Ben McMurry An American impression visiting Lebanon


In June of 2006 my friend and classmate Dr. Wa'el Hammad came from Atlanta, where he is practicing his medical profession, to visit Lebanon, his native land. Wa'el is from Ain Zhalta and we were studying together for years at The International College (I.C.) and at The American University of Beirut (A.U.B.). On his trip to Lebanon, he was accompanied by his wife, Mary (Mickey) and his son Ramsey together with his son's American friend, Ben McMurry. This trip was Ben's first trip ever to the world outside the United State.

During my recent visit to Atlanta in December 2006, I met with Mickey and Wa'el who were very kind to invite me to a lovely dinner together with Hala, my daughter, and Samia, my brother Daniel's wife. Also, as it happened to be my 60th birthday, Wa'el called the attendants at the restaurant and they all gave me a "happy birthday" chant.

It was then I learnt about their trip to Lebanon during the past summer and about Ben's written impression on his first trip outside the US. His written memoirs are very interesting to read as they come from a young American travelling for the first time outside his country. They are quoted below.

Ramsey Hammad (right) and his friend Ben McMurry in front of Bakhus Temple in Baalbeck.


June 4, 2006

This is the journal of my trip to Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, a small country on the eastern coastline of the Mediterranean Sea. It is a small strip of land no bigger than Rhode Island that is bordered by Syria to the north and Israel to the south. It has had many rulers, and was a French colony for most of its recent life.  The French influence is very obvious: the people speak a mix of Arabic and French, and all of the bathrooms have bidets.  This was an impromptu journey with my old college roommate, Ramsey Hammad.  His father was born and raised in Beirut, but attended medical school in the US, where he met Ramsey’s mother, an American, and has been living ever since.  I was in Lexington, Virginia attending my younger brother’s college graduation, when Ramsey called late Wednesday evening and asked, very seriously, “if you had to take off all next week, could you do it?”  I immediately knew what he was going to ask, and after telling him several times that I could not go, he told me he was booking my ticket no matter what I said, so I reluctantly agreed.  I left Virginia Thursday afternoon, wrapped up some loose ends at work on Friday, and packed my bags for the Middle East 

Around the world in a weekend

Getting to Atlanta on Saturday morning was the easy part.  After the three hour drive to town, I met Ramsey and his cousin, Bill, at his parent’s house.  We hung out for a few minutes while Ramsey finished packing his stuff.  I was again amazed by the stark appearance of Ramsey’s old bedroom.  There was a huge bed in the corner, the only furniture to speak of, covered in sheets that didn’t remotely match the comforter.  I asked Ramsey for the number of his decorator and he told me we would see him on Sunday.  This turned out to be very true, as the apartment in our final destination was as sparsely decorated as my freshman dorm room.  I later surmised that they were only there for a month or so at a time, so it did not make sense to furnish it well.  But anyway, Bill drove us to the Airport where we made our way through security fairly quickly.  Ramsey has gold medallion status with Delta, so they were pretty good to us.  We had plenty of time before our flight, so we walked the concourse instead of taking the train.  We stopped at Arby’s for a “binger” and then began to board the plain to Zurich.

We flew on a 767 – a pretty nice machine.  I had a window seat next to Ramsey on the left and had a good view of the TV consoles mounted on the front bulkhead that displayed our position on a map and gave wind speed, altitude, etc… The flight was LONG, but thankfully uneventful.  We cruised at 33,000 feet, so the ride was very smooth.  I had a feeling before we took off that after this trip, my ridiculous fears of flying would be only a memory.  

We took off in the day time, flew through a three hour night and landed in Zurich at 7:00 am local time.  The Zurich airport was beautiful. Very modern architecture – lots of concrete, steel and glass.  It was also the quietest airport I’d ever been in, though I suppose most are on Sunday morning.  We only brought carry on luggage (Ramsey insisted – a good call,) so we quickly found our way to a train.  At this point we had been on a plane for over eight hours, so we were looking forward to a nice shower and some sleep.  Ramsey had booked a hotel for the day in the middle of downtown, which, after a short train ride, some intense looking conversation with a large German man, and a cab ride, we found by Lake Zurich south of the airport.  The hotel was very nice, though small.  We both got showered and ready for a nap but found we were too wired to sleep.  It was about 4:00 am in our brains at this point, but we were a little delirious.  So after perusing a room service menu, Ramsey got on the phone with the front desk to order some food, but we then both started laughing hysterically at the prices.  He had told me that Switzerland was expensive, but it was ridiculous.  We ended up settling on two club sandwiches for a mere 40 Franks (about 40 bucks.)  We then promptly fell asleep and had to be woken up by the room service guy. Let me say that we were in the northern part of the country, close to Germany, and the food showed signs of strong German gullets.  We both got half way through our sandwiches when we realized they were making us sick – a man can only handle so much mayonnaise, ketchup, and scrambled eggs on his club sandwich (seriously.)

After finally falling asleep with unsettled stomachs, we napped for a few hours, showered again, and headed back to the airport to catch our flight to Prague.  We had plenty of time to look through the shops at the airport, but found nothing we couldn’t live without. We eventually found our way to the gate and boarded the smaller 737, but not before wasting another 10 franks each on again inedible sandwiches at a small cafe.  Did I mention the swiss are very skinny?

