Wadi Rum: One of Arabia’s Most Gorgeous Places, And A Must Visit For Lebanese Who Like Adventure

As far as other Arabs are concerned, Lebanon is considered to be the greenest of the region’s countries, and despite rampant deforestation and grossly non-environmentally friendly governmental policies, this is actually the case for our little country. Our biggest asset in bringing people to visit us from the region isn’t, therefore, only our “joie de vivre,” nightlife and awesome food, but the fact that we offer them eco-tourism that their countries can’t match. Alas, Lebanon tends to take its tourism for granted.

I was recently in Jordan for a few days during which I had the chance to see some of the country’s main touristic attractions, including their 7 wonders of the world site Petra, and the place that stuck in my head to this very day and the place that I would want to visit again as soon as I can and recommend that everyone do so: Wadi Rum.

Wadi Rum is not unfamiliar with many of you. You’ve actually seen it plenty of times before but didn’t know it was the case. It’s featured heavily in the latest Star Wars movie “Rogue One.” It was the filming site of Best Picture nominee “The Martian.” It was also where parts of the second Transformers movie, Indiana Jones and Lawrence of Arabia were filmed.

Simply put, Hollywood and Westerners know Wadi Rum exists and flock to it in droves. For other Arabs and Lebanese, however, the place remains near-fictive. When I mentioned that I’d love to visit the place a few months ago, the reply I got was: “what’s there to see in the desert?”

The answer is: quite a lot.

The reputation that we, as Lebanese, have when it comes to our tourism style is that we’re not adventurous. We want good food, nightlife and shopping. To me, that reputation is horrific. I asked many travel agencies about that reputation and all of them corroborated it: this is what they sell. I guess this doesn’t apply to a newer generation of Lebanese, and many of this blog’s readers, but I daresay it’s high time to change that.

  • How To Get To Wadi Rum:

A new travel path between Beirut and Jordan was launched last week, offering direct flights between Beirut and Aqaba for $212 round trip. This path is better than Beirut – Amman because Aqaba is much closer to Wadi Rum than Amman (70km versus 300km).

Once you get to Aqaba, it’s quite easy to rent a car. Your Lebanese driver’s license actually works, or you can have an international driver’s license done to be on the safe side. Oil prices in Jordan are much cheaper than their counterpart back home and car rental prices are super cheap too.

  • What To Do In Wadi Rum:

The Wadi Rum reserve is huge. It’s around 700km2. I daresay there’s no way that anyone can do the whole thing in one stay unless they stay there for a couple of weeks, and that’s not ideal because it’s a physically demanding visit.

Gorgeous scenery: While we, as Lebanese, completely disregard the jewels we have interspersed in our country and don’t bother in their upkeep, the Jordanians have done the total opposite with Wadi Rum: it is a natural reserve that is so clean, so neatly kept and so beautiful. Wadi Rum is the total opposite of the kind of eco-tourism that we can offer in Lebanon: it’s a desert, filled with gorgeous sand dunes, high limestone mountains, sitting on one of Arabia’s biggest aquifers, and is as authentic as a desert experience can be. Your instagram posts will be ace, trust me.

Safari rides: Forget safaris in Dubai. I went on a 4×4 truck ride across the area and this is the real deal. You sit in the back of the pickup truck, and a skilled driver takes you around gorgeous scenery that will leave you dumbfounded. Refer to pictures below.

Bedouin life: Wadi Rum is also home to many Bedouin tribes that still live there. Those tribes will open their arms to you and host you for lunch or dinner. Their cooking style is very interesting in that, to save up on wood, they bury their cooking pots in the sand with the burning embers and let the meat and vegetables slowly cook. I had the pleasure to sit with a Bedouin tribal chief who told us stories of life in the desert, played a little on his rababa and invited us to share a meal with him.

Camel Riding: Western countries also stereotype our countries as the places were camels are the go-to mode of transportation. They’d be disappointed, I suppose, to find out that the first time I’ve ever ridden a camel was in Wadi Rum.

