Trip 19 -- Middle East
Part 2: Booking it to Byblos and down to Tyre (it's not "tire")
3 September 2017
"All my life I've dreamed to travel never anywhere specific but somewhere. Anywhere. To be happier. To find something. Who I am."
Such are the protagonist's closing thoughts in "Le voyageur," a film about a Lebanese travel agent who succumbs to the temptations of Paris on his first trip abroad. I watched it during the 12 hours from New York to Doha, just before we descended through the haze above Qatar's desert ridges, flat sand, and oil machinery.
"Never anywhere specific but somewhere." I hadn't planned to visit Qatar, which is stressed on the first syllable -- something like "KAH-tr." For months, all I had booked was a flight from Abu Dhabi to New York in Etihad Airways' first-class "apartment," which I'd put on hold impulsively when the airline opened up a bunch of award space. I didn't know how I would get to Abu Dhabi, but I was due for a visit to nearby Dubai. For one thing, I was out of Chocodates, my favorite snack: dates stuffed with almonds and covered in chocolate. The only place I'd ever seen them was in the United Arab Emirates.
I have a friend in Dubai who lives part-time in Beirut, and she'd assured me that Lebanon was safe, beautiful, fun, and full of good things to eat. I'd long been curious and was glad to have someone to show me around.
For all the scrutiny I expected entering Lebanon, it was easy and quick and I was out into the real world before my flight from Doha was even supposed to land. As a result, I waited 40 minutes for the car my friend Marie-Therese had called for me. I'd heard rumors of a minibus from the airport into the city, but there were conflicting reports on whether it left from the airport itself or from a roundabout a kilometer away.
And I was inclined to play it safer than usual in Beirut. "Minibus?" Marie-Therese wrote. "Don't be so adventurous here. I'll arrange a taxi. Don't want American drama on my hands. And don't tell anyone you're Jewish. Say you're Protestant or some shit.
"We're formally at war now with Isis," she continued. "In the Bekaa," an area of farmland in eastern Lebanon, and it's also where the country's wines are made. I hadn't planned to go there anyway, and by the time I left Lebanon Isis had been driven out.
The civil war that ravaged Lebanon from about 1975 to 1990 contributed to the stark contrasts of the modern Beirut landscape. From my window at the Radisson Blu Martinez hotel, I could see two comfortable apartment blocks, and between them were the concrete shells of two pock-marked, bombed-out buildings. Behind them were the gleaming terraces of new luxury high-rises that wouldn't be out of place in Miami Beach.
Marie-Therese had another friend visiting from Dubai, and we all had a night on the town. The open-air Terminal B bar occupies a building that was damaged during the war; its missing roof has been replaced by support beams. "I'm trying to say this as reverently as I can," I said. "This is a beautiful place."
But that was the strength of the Lebanese mentality -- don't remove the reminders of what happened. Instead, embrace it as part of the history, and let it live. That was easy enough to do in a moderate-sized building in the trendy Mar Mikhael district; it was more difficult with, say, the Grand Theatre, an egg-shaped behemoth that is no longer functional.
"Now you are going to have the best burger in the world," Marie-Therese said, and she took us to the Smoking Bun. It was a small place, with counter seating for only ten people or so. Their menu consisted only of burgers, with a variety of toppings, and French fries.
"Who's number one?" Marie-Therese asked, here and many more times during my five days in Lebanon.
I couldn't say for certainty that it was the best burger I'd had, but it was cooked perfectly rare as I requested, slightly cool in the center -- one of very few places to do that properly.
Next door, at By the Slice, we were offered a free piece of pizza.
"See," Marie-Therese said. "Hospitality. Lebanese people like to share."
Mar Mikhael was teeming, and it got more so as the night went on, its bars and restaurants spilling onto the sidewalk, the ritzier places inviting guests up to rooftops via glass elevators from the street level. Among the energy, steep staircases led uphill.
"The plan tonight is not to sleep," Marie-Therese announced. Our tour through Mar Mikhael continued with Radio Beirut, where her friend was the DJ, and Plan B, where a group was working its way through a bottle of Stolichnaya. Our last venue was Posh, an outdoor rooftop gay club with lights flashing and music blaring, a loud display of pride and freedom in a country where homosexuality is only borderline legal and where it's been less than a month since the law was repealed that exonerated a rapist if he married his victim.
Despite our efforts, we were all ready for bed at 2 a.m.
Marie-Therese and her mother, Betty, invited me to their place in the hills of Cornet Chahwan, about a 20-minute drive up a road that never stops curving or ascending once it leaves the sea. From there you can see down to the Mediterranean Sea, all the way south to Beirut, and north to the statue of the Virgin Mary known as Our Lady of Lebanon, several hills away. "There was fighting on both sides of the statue," Betty said. "But Mary wasn't hurt. She protected us."
From their house we drove even farther up, into the mountains, where restaurants line a steep road and afford wide-open views of the valley. There we had a relaxing and long-lasting lunch. The three of us were seated at a table for six. I took a place at the far end; they sat at the other end, living the middle seats open. The gap seemed awkward.
"Should I move closer?" I asked.
"No. We are going to need lots of room."
