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Return of a native for Christmas in Beirut

Day One….

We arrive at Beirut’s Rafik Hariri International Airport at an overcast December mid-afternoon, days before the start of 2012 New Year to see how the “Paris of the Middle East” celebrates Christmas. After 44 years, my husband was returning to his Lebanese birthplace that he had left as a mere10 year-old child, as the country began to struggle in a long and battered civil war.

Beirut cakeAfter pleasant Lebanese customs officials greet us and issue our tourist Visa’s at the airport we walk through the arrival’s terminal where it seems as though half of the country’s 3.5 million population had descended to welcome visiting family and friends arriving home for the holiday celebrations.

Outside, the cool December air mixes with screeching wheels, blaring horns, as orderly drivers pick up and drop off passengers in the tightest of spots. Our drive snakes through highways that offer a front-seat glimpse of neighborhoods spotted with bombed, bullet-ridden, dilapidated buildings as well as new, modern high-risers. Graffiti covered highway walls keep the neighborhoods separated from the busy traffic. At exact moment of the sunset, a blaring call of the muezzin muffles the loud traffic sounds – even the loud Arabic music broadcasting out of cars and trucks. Drivers in Lebanon are professional race-car drivers comfortably meandering through the labyrinth of highways and arduous, steep uphill and downhill streets and alleys while talking on their cellphones. Street lanes are mere symbolic marks – drivers weave through narrow openings any side of the lane they can find to reach their destination. Everyone here is in a hurry to get someplace.

Elaborate Christmas decorations and countless Christmas trees and fully lit mangers line up the streets as businesses with elegant festive window displays lure trendy, fashion conscious Christmas shoppers looking only for the best. By nightfall the country sparkles with night-lights while the outline of the Mediterranean Sea appears as an expanded blankness as we rise above the city limits toward Cornet Chehwan suburban neighborhood. Expansive newly built villas and mansions – some still under construction – hug the narrow, winding streets. Affluent neighborhoods are heralded with checkpoints where our car stops to turn on the interior lights. A young armed guard, steps halfway out of a small makeshift guardhouse to nod and wave us away.

Day Two….

The early morning daylight unveils an amazing sea-view from our balcony 750 meters above sea level in the Cornert Chehwan neighborhood. Large oil tankers are seen in a distance approaching this oil deprived Arab country’s harbor. Red-roof homes and high-rise apartment buildings stretch from mountainside neighborhoods to nearly the edge of the Mediterranean.

After a delicious breakfast of Lebne’ (strained yogurt), Lebanese green olives, Zahtar and cheese pockets and great Arabic coffee our hosts – my husband’s cousins, Maral and Gary and their family start our tour. A walk through the streets of Cornet Chehwan is pleasant – the air is crisp and the scenery superb. The newly built villas with architectural accents of Eastern arches and modern designs provide peeks of breathtaking Sea-views through their yards. We walk by the newly erected building of the Lebanese Red Cross branch, and the St. Joseph private school perched atop a cliff while our hosts wave greetings in Arabic to school doorman and a few younger classmates enjoying the early morning sun during recess.

Our drive through winding mountainous steep streets plunges us back into the racetrack traffic. Near-miss accidents leave us with anxious jerks to much amusement of our host. The country fulfills its reputation for a zest for living and partying that far outweighs the political tumult that has pervaded the country for decades. Lebanon’s 15-year civil war started in 1975, when gunmen attempted to assassinate the Maronite Christian Phalangist leader Pierre Gemayel as he was leaving church. The retaliation came in form of Phalangist gunmen ambushing a busload of Palestinians, most of them civilians, and killing 27. The clashes between Palestinian-Muslim forces and the Phalangists erupted.

The presence of armed military personnel in the streets, rotaries and major public areas leaves us anxious but most locals are undisturbed by their presence. Life goes on as it always has in Lebanon, a country which seamlessly balances east and west. From ornate middle-eastern archways masterfully woven into modern architectural designs of quaint, private homes with gated yards and vine covered shaded expansive gardens, to businesses heralding their offerings in English, French and Arabic – Lebanon comfortably balances both the European and the Middle Eastern cultures, cuisines, language and traditions.

We visit the historic Christian-Armenian stronghold of Bourj Hamood, a congested labyrinth of narrow streets with endless boutiques, gift shops, bakeries, churches, and schools as Armenian, Arabic and English signs come to full view. The densely settled neighborhood – today with a population of 150,000 – was founded in 1915 by Christian Armenians fleeing Ottoman Empire’s Genocide against the Armenians. As the community banded together, it expanded beyond its initial boundaries to form what the community is today.