The flight to Prague was very quick – may be and hour and fifteen minutes, but the Czech Air food services was better than the meal we got from Delta.  We had only forty-five minutes in Prague, so we had to book it to the next gate, which was a bummer, because there was some really nice looking shops selling meats and cheeses and wines. I think we have plenty of time on the way back.  We found our gate and got in line to board - so we were finally in line to go to Beirut.  So far, all of the planes had been a mixed bag of Americans and various European looking folks, but this line was definitely going to Beirut.  I was a little anxious in the line at first, my typical American preconceptions taking over, until I overheard some English soccer hooligans on the line next to ours telling their friends “wait man – don’t get in that line – it is going to Beirut.  You don’t want to go to that shithole.” I know everyone in the line had heard the guy, but they all remained polite and quiet, as if they had grown used to it, or as if they knew better.  It struck me as rude, but I guess I am more sensitive to those things these days (thank you Emory.) Regardless, I was ready for this.

The flight was fine, though I was introduced to what Ramsey called a “spoiled arab kid.”  The little girl in front of me would not stop jumping on top of her seat and leaning as far as she could towards me.  I was trying to read and she actually hit her nose on my book once.  Her mother was sitting right next to her and acted like everyone does this sort of thing all the time.  She was not, however, the most entertaining aspect of this ride.  I had been able to read consistently through most of the other flights, but there was too much people watching to be done on this leg.  Ramsey had “warned me” about the Lebanese on these flights, and as if on cue, our passengers acted just as he had predicted. As soon as we were in the air and the fasten seat belt light went off, everyone got up and started wandering around. It was like they all knew each other, stopping along the isle, shaking hands, and speaking in quick, rough Arabic.  The best was when we landed, again as Ramsey had predicted, and they all clapped as soon as we touched the ground, and then immediately jumped up and began unloading luggage, much to the dismay of the stern looking Czech stewardesses.  

We had no trouble getting though customs, though it took a while.  Ramsey did have to tell a small fib to the official, denying his Lebanese citizenship so he would not have to fill out the three hours of paperwork that it would have taken to get him out of his required two years of military service.  The airport is run by the military, but none of them were armed and they all seemed very nice, joking with each other and talking to the incoming passengers.

It was about 3:30 am local time when we finally got a cab and started heading to the apartment.  Our cab driver spoke little English, but managed to say “yeah Bush!” a nod at his appreciation for the US bearing down on Syria, the guys who allegedly assassinated the Lebanese prime minister Hariri last year.  We made our way through the city, heavily populated by tall concrete buildings, all very similar.  No brick, no wood – all sand colored concrete and tile with lots of balconies.  Our driver was doing about eighty mph from what I could translate from the kph meter in the dash, and did his best to straddle the dotted lines on the freeway.  I would find out later that most roads here have no lines, and even if they do, they are optional.  We finally reached the street that housed the apartment, but it was blocked by gates at both ends because the dead prime minister’s son had a house across from our place.  A guy with a brutal looking machine gun in full military fatigues stopped us and tried to make us go a different way.  I had a quick moment of fear as the cab driver and this armed fellow had words with each other, but then it settled.  I mean, I should have been frightened of this guy – he looked like a terrorist.  He had on camo and held a huge machine gun and was pointing it at us, but it all seemed normal here.  It would be as if a cop had come up to my car in the Knoxville and said “you can’t park here.”  No reason to be alarmed; this guy was just doing his job - he just carried a bigger gun.  He eventually understood where we were headed, smiled, and waved us on.

Ramsey’s parents were both up when we got in.  We stayed up and talked for a bit, but were ready for some long awaited rest. We ate a little ham with pita bread and some rice and lamb wrapped in fig leaves and olive oil, and I then dragged my mattress into the only room (besides the master bedroom) with air conditioning.  The sun was just beginning to come up when Ramsey finally left my room and I reluctantly fell asleep.  I finally had some time to reflect on our travel. It all seemed like the longest day – just Saturday morning I woke up in my bed, bleary from staying up late with Nate breaking in the pool table, and here I was not a full weekend later, having traveled over 6,000 miles, through four countries, on the other side of the world, falling asleep on a cotton mattress on the floor inside a concrete monolith.  

I am excited about this trip, but I still have not made up my mind about my feelings.  I do know that I love East Tennessee and will never live anywhere else.


June 5, 2006

Up late, out late

I got up in the morning late – around noon.  I was sleeping in the TV room, so everyone else had gone to see a family friend while I occupied the only room with A/C.  I showered and threw on shorts and a fishing shirt. It was a last second packing item, but I have been wearing it full time.  It is pretty hot here, and very humid.  The nights are nice though, as we found out after dinner that night.  We had lunch at a small café called City View.  We walked down to the eatery through the city along the sandy, sloping streets lined with merchants selling everything from fruit to office chairs.  We passed an internet café, which we hit up later.  The A/C was out at the restaurant, but it still felt better than outside.  Dr. Hammad spoke to the waiter in Arabic and got us all drinks.  The water here is pretty bad so they always bring out a 2 liter of bottled water and leave it on the table.  The food was very good.  They first brought out a plate of mixed nuts and a bowl of olives and pickled veggies.  Our meals were great. Ramsey got a salad and Dr. Hammad had something called kafta which is a sort of flat, spiced meatloaf with tomatoes and potatoes.  I tried some and it was very good, but a bit heavy for lunch.  Mrs. Hammad and I both had a ham sandwich, which Amy Kate and Mom would kill for.  It was an open-faced baked sandwich on a flat piece of puffy pita bread, like a chalupa tortilla, with ham on top and a smooth white cheese melted over the whole thing.  It was very good while not too heavy.  Once lunch was over, we got up to go and Dr. Hammad, after paying for the meal, stuffed a wad of funny money in my hand and told me to keep it handy. It was 100,000 Lebanese Lira, which equated to roughly 70 bucks.  I complained and tried to tell him I have a job and brought my own money, but Ramsey briefed me on the futility of this effort, noting that he had done the same thing to him before we got to lunch.  I am so lucky to have such hosts.  

