Monday, May 31, 2010

Season one of LOST

My sense of direction has never been something one can depend on. It's the thing that once got a varsity friend and I stuck in the mud in the middle of Bloemfontein's Tempe military base - in the middle of the night. But I've found that by walking one gathers more information about one's surroundings, making it easier to recognise landmarks and use them to steer you in various directions. Well that's how it's been up until now. I'm lost in Beirut.
Some roads only have numbers instead of names, every block has the same-looking construction site, all the sounds are the same (people shouting from balconies, hooting, drilling, motorbike revving), there's a cafe on every road (and they all look the same), and when you do start to recognise something, you're distracted from taking it in because the taxi passing by won't stop hooting to ask you if you want a lift.
Every route seems tangled into the next, and I keep finding myself in the middle of this twisted knot of pavement bins cooking up two months worth of garbage. Needless to say, my attempt to find two of laughing mother's aunts - who live very close to me, and who I have very good directions to get to - resulted in a very wrangled non-event. So instead of sipping rose water and trying to wave off food offerings, I looked up and found some fascinating buildings and fell in love with my Achrafieh neighbourhood.

I just love these balcony bannisters.

Have a seat

Look at what I came across at the Beirut Garden Show this weekend. Aren't these just the coolest chairs?! The whole outdoor show, held at the Hippodrome (which is the horse-racing course), was filled with such great decor and design gems for outdoor spaces. I got carried away looking and forgot to take any more pics!

Crochet chair by Sybile Tamer.

Chair with gym-apparatus arm rest that rotates to a higher position on the left by architect Fady H Salame.

Saintly outing

I may be one step closer to sainthood after Friday’s excursion with the Daraoun village ladies. But perhaps a saint with a wild undertone. What started out as a 7:30am rosary-chanting bus trip turned into a spectacle of belly dancing on our return down the mountains and through Friday’s home-time traffic. In between, a total of nine churches were visited. Some just out of interest, one for Mass, some for the veneration of saints, some to pray the rosary.
As an invitee of our village neighbour, who dresses like the Virgin Mary during the month of May, I joined the 40 ladies who started the trip off with baskets of kaak (Lebanese biscuits) being passed around. We visited the monasteries of Kfifain and then went down to the coastal village of Batroun.

The church of Saint Nohra, the healer of eye ailments.

The village neighbour praying next to the coffin of Nehme, a priest who died in 1938 and whose body is still intact. Next month he is being named one step closer to becoming a saint. (Lebanon already has three saints - Charbel, Rafqa and Naamtallah - and another priest who's on the same level as the one Nehme is going to.)

The mountains surrounding the monastery of Saint Rafqa.

Saint Rafqa's tomb lies behind a glass wall in the front of this church-like room. The village ladies were praying the rosary here.

Mar Estphen (which I think is Saint Stephen) church in Batroun.

The entrance to Saidet al Baher (Mary of the Sea) in Batroun, an Orthodox church. Note how it's joined to a village home's stoep.

Behind Saidet al Baher lies the Mediterranean Sea and an ancient Phoenician wall.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Passenger angst

I missed Ava today. My gorgeous little car is sitting back home, far from its driver. I missed being a driver today too. Stepping into a vehicle and sitting behind the steering wheel. Determining the speed of your ride. Choosing the route. Having the ability to pass a no-smoking rule inside your four doors. Being able to choose who catches a ride with you...
My Avaless trip to a meeting and a cup of tea at smiley cousin's house before returning home meant having to catch seven different vehicles.

1. service: after he had a fat conversation with a fellow passenger about how important it is for locals to look after and help foreigners, the driver insisted I pay him the equivalent of two service rides because of the length of the ride. I replied that he should have told me this when I got in. He said I should have known (this after acknowledging my foreigness!) and ended up charging me LL1 000 extra!

2. bus: driver stopped halfway along the side of the road to drink a cup of ahwe and smoke a cigarette.

