

It’s impossible to understand Lebanon today without understanding its past. This engagingly-written account of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, by renowned correspondent Thomas Friedman, is one popular place to start. It was one of the first books I picked up on Lebanon, and by reading it I came to understand that the civil war was not a simple Christian versus Muslim divide as I had thought, but that one of shifting, complex, and unpredictable alliances between multiple sects and factions.

That said, I have Lebanese friends who urged me to read Lebanese writers on Lebanon, feeling that the Lebanese, well, understood themselves better. (See this article on Al Jazeera written on the occasion of the 2010 re-release of Friedman’s book, which echoes some of the criticisms.) They suggested renowned Lebanese scholar Fouad Ajami (see Culture, above), but it wasn’t the comprehensive modern history I was seeking. Other friends cut some slack for Robert Fisk, author of Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon (2002), as “the only Westerner who understands Lebanon.” That book is now on my shelf, but first I want to read my husband’s new book by Lebanese author Samir Kassir…


Beirut by Samir Kassir (2010)

Much more than modern history, Beirut tells the story of this city from its ancient roots to modern day (or at least up until 2005 when the book’s author was assassinated).  Kassir was a professor of history at Beirut’s Saint-Joseph University, a journalist, and a vocal critic of the Syrian presence in Lebanon. He was killed by a car bomb on June 2, 2005, shortly after the Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon. My husband is reading this right now and says the writing is beautiful; I’m looking forward to picking it up when he has finished.


Hezbollah: The Global Footprint of Lebanon’s Party of God Hardcover by Matthew Levitt (2013)

I think it’s going to become uncomfortably obvious that I prefer the personalized perspective of memoirs over other types of non-fiction, because this is yet another book on my shelf that I want to read, but haven’t actually cracked open yet. (Well, it’s on my Kindle, so the shelf is figurative, but you get what I mean.)

Living in Honduras (one of the pit stops on the drug route from South to North America) I became aware of how groups in distant countries have their tentacles into the drug trade, and was intrigued by the book’s description as the “first thorough examination of Hezbollah’s covert activities beyond Lebanon’s borders, including its financial and logistical support networks and its criminal and terrorist operations worldwide.” There are often allegations against Hezbollah for money laundering and drug trafficking networks that stretch to South America, and I’m curious to see what Levitt might have to say on the matter. I’ll get back to you when I’ve read it.

It’s a rainy day in Beirut today. Just the right kind of day for curling up on the couch with a good book.