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.