Thursday, December 2, 2010

Bringing back that loving feeling

I left love. I said goodbye to that goosebumpy, wide cheesy grin, sparkly eyes love-all-over-my-body feeling. But then, today, it hit me! Right there, while sipping ahwe from an orangy coloured plastic cup with a bus driver named Ara, amid the mountaintop snoubar of Fanar - right there is where love crashed into me.

Listening to Ara recount tales about his trip to Turkey paid for by el colonel, who sent him off with a plastic bag full of cash, and his (far-fetched) story about having been a shoemaker but losing two-million dollars due to Chinese imports making their way to the country, and then insisting that I get married soon because I just must, while giving me a private tour of Fanar on his empty 40-seater bus - right there is where love crept into my heart all over again.

Yes, Ara played a role in my reborn lust for life, but this time it was Lebanon that became the object of my affection. The Lebanon that creates wonderfully friendly, hospitable and generous people such as Ara. Lebanon's magical way of transforming a mundane hop-on-a-number-five-bus-and-see-where-it-takes-me day into the 'on' of what has become my on-off relationship with this country secured the love deal, and I'm besotted yet again.

Beyond Ara's double rosaries dangling from the rearview mirror, a whole new world opened up to me. Besides the smoggy view over Beirut, stone villas of Fanar exposed themselves from behind bright orange and pink bougainvilleas, and new construction projects competed for a better view of the Mediterranean.

The love story continued on the return journey to Sassine. I laughed at a taxi driver jumping out of his car to bliksem another driver who had nearly crashed into him (the bliksemming didn't happen), and waved at two kids dressed up in ghost and crocodile outfits for tomorrow's Barbara. The smell of car-fixing activities competed with the wafts of zaatar manouche aromas while en route through Burj Hammoud, where an old man sat sleeping on his white plastic chair outside his carpet shop.

Although 28 degrees on an autumn day, some women still managed to sweat through the tribulations of high-heeled boots, waving off a mentally handicapped man selling Fares Karam CDs by raising their perfectly plucked eyebrows. In Ara's bus, the Armenian version of 'Downtown' played through the speakers, fading out every time a louder boombox whizzed by. One of these belonged to a Posche Cayenne 4x4 - in gold, to match the gold dripping from the arms and fingers and chest and ears of its female driver, who hooted at the service in front of her, taking his time to find 3 000LL change for his iPod-listening foreign passenger who handed him a pink 5 000LL bill.

Further along the road, I daydreamed about the devastation witnessed in a house whose walls are filled with shell damage. Someone came to the balcony to shake out a double-bed sheet before hanging it on the washing line that hovered over the street. A flock of birds flew across the blue sky above, happy to be rid of the noises of all those wars. It seemed they were not as afraid of all the hooting.

A car next to my window hooted too. I turned to realise that that's exactly what the male driver wanted from me. I smiled. He stared. I turned to look at the old lady dressed in black stepping onto the bus. She was smiling while in mourning. I was smiling while in love.

Behind her was a broasted chicken shop. The chickens danced their over-and-over dance next to the fire, while the green-clad Sukleen man did his own kind of repitition on the pavement.

Further along, a family - mom, dad, child - took a helmetless ride on a scooter, dodging all the cars that were already dodging each other. Every wall-plastered poster they passed belonged to an event held more than 10 months ago. The graffiti artists hadn't covered them yet. Some were hidden by pictures of war heroes, politicians... a missing cat.

A police attempted to direct traffic by spending his hours waving a hand in one direction. It seemed to make him feel important even though no one followed his instructions and his whistle couldn't be heard over the combined sound of construction, hooting and Fares Karam. The ambulance was louder. But the only reaction of surrounding cars was to dodge each other faster. The policeman's hand moved faster; my heart beat faster. Someone was being rushed to hospital; I said a little prayer for them as we passed a shrine surrounded by cheap lights and flaky paint.

Some one was being rushed to hospital and I was lovesick.

