….was the day Israel began to bomb the hell out of Lebanon in earnest, in July 2006.
Huz was on a ‘mission’, and Amu and I tagged along as I was very eager to see what all the fuss was about as far as Beirut was concerned, ‘Paris of the East’ and all that jazz. Not to mention the taouk sandwiches that Huz raved about from the last couple of times he’d been there.
Needless to say, I fell in love with the place, and most of all, the people. The Lebanese are just gorgeous if you ask me. Beautifully skinned, beautifully dressed (skimpy for women for a country in the Middle East, I thought) and I loved the way they spoke Arabic…and French. Hearing my own name being pronounced by an Arabic speaker was pure pleasure, and considering I wear my heart on my sleeve, I merrily proceeded to fall in love at the drop of a hat.
One of the first things that floored me was the chivalry exhibited by the men. Though they are notoriously bad drivers, I found that if I was standing by the side of a road looking to cross, they would actually slow down, or even stop altogether, smile and nod courteously for me to walk across.the road. It was the most beautiful thing, especially for someone coming from a place where men actually SPEED UP to scare the living daylights out of pedestrians, women in particular. I guess Pakistanis are chivalrous in other ways. :P
Out of the three weeks we were supposed to stay in Beirut, ten days were spent in a leisurely way, for Amu and I at least. We stayed at a hotel called the Monroe, and every morning we accompanied Huz downstairs for breakfast, waking up rather early for vacation timings, just so he wouldn’t have to eat alone. Breakfast was a simple spread of labneh, Manakesh with zaatar, foul mudammas (pronounced ‘fool’ , though there was nothing foul or foolish about it!) and of course the other non-Lebanese generic things that hotels serve up at breakfast, that I had largely no interest in.
The highlight at the breakfast table was the fact that we were served by the most handsome waiter you’d ever see, and predictably, he was my first Lebanese crush and I called him Bond….James Bond….
The second was the young lifeguard/instructor/attendant at the pool. He was curious about my Arabic-sounding name, and was stunned to see how much Urdu resembled Arabic in script when I wrote it on a piece of paper for him. I, in turn, was awfully flattered that he thought Amu was my little sister. It is uplifting to be surrounded by so much eye candy, I thought to myself, as I swam and taught Amu how to float on her back.
We managed to do quite a few things in those ten lovely days. There was Byblos close by, (Jbeil in Arabic) a Phoenician port city made historic by the presence of a Crusader castle and an ancient harbour. Nowadays it hosts an international music festival and is known as the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world.
We took a trip to the Cedars, famous for the trees which are the national symbol of Lebanon. It was a long drive by bus, but not that long because Lebanon is such a very tiny country, punctuated by Nancy Ajram songs that everyone clapped and sang along to.
As far as Amu is concerned, Nancy Ajram wasn’t just the darling of the entire Lebanese male population but also the personification of her entire Lebanese experience, and I must say I now have an affinity for Middle eastern music that I never had before this trip.
On the way, we stopped at a place called Bsharri, where Kahlil Gibran, Lebanese American artist, poet and writer is buried, and his works exhibited in a Carmelite monastery turned museum, a haunting place. If only we’d had more time to stay and explore and see everything there.
There was also a stop in Tripoli, a city in the northern part of Lebanon, 85 km from Beirut, where a sweet shop by the name of Abdul Rehman Hallab is famously located. Huz and I floundered there, since no one spoke English, and we were the only foreigners on the bus. Somehow we managed to eat baklava and a very rich dessert called halawal jeben, made of cheese, semolina, water and sugar syrup, which all the Lebanese on that bus seemed to be devouring happily.
Another day we took a short day trip to the underground caves at Jeita. An eye-opening and surreally beautiful experience, and I’m so glad we got to see it. Unfortunately we weren’t allowed cameras inside, as all those flashes going off might damage the structures inside, or that’s what they said.
So the days passed happily, walking around Beirut, looking at bullet-ridden buildings in some areas, whereas other areas like downtown Beirut were beautifully renovated and the entire area resembled a European town square, with cobbled streets and quaint buildings. It was delightfully happening to be there especially because our trip coincided with the 2006 FIFA World Cup, and the cafes and outdoor restaurants were packed with people eating, drinking, smoking nargileh, and rooting for their favourites.
