Monthly Archives: July 2009

WELCOME! Dinner at ‘Le Chef’

Exterior of Le Chef

Exterior of Le Chef

So with Rue Gouraud in my mind, when Ozge invited me out to dinner tonight at the popular restaurant on Gouraud, ‘Le Chef,’ I couldn’t resist. Well, that and I heard that the food was fantastic and I am NEVER one to turn down good food.

Charles joined us and as we arrived outside the restaurant, I realized that I had actually passed this place many times, always wanting to go in, but for some reason or another never quite making it. So now was my chance!! As we walked into the always packed, but charmingly petit restaurant, a booming ‘Welcome!’ from the owner was our hearty greeting – and as we soon discovered, the greeting of every visitor coming or going.

As we squeezed our way through the tables, I took a peek and a whiff of the local specialties being served (apparently the menu changes daily – Brilliant!). My stomach started rumbling immediately as irresistible cravings for moujuddra (lentils, rice, grilled onions and delicious spices – usually served with yogurt), kousa (stuffed zuchinni), kibbeh (ground lamb or beef with bulgur wheat, pine nuts, and other savory ingredients) and moutabal (also known as baba ganoj – basically eggplant hummus) consumed my thoughts.  Our waiter tossed handwritten menus atop our paper table cloth and I grabbed mine greedily wanting to waste not a single second and….shit. The menu was written in Arabic.

Interior of 'Le Chef' - so wish I could post the delicious smells!

Interior of 'Le Chef' - so wish I could post the delicious smells!

Okay, now after a month of Arabic classes, you’re probably thinking ‘Come on, Colette. What the heck? You should be able to read and write easily!’ But no. Alas and alack, I read like a 3-year-old and write like a 5-year-old – okay maybe a talented 6-year-old. But either way, you get the idea. Even after the 10 minutes it takes me to sound out a word, I hardly ever know what the word actually means. I’m useless. Luckily, they also have a menu written in French. Score! I thought I’d show off my mad French skills, but in the end I had such a hard time deciphering the scribbled French script that it might as well have been written in Arabic. Ah well – we glanced around at the food on other people’s tables and ended up ordering a mix of everything. YUM!

As we sipped our Almazas and waited for our food, I took a good look around Le Chef. The decorations inside are pretty sparse and the table settings simple, but if anything, it all just adds to the homey charm of the place.  We had a table to ourselves, but they often seat you alongside complete strangers who in true Lebanese hospitable style are more than happy to start up a conversation. It’s fantastic. Meeting new people, surrounded by fragrant and delicious Lebanese cuisine – which by the way, is reasonably cheap – who could ask for anything more?

Charles and I, after enjoying our delicious Lebanese mezze

Charles and I, after enjoying our delicious Lebanese mezze

We savored every bite of our meal and when we couldn’t eat anymore, we asked for the check and walked over to a large Moroccan market set up alongside the nearby Martyr Square.  We browsed the bags, shoes, furniture, scarves, fabrics, pillows and jewelry while listening to the evening call to prayer echoing from the Al-Amin Mosque, its blue dome visible over the tents of the market. A perfect evening in Beirut!

Moroccan Market in downtown Beirut

Moroccan Market in downtown Beirut

Advertisements

Gouraud: The Street and the General

If you tell a taxi to take you to the Beirut neighborhood of Gemmazeh, they’ll drop you at the start of the Rue Gouraud – the main bar, restaurant and club packed street running through this noisy neighborhood, which somehow manages to be grungy and upscale chic at the same time. I love it! You can spend entire nights hopping from cafe to bar, from bar to club, and never get bored or run out of new places to try.

General Gouraud

General Gouraud

But anyway, I’ve been curious for awhile now about the street’s namesake ‘Gouraud.’ I wikipedia-ed that shit and here’s what I found: Henri Joseph Eugene Gouraud was born in France in 1867.  For one of the plethora of reasons that inspire young men to take up arms for their country, he joined the French army and began to bump his way up the ranks.  He actually lost his right arm while he was commanding French forces during the Battle of Gallipoli in 1915. Like Cervantes in the Battle of Le Panto! Although, that was his left arm. Ha! History NERD in the house.

gallipoli_ver1_xlg You know the Battle of Gallipoli – World War I, fought on the Gallipoli peninsula in Turkey. British and French trying to capture Istanbul from the Ottomans and failing miserably. Tons of people died on both sides – honestly doesn’t sound like it was worth it. Oh,  and they made a movie about it in 1981 – which in today’s pop culture world is probably more well known than the battle itself. The film was directed by Peter Weir and stars a very young Mel Gibson and Mark Lee as two hopeful, promising young Australians who join ANZAC (The Australian and New Zealand Army Corps – a branch of the British Army during WWI) and then get butchered in Gallipoli. It’s a great film but obviously very depressing.

