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.

Baalbek, Ksara, Anjar: Lebanon’s Top Tourist Circuit

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Baalbek: once an epicenter of Roman religious life, a temple complex dating back two millennia, boasting the world’s best-preserved Roman temple.

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Ksara: a 159-year-old winery and Lebanon’s largest, producing some 2 million bottles per year.

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Anjar: a sprawling 8th century complex of ruins from the Umayyad caliphate, the first but most short-lived of the Arab dynasties.

Each a remarkable place to visit. None of which I had heard of before living in Lebanon. I was in Beirut two years before visiting Baalbek and Ksara. And it wasn’t until recently that I returned, and visited Anjar as well.

Baalbek/Ksara/Anjar is a standard day trip sold by travel agencies in Beirut, but the long shadow of war stretches across the Antilebanon mountain range that separates Syria from Lebanon, casting a gloom across the businesses of Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, tourism most of all.

My family and I arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, and skirmishes near the border made a visit to the famed ruins of Baalbek out of the question. Although war continues to simmer in neighboring Syria, Lebanon has clung to its fragile peace, and by the spring of 2014 we felt it was safe enough to finally visit the World Heritage Site temples.

I recently returned with my parents, who just ended their second visit to Lebanon. Not much had changed since I first saw Baalbek in 2014. Arriving just after 9am, we were the first tourists in town. Someone must have alerted the ticket seller, who pulled into the parking lot just after us and sprinted ahead to open up the ticket window. In turn, he must have given a call to another local, because we’d been inside the complex only a few minutes when a guide materialized to offer his services. It was just us and our guide Khalil. Extraordinary to have these magnificent world class ruins all to ourselves.

Magnificent and heartbreaking. Our guide recounted that three to four hundred tourists used to arrive daily. These days they were averaging ten. We tried to spread our few tourist dollars around: a generous tip to our guide, a couple of souvenir guidebooks from one merchant lurking outside, a few replicas of ancient coins from another merchant. We couldn’t bring ourselves to take a ride on the camel someone had trotted out to the ruins though.

Before leaving Baalbek, I insisted that we stop by the Palmyra Hotel, intrigued by this fantastic two and a half minute video which I had recently seen.

Political leaders Charles de Gaulle and German Kaiser Wilhelm II once stayed at the Palmyra, singers Ella Fitzgerald, Fairouz and Sabah (both Lebanese legends) were guests, and the French poet and painter Jean Cocteau lived in the Palmyra for a month. In continuous business since 1874, it was if time had stopped 75 years before our visit. The bellhop (the same one who appears in the video) has been working for them more than 40 years, and proudly showed us the rooms and the spectacular view from the terrace. For another detailed article about the Palmyra, check out this one from a couple of years ago on the Beirut news site Al Akhbar.

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the view from the rooftop terrace of the Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

After admiring the view, we headed on to Ksara, the first official winery to build on Lebanon’s 5,000-year old winemaking tradition. The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 (a few years before the Palmyra opened in nearby Baalbek), and sold into private hands in 1973, after the Vatican encouraged its monasteries to sell off any commercial activities. The ancient Roman tunnels under the winery’s chateau were expanded by men that lived in them during a war, explained our guide. (I wish I could remember which war! The Ksara website mentions that the winery was occupied by soldiers 1982-83, during the Lebanese Civil War, maybe it was then…) There are now just over 2.1km (1.3 mi) of tunnels, housing oak barrels of aged wine and special collection bottles. The tour ends with a generous tasting. I was pleasantly surprised to find a couple of wines that I hadn’t had the chance to taste before and liked a lot – I bought a Cabernet Sauvignon to take home.

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wine barrels in the tunnels of Ksara winery

To soak up some of the wine, we made a quick stop for a man’oushe (baked dough with toppings such as cheese, ground lamb, or dried wild thyme), then drove on to Anjar, the ruins of a trading center that is estimated to have flourished roughly 700-750 A.D. It was built by the Umayyads, the second of the four major Islamic caliphates established after the death of the prophet Muhammad. Like Baalbek, it is a World Heritage Site.

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the ruins of Anjar

Although Anjar turned out to be only 10 kilometers (6 miles) from some restaurants and wineries that we had visited in the past, it is only 10 more kilometers to the Lebanon-Syria border, and we hadn’t dared get quite that close in the past. The lack of tourists was even more acute here than Baalbek. While the ticket office was staffed by a friendly Lebanese who had returned to Anjar after years of living in Nashville, he told us that we were the first tourists to arrive to the site in a few days. Sure, the ruins of Anjar pale next to Baalbek, but frankly even the Forum of Rome isn’t as impressive as Baalbek, so that’s a hard neighbor to keep up with. There are still crumbling walls of palaces and a mosque, scraps of mosaics, elegant archways and towering columns. Anjar was a marketplace of an estimated 600 shops, and was an important stop on the Baalbek-Damascus trade route.

My parents told me that the day was a highlight of their month-long stay in Lebanon. “Top tourist circuit”? Not in numbers. But Baalbek or Anjar are extraordinary world treasures. (And Ksara was just plain fun.) This Beirut day trip is, without a doubt, a “top tourist circuit”.

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three happy tourists

Quaffing Lebanese Wine

The weather remains above 85°F (29°C) every day, but for the Lebanese, beach season is over.

