We chose Lebanon expressly for the food and the friendliness of every Lebanese person we’d met. This evinced itself even on the plane over from Dubai, where the woman next to me, Farah, engaged me in friendly conversation throughout the flight, bought me a sandwich to stave off hunger, and gave specific restaurant recommendations with specific dishes in each restaurant all over Lebanon. She formerly taught Theatre at the American International School of Jeddah, and now teaches Arabic, manages property, and manages a chocolate company in Dubai.
Travel slowed immensely upon arriving in Beirut. I’d already been slowing down throughout the trip, and throughout my traveler lifetime as well, but this time it was due to external circumstances. Brent got sick. This state of affairs essentially dominated our time in Lebanon to Brent’s extreme consternation. He spent most of our days feeling very sad – wanting to do many things and see many things and holding those thoughts in his head despite the reality. We’d have to change our touristing style. We’d have to miss many places.
Lebanon felt like such a land of contrasts to us, given our experiences in other Arabic countries and in Muslim countries. We chalked up a lot of the difference to two things – the fact that the country is around 40% Christian, and the French. There were casino. There were women. Wearing standard clothing. Smoking everywhere – we counted at some restaurants – usually four out of five at any table were smoking either shisha or cigarettes or both. Indoors. A profusion of waiters attended us at every establishment. It became quite hilarious to us. We would ask to order from a waiter who would tell a waiter who would tell a waiter to take our order, who would come and take the order and then communicate it back to yet another waiter and the chain would continue. Our food was hilariously served in a fireline with four waiters standing side by side passing the plate along. The contrast of the harshness of the Arabic language and French affectations was quite sharp. In general, Lebanon surprised Brent immensely despite or perhaps due to his extensive travel in the Middle East, and he happily bought Orientalism by Edward Said to understand this cognitive dissonance. For me, Beirut in particular was precisely what I expected – a bit grungy, poop on the narrow sidewalks, gracefully aging buildings, extremely attractive people wearing extremely attractive clothing and never in much of a rush, brilliant food – basically France with more scams.
Our first day in Beirut after arriving very late the night before ended up being our only day of full health. A packed day with a lot of walking in the heat (or sun, rather, the heat wasn’t so bad). We had a conversation stopping muttabal (baba ghanouj) and a just barely less delicious hummous with meat at the extremely swanky Em Sharif Cafe downtown with far too many waiters and lavender decorations after walking by the main tourist sites. With no other destinations marked out in Beirut, we decided to head in the general direction of dinner past the American University of Beirut, stopping in a cafe for some nice iced coffee. After a mediocre dinner by the equally mediocre pigeon rocks, we walked back across Beirut. I had already been swayed to the gospel of the Minted lemonade (why don’t they have any in Gainesville?), so I went and got one in the middle of the gorgeous Beirut souqs mall.
Heading home, we both stopped upon seeing a very strangely written sign apparently in Chinese. Under the word “blōō, someone had written something quite unintelligible and then forgotten a stroke on “青”. Our bemusement caught the attention of the young men who had written it, and we had a fun laugh about it. They erased the character on the left and I rewrote what they’d wanted “藍” and added a line to “青”. We were given beers by the men, then seated with a young woman who had taken interest as well. A very friendly exchange that was one of the highlights of the trip, though the conversation wasn’t terribly memorable in content. Brent and I have had that same conversation about language many times before. We were joined by the young woman’s two friends, who quickly took it upon themselves to write out specific restaurant recommendations and specific dishes – precisely what we’d hoped for.
Brent woke the next day quite unhappily. The pooping began. We lazed around before walking to an unremarkable restaurant at the top of a beautiful mall in that trendy indoor/outdoor style of architecture. Brent then requested we return to the hotel instead of continuing on to the National Museum. We did stop at a bookstore where Brent bought the intense book mentioned above. He huddled in the hotel in the air conditioning and easy access toilet for the next day and a half, emerging twice for dinners but hardly eating at all. Feeling pressured to order enough for two, I ended up eating for two. For many meals. Brent became quite gaunt over the week. I became quite round.
I found my favorite restaurant, steps away from our hotel, during Brent’s incapacitation. I’d end up eating there twice on Wednesday to the delight of the friendly waiters, then two more times before we left. The hummus is simply divine there, and the minted lemonade excellent as well. The waiters loved my drawings, and one even requested I draw him. This summer I’ve been acquiescing to all such requests despite my terror, thinking them opportunities to improve. With Brent incapacitated and depressed all week, we likely spent more time at Loris than anywhere else aside from the hotel.