558px-The_Levant_3ANYWAY, I digress.  So the reason why they care about this General in Lebanon is that from 1919-1923 he was a commander of the French army of the Levant (Levant = the eastern Mediterranean countries in general – specifically, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Syria, Israel and sometimes Iraq and Saudi Arabia) and played an important role in the creation of the French Mandates of Syria and Lebanon.  From what I’ve read, the locals in the region had mixed opinions of Gouraud and the French presence, but apparently he had enough of an impact to merit a street being named after him!

I actually found an article in the archives of the the NY Times, written in 1922, entitled ‘Gouraud Doubts Turks Want Syria: French Policy, the General Says, Is Merely to Carry Out Mandate Helpfully.’ I love the internet 🙂

Some background info: So in 1916, you get the Sykes-Picot Agreement (s0 called because it was negotiated by François Georges-Picot of France and Mark Sykes of Britain) between France and the UK that defined who would get control of the different territories in the Middle East after the Ottoman Empire fell.  But this agreement was secret and didn’t become official (although it was enforced all the while) until after the end of WWI, in the 1920s by the League of Nations. So in 1920, in the Treaty of Sevres (peace treaty between the Ottomans and the Allied forces), France was official granted control of Syria. The Syrians were pissed, understandably and actually from 1919 (French presence already in Syria but yet to be officially granted power by the League of Nations) until 1921 you get the Franco-Syrian War, with the Syrians trying to oust the French. The Syrians lost and the French remained in control. Quelle surprise.

So when this NY Times article was written in 1922, the French presence in Syria (Lebanon had yet to be created as it’s own country and was just a state in Syria – in fact the article is written from Beirut, Syria not Beirut, Lebanon) was established but Gouraud and his troops were still facing small attacks from different groups in Syria who hadn’t given up on their goal of evicting the French.  Syrian grievances against the French included French suppression of Syrian newspapers, political activity, and civil rights and the division of Greater Syria into six different states (Gouraud actually headed this division of Syria, one of the states being that of Greater Lebanon, which eventually became the country).

In the article, the author interviewed Gouraud who was trying to set the record straight about the French influence in Syria, explaining that the French were trying to restore stability in the region, reduce their presence in Syria and were generally liked in the region despite the recent attacks – “He was sure the Syrian people were beginning to realize the generous motives behind the French mandate and the elevating influence of French efforts in Syria, and he was happy to be able to say that the French were now meeting with ready and cordial cooperation.”  He also explained that he felt the Ottoman’s would not try to retake Syria and insisted that the French were “…on excellent terms with the Turkish authorities.” So interesting. Wish I had a Syrian article written at the same time on their perspective, but given that the French were suppressing Syrian papers, that might be more difficult to come by.

Gouraud returned to Paris the year after this article was published, in 1923, where he worked as Military Governor until his retirement in 1937, and eventually died in 1946.

Well, anyway, there you go. A brief sum up of the man behind the street name in the party district of Beirut.

Beirut #1!!

First off, sorry for the break in posting – my laptop died!! So until a new one arrives, I’ll be spending long afternoons at internet cafes around Beirut adding old and new entries. I’m actually at a cafe right now, and my alotted time is about to expire, but quickly, before I go, just wanted to throw out this fantastic bit of news I just heard: In January of this year, the New York Times listed Beirut as the #1 place to go in 2009. Yeah Beirut!!!

Authors Seth Sherwood and Gisela Willams write:

“With a recent (though perhaps tenuous) detente keeping the violence in check, the capital of Lebanon is poised to reclaim its title as the Paris of the Middle East.  Two hotels scheduled to open later this year are raising the luzury quotient – the Four Seasons Hotel Beirut and Le Gray, the latter from the people behind One Aldwych in London – and a clutch of high-profile restaurants are transforming the city’s culinary scene.  Traditional Lebanese cooking finds its apotheosis at the cozy Al-Ajami restaurant, while the glitterati settles into Hussein Hadid’s Kitchen, run by a nephew of the architect, Zaha Hadid.  But nothing symbolizes the city’s gastro-political awakening like Souk el-Tayeb, Beirut’s first farmers’ market. The market, founded in 2004, reconciles Lebanon’s warring factions through thier common love of their country’s food.”

