Wednesday, January 4, 2012

My Christmas Vacation--by Jeff Gibbs, Class 6D

Pictures by Delal Seven

When I travel, or am home in the South from overseas--I have this obsession with finding similarities.  I see them everywhere, even in people. ( At least three boys in my Turkish middle school class, for example, remind me of Kevin MacAuliffe, my boyhood best friend and neighbor—and I can imagine these kids mudbombing  passing cars from the safety of a tree fort just as we did thirty years ago.)

And though some people have made fun of me for these compulsive comparisons—accurately saying it often blinds me to important differences—I continue to be astounded by how alike everyone around the world is. And I think it’s a good thing to be reminding people of such things.

To wit….

Try and tell me where we are.  And no peeking ahead.

A long road straight through the country side at night—the darkness is broken only by car washes, lube and oil shops, and gas stations strung with inflatable Santas.  There’s an apartment building with a fairy-light team of reindeer leaping from a TV antenna.  You turn down a road into a small town and follow a lane flanked by giant Christmas trees and manger scenes until you hit an intersection with yet another manger scene in the parking lot of a Asian fast food chain called ChopStix next to a minimall.
Tacky Christmas tree--where could you be?

Alabama? Somewhere outside of Birmingham perhaps?  Or Georgia heading into Macon?

Another scene from the same place…a road along the seacoast jammed with cars lurching down the highway at less than an inch per hour. There are more billboards than people. Neon lights form towers of signs for fast food chains, cell phone stores, and luxury hotels. You pass a Hardees, a Radio Shack, and sushi restaurant after sushi restaurant—all with Japanese sounding names gone slightly awry. There are road signs urging you ahead toward beaches and back toward tourist sights you just passed—‘See our famous grotto!’ ‘Visit our historic downtown!’


Last chance, kids. 

You are strolling downtown through a mall—a giant Christmas tree is decorated with oversized Christmas balls donated from all the high end stores—Benneton, the Gap, Le Maison something or other.  Well dressed women in heels and their be-suited boyfriends glitter in the windows of boutique restaurants—Italian and Fusion mostly. After fine dining they saunter to the nearest bar or night club, which is filled with well-off students sipping imported beers and elaborate cocktails. There’s a cover charge to keep the riffraff (you) out.


No friends, you are in Lebanon.

It’s not just these superficial resemblances.  Lebanon and I have a lot in common.  Our domestic religious set-up is very similar—in other words, while my grandfather(in-law) is going through his (defacto) Sunni Muslim ritual of morning namaz in our spare bedroom, my sister is on her way to Sunday morning services at her Christian church back in the States.

We even have a neighbor below us who won’t leave us alone.

Delal and I spent the week between Christmas and New Years in Beirut.  To be frank, I was expecting a war-torn Middle Eastern wasteland struggling to recover from decades of major and minor wars.  All the reading I had done on Lebanon came from Robert Fisk, who in one of my books describes his cat Walter thusly,

‘At the height of General Aoun’s lunatic bombardment of Western Beirut, where is Walter? We asked as the shells hissed over the house. I found her sitting on the sofa, following with her eyes the lights of the tracers and targeting rounds as they flitted over the rooftop.’

One night, a missile wire appears in Walter’s litter box—something he’d mistakenly eaten and then pooped out.

And there are traces of this violent and recent past. Snug between the new cafes, hotels, sushi restaurants, and boutique bars, you’ll find the occasional building riddled with bullet holes. And in the downtown Solidere area—it seems every trace of the past destruction has been erased and replaced with the kind of modern architecture you’d find along the seafront in Miami or Ft. Lauderdale—I remember one enormous curving building of mirror glass sporting balconies bursting with palm trees. Yet square in the middle of all this contemporary glitter is the ruin of the Holiday Inn, gutted and burned and butchered, riddled with black holes blasted in its body. It’s the walking dead. We never passed it without a small shiver running down our spines. 
The Christmas Display at the Mall in Beirut

The Street Near the Plaza of the Stars--New Year's Eve

A parking attendants hut

And once, as our taxi drifted by the Osaka Japanese restaurant where one piece of cucumber maki cost five dollars the driver said, ‘This street is where they assassinated Hariri with a car bomb.’