Of course Ara wouldn't take money from me - neither for the normal 1 000LL bus trip, nor for the additional private 'tour', nor for the ahwe. It was his way of showing me his beautiful country, he said - just like el colonel had allowed him to see Turkey. I may not have received a plastic bag full of cash, but I think I bagged the best deal of the lot.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Relighting the Lantern

It's been a while, I know. A month and 10 days to be exact. A lot happens in 40 days that gives one sufficient excuses for not updating a blog. I won't go into the excuses. I'll just skip straight to the highlights.

There was another eat-all-you-can experience at Tawlet - this time with an Armenian chef; two run-ins with outbursts of rain (both times while walking in a skirt and sandals. If you know Beirut's lack of street drainage you'll know this is not ideal!); a visit to Tripoli with Mom and Dad to eat znoud el sit; saying au revoir to Mom and Dad (insert sad face); having three wisdom teeth removed on two different occasions and hibernating with chipmunk syndrome; feeling the beats with juggling cousin at a drumming event at Electro Mechanique; attending the swanky private dinner party for Aishti magazine's (now called A magazine) 50th issue at the newly redone People restaurant; having my hand tattooed in henna by a lovely Bangladeshi woman; resuming a one-day-a-week job at a university, only to be told I'd put on weight after two months of Mom's cooking (luckily I was informed by the same colleague this week that I've lost it again); on that note, enjoying many quick Asian meals at the newly opened Wok Box down the road, and doing a Mexican restaurant review; interviewing comedians, an artist who used his father's ashes in an installation, dancers, an activist working to change the law in Lebanon that doesn't allow women to pass on their Lebanese nationality to their husbands and children, and the president of John Galliano; covering a story on nude art, another on cosmetic surgery, and another on Beirut night life; attending the first birthday of one of my favourite local galleries Qcontemporary, the opening of Kromatik art gallery in Mar MIkhael, and the launch of a friend's debut CD with her band Sandmoon; taking many (many!) services and bostas; drinking lots of water in the still-hot weather; discovering the joys of ashta (the fruit)... and more.

Here are some of the 'mores':

Receiving a massive box of macaroons from Laduree with an invitation to the opening of its Beirut boutique store. Give me the liquorice-flavoured macaroon any day, anytime, anywhere!

Attending the opening of Samia Halaby's Dances in the Canal at Ayyam gallery after having interviewed her.

Visiting the first-century obelisk at Hermel with new friends after spending the previous day picking olives in the village of Kaa and taking them to be pressed into olive oil.

The view from the friend's house where we stayed in Kaa.

Being treated to a breakfast prepared by out-and-about cousin for all his cousins. We missed those of you studying in London, Madrid and Bloemfontein, and those feeding a happy-hands-and-feet baby in Cape Town (and of course the new husband in Paris!).

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Sunday walks

After a big Sunday lunch in the village, it's imperative that you take a long walk to work off the warra hareesh and kibbeh. Besides being a wonderful way to discover Daraoun's little zaroobehs (passageways), it's a good excuse to stop by Le Cremier for an ice cream on the way back. You deserve it after all the exercise!

I'm yet to see one of these rollers actually carrying cables.

Anyone for outdoor confession?

Gathering around a protected skedonk.

This is where all the cables are!

Daraoun's mountainside.

Beirut in the distance.

Saturday, October 2, 2010

Sour beauty

My perception of Lebanese people changes on a daily basis. Living in the big city is what confuses the topic. Down in Beirut, it's very rare for me to come across the kind generosity I've always stereotyped Lebanese people to possess. Years of holidays in the village had me thinking that all Lebanese people were friendly, genuinely caring, interested in the welfare of the other before the self. But my time in Beirut is showing another side to this society. A rougher, more self-obsessed, don't-smile-at-me side to this culture. I'm talking about the women of course - none of these men would turn down a bright happy-day smile!

I was having one of my 'I love Beirut' days on Thursday. Loving the chaos, the hooting, the bad-quality $1 shops, the construction works, smell of manouche, chatty security guards. I walked to my oriental dance class with an extra spring in my step, looking forward to ending off a wonderful day with a bit of a shimmy. And that's where it all went downhill like mascara running off a tearful eye...