Hiking: I didn’t have the chance to do a lot of hiking at Wadi Rum but there are trails all around the place that vary based on difficulty that those who like hiking will find to be exquisite. My fair share of rock climbing and hiking that I did there was unforgettable, although my legs would probably ask for a break before I do that again.

Sunsets: There’s something to say about the beauty of sunsets and desert sunsets have their own taste that I’m super glad I got to experience. I was able to sit atop one a high rock with a view, look over at a huge landscape in front of me as it turned into hues of gold and orange.

Star Gazing: After the sun set, I was treated to one of the most beautiful starry skies I’ve ever seen. Entire constellations spread in front of you. Just lie there, and enjoy the gorgeous view.

  • Where To Stay:

You don’t need to go back to the city in order to enjoy Wadi Rum for more than a day. The place has many camping sites interspersed here and there, with prices for the night being around $20.

Why It’s a Must Visit:

I can’t begin to tell you how amazing the place is. I spent an entire day there – from 8AM till around 10PM – and left feeling disheartened because I wanted to spend more time and see more places. Apart from it being historic with it being one of the places that Lawrence of Arabia spent a lot of time and its rocks having many ancient inscriptions on them, Wadi Rum offers you quite an experience that Lebanon doesn’t have and I daresay other Arab countries of the region can’t match. It’s unfortunate that this jewel in the Middle East is discovered and used quite often by Hollywood and Europeans but not by the locals or those from neighboring countries like us. It’s cheap, quite accessible with no visa requirements for entry for Lebanese, and you’ll go back to Lebanon with many a chance to tell wonderful stories of your desert excursions. Go there!

Django Unchained [2012] – Movie Review

Django Unchained Poster

It seems 2012 is the year for Hollywood slavery movies. Quentin Tarantino’s foray into the Western movie genre with Django Unchained is the polar opposite of Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, both movies about the American slavery era. While Lincoln is about the political scene that led to the abolishing of slavery, Django goes loose in a totally different manner.

Django (Jamie Foxx) is a black slave who gets rescued and freed by German-born bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz) who is on the hunt for the murderous Brittle brothers and only Django can help him find them. Django’s goal, however, isn’t to kill as many wanted white men as possible. It is to find and rescue his wife Broomhilda (played excellently by Scandal’s Kerry Washington) who is enslaved in a plantation called “Candieland” owned by a francophile who speaks no French called Calvin Candie (Leonardo Dicaprio) with his self-hating black butler named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Stylistically, Django Unchained is daring. The movie’s frames, shots, camera movements are unusual. The amount of gore and blood are also quite proficient. All of this is to be expected from a Tarantino movie who, as usual, delivers a riveting piece of cinema that will keep you hooked for over 160 minutes.

Tarantino, who appears in the movie in a cameo scene towards the end, wrote this movie as well. While the story isn’t very new and the overall ambiance is fairly typical for the Western genre, it’s the execution that makes up for it here. You can’t help but marvel at the technical execution of many of the movie’s scenes. Django Unchained is very bold in more than one way, notably as it showcases in subtle shades of drama mixed with comedy the horrors of slavery and racism.

The movie’s acting highlight is Leonardo DiCaprio who gives a tour de force performance of his character. In a way, while the movie goes off to a good start, it doesn’t find its footing until DiCaprio’s character comes into the picture to help make things much more interesting. Both Christoph Waltz and Jamie Foxx are great in their respective characters, excelling in scenes that find the two working together towards their goal, the latter with his comedic tendencies and the former with his sharp ability to navigate between cruelty and compassion in a heartbeat. Samuel L. Jackson makes his best at making his character downright unlikeable. You will hate that butler-slave. In a way, the Django-Shchultz duo is the polar opposite of Candie-Stephen.