We walked back to the apartment via the internet café.  Everything here is dial up, so it took some time, but we soon finished up and hiked up the hill to change.  Once we were packed up, we called a driver and headed for a beach / pool a few miles away.  You could actually go to the beach very close to our apartment, but it is a public beach and not the best. We had to pay a bit to get in to this nice one, but it was worth it.  It was a very large with two pools and a nice bar and restaurant. The beach was roped off in three directions creating a makeshift cove and therefore collected more trash and seaweed than bathers, so we stuck to the pool.  It was a saltwater pool, but it was actually pretty nice, though, after a while, we all felt like we had been eating lots of popcorn.  We spent most of the afternoon there, and then slowly made our way back home to shower and get ready for dinner.

Our driver was in another city for the night, so we took a cab downtown.  The downtown area was amazing.  It was nothing like what I imagined it would be based on where the apartment is.  All of the buildings were very clean and well made – mostly marble and sand colored stone.  Still, there is a dichotomy of architecture.  There are brand new buildings, ultra modern in design, standing directly next to old concrete structures that have obviously been through a war, as evidenced by the bullet holes and blown out sections.  This is not at all like you would expect in the US. We would tear down the old ones before building new stuff, but I guess eventually, all of it will turn over here. I did learn later that they are very debt averse here and pay cash for everything.  This is mostly due to the very uncompetitive banking market (paying 18% on loans is the norm.) This would lead to only doing what you really needed – not including tearing down eyesores just for aesthetics.  The cab dropped us off at the top of the downtown area, which is all closed to cars, so we walked around for a while, visiting some ruins of Roman baths and an ancient mosque turned church.  We finally made it to our restaurant around nine-thirty.  We were supposed to meet some of Dr. Hammad’s friends at that time, but they were on Beirut time, and after some appetizers and a few drinks, they showed up at 10:45.  

Dinner was exactly as Ramsey said it would be: long and delicious.  We started with the “messe” course – basically appetizers for the whole table.  We had hummas, babaganoosh, a pickled veggie plate, baked pita bread, and a delicacy that Ramsey had explained earlier, Kibeh Nieh.  It is a raw meat paste made with spiced beef that has been tenderized to the consistency of a mousse, you then eat it on pita bread with olive oil. It was actually very good, though it was tough to eat knowing what it was.  Ramsey’s dad had ordered for the whole table, so I did not know that this was only the first course.  I was busy filling up on the pickled veggies.  They love pickled stuff here – carrots, cucumbers, peppers, beets, cabbage – you name it, they’ll soak it in a brine and serve it for every meal.  So when the waiters took all of our plates, I was so glad because I was extremely full, but they came back with the main meal.  I was stunned – I have never seen such food.  There were lamb chops, chicken skewers with garlic sauce, grilled lamb bites, and every take on fried kibeh you can think of.  The meal was too much.  After all of this, they served a fruit course of watermelon slices, plums, cherries, melon, and whole kiwis.  Most of the folks had coffee or something called “white coffee” which is sweated rose water.  One of the American doctor friends of Dr. Hammad mentioned that it tasted a bit like dishwashing liquid, so I was glad to stick to water.

After dinner, Ramsey and I had been talking about going to a bar, but when the rest of the crowd got wind, they all decided to join us - oh joy.  We went to a pretty cool bar up the street called Budda Bar, aptly named for the giant statue of the God at its center. The whole place was decorated in an Asian theme of dark burgundy and gold and was very well done.  We stayed for a few drinks with the parental crowd, and then finally Ramsey and I slipped away and walked the streets for a while.  We settled in at a sidewalk restaurant and sat outside drinking whiskey and trying a local treat.  While we had been walking earlier, I had noticed everyone smoking these interesting looking water pipes or hookas, called Narguile.  The stuff actually comes on the menu at most restaurants; you just order a flavor of mild tobacco, and they bring you this giant bong style device and lay some chunks on top.  It just sits on the floor next to your table and you smoke through long tubs with turned wooded pipes on the end.  We had to have a few drinks before we were brave enough to try it, but as it turns out, the tobacco is very mild and smooth, and actually tasted great – nothing like a cigarette.  We chose the apple flavor which tasted like a fig Newton.  So there we sat, drinking Tennessee Whiskey on the streets of Beirut, listening to Arabic music and the far off chant of late prayer at a mosque, and smoking a pipe that looked like it come from wonderland. I noticed a woman a few tables away using one of those electronic voice boxes so she talked like a robot.  At that moment, I mentioned to Ramsey that I felt like a character in the cantina at Mos Eisley in Star Wars. We finished our drinks, took a last puff of the apple smoke, and finally caught a cab home around 3:00 am.  


