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!

Advertisements

Ziad El Rahbani’s “Bennesbeh La Bokra Chou?” Was Beautiful; “Film Ameriki Tawil” In Cinemas Soon

Belnesbeh La bokra Chou Ziad el Rahbani play movie

Let me start out by saying that I am a Ziad el Rahbani uninitiated.

The tag-line for “Bennesbeh La Boukra Chou?” went: “you’ve been listening to it for 35 years, now come and watch it.” Well, I haven’t to say the least. In fact, apart from the occasional references to Ziad el Rahbani’s golden lines here and there among my acquaintances, my knowledge about his plays would’ve been essentially zero. It’s not something I’m proud of – to be so ignorant of a Lebanese icon is not one of my stronger suits I have to say – but I vehemently refused to listen to plays knowing that sometime in the near future I might be able to watch them.

Well, that future is now.

I was lucky to attend the Lebanese premiere – or the cinematic premiere that is – of “Bennesbeh Laboukra Chou?,” dedicated to the memory of Joseph Saker and Layal Rahbani, which will be in cinemas starting next Thursday, and I have to say: I’m thoroughly impressed.

No, this is not about the play’s sentences that everyone has memorized, or the songs that are engrained in our memories, even mine. This is about the entire experience of it: from film, to seeing the sheer joy on the faces of those watching it, to their reaction to finally seeing the play they’ve known so well on screen in the way that it is.

For starters, the play is filmed well enough for it to be shown in cinema. It’s not Kubrick, of course, but it is decent to the extent that a few minutes in you’ll forget that you’re watching rescued footage of a nearly four decades old play and simply fall into it. In fact, the grainy texture even gives it character: this is not a glossy movie, it’s rustic, full of life and quite charming. It feels documentary-like, which is also the purpose of the play at hand.

No one needs me to talk about the content of course, but I have to say that I was grossly impressed. Ziad’s satirical take on the Lebanese way of life then, the clash of classes and the struggle of the prolitariat, could not be truer even today. In fact, the movie/play starts: there have been many tomorrows after that, but what has changed? The fact of the matter is, so little has, and things are probably worse today than they were back then. Ziad’s monologue towards the end, about the need for work, about providing and trying to escape poverty is chills-inducing. It’s beautiful to see the lines many have repeated over the years be said in front of you “live,” and it’s even more beautiful to see the audience that knows those lines so well react to them.

I asked someone how it felt to watch the play they had listened to endlessly for years, and they said that it felt exactly as they had expected. I had to agree: you may be used to the voices, but the acting is exquisite. I have to say, Ziad el Rahbani may be a great playwright, but he’s an even better actor: the energy that man exuded on his stage is near-unparalleled in these times. No wonder audiences back then fell for him: it brought me such joy to see him perform in the way that he did, and I’m sure it will do the same to you.

You don’t need my words to tell you to watch “Bennesbeh Laboukra Chou?” if it’s something you planned. But let me tell you this: the people singing along to the songs, muttering those lines under their breathes or simply clapping along was an experience in itself, one full of nostalgia and wonder, one that I recommend wholeheartedly.

Film Ameriki Tawil

And, for those of you who want more, a list you can now add me to, there will be more: Film Ameriki Tawil, the even better play as I was told, will be in cinemas in the coming months as well (a source told me in around 2 months), and here’s part of the trailer:

Mashrou’ Leila’s Ibn El Leil; Ab: Beit Byout; Film Ktir Kbeer: When Lebanese Art Is Great

Amidst the very dismal situation in the country, of which I’ve written and nagged your head about plenty, there are currently three emblems of Lebanese art shining bright of which I think we should all take notice. The three acts/events I’m about to highlight have not paid me to support them and probably don’t need my support anyway, but I’ve found their offering to be so impressive that I think it should be highlighted.

Ab: Beit Byout:

Ab Beit Byout

Ab: Beit Byout is the Lebanese take on August: Osage County, the award-winning turned-movie play, which you probably know because of both Julia Roberts and Meryl Streep who received Oscar nominations for their roles.