Returning after 45 years, my husband was searching for the sites and sounds, and smells that packed his childhood memories of a 10 year-old who left a country entangled in a civil war. The narrow streets, hugged on both sides with endless lines of shops and businesses, were topped with apartments above.

My husband is excited to find his old sandwich shop — Falafel Arax – and disappears into the narrow shop to order Falafels for all of us. We stand outside on the edge of the store, watching the skilled Falafel maker from the window as he piles the mix atop a half-moon shaped scooper, drops them into a pool of deep frying oil where the mix quickly browns and pops to the top. A fast-talking, animated waiter speaking in a mix of Arabic, English, French and Armenian scoops the browned falafels, lines them up in beds of thin Pita bread, sprinkles julienned lettuce, tomatoes and herbs and tops it all with tahini sauce as he rolls the bread quickly wrapping it in a thin paper before handing them out to endless lines of customers.

Exploring the streets of the neighborhood we find my husband’s kindergarten where he reminisces about his old classrooms. He laments the disappearance of his family home as a casualty of progress – replaced by a new highway overpass.

Leaving Bourj Hamood by mid-afternoon, we are treated to our first Lebanese feast as we gather at one of Lebanon’s top restaurants, Casino Mhanna (Antelias Highway). Our window side table gives us a perfect view of the sunset over the Mediterranean Sea. Mhanna waiters soon fill our long, white-cloaked table with samplings of mouthwatering Lebanese Mezzeh’s – appetizers. The artistic presentations of each of the appetizers are as exotic as the tastes that leave our pallets with delights of distinct herbs and spices. Hummus, Kibbeh, Tabouleh surely taste very different here than back in the States. Then come some surprise dishes — a bowl of ground garlic paste resembling yogurt; freshly baked pita breads right out of the oven; Fried frog legs drenched in savory sauce of lemon and olive oil; tiny deep-fried birds – yes bony birds – in pomegranate sauce. Our children turn their nose up – but end up tasting and loving the birds and the frog legs.

After dinner, waiters lead us to a new, clean table lined with large silver platters of fruit pyramids – pineapples, tangerines, cumquats, pears, bananas, and a heap of pomegranate seeds sparkling like rubies. Before we can dig into the fruit platters, waiters come around with trays laddened with heaps of heavy whipped cream which they scoop onto our plates, topping it with swivels of natural, thick amber honey and top it with sprinkles of ground pistachios. Very low cal– no doubt!! But we can’t resist any of it.

The sugar overdose leaves me begging for thick, dark Arabic coffee. Soon a clanking melody brings a short waiter sporting a red Fez hat, armed with a stack of small Arabic china coffee cups – which he clanks like a flamingo dancer. Then taking his large, steaming Jazveh with an accented spout, he masterfully pours the coffee from high above into the small bowl-shaped cup. The aroma of hell – cardamom – fills the air.

Our feast ends at nightfall as we make our way to the edge of Antelias highway to stop at Hajji Baba Oriental Handcrafts store. Floor to ceiling shelves full of tapestries, clothing, Lebanese crafts, accessories, and more are a delight to browse through. I spend nearly an hour rummaging through the shelves and pick out handmade crafts, beaded table clothes and runners, a set of metal Phoenician statues, worry beads, and other paraphernalia. After selecting, comes the art of bargaining – a national sport in the Middle East. The merchants play the role of “you can’t find this type of workmanship anywhere else” while the customer threatens to leave without purchasing one single item. Somehow the fine dance of bargaining always ends up in mutual price points as both the merchant and the customer depart satisfied with promises for returns. It was no different here – the two women clerks played hardball as we bargained. But our hosts and translators – Maral and Ani – were both professional bargainers. After an hour, we depart with bags full of items we bargained. The clerks at Hajji Baba draw the shutters close for the night as we drive away in the endless traffic jams into Beirut’s nightlife.

The city is hopping with well-dressed clubbers in search of the next best cuisine, dance floor, or a gathering place – and countless valet parking attendants providing the best services at restaurants, stores, and businesses. A line-up of high-end restaurants, cafés and boutiques offer the best of everything for the small percentage of the population that can afford and splurge. While the Lebanese restaurants are the novelty for the tourists, the affluent locals prefer the countless choices of Japanese, Thai and French restaurants and cuisines.

Day Three

We wake up to the news of bomb explosions in Damascus – with full news coverage. The Syrian border is a mere two-hour drive.

The overnight heavy downpour and lightening show has not changed Lebanon’s morning pollution. At the edge of the mountainous road, we stop at a local terra-cotta pottery shop where pink, clay water jugs and coin banks line up the shelves on one side while on the other elaborately designed Nergileh – Hooka’s with colorful glass bellies sparkle under the early sunlight.