Despite being un-needingly violent at times and despite being overly drawn-out towards the end as the movie tries to reach its conclusion, Django Unchained is at the end of the day Tarantino’s take on an era of American history that few Americans want to remember. Django’s charm isn’t that it’s fast-paced, keeping you hooked all the time. It’s all in its characters. Dr. Schultz isn’t mystified by Django’s humanity. He sees it clearly and is taken by it. He clearly knows that slavery is bad, not for political reasons but for humanitarian purposes, which is where Django and Lincoln veer off thematically. Django isn’t resigned to his fate – he is resilient, always fighting, always aspiring for more, always opposing the likes of Candie and Stephen who want to bring people like him down.

And it is here that Django Unchained excels: in seeing all those different personalities interact on screen. Towards the end, you forget that the movie has had about five thousand bullets fired and a growing casualty north of three hundred deaths (I did not count). The only thing that remains fixed is that these people whose lives you’re seeing unfold (or end) in front of you are highly interesting, to a backdrop of a very eclectic musical soundtrack and the vision of a director who makes the aforementioned historical era entirely his own.

4/5

Les Misérables [2012] – Movie Review

les-miserables-movie-poster

As a person who grew up and went through a French curriculum with Victor Hugo’s novel as its centerpiece at many points, I’ve grown attached to the essence of the novel. I’ve also grown to understand it, know what it contains, understand the message that Hugo wanted to pass on. I’d even joke and say the novel’s impressive spine is a byproduct of Hugo being French – a lot of blabbing for nothing. I’ve taken some of that, as is evident by my wordy blogposts at times. This review will surely turn into one so just skip to the last paragraph if you don’t feel like reading.

My knowledge of Victor Hugo’s most famous 1500-pages novel has led me to conclude that it’s very difficult to turn it into a motion picture. If the previous attempts at this novel weren’t enough proof, Tom Hooper’s take on Les Misérables adds to the growing list of not-nearly-there trials.

The story is known for everyone by now. Jean Valjean (Hugh Jackman) is a French man living around the time of the French revolution and is forced to steal a loaf of bread to save a relative’s life. He is subsequently thrown in jail for 19 years at the end of which he’s released on parole. Valjean, however, breaks his parole and ends up making a decent life for himself as the mayor of a small French town in Northern France called Montreuil-sur-Mer. But Javert (Russell Crowe), the prison warden who was in charge of Valjean, appears back in his life during a visit to the factory run by Valjean, now working under a new name. In that factory works a single mother called Fantine (Anne Hathaway) who gets sacked from her job when her secret of having had a child out of wedlock, Cosette (eventually played by Amanda Seyfried), is discovered. Fantine eventually succumbs to becoming a prostitute and is saved by Valjean who promises to take care of her daughter as he runs away from Javert who’d do anything to catch him, to the backdrop of a growing revolution in the streets of the French youth.

Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables is a full-blown musical. No, it’s not a musical in the sense of a talking movie with a few songs interspersed here and there. It’s a musical in the sense of three hours non-stop singing where even “thank you”s are sung, where reading letters becomes melodic and where, if you’re not a fan of musicals to begin with or not entirely sure what you’re getting yourself into, you’d end up wanting to pull your own hair out. Yes, this version of Les Misérables is definitely not for everyone. Even if you love – scratch that – adore music, Les Misérables might prove a very tough pill to swallow. And at times it really, really is.

Hugh Jackman, who can sing, ends up grating around the 120th minute mark. Russell Crowe on the other hand entirely sheds his Gladiator image for a singing Javert and with his not-so-pleasant singing voice ends up entirely intolerable a few minutes in. Russell Crowe even looks entirely uncomfortable to be there and it reflects on his character, making Javert – a central figure to the story – comical at times. Hugh Jackman has to be commanded for a job well done as Valjean. Few actors can say they can deliver performances as he did with the close-ups he got throughout the movie.

In fact, the actors and actresses in Tom Hooper’s Les Misérables all performed their songs in the movie live. While a piano played in the background to guide them, they acted their songs instead of recording them months in advance and eventually lip-synching them to film.