June 6, 2006

Edde Sands

Today was to be our real beach day.  The beach from the day before had been pretty weak, so we called around and found a nicer one, though it was about forty minutes north of us and we again had to pay (thanks again Dr. Hammad.) Before we left, Ramsey and I walked to a “Monoprix” store which is basically a grocery store with a diner built in.  I had a quick ham sandwich, which was good, but nothing special, and Ramsey had a bowl of squash stuffed with rice and lamb.  We picked up a few essentials at the store, and then headed home via the internet café.  Dr. Hammad had rented a car and we got ready to depart.  

I mentioned a bit earlier that the roads have very little resemblance to ours and I would like to expand some. First of all, there are no rules here. They have stop signs, but no one knows what they are for and they usually speed right through. The stop lights are similar, though more dangerous, because some people actually stop.  One way streets? – no such thing.  There is also a lot of honking.  However, at a first glance, this appears very rude by our standards, but it actually part of their driving system.  All of the roads through the city are crooked, narrow, two lane alleys lined with cars.  I guess that’s what you get when you plan your cities around 2000 year old camel trails. If you are plowing down one of these streets and you need to pass a slower moving car, you flash your lights and honk your horn, not to be mean, but to warn the slower driver that you are coming.  The result is a steady din from dawn till late after the sun sets.  It is a system that they claim works well, though I have actually witnessed two wrecks so far.  Now I know why Ramsey drives like he does.

Anyway, Dr. Hammad had the car waiting for us downstairs, and after some family bickering about who would drive, Ramsey reluctantly rode shotgun, and the timid Dr. Hammad took the wheel.  He actually did very well, though I doubt his repeated use of turn signals was appreciated or even noticed by any other drivers.  The drive was not too far and was beautiful.  We went up north of the city and out towards the sea a ways, so that you could look back and view the entire downtown area.  It is pretty impressive, though very polluted.  There are no emission laws here, and the air over downtown is visibly heavy with the exhaust of many early model Mercedes, BMW’s, Volvos, and thousands of noisy little motor scooters buzzing through the alleys like chainsaws with seats.

We finally arrived at the “Edde Sands” resort after passing through the customary security gate, including a bomb screening complete with mirrors to look under the car.  We made our way into the grotto below the main level to change, and then up to the main pool.  The resort was a lovely place – palm trees everywhere, multiple pools and cafés, and a good sized private beach saddled up to the cool waters of the blue green Mediterranean.  After a quick ocean dip, Ramsey and I, reminding ourselves that we were on vacation, gave up the twenty bucks if cost to rent a bed by the pool. Yes, I said a bed.  There were actual mattresses on teak frames lining the generous saucer shaped pool. They were complete with terry cloth sheets and reading pillows in contrasting fabrics to match the canopies of the private cabanas. We adjusted our umbrella to block out the blazing sun, and proceeded to have pina coladas and tropical fruit salad while lounging in the plush setting.  We spent most of the day here, jumping in the pool when it got too hot to bear, and then replanting ourselves on the increasingly wet bed.  There was some great people watching to be had here, most notably a family that had to be European.  Why do they think it is OK to let your three children run around naked?  These were six and seven year old boys and girls.  Anyway, we decided they were too much for us, so we moved down the beach a ways to a series of pools that terraced down from a central waterfall, each separated by a pond full of lilies and tall water grass.  All of the pools were made from rough cut, solid stone blocks in a marvelous sea green color so that the water appeared a very deep emerald blue.  Ramsey and I noted how pretty the construction was, but we knew it could not be replicated in the US because it lacked all of the code items - there were no railings to help you into the pool or large obnoxious signs telling people not to dive in the shallow end.  It was quite civilized.

We finished swimming and had a light snack of babaganoosh, French fries, and another pickle plate.  This one contained a pickled root that was cultivated solely for pickling.  It was very fleshy and dense, like a potato, but tasted great. I snuck a fry to an orange cat that was hanging around the table, but I think he was holding out for lobster.

We only wanted a light meal, because we had planned to go for a large dinner after a visit to one of Dr. Hammad’s old college friends. However, this visit turned out to be a marathon and we did not finish until after ten, so the dinner was planned for another night.  The home was in the middle of downtown in what looked like from the outside, a very run down building.  However, the inside was richly decorated in Victorian style with a full parlor and multiple formal sitting areas.  We all spoke about work and made small talk, but everyone was pleasant and seemed happy to see each other, especially Ramsey and the youngest Daughter, Dima.  I had heard of her for years, and she lived up to it.  A true beauty – a model – complete with a copy of her latest advertisement for some skin products, not to mention she is as smart as can be.  In your dreams Ramsey.  One notably funny scene was when Dr Hammad and his old buddy, Rajah, began telling Saudi jokes.  I imagine these are akin to telling the “one about the priest and a rabbi…”, it was just an unfamiliar twist that really made me realize that I was in a different place.  They were also funny, usually ending with the Saudi trying to buy his way out of everything. We all said our goodbyes the same way as we were greeted, a hug and a loud fake-style kiss on one cheek, then the other, and then the first again.  I awkwardly shook hands and bolted out the door.