'Oh Tracy! Where have you been?' I was asked because I hadn't attended the last two classes. I was about to answer when she turned around and started talking to someone else about her hair while looking at herself in the mirror, batting her eyelids and pouting her lips.

In walked in a lady from our group who I hadn't seen in two months. She walked straight to the beauty-talking girls, who immediately launched a barrage of questions about her red face (she'd just come from a facial peeling session). 'Did she do so-and-so to you?'; 'You should tell her to do so-and-so next time.'; 'Oh, I go for treatments like this every year.'; 'You have to look after your face.'; 'That's why I have such beautiful skin.'

Uh-hum new-old lady... I was looking straight at her, waiting to greet her after two months. She ignored the fact that there was another person standing two metres away from their exclusive beauty group and rather turned the other way to look into the mirror too.

Eventually, she looked up, acknowledged me, and went back to me-talk. After another bit of 'my beauty regime is better than yours' conversation, she said hi and I excitedly (and genuinely) said, 'I haven't seen you in aaaaages! How have you been?'

The reply cut my excitement short and ruined my dancing session: 'Oh, you haven't done your eyebrows yet. I told you how you must do them. Why haven't you done it? You're young still and your face looks like it's drawn down. You need to lift it up. You need to take that hair way. Two thirds before the arch; one third after.'

'Yes,' said the teacher. 'I told her last week she must do something.' They gather to inspect my generous eyebrows and shake their heads in disapproval. 'Why haven't you done it?'

'I'm happy as I am,' comes my 'I want to slap you right now you artificial beauty-obsessed women' response, and I turn around to put on my coin-encrusted hip shawl.

During the class, while trying to perfect a certain turn, another student comments on the teacher's beautiful make-up as she does a professional twirl in front of her to demonstrate. That's when I want to chuck my shawl on the floor with one, loud coin-dropping sound and tell them to catch a grip! 'It's not about makeup and eyebrows and perfect skin!' I wanted to yell. And that's when I realised I may never really fit into being a real Beiruti. I'll rather give that place up to someone more worthy of a perfectly groomed spot on the 'I'm a Beiruti' panel. Someone with two-millimetre thick eyebrows who's plucked them so much she now has to tattoo them in. No, I'm happy as I am.

Which made me start wondering about how Lebanese I actually am? Where do I fit into this crowd? A trip to Batroun answered that question. I fit in with the small-town village people. The people who take a genuine interest in what you're doing and who you are. The people who ask questions and will sit all day listening to your reply. The people who share themselves as much as they share their food.

Thanks to a spontaneous pop-in to Batroun's famous lemonade store Rim Patisserie, my perception of Lebanese people was restored. The owners Elie and Denise Becharra, and their daughter Melissa, made us feel as if we'd gone to visit them in their home. Denise sat down with us while Melissa went around the counter to get us some baklawa to taste, and Elie gave the men some of his homemade ice cream before taking Dad round to the kitchen to proudly show him where he makes the baklawa, ice cream and prize lemonade.

We walked away knowing so much more about each other's families than I have learned about the people I've been dancing with for nearly four months. When they said 'come visit' it was an invitation from the heart, not like the superficial invite from one of my fellow dancers: 'Become my friend on facebook.'

Maybe it's growing up in Bloemfontein that makes me more attached to the plat op die aarde mense, but one thing's for sure, when push comes to shove, I'll always choose lemonade over a mini facial!

Dad backstage with owner Elie Becharra at Batroun's Rim Patisserie.

Dorada Sur Mer

Dad's cousin's daughter's husband (yip, that's how extended Lebanese families become!) invited us out for dinner last night with some of the rest of that family. What a pleasure to step into a restaurant serving mezza with a seafood twist. Among the hummus and babaganouj, there were plates of fried calamari rings, grilled squid and deeply fried whole fish. Seafood heaven on the balcony of Dorada Sur Mer, an elegant restaurant on the Maameltein coast.

We could have sat inside...

...but I'm glad we sat here.

Sultan Ibrahim: deeply fried fish that are eaten with crispy fried bread and tarator (a tahini sauce).

