Saturday, December 8, 2007

Souk to souk

"Hungry? What do you fancy?"
"Maybe a falafel wrap"
"Mmm, I was thinking about a chicken shwarma."
"How about a falafel and chicken shwarma?"
"Or I might just have some houmous with falafel."
"We could get a shwarma each and share a houmous?"
"I think I'd prefer just houmous"
"Are you sure?"
"Yes. No, wait, I'll just have a falafel wrap"
"Ooh look, they've got kibbeh and coleslaw over there......."

Despite being famous for its quality restaurants, especially in Beirut, our diet in Lebanon has tended to be based on the standard cheap eats on the street. There are plenty of hole-in-the-wall places serving fresh food - but not so handy if it's pouring with rain, which it seems to have done every day except one since we arrived here. We have been desperately looking for a bakery like the one we found in the Damascus souq - another hole-in-the-wall with a mob around the window all crowding round for fresh croissants filled with chocolate that were disappearing like... well, like hot cakes I suppose. They were justifiably in demand and we have been keeping our eyes peeled for more. Other bakeries seem to specialise in savouries like mini-pizzas, spinach pasties, thyme and olive oil bread, etc. The joy of eating food like this is a combination of several factors. It's cheap - and so are we. It's fast - no hanging around for some kitchen wallah to marinade the mutton. It's fresh - this stuff is chopped, mixed, fried, grilled, wrapped in front of you, you can even see if the man preparing the food has dirt under his fingernails (most likely, but so what?).
Holiday Inn, Beirut
We have been up the coast to Tripoli, doubling back through Beirut. The coastal journey was sleep-inducing. It is built up and scruffy. Lebanon is the most crowded country in the Middle East, with a population of about 4.5 million plus up to half a million Palestinian refugees. We read that there are an estimated 10 million Lebanese now living abroad. There are plenty of Western Union offices around, so there must be money being sent home to families here. We've also been told that there are many Syrians also living here - they moved here whilst Lebanon was "occupied by Syria". We have wandered the souqs in Tripoli - now a regular pastime with us. They are always crowded and busy and alive and very entertaining - although it could be argued we are easily pleased. I hope we don't lose the thrill of people watching. I'm sure there will be plenty more markets on our journey. Here people call out "Welcome!" every fifty yards or so. Young men, who in England would be wearing shaved heads and hoods and probably only offering a series of adjectives to the foreign visitor, come up and ask us how we are liking Lebanon ("very much, thank you"), where we are from ("England, near Manchester") and why we are here ("er... we're on holiday") before finishing with a Welcome to Lebanon. These conversations are repetitive but invariably cheering. We found an internet cafe here run by women and where women pay half price. Instead of the usual noisy pubescent males of all ages playing wargames it's busy but quiet.......

From Triploi we took day trips into the mountains and along the coast to Byblos. The countryside is dramatic - rising sharply from the coast up into snow-capped ridges. However, it's covered in concrete buildings in various states of construction and habitation and is simply spoiled. Our day in Byblos was far more satisfying - better weather helped. It is one of the ancient Phoenician cities, and there are a heap of corresponding ruins on a hill above the old harbour. There's been a settlement here for 7000 years so the archaeologists have had a good run for their money. Apart from knocking out cedar trees to all and sundry, the locals also came up with a linear alphabet and invented glass blowing. The site has a range of finds from neolithic houses, to Roman temples and Byzantine churches, surrounded by Persian, Mamluk and Crusader fortifications.

Our last stop in Lebanon has been a visit to Balbek - which lies in a high valley between two mountain ranges. Here there are remains of a Roman temple complex deicated to Jupiter and Bacchus. The Jupiter temple was enormous - but there's not much left of it these days. However, six enormous columns still stand defiantly. They are the largest in the world, according to our guidebook. Others were shipped off by the Byzantines to use in the building of Aya Sophia in Istanbul. The Bacchus temple is still almost whole, although shorn of much of its decoration. Balbek is in Hezbollah country. Instead of being offered Roman coins being offered to us by touts, some wags were selling Hezbollah t-shirts........

coffee on the streets of Baalbek

In every place we have stayed there are signs of the civil war. The whole country seems to be a building site as reconstruction continues. Old buildings are being restored, souks smartened up, new appartment blocks going up. But the country is also facing its worst political crisis since the end of the war. The main political groups cannot agree on a new president. The last one has just stood down. By an agreement made at independence, the president must be a Christian Maronite. (The prime minister must be muslim, the chief of staff a Druze, etc.) The country is so finely divided that it needs a compromise solution. Mind you, it seems the war has continued on the roads - the driving here is so aggressive and dangerous. We now do not blink when we see someone reversing backwards down the wrong side of a dual carriageway, or someone going round a roundabout the wrong way because it's quicker, or the minibus driver accelerating to squeeze through a gap between two trucks.

Of course, what the country probably needs is women running more than just a few internet cafes.........

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