Ramsey was friends with Rajah’s son, Mazen, who had studied in Kentucky where he got his MBA.  We agreed to go out after the visit and get some dinner, so we went back to the apartment and changed out of our beach wear and into downtown clothes.  Luckily, this time of year, downtown is very casual.  I wore jeans and sandals with a polo shirt un-tucked.  Mazen picked us up and drove us on a route that was a little more familiar after traveling it the night before.  On the way, he tried to explain to me the rules of the road, reaffirming that no one really knew the rules, they just drove instinctually. He however, drove very well and had us downtown and parked quickly, of course, after the bomb security check.  He laughed it off, saying that they do it just to make people feel safe, though we were near the parliament building, so I suspected it served a more real purpose.  We dined outdoors on the same street Ramsey and I had visited the night before, this time at a wonderful Italian restaurant.  All of the places had al fresco dining, and the weather had cooled off significantly, so it was a very pleasant scene.  We ordered a bottle of wine and munched on olive bread and tapenade while we pondered the outstanding menu.  I settled on a flatbread pizza with prosccuto, mushrooms and artichokes, while Ramsey had seafood pasta with mussels, squid, octopus, and prawns.  Mazen, the old pro, had a small steak covered in a white pepper sauce with capers that looked like the house specialty.  It was all great and we had a quite a row fighting over the bill, but Mazen eventually won out as our host (and as the only one who could speak Arabic) and we promised to return the favor on Friday night.

Well, I am the only one up now.  It is approaching 2:00 am here and we have a long day ahead of us tomorrow.  We finally head to the house in the mountains that I can see from outside my window.  They are unlike any I have seen before – they shoot straight up out of the earth and are littered with the same tall concrete buildings abundant down here in the city.  They are very rocky, but greener than I expected.  There is actually much more green here than I would have imagined, but then again, everything here has been a pleasant surprise so far.  Any fears I harbored before coming were based on a stereotype of this entire part of the world and so far have proven utterly unfounded. These people are just like us; they love good food, enjoy a good party, love to visit with family and friends, and have been completely welcoming.  I wonder if they would be treated with the same courtesy if they visited East Tennessee? I hope so.


June 7, 2006

Ain Zhalta

We were up at 7:00 this morning, just as Ramsey’s dad had warned.  This did not sit well with either of us since we had both been up most of the night with stomach aches.  We think it was the ice in the mixed drinks we had at the pool, but whatever did it, the hour long drive up into the mountains did not help.  Imagine a drive through the Smokies, with curvy roads and slow tourists, except very little shade and crazy drivers.  We stopped about two thirds of the way up and got a Pepsi, on the good doctor’s orders, and it seemed to settle us down.  The stop also allowed me to snap some pictures of the scenery.  These mountains are beautiful.  Lebanon is known for its pines, and there are plenty to be seen up here.  Most of the variety that live along the roads and in the valleys are low growing and resemble large bonsai trees, but others on the high slopes are called “Parasol Pines” and shoot strait up over a hundred feet before spreading out like an umbrella.  They mass together to form a huge canopy and remind me of similar trees in the final scene of Fantasia (the Schubert Ave Maria.)  The trip resumed and we eventually reached the small village of Ain Zhalta, where Dr. Hammad’s parents’ mountain house waited.  

The house was more of a castle than a weekend home.  I never finished counting the bedrooms, but it is four stories high and full of arched doorways and solid mahogany doors.  The furniture in most of it reminds me of my family’s old cabin in Elkmont - straight out of the sixties.  The main living room, however, had hints of the French influence evidenced by the intricate plaster moldings where the walls met the 14 foot ceilings.  I did manage to find a set of Morris chairs from the twenties made of what looked like olive wood.  They were much like the one I built, but everything was rounded off and smooth, an interesting approach.  The best part of the house was the roof; with a panoramic view of the mountains and villages, Ramsey and I knew where we would be hanging out later that night.  We cleaned the place as soon as we got there, with the help of a Syrian guy Dr. Hammad hired. I came to understand that the Syrians would work very cheaply and ended up doing a lot of the dirty work in this part of the world.  

After settling in, we drove down the mountain about a mile to the village of Safa.  There, we walked along the streets and checked out the touristy merchandise offered by the various vendors. We ate lunch at a large café in the center of the village that straddled a small river. The water had been routed into a long wall of water falls that lined the upper level of the restaurant, which then flowed through a series of small streams and fountains throughout the outdoor dining area.  It was a beautiful setting, and the food was great, which was a good thing since we ate dinner there as well.  Since Ramsey and I spent most of the afternoon napping while Dr. and Mrs. Hammad drove to the orchard that they own farther up the mountain, I’ll skip straight to dinner.  There was more of the same fare I had come to expect – hummous, babaganoosh, pita bread, French fries, fried kibeh, and lamb chops. I did get to try some new items this time including two kinds of lamb sausage, a cheese plate with thyme and olives, fried pita bread salad, boiled artichoke, and a broccoli style veggie that was saturated with lemon – one of my favorites.  We also had a few pieces of basterma, a burgundy colored cured meat, heavily spiced and cut into very thin strips.  It was great when you wrapped it up in the pita bread with cheese and olives, and then dipped the whole thing into hummous.  We were stuffed and told the waiter that we could not possibly eat any more, but he brought us a fruit course anyway.  At this point it was getting a little chilly, so Ramsey and I donned two “gala beyahs,” traditional Arab robes. The restaurant kept them on hand for just this purpose.  We managed to eat only some of the fruit course, which included fresh apricots which I could not remember ever having before. It had been the best meal yet.