3. bus: I thought I was getting on the right bus, but then saw him take a different turn, and tried to jump off, but nearly tumbled over three men because the driver suddenly stopped because he saw my reaction to leave, but I ended up being on the right bus and had to regain my composure.

4. service: refused to take me up until he had at least one more person in the car in order to make the ride worth his while. And then kept telling me to sit inside, making me think he was ready to leave when in fact he was still intending to wait. So I kept on jumping in and out of the car until he eventually decided to leave without the additional person. The car was even more of an interior-deocrating disaster than the man himself. Check it out:

5. minibus: stopped away from the highway and made me walk to the next stop.

6. bus: nothing much to report besides the one guy who told me that I was not from Lebanon. Duh!

7. bus: caught the number two bus that happens to pass right near my house. Passengers included two ladies arguing next to me about whether to get up before or after the bus comes to a standstill.

Home in one piece. But there's still one special piece missing. Ava, I'm sending you some Tracy Schumacher loving.

Brownie mission part I

I have a boyfriend who makes delicious chocolate brownies. He's coming to visit me in the coming months. I thought it would be a lovely surprise if I could find some good chocolate brownies in Lebanon and take him out on a little sweet treat. (Now I've killed the surprise, but it was just an excuse for me to eat a brownie yesterday anyway...)
The Met (Metropolitan Eatery) is a trendy place in the Beirut Souks, an outdoor mall in the city centre. I landed there by chance and thought it a good time to start my quest for the best brownies in town. It helped that they were the cheapest thing on the menu, alongside potato wedges - both LL8 500 (just over R40). Unfortunately the brownie, disguised by clouds of whipped can cream and two different ice creams and much too much plate-decorating sauce was such a disappointment that it wasn't even worth photographing.
The restaurant was, however, quite cool, and had a great energetic afternoon vibe about it. The menu is rather expensive though: LL22 500 (R110) for a calamari starter and LL18 250 (R90) for nachos, but I did like the idea of daily specials that are almost always Lebanese dishes, priced at LL19 000 (R95): kibbeh and yoghurt; stuffed squash and vine leaves; moghrabieh and chicken; and kibbeh and shiesh barrack in yoghurt.
It's also the first time I've seen a five-cheese pasta (LL18 500): roquefort, emmental, mozzarella, cheddar and Parmesan!
Result of brownie mission part I: failed miserably.

Communal fashion

Still laughing at a comment by the mother of a friend who wants to visit me ('But why would you go there? Firstly, it's dangerous because of the war; and secondly, you won't see anything because you'll be stuck in a commune the whole time.'), I thought it best to help my friend out by posting these pics of some of the store windows I came across yesterday. If the streets of Beirut are a commune, at least they're fashionable!

Jimmy Choo and an exclusive sunglass store that sells one-of-a-kind designs, including an 18c-gold pair of Ray-Bans.

Stella McCartney.


Carolina Herrera.

Lebanon's greatest fashion export, and designer to the Hollywood stars, Elie Saab.

Chomping on Chomsky

It was four years ago that I first heard of a man called Noam Chomsky. It was while studying journalism at Rhodes University, when my mind was soaking up every bit of journalistic inspirations. Along came a video by a man called Noam Chomsky, a rather old man speaking about the conflict in the Middle East. That was in 2006 when Lebanon had just fallen into devastation yet again, so I was all ears. Turns out Prof Chomsky (who's actually a linguist) is a leading critic of US foreign policy, and especially outspoken about the Israeli-US tie. Very against-the-grain for an American born to Jewish parents.
Chomsky was the first person to put the Middle Eastern conflict into simple terms for me - he allowed me to see the bigger picture without getting stuck in the nitty gritty. The bigger picture for him, and I have to agree, is America - its 'mafia' hold on the world, as he calls it.
Last night I had the honour of being part of a Chomsky audience. Sitting eight rows from the stage at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut, I was once again given the opportunity to be thought-provoked by a 81-year-old genius.

