Tag Archives: Hamra

French Nails…Lebanese style

“My new social environment in Beirut demanded that I be more feminine-looking. It demanded that girls look like girls and boys like boys. It demanded that I style my hair weekly at the hairdresser. Adorn my fingernails with bright polish. Speak softly and giggle often. Wear clothes that hugged my body, to show off my childbearing hips. No one knew how to deal with my tomboyish personality. My aunt would sigh every time I walked in with dirty sandals. My grandmother would shrug her shoulders when she saw me in torn-up jeans. And my cousins believed I was a hopeless case and that no one would ever marry me. How could anyone marry someone who only wore white baggy T-shirts?” – Zeina el Khalil (Beirut, I Love You)

A few weeks ago, I read this paragraph in Beirut, I Love You, and started cracking up. I had to write it down. I could relate to every single word. And here I was thinking that I was the only one thrown by the stark contrast between the ultra feminine and ultra masculine looks women and men sport here in Beirut. How arrogant and naïve of me. A whole series of conversations with my ex-pat and Lebanese friends followed as we all bonded over our recognition of this cultural trend.

Take my Arabic teacher for example. Nadia would come to class every day with her hair perfectly crimped, curled or straightened, an adorable, color-coordinated outfit, matching heels (almost always adorned with sparkling jewels or sequins). Even her eye shadow and nail polish would be colored to match her blouse. It was amazing. She looked like she’d just stepped out of a teen magazine.

And then I would enter. Panting and sweaty, 20 minutes late. Wrinkled clothes that I had worn the day before. Tangled hair, sloppily pulled back into a twisted bun, with long, curly wisps sticking out from all sides of my head, making me look a bit insane. What little makeup I’d hurridly painted on, visibly melting off. Yeah guys, I’m a catch 😉

Once, just as I was walking in the room at 9:20, Nadia, glancing at the clock on the wall, asked me playfully, “Colette, ayya seeya fiati leeom?” (Colette, what time did you wake up today?)

Me: Ummm…Seeya tmanee wah khumsah… (Ummm…9:05…)

Nadia: (looking completely perplexed) Shou??? (What???)

Me: (More assuredly) Seeya tmanee wah khumsah.

Nadia: (staring at me blankly)

Me: (whispering to Omar, my friend and classmate) Wait, did I not say that correctly??

Omar: (also whispering) No, no. Your Arabic is fine. Colette, she doesn’t understand how a girl could get dressed and to class in only 15 minutes.

Me: Oh. Can’t she tell just by looking at me?

Omar: (Laughing) Habibti, I think she’s processing that now.

Lebanese pop star Elissa, all dressed up

Lebanese pop star Elissa, on a normal day

So yeah, I don’t fit the stereotype of the typical Lebanese girl. In case I hadn’t already made that clear.

Me, all "dressed-up"

Me, all "dressed-up"

In my experience, at least in the States and even in Spain, little things like shoes that match your dress or newly manicured nails are things that girls notice, not guys. But here in Beirut, guys comment if you don’t have your hair done just so or your outfit perfectly accessorized. They’re not necessarily insulting about it, more often than not, they just want to know why. Why don’t you care about your hair? Why do you have dirt under your fingernails?? You should take better care of yourself!

And in an appearance obsessed, knife happy culture where nose jobs are the norm, I guess I shouldn’t be so surprised by the fact that letting a little thing like my hair or nails go untended, sparks curiosity. Okay okay, I’m exaggerating a bit – of course not everyone is so appearance obsessed, but there is a large trend towards this among women here. Enough so, that it’s made me a bit self-conscious to the point that I’ve become hyper-aware of other women’s style and my obvious lack of it.

So, today I decided to give in a bit and treat myself to a manicure and a pedicure. All of my friends here in Hamra frequent one particular beauty salon called Cherry. It’s right in front of the lower gate of Lebanese American University (LAU), near the intersection with Sadat Street, just in case you’re wondering.

