Lebanon pt 1: Beiruuuut

I flew into Lebanon WANTING to love the country. I don’t know why, exactly; I had been to neighboring Israel (/Occupied Palestine) and enjoyed it, and I spent several years in the Middle East as an adolescent, so I was familiar with the region already. But something about Beirut specifically got me very excited, and even before booking my ticket, I planned on spending at LEAST a month there, New Year’s Eve 2018 until February 2019.

And it didn’t disappoint, at all.

(Although to be honest, it was pretty disastrous to begin with: the AirBnB I had booked for a month turned out to be merely a private room in a shared flat, not the entire flat as it was advertised. To make matters worse, the owner’s wife, who had set up the AirBnB listing, insisted that she had told me that it wasn’t the entire flat, and accused me of deleting messages on my WhatsApp when I tried showing them that no, she hadn’t told me. Fortunately, I found a dorm hostel for a couple of nights before moving into a serviced apartment in a MUCH better location, and getting a full refund from AirBnB…. Although untimely banking problems almost left me homeless!)

Street art near American University of Beirut’s campus (AUB):Although the rose-tinted glasses have since fallen during a subsequent visit, Beirut and Lebanon still holds a special place in my heart. My time there taught me a lot about the country, its people, and myself.

But pictures! My favorite shot of downtown Beirut with the Mohamad al Amin Mosque (aka Blue Mosque) behind:One thing I love about Lebanon is the religious diversity. Christians, Muslims, and Druze make up the majority of the population; the Parliament has a quota of representatives from each major religion or sect in the country. Churches stand alongside mosques (as shown below), and worshippers practice in relative peace. I think this probably partially contributes to Lebanon being the most liberal-minded and tolerant country in the MENA region.Beirut was also rated in the top 10 for New Year’s Eve celebrations in the world for 2018! Nijmeh Square in downtown was decorated with lights and suspensions, there were live performances, and fireworks were unexpectedly (for me, at least) set off at midnight. Too much excitement!Nijmeh Square during the daytime, after the festivities:Nearby Nijmeh Square, there’s an area with writing on the sidewalk in lights. This particular section roughly translates to, “Beirut has died a thousand times, and a thousand times blessed… One day she returns to her children free, Ms. Misnad, the capital of democracy and freedom.”:Beirut Souks shopping arena is also nearby:Moving west, you reach the neighborhood of Hamra (where I stayed) and the campus of AUB. One thing I love about Beirut is the stunning centuries-old mansions that are starting to fall into disrepair:Beirut’s Golden Years were in the 1970s, when tourists from Europe flocked in droves to the seaside capital. Unfortunately, the Civil War during the years after, followed by aggression and bombing by Israel, has left the city with scars: in many buildings, you can find bullet holes, reminders of the violent recent history and trauma Beirut has experienced.I never got a picture of the merchant himself, but this spot is where a man sold necklaces and jewelry on the street almost every day:I remember one evening, stopping into a local supermarket wanting only to check out their halvah selection. The guys working at the cheese counter were very excited to meet me, an American visiting their country, and eagerly shared various samples of cheeses and olives with me. However, they couldn’t really speak English…. So another customer approached and volunteered as interpreter so I could ask questions and let them help me. Then, the store manager came up and started chatting with me, welcoming me to Beirut etc etc…. Long story short, I walked out with halvah, an assortment of crackers, and over half a kilo of various fresh cheeses!

Meanwhile, at a different store, here’s a man making falafel at the local fast food shop Barbar:Speaking of falafel, I remember buying a falafel wrap one afternoon after my Arabic course, but I only had half of the correct amount to pay in Lebanese pounds… so I paid the other half in US dollars! The pound is pegged to the USD, and both currencies are used interchangeably; ATMs will dispense both, as well (although the user must specify which is desired). It was rather surreal!

AUB is renowned as one of the top universities in the Middle East, and its campus is stunning. It’s also a refuge for stray cats, with a shelter that feeds, fixes, and nurses them back to health. As such, there are stray cats running around everywhere (sorry for the lack of kitty pics):Past Hamra and on the west coast, you’ll find Al Rouche with stunning views:Moving north takes you to the Corniche and past this interesting house called The Grudge. Rumor has it that it was built during a feud between two brothers. One brother had a home with a beautiful view of the sea, so the resentful second brother built this hyper-thin building in front of it purely to block the view.Not a bad view he had. I can see why the brother was jealous!On sunny days in warm weather, the Corniche is THE place to hang out!Headed back to the east side of downtown, towards Gemmayzeh and that area, you see streets and sites like these:Inside the Blue Mosque:The National Museum of Beirut has some interesting pieces as well. Lebanon has a long history dating from prehistory, the Phoenicians, and the Roman Empire before the modern era.My new favorite coffee mug, exported to Lebanon from Greece between the 6th and 4th centuries BCE:Looking north towards Beirut downtown area from the south side of the city near Hazmiyeh:With the Mediterranean Sea on one side and mountains on the other, Beirut has got the best of both worlds. Here’s a view from the south side of Beirut, looking east:Towards the end of January, I rented a car and drove into those mountains, exploring more rural areas and other famous destinations such as Harissa, Faraiyah, and Byblos… which I’ll describe in my next blog post! Until then!

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