The single acting performance in the movie that will absolutely blow your socks off is Anne Hathaway, who’s probably aided by the fact that her character isn’t there for long. Hathaway, as Fantine, is brilliant. She deserves all the praise she’s been getting. Her performance of the Susan-Boyle-made-famous song “I Dreamed A Dream” is gut-wrenchingly stunning. She brings the life into her character and gives Fantine a richness which other actors in this movie with more running time couldn’t bestow upon theirs. Hathaway steals every scene she’s in and ends up being the only reason you might walk out of this movie feeling like you hadn’t wasted three hours of your live. Just to watch her do what she does so beautifully. No one is raining on Hathaway’s parade come Award-season time.

Interesting casting choice include Samantha Barks as Eponine, the daughter of the Thénardiers, played by Helena Bonham Carter and Sasha Baron Cohen whose only purpose was to add some comic relief to some tense moments. Barks sings her songs really well and gets you to relate to her character, despite the background. She delivers a nice rendition of “On My Own.”

Les Misérables does have its strong moments, notably the opening scene, Hathaway’s minutes and the ending, but the movie accumulates a lot of off-moments as well that make the result very lopsided. The movie is also extremely long. Thirty minutes (of wailing – singing) could have easily been cut with the story not be affected because few of those songs tell us more about the character and its story, an example being I Dreamed A Dream in which Fantine tells the story of how she reached the misery she was in. The overall result is a movie that feels very in limbo: okay, not great, this is awesome, this is horrible, goosebumps, kill me now. These are all things you will feel while watching Les Misérables.

3.5/5 – – new rating system.

The Artist – Movie Review


In The Artist, director Michel Hazanavicius takes Hollywood retrospectively to 1927 where the age of silent movies still reigned – all with a silent black and white movie.

Silent movie star George Valentin (Jean Dujardin) is at the top of the world. His movies are always a huge success. He’s adored by his audiences for his sense of humor and all around fun attitude towards everything. 1927 Hollywood was all about Valentin.

Soon after the premiere of his latest movie, he stumbles on a girl named Peppy Miller (Bérénice Bejo) who kisses him on the cheek to newspaper headlines. Soon after, Peppy lands a role as a dancer in one of Valentin’s movies during which he gives her the advice of needing to be different to stand out, giving her the big break she needed. And with that, Peppy starts climbing her Hollywood stairs, quickly becoming a sensation by 1929. It is then that talking movies are introduced and Valentin refuses to start speaking in his movies. The reason for this refusal is ultimately answered in a subtle and touching way as only a movie like The Artist could pull off. His career quickly deteriorates and he is forced to deal with his own pride, decisions, miscalculations – all as Peppy Miller’s career soars with her talk to unreached heights.

The Artist is a breath of vintage fresh air in a Hollywood movie scene that is relying more and more on brainless blockbuster action movies than on truly artistic cinematic features that would leave you speechless as you leave a movie theatre. The Artist is one of those movies that leave you baffled as you watch it.

Jean Dujardin is absolutely breathtaking in this. He leads a masterful, brilliant, stunning performance – all without speaking a word. It is a testament to an actor’s ability when he can communicate the struggles, emotions, triumphs and defeats of his character to the audience all through his facial expressions and overall demeanor in a movie.

Bérénice Bejo is great as Peppy Miller – the actress who is taken places because of George Valentin and who eventually leads to his downfall, feeling guilty about doing so and wanting to increasingly take care of him. You can see her metamorphose on screen from an awkward dancer who wants to get places to America’s sweetheart, who knows exactly what she can leverage out of movie makers.

Despite being black and white, The Artist is visually appealing. Soon enough, the fact that you aren’t watching a movie in color goes to the back of your mind and you start enjoying the genius of it all. The score of the movie, composed by Ludovic Bource, is beyond a masterpiece. The Artist, if you don’t want to consider it a silent movie simply because of the lack of speech, is a movie without spoken words to the melody of a brilliant symphony. It’s very difficult not to be taken into the ingenuity that is the music of The Artist.