For the next two hours, dishes kept appearing, and with each one we had to rearrange the others to find a place for it. We had the common mezze most Americans know, such as hummus and baba ghanoush, but also a few I hadn't seen: diced tomatoes with strained cheese; giant beefsteak tomatoes with garlic spread similar to Greek skordalia; mustard greens with onion. And then all the raw meats: raw beef in minced and filet forms; raw kibbeh, minced beef mixed with spices; and liver, so fresh and, well, non-livery-tasting that I could have mistaken it for tuna sashimi. By the end, we had nineteen dishes on the table, plus a jar of arak, a licorice drink similar to ouzo.
While we ate, church music wafted up from the valley, and a rally of motorcars buzzed up the road of an adjacent mountain.
"Next will be the barbecue," Marie-Therese said. Lebanese are big on grilled meats, too. But fortunately she was joking. I was stuffed -- and then dessert arrived, plates of fruits and clotted cream.
"There are four hundred and eighty-nine mezze," Betty said. Five days was not long enough to try them all.
"This was fantastic," I said when we finished.
"Who's number one?" cheered Marie-Therese.
We drove across to another mountain, and up to about 1500 meters' altitude, to explore the ruins of Faqra, the site of two temples dating from about the first century, plus a village and some rock-hewn tombs. The view down was lovely; when she was growing up Marie-Therese used to come here to be alone.
Faqra was just a taste of all the ruins I'd get to experience. I took a day trip to Byblos, perhaps the world's oldest city still occupied -- there have been people there for about 7000 years, and the site was inhabited even before that, during the Neolithic period. The Arabic name is Jbeil; Byblos is the Greek name, perhaps taken from the word for "books" as the city was a source of papyrus. Byblos was also among the earliest locations of the use of the Phoenician alphabet, likely the world's first.
What's remarkable is how the different civilizations respected what was already there, building around it rather than tearing it down. Thus there are examples of ruins of homes several thousand years apart, from single-cell dwellings all the way up to a "modern" home only about 200 years old. A 12th-century citadel overlooks a Phoenician temple from 2700 BC. My favorite place was the 3rd-century Roman amphitheatre, five rows of seats facing a stage with a mosaic of Bacchus, an altar, and tiny Doric and Corinthian columns, all just a few feet from the sea. I marveled at how intimate the setting was, with just five rows of seats, until I read that the original went up 25 more levels.
I spent the night in Byblos. How could I not stay -- and dine -- at a place called the Byblos Fishing Club? My dinner consisted of vine leaves, fried whitebait, and a grilled barracuda, and I sat outside on the patio overlooking the marina. From the guesthouse, a canopied pedestrian path led uphill to the souq, which turned into a lively bar area at night.
In the morning all the entrances of the Byblos Fishing Club were closed and there was no one to be found, so I threw the key over the gate into the restaurant and made my way back to the highway to start the journey to Tyre, in the south.
I took a minibus to near the junction where the road comes down from Marie-Therese's town, and she picked me up there. We had only about 60 miles to travel, but because of congestion in Beirut the trip took over two hours. It also didn't help that, while navigating, I mistakenly led us into Dahye, a Hezbollah-controlled area near the airport. The Hezbollah are one of two primary Shi'a groups in Lebanon, and their yellow flags dominated the neighborhood.
"If my mother knew that I took you to Dahye she'd kill me," Marie-Therese said.
But the Hezbollah aren't as vicious as their reputation makes them out to be. "The Hezbollah don't go into a market and blow themselves up like the Sunni. If you got out of the car in Dahye they'd welcome you into their house and serve you a delicious meal," she said. "They'd treat you like a king."
"Until they find out you're a 'J.'" Marie-Therese and her mother had half-jokingly avoided using the full name of my religion in the presence of others.
We encountered a couple of roadblocks, but eventually we found our way back to the coastal road.
Tyre (pronounced "tier") is known as "Sour" (pronounced "suer") in Arabic, and like Byblos, it has been occupied by Phoenicians, Romans, and Arabs. Tyre's ruins include a village and a remarkable reservoir system consisting of various chambers, along with baths that were heated from tunnels below. Farther away were the remains of a market street and the hippodrome, now a grassy area five football fields in length, with remnants of seating around it. I walked the circumference of the arena and had the entire place to myself.
Marie-Therese has a friend in Tyre, a DJ known as Whossam. He arranged for us to stay in a hotel at the tip of the Tyre peninsula, where we were lulled to sleep by the gentle sea waves and the air conditioning. He took us to the beach, where casual restaurants provide food, drinks, and shisha; ours had a bonus: a hammock. He led us through the souq, which bustles with sellers of fruits, nuts, clothing, fish, and meat; what better place to have a pita sandwich filled with skewered lamb? He drove around town like he owned the place, and he seemed to know everybody. He was throwing a party at our hotel, but it would be the night after we left.
We drove back to Beirut and got caught in a demonstration commemorating the 39th anniversary of the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr, the leader of the Amal, Lebanon's other main Shi'a group. At the end of August 1978 he was invited to Libya by Muammar Qaddafi and he never returned. While Marie-Therese and I sat in blocked traffic, trucks bearing green flags whizzed by us with people cheering through the windows. It was a happy demonstration, but an unexpected one. This sort of thing can happen at any time in Lebanon.
And for that reason, I heeded Royal Jordanian Airlines' request that I arrive at Beirut's airport three hours before my departure to Amman, even though it would be 4:40 a.m. and I correctly predicted there wouldn't even be anyone ready at the check-in desk. Lebanon may require preparation for the unexpected, but it's a gorgeous and friendly place, and I wouldn't hesitate to visit again.
Go on to part 3: Amman to you, Dubai