Beirut is probably the most expensive city I have ever been in—and I can’t help but think there’s more to that than a traveler’s complaint.  The Christian sections of the country seem a bit richer than the rest.

We went to the Grande Cafe downtown for a nargile and two teas—at most, ten dollars in Istanbul--and ended up paying thirty. Coffee was five or six dollars, a plate of nuts with your beer the same. The price per head at all the New Year’s parties in Hamra (the neighborhood we were staying) started at one hundred dollars, and yet all the exclusive bars and boutique restaurants and high-end cafes were full, bursting even, every night of the week. 

‘After all these years of war,’ one friend told us. ‘People are ready to have fun no matter what. They’ll throw their money at everything!’

The streets were filled with Filipina maids walking tiny pure bred dogs—a cable car ride up the mountainside in Jounieh took us past apartment buildings with windows lighted like little theaters.  Inside two or sometimes three Asian maids cooked and cleaned and set the tables. There is almost zero Asian presence in Istanbul—or any other nationality for that matter--but in Beirut you have Filipino groceries and Filipino Catholic church.  There are Ethiopians and Nigerians out in force as well—and despite being mostly domestics, nobody looks all that poor.

And I have never seen a higher concentration of sports cars—Porsches and Ferraris and antique Mustangs. We found a bar called the Boston Bar with a map of Boston’s T showing the redline running from Porter Square through South Station and ending at Hamra. We couldn’t get in because they were having a private party at 150 dollars per person—and that didn’t include food.

Where did all this money come from in a city that was nearly leveled by a fifteen year civil war and countless attacks from Israel and invasions from Syria ever since?  The overseas Lebanese returning home? Was it the legendary Lebanese business acumen?

 No one had an answer. 

We asked our hotel manager, Wissam, where the poor neighborhoods were, and he told us to go to the suburbs.  We went. I climbed out of the taxi and nearly ran into a Chinese girl bent over to pick up the poo a terrier had deposited on the pavement.  The little hairmop barked hysterically.  The pair quickly disappeared into a gated apartment with a doorman standing guard out front.

Perhaps in the poorer area you could only afford one maid.
The Christmas Tree next to the Minaret--there were bells and an ezan at the same time too

A banyan tree on the AUB campus

Pigeon Rocks--where the Gypsies give boat rides

Ah, but the food.  Cheaper was better. After several overpriced restaurants (40 dollars for breakfast at an antiseptic place called Socrates!) we discovered Barbar’s—who served fresh falafels and shwarma out of a shop window—they were so tasty I wanted to cry. The shwarma were so successful that Delal bought several and mashed them down amongst our clothes in the suitcase to take home to her mother.  We served them up to the inlaws last night. Her brother Heval ventured the first bite.  Do you like it? Del asked. He shook his head no, and then took another bite. ‘I’m really not hungry,’ he announced, and took another bite. ‘I mean, I just ate at four.’ Another bite.  ‘I don’t think I can eat again till eleven tonight or so I am so full.’ Another bite. And another and another.

One falafel shop in the chic neighborhood of Achrafiye served a garbanzo concoction called balila.  The garbanzos are cooked (and blendered) with cumin, cinnamon, salt, butter, and olive oil.  Then they are served with flat bread, tomatoes, pickles and fresh greens—mint and arugula mostly.  All this we folded into a little wrap and ate—warm warm warm as the cold rain poured outside.

Across the street from our hotel was a Lebanese ‘pizza’ shop that served my favorite dish of all—a fluffy piece of flat bread baked with white cheese and a spice mix called za’atar.  Za’atar—even though it sounds like a Star Trek villain, is a Holy Land combo of sumac, salt, sesame seeds and a Middle Eastern species of thyme that Delal’s folks call anıx (the x pronounced like the German ch). Lebanese think it helps your brain work better and between that and the potent Arab coffee that you could get for 75 cents at any little street stall, my brain did a lot of perking up after breakfast.  And like the Vietnamese, a lot of coffee stands used sweetened condensed milk to brighten up their brews.