I love that the majority of the aritcle is about Lebanese food. Yessssss!

Check out the article here: http://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2009/01/11/travel/20090111_DESTINATIONS.html

Sour (aka Tyre)

The alarm went off at 10:30am. Uuuuuuuuuuhhhhh. My eyes felt as though they were cemented shut, my entire body paralyzed. Somehow, I managed to animate my left hand and flopped it against the snooze button. What felt like a mili-second later that annoying MEEP! MEEP! MEEP! was going off in my ear again. That sound is like nails on a chalkboard. Although, I have discovered that any sound that habitually wakes you up in the morning – be it generic alarm beeping, a rooster crowing, or even music – begins to have that unfortunate effect.

Want to indulge a random tangent? When I was in high school, I had a year during which I was obsessed with a series of old musicals. Okay, it was longer than a year. Whatever. Anyway that same year, I discovered to my great delight that my CD player had a function that allows you to set your alarm to play the first track of any given CD. I popped in ‘My Fair Lady’ and for the rest of the school year woke up to the opening bars of the overture. In May, I discovered to my great annoyance, that just like Alex’s reaction to Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony after undergoing the Ludovico Technique in ‘A Clockwork Orange,’ the opening bars of the overture of My Fair Lady had begun to invoke feelings of nausea and irritation. And they still do. So I’ve switched back to the grating ‘MEEP!’ alarm so as not to forever ruin all of my favorite songs. A sucky but necessary tradeoff.

Ozge and Charles

Ozge and Charles

ANYWAY, finally out of bed, I quickly got dressed and rushed over to Hamra Street to meet Charles and Ozge, where we hitched a cab down to the Cola Transport Hub and tried to find a mini-bus to take us down to Sour (pronounced ‘Soor.’ In English it’s called Tyre – pronounced ‘Teer’), in the south of Lebanon. After some bartering in our combined broken Arabic, we figured out that while it was about $3 more per person, it would be significantly easier to just take a service (shared taxi), as opposed to a mini-bus down to Sour. So, we hopped in the first willing service and began the long drive down with our driver Ali and fellow passenger Abbas.

Abbas, new friend and our charming guide for the day!

Abbas, new friend and our charming guide for the day!

Before too long, we all got to chatting. Well okay, chatting might be an over statement. Ali didn’t speak any English and Abbas knew only a few words. Our Arabic…well, it’s weak, but semi-functional. So Abbas gave us Arabic lessons, and there was lots of laughing at the inevitable misunderstandings. Two hours later, we arrived in Sour, a city which, unlike Beirut, doesn’t claim English as a lingua franca. Abbas had an afternoon to spare and offered to take us around the city and help us communicate when necessary. How insanely friendly is that?? I love the Lebanese!

Herodotus

Herodotus

Sour is a port city in the south of Lebanon that according to Herodotus was founded in the 3rd century BCE. You know Herodotus – that old, 5th century Greek historian, ‘the father of history,’ who’s word on a significant amount of history we just have to take as it is, because there isn’t much else to go on – isn’t it amazing the power held by major historians?? Particularly the ancient ones. Blows my mind.

The Harbor - First view of Sour

The Harbor - First view of Sour

The first thing we saw when we arrived in Sour was the harbor, packed with small fishing boats. The city is known for its many ancient Roman and Byzantine ruins, so after a quick stop for some water, we set off in search of the al-Mina excavation site, where many of these ruins are located.  Down a dirt path and through a vine-covered entry way and all of a sudden, we were twisting our way around columns of an ancient palestra (basically a public gym – I wish my gym had massive marble columns! Well, I’d actually have to go to a gym first…but you get the idea – how amazing would that be??) the remains of a huge open-air theater, and Roman baths, all set against the stunning backdrop of the sparkling Mediterranean. Yeah, it was pretty fantastic.