Things I learned last night: If the US vetoes a resolution, it's automatically a double veto - erasing it from the history books, as if the resolution were never proposed. After giving us some insight into such things that we never get to hear about, he said, 'These are the basic facts. They're not controversial, but they're excluded from general conversation. This reveals the extraordinary power of an imperial ideology. Ideas are invisible if they don't accord with the needs of power.' Here he suggested reading the introduction to George Orwell's Animal Farm, something which was not published with the book until later editions.

One of my favourite parts from the talk was when Chomsky mentioned South Africa: 'Many analogies are made between Israel and Apartheid South Africa, but they're dubious.' He went on to say that white SA needed the black population, as they were the work force, and therefore whites had to take care of the Bantu stands. However, Israel does not have any use for Palestinians, making the treatment much worse than Apartheid. 'However, one analogy is correct,' he said. Speaking of the SA foreign minister in 1960, he had the following to say:

(dammit, the video won't upload!)

It seemed quite apt that he was addressing an audience in Lebanon on what was the 10th anniversary of the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Lebanon, known as Liberation Day. What struck me about the audience was that the majority were under the age of 30 - mostly students - and that most had heard about the talk through Facebook, as not even the daily English newspaper, the Daily Star, mentioned it in an article about a previous talk Chomsky gave in the south of Lebanon.
Questions posed to Prof Chomsky after his talk included his views on 'the right to return' (this being the Palestinians' right to return to their land in Israel). His answer: Palestinian children are growing up in cages in refugee camps in Lebanon. They can't get into outer society to get a job, so they don't see the point of getting an education because they can't do anything with it. For now, we need to deal with this reality, and we as ordinary citizens can start by being humane and integrating them into our societies.
Another question was 'why not place BDS (boycott, divestment, sanctions) policies against Israel?'. His answer: you need to think about the consequences - it's not just about feeling good about yourself for doing something like that now. Is the academic boycott of Tel Aviv University useful or harmful to Palestine? It's harmful. Why not then boycott Harvard, the Sorbonne etc?
Next question: is there any way that we can play on the vulnerabilities of the US? His answer: Yes. Just look at how much greater US public opinion has become. It was much greater during the war in Iraq than during the Vietnam War, forcing the US troops to pull out much sooner. Organising campaigns to raise awareness can go a log way to gaining public support for people like the Palestinians.
This is my little campaign. Hope it's made you think a little critically today. Thank you Noam Chomsky.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Mary's May

May, being the month of the Virgin Mary in the Catholic and Maronite churches, is a 31-day period of special devotion to the mother of Christ. What this means in Lebanon is that Christians around the country make a special effort to visit the area of Harissa during this month. Many walk to the mountain top from as far as Beirut (a 45-minute trip by car), while others park in Jounieh (a 15-minute car ride) and walk up along a mountain path where special stations have been set where readings are read and prayers are said before continuing the journey up to the top.
On our way up to Daraoun on the mountain highway at midnight on Saturday, there were many, many people making their way up the exhausting highway by foot in the darkness. My pilgrimage was relatively less physically taxing - it was actually the lazy person's pilgrimage, but not as lazy as those who opt to take the scenic teleferique (cable car) from Jounieh. I slept in our village home in Daraoun on Saturday night, the village adjacent to Harissa, and took a 15-minute walk to Harissa on Sunday morning.
Walking past many of the shrines built outside people's homes, I noticed that many have been dedicated to Mary. What I also noticed when I arrived at Harissa, is that it's not only Christians who were visiting this popular Lebanese site - there were many Muslims visiting too. Apparently Mary is very important in Islam too, and no other woman is given as much mention as her in the Quran.
Mary of Harissa, Notre Dame du Liban, is a towering white statue standing with her arms outstretched, as if she were welcoming all towards her, or showing off the beautiful country below her. She stands on the top of a beautiful chapel and is reached by means of a staircase around the chapel's circumference - all built in 1908. Even for those with no interest in religion, the short walk to the top is worth it, if only for the magnificent views of this part of the Lebanese coast below.
Many people left their shoes at the bottom of the staircase before making their way up - something I'd never seen at Harissa before. But then again, I'd never seen the site as crowded as this, although I can imagine it hit record numbers when Pope John Paul II visited in 1997. As well as there being a sense of spiritual meditation, I also felt a great spirit of camaraderie between the people. Just the right combination for a Sunday.