Back at the house, we played a long game of Tarnib, a card game similar to hearts.  It was pretty fun, but the most fun of the evening was had after the parents were in bed and Ramsey and I split a bottle of Jack Daniels on the roof. The stars were out and very visible, and we could see the lights from villages twinkling all through the valleys below.  We had typical late night conversation – mostly business at first (how we planned to get rich,) then why we couldn’t find the right girl (or why Ramsey wanted to marry Dima.)  We discussed plans for future trips, but it was mostly the whiskey talking.  This was a satisfying end to a great day – uneventful and relaxing. 


June 8, 2006

Baalbeck and the Temple of Bacchus

The weather at Ain Zhalta was a good 15 degrees cooler than down in the city, so I slept well with the window open. However, this led to our not-so-gentle wake up call from construction trucks roaring up and down the street below our window.  We did our best to pack up and work through the grogginess that one would expect after a night with Jack Daniels on the roof. We said our goodbyes to Ain Zhalta, loaded the car, and took off to the East though the mountains toward the city of Baalbeck.  The ride was pretty rough and we had to go through several military check points.  These are not as bad as they look from a distance, though the tanks and guys with machine guns can tweak the nerves a bit. We drove through the mountains for 20 kilometers or so and then made our way down to the Bekaa Valley, a vast flat, green space between two massive snow crested mountain ranges.  I can’t really think of an appropriate adjective to describe the enormity of everything, and I am sure the pictures won’t do it justice. Anyone who has been to the Grand Canyon will understand.  Once in the city of Baalbeck, we were routed up through the shopping district around some supposed road work, though we could not see any work being performed and suspected that this was a way to get tourists to buy things. The traffic was horrible and the streets dangerously crowded and narrow, but it was all worth it once we reached the ruins.  

Baalbeck is the home of the best preserved Roman ruins outside of Rome.  We could see the massive stone pillars from the road, but had a little trouble getting through the street vendors pushing their cheap necklaces and other wares on us.  These guys were relentless, so Ramsey and I ended up buying some interesting looking t-shirts just to get them off our backs.  We found out later that that they were Hezbollah and the five dollars would probably go to finance terrorism.  Oops. Dr. Hammad negotiated with a guide at the entrance to the ruins and he finally agreed to show us around.  There were three main temples in this site, the first in honor of Jupiter.  It was a massive structure, originally twice as large as the acropolis in Greece, but had been mostly destroyed by earthquakes and the weather. Similarly, a small temple to a lesser goddess on the outskirts of the site showed signs of its age. The temple of Bacchus, however, was very much intact.  It was lower than the Jupiter temple and had been half covered by a mudslide long ago, which actually helped to preserve it.  You could see Greek and Arabic graffiti about half way up the sides of the temple, denoting the height of the earth before the excavation.  As we moved south to the entrance, we could see that each of the massive doorways and arches had intricate carvings of grape leaves and people dancing, a fitting tribute to the god of wine and revelry.  Somehow my lingering hangover felt appropriate.  Our tour guide was well versed in the meanings behind the different carvings and explained to us how the structures were actually built.  It is an unimaginable task that took the Romans nine emperors and 300 years starting in 60 AD; truly monumental.  

When we finished the tour, we looked quickly through a museum that was set up in one of the long underground tunnels that wrapped around the site.  These had been used for storage in Roman times, but served well as a resting place for some of the finer statues and artifacts uncovered on the site.  I have not yet mentioned the best part of the ruins – unlike in other sites around the world, there were no barriers or restricted pathways.  You could climb on and touch everything you could reach.  The museum was no different, and I was thrilled to be able to run my hands along the well worn statue of Bacchus that was carved two millennia before I was born.  We took it all in and briefly made a trip up to the center of Jupiter’s temple, because our elderly guide had not wanted to climb the stairs earlier.  This was an amazing place; the crossroads of ancient civilizations.  So many cultures had influenced the area: Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Syrians. Even Alexander the Great had come to rest in this valley 400 years before the Romans would begin building here.  I felt lucky to have seen such a place.

After visiting the ruins, Dr. Hammad had promised to find us some “Safiha” to eat.  This region was known for these small meat pies and he wanted to make sure we had our fill before we moved on.  We found some in a small shop that was run by a father and son team.  The older gentleman would cut the lamb off of the bone, mice it with spices, and grind it into a rough paste with tomatoes and onions.  Then the son, who was making dough balls during the meat prep, would flatten the dough, stuff it with the mixture, crimp the edges, and bake the savory We had to drive back through the crowded village to get to the main highway, but once we were on our way, Dr. Hammad decided to take us through a small town he used to frequent as a child, Zadahle.  He had not been there in thirty years, but he remembered the way and we eventually reached the town and parked the car in front of a “Casino.” This was not a casino by our standards, but more like an outdoor bazaar.  We walked up the trail lined with cafes and vendors, which crisscrossed over a good sized river running through the tall gorge that housed the whole affair. Most of the stuff they were selling was junk, but they seemed desperate to unload it, since the tourist season had not yet started.  Ramsey and I decided not to take any more chances on vendors, so we concluded our walk, hopped back in the car, and made the hour long journey back to Beirut.

