Yesterday, I was sick in bed all day with the flu. I guess that’s what I get for going on and on about how Friday is my lucky day. I jinxed myself. Damn. Knew it was too good to be true…But, don’t fret! I was feeling a bit more energized today and when Ozge and Charles pitched the idea of heading to the beach, I couldn’t resist. Besides, if I’m going to be sick, I’d much rather be sick at the beach – you gotta’ admit, lying in the sun is much more entertaining than lying in bed at home.
So, we headed north to Jbeil (pronounced Je-bale, and also known by the Greek name, Byblos), to the beautiful beach club, Eddé Sands. Charles had been there before and knew how to sneak us in so we didn’t have to pay the ridiculously expensive entrance fee. Score! Once inside, we all slipped into our bathing suits and oooched! and ouched! our way over to empty beach chairs, burning the soles of our feet on the scorching sand. No sooner had we stretched out on our chairs, than Omar called to say he was also the beach – ah! Too good to be true! And just like that, our fabulous foursome was all together sipping beers and relaxing seaside.
Eddé Sands is pretty ridiculous. The place is massive – there are 6 pools alongside the beach, restaurants, fish ponds, bars, music, amazing landscaping, a view of the ruins of Jbeil. They host concerts and all-night parties. They were actually setting up for a wedding while we were there – laying down the dance floor, setting up lights and carrying in massive crates of flowers. Looked like it was going to be one extravagant bash!
Ah! Okay, side note – weddings in Lebanon. Oh my crap. What an ordeal. At a friend’s party the other night, I met a wedding planner. As she regaled me with tales of the MILLION DOLLAR weddings she organizes (no joke, many spend even more), I felt like a little kid enraptured at story time. It was unreal. It baffles me that people are willing to spend SO much on one day.
But then again, I’ve always had simpler tastes – after all, I’m the kid who would put aside her toys to play for hours with her brother, transforming a cardboard box into a spaceship and taking trips to the moon. To each their own, right? Some people take out loans to pay for their studies or to buy a house, in Lebanon they take out loans to look like Barbies and throw weddings on the scale of the Oscars.
Walking around Beirut, every now and then you’ll see a wedding procession driving by – the bride’s car smothered with bows, ribbons, flowers and fluff, all the other cars honking as they go by. And when I say honking, I mean hands slammed against the horn, never letting up. Actually gives me a headache, but here it means party party! Women in the cars and even passer-bys will cup their hands over their mouths and let out what a friend of mine fondly refers to as the high-pitched Lebanese yodel, a celebratory cry, which in Arabic is actually called ‘zalghouta.’
Check out this video of my friend Jad crying out a zalghouta:
Oh, and the outfits! It’s like an 80’s prom gone wrong – everyone dressed in the poofiest, most glitter-drenched dresses the world has ever known. Hairstyles that rival Amy Winehouse’s famous beehive for height and volume, with vibrant streaks of blond added in especially for the occasion. Sequined covered shoes that can be seen sparkling from miles away. The bling bling these girls decorate their fingers, necks, wrists, ears and hair with would do Elizabeth Taylor proud. And the whole ensemble is complimented by makeup that would do drag queens proud.
Everything in excess.
My friend Rianne actually went to a Lebanese wedding during her first week here in Lebanon. Later she told me stories of the ceremony, held at a massive mansion in the hills overlooking Beirut. There were rotating video cameras on cranes, candles everywhere, chefs ready and waiting to cook you whatever your heart desired. There was a massive dance floor surrounded by hundreds of tables, flowers popping out of every surface imaginable. And as a grand finale – fireworks!
Fireworks in general seem to be big in the Middle East. In Amman, Ramallah and Beirut, I regularly heard the popping of fireworks or firecrackers, most relatively small, going off at night, or even mid-day. But whenever we see a massive fireworks show going off in the skies over Beirut, my Lebanese friends joke that with each explosion the only sound the groom hears is that of the money draining from his bank account. I think I’m going to have to try to go to one of these Lebanese weddings before I leave. I have to see all this for myself…
But anyway, back to the beach.
The four of us had an amazing time – lounging, soaking up the sun, taking the occasional dip in the Mediterranean, or one of the pools. When hunger struck, we made our way over to one of the little restaurants where we ordered the cheapest thing on the menu – big salads (trust me, I’m not one of those freaky skinny girls who only eats rabbit food, but on a hot day this was just what the doctor ordered. Plus, there was chicken in it and the thing was massive. I’m just saying). Waiting for our food we sipped on jallab, chatted and laughed.