Charles, Ozge and me at the entrance to al-Mina

Charles, Ozge and me at the entrance to al-Mina

View of the al-Mina excavation site - Theater in the foreground & columns of the Palaestra in the background

View of the al-Mina excavation site - Theater in the foreground & columns of the Palaestra in the background

After about an hour in al-Mina, Charles, Ozge, Abbas and I walked alongside the beach until we found a small place to stop for some cheap food and Almazas.  Bellies full and thirst quenched, we began a long walk back down the beach to the old souk, located near the harbor where we’d first arrived. The beach was full of families laughing and playing in the water, and I noticed, that many of the Muslim women actually go in the water dressed in full clothing, head scarf and all. I honestly don’t know why I was surprised, it makes perfect sense, I guess I’d just never really thought about it.  As we turned away from the beach, I glanced back and saw a little girl, completely veiled, determinedly pushing her way against the current and out into the sea with two inner-tubes to keep her afloat. Made me smile 🙂

Untitled

We continued walking and chatting with Abbas as we made our way through downtown Sour, and finally to the souk (market).  The souk was actually closing up for the night, but the smells of fish, fresh fruit, spices, shwarma, and pastries lingered as the store owners tucked away their displays and pulled down the aluminum coverings over their storefronts.

Downtown Sour

Downtown Sour

That seemed to be our cue to go, and as the sun began to set, Abbas put us on a bus backed to Beirut and waved goodbye. I was so tired from the sun, the few hours of sleep last night, and the long day of walking that I barely noticed the 10+ near collisions caused by  our maniacal driver on the way back to Beirut and just closed my eyes and let the hot wind knot my hair.

And now, I’m home again home again. It’s 9:30 pm and I’m going to try to squeeze in a quick shower before heading out to meet up with friends for Saturday night out in Beirut! Life’s too short to sleep .

And Friday I’m in love!

I’m in love with Beirut!! Today was such a fantastic day! Dude. I think Friday is my lucky day. No joke. I mean, in general, it’s a brilliant day. If you work or have class, all day you can’t help smiling because you know the freedom of the weekend awaits. If you’re Muslim, it’s the first day of the weekend, so that’s freaking fantastic. Really – there is nothing bad about Fridays. They’re just all-around wonderful! And here in Beirut, they’ve all been beyond amazing.

Manaeesh! Mmmm, boy!

Manaeesh! Mmmm, boy!

Met Omar for coffee after class and we chatted till around 1pm, when Omar introduced me to my now beloved BarBar to grab a quick lunch. Okay, BarBar is brilliant. My love for it rivals my love for Fridays in Beirut. It’s basically a full block of different take-out places in the Hamra neighborhood, all run by the BarBar Trading Company. There’s a shwarma place, a falafel place, a manaeesh/fatayer place (manaeesh is basically thick round delicious bread, covered in zaatar & fatayer (aka – spinach pie) is bread, folded into a triangle, with spinach filling), a fresh fruit smoothie place, an ice cream place, a pizza place, a sandwich place – basically it’s heaven. And everything at BarBar is cheap – you’ll never pay more than $2 for any food item. Oh, and they deliver. On cute little motorbikes. I LOVE IT! How I did not discover this place sooner, I will never know.

Part of the BarBar strip, by night

Part of the BarBar strip, by night

After eating, we each went home to get bathing suits and met up about an hour later to head down to St. George’s – a beach club in Beirut, just off the Corniche (the boardwalk that runs along the sea), that’s been operating since the 1930s. There are two main pools at St. George’s, filled with chlorinated salt-water.  Omar and I swam, tanned, talked and people-watched until closing around 6:30pm. Ah! Such a great afternoon!!

One thing that’s impossible to miss if you’re anywhere near St. George, is the gigantic banner, covering the side of the large building bordering the pool, that reads “STOP SOLIDERE”.

Untitled

I’ve been trying to figure out the story behind the sign, and so far, this is what I’ve found out: First of all, Solidere stands for ‘SOciété LIbanaise pour le Développement Et la REconstruction de Beyrouth’, which translates to ‘Lebanese Society for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut.’ Basically, it’s a group that was created in 1994 by former Lebanese prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, to oversee all the planning and redevelopment of Beirut after Lebanon’s civil war (1975-1990).

Rafiq Hariri

Rafiq Hariri

So on the outside, it looked like they did a lot of good.  Actually, the first time I came to Lebanon in 2005, right after Hariri was assisnated, Mom bought a picture book publsihed by Solidere that showed photos of Beirut destroyed after the war, alongside photos  after Solidere’s reconstruction projects. We were impressed.

But, what, to me, as a passive tourist, looked pretty on the outside, actually had a kind of corrupt and messy process behind it.  According to a 2007 article in the Daily Star by Lysandra Ohrstrom, (Solidere: ‘Vigilantism under the color of law’), beginning in 1994, “…Solidere exchanged property rights from between 100,000 to 150,000 tenants and landowners in exchange for shares in Solidere itself. But after the completion of the rehabilitation the former occupants were guaranteed either the right to return to their property or the company’s profits were to be distributed as just compensation.” Problem is…most people still haven’t seen compensation, and going broke waiting, many have sold their property and are now basically fucked. Adding insult to injury, a lot of people were pissed that in it’s reconstructions, Solidere modernized the city, taking away from it’s historical and traditional character. They “…demolished 85 percent of the city’s memory considering buildings to be too badly damaged to be worth preserving, and denied property owners and tenants their right to return to where they were operating from before.” Not cool Solidere, not cool.