Some of the shrines along the way of my mini pilgrimage.

Notre Dame du Liban with the Maronite Basilica to the left. I actually attended Mass there for the first time on Sunday. It feels more like a hall than a church though.

One of the amazing views from the top of Harissa.

Friday, May 21, 2010

Home is where the start is

I finally have a place I can call home. Don't get me wrong - 'home' was definitely felt while living with tall uncle and yoga aunt for nearly six weeks, but now I have a place that I can call my own (or at least half of my own, seeing as I'm sharing it with Irish flatmate). And, contrary to my previous night's stay away from family (refer to the 'dream comes crashing' entry), my home is genuinely that - a home!
It's clear that Irish flatmate loves having a home as much as I do. She's done it up really nicely and even put little arty postcards on the wall and hung beady things from the lampshades. It makes me feel like I'm a grown-up woman living in a grown-up house. I'm even paying a grown-up rent of $330 a month, minus expenses (water and lights, generator, Internet, maid, cable TV).
Another plus is that I was welcomed home by the sound of birds chirping merrily outside my fifth-storey window. There's a wonderful tree within reach of my window, and it seems that many, many birds call it home. They even gave me my first 'good morning' in my new home - unfortunately it was at 5am and it was rather hard to ignore their loud bursts of joy and go back to sleep! Besides, the windows above my bed let so much sunlight in, that you feel you're wasting the best part of the day if you go back to sleep after the sun has risen. I know this philosophy won't last long, but at least I'm seeing the positive attributes of my very own room.
I'd love to invite you all to a cup of ahwe, but you're so very far away, so maybe you can just get an idea of where I live, and sip your coffee on your own couch, while imagining me on mine.
PS. I'm in Sassine if you do happen to be able to drop by.

View from the front door (the kitchen is to the left).

Kitchen with cool yellow tiles.

My bedroom from the door.

The bedroom window with the bird tree.

My bedroom from the bird tree window.

The very blue bathroom.

The diningroom that leads onto the lounge and balcony. This will also be my office.

The lounge that leads onto the diningroom and balcony.

The balcony.

View from the balcony.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Can you smell me from there?

Another one for the foodies (and godfather uncle back home!). Today's dinner is mloukhiye - a dish so many Lebanese call their favourite, but one that many try to stay clear from due to the final topping you will see (or smell) below...

Start with a layer of toasted Lebanese bread.

Top it with rice.

And then with some mloukhiye. I can't find an English name for it, but it's a green leaf
(similar to Spinach) that you boil for this dish.

Add some pieces of chicken breast.

And finish it off with a topping of finely chopped onion mixed with vinegar. Lethal to those chatting to you for the rest of the day, but satisfying for the stomach.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Sunday's start

I love Sunday mornings in tall uncle and yoga aunt's house. It means waking up to the smell of Lebanese breakfasts. I use the plural because of the variety of treats tall uncle lays out for us. Always the first to arise, he goes to the patisserie and purchases a bit of this a bit of that, so that when the rest of us wake up, there are boxes and packets of some of our favourite foods. Open them up and you'll find soft, melt-int-the-mouth, buttery croissants, sweet, cinnamon, sugar and raisin buns, zaatar mne'eesh, cheese mne'eesh and knefe (a special baked cheese placed in a sesame seed bun). Seeing as it's my last Sunday here (I move into my new place on Thursday), I just had to have a bit of everything! Excuse me while I go for seconds...

