Visit Lebanon and experience a vibrant, open-hearted culture
People in Beirut are beginning to re-engage with their cuisine, culture and architecture
Two Lebanese women walk along the Beirut Corniche late in the afternoon in September, 2010. Photograph: iStock
Arriving in Beirut, it is immediately clear why the city was such a magnet for the jet-setting elite for much of the 20th century, until civil war erupted in 1975. Its location on a sweeping bay of the Mediterranean is spectacular, with forested hills covered with indigenous cedar trees that stretch up to snow-clad peaks, ideal for skiing.
At least, this is how it was a generation ago. Nowadays, the Mediterranean here is too polluted to swim in, the surviving Lebanese cedars (descendants of those that were used to build the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem) are suffocating to death in the bad air, and skiing is suffering the impacts of climate change.
That said, there is still more than enough to recommend a visit to Beirut.
There is a great sense of excitement in the city among those involved in renewing old traditions
The first thing that will strike you is the food; while Israelis claim hummus and falafel as their national cuisine, they are in fact staples across the Middle East.
In my opinion, having spent three months travelling through Syria, Jordan, Israel, Turkey and Lebanon, it is the Lebanese who excel at these dishes, as well as the other Middle Eastern “mezza” like baba ghanoush, tabbouleh, and foul moudammas. These simple peasant foods rely on local herbs, olive oil, pulses and vegetables, and the skills of local cooks trained by their mothers and grandmothers. Many of these traditions were severely disrupted by the civil war between 1975 and 1990, and more lost during the modernisation that followed the ceasefire.
Only now is Beirut becoming aware of what it is losing in terms of food traditions, just as it is slowly waking up to the environmental impact of the war years and the subsequent boom, when exiled Lebanese sent huge fortunes home to rebuild the war-torn country. By visiting now, you get to experience and support their initial attempts at re-engaging with their land, their cuisine, their culture and architecture, much of which was bombed or bullet-ridden during the civil war and is now being torn down or refurbished.
There is a great sense of excitement in the city among those involved in renewing old traditions. A key pioneer is Kamal Mouzawak, who established the first farmers market, Souk el Tayeb, in Beirut in 2004. This gave a platform for the few remaining pre-chemical farmers and traditional craftspeople to sell their wares in the big city. Rural women cooks were encouraged to prepare local specialities at food stalls. The market happens twice a week. Other smaller markets have opened too, selling wild herbs, preserves, honeys, nut products and spices foraged in the surrounding countryside.
Mouzawak went on to set up a restaurant where rural cooks from different districts prepare a daily buffet lunch of their traditional specialities using local ingredients. This restaurant, Tawlet, is thriving, joined recently by others that are equally innovative and committed to fostering the old practises.
One of the key figures in the food renaissance, Barbara Massaad, has been recording the old recipes and endangered culinary traditions of Lebanon. Her books on mezze, pastries (Man’oushé) and preserving techniques (Mouneh) have inspired many of the new fashionable eateries, cafes and businesses, including Good Thymes, which aims to offer the best zaatar (wild thyme) herb mixes by mail order to the world.
Allied to the food renaissance are the beginnings of an environmental movement, a sustainable farming campaign and an architectural conservation initiative, though progress is slow in a culture that is still remarkably patriarchal, tribal and sectarian.
To give an example, all glass is currently being dumped in landfill, as the main bottle manufacturing plant in Lebanon, which used to accept old glass, was bombed by Israel in 2006. More than 70 million bottles were being dumped until a local man, Joslin Kehdy, decided to revive the ancient Phoenician tradition of glass blowing. He now sells handmade bottles, glasses, jugs and bowls in the markets, and the new sustainably-focused cafes and restaurants.
Beirut by bicycle
I had planned to explore these new green shoots of Beirut by bicycle, but the traffic-clogged streets, dense smog from dirty diesel and erratic driving proved too intimidating. My admiration soared for the few pioneering cyclists who are daring to reintroduce bikes into the traffic-snarled city, and the few hire companies providing bikes to tourists.
Groups like Save Beirut Heritage are campaigning to protect the last remaining examples of Lebanese urban architecture. The fine palaces, private homes and apartment blocks built in the Levantine style, from the era of the French Mandate and the Ottoman Empire, are being replaced by soulless skyscrapers.
I took a four-hour walk with Alternative Tour Beirut (ATB) that meandered through neglected and newly-fashionable neighbourhoods from east to west Beirut. Our guide talked about gentrification, political-socioeconomic developments, graffiti and the stories behind the many bombed-out abandoned buildings that have no known owner. ATB also offers a cycle tour of hidden immigrant neighbourhoods in east Beirut, with visits to authentic local food spots.
In terms of tourism destinations, there is not all that much you absolutely need to see. The key thing is to immerse yourself in the street and cafe life, to eavesdrop on the gossip, and watch impassioned games of cards and backgammon. Take a walk along the coastal promenade known as the Corniche, from the public beach at Ramlet al-Bayda (don’t be tempted to swim) and past the famous Pigeon Rocks sea stacks to the Saint George marina. Stroll through the 28 tree-filled hectares of the American University Beirut, which has been a prestigious seat of learning since the mid-19th century, with a great free archaeological museum.
Don’t miss the National Museum, located on the former Green Line, the frontline of violence during the civil war. The artefacts here make abundantly clear how Lebanon was a crucible for human development on this planet, with a bewildering array of Phoenician sarcophagi and gilded bronze figurines, frescoed Roman tombs, Egyptian gold jewels, Byzantine mosaics and mummified Crusader bodies.
No matter how short your stay, try to get out of the capital
If you’ve time, visit the free Sursock Museum as well. It is a contemporary art museum in a 1912 mansion with an original Arab salon, offering fresh insights on age-old Middle Eastern issues.
Peek across the road at Sursock Palace too, one of the last remaining Beirut manor houses from the Ottoman era. It is still in the possession of the Sursock family, who made a fortune trading cotton and wheat from the Levant to the Ottoman Empire. The current chatelaine is Yvonne, Lady Cochrane (née Sursock), a philanthropist and mother of the Irish architect and furniture designer, Alfred Cochrane.
No matter how short your stay, try to get out of the capital, even for an afternoon. Jump into any mini-van heading north up the coast, and get out at Byblos where the sea is clean enough for swimming. The old medieval souq has been sensitively renovated into a series of shops selling local books, fossils, herbs and spices, and craftwork. Have lunch of fresh fish here or on the waterfront.
On Saturdays, check out the Via Appia farmers market where local pioneers of sustainable living sell their wares alongside rural stalwarts who managed to keep indigenous traditions alive.
Lebanon offers an opportunity to learn about the Middle East, while savouring a holiday in a sensual, vibrant, open-hearted culture.