When I sat down with my manicurist, before I’d even spoken a single word, she glanced at my hands and looked up at me and said, “Habibti, you’re not Lebanese. Where are you from?”

Me: I’m from California. But, my Mom’s Lebanese! I just moved here.

Manicurist: Ha! I knew it! You look Lebanese, but you don’t have Lebanese nails.

Wait. What? Lebanese nails?

And it continued.

Manicurist: (as she was cutting my cuticles and doing all that stuff that manicurists do) Yeeeee! Hiyati! Do you see this?? (Holding up a napkin holding all the crud she’d cut off and dug out from underneath my fingernails) When was the last time you did your nails?? And they’re kteer short! So short! Do you bite them?? Ya haram. Hiyati you shouldn’t do that!

Me: (Mixture of laughter at the absurdity of the conversation and blushing from embarrassment) I’m sorry! I don’t take care of them like I should, thank you for helping me.

Oh, and then we moved onto my feet. I had a French manicure on my fingers and I asked if she could paint my toes red.

Manicurist: (clicking her tongue on the top of her mouth and raising her chin slightly – a gesture that means ‘No’) La! Habibti, I can’t! Your nails have to match.

Me: (smiling) Oh, that’s okay, I don’t care if they match. I think red would be fun!

Manicurist: Habibti you have to care! You’re in Lebanon! I can’t paint them different colors! I can’t.

Me: Um…okay. French toes it is then!

Manicurist: Yeeeeeeeee! Look at your feet! They’re worse than your hands! So dirty! And your nails! Yeeee! Hiyati, promise me you’ll come back soon?

Oh brother….

Woman sitting next to me: Habibti, you look Lebanese. I thought you were Lebanese…but you don’t speak Arabic and you don’t have Lebanese nails…

Manicurist: (to the woman, as she (the manicurist) spent 10 minutes PER TOE, scrubbing, clipping, painting and perfecting) La (no), she’s American, but her mother is Lebanese. (Winking at me) we’ll fix the nails and she’ll learn Arabic.

Woman: Yes! You have to learn, an-  yeeee! Look at your feet! So dirty!

My beautifully manicured nails

My beautifully manicured nails

I have to admit though, that my nails do look beautiful and very clean. And for only $15, it’s not a bad deal. So maybe I’ll embrace my inner Lebanese beauty queen and get my nails done every so often. Cause come on, if I don’t speak Arabic and have Lebanese nails, no one will believe that I’m really Lebanese ;).

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Beirut, how I love thee. Let me count the ways…

Cagil!

Cagil!

About a week ago, my flatmate Cagil (pronounced ‘Chill’) and I were sitting out on her balcony, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and listening to Fairuz belt out ‘Le Beirut.’ Complete bliss. As we sat there in our white plastic chairs, our feet propped up on the rusty steel railing, red wine dribbling down our chins (well, my chin – Cagil doesn’t have the same problems I do with spills and messes) we tried to figure out what it is that makes this disorganized city, so full of contradictions, so special – why do we love it so much? And although we couldn’t quite pinpoint one specific thing, we did manage to cover a whole spew of things that are uniquely and wonderfully ‘Beirut.’

  • Constant power outages that leave you peeing in the dark, locked in café with electric doors, sweltering without air conditioning, and cursing your dead computer battery
  • Completely veiled women with bright purple platform heels peeking out beneath their burquas.
  • Cold (aka luke warm) showers on a sticky summer afternoon
  • Grilled ham, cheese and tomato sandwiches from Dany’s
  • Meeting at least one new person every day
  • Joking about my former unibrow and mustache with people who can honestly relate (we Lebanese are a rather hairy people)

    My natural eyebrows

    My natural eyebrows

  • Amazing people from all over Lebanon and the world who are willing to open up completely; who become your best friend, your soul mate in only a few days time
  • Stores that appear and disappear in a month’s time

