Beirut is Back! And so are Baalbek and Batroun and….

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The scent of gardenias perfumed my first days in Beirut in May 2012. Like the gardenias, Beirut is back in bloom.

Are you kidding me? Beirut never went anywhere.

When we arrived to Lebanon in May 2012, tourism crashed. And no, it wasn’t us! Due to instability in the region, the governments of Saudi Arabia and other wealth Gulf states instructed their citizens to avoid travel to Lebanon. That was as much politics as safety concerns, and Beirutis themselves were still out at restaurants, beaches, bars.

Beirut has been here all along. But as of 2017, the tourists are back.

I’ve hosted a number of visitors to Lebanon since moving here. You know, the hard-core kind of traveler, that doesn’t let things like a car bomb stand between them and their grandchildren. Or the adventurers that read beyond the headlines and realized that while fall 2013 was a dodgy time to visit (bombs in Beirut and Tripoli in August, Obama’s threats of military strikes in Syria), most of the rest of the time we’ve been here has been just fine.

I remember wandering downtown Beirut with my parents on their first visit in November 2013. We saw one lone foreigner besides ourselves and the migrant workers cleaning the streets. He wore cargo pants and a large camera slung around his neck—more likely a journalist on assignment than a tourist.

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A street cleaner, a businessman and two cops. Not a lot of other tourists back in 2013.

As recently as September of 2016, when we took my brother-in-law and his partner to Baalbek, we had some of the world’s most impressive Roman ruins virtually to ourselves. The visitors we hosted between 2012 and 2016 were intrepid, unperturbed by the utter lack of other tourists.

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“Where’s Wally?” Can you spot the other tourists? Baalbek in 2016.

I’ve been hosting guests again this year, and we can no longer claim the tourist sites for ourselves. I bump into Westerners with blonde hair and knobby knees. Chinese tourists with map in hand. The tourists are back—not in droves, but they’re here.

Last month I was back in Baalbek with houseguests, and *gasp* there was an actual tour group of international visitors. Minivan and all! As well as an entire busload of Lebanese tourists. On a Friday no less, not even the weekend. We went to Batroun and Byblos, and bumped into more tourists wandering around, taking selfies against the backdrop of the sparkling blue sea. We headed to downtown Beirut, and other tourists asked us to take their picture in the Blue Mosque, then we had to wait for other tourists to clear out before we could get the good shot of Martyrs’ Square with the mosque in the background.

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Martyrs’ Square and the Blue Mosque, downtown Beirut.

We headed to the trendy Mar Mikhael neighborhood at night and… well, the nightlife has always been great. But now, it’s better than ever. (Read this article by Gino Raidy on Vice.com for a great analysis of how Beirut’s nightlife has democratized since 2012, and check out this video on his blog for a glimpse into some of the city’s best nightclubs.) It took a while to recalibrate, but Lebanon’s tourism market has adapted to the lack of wealthy Gulf tourists, who were willing to shell out exorbitant prices for overrated hotels and restaurants. The businesses that remained standing are the best, and new ones have cropped up in the place of those that couldn’t make it—more fairly priced, more creative, simply better. Businesses also worked harder to offer tours and packages to those already in Lebanon (my favorites: Alternative Tour Beirut and Living Lebanon), including the development of community and rural tourism (check out the 60+ stands that will be at the Travel Lebanon section of the Garden Show in the Beirut Hippodrome next week).

If there’s something the people in this region have learned over the centuries, it’s resilience. Well done Lebanon, well done.

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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.

 

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’s Sursock Museum and the Art of Resilience

After nine long years, Beirut’s Sursock Museum reopened this weekend.

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

Opening night at the Sursock Museum

The museum houses modern and contemporary art in a setting as elegant as the artwork within: an Italianate villa located in a well-heeled district of Beirut.  First opened in 1961, the Sursock was long the reference point for contemporary art in Lebanon, hosting an annual salon, or exhibition of emerging artists, as well as a permanent collection of renowned painters from the region. The museum managed to stay open through most of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, but closed in 2008 to undergo seven long years of renovation.

Emblematic of the resilience of the Lebanese themselves, the museum reopened this weekend, amidst a garbage crisis, a political crisis, and a refugee crisis of historical proportions.

Fittingly, the museum’s director, Zeina Arida, has curated opening exhibitions that share a theme of identity.

In “Picturing Identity” photographs summon the past of the Lebanese people.

"Muslim Sheikh", from The Fouad Debbas Collection

“Muslim Sheikh”, from The Fouad Debbas Collection

In “Regards sur Beyrouth” paintings evoke the history of the local landscape.

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

View of Beirut, 1893 by Henry Andrew Harper

And a multimedia exhibition entitled “The City in The City” explores modern-day Beirut. The piece that most struck me in this exhibition was a map created by Mona Fawaz and Ahmad Gharbieh pinpointing visible security deployment in Beirut in 2009: it was cluttered with symbols for checkpoints, army tanks, military vehicles, barbed wire, road spikes and more. (If you can’t make it to the museum, the map and its background essay can be accessed on the website Academia.edu, with free registration to the site.)

Head of programs, Nora Razian, has designed a robust public program of tours, talks, walks, workshops, films and family programs to accompany this last exhibition. I was lucky enough to get a spot on a night walk entitled “The Streets Beneath the Streets,” led by the writer Lina Mounzer. The stories she narrated on Friday night, as she led our group from one hidden corner of the Ashrafieh neighborhood to the next, centered on the famine the country faced during World War I, which killed an estimated 100,000 to 200,000 persons in Mount Lebanon alone, 500,000 in Greater Syria. According to the BBC, “As a proportion of the total population, more people died in Greater Syria than anywhere else in the world during the First World War.”

