Burkinis, Bikinis, and the Best Family Beach in Lebanon

It’s been a long time since I last posted, mainly because I joined the flood of expat spouses that desert the duty station for the summer. Since we don’t see family most of the year, those golden months are our chance to spend quality time with cousins and aunts and uncles and grandparents.

I’m not sorry to miss out on the hottest days (more than the temperatures, it’s the humidity that’s a killer in Beirut mid-August), but for those who stay behind, there is plenty to do. Summer in Lebanon is filled with concert series that take place against the backdrops of millennia-old ruins. This summer, pop superstar Sia sang at Byblos, and the Baalbek Festival was reinstated after a four-year hiatus.

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Carcalla Dance Theater performed at the ruins of Baalbek in July.

But Lebanon’s biggest summer attractions are, of course, its beaches.

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San Stefano resort near Batroun.

I thought a lot about Lebanese beaches this August, as I read about the burkini battle raging in France. I got comfortable wearing bikinis after marrying an Italian and spending time on Mediterranean beaches where few women under the age of sixty wear a one-piece. But growing up in Seattle, I wore one-piece suits, and there are still plenty of days I prefer a swimsuit that covers more as opposed to less. During a visit this summer to a waterslide park in the Seattle area, I noticed that some boys wore sun shirts along with their trunks even though the waterpark was indoors, and while plenty of teenage girls were in bikinis, most younger girls and adult women wore one piece suits. A bit more coverage is our cultural norm in the Pacific Northwest.

When I visited southern Portugal as a teenager, I was surprised by how many women went topless—even grandmothers. In Italy, young girls go topless—most swimsuits for girls under the age of five or so are just bikini bottoms. I don’t have a problem with those choices, but they aren’t ones I would want imposed on myself or my daughter.

Although the ban has been overturned by the French courts, this week’s news of another woman in burkini being forced by angry locals to leave a beach in France made me realize that this story is far from over.

In Lebanon, standard beach attire depends on where you show up to swim. There are a few public beaches, but most are private, with resort establishments set up similar to the lidos of Italy: lounge chairs, sun umbrellas, lifeguards, a restaurant, often a swimming pool (or two), and sometimes a hotel.

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Edde Sands, a posh resort near Byblos.

Lots of these private beaches are quite posh, and entrance fees are priced accordingly. Some are distinctly designed to be a place for Lebanese in the 20-40 age range to see and be seen. High heels, make-up and jewelry with a bikini are just not for me. Other spots are more kid-friendly, but still have entrance fees that can cost up to $40 per adult and $25 per child ($130 for a family of four!). And that’s before you even get into the shish taouk sandwiches, French fries and cold beers that our family tends to order. It feels exorbitant for a day at the beach.

So I was happy when, on a recent weekend, a friend proposed meeting at my personal favorite, Al Jisr beach. It boasts one of the widest swathes of sand that I’ve seen in Lebanon, a huge swimming pool, and entrance fees of a mere $13/ adult and $7/child. And, no one looks at your funny no matter how much (or how little) your swimsuit covers.

Which brings me back to the battle of burkini versus bikini. Even in Lebanon there are places where sporting either may be uncomfortable. I know of one posh beach resort where a few customers complain any time a woman shows up in a burkini. (I’m happy to report that their complaints go nowhere.) And I myself wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing a bikini to Beirut’s public beach Ramlet el Bayda. But this picture taken on a beach near the northern city of Tripoli recently went viral, precisely because it captured the laissez-faire attitude of most Lebanese. (Photo by Jad Ghorayeb, who has lots more great shots of Lebanon on his Instagram feed.)

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His shot is way better than my iPhone snap at Al Jisr:

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I wore a bikini to Al Jisr, and was one of many women there wearing one. There were also plenty of women in one-pieces, and several more in burkinis. Everyone out to enjoy the warm weather and play in the sea with their families.

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You can see one lady swimming in a burkini, in between her two children with red and blue water wings.

It was actually one of the few times this summer that I have worn a bikini. In March, I discovered a cancerous spot on my skin and had it removed. Most of the summer I alternated between tankinis (covering my midriff), or a bikini with a short-sleeve sun shirt over the top.

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Me, ready for a day in the sun.