    M'juddera

    M'juddera

  • Popping olives like candy while we dance around the kitchen, Louis Armstrong playing from my laptop, cooking m’juddera (lentils and rice – by the way – LOVE that its called mmmmm judera cause it really is muah-ha mmmmm boy delicious) with friends
  • The world’s S   L   O   W   E   S   T and most expensive internet connection
  • Walking south, while taxis driving north honk at you and offer you a ride
  • Six people jammed in the back of a Service (shared taxi)
  • Eating three meals a day at BarBar
  • The hilarious but inevitable realization that after eating three meals a day at BarBar, even your sweat has begun to smell like garlic
  • Seemingly sweat-free Lebanese women with perfect nails, hair, skin and clothes, strutting down Hamra
  • Spending long afternoons at Ants, browsing jewelry and dresses or just chilling and drinking tea with Fahan, Sebouh, Karen, Raghda and Noor
  • Countless marriage proposals from taxi drivers
  • Iced coffee at Café Younes with a constantly growing group of friends
  • Singing along while friends play guitar and drink cocktails on your roof

    May and Leila enjoying fruit cocktails for breakfast

    May and Leila enjoying fruit cocktails for breakfast

  • Fruit cocktails (an assortment of sliced fresh fruit topped with a sugary syrup, sweet white cheese, pistachio nuts, almonds and a slice of avocado – AH! Too good!)
  • Friday night concerts by ‘Chahadine Ya Baladna’ at Walimat
  • Techno dance parties in the back of taxi cabs…complete with flashing lights…at 3pm
  • Silent old movies screened with subtitles on the walls of De Prague
  • An unhealthy obsession with Knafe

    Knafe!!

    Knafe!!

  • Old men, sitting outside cafes in white plastic chairs playing backgammon or smoking
  • Communal water bottles on mini buses
  • Sitting on my orange sheets with friends in my room, drinking wine, eating chocolate, talking and cracking each other up until the wee hours of the morning

    Me, wrapped in my orange sheets, and so happy!

    Me, wrapped in my orange sheets, and so happy!

  • That newfound, deep and unconditional love we have all developed for air conditioners
  • That renewed, deep and unconditional hatred we have all developed for mosquitoes
  • The first fresh figs at the end of August
  • My infamous fig binges have earned me the nickname 'Teeny,' which in Arabic means 'My fig'

    My infamous fig binges have earned me the nickname 'Teeny,' which in Arabic means 'My fig'

  • Eating figs until your stomach starts to gurgle and you come to the terrifying realization that you can fart on cue
  • Long, intimate evenings with Señor Hamam (Hamam = Toilet in Arabic) after binging on figs
  • Realizing that you’ve never before talked about your bowel movements on such a regular basis
  • Dancing with Omar at Oceana

    Dancing with Omar at Oceana

  • Sipping an ice-cold Almaza with friends at Barometre and snacking on an assortment of Lebanese dishes (mezze)
  • Dancing all day in the pool at one of Beirut’s beach clubs
  • Being offered tissues by random strangers, blown away by how completely drenched in sweat you’ve allowed yourself to become
  • Ordering an obscene amount of food from Kabab-ji…and devouring every last bite
  • Lazy days in the pool with friends that you’ve known for a few days, but feel like you’ve known for years

    Farah, Rianne, me and Leila floating in the pool at Sporting

    Farah, Rianne, me and Leila floating in the pool at Sporting

  • Sitting on the balcony with Cagil, drinking wine, discussing what makes us happy in Beirut

Broccoli and Beers

Today, it was 31 degrees Celsius, 86 Fahrenheit – HOT and HUMID.  But whatever, I’m in a good mood! It’s Friday! My internship with ‘Time Out Beirut’ is going really well and I may have found a new apartment (they’re tearing down our beautiful building to build a parking lot – sucks.).

