From Bikini To Burkini, Or Why Lebanon’s Tripoli Is Awesome

A picture of two veiled burkini-clad women, and another bikini-wearing on one of Tripoli’s popular beach islands is going viral today across Lebanon’s internet-sphere. The last time this many people were interested in the city was to berate it for the way it voted in an election, but that election is now long past and so has those people’s attention from this great city up North.

In that picture, the two stark opposites represent this city that I love more than anything else. So I figured, in this small space that I have, that I’d try to tell you – kind reader – of why this city whose picture you’re so eagerly sharing is worth your time.

1) Bikini versus Burkini:

Bikini:Burkini Tripoli

Picture via @Jadgghorayeb

Over the years, many Lebanese have come to associate an image with Tripoli as that of a city that is ravaged by war, where Islamists reign supreme and where seculars – or anyone who does not want to live by the Sharia for that matter – is not welcome.

The constant and progressive decimation in the city’s reputation is slowly being reversed as of late, with many flocking to its pristine beach islands, to the growing safety of its streets.

The above picture, however, is not an anomaly. It’s the culmination of years in which the city’s varying components co-existed calmly, away from politics and hateful rhetoric, and here they are in all their glory.

2) Beirut’s food prices will have a seizure:

Hallab

You’ve all seen that infamous “Grand Café” picture over the past few weeks and the comparison (although inaccurate) to potential trips to Istanbul that that same bill would’ve covered. Many of you have complained about the price hike in diner chains you’ve loved for years. Now let me tell you a short story.

Yesterday, I took a group of my friends who hadn’t visited Tripoli but to do some necessary paperworks that people of the North have to do in it to one of the city’s restaurants. Their first reaction scanning the prices of that menu – one of Tripoli’s more expensive places, may I add – was to ask one question: how?

Four main courses, drinks, and appetizers later, our bill was less than half of what we would’ve paid for the same combination at any given place in our country’s capital. And the food was great.

In fact, the food is great everywhere. From the restaurants offering Lebanese to those offering mixed cuisine across the city, to the vendors selling cheese and kaak, to the many coffee places many of which I love – Ahwak for the win – to the sweets places and palaces that the city have become synonymous with, you can do no wrong.

3) Lebanon’s biggest old souk is there:

 

Everyone loves to go to Jbeil to see its “authentic” great souks. And while Jbeil’s old sector is awesome, it is dwarfed by what lies in Tripoli’s old city.

Not only is Tripoli’s souk one of Lebanon’s biggest, and is relatively well-kept, but it has retained a flair of authenticity with it being a melting pot of all of the city’s inhabitants, across their sociopolitical status.

The old souks are still divided based on the different services they offer, from khan el saboun to khan el dahab, to the many Ottoman-styled hammams inside them. They’re a must-visit if you’re in the city and in the mood for some meet up with Lebanese history.

4) Citadel St. Gilles is awesome:

Built by the Crusaders, Citadel St. Gilles in Tripoli’s Tebbaneh neighborhood is an extremely well-kept fortress that, because of its location, is rarely viewed as a touristic destination. But it is, and you’d be missing out by not checking it out.

It’s almost 900 years old, has been morphed over the years by the many occupiers of the city into what it is today, and the place being almost always not crowded gives you a visiting experience that view other touristic spots in Lebanon offer.

The entrance is also a simple: 5,000LL.

5) Rachid Karame Forum is spectacular:

Designed by the late Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, the Rachid Karame Forum at the entrance of the city is a vast space that’s probably the most accurate representation of the wasted potential of the city.

Intended to be the hub of an economic forum as plans to turn the city into a Lebanese economic capital were underway, the place is now almost a ghost-town of modern unfinished architecture and landscape designs that will surely blow you away.

6) The Palm Islands are amazing:

Pic via The Daily Star

Pic via The Daily Star

A natural reserve set forth by the Lebanese state, a section of the Palm Islands has been made available for beach-lovers to visit in order to exercise their favorite hobby. From clean sands to pristine waters, the islands are near-free to get to – unlike all the resorts in or around Beirut and its greater area.

Fun fact: the Arabic name for the Islands is rabbit islands. It is as such because during the period of the French occupation, rabbits were let loose on the island. What were two soon became hundreds, and therefore the naming occurred.

7) Timmy’s in El Mina is the pub to go to:

IMG_6535

When I say alcohol, Tripoli is probably the last place you’d think of. But there’s a pub in the old neighborhood in El Mina called Timmy’s that will help you change your mind a little. It’s an old traditional sea-side Lebanese house that has been turned into a massive space for those who feel like they need to wind down after a long day or week.

From sand-stone interior, to chandeliers dangling from the ceiling, to doors manned by a camera based on which the owner decides which clientele he wants to admit or not, the only adjective that could describe the place is exclusive but approachable.

When I was there, I had a discussion with the owner about why he adopted such a policy. He said that he wants to keep the place at a high enough level to attract people to his city. And attract people he does. For the moment, most of those who flock to Timmy’s are either from Tripoli or from the neighboring areas of Zgharta or Koura or sometimes Batroun. But that could change.