Abou sin, a fish named after its sharp teeth. This massive, baked offering arrived once we'd already filled our tummies with a million other mezza treats. And after this we were still forced (and I use the word purposely, as there's no saying no when invited to dinner and food just arrives in front of you!) to eat cake and fruit and meringues with a chocolate fondue.

Dad's cousin, whose second name is Therese, was surprised with two cakes (sporting fireworks of course!) for her saint's name day.

I have cousins

Back in South Africa, I have no first cousins. That's one of the reasons that makes my year in Lebanon so special - I have nine of them here (well, I did up until last month when one went to London and another went off to Madrid to pursue their Masters).

This week I invited the ones who didn't have to wake up for school the next day for a homemade pizza evening. I love spending time with people who share the same grandparents. There's something very binding about that. I'm extremely grateful to my parents for making sure we visited Lebanon often as children so that we'd be an active part of this incredible family. My cousins were not strangers when I arrived in April this year; they were friends I had made over the years, playing kooka, rollerskating on Jeddo's staygha, making travel plans taht el mayseh, choosing rings from Mondanite, eating booza out of square cones, swinging on the balencoire while Jeddo lit a cigarette, playing bastra with Ata, competing in ping pong championships, drawing in oudit el jouweh, firing fireworks for Eid el Saide...

This is what I call family.

With juggling, smiley, out-and-about and bride cousins.

C'est fini

After more than half of their holiday over, Mom and Dad can finally enjoy their staygha (that's when they're not beaten to lunching on it by the workers now busy on the next house project: the paving). Thanks to Dad's gardening genius, wayward bushes and overgrown plants have been removed to provide us with a magnificent view of the the mountains beyond. It's the most relaxing place in (out of) the house, which is probably the reason why I found Dad sitting there quietly at 5am one morning because he couldn't sleep. We've already had an impromptu 'mabrouk' evening visit on the finished staygha from the neightbours, and Mom hosted the first tea party on it with all her aunties. I see many more breakfasts, lunches and dinners being held here - and a whole lot of garden enjoyment.

Life before the staygha.

Dad and fat neighbour measuring the building area.

Dad waters and sweeps the newly laid concrete.

Plastering the walls while Mom and Dad listen to the tiler's suggestions.

Dad can't wait to use his new staygha. Mom and I find him enjoying a glass of wine on the unfinished patio when we return home one night.

Covered by a roof.

The contentious railings. After many arguments for and against, they are installed. Yalla grandson, these are for you!


Stretch over and you can pick a pear from the tree.

Saintly and fat neighbour come to wish Mom, Dad and godfather uncle mabrouk on the dashing staygha.

Monday, September 27, 2010

Just your average Christening

Yes, I would put on a nice summery dress for a baby's Christening, but I sure as heck wouldn't bring out the big guns with a ball gown like this lady did for the Christening luncheon taking place at the restaurant in Roumiyeh where we had lunch on Sunday. Cerise with a bit of a trail, flashing some big-time bling on the bust. Very a la libanaise, taking dressing up to the max! The lady in purple, with the dress that would lift up with every lift of the newly Christened baby is the mother of the blessed child.

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Hamra by night

Art for a better life

Luxury and Degradation is the latest collective art exhibition at Kettaneh Kunigk in Hamra. I went to the opening night on Thursday especially to see the work of Takashi Murakami, Jeff Koons and... Frances Goodman (all the way from SA!).

Unfortunately, they all disappointed me in their over simplicity. Even Murakami's soccer ball decorated with his signature smiley flowers did not live up to the excitement I had of seeing his work in Tokyo. There's a big, white, porcelain dog-tuned-vase by Jeff Koons that may have redeemed the lineup had it not been filled with real, colourful roses - fake yellow ones would have been so much more apt.

There was, however, an installation that made me think, and introduced me to a new artist from Switzerland: Frisbees by Urs Luthi (1947-). Red, yellow and green frisbees mounted on the wall all carrying a little sentence geared to make you reassess your usual behavioural patterns. I particularly liked 'Waste your feelings', 'Take a five-minute walk in slow motion', 'Imagine a movie trailer about your own life' and 'Take a walk, notice something and decide how you would describe it', all inscribed with the slogan 'Art for a Better Life'.

