No Middle East city having yet been featured in 10 Do's and Don'ts, I jumped on the opportunity to ask Salma Abdelnour to offer her take on Beirut which is the main character in her recently published memoir Jasmine and Fire 'A Bittersweet Year in Beirut' (Broadway Books-Random House, June 2012).
Beirut 10 Do’s and Don’ts By Salma Abdelnour
-Before you head to any restaurant, bar, club, shop, or obscure art gallery in Beirut, make sure you find out what city landmark it’s near—for instance, is it next door to a famous old hotel, across from a big theater, or behind a historic café? Beirutis, obsessed though they may be by the trendiest new thing, tend to give directions by referring to famous old sites—never mind if those places haven’t actually been open for decades. Street names and building numbers are mostly irrelevant in Beirut, since you’ll rarely find signs with useful information like that. Landmarks are usually all you have to go by. Looking for the new February 30 bar? It’s in a little alleyway near the old Liban Poste building in Hamra. Want to find The Gathering restaurant? It’s down the street from the electric company headquarters, aka “shirket al kahraba,” in Gemmayzeh.
- Get to The Gathering (see above) early in the evening, i.e. before 8pm, if you want to luck into a table for dinner. The name makes it sound like a ‘70s cult, but the restaurant is uber-hip, combining an Italian trattoria, a wine bar, and a salumeria in a trio of gorgeously renovated old Lebanese houses set around a breezy courtyard. The food is fantastic—made with mostly organic local ingredients—and the design is super-cool, and everyone wants to be there; alas the place doesn’t take reservations.
- Have lunch at Tawlet, (some dishes above) where each day the offerings focus on a different region of Lebanon, and are likely to include dishes you won’t see in any other restaurant in Beirut. The lunches (Tawlet is not open for dinner) are served on an abundant buffet counter in the sunny dining room, and owner Kamal Mouzawak—who is also responsible for starting the Souk El Tayeb farmer’s market downtown on Saturdays—walks around greeting guests. If you’re feeling more adventurous, take a daytrip to the new sister-restaurant Tawlet Ammiq in the Bekaa Valley.
- Stop by Saifi Gardens, in an out-of-the-way corner of the Gemmayzeh neighborhood, where you’ll find a mellow Lebanese café called Em Nazih overlooking a pleasant garden. Directly above the café (climb a few flights of stairs) is a rooftop bar called Coop D’Etat which, unlike many bars in Gemmayzeh, attracts a cool crowd more interested in kicking back over drinks and local indie-band music than in dressing up and getting sloppy-hammered.
- Take a walk through the Mar Mikhael neighborhood and hit some of the eclectic hangouts there: for instance Internazionale, a new bar that has on one of its walls a giant mural showing the inside of a crowded 1960s Alitalia flight, complete with cigarette-puffing passengers.
- If you plan on treating a group of friends to dinner, secretly slip your credit card to the maître d’ as soon as you walk into the restaurant. The Lebanese can be generous to a fault, and they’ll often fight over who gets to pay the bill—and if you speak up a nanosecond too late, you’ll lose. In some cities on Earth, this would all sound very puzzling. But in Beirut it’s normal: People like to play host. More and more lately, people will agree to split the bill—especially if they’re a group in the habit of dining together. But if you’re intent on inviting your friends out and picking up the tab, be quick on the draw.
- Try to sneak into the American University of Beirut campus (you technically need a campus I.D. to get in), or take a stroll through the Sanayeh Gardens nearby. Besides the Corniche—the wide boulevard along the Mediterranean—those are among the very few outdoor pedestrian spaces with actual trees and flowers still left in Beirut.
- Try knafeh (below) , a cakelike breakfast dish made with a sweet crumbly dough topped with melted white cheese and sugar syrup—and usually eaten wrapped in sesame bread. It sounds insanely rich. It is. But don’t miss it. It’s a classic Lebanese confection and deserves the reverence locals attach to it. Have it on a day when you’re willing to start with the heaviest meal first—and to postpone lunch for a few hours.
