From Beirut to Amman

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We swing along the Damascus Road down through the Beqa’a Valley with Fairuz blasting out of the bus’ speakers: khidni wa zraani bi arrid Libnan (take me and plant me in the land of Lebanon). The speakers fail to render her many high notes which splurge out saturated. In fact the sound is not altogether dissimilar to the coach’s singsong horn, which blurts out frequently as we barrel downhill, overtaking, and crawl uphill, being overtaken.

The lady behind me taps me on the shoulder and hands me a gardenia blossom. Its rich heady scent fills the bus, mingling with the driver’s cigarette smoke and the mint leaves in my rolled labneh sandwich. After a very short night, not even the triple overtaking on blind bends or the subsequent near collisions and  horn-leaning can keep me awake. I’m lulled off to an Arabic cover of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive”, until we are ushered off the bus for customs formalities.

The trip from Beirut to Amman via Syria involves getting out of the bus for passport stamping  Read the rest of this entry »

The ultimate driving test

most suitable vehicle to drive in the Middle East

Like peace, driving safely in the Middle East is an elusive thing. Much like American suburbia, most places here are built to drive in, with drive thru this and that and valet parking. The only difference is the apparent lack of urban planning and the regularity with which main roads and bridges get bombed into non-existence, wiping out any nascent impression that these rugged dark grey stretches were originally built for driving on, and not by tanks alone. If you’re planning to get behind the wheel anywhere in the Middle East then these tips from a Beiruti driver may help you get to your destination in one piece.

#1 First of all get your own tank. Look around the streets of Beirut city centre and you’ll see a disproportionate number of huge four wheel drives, and especially Hummers. You thought these armoured vehicles were for off-roading, camping in the mountains, exploring deserts in neighbouring countries? No, their raison d’être is exactly what you see them being used for.   Read the rest of this entry »

Backgammon and campervans in Tripoli

along the corniche

Tripoli is a family city. Not in the same way as Copenhagen, with its wide pavements and pram-friendly metro. But a whole family will pile onto a moped and head out for an evening jaunt with the same ease as the Danes will stow their kids in a bicycle buggy and ride off along the canals, albeit more precariously.

It’s a far less pretentious city than the Lebanese capital and not remotely cosmopolitan. In fact after six months in Beirut I feel like I am now on an excursion to a foreign country. There are no would-be Western cafés, no macaroons in the sweets parlours and no leopard print miniskirts.

In fact on the door of one store in the beautiful if run-down old town, pictogrammes demonstrate approved attire for women: basically  Read the rest of this entry »

Old souqs, old city

damascus souq sweets

candy jewels

The first settlements we pass after crossing from Lebanon into Syria are geometric heaps of concrete blocks against the pinkish soil. One or two blocks of flats are painted yellow or orange, but the general effect is tone on tone grey. On top of the blunt square tops of the housing blocks, a multitude of satellite dishes bristle in perfect alignment. They are as much part of the general form as the spines of a hedgehog. Red water tanks add a splash of colour to an otherwise drab landscape.

Once inside the old city of Damascus, everything is as elaborate as the typical inlaid Syrian jewellery boxes. The mosques are built in stripes of contrasting stone, the divans are heavy with embroidery and the panes in each glass lantern are a mix of primary colours. Every opening in the souq is a chromatic orgy. The glitter of the ‘gold souq’ is rivalled by the sweet stalls laden with candied fruits and other glossily wrapped confections. Heaps of multicoloured spices, fabrics and beads vie for attention. Ornate lamps hang from the high arched ceilings where shafts of sunlight, milky with dust, pierce the cool interior. The souq of Damascus, just off the legendary Straight Street, is considered the oldest authentic souq in the Arab world, a far cry from the tourist-traps of Marrakech. Every day except Friday, the walkways are full of locals shopping, chatting and eating ashta and pistachio ice creams.   Read the rest of this entry »

Mille fois morte, mille fois revécue

church beirut

bringing ruins to life

However derelict and forsaken a scene one may come across in Beirut, it never looks completely forlorn. Even this gutted church, roofless and full of bullet holes, is far from a mere ruin. The inborn resilience of the Lebanese has kept them rising from the ashes time after time. This is well illustrated by a poster ad which hangs on the wall in the office of my local mukhtar. It is an old Middle East Airlines advertisement which reads: Beyrouth : Elle est mille fois morte, mille fois revécue. It is dated 1982, one of the worst years of the civil war.

Though the Lebanese still blame the state for everything they cannot change or do not wish to, they have a fantastic impetus for rebuilding from scratch, whether it means adapting to a new country or launching yet another start-up.

In Lebanon there is no such thing as over-regulation to smother this ambitious, enterprising spirit. In fact there is only one sector in Lebanese economy which is highly regulated. While banks around the world were disproving the too-big-to-fail assumption, Bank Audi, Byblos Bank and co didn’t turn a hair as their war-proof lending rules proved their worth.   Read the rest of this entry »