This is what greets us on the kitchen table every Sunday morning, begging to be opened...
and then, voila!

Friday, May 14, 2010

Phoenician day to Arabian night

My day started with swimming a few laps in one pool and ended with hitting a few nightcaps around another. Such is the pace in Lebanon, that I managed to fit in some exercise, a potential-work meeting, two interviews, an art exhibition opening and a pool bar opening all in one day - that's all thanks to four trips by car and three by taxi; and with the addition of three wardrobe changes! Not bad for a small-city gal from Bloemfontein.
It's the two interviews that resulted in the poolside cocktails last night. I can only blame Aishti for making me change my plans for last night; I was perfectly happy to get into bed nice and early to sleep off the sore throat that's creeping up. But such is the life of a freelance lifestyle journalist. You get called at 12:15 to be asked if you can conduct two interviews that afternoon. Of course you say yes - they're taking place at the Phoenicia Hotel after all, and you did hear the words 'pool' and 'new bar' being mentioned - words ingrained in your mentality as yes words. So you ditch the black pants you were going to wear to your 2pm meeting, put on a summer dress, razor your legs, pack in the sunglasses, and pray that no one notices that you haven't had time to research either of the two interviewees!
I arrive at the Phoenicia, across the road from the sea, by taxi - that had to be searched for car bombs before approaching the entrance, as it's right across the road from where Hariri's car was bombed five years ago. One doorman opens my car door; another opens the hotel door. I proceed up the extremely wide red-carpet stairs (I'm feeling very Sex and the City right now) and make my way to the new Amethyste bar, set around the iconic Phoenicia pool. The apparently once-dead pool space has been transformed into an Arabian paradise, complete with potted herbs and gardenias for scent, silver hanging charms that tickle each other for sound, massive daybeds and swings from which to feel the sun, splashes of purple (set around the fact that Lebanon is where the colour purple comes from) and 500 candles creating beauitiful images, and then of course the tasty cocktails on offer at the bar.
My welcome taste came in the form of an Amethyste Bellini, created by one of the world's top cocktail makers, Grant Collins, an Ozzie who flies around the world to open some of the planet's hottest bars. This Champagne cocktail includes a secret five-spice mix which really got my tastebuds dancing during my interview with the talented drinks maker who creates anything from alcohol-induced candyfloss and sorbet, to liquid nitrogen creations that will have your tongue tingling as you breathe out smoke from your nose! Overlooking the St George yacht club, while waiters trotted around offering us bite-size snacks, and mermaids splashed around in the pool, it really felt less like an interview and more like a flash-forward into what heaven might be like for me one day.
While interviewing Inge Moore and Summer Williams from London's Hirsch Bedner Associates, who created the look of the new space, we walked around the area, checking out the loungy spaces, the arguiele spaces, the chill-out spaces - all while being careful not to stand in the way of the sun of those hot Lebanese men and women showing off their summer-ready bodies on the daybeds.
Michelle Richani, in charge of the hotel's marketing and communications and Najib Salha, the owner of the hotel, invited me to join the official opening later. And here I was thinking I was already at the opening, with all the fanfare and free booze and snacks on offer! They insisted I come, and bring my friends. So I called designer cousin. She was in. So too was smiley cousin. Back home, a quick change of clothes, overlay of make-up, and respray of perfume and we were ready to join Lebanon's hot set at the open-air pool. (In between, we attended the opening of one of the Syrian artist's I'd interviewed last month, Ammar Al Beik.)
The Amethyste had transformed itself in the time that I'd been changing my shoes and hairstyle. It was now washed in soft purple light, the candles adding to the sparkle of the exotic Arabian night. This time we were ushered in with a Beirut Iced Tea - like juice at first (with a Coca-Cola foam on top) but a killer closer to the end. Careful not to break any of the sticks sauntering past us (these being the 'bombshell' babes in contour-fitting, barely-ass-covering dresses and not the stilt walkers wearing white clothes that covered fairy lights on their bodies) and trying hard to dodge the older ladies with wildly teased and sprayed hairdos taking away attention from their over-painted faces, we made it to the saj just in time to get a labneh and zaatar manoush directly off the dome. An attempt at the arguile proved less successful, with all three of us non-smokers calling it quits after two puffs, and heading instead to the live food station, where we grabbed any tiny piece of meat and chicken coming off the stove and being dropped into see-through containers with a spicy tomato sauce. The hot sauce called for a raspberry margharita, refreshingly appealing for the warm Beirut night and the best thing to drink before heading to the dessert station: chocolate fountain, fruit, ice cream and various toppings, marshmallows...
Such over indulgence would of course lead us to the daybeds, choosing one with great not-so-obvious, people-watching views and the best sight of the pool, where suddenly there appeared four big plastic balloons with acrobatic performers inside, playing around with silver confetti over the very blue water. To top it all off, DJ Jose Padilla from Cafe del Mar in Ibiza was the one spinning the tunes.
A good way to ease myself into Lebanon's night life? I think so!

