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Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Beirut Birthday

Yesterday was our full day in Beirut -- and Frank's birthday! -- so we made the most of it. We had given Chamoun the day off because we realized we could navigate the city on our own and thought he would enjoy the free time before we hit the road today. We left the hotel pretty early and walked around our neighborhood, Ashrafiye. It's a Christian area in east Beirut that was home to a pretty wealthy, educated population when the war started, and it's a part of the city that supposedly still shows more French influence. There are a number of fabulous old mansions built in the Lebanese/Ottoman style, and we found a few gems, but most have not been restored or maintained since the war.

The main thing I wanted to see was a museum in one mansion; unfortunately, it was was closed due to construction of a new condo tower nearby. We later heard those condos are selling for $20 million, so it sounds like the rebound is well underway.

Construction was the theme of the day. We were blown away by the amount of building going on in the downtown area -- and what's been completed already. I've mentioned Rafik Hariri, the Sunni who was prime minister in the 90s/early 2000s before being assasinated by a car bomb on the Corniche in front of the landmark old yacht club. (Incidentally, his assasination also sparked demonstrations that led to the final withdrawal of Syrian forces around 2005.) He made his money as a developer in Saudi Arabia, and he and others formed a development corporarion called Solidere that seems to have had sort of eminent domain powers over the reconstruction of downtown. If you ask me, it's been beautifully done, and the new construction includes a landmark mosque that is now a signature image for Beirut. However, he and his partners are criticized for making a fortune from the project while shorting others on what their land was worth -- not to mention the conflict of interest with his public office. But it seems to me he was a huge force in getting Lebanon on the positive track where it is today, and he was popular among the Christian community as well. Anyway, just outside the mosque Frank and I visited Hariri's memorial -- which also memorializes the seven bodyguards killed with him. Then I suited up in an abeyya (head to toe black polyester; they keep them at the entrance) and we went in the mosque. Yes, we got a photo -- in a corner when no one was looking so we weren't disrespectful. The place was almost empty since it was between the five daily prayer calls, but I thought it was peaceful and full of God's presence.

We walked all around the new part of downtown, including a souk project that is basically an outdoor mall of extremely high end shops -- at one point, we passed La Perla, a Porsche dealership and the new Four Seasons. Jackhammers and construction cranes were everywhere. Lebanon is sort of a playground for the more conservative countries in the Middle East and -- hard as it was to believe in yesterday's sweltering 90-degree temps, they come here to escape the heat in other countries! (It really is much cooler in the mountains, as we experienced for ourselves today; many Beirutis escape to the mountains for the summer, commuting to work in the city.)

We walked down the seafront Corniche a bit, but it was so fiercely sunny, I was worried my lily white complexion was frying to a crisp (I swear we saw some German guys getting third-degree burns at the resort pool in Tyre). So, we hopped in a taxi and did a quick drive-by of AUB (American University of Beirut) and then went to lunch at Le Chef -- a landmark in Gemmayze visited by Anthony Bourdain and recommended by Food and Wine. It was exactly what I'd hoped -- a tiny hole in the wall full of locals eating some of the best food we've had. We loved the stewed eggplant with tomatoes and rice; also had perhaps the best fattoush (salad with crispy pita -- I see this becoming my summer staple!) I've tasted and some good artichokes with other veggies. Also lamb kebabs with yummy garlic yogurt.

Walked from there to the National Museum, which I enjoyed as a break from the heat as much as anything else. They have relics from all of the ancient cities here -- things like sarcophagi, religious relics, ancient glass, etc. The best part was a mini-documentary about the 1990s restoration of the museum and how they protected some of the larger items by encasing them in concrete during the 15-year civil war.

We freshened up and met Chamoun and his girlfriend at a Sunni beach club that was highly recommended by both Lonely Planet and a friend of a friend of Frank. Oh, my. Chamoun had never been there, and somehow I missed the fact they do not serve alcohol. Nothing like toasting your birthday with a near beer! Chamoun and Paula brought a cake, and it was such a lovely surprise. We watched the sun set over the water and then drove about 25 minutes to a suburban area to meet Leigh Ann's dear client and friend Elie, a developer from New Orleans who left Beirut at age 17 and is here visiting his family. He invited us to join them for dinner -- as an intimate warm-up to the 30-40 person Sunday lunch to which he also invited us.

The restaurant was a chic spot called Babel that was straight out of Vegas. It's a new hot spot known for having an innovative take on and beautiful presentation of the Lebanese classics. Elie's wife, sister, son, nephews and a friend were there, and we feasted (there is seriously no other word for it) on three courses -- cold mezze, hot mezze and mains. Elie kept piling my plate with something new: "You have to try this." "Have you had schwarma yet? This one is a wrap." "You've had hummus, right, but have you had it with meat?"
The highlight for me was finally getting to try the raw kibbeh Frank has raved about so much. One of his faves was the chicken livers, which he said he had forgotten since his grandmother last made them for him 20 years ago.

To sum up the meal: I even needed two plates for dessert. They brought out a flaming chocolate cake as the piano played happy birthday. That was joined by the rest of our other chocolate cake, two Lebanese desserts and a mountain of fresh fruit. Holy cow. Thank goodness we washed it all down with arak to aid digestion!

As if treating us to a fabulous dinner wasn't enough, Elie and his nephew couldn't believe we hadn't been bar-hopping yet, so they took us to Capitol, an outdoor rooftop bar overlooking the mosque, and the Beirut location of the Buddha Bar. I am pleased to report they serve caipirinhas in both locations!

They dropped us off at our hotel at 2 a.m., and we called Leigh Ann from the car to thank her for the connection, putting an end to a pretty cool Beirut birthday.

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