I thought of Stotterjie when I read 'Imagine yourself being an actor in a play while doing your daily business.' That cookery show from our kitchen window in Stellenbosch sure would have made Urs Luthi proud!

'Frisbees' by Urs Luthi.

Flower Ball by Takashi Murakami.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Chef of the day

Although many may think that I came to Lebanon to find a husband (with fat neighbour actually verbalising his wish for me to marry here so that his new best friend, Dad, has a reason to come every year!), I am, in fact, here for a very different reason. Three reasons, to be exact:

1) to better my spoken Lebanese language
2) to learn to belly dance
3) to become a Lebanese cook

I guess you could see the mastering of these three objectives as a good starting point from which to find a Lebanese husband, but let's not dwell on fat neighbour's fantasies...

1) Hum ehkeh ahsan be kteer min wa-it wa-sulit ha Lubnan.
2) Last night I felt that I could belly dance freestyle on my own for the first time without inhibitions.
3) Well, let's just say other people have been feeding me enough for me not to have to make my own Lebanese cuisine.

Something had to be done about task number three. It finally took shape today in the creation of my first Lebanese dish made in Lebanon. Shish barack, my favourite local meal, was the star of my table-top performance, held in the presence of some invited family members (including neat-and-tidy aunt, who hadn't come down to Beirut in five years. Talk about an occasion!).

Thanks to saintly neighbour's recipe, I managed to nail this time-consuming dish, all the while cursing parsley and coriander leaves for not coming ready picked, and realising more and more why ladies head to Spinneys to purchase the sombreros ready-made! If I add up the two hours of prepping last night, and hour of cooking this morning, I realise why they call food-making a labour of love.

But love sure does taste good!

Sombreros in the making.

Here's how it's done. (This makes 40 sombreros, enough to feed eight people.)

Ingredients for dough
2 cups cake flour
1/4 cup oil
1/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp salt
water as per judgement

Mix everything together, adding water a little at a time until you have a non-sticky dough consistency (rather too little than too much, as there's no going back!)

Ingredients for meat
400g minced meat
1/2 onion, finely chopped
1/2 cup pine nuts
1/2 cup parsley, finely chopped
salt & pepper to taste

Mix everything together and form little balls, the size of a Pritt cap.

To make the sombreros, roll out the dough and cut out circles the size of the bottom of a 500ml bottle of water. Place the meat balls in the centre and fold in half, pressing together the edges of the dough and joining the two pointy ends at the back to form a complete circle of dough around the meat - just like a Mexican sombrero. Place these on a greased baking tray and bake in an oven at 180' for 10 minutes before turning them around and baking them for another 10 minutes.

Ingredients for laban
2 litres Greek-style yoghurt
1 heaped Tbs cornflour
2 garlic cloves, crushed
1 cup coriander, chopped

Fry the garlic and coriander and set aside. Bring the yoghurt and cornflour to the boil. Reduce the heat and add the fried garlic and coriander and baked sombreros and allow to cook together for 15 minutes.

Serve on top of rice. Sahtein!

Cooking tip If you're in the mood to work all night long, make lots more sombreros (as they're the most time-consming part of the recipe) and freeze them so that all you have to do when you want to make the dish again is defrost and bake them before tossing them in the easy-to-make laban mixture. I made and baked my sombreros last night, let them cool down completely, and left them in the fridge overnight so that I only had to make the laban this morning.

Art lives forever

On Monday night I attended a mini exhibition and talk by Lebanese metal sculptor Boulos Richa at the awesomely intimate RectoVerso art-book space. Yes, his work is quirky and cool, but what impressed me the most is that he's still working - at the age of 82!!! And if I tell you that the man is passionate about what he does, I'm underplaying his zeal. Once called the Picasso of Lebanon, Amo Boulos sure taught me a thing or two about loving what you do, and doing what you love. His career, which started with him making metal window frames and doors, has progressed to such a degree over the years, that he's even exhibiting his metal sculptures (some made with car parts) in Qatar next year. Go Amo!