It’s the story of a very dysfunctional family meeting around their matriarch at the event of the disappearance and eventual death of their father. What ensues is sheer acting brilliance, a mouthful of dialogue that is as biting as it is seething with anger, regret, sadness and joy.

The adaptation to a Lebanese audience is great. It manages to carry enough of the punches of its American counterpart without feeling like a word for word copy or a subpar rip off. There are enough Lebanese aspects to it to make the play feel very relatable, very “I’ve seen such a thing take place in my hometown.”

Catch it at Babel Theatre in Hamra.

Film Ktir Kbeer (Very Big Shot):

Film Ktir Kbeer Poster

Nothing about this movie encouraged me to watch it. The title didn’t make sense. The poster felt like yet another Lebanese action-movie-wannabe. Confession time: I was extremely wrong.

Film Ktir Kbir is the kind of movies you’ve been wanting Lebanese filmmakers to make but as they were too busy making “Bebe” and movies about the civil war or about Christians hating Muslims and vice versa.

“Very Big Shot” is the story of 3 siblings who, after growing up in lower socio-economic standards, find themselves in deep trouble after getting involved with a drug lord, causing them to devise an ingenious way to save themselves.

There’s plenty of curse words, plenty of “every day” banter, and few cliches that are mostly spun as jokes. The acting is great. The script is extremely tightly written albeit the ending felt a bit rushed. It’s a movie that is equally fiction and equally a criticism of Lebanese society and politics.

Keep an open mind to it and give it a shot. I bet you won’t be disappointed.

Mashrou’ Leila’s “Ibn El Leil”:

Ibn El Leil

The opening song of Mashrou’ Leila’s newest album “Ibn El Leil” is an ethereal, mostly instrumental track called Aoede and it sets the tone for an album that is both more mature, more cohesive and more sonically impressive than anything they’ve offered before.

If you’re a fan of what they’ve done before – their song “Lil Watan” is excellent – then this album will be right up your alley. If you’ve been iffy about this Lebanese band, give this album a shot: there are some tracks there that are so nicely done they might change your mind.

After launching this album at London’s “Barbican,” The Guardian wrote about how this Lebanese band might be on the brink of finally exploding and filling stadiums instead of smaller venues. Perhaps that will happen one day, but what is sure for now is that “Ibn el Leil” is one hell of an album filled with songs that not only defy Arab and Lebanese stereotypes, but are eons above and beyond anything that is offered musically in the region.

In their latest offering, Mashrou’ Leila are breaking the confines of what Arab music was allowed to say. It’s a joy to listen to.

 

 

Listen to: 3 Minutes; Kalam; Tayf; Ashabi; Marrikh.

Lebanese Ely Dagher’s Waves ’98 Wins Best Short Movie Award At Cannes 2015

Ely Makhoul Cannes 2015 Waves '98

About four weeks ago, I wrote about a very promising short movie by Lebanese director Ely Dagher which was nominated for Best Short Movie at this year’s Cannes Festival (link).

The short film is an attempt by Ely Dagher to come to terms with living and growing up in Beirut, while working out of Belgium: the movie is about his adolescence years as a Lebanese lost in his own capital.  As I said before, the trailer made it seem extremely promising: it was unlike any Lebanese movie or short film I had seen before, and I had high hopes.

Well, Cannes agrees with me.

Ely Dagher Waves '98 Cannes Win

Ely Dagher just became the first Lebanese to win a major award at Cannes. By having his movie win, Ely Dagher beat out seven other nominees from seven other countries that probably cared less about their production than the Lebanese government ever did.

By being nominated in the first place, Ely Dagher beat out 4550 other short films that were submitted from all across the world. And today, I feel proud and I suppose so should you.

Let Ely Dagher’s win be a testament to Lebanese talents everywhere who can make it big, like he did, when given the chance, the funds, the backing, when they are allowed to pursue their vision beyond the confines of a Lebanese society that is so comfortable in what it knows that it never ventures out of its comfort zone, a society that squashes its own arts as forever cliches and doesn’t let its own artists truly express what they can do in fear of not being commercial enough.

I congratulate Ely Dagher for winning. Here’s hoping Waves ’98 makes it big at next year’s Oscars as well. Hopefully it’ll become the first Lebanese production to win that golden statuette as well.

