(11-17-10, waiting for my flight at 6:25AM at the Beirut, Lebanon Airport)
My last week in Beirut, Lebanon has truly been a very humbling experience. I left leaving Los Angeles to teach my street photography workshop in Beirut, Lebanon with my friends/family telling me to “be careful” in Lebanon as it was still “politically unstable” and that I might “get shot” while here. Many also suggested for me not to go, but I decided to take my chances and plunged both feet in.
When I arrived from the airport, I was a bit worried that my host Mohammad would be unable to find me. However after talking with Kahlil (a Syrian guy I met on the plane), he told me not to worry—as I would probably be “…the only Asian in Lebanon.” Surely enough when I got off the plane, there was Mohammad and Thomas Leuthard waiting for me, waving both hands wildly at me.
I then greeted them both, feeling warm in their presence. I remember being took away by how well-groomed and dressed Mohammad was, wearing a tight-fitting dress shirt, pressed dress pants, as well as his black-jet hair slicked back. For some reason when Loryne Atoui told me that I was meeting “Mohammad” at the airport, I anticipated meeting somebody with a white robe with a turban. It is clear to see that I had my stereotypical indoctrination of middle-eastern people based what I have seen in the media.
We then jumped into Mohammad’s powerful black GMC SUV and headed to grab some food. I recall looking around the streets in awe and excitement, as I saw the dim orange tungsten lights shining in the streets late at night. He asked me if I was hungry, and I replied, “Yes.” He then suggested a great place to eat called “BarBar.” Little did I know this would become my new (unhealthy) obsession.
We arrived at BarBar and I looked at all of these kebabs—ready to be cooked. Mohammad suggested me to get the garlic chicken, and even the beef kebab as well. He ordered me two, and asked me if I wanted soda. I never drink soda, but for some reason it felt right. We went next-door to pick up soda, and I got my first Arabian Pepsi. Like a typical tourist, I took a snapshot of the can. Thomas laughed as he caught me in the act. I laughed as well, and told him that I would do all these damn touristy things because I was blatantly a tourist in this country.
Biting into the chicken-wrap (or “sandwich” as they like to call here) was pure heaven. I sank my teeth into the juicy and tender meat, which still had hints of the charcoal on which it was being cooked on. I was in pure ecstacy, and was excited to eat more of this amazing Lebanese food that many have clamored about. Oh yeah, Mohammad also was kind enough to get me another beef kabob sandwich.
After taking a few massive bites of my “sandwich,” I stepped outside with Thomas and Mohammad and we started to walk around the streets. For some reason—I got a strong vibe of Seoul, Korea. Narrow roads, people in the streets, and tall buildings. There was also a strong juxtaposition of new versus old, with some old decrept buildings crumbling away, while new skyscrapers were being erected right next to it. Strangely enough, it didn’t feel very foreign. It felt like home to me.
Of course the street photography opportunities became apparent to me. Unlike Los Angeles and the United States—everything looked different. You could see there was culture and history in these buildings—some which probably had been there for hundreds upon hundreds of years. I took in the crisp Lebanese air, and then suddenly felt a toxic sting of the pollution here. Yup, definitely like Korea.
After touring the streets and being taken away by these great street photography opportunities, I realized that it still hadn’t “hit me” yet that I was in Beirut, Lebanon. Sure I had traveled by plane for nearly 24 hours to the other side of the world, but I felt at home. Little did I know that even a week later, waiting at the airport for my flight, it would still not truly “hit me” that I had the week of my life in Beirut, Lebanon and met some of the most amazing people in my life—while also experiencing a refreshing and communal culture.