Ah! Jallab! This stuff is amazing! The perfect antidote to a sticky, hot summer day. Jallab is an mmmmm boy delicious juice drink that I would love to claim as Lebanese, but it’s popular throughout the Arab world, so really, I have no idea where it first appeared. It’s made with a syrup made from date juice, molasses and rose water. You mix the syrup with water and ice, top it off with pine nuts, fresh almonds and golden raisins, and switch between straw and spoon until the glass is empty. And Louis Armstrong croons, ‘Heaven! I’m in heaven! And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak, and I seem to find the happiness I seek…’ *Sigh*
Around 8pm, as the sun began to set, the four of us packed up our bags, said goodbye to Eddé Sands, and walked (about 20 min.) into Jbeil to explore the city and get some dinner. Jbeil was founded around 5000 BCE. Okay, coming from the States where no building is over 300 years old and especially coming from California, which didn’t even become a state until 1850, I LOVE being constantly surrounded by so much history! I mean, Jbeil is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities IN THE WORLD. What the what?! Doesn’t that blow your mind???
It’s an old Phoenician city and it’s insanely beautiful. I mean, I love Beirut, but this place just has so much character and charm oozing out of every street corner.
Just to clarify, Phonecia was this fantastic ancient civilization that was composed of a massive chunk of modern-day Lebanon + bits of Palestine, Israel and Syria. It lasted from the 1500s BCE until the 300s BCE and for a large part of that time, Jbeil was actually their capital city. Woot.
The Phoenicians were also the ones who created the alphabet that is widely believed to be the ancestor of almost all modern alphabets. So how ‘bout them apples? Yeah, these guys were awesome. All of their big cities were located along the coast because they were all about maritime trade. Actually the Greek name for Jbeil – Byblos – came from the Greek word for papyrus – ‘bublos’ – which was the main import the Greeks received from the Phoenicians in Jbail. Ah sooooo!
We walked past the 12th century crusader castle and through the old souk where we browsed clothes, jewelry, nargiles, postcards, handcrafts, etc. and each dropped about 50 cents on cheesy Lebanon wristbands. We popped into the famous shop – Mémoire du Temps – where you can browse and buy old fossils. The shop is nuts. It’s relatively small and every available bit of wall and shelf space is covered with ancient fish fossils – including one of a 4 meter long shark. Apparently it was opened by the paleontologist Pierre Abi-Saad, a native of Jbeil. Abi-Saad’s family has owned a quarry in the city for generations, in which they discovered thousands of perfectly preserved fossils of fish, most species of which are now extinct. Apparently, in the fall and spring, you can actually go on fossil digs with this guy for FREE. I’m going to have to get in on that!
By 9:30pm, the souk was beginning to close up and the cafes and bars to open up. Within a few minutes, the streets went from housing baubles and bangles to housing tons of folding tables and chairs that quickly filled with hungry locals and visitors alike. Hungry ourselves, we headed down to the harbor – the former hub of all Phoenician trade. At night the harbor is so beautiful – all the fishing boats docked for the night, the medieval walls and old Mamluk towers wrapped around its sides, and little lights from restaurants reflecting in the water. Very cute.
For dinner, we decided to go to Chez Pepe: Byblos Fishing Club. The restaurant is right on the harbor and is famous all over Jbeil for its fresh fish. YES! The restaurant was founded by this guy named Pepe Abed – a Lebanese man born and raised in Mexico. He moved back to Lebanon in the 1960s and opened his now famous restaurant in 1963. Apparently Pepe really knew how to throw a good party and his restaurant attracted the glitterati of Lebanon and the world – politicians like Czech President Václav Havel, film stars like Marlon Brando and Bridget Bardot, etc. Pepe’s was the IT restaurant in Lebanon.
Then boom. Civil war. During the war, Chez Pepe closed its doors and Pepe flew back to Mexico where he worked saving money to reopen his restaurant when things cooled down in Lebanon. It didn’t have the same ‘star’ power it once boasted but if you go now, there are still tons of photos on the walls of Pepe and his famous guests. Sadly, Pepe died at the ripe old age of 95, in the winter of 2006. Sounds like the guy had quite a life! His son runs the business now, and it really is a blast of a place – it’s so nice sitting outside and feasting on lip-smacking good Lebanese cuisine. You actually get to pick the fish you want from a large ice filled case. It’s fantastic! It’s served with tahini (sesame paste), lemon and pita. And that’s not including the wide selection of mezze dishes – hummos, moutabal, tabouleh, etc. Good food gives me such a happy rush and when we finally finished our meal, we were are bursting with joy…and out of our pants – luckily I was sporting baggy shorts. Oh yeah.
Happy and full, we walked back into the city center where all of the outdoor bars were now overflowing with people, drinking and dancing in the streets. We took a seat at an outdoor bar called Iguana and tried their signature drink – an icy cocktail, blended like a frozen margarita, made with fresh kiwis and vodka. So good! We sipped our alcoholic kiwi slushies and danced in our chairs to the music playing from a nearby live band, singing songs in Arabic, English, Spanish, Italian and French. A little after midnight, we were all feeling wiped out and I was becoming more aware of the fact that I have the flu. So we danced our way through the crowds and hailed a cab back to Beirut. You know, yani, just a typical Saturday in Lebanon…haha! What the what?! How is this my life??