And while the nargile was expensive, it was potent. We had grape and grape mint mostly—two flavors I don’t see in Istanbul—and I caught a buzz every time. The funny thing is in Beirut, most everybody smoked. In Istanbul the demographic is mainly young people—your student and leftist types--but we saw young and old in Beirut, covered Muslim mothers and high heeled business women, teachers and students and gas station workers and taxi drivers and maids.

That’s the world of the Maronite Christians—oh there are Muslims in Beirut but the majority of holy buildings were churches of one sort or another—Greek Orthodox, Catholic, Maronite, Armenian, Armenian Catholic, Fransiscan Catholic, French Fransiscan Greek Armenian Catholic with Filipino Protestant on the side and a Syriac sprinkled lightly over the top.
The fancy next to the bullet ridden

The uber expensive bar in Hamra

A modern building with the image of a ruined one

Then there’s Tripoli—which is Trablus in Arabic. Tripoli—at the far northern border of the country was a mere hour and a half from Beirut, but a world away in terms of culture. It was mainly Sunni and filled with concrete apartment blocks climbing the hillsides of the Mediterranean.  And it was distinctly poor. Or perhaps just normal.

We bought a bag of delicious bread sticks from a baker for 2 dollars that would have been at least 5 in Beirut--they were warm and crisp and flavored lightly with butter and cinnamon and perfect with the Arabic espresso at a café recommended by the baker.

We spent an afternoon wandering Tripoli’s old souks and getting kicked out of mosques. We thought at first that they were upset that Delal had not covered her head, but it turned out that they simply wanted to get rid of all the visitors so that they could close.

From the souks we dove into a maze of alleyways painted with images of the holy Kabaa and guarded by a troop of young boys around six or seven playing soldier. We emerged at the foot of the old Crusader castle of St. Gilles. It was filled with Lebanese soldiers—so many of them that Delal stopped to ask one of them if something was up in Tarzan English and sign language.  MANY SOLDIERS!  YOU…HERE.  WHY? (There’d been lots of fighting a few years back, some reports of an Al Qaeda presence, and even a travel warning from the Lonely Planet—we were wary). He laughed and said no, no, no.  ‘Nothing!  Nothing!  Just work.’
The souks of Tripoli

This boy jumped out at us in the souk and insisted a picture be taken

The symbol of old Tripoli--the clock tower
The boys playing war

The view of Tripoli from St. Gilles Citadel

This could be St. Marcos in Saint Augustine--but its the Citadel

The only picture of the wife I am legally allowed to put here

Toward sunset we walked to the seafront area called ‘Al Mina’.  There were lots of reminders of Florida here, too—mostly trees. The avenues were lined with orange trees, tangerine trees, palm trees, banyans, and the occasional ‘paper’ trees that used to grow in Kevin’s yard.  One palm was twined with bougainvillea vines. At the pier, with dramatic views of the snow covered Lebanese mountains looming over a freighter, we met a man selling tea out of his orange VW van—the back of mess of fishing tackle, old clothes, coolers, and supplies for his tea. Now this was the sweetest tea I have ever put in my mouth—I mean, ever. And I am Southern.  Both my father and sister dump cups and cups of sugar in their iced tea and still, this stuff made my teeth hurt.  We sat and watched the sunset over the harbor and chatted in broken English.  He told us to call him The Fisherman.  We told him about lying to my mom about where we were going (we said Dubai) so that she wouldn’t worry, and he told us about his days as a night club patron and singer in the UAE.

 ‘You sing’? Delal asked, surprised.  In answer, he blushed and dragged a ratty old oud out of the back of his van. After fumbling with the strings in an attempt to tune it, he serenaded us rather shyly with an Arab song.

The sun sank, the air cooled.  The snow on the mountains turned a bright pink.

