At the moment of writing this piece I am flying somewhere over the European mainland. I am returning from a one-week work trip to Lebanon. Travelling for work is always different. I prepare for meetings or workshops and do my reading on the context of whatever I will be doing. But somehow I always seem to forget about informing myself of the country I am travelling to. Except for security briefings, proof of life questions and dress codes of course…
Previous travels to the region
In the Middle East I have travelled to Egypt and Jordan. I made a trip to Egypt back in 2012, shortly after the Arab Spring led to mass protests. We were there when they announced Mubarak’s sentence. It was a surreal experience, as there were hardly any tourists in Egypt at the time. When visiting the pyramids of Giza and the famous sphynx, we were the only ones there. Great for photos, but it also means that you are the centre of attention for all camel drivers, souvenir sellers and tourist guides. I felt bad for the country and its people as it is an amazing place. The historic treasures are indescribable, the temperatures scorching hot and watching the sun rise over the Valley of Kings from a hot air balloon made a lasting impression.
My other Middle Eastern experience was in Jordan. I have travelled to this country for work a number of times. I was lucky enough to have some time on the side to see Petra and the desert of Wadi Rum, both magical places. We discovered that Jordanians flee Amman on the weekends to party in the desert with lavish buffets and loud music. So far for quietly watching the stars and enjoying a silent night. Jordan fascinated me in that it seems to be full of contrasts. People are modern, there are many women not wearing a headscarf, half of the cars you see are electric and you can even drink a glass of wine if you want to. At the same time, patriarchist systems dominate, a young colleague explained he wants to marry a decent girl and short skirts (or uncovered shoulders) are definitely not an option. In Jordan, a mixture of new vibes and conservatist powers co-exist in the most inexplicable way.
Paris of the Middle East
So I got onto a plane to Beirut, not really knowing what to expect. During my international relations studies I have had several courses on the Middle East. From this I remembered that Lebanon used to be called the ‘Paris of the Middle East’ and that there was a delicate (political) balance between various tribes and religious groups. Other than that, I just had high hopes for the food. When I arrived I realised that the country I would be comparing it to would be Jordan, given that they’re neighbours and it was my most recent travel experience in this area. Driving from the airport to the hotel I already concluded that Beirut was much more lively, reminding me of all the activity alongside Entebbe Road between the airport and Kampala (Uganda).
I can be short about it: I thoroughly enjoyed my time in Lebanon. Beirut is a beautiful city, filled with lovely streets, many trees, impressive newly constructed sky scrapers and overall very comfortable. During the civil war in the ‘70s and ‘80s, many buildings in the city were destroyed. In recent years, an entire neighbourhood has been reconstructed. Though it is all new, there I found a certain appeal to it. The lighting plan helps a lot, turning the area I was staying in into a collection of beautifully lit buildings. The number of restaurants, bars and pubs is never-ending. It makes me wonder how they can sustain all this with a shaky financial system and an economy that has been declining in recent years. A woman who was showing us around explained that for many buildings constructing started, but was ceased at some point in time because there was no more money available.
Besides Beirut, we also visited to municipalities in the Bekah Valley. We stayed in Zahlé, a town of about 120.000 inhabitants. The entire country is rather mountainous and Zahlé is no exception. The city is settled on and in between at least two hills, causing for frivolous differences in altitudes, terraces with great lookouts over the city on the other side of the hill and, apparently, numerous stairs to get from one place to another. Like in Beirut, I felt really comfortable here. To be honest, I am not too sure if there is much to do except for going to the mall and go for dinner, but both Beirut and Zahlé are nice places to stay. Sometimes that is enough.
On our way back from Deir Al Ahmar to Beirut we had the opportunity to visit the city of Baalbek. Here you can find the remains of the largest Roman temple ever built. The Temple of Jupiter is part of a larger complex which took three centuries (!) to create. And here I was, thinking it is taking a long time to finalise the Hoog Catherijne make-over here in Utrecht. The temple and other buildings on the complex are impressive, precisely because of their size. Columns of 30 meters high, big rocks of 20 meters long forming the outer wall, it make you wonder how they managed to move all this more than 2,000 years ago. With just human strength and wit they managed to construct this masterpiece. I was surprised that the largest Roman temple ever constructed was built in Lebanon and not in Italy but have not been able to find out why this was the case. Apparently, it was an important religious site during the Roman empire and many emperors consulted the temple’s oracle. I was travelling to Lebanon to facilitate a number of workshops on scenario planning, which basically is about painting a picture of possible futures. How apt that I found myself visiting an ancient oracle.
I can understand that for many people, Lebanon would not be a first choice destination. It is too bad that places like this remain hidden from the world because of continuous conflicts in neighbouring countries and domestic disturbances. However, if you ever find yourself in the area, I can highly recommend it. Beirut is a wonderful destination for the weekend, with its entertainment and beaches nearby. The rest of the country is equally beautiful, people are very friendly and the food is amazing.
In both Beirut and Zahlé many old houses remain. I do not know what the style of these houses is called, but all of them have a certain Mediterranean feel to them. Picturesque balconies with palm trees and high windows with colourful shutters. I guess pictures say more than a thousand words.
Beirut is filled with supercars. I do not think I have seen this many Land Rovers in just a couple of days. Parked next to Ferraris, Porsches, heaps of BMWs and even the off Jeep. I saw a couple of advertisements for a Ferrari, which puzzled me. Why would you target thousands of people with an ad for a car only a handful of people can afford? I have not ventured into the poorer neighbourhoods of Beirut, but I can imagine inequality in Lebanon is quite persistent. Naturally, once we left the capital and travelled to two municipalities that are hosting a large number of Syrian refugees, the number of supercars quickly dwindled. Instead, there were the lovely old Volvos and other oldies of which you are surprised they are still moving. Not sure whether this is related, but during our trips I saw many car junkyards. There are too many cars in this country for sure.
What to say about the food? It is delicious. Nowadays we are quite familiar with some of the superstars of the Lebanese kitchen such as hummus and baba ghanoush but it is always different consuming it at the source. I love the mezze, sharing cold and warm platters, especially when you are with a larger group because it allows you to taste many different dishes. I love all the different types of flatbread, especially the puffy round pita bread that comes with almost every dish. We tasted arak, supposedly a Lebanese drink like Ouzo or Sambuca, though some people contested its origins. It is diluted with water and you drink it with ice. It was a bit weird, combining the taste of anis with grilled meat and cheese rolls, but quite agreeable. Arak is best with raw meat, another local delicacy. Unfortunately we did not have the opportunity to try the raw meat as they ran out of it at the restaurant.