View near Jezzine

Inland from Saida, Jezzine has stunning valley views, waterfalls and pine forests.

Jezzine, Lebanon

Jezzine

It also lies on the Lebanon Mountain Trail, a hiking trail which runs along the backbone of Lebanon from Qbaiyat to Marjaayoun.

One year on

ginger cedar ginger beirut

ginger cedar

Ginger Beirut has now been online for a full year. In that time the page with the most hits on this site is About me… so now it’s time to talk about you, about those who visit this blog.

Over the past year, this site has drawn readers from the most far-flung corners of the atlas, from the Isle of Man to Fiji, Azerbaijan to Angola and Belize to Brunei. It’s a testimony to the sheer extent of Lebanese migration and the way these migrants have transmitted to new communities their love of their country, their cuisine and their peculiar approach to life.

The breadth of this readership is likely also linked to the recent surge in coverage of Lebanon in the press for reasons other than politics and conflict (though the ink hasn’t been spared in those columns either). Aside from a severe spate of Beirut is Back articles (for a parody read here) in which journalists took turns to report on their experience of staying at Le Gray and eating at Tawlet, there have been many in-depth articles in the international press (by the New York Times to name one source) which manage to get beyond the fabulous, eclectic contradictions that grab every visitor to the capital, and dig into the actual make-up of Lebanese society.

Niche readership

While international press titles can rely on readers attracted by a broad coverage, this blog focuses on just one truly tiny country through one pair of eyes. Fittingly, it draws a niche readership. Comments from readers, and especially the many emails you send me show that people who come to browse here are people at a crossroads of cultures. They have strong links with Lebanon, sometimes through origins, but also by marriage, having lived here for work or military service, or simply having fallen in love with the country. At the same time they have to have the native-level English and literary patience to put up with my verbose writing style. I’ve been pleasantly surprised how many people fall into the intersection of this limiting Venn diagram.

One of the joys of throwing ideas and articles out into the ostensible void of cyberspace over this year has been that of finding my writing touches a chord with readers around the world. I have been delighted by the vast number of readers who have reached out with comments and emails, telling me their own experiences, asking questions, proposing explanations and even offering jobs (keep them coming!).

Change

You may have noticed a few tweaks to the layout recently to welcome in a second year of musings and observations from here in Beirut. They aim to make browsing the blog a more pleasant experience for you readers. There’s less scrolling now that the recent posts are linked on the right, and as before you can navigate via the archives, the map and the tag cloud. It’s easier to subscribe using a reader of your choice and you can now opt to subscribe by email if you prefer.

You may notice a few other changes in the weeks to come but now’s a good time if you have any comments, whether it be on content or layout. How do you like to navigate the blog? Which features do you actually use? Which topics would you like to read more about?

Streets of Beirut XXXI

When the builders first arrived at a beautiful though dilapidated house nearby, they cleaned the debris from the triple arches in the façade, and for a while I wondered if the new owner planned to restore the property. A few days later a heap of rubble replaced the building, quashing this unrealistic hope. The bulldozer sits on high and the irreverent builders swarm over the stones.

destruction of Beirut houses

a fragment of daily life

Against a wall shared with an adjacent building, the kitchen tiling still clings, along with a cupboard with the front ripped off, exposing bottles of cooking oil and vinegar from decades past.

destroying Beirut's architectural heritage

stubborn cupboard

I was tickled to see that this one lonely cupboard gave the builders quite some trouble. They all had a go at removing it and still hadn’t succeeded by the time I moved on.

Word of mouth

How did you hear about our services? A frequent multi-choice question used by companies on surveys to evaluate their marketing efficiency. Please tick: Friend or family, website, advertising… In Lebanon, there’s rarely need to read all the options; the first box wins hands down.

After a long stint of traditional B2C advertising, word of mouth is making a grand return in the west, carried on the crest of the wave that is new media and user generated content. You can now “like” your favourite supermarket chain online, retweet an airline promotion or buzz about the restaurant you just tried.

In Lebanon, there is no need for a comeback; the grapevine rules supreme. Billboards and TV spots are small-time players in comparison to popular endorsement. What better way to know where to get insurance, a posh meal, spare parts, a job, cheap groceries… than to ask around.

In western countries, there is little need to ask anyone anything. From checking out a cinema location via Google street view to emailing for a restaurant reservation to dissecting films in forums, people can consume to their heart’s delight in virtual isolation. Or should that be in virtual company and in actual isolation.

Reliance on real people has been replaced by anonymous avatars or computer generated responses. Online, all our questions find an answer complete with a telephone and fax number, longitude and latitude, a photo of the shop front, precise opening hours and a printed itinerary together with the speed cameras you’ll pass en route.

Not for the Lebanese. Never a fixed appointment, no website, no map, no bus stops, no address, always on the phone, rolling the window down, calling out to a shopkeeper, a traffic cop, anybody. At the mercy of other people’s memory, opinion and good mood.

Arriving in Beirut, if you are new to the city, the language or the culture, you could feel vaguely stunted. Finding one’s bearings requires an in-depth conversion to that long-lost art of verbal communication.

It is true that some of the answers you get will undoubtedly contradict each other. Most certainly they will contradict anything written down. This reflects the way reality is changeable and subjective, since roads, opening times and reputations are not fixed. Nothing is written in stone – it isn’t written at all.

People are often your only recourse to find a good grocers, the nearest laundrette, free wifi, a decent plumber. Trial and error work too, but how many times do you want to flood your flat? Want to transfer funds between your bank accounts or find out why your card has been cancelled on you? You’ll have to physically present yourself at the branch and speak to someone face to face.

Want to get from A to B? You can ask at every single crossroads which road to take next, and no-one would think it strange. In fact that is often part of the instructions. Left after the gas station, up the hill, then at the bakery ask again. Think of it as some kind of treasure trove. They are just giving you a few broad hints so don’t precipitate things expecting to get all the way to your destination on one miserly clue. That’s no fun.

Maybe you’d like to email a hotel for a booking because you are out of the country and would be reassured by some written confirmation of your booking. Forget it. Even if you find an email address, chances of a reply are slim to skinny.

The fact is that while the west has become increasingly suspicious of anything that isn’t printed in black and white, the Lebanese trust the spoken word far more than any other means of communication.

Western trivia often involves such questions as, What was the real name of the singer known as Bob Dylan? What is the Latin name for the foxglove? There is always the conception that whatever we say in day-to-day life is inferior to the official, written terms. The real names and facts are those you have to look up. Common parlance, verbal communication, even, means little compared to paper reports, encyclopaedias and the small print on contracts.

But in Lebanon, the reality is not inscribed in dusty reference books or on maps no-one uses. It belongs to living, breathing language, to human contact. And when you give your word it is worth more than any contract. Moving east is about learning to put your life into the hands of other people again. It might be confusing and unpredictable, but it feels good.

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