Ramsey took a nap once we got home, and I wrote some while his parents went out to dinner.  We decided to do dinner on our own after spending so much time with the “family,” so later that evening we grabbed a cab over to the same downtown area to have dinner out on the street.  This time we picked an American style café that served a mix of Tex Mex and hamburgers.  Ramsey had a heaping plate of steak and chicken fajitas, while I decided to try the fried chicken sandwich. All was pretty good, but nothing special; and the sandwich once again proved this side of the Atlantic’s penchant for mayonnaise.  We tried the Narguile again, but it did not taste as good with only one beer under my belt, so I let most of it burn out.  The best part of dinner was a wandering elderly man trying to sell posters of aerial views of the city.  He would quietly waddle up to a table and give a quick, loud shout that sounded like a mix between a sneeze and a bark.  He did not appear successful at selling the prints, but he sure scared the crap out of his intended purchasers.  He was obviously enjoying himself, and would giggle quietly and move along to seek out his next victim.  

We finished dinner and caught another cab home, and have been watching movies since.  It is after 1:00, but we are not tired, so I imagine we’ll be up for a while.  I am having a great time here, but I will be glad to see the green grass of my own back yard.


June 9, 2006

Fish lunch and Friday night out

We got up around noon as had been our schedule as of late.  We had a lunch to attend with Dr. Hammad’s friend Rajah and his family.  We met them at the Bain Militaire, or the officers club of the Lebanese Army.  Rajah was a retired general, which was hard to imagine, since he was such a gentle man who seemed to be controlled by his wife and children. Dr. Hammad was excited to be back at the club, since his father had been a high ranking general and he had spent most of his childhood summers playing in the sea by the complex.  We sat in a lounge for a while having drinks and waiting for the whole family to arrive.  Dima had an exam that morning, so she was the last to show up, looking as though she had just come from a commercial shoot.  We had some polite conversation and then were ushered downstairs to a lovely dining room lined on two sides by floor to ceiling windows with a view of the beach and pool area. We again started with the messe course including some small egg rolls of cheese and spinach that had been lightly fried.  I had been hearing about this lunch all week, so I was prepared when they brought out the giant platters of whole fried fish.  The “Sohan ibrahim” were a special delicacy of this region and have no English translation, but they resembled large bluegill, lightly floured and fried head and all. Disassembling the small beasts proved messy and difficult for most at my end of the table, but my Food Network obsession paid off as I quickly discovered the best method of removing the spiny fins and revealing the small amount of white meat resting along the ribs.  This was not the best meal of the trip, but it was a challenge.

We finished lunch and had some more drinks and coffee in the lounge, before we finally broke company and ended the three hour marathon meal.  Once we got home, Ramsey and I walked to the internet café and spent nearly an hour clearing our emails.  It is amazing to see how much you miss in only a week.  Afterwords, we decided to walk to the Monoprix to buy a narguile for Ramsey and on the way I took a picture of the street to show folks at home the architecture.  This is something I had not been able to do on our own street, because there were signs every where prohibiting photography for security reasons.  We had walked through a checkpoint in front of a political building close to the internet café, but I saw no signs and figured we were clear to shoot since I was looking up the street away from all military activity.  I was wrong.  We hadn’t walked twenty paces after I took the shot before an officer dressed on full camo caught up to us on his scooter and demanded to know why I was taking the picture. He did not seem to understand why I would take a picture of a building, but still asked that I erase the picture.  Though he brandished an AK-47, he was actually quite polite and apologetic, and I immediately complied with his request to destroy the frame.  It was a surreal situation that really made me appreciate the freedom I enjoy at home.

We knew we were going out with Mazen that night, but Ramsey was hungry, so we picked up a snack from the bakery next door to the apartment.  You could smell the treats every time you walked out side of the apartment, so it was only a matter of time before we hit it up.  We each got two Safiha, the small meat pies we knew from Baalbeck, and a tiny cheese and black olive pizza.  They hit the spot and kept us at bay until Mazen called around 8:00.

Mazen picked us up in his black BMW and easily navigated is way to Hamra, a main street in the center of town.  After a short walk, we settled into an American style diner that was showing the “football” game, the first match of the much anticipated world cup.  The diner was supposed to be a model of 1950’s American diner, and they had done a pretty good job right down to the gaudy vinal cover metal chairs, though I told Mazen the bathrooms were too nice to be American.  We started with Nachos, and then I had a Philly cheese steak sandwich, which I only half finished.  We had learned the night before that they don’t do American food very well here, but we were not in the mood for Lebanese fare.  The best part of the whole meal was the first Budweiser I had tasted in a week.  The local beer here is called Almaza, and tastes very much like Heineken, which would be good if you liked that kind of thing, but my taste for so called “piss-water” American style pilsner cannot be denied.  

