Friday, June 24, 2011

Lebanon and love: you can't find either in the market!

Find image source and info on Lebanon here
I arrive at Beirut Rafic HaririInternational airport at 2am on Saturday after a series of delayed and missed flights and collapse into bed with thoughts of the Mediterranean Sea in my head. Later that morning Monica* leads Therese, another former PC Mali volunteer, and me downstairs and uphill to buy breakfast. Monica explains the options available for my manouche, or breakfast pizza, along the way: cheese, spices, spinach, meat... and I find myself salivating at the thought of my imminent meal. We arrive at the bakery a few minutes later and are warmly greeted by a man behind a white formica countertop. He welcomes us to Lebanon and specifically Chaouiye, the village we are in, before turning on the half-moon gas oven behind him and beginning to prepare the dough for our manouches. “Is this your first time going to a wedding in Lebanon?” he asks as he spreads the thin circles of dough on the prep board before him. Therese and I nod that it is. “Il n'y a rien commen un mariage au Liban!” he continues. There's nothing like a wedding in Lebanon!


Breakfast pizza! aka manouche!

Monica, the bride-to-be, invited her out-of-town guests (14 in all) to arrive a week before the wedding to sight-see in Lebanon and to get a chance to know one another before her nuptials to her fiancee, Samer, whom she met in Segou while serving as a Peace Corps Volunteer in Mali (her host mom, Nema, and mine, Annie, were buddies at our regional trainings and we spent Easter together one year). While Monica and Samer, who manages the Auberge hotel in Segou, took care of last minute wedding preparations like meeting with the DJ and the florist the week before, her guests loaded into a 30 passenger tour bus each day to take care of touring Lebanon!

Saint Preri resort on the Mediterranean Sea
On Monday we slip into our bathing suits and sandals before heading to the rocky beaches of Santa Preri in Jbeil, a resort hotel and beach just outside of Beirut. For $12 we have access to the pool, beach chairs and large, yellow umbrellas set out seaside. We unload our beach bags and slather on sunscreen before ordering lunch (a Greek salad, frankfurter and fries for me!) and relaxing on lounge chairs under our umbrellas on the rocky, and windy, beach.

Moussa's castle

Tuesday morning we load back into the bus for some active touring (not that I minded lounging seaside eating hot dogs!). Moussa's Castle, our first stop of the day, reminds me of the wax museums found along the boardwalk in Virginia Beach except that this tourist treat has a cute history. Our second stop of the day is the Beiteddine palace which was built in the early 1800s by Emir Bechir Chebab II. Housed inside are ancient mosaics and modern meeting rooms and outside are small, open-air gardens with towering cedar trees and neatly manicured shrubbery. Aside from our group of 14, we share the grounds with a handful of tourists and a large troop of pre-teen Lebanese girls attending an English-Arabic school who are here on a field-trip. A few shyly approach Therese and I in the garden to practice their English and ask a few questions. “What is your name?” one of the girls asks. We answer and the girls giggle shyly into one another's shoulders. “Those are pretty names,” they say. We thank them, ask their names and return the compliment. We step forward to continue on our way and swiftly dodge their peculiar follow-up question of “Are you rich?” by saying the bus is waiting for us, we must go!
Street-side hookah in Byblos
And go we must! The cedars are waiting! Our last stop of the day is the cedar forest – home to the symbol of Lebanon. After our bus driver, Mahair, expertly navigates the narrow lanes that are the main thoroughfares in Lebanon, we arrive at the park limits and pick up our guide at the entrance to the park. He has the most endearing broken English of anyone I've met and starts every sentence with “I like and love to...” As we enter the cedar forest thick fog envelops us like a bath of silver soup and our guide asks us to remain silent for one minute as we experience the woods. At the end of the minute he stops us, smiles largely and exclaims “I like and love to make hiking with you all!” In the forest we see cedars ranging in age from a few weeks to over 2,000 years. At the end of our short hike we are all giddy with the beauty of the forest and the fresh, mountain air. But Mahair does not let us linger for long at the edge of the forest, “Monica and her family are waiting!” he says.
Byblos
'Home' again, we freshen up and head from Monica and Samer's condominium to Samer's brother's condominium below. The tables are laden with appetizers; artichokes in garlic butter, salmon bites, hummus, pita and crudites, stuffed grape leaves and little meat pastries. Dinner doesn't get started until late, around 10, and we all convene around the table after talking outside to get down to the business of eating. Then, someone turns the music on the stereo up and suddenly there is a dance party! I return to my seat after the round of mid-dinner dancing and Assad, Samer's father, waves me over. I lean in from the other side of the white plastic table which groans under the added weight of meat and chicken kebabs to hear what he has to say. When I get close enough Assad lifts his glass tumbler, ice cubes clinking against one another in an amber bath of Johnny Walker Red Label Whiskey, and smiles. “Mabruk!” he shouts, “to Monica and Samer!” Cheers!

Baalbeck, me and Monica

Wednesday morning we head northeast to Baalbeck where we witness incredible Roman ruins and the set-up of another festival venue. Throughout the country we see preparations for concerts and festivals as Lebanon gets ready for the height of tourism in July and August. During tourist season some of the 14 million Lebanese that live outside the country (4 million live in Lebanon) come back to tour their home country along with tourists from other countries curious to see what Lebanon has to offer. On the way home from Baalbeck we visit the Ksara vineyards where we partake in a wine tasting and tour their subterranean (and natural!) cellars.

