We are in Beirut! Arrived about 3:40 local time on Sunday. And we had a perfect beginning to the trip. Several weeks ago, my former colleague Lamia introduced me via e-mail to her cousin Nibal, a lady in her early 50s who is married to Tony, a retired professor in his 70s. We met them at a spot near the waterfront Corniche after we showered and freshened up at our hotel.
They took us to a landmark called Pigeon's Rocks and ordered us beer and a selection of mezze while we watched the sun go down over the Mediterranean. We ate a lot of the most typical dishes -- hummus, baba ghanoush, lebbaneh (strained yogurt flavored with mint), mixed olives, stuffed grape leaves, crunchy fried potatoes with olive oil and coriander, sauteed dandelion greens topped with crispy fried onion slivers. Nibal said, "Try these pickled vegetables. We pickle everything here." Everything was so yummy, and she kept saying that spread was absolutely nothing compared to the variety of mezze we'll have in other restaurants. The sunset was beautiful, and they were both so friendly and personable. In fact, Nibal wants to have us over to their home for dinner before we leave! Tony taught agriculture and did a stint at Auburn. What are the chances I would have an Alabama connection in Beirut?!
It was a pretty uneventful flight getting here -- other than both of our planes were apparently operated by Day Care Air. (We flew Dulles to Paris and on to Beirut.) I don't know that I've ever been surrounded by more howling toddlers on international flights. It was pretty awful, even with earplugs and headphones. The Middle Easterners on our flight from Beirut provided some good people watching, especially a rather large couple who boarded in front of us covered in head to toe black with designer labels everywhere -- Tods shoes, Burberry shirt, Fendi purse, Dior shopping bag. The introductory video in the plane included ads from several plastic surgeons -- apparently medical tourism is a growing industry. (And so is tourism in general. I saved the in flight magazine that said 2009 was a record year for tourism in Lebanon, with most visitors from elsewhere in the Middle East -- and 2010 is supposedly on track to set a new record.)
Our hotel is in Achrafiyeh, which was a Christian neighborhood in East Beirut during the war. My colleague Steve said he remembers standing on the roof watching different factions exchanging gunfire from various sides of the city when he was a bureau chief here for UPI. Naturally I promised to find him a hotel ash tray or another logoed souvenir. Originally we were booked in a hotel very near where we met Nibal and Tony last night, but I read some awful reviews on Trip Advisor (calling it "the worst hotel in the Middle East," complete with scary/rusty bathroom pics) and asked if the tour company was sure it was OK, so they switched us. I kind of wish I hadn't said anything, as it was a neat location...but I think we'll be fine here too, and this neighborhood is closer to a lot of the good bars and restaurants.
The city so far reminds me a lot of Rio, especially when I saw from the plane what I think are the Palestinian refugee camps. You can still see a lot of what looks like damage from the war, but there are also newer buildings -- like the beautiful new landmark mosque in the downtown area redeveloped by assasinated Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. Nibal walked us by Hariri's family home last night; it's just a few doors down from their apartment building (which Tony has lived in since the 60s -- and a side note: they say Lebanon was spared from the financial meltdown by the prudence of its financial minister, who received some sort of international award for his foresight. They said there is no sign of a real estate collapse in Beirut and pointed out a brand-new building where are units are selling for $2 million). Hariri's son is still in politics and uses it as the family home for some occasions, so the road is blockaded and full of armed guards. It was a beautiful old mansion, and Nibal said the neighborhood had several of them, but you can't see them from the street. So, she peeked around the corner and talked in Arabic to another guard, and he let us step in to admire the front of another beautiful Ottoman-style home, with marble steps and carved lions and arched windows. "Do you see all this marble?" Nibal said. "We love marble in Lebanon because it stays cool!" The home is hidden from the street by a 70s wraparound structure build to protect it from destruction during the war. No photos, but it was certainly one of those moments we would never have had on our own. And I am looking forward to many more of them!