Monday, May 10, 2010

The big three oh!

Seeing as my 30th birthday present to myself involved the adventurous idea of purchasing a one-way ticket to Lebanon, I was quite content to let it go by without much ado. Whatever!
I am so not the type to ignore a birthday. It's a great day to receive the love I crave ;) And that's exactly what I got. Love in fluffy, sugary heaps. From the very special phonecalls from South Africa (and even the Netherlands!) to SMSes from people I didn't even know had my Lebanese number, to nearly a million personalised Facebook messages. I tell you, this 30-year-old felt like she was celebrating her 21st all over again! And then there was the actual day itself!
Here's how it went:

After opening a card from sista sista at the beginning of the month, I started the birthday off with a gift from godfather uncle (packed into my suitcase) and one from singing mom and waltzing dad (sent with smiley cousin). Very thoughtful indeed! And then off we headed to Beach 183 in Jbeil. Back home, my birthdays usually involve me wearing a little jersey but
here I hardly had to wear anything at all! I swam in the Mediterranean Sea and basked in
the spring sunshine.

The cousins treated me to a farouj lunch of chicken (lots and lots of chicken - fried and roasted, or 'broasted' as they say it here), chips, bread and lots of garlic dip. We sat on a staircase with
a view and dug in!

After a very long nap (this is where the age caught up with me, but we'll say it was the sun), my cousins surprised me with balloons and funky cacti for my new apartment.

And then yoga aunt surprised me with a special chocolate-mousse cake - complete with the kind of fireworks that are usually placed around wedding cakes. It was so yummy that I had the last piece for breakfast the next day (some sweet habits won't change with age).

After the surprise cake-eating gathering, and another awesome voucher gift from tall uncle and his family - to buy things for my new apartment - juggling cousin and I hit Obla-Di, a pub in the Gemmayze area of Beirut. It didn't take much for us to open the dancefloor, and soon everyone around us joined in.

We gathered out-and-about cousin and two of juggling cousin's friends and headed to another Gemmayze hotspot, the swanky Centrale. The restaurant was empty, but the action was all happening in the cylinder you see on the ceiling. Yip, that's the bar!

Meet the DooDoo, a deadly shot of vodka and lemon juice, with the addition of a pickled olive and dash (or more!) of Tabasco sauce. It was downhill from there...

Centrale is the place for very well-made cocktails, so I was told. So there was no choice but to try a delicious caipirinha while out-and-about cousin sipped on a divine mojito.

Me with the boys (I actually don't even know whether the non-cousins knew it
was my birthday!).

Thank goodness for the seating option in the lift. Although we were going down, I'm looking forward to the uphill climb from the big three oh!