As for St. George’s  – it’s this fantastic little beach club right by the water that was one of the first in Beirut, and it’s marina is iconic here. The building that the big sign is hanging on, is the old St. George’s hotel, which was destroyed during the civil war.  The beach club itself actually just reopened within the last year, as it was completely destroyed during the 2006 war with Israel. Problem is, Solidere has blocked the owners of St. George’s from reconstructing the hotel, taken away their rights to the marina and sometimes have even blocked people from entering the beach club – all part of efforts to put pressure on St. George’s to sell to Solidere. Boo hiss. So yeah, from what I’ve heard thus far, I’m with St. George’s. Stop Solidere!

Having fun getting ready to head out on Friday night

Having fun getting ready to head out on Friday night

Anyway…after an amazing afternoon at the pool, Omar and I went our separate ways with plans to meet up later tonight.  A shower and a quick nap and before I knew it, it was 9:30pm. I got dressed for a night out while sipping on the red wine I bought at Chateau Ksara – yum! And at 10pm, I was off!!

Zeina and Salam

Zeina and Salam

Met up with Ozge and Charles on Hamra and the three of us headed down to Gem for drinks and good conversation. After about an hour, we were joined by Jeff and a French girl he knows from work, who’s name I’ve completely forgotten. Another hour and Omar showed up with his friends Salam and Ziena. Lots of laughing and chatting and shots made with tabasco sauce, vodka, lemon juice and topped by olives followed.

Half of Jeff's head, Omar, me and Charles squashed in the cab, but still ridiculously happy!

Half of Jeff's head, Omar, me and Charles squashed in the cab, but still ridiculously happy!

n1000985_34400294_2846312At 3am, with a good buzz going, we said goodbye to Salam and Ziena, and the remaining 6 of us squashed ourselves into the back of a taxi in search of the perfect place to finish off the night. We ended up at this swank beach-side club called Island, that’s part of the Riviera Hotel. Jeff got us in for free so woot! happy day! Chilled with drinks at the bar next to the pool, danced and laughed until around 5:30 am.

And now it’s 6:30 and the happy buzz from tonight is just beginning to wear off and I’m feeling completely exhuasted.  The sun is rising outside my window, the temperature is rising and my beloved roof rooster is crowing his heart out. I think it’s time for bed.

Sunset Pigeons

IMG_0378

The guy across the street from us – you know, the one with the rooster – also has pigeons. I don’t know if they’re pets, or if he eats them…But every evening, just as the sun is setting he lets them out and they circle the neighborhood. He makes this clicking noise after about 10 minutes or so and they all fly back down and into their pigeon coop. I don’t understand it, but I like it.

IMG_0380

The view from our balcony - the little dots with wings are the pigeons

I’m melting!!

Looking like an idiot hand-fanning...doesn't actually work. In case you were wondering.

Looking like an idiot hand-fanning...doesn't actually work. In case you were wondering.

One Arabic phrase I will never forget is ‘kteer chaub’ – translation: it’s really fucking hot. It’s 3pm, 90 degrees Fahrenheit, 32 Celcius, humid as all hell and we have no air conditioning. 90 degrees doesn’t sound too bad, but the humidity makes it feel about 1000 x hotter, and sticker. I live in front of the fan. And if I walk around outside for more than 15 minutes (which I have to do regularly), I am completely soaked – we’re talking literally dripping, clothes a shade darker because they’re wet. In this respect, I’m not totally Lebanese. I’m not saying the Lebanese don’t sweat – they do. But they seem to do it with class. They get this nice glow or shine as opposed to me, who looks like I’ve just been dunked in a water tank. If people comment, I should just say that I’ve come from the pool. Oh, it’s that bad.

Omar!

Omar!

On a happier note, I’m meeting my friend Omar (another classmate from ALPS) for drinks tonight at de Prague so that should be fun. De Prague at night is really cool too – it’s always packed, smoky, filled with candles, everyone sitting around drinking Almazas or wine, American music from the 80s and 90s blasting, and they give you cherries and apricots (mish-mish!) with your drinks. Nice!