Passion Points: Arts/Culture
The Lebanese native and author of Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut shares her tips on visiting her hometown.
Indagare: Take us on one of your favorite long walks around Beirut.
Salma: “I would start out in Hamra, the neighborhood where I grew up. It’s an area with a lot of street life and energy, where brand new luxury condo high-rises abut rundown old buildings in total disrepair – a juxtaposition that is very Beirut. It was the center of pre-war cultural and intellectual life in the 50s and 60s and the area around it is once again hopping. One block over is a great café and hangout called De Prague (Makdissi Street; 96 1174 4864). Stop for a cup of strong Arabic coffee and leaf through the art and history books on the shelves, then walk two blocks over to Bliss Street, where you’ll find the entrance to the American University of Beirut; of course, make sure to pick up an obligatory man’ouche at one of the stands on Bliss, such as National Bakeries (96 1136 5399), which is open 24/7. The AUB is arguably the most prestigious university in the Middle East, and its campus is spectacular, built on a beautiful landscaped hillside that tumbles to the sea. Usually you can walk right by the security guard, but if they ask to see a student ID, just request a guided tour. If it’s a weekday, the gate at the bottom of the hill will be open. Exit onto the Corniche, Beirut’s palm-lined seafront boulevard, and make your way downtown, passing a couple of fantastic textile shops. Artisans du Liban et d’Orient (Rafik Hariri Avenue, Ain El Mreisseh; 96 1136 2610; www.artisansduliban.com) stocks stunning handmade items for the home as well as abaya gowns and embroidered slippers. You’ll eventually arrive at the ancient Roman baths, which weren’t discovered and excavated until after the war (my mom always says that every time the Lebanese break ground to build something new, they discover something ancient!). This is an ideal place to sit and see the city sprawling before you. When you’re feeling refreshed, continue across Martyrs’ Square into Saifi Village to check out its fabulous artisan boutiques. Japan-raised designer Nada Debs (www.nadadebs.com) uses traditional Lebanese materials to create minimalist eastern-inspired furniture and accessories, and Bokja’s (www.bokjadesign.com) highly original chairs, benches, and sofas – ultra-contemporary silhouettes upholstered in colorful antique and vintage fabrics – are displayed in a restored mansion. Just to the west of Saifi is Achrafieh, one of Beirut’s oldest and most posh Christian neighborhoods; end your walk by meandering its winding streets or relaxing at one of its many cafés, for instance, Al Mandaloun (almandaloun.com), with its breezy terrace and great people-watching. Depending on how often you stop to rest or explore, this route could easily take two hours or an entire day.”
You frequently help friends and acquaintances with insider advice on where to stay, eat, and shop. What are your top picks?
“There is a lovely boutique hotel – the Albergo (137, rue Abdel Wahab El Inglizi; 961 133 9797; www.albergobeirut.com); it is Lebanon’s only Relais & Chateaux hotel and has a beautiful ornate retro-chic design. It also has a fabulous rooftop terrace, as does nearby Abdel Wahab (Abdel Wahab El Inglizi; 961 120 0550), where you can eat wonderful traditional Lebanese food overlooking Achrafieh. Another brilliant Lebanese restaurant is Tawlet (12 Naher Street; 961 1448 129; www.tawlet.com) in the Mar Mikhael neighborhood. Tawlet’s owner grew up on a farm and is responsible for founding downtown Beirut’s first farmer’s market. At his lunch-only restaurant, he hosts chefs and home cooks from all over the country, giving urbanite diners an opportunity to experience regional specialties. Orient 499 (499, Omar Daouk Street; 961 3411 624; www.orient499.com) in Ain el Mreisseh is like a Beiruti Calypso Home; shoppers will find gorgeous handmade Lebanese textiles, furniture, and jewelry.”
While based in Beirut, you were able to explore Lebanon via a number of interesting daytrips. Which of these would you most recommend to first-time visitors?
“A visit to the towns of Byblos and Amsheet on Lebanon’s northern coast makes an ideal daytrip from Beirut. Byblos, said to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world, is only about 45 minutes away by car. Layers of history are visible; there are incredibly well preserved ruins from multiple civilizations, from an ancient Roman amphitheater to an old crusader castle. There’s also a little fishing harbor with a couple of restaurants where you can have delicious fried local fish overlooking the gorgeous crumbling ruins. Amsheet is another 20-minute drive up the coast – a spectacular rocky coast that plunges down into the bright blue Mediterranean. Ask your driver to take you up into the Amsheet hills; alternatively, if you’re up for a major workout, it’s about an hour and half’s climb to the top, rewarded by stunning views of the sea. After ascending the hill, whether by car or on foot, you can stroll along narrow winding streets lined with beautiful stone houses built in the 19th century by wealthy silk merchants. With their triple arches, curved windows, and balconies, they are exemplary of classic Lebanese architecture, embellished with pink bougainvilleas, gardenias, and jasmine trees. It can be wonderfully revitalizing to offset Beirut’s intensity with some time in a place that’s totally serene and still very rural feeling.”
Jasmine and Fire is a must-read for anyone who’s headed to Beirut. Are there any other books you’d recommend to the Lebanon-bound?
Day of Honey by Annia Ciezadlo – Annia’s husband is Lebanese, and they are both journalists. Her memoir of her time in Beirut and Baghdad also includes a lot of food!
House of Stone by Anthony Shadid – Shadid was The New York Times’ Middle East reporter who recently died; he grew up in Oklahoma City, but his grandparents were from the same town as my Great Uncle Cecil in southern Lebanon. His memoir just came out posthumously. It focuses on the experience of restoring his ancestral home (an incredibly complicated process, as everything is in Lebanon), but it’s full of history.
House of Many Mansions by Kamal Salibi – A wonderful history of Lebanon by a prominent American University of Beirut historian.
The Road to Martyrs’ Square by Michael Young – A vividly written political history of the Lebanese Civil War and its aftermath. The author is half-American, but he grew up in Beirut and still works there as a reporter.
A History of the Modern Middle East by William Cleveland –The Middle East is such an intertwined region politically and historically that it’s nearly impossible to understand one country without understanding its neighbors. This excellent overview of Middle Eastern history and politics provides the requisite context.
Jasmine and Fire: A Bittersweet Year in Beirut will be released on June 5th. Visit Salma’s blog.
Read Indagare’s write-up on Lebanon: Why Now.
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