 

Waves ’98: The Lebanese Short Film Nominated For A Palme D’Or At Cannes 2015

Ely Dagher Waves '98

4550 short films from across 100 countries were submitted to the Short Films category at Cannes this year. Only 8 made the selection to be in the running for the Palme D’Or. And a Lebanese short film, Waves ’98, by Ely Dagher is one of them.

It has been a long, long time that Lebanon has had any movies featured this prominently at Cannes – Nadine Labaki’s offerings were not given the same treatment. This is the first time in over 24 years that a Lebanese film made the selection at Cannes this way, not since 1991 when Maroun Baghdadi’s “Hors La Vie” was nominated, and ended up winning the Jury Prize..

Ely Dagher is a young Lebanese filmmaker living in Brussels. As someone who was torn between life in Belgium and life in Lebanon, he ended up writing Waves ’98 as a way to come to terms with what living and growing up in Beirut meant to him. The work took two years.

I haven’t seen the movie, but the trailer shows it to be very different from anything Lebanese that has been offered to us in the past few years. In fact, the feel of it reminded me a bit of the very, very good (and very traitorous?) movie “Waltz With Bashir,” albeit with a different subject matter I’d assume.

It doesn’t matter if Ely Dagher’s Waves ’98 wins on May 24th at Cannes or not. The fact that he managed to be nominated out of 4550 other submitted movies is triumphant enough for him and Lebanese talents everywhere, when given room to grow beyond the confines of cliches that they are required to be limited to while trying to make it in Lebanon.

The nomination of Waves ’98 shows that when not limited by subject matter, and when not restricted by local taboos, Lebanese talents can make a dent in fields that we’ve come to brush off as beyond us.

I contrast this with a play I watched recently in Beirut called “Venus,” which had a brilliant script, beyond brilliant acting and broke Lebanese taboos like no other play I had seen before. Venus worked because it didn’t care about sensibilities. Waves ’98 isn’t necessarily within the same context, but it being different puts it in the category of works of art pushing the boundaries of our Lebanese artistic repertoire.

Instead of talking on and on about movies such as Vitamin, and beyond subpar offerings by Lebanese cinema in recent years, we should at least give the ambitious and talented Ely Dagher and his movie the credit they deserve for making a dent, for showing that Lebanese filmmakers can accomplish such feats.

Congratulations, and my outmost respect.

Check out the trailer:

Her (2013) – Movie Review

Her Movie poster

Talk about hitting the ball out of the park. I am in awe.

Spike Jonze’s new movie, Her, features Joaquin Phoenix as Theodore Twombly who, in the not-so-distant future, is depressed as he goes about his life post a break-up with his wife. He is your typical lonely guy, living alone in a spacious apartment, working from his cubicle until he clocks in his required hours then going home to play his 3D video game. On the surface, Theodore doesn’t look like someone who minds where he was: in limbo between the memory of the relationship he had with his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and trying to move on with his life. He then finds himself purchasing a new operating system, meant to be the world’s first artificial intelligence OS, after seeing its ad while on his way to work. His OS is named Samantha and voiced by the amazing Scarlett Johansson.

Soon enough, Theodore finds his entire life and existence being organized by Samantha, not just his schedule and email. Through an earpiece and a phone, Theodore shows Samantha his world while she exposes him to different facets of the things he thought he knew. He’d close his eyes and let her guide him around a carnival. She’d ask him how he’d touch her. He’d feel comfortable with her. She’d help him break out of the break-up that was breaking him. But would a soothing voice be enough for him?

Her may be science fiction but it also feels like a cross examination of a culture that is becoming very dependent on technology. It’s not far-fetched to imagine the events of this movie happening in the not-distant future. The idea is perhaps not new but it has probably never been handled this way and while the premise of a love affair with an OS may be off-putting for some, Spike Jonze handles it brilliantly, giving a movie in which you get absorbed, sinking in every single second of screen time you watch.

