Saturday, March 29, 2003


Remember our previous side-trip to Byblos? Well, we've now visited another incredibly ancient place that has been continuously inhabited for the last 6000 years or so, Sidon (صيدا)!

This was another important commercial point of the Mediterranean. Homer talked about it. They even founded Tyre. And like Byblos, its long history means it went from Phoenician rule to Assyrian, Babylonian, Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Ottoman, French and British. It can't get any more colourful, right?

Also, I'm beginning to realize these places we're seeing can't be fully understood and explored on just a single short visit. These are places meant to be enjoyed repeatedly, letting the centuries of rich history unfold slowly in front of you. 

Anyhow, this time we just saw a couple of things. First of all, and impossible to miss because it's pretty much on the way to one of the very main sights, is this mosque, whose name I couldn't get. Frankly, it's somewhat unassuming. But this is the first mosque we ever went into together. Which sort of made it feel special. 

But what blew our mind was this gorgeous, fantastic, magical place (from my point of view): le Château sur la Mer. You see, most of the time places have French translations of Arabic names instead of English ones and, frankly, Château sur la Mer sounds way more romantic than Sidon's Sea Castle (قلعة صيدا البحرية)!

And it is exactly what it is. A crusader castle, on the sea, joined to thye mainland by a long narrow path. It's simply beautiful! And peaceful! Despite this being such a unique place, tourism is, well, almost non-existent, and we were the only ones there!  

Of course, we entered, and explored the place at will! Fun! There was a very castle-y vaulted room, Roman columns serving as reinforncements of the walls (!!), views of the sea and of town from the roof, and a small Ottoman mosque too (that little square structure on the top right in the first photo of the castle). I guess this might also become another favourite site for me?

Afterwards, we headed to a restaurant nearby, the Sidon resthouse. It has views of the sea. It has views of the castle (I mean, it's right next to it!), and the food is absolutely delicious! But mind you, our food was no typical 2-3 course dinner. It was just appetizers! See, they call appetizers "mezze" (مزه), a word that reveals the country's long history: it's a Turkish word that came in via Persian that means taste or snack. But mezze is way, way more than "just snacks"! We had baba ghanouj (بابا غنوج), cooked eggplant with onion and spices; hummus (حمّص), or chickpea spread; falafel (فلافل‎), or fried chickpea balls; kibbeh (كبة‎), a minced beef croquette; labneh (لبنة‎), or strained yogourt; tabbouleh (تبولة‎), a fantastic mix of parsley, bulgur and other things; fattoush (فتوش), a toasted pita bread and greens salad; amazing olives (زيتون)... See? how could anyone possibly need a "main dish" with these flavourful, delicious, amazing "side dishes"! And like I said, all the while with views of the sea and the castle. Unbeatable.

Now, ordering wasn't that easy. Navigating our way through a new food culture is complicated, and I can tell waiters get a bit annoyed at our lack of understanding (both linguistic and cultural), but once the food arrives on the table, it's all bliss.

Merci Saïda (Sidon's name in Arabic and French)!

Tuesday, March 04, 2003

unfathomably ancient Byblos

We haven't spent even a month in Lebanon, and it's been such an experience already! Just to mention a couple of things...

We've found an apartment! in Beirut! It's what they call a "roof", which is basically the top floor of a building. And ours is so nice! It's got a terrace that goes all around! And we have views of the Mediterranean! Granted, not sweeping views, but we do get to see a sliver of sea! Plus it's an old building, so it's got high ceilings, many rooms (and we have basically NO furniture, so it looks gigantic! LOL), an old wooden door, a (so far) charming tiny old lift... And it's located in Achrafiyeh (الأشرفية), a very old and traditionally Christian/French neighbourhood. Fascinating!

What else is new? It rains. A lot. Like really, a lot! Whoever thinks the Middle East is all sun and heat should drop by Beirut in winter. All rain, no sun, cold, more rain...

And one last thing before I get into the main story: the driving. These people drive like madmen! I haven't seen an accident so far, which I guess means they're great drivers, just not very interested in following rules? Like, you drive unto the main highway (the autoroute they call it) and it's not neat lines of cars moving forward, it's more like a swarm! Lanes are basically non-existent (both mentally and physically, as you literally can't see any painted on the surface during long stretches)!