We asked the Fisherman where we could get some good Lebanese food.  ‘My brother!’ he said with a gap tooth smile.  ‘I will show you!’ and proceeded to lead us across the street and through a brief maze of back streets to a little hole in the wall restaurant crammed with people, a line spilling out onto the sidewalk.  No sign, no English menu, just Lebanese flat bread and three pots of meat to stuff it with—crab, lobster, and Lebanese fish.  We took the Lebanese fish and lobster.  The lobster had a very light but flavorful mix of spices that we think may have included cinnamon.  The fish was my favorite—flavored with za’atar—and probably a tahini sauce.
The Fisherman
The familiar paper trees from Florida on Al Mina

A ship in port--the mountains in the smog behind

Later that night, back in Beirut, we texted the Fisherman back in Tripoli a thank you and a goodbye.  It was Delal’s idea—and one of the things I love about her, a kind of ability to give a personal touch at moments like these that establish a brief but charmed connection. 

‘Thank you for everything,’ I wrote the Fisherman. ‘We loved your brother’s food. It was very very very good.’  The Fisherman texted back a few moments later, ‘Welcome.  Please come back any time!’


‘Welcome,’ is the answer that comes back at you from everywhere, in every situation. It means a combination of the English ‘Welcome’, ‘You’re Welcome’, ‘My pleasure!’ and ‘Sounds good’ as far as I can tell and must be a translation from an untranslatable Arabic something or other.

We went to a Maronite church service for Midnight Christmas Mass.  After the service we told the priest how beautiful the ceremony was and he smiled and said ‘Okay, welcome’ in an accent Delal has been imitating ever since. 
The Maronite Church

One taxi driver tried to overcharge us once.  ’10,000 lira’ he demanded (About 8 bucks). 

‘No,’ we said.

He huffed.  ‘8000 lira?’


An agonized, ‘5000 lira?’ 


‘How much then?’ he finally asked in exasperation.

 ‘2000, like everyone else pays.’

He gave us a big smile, opened the door, and said ‘Welcome!’

And now for the utterly unfamiliar. 3 places that astounded and amazed.

My number 1

Far up the mountains in the Beqaa Valley (this was the location of the inflatable Santas and reindeer in the intro). Back in the 90s this was where the PLO trained alongside the PKK and the Lebanese Communists and just about anyone else who could get in—a school for guerillas around the world. We pass the wineries of Ksara, and a Syrian refugee camp near Chtoura. We arrive in Baalbek, a Lebanese town with the remains of an enormous 2000 year old temple complex in honor of the Roman gods smack in the middle. 

The center of the complex was once an altar to Baal—as in the Biblical Baal. (Thus Baalbek) where human sacrifices were performed until the Romans arrived and took over. There’s a colonnade around the Temple of Venus.  Look up, and faces and figures carved into the ceiling among flowers and vines stare down at you.  Across the way, is the enormous temple of Jupiter, with the largest columns in the world.  They soar 67 feet high are over 7 feet in diameter .  The walls of the temple are made of stone blocks larger than the ones at the great Pyramid in Giza—standing next to one of these gigantic monoliths, I tried to figure out how in the world anyone could get one of them over the landscape we had just traversed.
on top of the temple of Baal

The ceiling on the colonnade around the Temple of Venus

At the Temple of Jupiter
The largest 'brick' in the world--cut 2000 years ago!
The giant columns of the Temple of Jupiter

Place 2

Up north along the coast is Byblos, the little village where the alphabet was invented—(yes, that’s right—the ancestor of every alphabet in the world was born here.)  There’s a store in the souk selling fossils—each rock contains a remarkably preserved specimen of ancient sea life.  Ancestors of jelly fish, ancestors of octopuses, of eels, of skates and rays and sharks, all dating back one hundred million years. The owner explains that the hills above Byblos are teeming with them. One flat slab of stone has a whole school of fish in it. Another has a shrimp so perfectly preserved you can see its antenna, the lines on its shell, and the bends of its legs.

‘Most of these species,’ the owner explains, ‘paleontologists don’t even know what they were.’