There are characters which spring on screen here and there, such as Amy Adams – a friend of Theodore’s, but Her is Joaquin Phoenix leading a one man show. He commands the many extended scenes in which he is almost always alone. His interaction with Samantha, who is never physically present, gives way to one of the most heart-warming relationships you’ll see in a movie this year. The biggest drawback of Theodore Twombly, however, is that his character feels to be stuck in some emotional development limbo post his break-up. Joaquin Phoenix works through that, anyway. It’s the work of an acting master, one who has been going unappreciated for way too long.

Scarlett Johansson’s voice as Samantha is so vital to what Her is. She is getting an entire movie to ride on her vocal appeal, who is building an entire relationship with her sighs, nuances, sultriness and, occasionally, songs. She is so good at what she does that you eventually stop noticing that Theodore is not actually having a relationship with a living person but with a voice that talks to him through an earpiece. It’s slightly unnerving but also excellently well-done.

Her is a delight to the ears as ear as well with its backdrop being an exquisite score by Arcade Fire. The music is excellent. It feels futuristic while still managing to be current, perfectly embodying the movie it serves.

Her is magic on screen. It’s science fiction without the blitz. It’s unlike most of the movie’s you’ve seen recently. It asks questions that as a culture we may be heading to without coming off as greeting-card cheesy or preachy. And it’s easy, I guess, to think of it as gimmicky or as another been-there-done-that movie. But it’s not. I may have found its premise odd at first and dismissed it way too easily. But I’m so glad I gave this movie a chance because it has turned out to be one the year’s absolute best. I really hope it wins some golden statuettes. It deserves every single one of them. Go watch it. Now.

4.5/5

The Hunger Games: Catching Fire (2013) – Movie Review

Hunger Games Catching Fire movie poster

It has become a Hollywood rule that sequels should suck. A few movies have escaped that sophomore slump. Add Catching Fire to that short list. Nay, have Catching Fire occupy an honorary spot on that list. Ladies and gentlemen, this is how sequels should be made.

I am a fan of The Hunger Games book series. I also thoroughly enjoyed the first movie. And let’s just say that the second movie makes my liking of the first seem mediocre, childish, fanboyish. I stand corrected – The Hunger Games was not the movie that brought this series to its potential. Catching Fire does that and so much more.

The events pick up where the previous movie ended: Katniss has to work with the consequences of her defiance at The Hunger Games that resulted in saving both Peeta Mellark and herself. Her act of defiance is seeding a revolution across the country. People are looking at her as their leader. And the Capitol wants her to do what she can to squash that revolution down, as they prepare for a very special edition of The Hunger Games, which have hit their 75th edition.

Saying anything more than that would be treading spoiler-zone worse than a minesweeper game. Catching Fire doesn’t let up. There’s no dull moment. There’s no frame that feels out of place. There’s no scene that makes you shrug at it being useless. It keeps you transfixed throughout its two and a half hour run. Just sit back and enjoy it. Special effects? Check. Riveting cast? Check. Twisted story? Check. Great directing? Check. Cinematography, art direction, costume design? Check, check and check.  Seriously, what more do you need?

Jennifer Lawrence, through her portrayal of Katniss Everdeen, is cementing herself as the actress of our generation. The sheer talent this creature has is simply spell-binding to watch. She captures the essence of Katniss perfectly, delivering one knockout scene after the next like it’s a piece of cake. It helps that she has multi-layered material to work with. But I highly doubt any other actress with less chops could have done the marvelous job she’s doing in this series.

If The Hunger Games series continues its upward trajectory, look for it to mark itself as this classic movie series down the line that we tell our grandchildren to watch as they shrug us off. Those movies? They’d ask. But they look so ancient. They’d add. Except they’re not. Catching Fire, despite it being fiction, feels extremely relevant in the world of today. It may not be the movie that would amass a ton of Oscars. It’s not because it’s not worthy. It’s because it’s just too easy to shrug this off as some silly young adult novel adaptation. Catching Fire, however, is one of the best book adaptations I’ve seen. There have been very few and there will be even fewer movies this year that are as entertaining.

Do yourself a favor and check in whatever you thought about the first movie at the door and head to your nearest cinema this weekend to get on this ride. You’re in for one hell of a treat. The Hunger Games have caught fire and I, for one, am still betting on them.

4.5/5