Boulos Richa tells us about his artistic journey on the sidewalk of RectoVerso in Monot.

One of his creative metal sculptures.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Sunday means... lunch!!! It's been a while since I've shown off the foods that are keeping me happy (and flourishing), so I thought I'd share a bit of today's Sunday family lunch. This is going to make you hungry, so only scroll down if you've already eaten.

Hriese, a soup mixture of shredded mutton, wheat and spices (mainly cinnamon), sprinkled with cinnamon. Ata made it especially for me because she knows it's one of my favourite local dishes. Guess who has a Tupperware of the leftovers to take down home to Beirut tomorrow...

Fattouche, a Lebanese salad with toasted Lebanese bread. Bride cousin made today's salad, but here's Dad's recipe (his speciality back home):

Ingredients for salad
4 tomatoes
2 cucumbers
2 onions
2 green peppers
1 cup chopped mint
1 cup chopped parsley
4 slices toast (this is the South African version)

Ingredients for dressing
1/2 cup lemon juice
1/2 cup olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, crushed
salt & pepper to taste

Slice and mix all the vegetables together (the mint and parsley are a bit of a schlep because of all the leaf-picking). Fifteen minutes before serving, add the toast and pour over the dressing and mix it all together. Sahtein!

The true Lebanese version includes sumac and purslane (not always the easiest things to find back in South Africa).

Mahshe malfouf: mince and rice wrapped in cabbage leaves. Ata always puts the perfect amount of garlic and lemon juice in her pot, creating a divine taste in these cabbage rolls that are served with laban (Greek-style yoghurt).

It's time for Africa

I miss Jabu. In fact, I miss hearing the names Ayanda, Mpho, Dineo, Sechaba... I miss the smiling faces of African people. Black skin here is covered by a street-cleaner's green Sukleen overall or housekeeper's aproned, light-blue outfit. It's silly how I feel connected to these people I don't even know just because they've come from the same continent as me; but at the same time I'm so disconnected because they're never out in the places I frequent in Beirut. That's why, when I heard the sounds of the Ethiopian band playing at the opening of the new Gemmayzeh rooftop bar Coop D'Etat, I couldn't stop myself from joining the African ladies showing off their sway on the dancefloor... to reconnect with my continent. What a refreshing night out, seeing fifty-year-olds next to twenty-year-olds - from Lebanese and Ethiopian to Dutch, Danish, American, British, Irish and South African.

Waka waka yeah yeah!

Friday, September 17, 2010

Fashioning my mood

Lebanon loves hitting me with a surprise when I'm feeling down. She (and I know she's a she because she has just as many ups and down as any girl I know) knows how to give me a lift when I'm sick of public transport, ogling men, rude shop keepers, lousy waiters, loud hooters, queue skippers, old-school thinkers, pay-for beaches and littering taxi keepers.

Take yesterday for example. I was on checking out prices for a ticket back home - back to Ava, men who don't even know I exist, chatty kafee tannies, Knead's energetic waiters, robots that serve a purpose, diligent queues in Home Affairs, way-out radical ideas, Muizenburg's ever-long beach and dustbins on every street corner.

But then Lebanon threw two incredible things my way. They both happen to be fashion related (and you still think she's not a she?!) and they both rocked my world, clothing me in happiness.

The first came in the form of Botox. The kind Lebanese ladies love injecting into their faces. But yesterday's Botox came in a bag. My interview with Mauro Orietti-Carella, creative director and CEO of Zagliani, an Italian handbag brand established in 1947, had us exchanging 'oh it's so fab' comments about each other's handbags - mine from Tokyo (which he loved because he grew up there, and has also designed a bag in the same shape); his a croc-skin tote bag injected with his signature silicone Botox concoction, in a colour he created to resemble the moon. Soft to the touch, yet durable when you rub them up the wrong way, his python- and crocodile-skin bags (all injected by him and his dad) can be seen strutting down Rodeo Drive, dangling on the arms of J-Lo, Cindy Crawford, Rihanna, Janet Jackson and Kylie. They're up for grabs at Aishti too, making Lebanese women more Botox-obsessed than ever before.