Now is the time for hikes and mountain lunches and other fall activities – such as grape-harvesting. Yet one more surprise when I moved to Lebanon. The country is home to a prospering wine industry.

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Wine production in Lebanon dates back to Phoenician times (3200BC to 883BC), and was an important part of their trading. According to Wikipedia, the Phoenicians “either introduced or encouraged the dissemination of wine knowledge to several regions that today continue to produce wine suitable for international consumption. These include modern-day Lebanon, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Greece, Italy, Spain, France, and Portugal.”

So the Phoenicians brought wine-production techniques to the Romans, who turned around a brought their love for wine back to the region when they arrived around 64BC. It was under Roman rule that Lebanon’s greatest cultural attraction – the temple at Baalbek, dedicated to Bacchus, god of the grape harvest and wine – was built.

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The Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

In the 1860s, Jesuit priests in Lebanon recommenced wine production, and the industry blossomed during the French occupation (1923-1946). It is said that the French soldiers just couldn’t imagine life without “un coup de rouge” (a glass of red). As with just about everything else in the country, the industry lagged during the civil war, and only five wineries were operating at its end.

Slowly growing through the 1990s, wine production has taken off since the turn of the millennium, expanding from the traditional growing areas of the Bekaa Valley, to Batroun, Mount Lebanon, and even near Jezzine in southern Lebanon. An estimated 7 to 8 million bottles are produced annually, with much of going to the export market (primarily Europe). A drop in the wine glass compared to, say, France’s annual production of 7 to 8 billion bottles, but a respectable figure nonetheless.

The wineries and their leafy rows of grapes make for gorgeous settings to spend a couple of hours or a day, and our family has visited several: Massaya, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Ixsir. We loved our weekend lunches at Ixsir and Massaya Bekaa, while my kids’ favorite parts of the visits were the underground tunnels at Ksara and the train ride through the vineyards of Kefraya. Ksara and Kefraya are Lebanon’s biggest players, accounting for roughly half of the country’s annual production, but there are currently around 40 producers in this postage-stamp country.

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Kefraya’s vineyards

A week ago our family had the opportunity to spend a day with the gracious owner of Cave Kouroum and his family. Located in the village of Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley, this lesser-known winery has been an important player in the industry for decades, first as a grape middleman and eventually producing its own wine. We toured the winery, which has an impressive capacity of 7 million bottles of wine. The wine-maker is taking it slow, however, and the estate currently produces 700,000 bottles annually.  Our group especially enjoyed the estate’s Petit Noir and 7 Cépages.

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Two lovely Lebanese wines: Cave Kouroum on the left, Iris Domaine on the right

This past weekend we worked our way backwards in the production line, from the processing of grapes to their harvesting. This time we headed to the hills near Bhamdoun, where we joined the owners of Iris Domain on their final day of the grape harvest.  Owner Salmad Salibi explained that the recent heat wave (thank you sandstorm) meant that the different varietals of grapes had ripened all at once, so there was an urgency to their harvesting. To that end, paid laborers had started the hard work at 6 a.m., so guests like our family who rolled in at 8:30 or 9 and later had the chance to clip just a few crates worth of grapes before cutting the kids loose to explore the vineyards and fruit groves, while the adults snacked on man’ouche and sipped the winery’s excellent red blend.

You don’t have to be well-connected to enjoy a vineyard visit. The website Beirut.com has a comprehensive listing of wineries in Lebanon with links to their contact information. Several are regularly open to the public, while others accept visitors by appointment.

To try all the wines in one place, head to the upcoming Vinifest, October 7-10 at Beirut’s Hippodrome. This wonderful event brings together winemakers from around the country, offering tastings with bottles (as well as olive oil and snacks) available for purchase.  (Tickets L. 25,000 and can be purchased at the entrance or ahead of time at Antoine.) With around 40 producers showcasing their wines, take my word for it that it’s impossible to try them all. But my husband and I have had fun trying.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

My husband and I were caught by The Daily Star photographer Mahmoud Kheir in this image from Vinifest 2012.

Lebanon is no Napa. (Nor is it even close to say, the wine-growing region of Columbia Valley in my home state of Washington.  I have yet to meet a winemaker here in Lebanon that has heard of Washington wines, despite the fact that Washington State is home to more than 850 wineries and produces 180 million bottles of wine per year.  I’m allowed a little hometown pride, aren’t I?)

But enotourism in Lebanon is on the rise. Chateau Khoury has opened a restaurant, while Domaine des Tourelles and Cave Kourom are developing theirs. Chateau Belle-Vue hosts both a restaurant and a hotel. Wineries near Batroun in Northern Lebanon have worked to develop a wine trail.

The Romans may have left Lebanon ages ago, but clearly the devotees of Bacchus remain alive and well.

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Resources for the wine lover in Lebanon:

  • Special reports on Lebanon’s wine industry and developing wine tourism were recently published in Executive magazine.
  • The 2012 Zawaq guide to Lebanese wine has tasting notes for over 100 wines. The bilingual (French/English) book is currently 40% off on Antoine’s website.
  • Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines (2013) offers tasting notes by the owner of Jezzine’s Karam Winery.

Facebook tends to be the best place to find out about events and visits at most wineries in Lebanon, with more current information than the winery websites.