Beirut I Love YouRight now, I’m reading this book called ‘Beirut, I Love You,’ by the Lebanese writer Zeina el Khalil. It’s a memoir, written about her time in Beirut – friends, family, war, cultural trends, food, sex, love, etc. It’s a very quick read, but it’s well written and doubly entertaining given that I’m actually living in the city that she’s describing.  It’s like reading ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ in Prague, or ‘Like Water for Chocolate’ in Mexico – it somehow makes a brilliant book even better.  Anyway, I brought the book up because as I melted on my walk over to Café Younes today, I laughed to myself as I thought about a line from the book – “Arabian afternoons are like chocolate ice cream stains on the corner of your mouth. They are sweet and sticky.” So true! Although, I have to admit, chocolate ice cream smells a lot better than BO…

I spent a relaxed afternoon at Younes today writing and researching for Time Out, and just when I was beginning to crave good company and conversation Rianne showed up, followed soon after by Farah.  Michael joined us a bit later, Tara stopped by to say hello. I know that Hamra is a small neighborhood, and I know that after some time my opinion of it may change, but for now the small size doesn’t feel claustrophobic at all – just cozy, familiar and homey.  I love that everywhere I go now I run into people I know. Plus, I’m constantly meeting new people – the friend you ran into randomly at Younes introduces you to an acquaintance of theirs, who you randomly bump into at Ta Marbuta, where he or she introduces you to someone else new. Everyone here is just so friendly and open, and I love them for that.

Working with Rianne and Michael at Younes

Working with Rianne and Michael at Younes

Around 6pm, hungry and ready for a change of scenery, Farah and I headed back to the apartment to cook ourselves some dinner. I always know it’s time to go grocery shopping when the only thing I have left in the house is broccoli….yeah, it’s time to go grocery shopping. So while Farah got dressed to meet her dad, who flew in tonight, I boiled up some broccoli and heated up some Maklouta, a kind of mixed bean stew.

Farah and I!

Farah and I!

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Albert Broccoli

Albert Broccoli

As I stood over the steamy stove top, waiting for my watch pot to boil and wishing for a fan, I started laughing to myself. About a year ago I had a random conversation with a friend about Albert Broccoli, the producer of the original James Bond films. At the 1981 Oscars, Roger Moore presented Broccoli with the Irving G. Thalberg award (given to creative producers), and commented that Broccoli’s Italian grandfather had introduced the vegetable to America when he immigrated to the States in the early 1800s. I don’t know if it’s true, but the conversation was a crack up and now every time I boil broccoli I can’t help but smile 🙂 Nerdy, and admittedly a little weird, but if it makes you happy, it can’t be all that bad.

Fausto and Rianne

Fausto and Rianne

After dinner, I chatted with Cagil, read for a bit and then made plans to meet up with Rianne and some of her friends at Dany’s for some beers. Rianne and her friend Fausto had just been to an Arab Tango show at a theater on Rue Hamra. It sounded fantastic – I’ll have to see if I can get tickets for next weekend…
IMG_0584

In case you hadn't noticed that the wall moved...

In case you hadn't noticed that the wall moved...

I really love Dany’s. My friend Ali is a DJ there and he introduced me to the bar a few weeks ago. It’s cozy and small – actually used to be a lot smaller – about a month ago they broke down one of the walls and added an extra room to the bar. Dany’s is a meeting place for the young, liberal, intellectual crowd in Beirut, and it has a devoted group of regulars. The walls are covered with writing and doodles, there are rotating DJs, so the music is constantly changing, tasty food, cheap beers and plenty of good company. A really chill place and always a good time.

Fausto, Rianne, me and Leila at Dany's

Fausto, Rianne, me and Leila at Dany's

Chatting with Leila

Chatting with Leila

Later in the evening we were joined by my flatmates Michael and Nadim, Rianne’s friend Leila, Nadim’s friend Jenny, Ali stopped in for a bit – it was a great mix of people and a fantastic night, complete with a grilled ham, cheese and tomato sandwich (yes, they have food at Dany’s – I need nothing more from a bar ;)). I love what an international bunch we are too – I’m Lebanese/Irish American, Rianne is Dutch, Fausto is Indian/Italian, Leila is Iranian American, Michael is Lebanese/Palestinian Dutch, Nadim is Lebanese but grew up in the UAE. Everyone speaks a mix of languages and has traveled to so many interesting places. Ah! So amazing!! We all chatted, laughed, danced, snacked on chick peas and olives, and sipped Almazas till 3:30am when I finally had to turn in for the night. Life is gooooood!

