Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Two Weeks in Lebanon: A Dossier

Being a partial account of my 15-day stay in Lebanon, with my family. Some names have been changed. Note that most major historical sightseeing, including the ruins of the Alexander Gate and Hippodrome in Tyre, the Sea Castle in Sidon, the Beirut Historical Museum and the ruins of Heliopolis in Baalbek, was accomplished on prior trips. This was more about...well, read on.

Number of buses you must take to change planes from Air France to Middle East Airlines at Charles de Gaulle airport: Two
Who on earth designs an airport that requires buses to get anywhere: The designers of Charles de Gaulle airport
Time delay due to lateness of bus, whose passengers included a visibly ticked-off head flight attendant: Two and a half hours
Best airport I have ever been in: Rafik Hariri International, in Beirut
Distance to Southern port town of Tyre, in Lebanon, from the Beirut airport: About 70 kilometers
Time elapsed en route: Two hours

Number of cups of Nescafe consumed by me over 15-day stay in Lebanon: About 48
Number of cups of Turkish coffee consumed: About 16
Availability of American-style coffee in Lebanon: Low
Reason I didn’t consume more Turkish coffee in Lebanon: More than one cup and I’m suddenly Ray Liotta in the helicopter scene in Goodfellas.
Response of Aunt Raja, upon hearing me wonder out loud whether I should cover up more to blend in with that afternoon’s coffee guests: “Eh. You are young and pretty. Why bother?”
My favorite in-law: Aunt Raja

Bottles of sunscreen brought to Lebanon: Nine
Number consumed: Five
Sunburns sustained by family: Zero (I am proud of this.)
Attitude of native Lebanese to sunscreen: Detached amusement
How to spot UNIFIL personnel at a beach resort: They are paler than me, and they glisten with sunscreen
Days at beach or pool: Seven
Diet staples consumed by my children in Lebanon, in descending order of preference: Kibbeh, lahme bajine, kafta, cucumbers, watermelon, pita bread, rice pilaf, chicken soup.
Diet staples consumed by me in Lebanon, in descending order of importance: Fattoush, tabbouleh, labneh, kussa, fish, pita.
Pounds gained by me on vacation: Zero

Number of treehouses in the locally famous garden of Aunt Hana and Uncle Zein, in Tyre: One
Number of ornaments made from Roman pieces salvaged from destruction at construction sites: About four
Likelihood of hitting Roman ruins no matter where you try to put a building in Lebanon: High
Number of ornaments made from spent and salvaged ordnance in Uncle Zein’s garden: Three, including a cluster bomb.
What my Uncle Zein made during the Israeli invasion of 1982, when he couldn’t work in the garden: A carefully polished coffee table from a salvaged olive tree stump
Dimensions of table: About four feet by two feet.
What my son and I found in the garden upon returning from an outing: A bride and groom posing for wedding pictures
What the maid of honor was wearing: A skin-tight black satin spaghetti-strap dress, over a nude-colored, tight, neck-high, full-sleeved shirt, and a hijab headdress over what was obviously an elaborate hair-updo
What the bride was wearing: A halter dress with a full tulle skirt and a tight, silver-embroidered bodice, over a tight, white, neck-high, full-sleeved shirt, and a hijab headdress like a white version of the maid of honor’s, only with a veil attached to the back.
My son’s reaction to the bride: “There’s a princess in Aunt Hana’s garden!”
Aunt Hana’s reaction: “Oh, it’s July. They’re here almost every weekend. Sometimes they call, sometimes they just show up.”
Amount Aunt Hana charges for use of the garden in photo shoots: Zero.