At the end of the day, The Artist is examining the extinction of silent movies in Hollywood by giving Hollywood in 2011 a silent movie that triumphs in quality most of its talkies. And that’s precisely what this is such a great movie. It is delicate and original. It is profound and fun. It makes you laugh and it has its heartfelt moments. It might be a lament to the Hollywood age it represents but it does so without being overly pessimistic. In a way, it seems that this European movie is reminding Hollywood of its roots, of its origin. Without being technically proficient, The Artist is showing exactly how much all those extras can take away from the essence of movies. It’s showing audiences that you can really enjoy a movie that doesn’t demand anything of you except to look at shadows, black and white pictures and moving people. And in return, it gives you so much more…

9/10

Cultural Terrorism in Lebanon: The Adventures of TinTin in the Country of Brainless Censorship

Welcome to Lebanon, the country where blocking a director’s name off his movie poster is apparently our *awesome* government’s way of affirming its power.

The latest incident of cultural terrorism in Lebanon is having Steven Spielberg’s name hidden off TinTin’s movie poster, simply because Spielberg donated $1 million to Israel during the July 2006 war. While I am firmly against what Spielberg did, as I am against anyone who actively supports acts of violence either financially or morally, does this really warrant this ridiculous act of hiding his name?

Spielberg is Jewish so it is natural for him to feel some compassion for the state of Israel – regardless of whether we like that or not. The same applies to many Sunnis in Lebanon who feel loyal towards Saudi Arabia and many Shiites who feel loyal to Iran. It’s just the way things are. If religion is important to you, you feel strongly about countries where your religion has a good stronghold. It doesn’t mean it’s right, it just means it’s there. If religion is the least of your concern, well, power to you for being”free”.

But before we start thinking about banning movie directors’ name off their movie posters, why don’t we contemplate this:

1) If we’re going to have a problem with every Hollywood director or producer who has Israeli-ties, then the only array of movies we’ll have in our theaters will be the crappy Egyptian movies we get and the occasional Nadine Labaki movie which takes our theaters by storm (PS: If you haven’t watched Where Do We Go Now? yet, what are you waiting for?)

2) The act of blocking Spielberg’s name off the poster is simply ridiculous. What end is served through the decision to do so? People won’t know that he’s involved in the movie when his name is flashed on a huge screen in front of them? It would have made more sense to have the movie banned in its entirety, not that would be acceptable in itself. Tintin is an animated movie based on a hit comic series that many of us have grown up reading. The fact that this agenda-less movie is being targeted in a flimsy “ban” is beyond ridiculous. It’s simply egomaniacally stupid.

3) For those who are probably furious that I’ve somehow, in a nonexistent way, shown “compassion” towards something Israeli, this is far from the case. In fact, if Tintin had been “Waltz with Bashir,” I would have probably been less offended by whatever’s taking place with Tintin today. While I could simply download the aforementioned movie, I would have understood not having it play in our theaters, simply because it’s an Israeli production. But Tintin is not an Israeli production, even if an Israel-compassionate person had a role in doing it. If Tintin had been serving some hidden pro-Zionist agenda, which as I’m writing this seems hilariously ridiculous, then perhaps I would have understood an act of banning in any form towards the movie.

4) Our country needs to start getting accustomed to the idea that, even in these simple ways that it does, it shouldn’t “silence” those that are different from us. We pride ourselves that we are a beacon for freedom of speech in the region and we most definitely are. But things like this “ban” put a damper on what is, truly, an innovative country that we have. The fact that Tintin was played in theaters across the region without a hitch is a clear indication that our lovely government (or whoever issued the Spielberg ban) is out of its mind. Maybe the government should start caring less about blocking a director’s name because of a Wikileaks article and more caring about fixing the internet situation of the country (I still haven’t gotten my upgrade!).

5) Just for your reference, this is a list of actors, actresses, directors, producers & singers who have ties with Israel, be it moral or financial: Adam Sandler, Annette Bening, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ashton Kutcher, Ben Stiller, Billy Crystal, Bruce Willis, Dustin Hoffman, Halle Berry, Harrison Ford, Kathy Bates, Kevin Costner, Kobe Bryant, Madonna, Frank Sinatra, Natalie Portman, Nicole Kidman, Paula Abdul, Norah Jones, Robin Williams, Sarah Jessica Parker, Tom Cruise…. and the list can go one to list hundreds of other names. All of these people are entertainers that provide us with movies and songs that we love. How about we ban all of their movies, music and anything they’re affiliated with?