High noon at Baalbeck

On Thursday we head to the Jeitta grotto where we are not allowed to take photographs inside but let me tell you, it was incredible. Stalactites and stalagmites dating to the Ice Age hang from the ceiling and grow from the floors of the caves – at some places the distance over 300 feet between them! It is like walking into a secret mountain filled with frosting covered whale teeth and cauliflower growths the size of cars. Maybe that's not appetizing but it was glistening and gorgeous. After lunch nearby we head to Byblos, an ancient Roman port surrounded now by kitschy tourist shops and high-and-low end shopping where I find the perfect book for Monica in a cute little shop about what it means to be a Lebanese woman. Not that she needs any help – she is truly a stunner wedding gown or not! Walking around Byblos I feet like I am on the New England coast with a bluer water source and the smell of hummus and olive oil in the air. The classic beauty of the place makes it hard to leave!

Roman ruins at Baalbeck

Thursday night we gussy up and load into the bus yet again – but this time to head to Beirut, the Paris of the Middle East! Tambourines, drums and a functioning microphone make for a lively excursion to the capital and the bachelorette party leaves nothing to be desired – except we could have stayed longer!

We spend Friday recovering from the night before and hanging out at Monica's in-laws, chez Nadia and Assad, who are lovely hosts. I enjoy spending some one-on-one time with Monica – it's her last day as a single lady – as we walk around the village and greet folks here and there and have tea with the mother of a friend. With the warmth of the people and interest in others, it's like being in Mali, there's even a goat tied under a raised porch!, except with more alcohol and more clouds of cigarette smoke in your face.

Saturday morning it is go time! I spend about 4 hours at the hair salon (mostly hanging around and watching the goings on, snapping shots of Monica and her maid-of-honor, Shauna) before we rush back home around 2 to throw on our wedding attire and meet the photographer at a monastery nearby for Monica's portraits with her family. Samer surprises us all by showing up for the session after about 15 minutes and then we get another surprise of a stretch BMW limousine that shows up to take Monica's friends and family to the wedding. We're classy guests!!

my favorite portrait

After receiving guests at Samer's family's home, Samer's family comes to present Monica with a traditional set of jewelry and take her to the church. Her father and father-in-law-to-be escort her downstairs and around the corner to the family's church (with a population of 14,000 Beit Chebab is also home to 14 churches!). A marching band and flame breather announce Monica's arrival, no big deal! :)

The ceremony is elegant – Beit Chebab has never seen a more magnificent bride, that's for sure! After greeting all the guests and taking portraits with close family and friends we head to the reception area at a restaurant about 10 minutes away. Leaping dancers announce the arrival of the bride and groom along with floor fireworks and pulsing Arabic music. Bottles of Johnny Walker Red Label whiskey grace the head and foot of each table and the guests, over 150, snack on labneh, homemade mozzerella, hummus and meat pastries before Monica and Samer arrive. The wedding cake, 6 tiers (!), is eventually cut around midnight – and with a sword! – after hours of dancing and eating. The crowd clears out soon after and everyone in our group of visitors shakes their heads and says to one another how we've never been to such a good party.

On Sunday morning I collect my suitcase and carry-on and carefully close the heavy door to Monica and Samer's condominium as to not wake the other friends and family sleeping on couches and rented beds inside. I make my way downstairs where I buy a manouche from the bakery nearby and hail a cab that will take me to the airport and away from Lebanon and back to Mali. I situate my handbags on the torn floorboard below me and munch happily on my cheesy manouche while the Beit Chebab mountainside unfolds behind me and the Mediterranean Sea and glimpses of Beirut peek out ahead. The taxi driver, Benghara Kassir, starts some small talk and we go through the same conversation I imagine every taxi driver and their client has on the way to an airport. The who, what, where, when and why of my 10-day vacation abridged into a mere 10 minutes for a man whose face I won't remember but whose words I won't forget.
Happy couple!
Did you have a good time?” Mr. Kassir finally asks after I finish a rambling paragraph listing all the sites we visited and some exciting details of the wedding. I reflect for a moment and decide to anticipate his response, and what I heard from guests at Monica and Samer's wedding and from other folks in shops and on the street: “Il n'y a rien comme un mariage au Liban!” I say, in all honesty. Benghara nods his agreement and adjusts a small bouquet of fresh wildflowers in a ceramic vase that is attached to the dashboard while continuing to navigate the winding, and nearly empty, road to Beirut on this early Sunday morning. He takes another moment before he begins to speak and when he does it is not what I expect. “Fancy weddings and fireworks are great and make for a memorable event. But there is something more important than all of that and which lasts long after the night is over and the guests have gone home: Love. Do you know love?” he asks, as though it is a word I have never heard before, perhaps an emotion I have never known. I nod that yes, I do. “Love,” he repeats solemnly, “it's not something you can find in the market.”
First dance, don't you love her braid and the flowers?
Mabruk to you, Monica and Samer! Thank you for showing me the best time in Lebanon and letting me share in the first day of your new life together as husband and wife. Congratulations on finding something in one another that you can't find in any market anywhere in the world!

First dance, complete with floor fireworks
I took a lot of pictures while in Lebanon, see below for a selection (divided by theme) from the trip:
See more pictures from the wedding here
Take a peek at folks getting ready for the big day here
Check out some of Lebanon's sites here

*Monica is a friend of mine from PC Mali. We were both environment volunteers from the same group, or 'stage', in July 2008 and we both continue to live in Mali though in different regional capitals.


6 comments:

Anonymous said...

tres beau mariage et tres jolie photo, j'aime

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Somerset Wedding Gal said...

This looks like such a stunning wedding, the floor fireworks at the end are such a great touch!

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