Number of car wrecks sustained while I was a passenger in Lebanon: One
Accident caused by: A man turning directly, and without any signal, into the path of Aunt Hana’s car
Reaction of culprit: Handed Aunt Hana her crumpled license plate and a piece of her fender
Damages requested by an entirely serene and polite Aunt Hana: An apology
Damages paid up: Yes (grudgingly)
Driving advice proffered by Aunt Hana to my husband: “Just remember that everyone else on the road is completely crazy.”
Number of cars in Lebanon spotted with people riding on the luggage rack: Three
Number spotted with open sides and children riding inside unsecured: Two
Number of motorcycle helmets spotted, in a country full of mopeds and scooters: Two, in Beirut
Number of cars with infant in lap of front seat passenger: Five
Number of cars with infant in lap of driver: Two
Number of car seats spotted: Zero
Number of car seats we hauled to Lebanon: Three

Distance from Tyre to Tripoli, in the north: 195 kilometers
Worst traffic in Lebanon, by common consent: Outside the resort town of Jounieh, north of Beirut
Possible cause of bad traffic in Jounieh, aside from number of cars: Drivers’ desire to cram three lanes of traffic onto each two-lane side of the highway
Best view on the road from Tyre to Tripoli: The sweeping vista of Jounieh and its bay, as you’re leaving

Number of black canvas bags left on sidewalk in downtown Tripoli while I struggled to strap three not terribly cooperative children into three car seats: One
Contents of black canvas bag including, but not limited to: A laptop
Hours elapsed in villa of our good friend Mansur’s uncle before bag was missed: Two and a half
Calls made by Mansur’s cousin Sami to ask someone to look for the bag: One

Transcript of Sami’s conversation with the doorman of apartment building in downtown Tripoli:
Sami: [Arabic] (to me) What was in the bag, besides the laptop?
Me: Um...sunscreen. A toy car. Baby wipes.
Sami: [Arabic] baay-bee wipes [Arabic]. (To me, slowly and significantly, both eyebrows raised and mouth twitching) What kind of baby wipes?
Me: (an embarrassed squeak) Pampers. (afterthought) Sensitive.
Sami: [Arabic] Pampers [Arabic].

Time elapsed after Sami’s phone call: About 15 minutes.
Number of black canvas bags containing a Lightning McQueen toy, sunscreen, Pampers Sensitive baby wipes and a laptop retrieved from a Tripoli sidewalk by an apartment doorman: One
Sami’s laughing reaction to profuse expressions of thanks: “I own this town.”
Sami’s occupation: Journalist
Sami’s employer: Al Jazeera
Location of the villa of Mansur’s uncle: About three kilometers from the Nahr al-Bared refugee camp.
Ressponse of Sami and other relatives to Mansur’s proposed visit in 2007: “Not a good idea this summer. The crossfire keeps setting the orchard on fire.”
Parting gift of Sami to the Nehme adults: One bottle homemade arak.

Biggest attraction in Tripoli: St. Gilles Castle
Second biggest: Tripoli souk
Third biggest: Al Hallab pastry shop
Purchased at Tripoli souk: Locally made soap and one pair of traditional silver earrings
Haggling: None. Price was already low.
Best ice cream at Tripoli souk: Scoops, a good place to get a massive dish of multi-colored ice cream while you wait for a friend (in this case Mansur) to bring your car down.
Mansur’s problem with bringing our car: It wouldn’t start.
What happened when our car wouldn’t start: A man appeared and told Mansur to pop the hood.
Number of times Mansur had seen this person before: Zero
What Mansur did: He popped the hood.
What the man did: Fiddled around with the engine for a minute and yelled, “Don’t you have a rag back there or something?”
What Mansur handed him: My son’s swimming trunks.
Man’s reaction: “What is this? Are you kidding me? Oh all right, never mind.”
What happened when the man closed the hood: The car started.
How long it took to haggle payment for the impromptu auto-tune-up: About two minutes
What happened next: An altercation with a merchant who didn’t want Mansur parking in front of his shop
Mansur’s mood upon arrival at Scoops ice cream in the Tripoli souk: Stressed
Did car continue to work after ministrations by total stranger outside St Gilles Castle?: Yes.

Number of times we got lost in downtown Beirut: Two.
Outcome the first time: Got good directions from a man hanging out in front of the Armenian cultural center in Bourj Hammoud.
Outcome second time: Said “what the hell,” stopped for lunch at a cafe overlooking Pigeon Rock, then followed the sea back to the highway.
Number of buildings seen with visible gun and mortar damage in Beirut: Two, including the still-abandoned Holiday Inn.
Number of buildings spotted with mortar damage on first visit to Beirut, in 2000: About twenty.