8) El Mina’s corniche is one awesome walk:

The same night when I had a few friends try out one of my favorite restaurants in Tripoli and they got shocked with how cheap and good it was, I took them on a drive around the sea corniche in Mina. Stretching for more than 3 kilometers, it is one of Lebanon’s longest and more authentic.

From vendors in small kiosks on the side, to kids flying around kites, to men praying in the heat while they fish, on that corniche you’ll see all kinds of kinds, in a city that has everything you’d see.

9) The people are the most kind-hearted you’ll find:

From close friends, to the people that would give you money for park meters when you’re out of coins, to the hefty portions you’re served anywhere you go, to the overall sense of welcome they infuse in the air of their city, the people of Tripoli are some of the most kind-hearted welcoming people you’ll meet in this country.

I’ve had the pleasure to know many of them, some of whom were like my family at a certain point, and I call myself lucky for doing so.

10) Life exists North of the Madfoun:

The Lebanese border does not end sligthly north of Jbeil. Venture out. Explore a little. Odds are you may be surprised – even if for a picture involving a bikini and a burkini. Suck on that Cannes?

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The Stunning History Behind Ras Beirut’s Endangered “Red House”

Nestled in the heart of Hamra, on Abdel Aziz street leading to Bliss Street, is a house most of us passed by without noticing until very recently. Its red window tiles always caught my eye in the days when I used to frequent that area, but their history was never evident. Isn’t that the story everywhere in Beirut though? You pass by these gloriously beautiful old houses, sigh at their dismal prospects in a city that cares less about its history and more about its bottom line and just continue about without giving a second thought at the times and stories those walls inhabit.

Let me take you on a journey across Hamra’s Red House.

One Of The Oldest Houses in Ras Beirut:

The Red House is comprised of two stories, the first of which was built in the late 1700s, along with a small kitchen above it to consitute the first part of the second story which was later continued in the 1800s by the Rebeiz family, which was back then one of the main Orthodox families of Ras Beirut and a prime owner of much of the land upon which Hamra today is built.

The story of the Rebeiz family dates back to as far as the house they lived in: they came to Hamra around 400 years ago and slowly made their way up the echelons of society, buying land from the well-renowned Druze Talhouk family. Together with the other prominent Bekhazi family, they became forces to be reckoned with in their area. Their names became synonymous with Ras Beirut, and vice versa.

The Red House has housed many generations of the Rebeiz family, but its most prominent were two women: Samira and Marie Abdo Rebeiz, both of whom were widows who lived in the house in the early 20th century, and it is them that made the house the beacon of Ras Beiruti elite life.

Pioneering Matriarchs Of Ras Beirut’s Political Ring:

Marie ABdo Rbeiz

Marie Abdo Rebeiz was unfortunate enough to find herself a widow with two sons: Michel and Georges, at a very young age. Her plight was also shared by her cousin Samira Rebeiz who lost her husband at the tender age of 25, and was left with four children to take care of.

Marie Abdo then invited her cousin, whose inherited property had been taken by the rest of the Rebeiz family for fear of her remarrying out of the family, to live with her in Hamra’s Red House, along with her four children, in the “newer” upper story part of the house.

The two women co-existed quite well and their children grew up around each other. Michel, Marie Abdo’s son, still lives in the bottom floor of the house to this very day. Georges later became a prominent cardiologist in the area and has 3 children who currently inherited the house after their father’s passing a few months ago.

Marie Abdo and Samira, however, were extremely powerful women. They were so powerful in fact that they  had a major role to play in the dynamics of Beirut’s political life around that time: it is the Red House that became a reference for many of Ras Beirut’s elite politicians, of differing sects, in order to truly have a shot at whatever position they coveted: Marie Abdo and Samira were important electoral keys to the women of the area, the extended Rebeiz family and its 3000+ votes at the time. They kept a garden next to the house, cooked for their neighborhood and hosted many gatherings for the women of the region.

Among the politicians whose careers were majorly influenced by this house are Habib Abi Chahla, one of country’s independence heroes, Bahije Takieddine, Saeb Salam – father of current PM Tamam Salam, Sami el Solh and Fawzi el Hoss, all of whom became MPs or PMs at a later point in their careers. Their descendants tell tales, even today, at how important that house was to their fathers.

Louis Armstrong Visited Too:

Louis Armstrong

During his visit to Lebanon in the 1960s, Louis Armstrong, one of they key figures in Jazz music, visited the Red House. He was brought to Lebanon by one of Samira Rebeiz’s sons, Georges Rebeiz, who founded Caviar House and Prunier. That son wanted to introduce Armstrong to the house that built him.

It Survived The Civil War:

The house also made it relatively unscathed through the Lebanese civil war. Its tenants refused to vacate the house for the many militias that demanded it, and through a stroke of luck was left militia-free.

After the end of the civil war, its main tenant Samir Rebeiz, a well known conservationist and restorative architect with an impressive portfolio, who is currently vacating as per a court order, made sure to restore the part in which he lived to the best of his capacities. You can see from many of the pictures at the beginning of this post how relatively well-preserved the house is.