And one last photo from tonight, just to make you smile:

Jenny and her amazing shirt!

Jenny and her amazing shirt! I instantly loved this girl!

I’m baaaack!

Ha! I’m alive again my friends! Yesterday was my first Friday night out in 3 weeks! I have beaten the flu, finally eradicated all signs of food poisoning from my system and slept off the insane post-sickness fatigue inspired by both. Now to make up for lost time!

Charles!

Charles!

20081113_napoletana-logoYesterday, I began the night by having a pizza dinner with Charles at Napoletana, an Italian chain restaurant here in Beirut. Granted, by Lebanese standards, it’s a little overpriced  – for a pizza and a beer you’ll end up dropping about $16 – but the atmosphere is nice and the vegetarian pizza is pretty damn good. No, I’m not a vegetarian, have no fear. I just like kteer khudra (lots o’ veggies) on my pizza. Plus, the branch we went to is on Hamra street – the main street running though the neighborhood of Hamra (university district here in Beirut) – so there’s always plenty of quality people-watching to be enjoyed. Around 10pm, happy and full for the first time in weeks and with plans to meet up with Charles again in a few hours time, I walked home with my two leftover slices of pizza sliding around in an oversized take-away box.

Charles called at midnight just as I was being pulled into the death grip of that hazy, sleepy state of mind that sucks you into your bed, preventing you from enjoying all the night has to offer.  But somehow I rallied, chugged a red bull (shukrun Charles!) and met Charles at Walimat Wardeh, a fantastic restaurant/bar in Hamra that I have come to know and love.

Walimat Wardeh! (Written in Arabic, in case you hadn't already guessed)

Walimat Wardeh! (Written in Arabic, in case you hadn't already guessed)

Walimat Wardeh, also known simply as ‘Walimat’ or ‘Wardeh,’ has been around for 14 years now, which is really saying something in Beirut where stores, bars and restaurants seem to appear and disappear on a regular basis. It was opened by a man named Wardeh Hawaz in 1995, on the ground floor of a charming house on Makdissi Street.

The amazing thing about this place is that it really feels like someone’s home. Someone’s beautiful home. There are stained glass windows and eye-catching tile floors that change patterns as you go from room to room.  During the day, it’s a cozy place to go for a hot meal and free internet, and at night it explodes with character and energy as intellectuals mix with a trendy young crowd, drinking and listening to a fun mix of music.

Charles, trying to decipher the Arabic menu during lunch at Walimat, on a different day

Charles, trying to decipher the Arabic menu during lunch at Walimat, on a different day

The restaurant serves delicious, home-cooked, traditional Lebanese meals that awaken memories of your grandmother’s cooking. Well, if you’re lucky enough to have a Lebanese Tita (grandmother) 😉 YUM! I love you, Tita! The menu is handwritten on blackboards in English and Arabic, changes regularly and is reasonably priced.  For 10,000 Lira (about $6.50) you can get a main course meal that will fill you right up and leave you beaming.

Charles and I came at night though, when the music was pumping and overflow guests were pouring out onto the sidewalk.  We managed to squeeze our way through the crowds, bought some drinks and found standing room near the band that was performing that night.  The band was called Ziad Sahab & Chahadin ya baladna‘ and their music was fantastic. They actually play at Walimat every Friday.  I should become a groupie! I only wish I’d known about them before I came – I would have bought a CD and memorized all the lyrics. As I was, I was kind of out of place given that everyone else in the place seemed to know all their songs by heart. They play fantastic Arabic music and everyone in Walimat was bouncing, dancing and singing along. Ah! It was such a great night!