Location of Beirut apartment of my husband’s close childhood friend Maher: In Hamra, not far from the Corniche, and close enough to where Rafik Hariri was assassinated to have the windows blown out by the explosion.
What Maher likes about his neighborhood: “It has always been very mixed. Before the war, nobody even asked what religion you are. You found out at Christmas or Ramadan or if someone got married.”
Maher’s occupation: Head chef at a restaurant in Hamra.
Highlight of lunch with Maher and his adorable mother Isnat: Maher’s tale of a five-month stint as a chef in a remote part of Nigeria.
What the Nigeria job included: Slaughtering his own goats every morning and doing the marketing armed with a semi-automatic weapon. (Let’s see them try that on next season’s Top Chef.)
Maher’s comment on why he left: “It occurred to me that it would not really be all that funny to survive the civil war in Beirut and die in Nigeria trying to buy groceries.”

Number of international phone calls made by me in Lebanon: Zero.
Number of emails sent: Zero.
Number of blog posts, comments, Facebook updates or Tweets posted: Zero.
Number of movies seen: Four. In descending order of preference, Win-Win, Morning Glory, True Crime, The Kite Runner.

Return trip to Brooklyn: Uneventful.
How jet-lagged am I?: I am typing this at six a.m. EDT.


VP81955 said...

Welcome home!

TS said...

Lebanon! FATTOUSH!

I am devoted to Fattoush.

When this goddamned heat relents we are going to Beirut and vicinity, it is a plan.

I would say welcome back, only I'm here and you're there.

I must call you.


Karen said...

Welcome back-you have been greatly missed!

Be careful with that arak--it may cause burns no sunscreen can prevent.

Auto safety in the Middle East: none. In Egypt, they take out their headlights and replace them with colored lights. Traffic signal obedience is optional. Vans speed down highways with people of all ages standing at the rear, holding on to open doors or straps.

It sounds like a fabulous, fabulous trip.

Arthur S. said...

Welcome back!

Wonderful descriptions of Lebanon, really brings back memories of family vacations as a kid. We used to go to North India, from Delhi to Agra(yes we saw that famous white marble building) to the Himalayas, only time in my life I ever got to ski!!!

That said, I haven't been on vacation for...let's say a while!

StyleSpy said...


Now I want to go to Lebanon.

Welcome home, sweetie.

The Siren said...

StyleSpy & TS, y'all would dig Beirut, BIG time. And you have to bring your fashion A game. Beiruti women are very chic, and they do the "stink-eye style cruise" look that goes up & down your outfit like no other women in the world.

VP, thank you!

Karen, Aunt Raja lives in Cairo and told me the traffic there is "much worse," which I can scarcely wrap my mind around. I have been to Mexico City and it may be more dangerous due to the speeds accrued, but I didn't see the same amount of what Hana quite accurately called craziness.

Arthur, it was a very loose-limbed sort of affair, hard for me to adjust to, as I am quite a control freak and the Lebanese ... aren't. But it was good for me.

VP81955 said...

Keep an open date on your calendar the next few months. Robert Osborne is taking a few months off for both minor surgery and a vacation, though he is scheduled to be back in the fall. (Get well soon, Bob.) Robert Wagner is hosting the segments this week that weren't taped earlier, with Jane Powell doing honors next week and Tippi Hedren the week after. Perhaps you and Lou will be returning to the TCM studio!

I wrote more about it at http://carole-and-co.livejournal.com/426204.html

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Fascinating. Thanks for this.

Vulnavia Morbius said...

Wow. Please pardon my insane envy. What an awesome trip.

Gareth said...

Your description of the driving brought back memories of an intense week spent in Lebanon in 1998. The two most vivid memories were people driving the wrong way down the exit ramps on the highway, using them as both exit and entry ramps, and a gentleman driving a superannuated Peugeot the wrong way in the fast lane on the highway just south of Beirut. Oh, and the men herding goats across said highway.