The current tenants even made it a yearly affair to repaint the windows with their characteristic red color, as I was told by Paola Rebeiz, a well-known Beiruti socialite and fashion consultant.

A Rebeiz Family Feud:

Over the past few days, the imminent threat to Hamra’s “Red House” got activists and Beirut’s heritage preservation groups to try and save the house. In their attempt to do so, a potential family feud between the Rebeiz family was unearthed: one between the descendants of Samira and Marie Abdo.

Helene Rebeiz, one of the three people who recently inherited the house after the passing of Marie Abdo’s son Georges, had the following statement:

Helene Rbeiz Red House Beirut Hamra

Samir Rebeiz, who has been living in the house for years, was doing so under Lebanon’s ancient and outdated renting laws, which effectively mean that tenants pay minimal amounts to their landlords and evicting them is near impossible.

When asked about this, Samir Rebeiz refused to make a statement and simply said: “I am leaving this house. I’ve done everything I can to maintain it, and my conscience is clear.”

When I visited, the house was being vacated. Everything Samir owned was being tucked away in boxes, leaving empty rooms and hallways.

The court order requiring Samir Rbeiz to vacate the premises mentioned that the owners wanted to demolish. It is unknown, however, which real estate mogul is interested in the property.

Heritage Trumps Money:

The fate of the house will be decided tomorrow in Lebanon’s Ministry of Culture which will determine whether the house fits the criteria to be considered a national heritage site, protecting it in theory from demolition.

In my opinion, the relevance of a family feud over this house’s fate is not important. We are not interfering in Rbeiz family matters when we give an opinion on the subjective worth of a property at the heart of their feud.

What is constant, regardless of all the other variables, is that this house is a jewel at the heart of Beirut that should be preserved regardless.

It is one of the last remnants of true Lebanese architecture of the area.

It is so preserved that Lebanon’s archeological committee warned against its demolition.

It is a representative of the history of its region and of its country.

It would be such a shame to let all of this go and replace it with yet another concrete block that can bring people millions, but rob them of their identity and heritage.

Beirut is a city that is being maimed every day by the construction robbing it of its flair, of its character, and turning it into yet another one of those plots of lands made up of concrete jungles. This house stands defiant to the progressive and purposeful de-Beirutification of Beirut. Let’s not ruin that too.

A Blast From The Distant Lebanese Past

We have locusts! At least that’s what news agencies are saying because I haven’t seen any nor do I want to see any.

For the first time in a long time Lebanon is being hit by “el jarad” being brought up our way from the Southern neighbor we love to hate. Cue in the theories of this being a zionist agenda.

And with that, memories of a not-as-distant past popped in my head again. In case you didn’t pick up on it yet, those memories are from 9th and 12th grade when we were taught the exact same history of our country, three years apart.

Locust Lebanon JaradAll we need to recreate a WWI scenario in 2013 is the following:

  1. Outbreaks of typhoid and malaria,
  2. The Turks invading Syria,
  3. Englishmen arriving to our shores,
  4. Locusts eradicating our crops,
  5. A third of the Lebanese population dying.

That’s a little difficult to do seeing as those pesky insects are invading areas which have more buildings than crops and Englishmen are busy drinking tea. Locusts are in for one major disappointment this time around.

But students who have their official exams this year are lucky. For the first time ever, the history they are being taught is, at least partially, witnessing some practical applications in our daily lives. Shame on any of them who doesn’t get 27/30 on their exams.

Tribute To One Of The Greats: Patriarch Nasrallah Boutros Sfeir

In a few days, the Maronite Church and Lebanon will end an important chapter of their history. No other man in current Lebanon has left a more durable print on the ink of Lebanese history than Patriach Sfeir, whose resignation from head of the Maronite Church was met with grateful sadness from many and jubilation from a few.

I will not enumerate the many achievements of this man – for those achievements are imprinted in every free Lebanese’s mind. Patriarch Sfeir has fought for Lebanon and continued the legacy of the Maronite Church’s continuous struggle to make Lebanon a suitable home for every Lebanese, not only Maronites.

Patriarch Sfeir has been beaten down – literally and figuratively – during his twenty five year run as head of the Maronite Church. And yet, he did not let down. Regardless of the many insults and blows he was dealt, he persevered. The betterment of the nation was superior to his own well-being. He handled it with wisdom and serenity.

He was a leading voice against social and political injustice in Lebanon, of which his people suffered immensely. He played a great role in keeping together what was left of his country when everyone wanted a piece of that country. It is because of this man and the institute that stands behind him that we can say that today, regardless of how weak it might be, we have a country to our name.

He was a voice of reason when reason was not appreciated. He was firm in his stances when firmness meant a pertinent life threat. He had a futuristic vision of a future that many saw was bleak. And in many occasions, his vision turned out to be true.

I, as a Maronite, am proud to say that this man has represented me for the past twenty five years. Regardless of whatever mistakes he might have made, and we all make mistakes.

He may have left his Patriarchal seat, but Patriarch Sfeir will forever be seated in our hearts and minds. They say that the glory of Lebanon is given to the Patriarch – whoever he may be. But Patriarch Sfeir has given Lebanon and Maronites glory beyond glory…