I quickly fell in love with Lebanon. My first visit was in October 2014 and I have gone back every year since. This summer marked my third time in the country and it will almost definitely not be my last.
My first time in Lebanon was inspired by a a general desire to travel in the Middle East. I spent much of my undergraduate degree studying the region and, since early 2014, I have worked on the Syria crisis response. For me, I felt it was important to better understand the context in which we operated and to witness for myself the impact that the crisis was having in the region. Why Lebanon? I had heard that Beirut was a fun city for one. The party scene was meant to be the best in the Middle East – perhaps after Tel Aviv – and a number of friends had suggested that there was a fairly open gay community. But I was also fascinated by the confluence of cultures in the country, the complex social and religious dynamics, as well as the impact of decades of conflict. From an international relations perspective, I wanted to know more about a country in which the region’s great powers have fought for influence since independence. It did not disappoint.
It’s safe to say that no other country has become so entwined with my emotions as Lebanon. Each visit has marked a significant period in my personal relationships over the last two years – lost, divided and found. But many other things have brought me back.
The food in Lebanon is incredible. There isn’t the variety of India, but the quality and richness is beautiful. I’ve been told time and again by my Beiruti friends that the Lebanese don’t eat meze everyday – but if I could, I would. Mezyan, my favourite restaurant in Beirut, offers the most wonderful range of hot and cold meze with great live music and dancing late at night around the tables. The landscape is also an asset. The Lebanese love to boast that you can go from sunny beach to snowy mountains in 45 minutes. They’re right to do so. There is something so enchanting about being able to stand in downtown Beirut and catch the peaks of a mountain range in the distance, particularly in winter when they are capped by snow.
I have been fortunate enough to meet a number of Lebanese people on each of my visits. But that is no fluke. The hospitality I have encountered in Lebanon is second to none. From my very first night, we were met by friends of friends who insisted on taking us out to local gay bars and clubs. Night after night we were invited to dinners, concerts and parties. And by day, near strangers drove us up the coast to ensure we visited the best beaches. I’ve rarely felt so at home abroad. So when I left, there was always an invitation to return.
After failing to get a job in Beirut last year (the dream), I decided to book a summer holiday in Lebanon instead. This time felt different to previous visits – I had absolutely no plans and was more than content just to lounge around and socialise. I was joined by a friend, Tom, for the first week, which was helpful in encouraging me to step out of Beirut to explore new places. Tom took me to Tripoli in the north so that we could see the modernist architecture at the International Fair. Designed by Niemeyer in the 1960’s, the International Fair was never completed due to the civil war (1975-1990) and now stands empty. The buildings and structures are absolutely stunning albeit slightly eerie. The city itself is noticeably more conservative than Beirut and, as a result of regular spates of violence, I felt that the atmosphere was somewhat tense. We explored the souks – the oldest in Lebanon – and visited a soap factory where the first perfumed soaps were produced. Tom managed to find a gay-friendly café and we stopped by a beautiful old restaurant that only sold desserts. We spent the afternoon on a sugar high.
One is never far from a beach here. I spend a number of days lounging at some of Beirut’s pools or private beaches up the coast. For the first time, however, I also travelled down to Sour (via Saida) to experience a rarity in Lebanon: a free public beach. Sour is renowned for its long stretches of golden sand beaches and relaxed seafronts. Whilst most of the beach huts cater to a more conservative crowd, Cloud 59 at the end has a more liberal and – dare I say it – hipster vibe. We spent two days lounging with beers and shisha, and watching the sunsets. Sour has a very cute little harbour near the Christian district where we were staying (Al Fanar). The city also offers a scattering of beautiful Roman ruins, including a huge hippodrome, that are well worth exploring.
This time around I also made it up to Faraya to spend the day at a vineyard. I took the two hour journey out of Beirut with a number of colleagues for a day of all-you-can-eat-and-drink overlooking the mountains. I’ve been very impressed with Lebanese wine – not that I’m an expert – and I’ve regularly been envious of colleagues’ wine tasting trips into the mountains. It’s such a shame that Lebanese (and Syrian) wine isn’t easier to find in the UK. The journey back down was stunning. We descended late in the day and we watched the Beirut skyline glisten in the distance.
It’s likely I will return to Beirut in August during my first breather break from Iraq. Lebanon is a small country but there are still a number of things that I have yet to do. Baalbek is high on my list. Whilst firmly in the FCO red zone, I have heard that it would be fairly safe to make the journey. The Roman ruins in the city are meant to be absolutely incredible – some of the best around the Mediterranean. It’s such a same that few tourists feel able to experience them. I would also like to explore the mountains some more. Until the next time…
You have your Lebanon and I have mine.
You have your Lebanon with her problems, and I have my Lebanon with her beauty.
You have your Lebanon with all her prejudices and struggles, and I have my Lebanon with all her dreams and securities.
Your Lebanon is a political knot, a national dilemma, a place of conflict and deception.
My Lebanon, is a place of beauty and dreams of enchanting valleys and splendid mountains.
Your Lebanon is inhabited by functionaries, officers, politicians, committees, and factions.
My Lebanon is for peasants, shepherds, young boys and girls, parents and poets.
Your Lebanon is empty and fleeting, whereas My Lebanon will endure forever.
– Kahlil Gibran 1920