The sad thing is this isn’t the first time this happens. First it was Gad Elmaleh, then Lady Gaga’s album, which was later unbanned, passing by an Iranian movie against the Islamic revolution: Green Days. When will Lebanese cultural terrorism stop and we begin to care less about a person’s political,  religious or whatever affiliation they may have and care more about what they’re providing the world with. If you think it’s offensive, you can CHOOSE not to be exposed. But you have NO RIGHT to force your own views on other people who don’t share them in any way whatsoever. As for me, I may have not wanted to watch Tintin but I’m definitely going to now.

So dear Hezbollah, protecting your precious arms doesn’t start with you blocking every single that that is related to the root of your weapons. Culturally terrorizing the whole Lebanese population into believing that if something isn’t approved by you then that thing shouldn’t work is NOT acceptable. Instead of having Lebanese traitors, whose dealings with Israel are as clear as the sun rising every morning, almost getting no jail time (Fayez Karam in case you’re wondering), Hezbollah is offended by Steven Spielberg’s name on a movie poster. You see, a movie poster is simply a weapon of mass destruction.

Hezbollah allies speak of “change and reform.” Well, where is change and reform when you truly need it? Or does it apply to some internet upgrade through a submarine cable that’s suffering from more outages in its month of service than the whole Lebanese internet sector has had over the past two years? Perhaps Mr. Aoun, instead of being Hezbollah’s little minion 24/7, you’d pass some of the freedom values you might have learned in your fifteen year stay in France because of Hezbollah’s BFFs?

Easy A – Movie Review

Easy A. The best comedy of the year, aka the best teen comedy in a long, long time.

The movie tells the story of Olive Penderghast, a high school girl who’s as off the radar as you can go. A rumor starts that she lost her virginity and soon enough, she becomes the most popular girl in school. Inspired by the novel “The Scarlet Letter” from where the letter “A” in the title comes from, it shows how the precocious teenager in Olive got turned due to word-of-mouth alone into something as close to a harlot as you can get – without the sex.

Her fictional one-night with her fictional college boyfriend soon becomes the introduction of many guys asking her to fake sleep with them to improve their reputation. A gay classmate comes up to her and in one hilarious scene, they fake sleeping with each other so well that your ribs would almost crack from laughing. But as with all comedies, soon enough Olive’s world will come crashing down as it all becomes unbearable and things she hasn’t even pretended to do are affixed to her…

Olive’s parents, played by Stanley Tucci and Patricia Clarkson, are hilarious. They excel at being the hippies, carefree parents. You can’t help but laugh everytime one of them tries to console or give guidance to Olive. They are so out of place that I thought Olive was adopted at first. They are still so taken by their long-ago sexual and chemical experimentation that they don’t even care about all the turmoil in their daughter’s life. Their advice: Oh but it’s fun! You can’t help but laugh.

You might think the plot is cliched and whatnot – after all, most high school comedies are. But what elevates this movie is the outstanding performance by Emma Stone, who, in my opinion, should have won her category at the Golden Globes. There is no other one who deserved the best actress in a comedy as she did. She spun this movie out of her likeability alone and made it into what it is. Like or hate the movie, you can’t but like her character. She shows such promising talent that how she was a relative unknown before this is mind-boggling.

The movie also stars Gossip Girl’s Penn Badgley as Olive’s love interest. Amanda Bynes returns into the movie business as the overzealous Christian who wants to stop all the “sinning” going on in her school. She is really good as well, especially when she’s in one of her prayer sessions.

Easy A may not be groundbreaking. But for once in a long while, Hollywood gives you a comedy that is refreshing, breezy and likeable without going into the comedy of shock-value. And for that, I love it.