At the Storiom Saliba department store on Main Street of Cornet Chehwan, we browse through four floors of shopping mall with clothing, a mini-supermarket, an electronics floor with a great Café, and a Christmas decorations and housewares floor. With the US dollar standing at 1,500 Lebanese Lira’s – most prices here are comparable to those back home considering most items are imported.

Christmas Eve dinner is scheduled for later on in the evening, so we settle for a quick lunch at Sushi Ko in SinElFil neighborhood. A Valet attendant whisks away our car, and we enter the restaurant and are led to our table by a Lebanese waitress greeting us in Arabic. We order a few appetizers ($64 for 6 of us) and as we try to fight over who is going to pay, the waitress cheerfully remarks, “Ok, I pay, Khalas (the end)”.

My husband and I enjoy a one-hour, candle oil message at the five-star Royal Hotel –perched on the edge of the hill in Dbayeh as a perfect start to our Christmas Eve. The hotel’s mammoth glass and concrete structure hangs on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Mediterranean. The lobby, decked with a Christmas tree and elaborate ornaments and decorations, leads us to the SPA elevator where we are escorted by a young, slim woman who directs us to our lockers and then to a Zen decorated room for an hour of absolute relaxation. Across the SPA an indoor pool ripples to the edge of the tall glass windows reflecting the traffic rush of the highway below.

Back at our host’s home, Christmas Eve is in full swing by 9 pm with guests arriving with elaborately wrapped sweet dishes, flower arrangements, dried fruit baskets, and gifts in decorative brand name shopping bags. Our mouth-watering dinner, prepared elegantly by our gourmand host, Maral, starts with an array of Lebanese and western dishes – including a partially skinned sturgeon, meat pockets, eggplant and meat dish, Kibeh’s and more. But wait, after all these mouthwatering delicacies – Maral brings out a giant silver platter centered with a roasted turkey perched in a bed of rice topped with dried nut-mix.

At mid-night, Santa Claus’ arrival is echoed with jingling bells as guests circle around an elaborately decorated Christmas tree to enjoy gift exchange. The youngest child, Angie, is thrilled to start her 17-day Christmas vacation and become Santa’s helper. The night finally comes to an end at 3AM – when we all collapse to sleep.

Day Four

A long history of tumultuous political conflicts and civil war has left the country dotted with buildings bearing bullet and mortar damage. Yet as many new, modern high-risers, boutiques, department stores and buildings dot the landscape. The modern overshadows the dilapidated as Lebanon continues to rebuild again and again. And its population is never shy of enjoying life and living in luxury of the moment.

The segregation between Christians and Muslims is very distinct here. The Lebanese law mandates that the president of the country always be a Maronite Christian. For over 400 years Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire until it became part of the French Mandate of Syria and Lebanon following World War I. In 1920, France reestablished Greater Lebanon – a largely Christian mainly Maronite territory – with areas that included Muslims.

Countless mosques with high reaching minarets overshadow Christian Armenian and Christian Arab churches. Strolling in the downtown Ajami Square where the Clock Tower of Beirut sits prominently amidst Christian churches and Muslim Mosques, the arrival of sundown erupts an ear screeching competition between the call of the muezzin from the blue dome mosque and the tolling bells of the nearby Christian churches. The Blue dome mosque in the Martyrs’ Square in downtown Beirut was built by the former prime-minister, Rafik Hariri, who was assassinated and whose tomb lies here and closely guarded by armed security personnel with metal detectors checking under the cars delivering endless crowds of fashionably dressed believers. Valet Parking attendants whisk away the cars, as it’s nearly impossible to find a parking spot in the congested downtown Beirut area.

Day Five

Downtown Beirut has the feel of any large metropolitan city with its financial, business, hotels, high-risers, restaurants and quaint neighborhoods.

The seaside promenade which leads to the most western tip of Beirut is one of the most visited sites as the Rouche, the site of two mammoth rock formations shooting out of the sea stand as arched natural phenomenon. The streets are lined with high-rise fashionable apartment buildings of the affluent residents of the city overlooking a tiled promenade stretching alongside the Sea, dotted with tall palm trees that sway with the wind. Our walk on this rainy overcast afternoon is interrupted by sudden downpour that sends us taking refuge back in our car. But neither the rain, nor the stormy ocean waves breaking against the sea wall keep the local peddlers from harassing visitors. Offering anything from Chiclet gum, to Arabic coffee in disposable cups, to toys and more – peddlers, especially the disabled ones, beg for attention, sympathy and commerce.