We made a visit to a contemporary art museum in an old mansion on Thursday, then I perhaps too forcefully convinced Brent to go to Byblos on Friday. His depression and fear of incontinence prevented us from going anywhere, when to me traveling by taxi posed less risk than walking to the museum. We took an Uber through ridiculous traffic up the densely populated coast, checked into a new hotel, had a nice slow lunch, then toured the eclectic ruins of Byblos – with Roman ruins beside a crusader castle, Egyptian temples, and prehistoric walls and wells. Exhausted, Brent napped until a late dinner at the nearby Aswar restaurant, where I had Brent order what he thought we could eat – two dishes only, hummus and shish taouk, which disappointed the waiters (all four in the empty restaurant) and owner. They tried to pressure us into eating more, of course, but we resisted. Many times I feel Brent and I are too sensitive to others as customers. Maybe it’s an American thing.
Our uber back to Beirut was an intelligent and well-spoken former IT specialist who had become ironically overqualified for more IT jobs. He dropped us off near the shiny National Museum. I drew a lot. We were shooed out by the unfriendly plain-clothes docents five minutes before clothing, then walked back to the hotel by way of the closed Beit Beirut. Mindful of Brent’s stamina and love of sweet things, we stopped into a Cookie Shop to rest and had an animated discussion about the AP curriculum where Brent frustrating played the devil’s advocate. Dinner was very inexpensive at a bar nearby which I chose for the promise of live music. Here we saw a bachelorette party complete with ululating battle cries from the bridesmaids – quite the contrast, and endured the infinite smoking of shisha and cigarettes for two and a half songs.
We arranged a full day taxi with the company recommended to me by Farah on our last day in Lebanon. Nearly healed up, sadly as we were about to leave, Brent studied Arabic practice in preparation for our ride. He had communicated with the owner entirely in Arabic, with some hilarious portions of the exchange straight from an Arabic 101 textbook.
“What’s your name”
“My name is Brent, what’s your name?”
“My name is Mazen. Nice to meet you.”
“Nice to meet you.”
Et cetera. Unfortunately, Brent’s attempts to speak Arabic with our driver, Mustafa, were met with English responses, despite Mustafa’s English being the worst of the three taxi drivers we’d utilized. Brent was unbothered, however, happy enough that he was being understood. Baalbek surprised me with its scale and completeness. I think it’s the most complete and uninterrupted Roman ruins I’ve seen. We stayed quite a while while Mustafa simply waited outside. The place was absolutely full of Lebanese tourists. In fact it was something of a microcosm of our experience of Lebanon – full of Lebanese expats from English and French speaking places on vacation back in their homeland, with very few tourists from other places. An Australian bro was particularly enthusiastic about my drawings, with “You’re the man!” and selfies and generally bright friendliness. I noted sadly how the world has become a set of selfie opportunities as we people watched. Brent remarked that he would normally sit inside the Temple of Bacchus and read Orientalism, given more time. I’d sit and draw more things. We noted that I relentlessly create – writing and drawing and taking art photographs, while he voraciously consumes – reading and taking documentary photographs. Well, we both normally have similar food intakes, but this time he certainly created more than he took in.
With no food, Mustafa tried to look for Manousche in our next destination, Zahle, but all the shops were closed. Instead of stopping for a lunch, though, he took us on to Chateau Ksara for a hilariously basic (and fast) wine tour and tasting. Pretty awful wine, but granted we took the “Amateur” wine tasting. He then sped back to Beirut, taking us to the wrong Em Sharif first (the expensive restaurant) before taking us to the cafe downtown. I’d been aiming to eat at Be Babel for a while (it was alright, merely), but also wanted to give a tip to the waiter at Em Sharif. We’d wrongly assumed that tipping wasn’t a thing from our observation of nearby tables and hadn’t tipped on our first visit on Monday. I awkwardly stood around trying to explain my desire to tip, and they refused to accept what we had prepared. Back to one normal PEU, we ate a very late dinner at our favorite Loris, slept three hours, then took a taxi to the airport and sat at the swanky lounge upstairs to watch the sunrise over the departing flights.