It was the Lebanese who pulled me in, proudly supporting their country through thick and thin. Dreaming to one day be back in their home country with the lives and loves they know, many have left in recent years, yet many still remain.
Several different reasons drew them out of their space, but one reason is calling them back: A love so true it’ll make even the most novice romantic blush. Like so many phenomena around the world, mass media does a fantastic job at making Lebanon’s current situation seem much more debilitating than it is. Yes, there are stories told of political strife and warfare. Many speak of bombings that ripped through towns and shattered entire neighborhoods, and a morning sip of coffee might be disrupted by a ‘pop’ – one that tells no difference between that of an explosion or a car’s backfire.
Buildings can be seen throughout the capital city of Beirut with only two sides left standing. Uninhabitable bedrooms, bathrooms and kitchens left exposed to the elements are found in virtually every corner of the city. Wooden nightstands have been replaced by trees, marble countertops by piles of brick tossed free by thunderous blasts of years past. Colorful graffiti marks the walls where framed family photos once hung, and windows have become more numerous than the home’s architect originally planned. Despite the signs of misfortune that have hit this seaside city and its surrounding areas, Lebanon has a certain aura that veils the trauma endured, causing residents and visitors alike to see the country as one of passion and pride.
Looking past bullet strewn buildings and listening past explosions allows citizens to feel past fear. Instead they see green mountains laced with cobblestone drives and French inspired cottages. They go out in Beirut’s hip downtown area, with music freely flowing and streets lined with enough pubs and boutiques to keep all ages busy at any hour. They continue to rebuild the most stunning of buildings and parks.
The Lebanese gayly stroll along sandy resort beaches and cycle along the corniche’s bike paths. They appreciate time spent with their families, sticking close and sharing homes in the same familial building. Together, they enjoy meals and laughter on the daily. They give willingly and expect in return nothing more than a friendship filled three-cheeked kiss. They’re happy and in love, and it shows.
Visiting Lebanon in February, I was greeted by a storm that brought wind, rain, and snow – yes, snow – to the Middle Eastern country. The first day, a coworker invited me on a sightseeing excursion through the city. Luckily, we had a car and explored much of the city on four wheels, stopping briefly to check out a few stretches of terrain on foot. We eventually decided to break free from the confines of our car to play arcade games in the basement of one of many malls. If you haven’t raced down the Autobahn or cruised down the streets of Tokyo in a while, it’s about time you grab some friends and get ready for a little action behind a plastic steering wheel at the local arcade. You won’t regret the street racing, the air hockey, or the insane laughs you’ll have while riding one of the miniature horses.
After the arcade, we met up with some friends and hit up a couple of the pubs downtown. The scene was young and similar to that of those I’m accustomed to in Denver and Minneapolis. There are small pubs with tasty taps, and more refined lounges serving cocktails and local musicians tapping their feet and strumming original tunes. Our group grew throughout the night, and despite it being a chilly weeknight, the vibe was upbeat and energetic from start to finish.
The following day, I took to the streets by foot after a morning spent watching CNN’s reports on the Middle Eastern strife and enjoying multiple cups of coffee with thanks to my coworker’s hospitable and incredibly knowledgeable cousin, who agreed to host me at the last minute. Five minutes past the door, my umbrella was up and my camera was out. Stopping for directions and a Lebanese sweet of cheesy, crunchy Knafeh, I met a darling aged couple whose sons are both studying in the States. Nearly 30 minutes later, I exited their shop, astonished at the love pouring out of them. For each other, their sons, me, and for the stories of the lives they had led and continue to lead.
Down sidewalks lined with buildings old and new, mom and pop shops, coffee houses and trees hanging heavy from the rains, I continued to the city’s center. Martyrs’ Square is in a central location located next to the famous Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque. Exactly ten years prior to the week I stood in the rain underneath Martyrs Square’s famous bullet-strewn statue, a massive bombing rocked the same space. Twenty two were killed, including Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. Today, his photo is plastered around the square and mosque, commemorating the life of their former leader. Something about the square drew me closer, and I made several laps around the center. Roses lay nearby, men flowed in and out of the mosque, and various visitors stopped for a gentle reminder of their city’s roller coaster history.
You can find a photo history telling the Square’s story at the following website: http://spatiallyjustenvironmentsbeirut.blogspot.com/2011/08/martyr-square.html In particular, I find the photo from 1994 eerily mystifying. Finally surrendering to the rains, I continued to the city’s downtown area. Reminiscent of France’s softly worn stone streets and yellow facades, a warmth surrounded me. A Lebanese friend explained to me that foreigners typically view the Middle East as the Gulf States, when in reality countries such as Lebanon, Turkey, and Cyprus show a much more European style than their Southern counterparts. Downtown Lebanon is proof of this theory. Luxury boutiques and men in sleek raincoats toting black umbrellas greeted customers up and down the streets. At that point in the day, I was beginning to feel not quite so luxurious as my canvas loafers squeaked with each step, quenched with the rain’s continuous streams. My camera lens was spotted with raindrops, my jeans soaked, and my socks had tripled in weight from the amount of liquid they were holding.
Then came the moment where I was reminded that I was backpacking, not living it up in swanky hotels and nice cars: I found the wash room of the downtown mall and stepped inside. Remarkably it remained empty for the entire time I stood barefoot and repeatedly slid my socks and shoes through its wickedly powerful hand dryer. Feeling a bit better, I covered my feet back up a few minutes later and went outside.
Realizing I was going to lose the battle of woman vs. mother nature, I avoided getting too wet and briskly walked over to the movie theater. “Yalla 3a 2belkoun” is the story of four women and their love stories in Beirut. Though it is in Arabic, English subtitles allowed me to have some laughs, dry off and enjoy a tour of the city from the comfort of a cinema seat. Fittingly translated to “Single, Married, Divorced,” the movie also let me get in a romantic fix and was a really great production.
That night, my friend met me around supper time and we drove through the darkened streets to our coworker’s family home. She was in Lebanon for the break along with her three lovely children, whom I’d never met before. Arriving in the later evening hours, she welcomed us with a huge spread of cheeses, olives and wine.
For the remainder of the weekend, I was introduced to her family, to the beautiful mountainside fneighborhoods just Northeast of Beirut, and to some of the world’s oldest inhabited sites. A visit to Byblos allowed us to walk in the birthplace of the precursor to the modern alphabet and into a world dating back to roughly 8000 B.C. We visited the seaside, drove high into the snow flecked mountains, and tasted fresh from the oven Manoushe, a Lebanese flatbread dusted with zaatar.
The hospitality continued and on my last day in Lebanon, we went back to Beirut to our coworker’s mother’s house, and sampled calamari, fresh fish and just picked vegetables. We had sips of wine and Arak and ended the delightful dinner with an assortment of desserts sweet enough to form cavities just by their sight.
Afterwards, we drove once again to the seaside. This final trip was to Raouché, an area that sports two magnificent rocks springing from the waters and a spectacular view of both land and sea.
Dearest Lebanon, My Love. Just like any other love, I wish for you nothing but the best. May you continue to bask in the sunshine, to float in the glistening sea and to soar through the green covered mountains. You deserve all the best.