The downpours stop us from touring American University of Beirut’s expansive campus (annual tuition $25,000), which spreads a few blocks, heralded with ornamental arched gates introducing “faculty” departments. Started in 1862, the name of the institution was changed in 1920 from the Syrian Protestant College to the American University of Beirut. The 2011 graduating class marked the university’s 82,000-awarded diplomas.

But no trip to downtown Beirut would be complete without a visit to Beirut’s Souks – a multi-floor, high-end strip mall inspired by the ancient marketplace where merchants offered goods. The high-fashion European brand name stores cater to world shoppers strolling the long tiled pathways of this open marketplace. World travelers mix with veiled visitors from Lebanon and the Gulf region all eager to find the latest fashions. The Souks’ halls and alleys are lined up with shops on both sides and fully decked with most elegant Christmas decorations and a tall Christmas tree that overshadows a Minaret in the background.

This was an ideal place for people watching – so we settle at the Balthazar restaurant (Weygand Street) on the edge of the Souks with windows overlooking the shops. The crowd inside the restaurant, a mix of fashionably dressed shoppers and veiled Muslim women, included trendy, stylish restaurant patrons sporting nose jobs, Botox faces, and fully manicured nails and hair do’s. Nearly everyone here smokes, speaks in fast-paced animated mix of French, English, Arabic and Armenian. Our humble “American” attire was no match here – we looked more like the foreign “helpers” that most wealthy in Lebanon employ from the Philippines and Ethiopia.

Day Five

We leave Beirut proper to explore the environs starting with Jounieh we stop at Dog River where a line of monuments commemorate armies that invaded Lebanon throughout its tumultuous history.

Our drive toward the Jeita Grotto leads us through dirt roads toward the mountains and falling valleys with breathtaking scenic views. With the recent rainstorms the river has risen higher and the site is closed so we don’t get to see the raindrops that for hundreds of thousands years have created a limestone wonder on the edge of Mount Lebanon with caves that offer spectacular stalactites and stalagmites, stone curtains and columns.

Traveling to the heart of the Phoenician stronghold, we head toward the coastal town of Jebeil, nearly 40 kilometer north of Beirut. Byblos is the Greek name for the Phoenician city that is also the “oldest continuously inhabited city in the world.” The city’s early Bronze Age walls date back to 2800 B.C. and the city’s antiquity is apparent from the cobble stone streets dotted with archeological excavations turning it to an open-air museum of Arabs and the Crusaders.

We enter the city through small bridges hugged by Phoenician ruins and modern business district complete with fancy hotels, pubs, and restaurants all decked up with Christmas decorations. In middle of the town’s center, a tall Christmas tree welcomes visitors. As the road weaves through cobblestone streets narrowing with homes on both sides, we arrive at the gates of the old town and a quaint port where a line of fishing and tourist boats rock feverishly in the stormy waters.

The archways to the Souk is marked with large wooden gates which reveal a line-up of stalls of boutiques and handcraft shops of merchants who have held businesses here for generations. We meet the Armenian mother and son shopkeepers Garo and his mother, inside their tight, narrow shop with shelves lined to the ceiling with fabrics, tablecloths, and other handmade items. At another shop, I find more of my Phoenician soldier statues and bargain a price for a group of them. At the spice shop I can’t resist the amazing array of scents coming from burlap bags filled with aromatic dried mints, cumin, fenugreek and more. Walking on the slippery cobblestone pathways of the Souk I wonder how in the ancient days the sea-faring Phoenicians walked these grounds and traded their good at the very shores of this ancient city.

Driving beyond the Port of Jounieh we rise up toward narrow, winding mountainous roads to Our Lady of Harissa marked with a towering Virgin Mary statue that rises to a 600-meter high mountain perch. The Telepherique -suspended cable cars – taxis visitors across the vast, open, deep valley. We decide the drive would be safer. At the bottom of the statue, a small, cavernous chapel welcomes Christian believers for prayers. Outside, to the left of the chapel, spiraling stairs rise to the top of the statue for a birds-eye view of Lebanon.

The next day, my husband and his cousin rise early in the morning to drive up to the mountainous villages where the two summered as children with their extended families. The names and roads of villages were mere memories until they became real places once again as they visited various villages. It was here that families escape during humid summer months when Beirut reaches high unbearable temperatures. Driving through the small towns and villages, my husband was able to find some of the houses that they had summered during the summers, including the one with the red door. It was still intact – and still with a red door. As was the small church, with its narrow bell tower. The childhood memories were real after all – and now only made tangible as new memories reinstated those fading away.

At Lady of Our Harrissa, we stopped to make a donation at the candle shop and picked up a few candles to light for our 2012 wishes – and for all our family members around the world. We also prayed for continued peace in this amazingly beautiful and welcoming country called Lebanon.

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