And that takes my breath way—there were hundreds of these ancient beings in the rocks around me. You could run your fingers over the remains of their bodies—some had been captured in mid swim, and yet all trace of their genus and species had vanished hundreds of millions of years before. The immensity of time was breathtaking.  ‘Here is the ancestor of a jelly,’ the owner said and showed us this ghostly, amorphous blob with tentacles streaming behind.  The ancestor of the jelly.  They hadn’t even existed yet when this animal was captured in the stone.
The old Phoenician harbor in Byblos

The 100 million year old ancestor of the ray

A fisherman on the harbor

Meat on a hook at the Phoenician restaurant in Byblos--yum

3. Delal’s favorite.

The Jeitta Grotto—a series of caverns in the mountains north of Beirut. The whole place has been Disneyfied—with toy trains lugging visitors up the hill and boat rides through the lower cave, but still, that first step into the largest cave I have ever seen was unforgettable.  Majestic is the word that comes to mind. A small three foot stalagmite sits just inside the entrance.  It’s in a glass case with a plaque explaining its formation from dissolved limestone.  Lines mark places along its body that correspond to periods of human history—a half an inch down is the year 556 when Beirut was flattened by an earthquake.  Another half an inch below that was the birth of Christ.  Halfway down was the invention of agriculture.  Near the base was the year 12,000 BC, when traces of settled towns start to emerge.  12,000 years in just three feet of rock!  Behind the display was the enormous yawning cavern itself—the ceiling over 350 feet high in some places.  Here were millions upon millions of years of the history of our planet.  Most of this existed before our species was even born. A look down from the railings along the bodies of mammoth stalactite complexes were black holes where the caves bore further and further down into the earth and back into time. Everywhere the sound of dripping as the cave grew.

We went to Lebanon with a little job for Delal in mind—to meet the Lebanese Kurds  and collect a few of their recipes. I’ll leave it to Delal to tell that story on her food blog. We did meet a few Kurds fresh fled from Syria. We also met a family of Turkish-Kurdish intellectuals fighting to preserve their culture in a land where most Kurds have been assimilated. Most Lebanese Kurds fled Turkey with the Armenians after World War 1, (The late great Mehmet Uzun put his Kurdish exile Memduh Selim in Lebanon for a while—see hls book In the Shadow of Vanished Love) but unlike the Armenians, they never settled comfortably into their new society. They either pretended to be Arabs, or were marginalized.  Many still don’t have citizenship after a century. One woman we met on the bus heard us speak Turkish and said, ‘Oh are you Turkish? I came over from Mardin 60 years ago to get married!’ Mardin? Delal immediately greeted her in Kurmanci.  The woman responded in Kurmanci, then switched immediately back into Turkish and said, ‘No, no, I am Arab!  Arab!’

In the Song of Solomon, the Bible says, ‘Your lips distil nectar, my bride; honey and milk are under your tongue; the scent of your garments is like the scent of Lebanon.’  Later, comes ‘Come with me my bride, out of Lebanon.’  My bride came with me out of Lebanon on New Years Day at three in the morning, and if our garments smell of the scent of Lebanon I imagine they smell of za’atar, money, time and thyme—delicious, rich, and ancient.

If they smell of the scent of Turkey—then they probably smell like jail and tear gas. The New Year did not start well here—thirty five young boys killed by the Turkish airforce in Uludere, near Iraq the Southeast, Kurds all of them, and more arrests and more arrests.

Dede watches the news now here in our home back in Istanbul—the people in Van freezing in tents, videos of the bodies of the Kurdish boys from Uludere carried back in pieces in the saddle bags of their mules, students dragged away by police with billy clubs.

‘There’s nothing to celebrate this New Year!’ he says grimly.

Here’s hoping he’s wrong. 

I think of the restaurant in Tyre—south of Lebanon near the Israeli border. It was bombed  two nights before we left Beirut (no one was inside at the time).  By the next morning, the owner had cleaned up and reopened to cheering crowds waiting for brunch.  The resilience of the Lebanese is inspiring. I think we (in Turkey) will bounce back too.

Happy New Year. 

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Hi Jeff;
I'm interested in one of your photos (the christmas display at the mall in beirut), and i was wondering if we can use it on a guide's cover.
awaiting your reply.