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.

beirut-mosque-church

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.

salim-azzam-fashion

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.

al-hallab-baklava-lebanon

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).

soup-for-syria-cookbook

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.

lebanese-cookbook-mouzawak

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:

books-lebanon

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.

Beirut Essential Reading (Part II)

Here is Part II of the reading list I’ve compiled over the past two years in my effort to get to know my new home in Beirut a bit better. My previous post covered culture, memoirs and other non-fiction (including a graphic novel), while this post will point you to literary fiction, guidebooks and books for children that have helped me to familiarize myself (and my family) with our home in the Middle East. As in my previous post, the gems are marked with an asterisk.

Literary Fiction

* Beirut Blues by Hanan Al-Shaykh (1996)

Sidestepping the traditional story-telling format, Beirut Blues is composed of a series of ten letters from its protagonist Asmahan to the people and places she loves – including her grandmother, her lover, her city (Beirut). The book is not a straight-forward account of Lebanon’s civil war, but its stories paint a picture of the war’s effect on the people (both collectively and individually), the land, and the city of Beirut. Currently resident in London, Al-Shaykh is one of Lebanon’s best-known modern-day writers.


Hikayat: Short Stories by Lebanese Women edited by Roseanne Saad Khalaf (2007)

Some of these stories are by previously-published authors while others introduced newer writers onto the scene – and the stories are, as one might imagine, a bit disparate and uneven. However, it is the dissimilarity itself that adds value to this book, as it defies stereotypes of the modern Lebanese woman by offering a variety of perspectives. The editor is assistant professor of English and creative writing at the highly-regarded American University of Beirut.


De Niro’s Game by Rawi Hage (2006)

Two childhood friends, Bassim and George, come into adulthood during the Lebanese civil war. One ends up joining a militia, while the other dreams of escaping abroad. De Niro’s Game earned critical acclaim in Canada and Ireland, but I found myself agreeing with reviewers who found that the final section of the book, which takes place outside of Lebanon, loses steam.


Ports of Call by Amin Maalouf (1999)

Described as “a powerful allegory for the struggles and anarchy that have beset [Lebanon] for the last half-century,” Ports of Call tells the story of Ossyane, a Turkish-Lebanese nobleman, including his marriage to a Jewish woman named Clara, from whom he is separated for many years because of their respective cultures, a world war, and the later (1948) Arab-Israeli War. The narrator of the story is a third person to whom Ossyane recounts his life, and it is perhaps this choice by Maalouf that keeps the story from fully drawing in the reader. Maalouf is another of Lebanon’s foremost modern writers, and as Ports of Call is the first of his novels to be set in twentieth-century Lebanon, it is well worth reading.

* Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa (2010)

Elegant and moving multi-generational story of a Palestinian family that is displaced from their home at the creation of Israel in 1948, and moved to the Jenin refugee camp. Narrated by Amal, the granddaughter of the old village patriarch, the story stretches from the village where her grandfather grew up to Jenin, the refugee camp where she was born, to Jerusalem, where she was housed when orphaned, Beirut, where she became a newlywed, to Philadelphia, where she studied and worked, back to Jenin, when she brings her own daughter for a visit.

Guides


* Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut! By Warren Singh-Bartlett (2010)

Always entertaining, and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, this compilation of factoids about Lebanese life and culture is a must-have for anyone newly arriving to the country.

* Living Lebanon by Saskia Nout (2013)

The most recent guide to Lebanon on bookshelves, and with the kind of information that a resident needs as opposed to just a tourist – like driving directions, and a deft explanation of the convoluted political system. Nout is a Dutch expatriate. While the guide is not easily available outside of Lebanon, it can be easily found in a bookshop upon arrival.

For Children

Sitt Sobhiyeh and the Quest for the White Horse  * Sitt Sobhiye and the Quest for the White Horse, by Karim Al-Dahdah (2013)

The charming tale of Farida, a young girl that travels the world in search of a white horse whose appearance will mean that all the village girls will have a happy marriage. What Farida learns on her search for the horse, and what the village girls learn in Farida’s absence, is a tale of discovery and self-empowerment. The book is bilingual Arabic/English, and the illustrations are lovely. (This book added to post on March 24, 2014.)

* Oranges in No Man’s Land by Elizabeth Laird (2008)

This novel tells the story of 10-year-old Ayesha during the civil war. Her grandmother desperately needs medicine that is available only from her doctor on the other side of Beirut’s infamous “Green Line”, and Ayesha dares to get it for her. The death of Ayesha’s mother at the beginning of the story may be upsetting for younger/more sensitive children, but it is not dwelt upon, and ultimately, it is a story of the triumph of human spirit and what a spunky young girl can achieve. Laird lived with her husband and infant son close to Beirut’s notorious “Green Line” during 1977.


Golden Domes and Silver Lanterns: A Muslim Book of Colors by Hena Khan (2012)

This beautifully illustrated book introduces colors through a Muslim lens, from the blue hijab (head covering) to the silver coins for the zakat (alms) box. Suitable for families of any faith that wish to introduce cultural awareness to their younger children.


Sami and the Time of the Troubles by Florence Parry Heide and Judith Heide Gilliland (1992)

Ten-year-old Sami has grown up during Lebanon’s civil war, going to school and helping his mother with chores when he can, and living in his uncle’s basement when the fighting flares up. One day, the children march for peace, and Sami knows that when another chance comes, he will march again. Well-written, and good for sparking discussion between children and their parents or teachers. For children living in Beirut today, however, with the war in neighboring Syria, the story probably will hit a bit too close to home.

On My Bookshelf

No reading list should ever be complete, because there are always more good books out there to read. Here is the next one on my list. While I can’t tell you yet what I think of it, renowned author Amy Tan has written an absolutely glowing review of it on Amazon.com, and you don’t need me to top that – take her word for it and go out and get this book.

* The Hakawati by Rabih Alameddine (2008)

Hakawati means storyteller, and Osama’s dying grandfather is one. When Osama returns to Beirut in 2003, after many years in America, to sit vigil at his grandfather’s deathbed, stories begin to unfold. According to the back cover, “an Arabian Nights for this century,” and described by an Amazon reviewer as full of tales of “love, sex, murder, heroism, magic, loss, triumph, skullduggery, noblesse, repentance, lies, redemption, loyalty, curses, and just about everything else.”

After a gloriously sunny Saturday, the rain returned to Beirut yesterday. No problem. I’ve still got plenty on my shelf to read.

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.