Commonly attributed to a blockade by Allied forces seeking to cut off supplies to the Ottoman empire, the reality of the famine was a far more complicated scenario, also involving environmental factors (such as a locust invasion that carpeted the countryside, some say knee-deep), wartime mismanagement and war profiteering. (This article touches on some of the heart-rending details that Lina shared with us, accompanied by equally harrowing images.)

Foreign influences, environmental degradation, profiteering….

Lebanon’s present has disturbing echoes of its past, and serves as a reminder that only by studying history can we grasp how things might change or remain the same.

All of which circles me back to the reopening of the Sursock Museum, its exhibitions and public programming. Yes, the garbage crisis remains unresolved, with hills of refuse blighting Lebanon’s landscape and clogging its riverbeds. It’s true, Lebanon’s longstanding political crisis (including a 15-month-and-counting presidential vacuum) has deepened the garbage crisis. And while the number of officially registered Syrian refugees in Lebanon has dropped in recent months, there remain more than one million, for a staggering statistic of 1 in 5 people in Lebanon is a Syrian refugee. Much of the system in Lebanon seems to be held together with aging Scotch tape, threatening to peel off at any moment.

Yet the Sursock Museum, Zeina Arida, Nora Razian, Lina Mounzer, and all the others involved with the Sursock’s reopening and public programs, are the embodiment of resilience. They remind us to step back to see more clearly who we are and where we came from, so that we can better see where we want to go next.

Culture is not a luxury.

Culture is part of us. It’s what constitutes a person, it links generations and gives meaning to history. Knowing one’s culture is knowing one’s self. Identifying and preserving one’s heritage allows reaching out to the others.

-Zeina Arida, to the Prince Claus Fund

For details about the Sursock Museum and upcoming events, visit their Facebook page at www.facebook.com/SursockMuseum

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.

Beirut: From Garbage to Green

All the news coming out of Lebanon lately is garbage.

Oops, I mean it’s about garbage.

And since everyone else is covering garbage, I figured it would be nice to talk about something else that is happening in the country, because there always is so much more happening in Lebanon than what you see in the headlines. So I’m going to move from garbage to green.

On Saturday, I went with my husband, my daughter, and a couple of her friends, to Horsh Beirut. The 300,000+ square meter (74 acre) park comprises a whopping 70 percent of all green space in Beirut.

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Notoriously, it has been closed to the public for the past 20 years.

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There are exceptions. Permits are allowed to Lebanese who are 35 or older and provide a doctor’s note stating that they need exercise. And foreigners – at least Western-looking ones – have been allowed in without permits. But for the past two decades, your average Lebanese citizen has been stopped at the gate and denied entry.

No longer.

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Thanks to the tireless work of the NGO Nahnoo, after four years of fighting the good fight, the park has been reopened to the public. The opening is gradual: Saturdays only for the month of September, Saturdays  and Sundays in October, and eventually, open every day. Nahnoo’s executive director, Mohammad Ayoub, explained that the measured reopening will allow the municipality to address any hiccups that might arise.  Ayoub also said that around 100 volunteers for Nahnoo helped out with the park opening – disseminating park rules and making sure that all ran smoothly. Kudos to Nahnoo, its staff and volunteers, for their persistence in advocating for the opening of this important public space, and to the European Union and United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) for funding the project.

(My husband works for UNDP, which is how I knew about the opening. Seems that it was kept as a soft opening, and many people didn’t know until they read about it in Sunday’s paper.)

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Yesterday I met a pair of Lebanese friends for coffee and told them about my visit to Horsh Beirut. Neither has ever been, and they asked what there was to do, considering if it might be a good place to take their kids.

Kids can bring their bikes, but adults won’t be allowed on bikes nor will there be a bike rental. The paths are dirt, so not great for scooters or skating. Balls are allowed, but no ball games. There isn’t any play equipment. There is a restroom, but in disrepair. A picnic is the obvious choice, but to that end it seems like there ought to be a lot more trash cans. On a brighter note, the greenery is lovely and well-maintained, and UNDP also funded a public water fountain that was recently installed (the first I’ve seen in Beirut!).

The conversation got me thinking about next steps for the Horsh…

Install a fitness course

Sprinkle workout stations along the trail that winds through the trees: a bar for pull-ups here, a stepping post there.  A bench for dipping or sit-ups, a vault bar that parkour fanatics would love, a balance beam low to the ground that even young children can try…

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A fitness station in a city park in Chicago.

This company and this one sell ready-made equipment, but stations can also be as simple as recycled beams and tires.

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Install a playground

Again, there are excellent resources online about how to design a playground made with anything from recycled tires to state of the art equipment. There are websites that provide guidance on how to build a playground, how to get grants, how to find corporate sponsors and more.  For equipment, a company called Playmart caught my eye: they purchase post-consumer and post-industrial plastic to upcycle into playground products. (Wish they would open a factory here, Lebanon has plenty of plastic garbage it could sell!) This website even has a 117-page instruction manual for making playground equipment out of old tires (as well as inspiring images of parks around the world with beautiful construction and landscaping).

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And if space allows,

Establish an area open to ball games. Whether that is a soccer pitch big enough for a five-on-five game, or just an area where friends can kick the ball around without worrying about the wrath of park security, it would be fantastic to have a space where kids can get some exercise and have some fun.

And with all the water & sanitation experts currently in the country to address the refugee crisis, I am sure we could find someone to give some advice on toilets!

Nahnoo has tapped EU & UNDP for the funding for its campaign; what NGO could take the next step in creating opportunities for play and exercise? Funders must be out there, maybe someone to support healthy spaces that benefit host communities and refugees alike? Gates, Aga Khan or Ford Foundation? Or a corporate sponsor such as Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike?

Nahnoo, are you taking this on? Beirut Green Project? Let me know who is, and I’d be happy to join in as a volunteer….

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!