Chahadin ya Baladna - L-R: Ahmad Khateeb, Bashar Farran, Ziyad and Ghassan Sahhab

Chahadin ya Baladna - L-R: Ahmad Khateeb, Bashar Farran, Ziyad and Ghassan Sahhab

Once the concert finished, Charles and I headed over to Dany’s for some more drinks and quality conversation. Ali was DJ-ing, which is always a treat because he has fantastic taste in music. So Charles and I chilled, listened to the Doors and the Clash and talked about everything from Beirut, to politics, to movies and music, to friends and the good times we had in Cyprus.

May and Michael

May and Michael

Around 2am, craving a change of pace, we headed over to the apartment of May and Alexa, two other ex-pats interning this summer at the Daily Star, Lebanon’s main English newspaper. My flat-mate Michael was there as well and the four of us chatted, listened to music and drank wine straight from the bottle until 4:30am when we really couldn’t keep our eyes open any longer.  The morning call to prayer from a nearby mosque kept me company on my walk home and as I crawled into bed (after wolfing down my left-over pizza – yesssss!) I was grinning from ear to ear. Hey, Beirut! I’m baaaack!

Mountain Villages, Castles and Booza in the Shouf

Ozge!

Ozge!

Ozge is leaving for Turkey on Tuesday! The beginning of the end. It seems that many of the people I’ve met here over the past couple of weeks are half & half’s like me, or political science students with a particular interest in the Middle East, here doing an internship – regardless, the one thing they all seem to have in common is that they’re all only here for the summer. Rats. It’s okay – I’ll just have to make the most out of my time with them, their last few weeks here!

So today was declared Ozge’s day and I promised to go along with whatever plans she made. Which is actually awesome for me because Ozge always seems to make amazing plans.

Last night, before I left Dany’s the two of us decided to meet up at 11:30 am on Hamra street and make another day trip to somewhere in Lebanon. Up late as usual, I rushed to get dressed and picked up two manaeesh with vegetables for us for breakfast, and hurried over to find Ozge waiting patiently for me with a cup of coffee for each of us. Mmmm boy! Great minds think alike! We were off to a good start!

Untitled We headed down to the Cola transport hub where we met up with two friends of Ozge’s, an Australian guy and an Irish guy, whose names I have embarrassingly forgotten. Ozge wanted to explore the Shouf – a mountain range southeast of Beirut that is part of the Mount Lebanon Range. So we headed off in a shared taxi for the village of Deir al-Qamar (Pronounced ‘Dare al Um-ar’ – in the Lebanese dialect of Arabic they almost always drop the ‘q’ sound, in case you were wondering – which I’m sure you weren’t, but now you know. Don’t ‘cha feel lucky?), a small village in the Shouf, which Lonely Planet describes as “one of Lebanon’s prettiest villages…and one of the best-preserved examples of 17th and 18th century provincial architecture in the country.” Good plan!

The beautiful Shouf

The beautiful Shouf

The drive up from boiling Beirut into the considerably cooler green mountains was beautiful and when we weren’t chatting or checking out the view, I read up on Deir al-Qamar. ‘Deir’ means ‘monastery’ and ‘al-Qamar’ means ‘moon’, so basically the name translates to ‘Monastery of the moon.’ I don’t know what the story behind that name is, but I like it! The taxi dropped us off along the main road in Deir al-Qamar around 1pm and we took a minute to orient ourselves and take in the sights.

View down the main road of Deir al-Qamar

View down the main road of Deir al-Qamar

Dany Chamoun wearing a shirt with the logo of the Tiger's Militia

Dany Chamoun wearing a shirt with the logo of the Tiger's Militia

Deir al-Qamar really is a beautiful city. It’s filled with stone buildings with red-tile roofs, assembled around a large center square, called Dany Chamoun Square. Dany Chamoun was a Lebanese politician and the son of former Lebanese President Camille Chamoun. He was born in Deir al-Qamar and was known for his opposition to the occupation of Lebanese territories by Syrian and Israeli foreign forces and for his role as a leader of the Tigers Militia in 1968, the military wing of the National Liberal Party (NLP) during the Lebanese Civil War. He and his family were assassinated in 1990, and in his honor, they named the main square of Deir al-Qamar after him.