I’m only in my early 40s, so maybe I’ll need to move to a long-sleeve sun shirt in the future, something like this:

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Sun shirt for sale at swimoutlet.com

I think it´s safe to assume that this sun shirt would pass muster on any beach in France, but who’s say, given that the line drawn in the sand seems to keep moving. After activists (and slacktivists) posted countless pictures of Western women wearing long sleeves and head coverings on beaches across Europe:

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Vildana Maisa/Twitter

the deputy mayor of Nice declared that nuns in habit wouldn´t be allowed on the public beaches either.

What’s next, a wet suit ban?

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These Speedo wetsuits are designed for triathletes.

There are many reasons why I think that Al Jisr is the best family beach in Lebanon. It’s cheap, it’s clean, the swimming pool is big and the lifeguards are alert and, as I discovered after one of the kids suffered a minor injury playing “soap soccer” on our last visit, they even have a doctor on duty.

But Al Jisr is also a place where you can sport a bikini or cover up fully without anyone batting an eye. And after this summer’s burkini brouhaha, I am more grateful than ever for beaches where I can wear whatever I want.

Check out my earlier post on Beirut Beaches.

 

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Beirut Beaches

In my last post I wrote about increasing tensions in Beirut. Then I mentioned that I was on the beach in Sicily. Frivolous on my part?

Before arriving to Lebanon, I might have thought so. But with a summer in and out of Beirut under my belt, I know better. Beirutis are passionate, maybe even obsessed, about going to the beach. In one of the memoirs about the city I read during my first month here, the author recounted a friend´s desperation to go to the beach when the city was under siege during the 2006 war with Israel. At the moment of a brief cease-fire, the friend leapt into her car, and drove furiously to get out of town. One highway tunnel was blocked at the end by a lone, but heavily-armed soldier. She turned back, tried another route, and another, and another, until she found a way out of town and a day on the beach.

That’s some serious dedication to the beach.

Lebanon´s coastline is 140 miles long, pebbly in parts, sandy in others, and Mediterranean waters warmly lap its shores. There is a public beach at the southern end of Beirut. It is popular with families, but women anything less than fully-clothed while bathing are rare there. Along the Corniche, locals (mostly men) cool off by jumping into the water from the rocky shore. You can spot the occasional woman, sometimes fully clothed, sometimes in modest, 1920s-style bathing suits.




There are few free public beaches, but many beach clubs, charging anywhere from US$10 to US$35 or more per person, for use of their facilities. Beach chairs and umbrellas are abundant, and many clubs also have swimming pools. In the city, the moneyed set tends to lounge poolside at one of the expensive clubs built along the rocks, muscled men and bikini-clad women hidden from gawkers by screens and awnings that line the clubs’ edges. The seashore north and south of town is similar, public beaches interspersed with private clubs that are set well away from the public eye.

For the Lebanese, where you go to the beach says something about who you are.

“You went to Al-Jisr beach?” asked my Arabic tutor with surprise. “There is another you will like better, you must try Jiyé Marina…. All the people that go to Al-Jisr come from the same village.”

¨You went to Al-Jisr beach?” questioned the stylist at the hair salon. “You must try Lazy B, it is more European, you will like it better.”

I wasn’t sure quite to make of either of those comments, but my family and I were game for trying them all.

We liked the budget-friendly prices at Al-Jisr, their gazebo-like thatch shades on the beach, and the huge swimming pool, despite the massive crowds and the pervasive smell of argileh pipes. (Argilehs are water pipes for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco, popular with many Lebanese.)


We liked the sandy cove and calm waters at Jiyé Marina.


And we did like the colorful, sleek, “European” aesthetic at Lazy B, as well as their kids pool.


Hmmm… how does that define us? Perhaps as the multinational, adventurous family that we are.

On our way to the beaches in the south we drove by The Palms Ladies Resort. An expat friend I’ve made told me about her visit to the resort with a group of Lebanese women and their children (boys under age 10 only). It´s a place where women can strip down, away from the prying eyes of men. Jetties are built out into the water to prevent anyone of the opposite gender approaching too closely by sea. My friend reported that the bikinis were shockingly itsy-bitsy (and told of a collective gasp that went up from the crowd when a male jet-skier shot by too close for comfort). Conservative and rebellious mixed together, defying any attempt to pigeonhole. Just the way I like it.