The second fashionable encounter happened by chance. Beirut Souks are having their official opening this week, and I happened to be taking a wander through them after my Botox-bag interview. A huge grandstand was being erected down at the end of one corridor, and the journalist in me just had to investigate. A security guard informed me it was for Elie Saab's fashion show last night (apparently his first show in his home country in 18 years!).

'Ooooh, how exciting!' I squealed. 'Yes, that's him there,' said the security guard, pointing to a black-suited back five metres away from me, happy to have made my day. Of course the camera was swiftly hauled out of the Tokyo bag to take a shot of this international fashion designer's back and shiny grey hair. But the security guard, keen to make my day even better, insisted I go closer and get a photo with Elie (did I mention that I was not loving Lebanese people three hours before this star-struck incident?!). I moved in for the kill but, being the queuing South African that I am, did not have the guts to bring out the Lebanese in me and interrupt his conversation.

I waited patiently (well, as patiently as a person who's about to meet a designer whose dresses always feature on top of her designer list) next to a very handsome, slickly suited man, who, it turned out, was his assistant who travels up and down with him between Paris and Beirut (and everywhere else in between, like, um, Cannes). He called Elie up to us (yes, Elie Saab came up to me!) and took a photo of the two of us. It may not have been the red carpet, and there was no evening gown in sight, but it turns out Elie Saab thinks I'm quite a starlet - I mean, he didn't take his sunglasses off!

I got the purest taste of Elie Saab, the man behind many of Angelina Jolie's gowns. A gentle, welcoming and friendly man, whose hands (the same ones that draw sketches that become creations such as Halle Berry's 2002 Oscar-winning dress) touched mine - twice!

Elie and I. Just your average day in Beirut!

Rachel McAdams at the 2010 Oscars in her uber-feminine, pastel-coloured Elie Saab gown.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Finding peace

Buzzing generators were the only sound heard in the village streets on Wednesday. Dekens stopped selling 7Up, the ice-cream shop shut its doors, builders downed their tools and even fat neighbour's voice was silenced. The moghtar had died and was being buried.

Kholso zeiteto as they say up here. His oil has burned up.

That, I understood. The message about his death, however, was less comprehensive.

Tuesday morning, 7am, same wake up call as always in our village warsheh. Construction works at their peak. It's tiling time, and it seems the best time of day to razorblade through these tiles is early in the morning. Must be something about the way the sun reflects from the angle grinder... Either way, it's a resounding noise that takes us right up to lunchtime. Except that Tuesday was different. By 10am the noise had vanished. I thought nothing of it - must have been ahwe time - and silently stepped outside to reset the Internet box on the roof (the joys of Lebanon's slow connections), only to be accosted by the only worker left on our property.

'Did you hear what happened?' he asked solemnly. No, I hadn't. What had happened?

'Blah, blah, blah twafa...' Which I understood as 'blah, blah, blah taffa'.

twafa = he passed away
taffa = it went out (as in electricity or a candle)

'No, no, there is electricity,' I say, smiling widely and nodding my head. 'The fan's still on.'

'La ya hammeh, twafa!'

'No, don't worry, it's just the Internet that's not working.'

'La ya hammeh!!! Met el moghtar!' (The moghtar died!)

Women and men left the cool comfort of their stayghas on Wednesday afternoon to bid farewell to the 51-year-old man who died in his bed after watering his garden two houses up from us on Tuesday morning. Villagers dressed in black congregated in the village sala to pay their respects to the moghtar's family.

The church bells rang solemnly that afternoon, just as they'd rung on Tuesday morning to announce the death of a villager. Ahwe was poured for all those visiting the moghtar's family in the sala where they sit to receive condolences. Some people stay all day - for three days - drinking ahwe with long, sad faces.