There are many pros of the Lebanese culture—which I cannot simply put on a check-list. First of all, the people are some of the most hospitable people I have ever met. As my host, Mohammad truly treated me like family. He took me (a stranger) into his home, gave me a fresh and new bed to sleep on, while he slept on the couch. He made sure that I was well-fed, and that I had all of my necessities. Not only that, but his charisma and character always kept me laughing, as he had a great sense of humor and charm
There are so many misconceptions about Lebanese culture that it is ridiculous. First of all, nobody here are terrorists and walking the streets of Lebanon at any time of the day is totally safe. Frankly speaking, I had a hard time differentiating Los Angeles from Beirut by seeing that nearly everyone I met had an iPhone, a nice car, as well as a great control of the English language (oh yeah, the Lebanese can also speak French and Arabic as well). They have all the TV channels here that we have back in the states, as well as the unhealthy addiction with shows like House, The Office, and Glee. They love to party and have a good time, which was apparent by visiting places such as Jamayzie (which is considered one of the party capitals of the world). I thought partying until 2:00am was hardcore, until I heard that the Lebanese typically party until 6:00AM.
I could go on and on about how great my experience in Beirut, Lebanon was. Words cannot express how beautiful a country it is, and what great lives people are living here. Sure they may not be making as much money as Americans, but it seems that the people here are much happier. Once coined “The Paris of the Middle East,” the people know how to relax and emphasize spending time with friends and family. Due to the fact that the city is also quite small (you can easily walk across it and back in a single day), people always bump into friends and acquaintances in the streets. Oh yeah, and they also do that “kissy thing” that the French do (they share many cultural characteristics of the French).
Let me not forget the food. A few friends that were not completely ignorant of Lebanon would tell me how delicious and amazing the food was here. After coming to Beirut, Lebanon and having at least 5 meals a day (Thomas and Mohammad can vouch me on this), I would say it definitely it is true. The food cooked here is fresh, and has personality. Love hummus? Well throw some garzonga beans in the middle and put in a dash of olive oil, as you will dip bread in it and tantalize your taste buds from the gritty yet hearty taste. Love meat? (I know I do). Then grab a schwarma or kebab, and taste the smokey taste of the charcoal they are typically grilled on—with a hint of paprika and spice (my mouth is starting to water as I write this). And of course I have to mention BarBar, which was the first thing that I ate when I arrived in Beirut, and the last thing I ate. The Lebanese regard it as “fast food,” but I refuse to accept. The “BarBar” family (as I like to call them) are a food empire in Beirut, and nearly everybody orders from them. I think this will definitely be one of the things I miss the most.
Ever hear that Lebanese women are beautiful? It is true. Although I have heard that the Lebanese love plastic surgery nearly as much as the South Koreans, all the women showed their beauty in many ways. Not only are they quite attractive, but they are very cordial and show a lot of intelligence and charm. When I was having dinner at Mohammad’s family’s house—his aunt joked that I should stay in Lebanon and that she would find me a beautiful wife. Of course I kindly rejected as I already have a beautiful girlfriend/manager to go home to (Cindy), but I really appreciated the gesture. Oh yeah, let me not forget to mention that his sassy aunt even suggested that she could get Thomas, age 39 (please forgive me for saying this on the internet) a beautiful and rich 18-year old Lebanese girl. Of course we all laughed at this.
Do I sound like an American traitor yet? Sure I might. In actuality, I actually am quite sad to leave Lebanon, and I am sure to have massive BarBar withdrawals when I get back. My critique of American society is that we don’t put enough emphasis on family/community as the Lebanese do. We get too caught up in our own personal lives, that we forget what it means to be human is to connect and interact with our loved ones. Life is definitely much more than simply going to a 9-5 job and passing out on bed every night, before going on Facebook for a few hours. However I am going to make a much bigger effort to see my friends/loved ones, and spend less time on the screen and more time face-to-face.
I am sitting at the Beirut airport, and there is some epic elevator music playing overhead. I am sitting on one of the generic metal benches on the side, with Cindy’s aluminum MacBook in my lap, typing away. My Timbuk 2 messenger bag is half-way open on my left, and my duffel bag neatly perched right in front of me. I take a exasperated sigh.
I am going to miss this place. Thank you everybody in Beirut for such a beautiful experience that has re-opened my eyes in realizing what is truly important in life. I will see you again soon.
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