- Get around and see as many neighborhoods as you can in Beirut, from Burj Hammoud, the mazelike Armenian neighborhood on the east side, to Basta, a flea-market-filled area to the west—and beyond. Beirut is hard to sum up. It’s best to experience as many varied and seemingly contradictory parts of it as you can before even trying to get a handle on the place.
- Swim. If it’s summer, buy a day-pass at one of the beach clubs along the Corniche, for instance the retro Sporting, the fancier Riviera Beach, or the (pictured below) super-sceney La Plage. (They all have rocky beaches, well-maintained pools, and outdoor cocktail bars.) If you’d prefer to swim at a sandy beach, head south to Jiyeh or to Tyre, which has beautiful public beaches that you can wade into even in winter.
- In Beirut, don’t even try to arrive right on time for dinner or drinks. You’ll be the first one there by a longshot. But if, say, you’re going to a concert or performance and the announced starting time is “8pm sharp,” that usually means around 8:30—although it can occasionally mean 8pm sharp, for real. It’s a gamble. Usually no one in Beirut takes an exact start-time seriously. But you might want to call ahead to find out what the consequences of lateness might be. (For instance, people have been known to arrive at 8:15pm to a dance performance that actually started at 8pm sharp, and get sent away with no refund.)
- Don’t turn down an offer of something to eat or drink if you’re visiting Lebanese people in their home. At least accept a glass of water. The Lebanese are hard-wired to ply you with food and drink, and an all-out rejection of their efforts to give you things—things you may not actually want or need—will be seen as a failure to please you. Don’t try to see the logic in this. There is none.
- Don’t worry about sending a thank-you note if you’ve received a gift or you’ve been taken out to dinner. The Lebanese don’t really do thank-you notes, but a phone call or a return invitation is always appreciated—and sending a bouquet of flowers to someone’s home is a sweet (though unnecessary) gesture if you’ve been especially bowled over by an act of generosity or hospitality.
- Try not to panic if you hear alarming shot-like noises or booms around you, unless everyone else seems to be panicking. Given Lebanon’s history, past and present, panic often seems like a wise response, but there are lots of things in Beirut that go boom—construction sounds, cars whose engines are held together by thread and scotch tape, and the ever-popular recreational fireworks. Don’t be careless about where you go in Beirut or elsewhere in the country if there’s political trouble brewing, but don’t get needlessly worked up over the city’s hyper-noisy everyday soundscape.
- Don’t expect to get through an entire elevator ride without shuddering to a stop midway through. The electricity shuts down for a few hours each day across the city, on a rotating basis: morning, midday, or afternoon. Many buildings and nearly all hotels have generators, but there are frequent hiccups and blackouts. The electric company headquarters (see Do #1 above) is a major city landmark, but locals often wonder what exactly goes on inside that building.
- Make sure not to miss out on taking a daytrip outside Beirut. You’ll no doubt already have the ancient Roman ruins in Baalbeck and the historic city of Byblos on your itinerary, but try to hit more relaxing destinations too, like the coastal towns of Amsheet (pictured below) and Batroun, north of Beirut. Beautiful old houses, winding little streets, and a seaside setting make for a gorgeous escape that will make you forget Beirut’s urban chaos for a few hours.
- Never assume a one-way street in Beirut is in fact a one-way street. Ever. Look both ways, and also up, down, front, back—any direction you can think of. Keep a keen eye out for motorcycles and mopeds, which seem to drop out of the sky.
- Don’t expect anyone or anything to stop at a red light or a stop sign. Lately, traffic cops (who ever knew Beirut had traffic cops?) have been turning up to give the occasional ticket when someone runs a red light, but not often enough to convince people to change their driving habits so dramatically.
- As of September 2012, it’s illegal to smoke in restaurants, bars, and enclosed public spaces—so don’t light up unless you want to test your luck. How strongly will this law be enforced? Remains to be seen.
- No need to fret if you haven’t had a chance to pick up presents for everyone back home before you leave Lebanon. The shopping at the Beirut airport is actually quite good: You’ll find locally made artisanal textiles and clothing, a well-stocked Virgin bookstore, and Lebanese pastries galore, attractively packaged to give out to (sure-to-be-thrilled) friends.
Read more from Salma on Jasmine and Fire blog.