Random fact about Dany Chamoun Square – apparently in the 16th century they held jousting and other equestrian competitions there. So cool! Now it just houses a small 19th century fountain that dispenses clean drinking water from the nearby Shalout spring. The fountain itself isn’t anything spectacular, but the ice-cold water hit the spot.

Main Square in Deir al-Qamar

Dany Chamoun Square in Deir al-Qamar

Okay, being totally honest – aside from being a cute town with an interesting history, there’s really not much to do in Deir al-Qamar. We browsed the small souk where I bought a patch of the Lebanese flag for my backpack and took a peek in the bizarre wax museum that’s housed inside the old palace of Emir Fakhreddine II, that was built in 1620. We walked past the small Mosque of Fakhreddine that was built in the Mamluk style in the 1490s and down a hill to the Church of Saidet at-Talle that was built in the 7th century, destroyed by an earthquake in the 8th century and then rebuilt under Fakhreddine in the 16th century. Whew! Actually, one thing that is cool about this city is that it has housed Muslims, Christians, Jews and Druze and has the religious monuments to prove it.

L1010105L1010106So with our tour of this tiny village complete (took about 1 hour) we decided to treat ourselves to some booza (the Arabic word for ice cream – such a fun word!) from a small stall in front of the Palace of Fakhreddine. YES! And the best part was – they had banana royales. Okay for you poor, select individuals who have yet to sample the delicious amazingness that is a banana royale, I will fill you in – sliced banana, 3 scoops of the ice cream of your choice, topped with whipped cream and hot fudge. HEAVEN!! Yes, ice cream makes me that happy 😉

Booza!! Banana Royale with pistachio ice cream! Ah! SO HAPPY!

Booza!! Banana Royale with pistachio ice cream! Ah! SO HAPPY!

After our delicious snack, we decided to make our way to the nearby palace of Beiteddine. Okay, and here is where we encountered our first problem of the day. Transportation. There were no cabs to be found in the bite-sized village of Deir al-Qamar and Beiteddine is 6 kilometers away. Oh dear…Luckily, there is only one road connecting the village with the palace and so we set off on foot, arms outstretched, thumbs erect hoping against hope that someone would be kind enough to pick us up. Luckily after about 30 minutes of walking a lone cab passed by and drove us, 4 sweaty, pathetically unsuccessful hitchhikers, to Beiteddine for 2,000 lira each. Score!

Interior courtyard of Beiteddine

Interior courtyard of Beiteddine

The palace of Beiteddine took about 30 years to build and was completed in the early 1800s. It’s massive and gorgeous and perfectly in tact. There are large courtyards with fountains, steam baths, intricate mosaic floors – the details decorating this place are nuts. It’s pretty awesome. I actually visited the palace the first time I came to Lebanon with my Mom in 2005, but I was psyched to be going back.

As we pulled into the palace entrance, we waved goodbye to our driver and made our way over to the ticket counter….where we encountered problem #2. Because of the summer Beiteddine festival, the palace closed early – we were an hour too late. Uuuuuugh! Such a bummer. So now what….We took a quick break to rest and collect our thoughts. On the walk + drive over, we had noticed a castle that seemed a little out of place in the middle of the Shouf and we decided to head back there and check it out. 15 minutes of walking and more unsuccessful hitchhiking later, we found ourselves in another taxi and on our way to Castle Moussa.