After dinner, we headed to a really trendy bar called Prague.  They played mostly American music from the seventies and I could see through the dim light a hip décor of lush leather and velvet couches surrounding small tables. I liked this place a lot, but we decided we should move along after a drink and see what could have been described as “the strip” of Beirut.  The street was busy and lined with bars dug out of ancient buildings of stone and flaking plaster.  Most of them were packed, which was easy since most were no larger than a train car.  We jumped into the first one we came to, had a drink, and repeated the process several times on down the road.  We ran into some of Mazen’s friends here and there, and had a good time talking to a German journalist who was obviously drunk enough to talk to a wall, but she was cute so we obliged.  The music was pretty good no matter where we went (lots of Doors, Led Zeppelin, Nirvana) very American.  In fact, the whole district had a very American, cosmopolitan feel to it.  If someone had told me I was in New York City, I would have had a hard time proving them wrong. After getting shot down a few times, Mazen decided it was time to call it a night, so he carefully drove us back to the apartment, where Ramsey and I cashed the rest of the ham and cheese from the fridge. We stayed up late watching moves and laughing loudly at nothing in particular.  Some things never change no matter where you go.


June 10, 2006

What a long strange trip it’s been…

I woke up late again, sore from a week on a hard, crumpled cotton mattress.  I had a brief vision of my ultra-comfy queen sized bed at home and grinned knowing that I would be there soon.  We had purposely left the afternoon open, in case we decided to do some last minute sight seeing before we hopped back across the ocean.  But Ramsey and I decided we would rather just take it easy and spend the day by the pool.  We strolled down the street to a French bakery and I bought a fabulous croissant for breakfast.  I was kind of ticked at Ramsey for not taking me here until today, since I had been forced to skip most breakfasts this week (there is only so much pita bread and soft cheese you can eat,) but he was more interested in his Bill Cosby inspired breakfast of chocolate mousse.  We gathered our things and walked down the road to the taxi stand.

We spent the afternoon lounging by the pool at the Sheraton, where we had gone on Monday. It was notably more crowded on a Saturday afternoon, but we managed to find chairs in the shade, so the increased number of sunbathers did not impede our laziness.  We had planned to do some swimming, but we only hit up the pool for five minutes or so.  The temperature had dropped significantly from the beginning of the week, and the water and wind were too much even for a polar bear like me.  We chose instead to go sit in the bar area and watch another of the World Cup games.  As one might imagine, soccer is much more popular anywhere else but the US, and this place was no different. We were surrounded by fans of a number of different teams while we munched on some shrimp and listened to the Arabic broadcast.  I did notice while listening to the quick foreign tongue of the announcer how much spoken Arabic sounds like Spanish, which makes sense considering the expansion of the Muslim world across Africa and up into Spain centuries ago.  This connection is reinforced by the music here.  It is heavily rhythm driven and generally makes use of stringed instruments that resemble large mandolins, but sound like Spanish gut-stringed guitars.  They sound and look much like the balalaika used in traditional Russian music.  Anyway, watching the game in Arabic was different, but did not hold our interest too long and we soon made our way home to get some dinner before we had to leave.

Mazen called shortly after we returned and we decided to try a place he had never been called “Market.”  It was in a district that had been heavily scarred by the civil war in the 1980’s, but had turned around and was now lined with high class restaurants.  Some of the old damaged buildings remained in stark contrast to the sleek, modern architecture of the new nightclubs and upscale venues. The menu at “Market” was fabulous – a perfect mix of cultures and all of it enticing and well priced.  I had a shrimp pasta with a white cream sauce that was very well done, though a bit heavy for someone who would spend the next 24 hours traveling.  Ramsay had a pizza this time, and Mazen, again choosing well, had a French style steak served under a light pepper cream sauce.  The whole meal was a perfect end to a week of new experiences and fine dining.  We finished off a nice bottle of Lebanese red wine, fought loudly over the bill, and ended up thanking Mazen again for his hospitality and graciousness.

Our flight out of Beirut was not until 3:10 AM, but we did not want to keep Ramsey’s dad up too late, so we had him drop us off at the airport around midnight.  We said our good byes and prepared ourselves for the marathon ordeal that lay before us. As a word to ease the fears of anyone worried about terrorists sneaking anything into the US over commercial airliners, let me say that the seven security screenings we endured in the Beirut airport alone should be enough to quell your fears.  This does not include the two screenings we got in Prague or the detailed screening, unpacking of the bag, and personal security guard posted to us in Zurich.  All of it seemed a bit ridiculous to us, but we’re not terrorists, so I guess it would.  Once we did make it onto the airplanes, the flights were all fairly empty and uneventful.  This made for a comfortable ride, though the children running up and down the isle on the nine hour flight back to Atlanta got a bit annoying somewhere over Ireland.  Once we were in Atlanta, I made Ramsey drop me off at my truck before I lost my adrenaline.  We had been awake for close to 40 hours and I did not want to stay away from home any longer, so I buckled up made the three hour trek up I-75. Thank goodness for Dr. Pepper and Metallica.

So that was it. It all seems like a daze to me now.  I am back at work now, and I find myself trying to explain to people why I even went in the first place.  It has become very obvious to me how most people in Knoxville, and I imagine in the rest of the US, feel about that part of the world.  All of our preconceptions of the people of the Middle East are based on years of thinly veiled prejudice portrayed by movies, television, and the news.  I was guilty of this before I left, though I was not aware of it.  When Ramsey called almost two weeks ago and set this trip into motion, my first thoughts were of my safety.  But I went - there were no terrorists, I was not kidnapped, and I always felt safe, even walking around late at night.  Perhaps living through a civil war has increased the city’s desire to exist in peace.  Lebanon, however, is a small part of the Middle East.  I know that it would be naive of me to think that everyone over there loves Americans, despite the generosity I encountered.  I do know that given the opportunity to go again, I will not hesitate.