The dead leader of the village now has posters of his face tacked onto every tree. Villagers who were not home to hear the bells ring and listen to the public-speaker announcement of his death, or those who didn't receive an SMS of the news, will know that he is no longer their leader by the picture of the mustachioed man haunting every street.

The moghtar's brother was busy tiling our staygha when he received Tuesday's news. He dropped everything and ran to the home where his mother had discovered the lifeless body of his eldest brother. Our staygha will always remind him of the day he lost his brother. The day his brother, our moghtar, found his peace.

deken = convenience store
moghtar = elected village elder
warsheh = building site
staygha = patio
sala = hall
ahwe = Turkish coffee

Eids and fires

Two things the Lebanese cannot do without: eids (feasts) and fire or fireworks. There's always some kind of eid going on somewhere in the country - be it a religious celebration, someone's birthday, pre-marriage festivity or celebration of a child's first tooth. No occasion goes by without having the word eid preceding it. And nothing, as in nothing (not even a tray of shooters) goes by without some form of firework attached to it. Fireworks for weddings, candles for shrines and fires for religious days such as yesterday's Eid el Saleeb (Feast of the Cross).

Fat neighbour came up with the clever idea that, seeing as yesterday was Eid el Saleeb, we might as well make use of the massive pile of dead leaves and pruned branches that were collecting in our back garden (thanks to Dad's big, ongoing garden clean-up project) and cast them into flames in celebration of the eid.

And so the aboulleh was ignited, reminding me of the Eid el Saideh celebrations celebrated in Lebanon during our childhood, where we'd go to Jeddo's brother so catch the spectacular aboulleh show before heading back to Jeddo's staygha for the magical fireworks' performance.

The interesting thing about this eid, is that the 12 days leading from Eid el Saleeb will supposedly indicate what kind of weather we can expect for the upcoming 12 months of the year. Yesterday was very cloudy and it rained in some parts of Lebanon (so September will be that way - which i don't understand if the rest of the month is going to be an indicator...) and today is sunny with a bit of cloud (so October will still offer us some sun).

Tomorrow will tell what kind of November we can expect. Whatever the weather, we can definitely be sure the month will be accompanied by hundreds of fireworks and many eids.

Monday, September 13, 2010

Beit essentials

A Lebanese beit (home) requires a few essentials. I will highlight three of these. Please feel free to add what you think makes a home a beit.

The arguileh. Best enjoyed on the patio or balcony. Hence the construction of the new staygha in our village home. I mean, we need a visible spot to be seen looking relaxed with a pipe dangling from our mouths when guests arrive or villagers drive by. Cough cough.

The brie. A glass water jug found in every kitchen. It allows residents and guests to drink from the same vessel without allowing it to touch their mouths. Lift it by its handle and tip it above your reclined head to let a stream of water enter your ridiculous-looking open mouth from the nozzle. The water streams down nonstop for as long as you can glug. People here have become so accustomed to the brie that they even drink like this from their plastic water bottles - even when no one else is sharing the 500ml bottle!

The Almaza. Lebanese Pilsner beer since 1933. Nuf said.

Yesteryear's Hamra

I spent a morning with the folks in Beirut's Hamra Street, passing by some old joints they remember. Well, places Mom remembers at least. Dad couldn't seem to locate the pubs and clubs he used to frequent ;) I love seeing things through their eyes, and noting how Beirut has changed since the war.

The Saroulla Center that Mom remembers was a much larger space where her aunt Pruni had a burger joint called Saddle Sore - the first American diner of its kind in the city. The lemon meringue was baked in her home and was a hit in Beirut.

During the year in which Mom and Dad were corresponding by mail (they met while Dad was on holiday in Lebanon and wrote letters to each other for a year before he returned to propose and fly her off to the wider streets of South Africa), Dad's cousin took Mom to the Piccadilly Theatre to see Fairouz live. Mom remembers being rather embarrassed by her escort singing along to every tune by Lebanon's most famous singer.

Way In is where Mom used to purchase all her books for varsity when studying at BUC (Beirut University College), now LAU (Lebanese American University. With LAU on one side and AUB on the other, this is a Hamra institution that will never close down.