But despite all of that I never saw an accident, and when we crossed into Israel (I was there as part of a thinly-disguised junket with the Irish UNIFIL contingent) the first thing we saw, literally seconds across the border on the pristine Israeli road, was a (thankfully minor) car accident involving a vehicle that had managed to find the one tree in the area. We had to laugh.

Welcome back!

Vanwall said...

Welcome back, Traveling lady! Wonderful dossier!

Laura said...

What a delightful description. Thanks for a marvelous morning read!

Welcome back!

Best wishes,

The Siren said...

Jacqueline, Vulnavia (ha!), Vanwall and Laura: Thanks guys. It's good to live in a place you like coming home to.

Gareth, I saw the highway maneuvers you described on my first trip but they were slightly more well-behaved on the highway this time around, eleven years later. In Tripoli and Tyre and even Beirut many of the narrow streets are theoretically one-way. As Mansur explained, however, which way is the one way is a matter of whoever has the bigger car or the bigger attitude.

Greg said...

The next time I go to Lebanon I'm looking up Sami and telling him you sent me. Especially if I lose my Pamper wipes (I use them for... you know what, nevermind, don't ask).

The Siren said...

Greg, I can only hope he comes to NY one day!

Trish said...

So glad you're back, Siren. When I checked in yesterday and you weren't back, my lower lip began to tremble. :O!!! Your vacation precis is terrific. Aunt Hana must have a gorgeous garden if she's got wedding parties there every weekend.

Rachel said...

Welcome back! Your family members and friends all sound like fantastically good company. Glad to hear it was a good trip.

hamletta said...

Glad to have you back, Siren! Sounds like you had a grand adventure!

Meredith said...

You've definitely got my mouth watering! Glad the adventures all ended well, including the return of the bag. The man who was able to retrieve it for you sounds like he must be about 10 ft tall, or gives the impression.

DavidEhrenstein said...

Welcome back.

Have you ever seen Skolimowski's Hands Up!? It has amazing vies of Beruit right after the Israeli bombings.

Yojimboen said...

In case you didn’t notice, the rapid extrusion of comments above should tell you how much you were missed. (Puts me in mind of a certain stateroom door Margaret Dumont once opened.)

Welcome home.

(WV - I swear - "Amens")

Debbie Trent said...

Smashing blog posting. I was thinking of posting my travelogue of a recent three-week trip to Lebanon until reading yours.

gmoke said...

Is my Aunt Minnie in here?

Welcome home.

Beth Ann said...

Oh, the food part of your post made me hungry, especially the bit about fattoush. I have not found a restaurant in northern California that serves that. I probably won't have any until I visit Mass this fall.

Welcome back to the States!

C.D. Thomas said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Fiddlin' Bill said...

wonderful, wonderful!

alidayi said...

Now I want to go to Lebanon. article

Welcome home, sweetie.

cgeye said...

VP81955 -- thanks ever so much for the news regarding Mr. Osborne. Seeing that big cream-colored suit on Mr. Wagner was shock enough, let alone the news of Mr. O's extended holiday.

May all be well, and may he return well-rested -- but in the interim, seeing Our Ms. Siren on the little screen would be very pleasant....

Armitaj said...

Hallo - I'm afraid I only look in here from time to time and missed your Beirut adventure till now. I'd like to go back one day; my brother visited in January this year but I haven't been since 1993/94, and that was nearly 20 years after I had previously been.

Mostly I was there as an expat kid in the 60s, after being born in Beirut, and mostly we lived in Ras Beirut, about 600m from where you were overlooking Pigeon Rocks. When my brother went back he got to see inside our old apartment, 42 years after he had last been in there!

Some ancient pics of 60s expat life here.

The Siren said...

Armitaj, what a lovely comment and link, thanks for it. The old Beirut has such glamor that clings to it, and the Beirut natives I know get intensely sorrowful when they speak about the old days, though they still love their city. It's an amazing place. Over the centuries it's been destroyed in whole or in part something like seven times (that's a definite guesstimate) and then, rebuilt. They're a resilient bunch, I hope they remain so.

Entropy's Bitch said...

Late to the party, but this sounds like a most fabulous vacation. Even with 3 in car seats!