We got to eat lots of hummus (with meat too!) and tabbouleh and moutabbel, and falafel and taouk sandwiches by the dozen. The food was simply out of this world, though we found the restaurants to be quite pricey, but I doubt I have enjoyed the local food in any place that I have visited more than I did in Lebanon.
I loved it all.
But all good things must come to an end, though our time in Beirut was cut short in a rather dramatic way, when Hezbollah fired some rockets across the border at Israel, killed a couple of soldiers and captured two, an event that was marked with firing in the air by some triumphant Lebanese as we wandered around an amazing mall with a Lebanese friend.
Unfortunately, Israel retaliated by launching airstrikes and artillery fire against Hezbollah targets in Beirut as well as other places of Lebanon that left a lot of infrastructure badly damaged and killed 1200 people, mostly Lebanese civilians, and displacing approximately one million Lebanese and 300,000-500,000 Israelis.
The airport had been been hit as well, as was the main road connecting Lebanon to Damascus.
It was fortunate that we were there because of Huz’s UNIDO project, so we were assisted along with other UN employees and consultants to leave Beirut for a safer location outside of it.
We had to pack our things in a hurry and leave, and in our haste, I forgot the power cord of my video camera in the hotel room at the Monroe….
We were driven in a van to a pretty posh hotel called Le Royale, further down the coast., and soon after reaching there, as we sat around in the lobby, waiting to be accomodated, who did Amu and I glimpse as he walked to the other side of the lobby and went out a balcony…?
‘Mama, isn’t that the man whose show you like watching on tv…the one who eats all those weird things?’ said Amu. And I think we must have high-fived each other, mentally at least, or with our eyes, and we debated what to do next.
Should we go over and meet him…..? My heart skipped many beats as, ultimately, I dared myself to walk over to the balcony door that separated him from the rest of us mortals…..
I couldn’t believe I was actually doing this!
But yours truly (Amu in tow) walked over to where Bourdain was sitting with two other men, and they looked over at us as we approached and smiled….
I introduced myself and told him how much I loved ‘No Reservations’, mentioning some of my favourite episodes and I wondered if he was doing a show on Lebanese food here…
He said that’s what they had been working on, and he was so disappointed that their plans had gone awry with this out of the blue war. He seemed a bit worried about how they were going to manage to get out of here, with the airport bombed. He figured they’d have to be rescued by sea…
I remember him asking what I was doing here, and how we intended to get out. I remember babbling a lot of nonsense in reply, firmly ensconced on cloud nine….
But I got a few pictures out of this episode, which are a treasure for me.
Also, the memory of him striding into the restaurant next morning and instructing the chef to make him, in that unmistakeable and oh-so-familiar voice…..”Two eggs. Sunny side up.” :)
The acclaim surrounding Bourdain’s racy memoir, Kitchen Confidential, led to an offer by the Food Network to host his own food and world-travel show, A Cook’s Tour, which premiered on January 8, 2002. In July 2005, he premiered a new, somewhat similar television series, Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations, on the Travel Channel. As a further result of the immense popularity of Kitchen Confidential, the Fox sitcom Kitchen Confidential aired in 2005, in which the character “Jack Bourdain” is based loosely on the biography and persona of Anthony Bourdain.
In July 2006, Bourdain was in Beirut filming an episode of No reservations when the Israel-Lebanon conflict broke out. Bourdain and his crew were evacuated with other American citizens on the morning of July 20 by the United States Marines. Because of the unexpected conflict only a few hours of footage were available from the first restaurant on their agenda. Bourdain’s producers compiled the Beirut footage into a No reservations episode which aired on August 21, 2006. Uncharacteristically, the episode included footage of both Bourdain and his production staff, and included not only their initial attempts to film the episode, but also their firsthand encounters with Hezbollah supporters, their days of waiting for news with other expatriates in a Beirut hotel, and their eventual escape aided by a “cleaner” (unseen in the footage), whom Bourdain dubbed “Mr. Wolf” after the character portrayed by Harvey Keitel in Pulp Fiction. The episode was nominated for an Emmy in 2007.