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

IMG_2632

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).

IMG_2754

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.

Advertisements

Syria on My Mind, and a Table at Tawlet

Adapting the words of Ray Charles….

Syria, Syria

The whole day through

Just the threat of strikes

Keeps Syria on my mind

And it’s not just because I live in the Middle East. I can see from the US newspapers I read online, and I can tell from the phone calls that we get from my husband’s family in Italy, that Syria is the talk of the town (or at least of the news) in the US and across Europe as well.

Here in Lebanon…

I go to the park… and talk with other parents about Syria.

I go out with my husband for dinner with friends… and we all talk about Syria.

I stop by a friend’s house… and we pointedly avoid the subject of Syria as we have coffee. But… she leaves her tv on as we sip ‘ahwe, and CNN talks about nothing but Syria.

I can’t keep up on all there is to read about Syria. (But if you’re interested in expanding your own knowledge, here is journalist Bill Moyer’s suggested – and regularly updated – reading list of online articles.) I am, however, reading what I can between dentist appointments and school open house and cooking dinner. Yesterday I came across a phrase that really resonated with me, even if it was published two months ago (in Foreign Affairs):

Las Vegas rules do not apply to Syria: what happens there will not stay there.” *

No need to tell anyone in Lebanon that. With 630,000 registered refugees and at least a few hundred thousand more unregistered Syrians living in Lebanon, we know that what happens there will not stay there. With cross-border kidnappings, some for revenge, others for ransom, on the rise, we know. With two car bombs in Tripoli and one in Beirut last month, we know. And, what we don’t know, we speculate about. Next door in Israel, citizens are stocking up on gas masks in case a US strike might mean that Syria strikes back by unleashing chemical weapons in Israel. Here in Lebanon we worry that a US strike in Syria could, for example, provoke a strike by Lebanese-based Hezbollah against Israel, which in turn would undoubtedly lead to an Israeli strike against Lebanon. (Hezbollah’s last major open conflict against Israel was in 2006, a 34-day war that according to Wikipedia, resulted in 1,191–1,300 Lebanese people, and 165 Israelis dead, and another one million Lebanese and 300,000–500,000 Israelis displaced.) Lebanon is trying to stay out of the Syrian equation through its “disassociation” policy for good reason.

And yet…

What is life without levity? Nour Malas wrote in the Wall Street Journal that there is now even a bridal shop in the Za’atari refugee camp in Jordan, as couples choose to live the moment rather than suffer the maddening incertitude, trading inertia for action.

Likewise, I was determined this past weekend to get out of the concrete jungle, and remind myself of the beauty of Lebanon. With hubby, kids, and a whole another family in tow, I headed back to the Bekaa Valley to check out the restaurant Tawlet Ammiq. A day to enjoy a good meal, a glass of arak, and the company of good friends.

Tawlet (which means table in Arabic) is a community-run organic restaurant on the western edge of the Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon. The menu varies each weekend according to what the village women choose to cook, much of which they do at home and bring to the restaurant already prepared. Young men from the two nearby villages refill your water, lemonade, or arak glass.

The food was fantastic – fresh and citrusy tabbouleh and fattoush salads; creamy eggplant, chickpea and yogurt spreads (mouttabal, hummus and labneh, respectively); kibbeh nayyeh (a raw beef dish similar to beef tartare); grilled chicken and fish. There was shish barek (meat pastries in a yogurt-dill soup), beef with frikke (toasted green wheat), and mulukhiyah (chicken stewed with some kind of leaves). For dessert, ripe nectarines, figs, cantaloupe and watermelon, lemon cookies and knafe, an Arabic dessert of sweet cheese topped with semolina crumbs and sugar syrup.

The setting was as lovely as the food – the restaurant is built onto the slope of a hill that is dotted by trees and ruins, and home to two tiny churches. Most of the tables are outdoors, some on a grass yard, others in a breezeway, all designed to take advantage of the view over the valley.


(If it sounds tempting, details are as follows: $40pp for adults, $20pp for children, reservations recommended, tel. 0300-4481. It’s about a 75–minute drive from Beirut. If you don’t have the time for a trip, there is another branch of Tawlet in the Gemmayze neighborhood of Beirut, which serves a buffet lunch Monday-Saturday for US$30pp.)

The restaurant is a transnational, interreligious effort, modeled after a development project in Jordan, its construction funded by Swiss development aid. While the cooks and waitstaff are from the Christian villages of Ammiq and Niha, the manager and his wife – who as head chef oversees the menu planning and food- are from a Druze village in the Shouf Cedar reserve. A tiny beacon of cooperation and successful co-existence in a region beleaguered by conflict.


The mountains on the far side of the valley form the border with Syria, less than 20 kilometers from where we were having lunch. The green mountain straight up from the water pitcher in the first picture above, and the tiny village on the top of the mountains in the second picture, are part of Syria. According to the restaurant manager, shelling and bombing were a regular part of the auditory landscape until a couple of weeks ago, when one faction or the other (I think he said the rebels, but don’t quote me on it) gained control of a town in the area just on the other side of the mountains. I wondered if the sound of distant shelling affected the appetites of those dining at Tawlet on those earlier weekends. We heard what might have been a few shots off in the distance at a certain point – which in Lebanon could mean we were hearing anything from a celebration of a political speech or a birthday, to actual fighting from the other side of the mountains – and tensed as we waited to see if the noises continued, fully relaxing again only when they did not.

And so we ate and laughed some more, carrying on, as humanity is wont to do, in the face of adversity.

*    *    *

Naturally, things can change in an instant, and even as I was writing this post I heard the news of the latest developments: that a US military strike might be forestalled if Syria’s chemical weapons are turned over to Russia.

The reprieve might be temporary, but we are good at the waiting game here. For now, it feels as if Lebanon has breathed a collective sigh of relief.

*For those who aren’t already familiar with it, “What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is the smash slogan that Sin City (Las Vegas) created for itself a few years ago. Interestingly, in looking for an online link to the journal article, I stumbled across another article, this one also from July but published in the New Statesman, with nearly the same phrase – credited to former director of policy planning at the US state department Dennis Ross. I don’t know who said it first, but it’s a fantasticsound bite.

The Scent of Gardenias

The scent of gardenias wafted through my window as I sat working at my computer this morning. Their perfume reminds me of our arrival to Beirut, when there were vendors selling gardenia chains at every stoplight. And in turn, that reminds me that at the end of this month, we will have been here one year.

There has been plenty of tension in Lebanon during that time, with a car bomb in October, and floods of refugees seeking shelter from the war in Syria. But those gardenias remind me of how many good things there have been as well. I hope that it has been clear from my blog posts how much more there is to Lebanon than the headline news.

To that end, I wanted to share with you to a blog post by David Lebovitz, a California pastry chef who is now resident in Paris and was here in Lebanon a couple of weeks ago to explore the country’s food and culture. I hope you have a minute to take a look.

http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2013/04/lebanon/

Relishing the food, marveling at the hospitality, and with photos so fantastic you can almost taste the beautiful food. Or at least you wish you could. In fact, the ice cream shop he mention’s, Hanna’s, is just a few minutes’ walk from my home. Maybe I’ll head there now….