This is what I wrote on the hotel notepad shortly after arriving in Beirut last March:
“If there is any place you cannot judge by first impressions, it is Lebanon.
I had heard great things about the country from Bahrainis, but upon arriving in Beirut, I was greeted by chaos and commotion. Beirut, from afar, looks like any congenial Mediterranean hillside town, but up close it is a jumble of tenements and bombed-out buildings, faded curtains billowing from windows where dusty rugs are hung out and power lines sweep like vines across alleys and over sidewalks. Abandoned cars, missing doors and wheels, are strewn about everywhere – and the cars on the road aren’t much better.
Everything is gritty and old and rough and dirty, caked with yellow-gray dust, and has this sense of precariousness, like the whole city could just come tumbling down at any moment. I have to admit that the whole scene made me more than a little bit scared, wondering what in the world I had gotten myself into and suddenly devising plans for immediate escape, if necessary.”
Of course, I had written all of this after a harrowing ride in the back of a beat-up car being driven by a big burly man who spoke neither English nor French, and accompanied by an old man with no teeth and only one functioning arm (who would later still insist on driving me around town, using manual shift, and only one arm), who smoked about seven packs of cigarettes a day and who also spoke neither English nor French.
Upon my arrival at my hotel (which, judging by my initial impressions of Beirut, was surprisingly luxurious), we headed out again to taste some of the magical cuisine that is Lebanese food, known the world over for the variety of its dishes and the diversity of spices. Unfortunately, Mohammed, my toothless one-armed guide, ordered for me, and out came Arak, an anise-flavored liquor with ice in the glass, and tabbouleh, which I don’t really like, because it tastes to me like exactly what it is, which is mainly a bowl of chopped up parsley.
Anyway, the main course was much better, as we had kofta, khubz, and vegetables. Since we couldn’t communicate, we entertained ourselves by me trying to learn the names of all the foods in Arabic, and Mohammed trying to pronounce the names so that I would understand, even without his teeth.
…and that’s all I remember. Sure, there was a visit to Mohammed’s house, an introduction to his children, a walk around Hamra at night in search of pomegranate juice, a brief tour of various nightclubs and then a late-night shwarma snack at Barbar, which, even at 3am, was bright, and noisy, and packed to the gills with weekend revelers.
The next morning I woke early, as we had planned (read: motioned through universal hand signals in a desperate attempt to communicate) to visit Tripoli, Baalbek, Saida, and the many other sites that exhibit Lebanon’s rich and vast history through ruins, temples, markets, and mountains.
…..but about ten minutes into the car ride (with my one-armed driver), I sensed that something was very, very wrong. After three bathroom stops in the space of twenty minutes, I realized I wasn’t going to see Tripoli, or Baalbek, or anyplace else than my hotel bathroom. I was definitely, uncomfortably, and nauseatingly sick.
And I remained sick for the duration of my trip…and then some. I did not have Lebanese food. I did not see ruins. I did not enjoy the Mediterranean climate and sea view. I ate only rice and stayed inside, watching old movies and groaning the day away.
It’s funny now, because when I tell people I got food poisoning in Lebanon (one of God’s cruelest jokes yet), they ask me where I ate, and when I mention the name Barbar, they all burst into laughter and exclaim, “Well, of course you got sick there!” And when I argue the establishment’s virtue as it was full every time I walked by, they say, “Yes, but we’re Lebanese…we’re used to it!”
In short, regardless of my experience, I will say here that Lebanon is a truly amazing country that was not only rated among the New York TImes’ top 44 places to visit in 2009, but offers an incredible and rare combination of ancient history, recent history (read here about Hezbollah), nature, urban living, great food, and affordability. Just stay away from midnight shwarma…