And why am I experiencing highways? Well, because, first of all, to get to work I need to take the highway, as now we live in downtown Beirut and work is in Naccache. By the way, I think I still get lost like 50% of the time! It's such a convoluted route once I have to go up the mountain. Oh, and did It tell you there are almost no street signs? or they're ridiculously difficult to find? So the directions I get to go anywhere are the sort of "You get to the big church,m then turn right" or "Oh, you pass the Mansour Building, then pass the charcuterie, and some metres ahead you make a left". And that SO does not work for me!

Anyhow, the other reason we've been on the "autoroute" is... we visited Byblos (جبيل)! No matter how little one may know about Mediterranean history, Byblos is a word that can't fail to evoke at least something!

Imagine, this is a city that has been continuously inhabited for some 7000 years! It's simply one of the oldest (still inhabited) cities in the world, hands down. As a very important and ancient port, it's been Canaanite, Phoenician, Egyptian, Assyrian, Persian, Greek, Roman, Mamluk, Ottoman, French... This place has seen it all, basically. It's so old and it's been so important the word for Bible is derived from this city's name.

Quite some place for our very first mini-adventure in Lebanon, right? And it's just a 2 hour drive or so from Beirut! We saw the remains of Phoenician temples, Roman columns, a Crusader castle, an Ottoman house, traditional souks... It's really impressive, and big! It takes quite a while to explore the whole site! And to actually realize what you're seeing. I mean, it's dense, in the sense that it gathers so much history in such a tiny spot. And we frankly more or less just walked around it, unable to fully grasp it all. This will surely be one of those places that we'll need to visit numerous times... 

But my favourite part was the port. I mean, I know I've mentioned it's antiquity over and over, but can you imagine? You sit and stare at the waters, at foundations of this place that shipped cedars and wine to the pharaohs, and that still saw jet-setters flocking not that long ago... It's easy to loose yourself in this port's long stream of time.

Somewhere by the port we found a nice place to eat, with views of the sea, and we proceeded to enjoy the sunset in this impossibly old place.

I just can't believe we have this jewel so close to us. I'm liking this place, Lebanon (or, as Lebanese say, Libnehn).

Saturday, March 01, 2003

Bonjourak Beyrouth!

Well, we're here, in what some people have called the Paris of the Middle East - Beirut (بيروت‎)! Barely two months ago I got a letter on my desk informing me I had been posted to Beirut and that I was supposed to move there as soon as possible.

Barely two months ago I told my partner that we were moving. I asked him to guess where to. I told him to picture a cedar tree. And he bewilderedly got it right away. And even better, he didn't waver in his decision to begin this adventure together!

Barely two months ago we held a huge farewell party with numerous friends and with family. 

And now, here we are. By the Mediterranean, trying to figure out this new world. And that's been rather interesting...

- Surprise, we're not actually staying in Beirut per se! I've come to realize this is a suburban area on Mount Lebanon  (جبل لبنان) called Naccache (نقاش). Awesome views of the sea, close to work, but right now it seems so distant from Beirut, which we can see in the distance!

- Are there any straight streets here? The drive to work is such a maze of tiny, winding streets up the mountain. I'll never ever memorize this!

- We tried going to what we had been told was one of the most lively and famous streets of Beirut, Rue Monot (شارع مونو‎). It was a rainy Sunday. The street was empty. Apparently part of it under repair. I hope this is not how the liveliest city usually looks like, so desolate! And so small!

- Parlez-vous français? Yikes, I think I'll have to start learning French seriously. On Rue Monot we entered this fancy pizza place (the only thing that seemed to be open). We heard French. I used what little I could remember, aided by my partner. Oh my, this was embarrassing.

- A week in, though, I'm beginning to learn a few words of Lebanese Arabic, and to get rid of the accent I picked up while studying my courses in Mexico City! It's weird! They change so many sounds! Like, I learned to say "ustahz" for "Mr", but here they say "istehz"! And French appears everywhere: they say merci for thanks, bonjourak for good morning (bonjour, French for good morning, with -ak, the ending marking that you're addressing a single male speaker...). French, Lebanese Arabic, English... this is going to be one linguistic roller coaster...    

We'll try to find a place to live in Beirut proper. The views are pretty here, but you have to do everything by car, and it just doesn't seem like the sort of place we'd like.

This is definitely one new, strange world. But I think (hope? assume? misguidedly believe?) we're ready! Yalla!

BTW, the two photos are views of  Beirut from our hotel in Naccache on our very first day in Lebanon.