Exterior of Castle Moussa

Exterior of Castle Moussa

Okay, what to say about Castle Moussa? This place is a trip. So freaking bizarre! Basically the story begins with this guy named Moussa – Moussa Abdel Karim Al Maamari, to be exact. He was born in 1931 and was one of those kids obsessed with the Middle Ages – you know, knights, castles, kings and queens. Pretty standard. So the little Moussa is in grade school and the teacher asks his students to write a short essay on where they want to live when they grow up. Moussa writes about his dream of living in a castle – he’s a kid, so far this all sounds pretty normal, right? The teacher thinks the idea is ridiculous and beats Moussa in front of his classmates, who all laugh and ridicule him. Okay. That admittedly sucks.

So Moussa is so traumatized by this whole thing that he makes it his life goal to prove his teacher wrong and build himself a castle. And this is where the story begins to get a little bizarre. This guy devotes his whole life to learning about the restoration of old palaces and castles in Lebanon (he actually worked on the restoration of Beiteddine), and once he has saved up enough money, he buys a plot of land in the Shouf and begins, literally, to build his dream castle. He built the ENTIRE thing by hand, an impressive feat that took him 60 years to complete. This place has a moat, a drawbridge, medieval style ramparts – oh, he went all out.

Oh and it gets better. Inside his fabulous castle Moussa decided to recreate scenes of daily life in Lebanon with wax figures. All of which he also made himself. And you can tell. I mean, don’t get me wrong – it’s impressive that he did all that he did, but the quality of the wax figures – some of which move! – is bordering on 8th grade history project. But this dude definitely would have been given an A for effort!

First thing you see upon entering Castle Moussa - A wax representation of traditional Lebanese daily life

First thing you see upon entering Castle Moussa - A wax representation of traditional Lebanese daily life

Seriously, walking through this place was like walking through the surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy. It started out pretty standard for a historical wax museum – figures making bread, dancing the dabke (traditional Lebanese dance), welding, etc. But as you walk from room to room the displays just get progressively weirder. First of all, evidence of how traumatized this guy was – there is an entire life-sized recreation of his teacher beating him in a classroom full of his mocking classmates. What the what?? I mean, I guess that was where the inspiration for the castle began…And I thought I had problems letting go…

The infamous and traumatic beating of Moussa

The infamous and traumatic beating of Moussa

Another room housed a miniature representation of Noah’s Ark, complete with small plastic animals (lions, tigers…a dragon…and a dangling Santa Clause. No joke.) on a rotating conveyor belt, continuously filtering into the ark. And then things just got more random. Moussa must have been a collector of old irons, because in many of the rooms, there were multiple irons, arbitrarily placed on the floor. There were also large wax hands and large wax feet that kept popping up in display cases and on the floors of exhibits. What the what?!?

The room pictured below featured wall mosaics with a waterfall running over their surface, a stuffed peacock, irons on the floor, guns on the wall, an old woman carrying rope…etc. Ummmm….Why??? I don’t get it.

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I don't get it...

Oh and it’s not over yet…then the gun collection began! I told you, surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy – castle, awesome wax people, and guns! Well surreal dream of a 10-year-old boy manifested in the reality of a 70-year-old man….At least 15 rooms packed with guns followed. Random wax hands and feet were still thrown into some of the exhibits for good measure, alongside the occasional large display case of daggers, swords and Bedouin jewelry. I felt like I should have been high or tripping on acid to really appreciate this place.

Bellies aching from laughing and mouths sore from gaping at the bizarre wonder that is Castle Moussa, we all packed ourselves into a shared taxi and headed back to Beirut. But the day wasn’t over yet!  A shower and a quick nap later, I headed over to Ferdinand, a small bar on Rue Mahatma Gandhi for Ozge’s farewell party.

Me, Omar and Ozge at Ferdinand - the three best Arabic students ALPS has ever known, and my two closest friends here in Beirut

Me, Omar and Ozge at Ferdinand - the three best Arabic students ALPS has ever known, and my two closest friends here in Beirut

Ozge’s co-workers and friends – many of whom are my flat mates (small world!) – filtered in over the course of the night and we all sipped wine and beer, talked and laughed until finally fatigue pulled us all home to our beds. What a day!

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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

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 🙂

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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 .