Friday, June 24, 2011

Back on the streets of Beirut

No place on the sidewalk, no problem... just put the chairs on Hamra Street
What I mainly miss in Dubai is walking the streets and running errands on foot.  The weather doesn’t help, neither do the distances.

So I had hardly unpacked my suitcase on arrival in Beirut last Friday (June 17) that I was back ambling around Hamra to greet and check on my friends (you can walk around with me in these pictures). It turned out to be a very busy day that went on till 2 a.m. the next day!

Immediately on leaving home, I met the boys who go around collecting everything and anything that is made of plastic. They scour the distinctive green garbage skips, load the “loot” in the back of their little van and apparently take it up to Choueifat, home of Lebanon’s largest industrial areas.

Choueifat is on the eastern side of Beirut airport and hosts some 150 factories. It is also known as the seat of the International School of Choueifat, which now has branches all over the Gulf and Middle East.

Recycling at its best! These guys collect everything made of plastic...
The boys didn’t know the name of the factory, but said it mostly exported the recycled plastic to Turkey.

I then passed by the very unique “ambulatory plant shop”on Makdessi Street run by Kamal Jiryess. He is well known in the area. And it is always exciting to stop and have a cup of coffee with him on the street corner where he also has a small varieties shop. It’s unique because Kamal displays his plants on an antiquated and battered car. He drives towards Tripoli, in north Lebanon, every Monday to get new plants from the nurseries dotting the northbound highway.

Kamal's “ambulatory plant shop”
His crumbling Toyota has often been photographed and written about, so he now takes the attention in his stride. There was no time for coffee but I promised to go back over the weekend.

Abu Amine's time-honored cart
Of course I bumped into Abu Amine, who has one of the time-honored carts. They are becoming rare in Beirut due to licensing restrictions on street vendors. Since I stopped to take pictures, Abu Amine thinks I have “wasta,” or contacts, and might be able to help him get a permit. He is not convinced that I don’t and each time we meet he tells me he is waiting for me to get it. I have always wanted to have one of these carts and spend the day moving around and meeting people, so we compromised that “if” I ever did, we would co-own it!

Abu Amine these past few weeks is selling boiled corn-on-the-cob, lupines and “fool” (fava beans) as well as huge lemons from South Lebanon, now in season.

Chef Noor with the kittens
I met Chef Noor next, the very talented pâtissier at Gustav, my favorite pâtisserie and a haven for dessert aficionados (See Gustav’s sweet offers, 4 December 2010).

This little kitten is looking for a home
Noor was playing with some kittens on sale at the video and DVD shop close to Gustav. The Persians kittens are looking for new homes and going at $300 each. You can’t miss the parrot two doors down. It played to the camera and was happy being photographed.

My favorite grocer on Sadat Street
I passed by my favorite grocer on Sadat Street. He is a bit more expensive than others, but you pay for what you get. It is a pleasure to walk around the store and admire all the seasonal fruits and vegetables.

Next was a visit to my hairdresser for the luxury of an affordable brushing and some catching up with the girls at the salon.

I then sped off to meet a friend from Dubai! Alexander McNabb had like me just arrived on a 24-hour trip to Beirut to attend and speak at GeekFest. He wanted to go up to Shemlan and invited me to join him for lunch there.

The view from the mountain village of Shemlan
I was eager to revisit the mountain village, my refuge resort during the 1975-1990 civil war whenever shelling and security conditions permitted. In Mount Lebanon, just 25 kilometers out of Beirut, the trip brought back very fond memories.

The main purpose of going to Shemlan used to be Al Sakhra. It’s a restaurant overlooking the green mountain hills and stone houses with red brick roofs and Beirut airport runways.  As soon as you start going up the winding mountain roads, you lose the sun to clouds and fog and it gets considerably cooler. From Al Sakhra’s large terrace, where Alexander and I sat for lunch, the view is amazing (see the photos here).

Al Sakhra restaurant in Shemlan evoked very fond memories
Nothing has changed at Al Sakhra since I was last there some 30 years ago. The owner, who must have passed on the business to his sons, is still sitting at the entrance and greeting patrons. The tables, tablecloths and chairs are still the same and I think I even recognized a couple of waiters. The rest area is like a little sitting room, and I went to wash my hands just to make sure they hadn’t changed the beautiful stone sinks and brass taps.

Most notably, the food is still as delicious and we enjoyed a mezze washed down with a cold Lebanese Almaza beer, good conversation and a great view. You can read Alexander’s take on the trip on his blog, Fake Plastic Souks

MECAS, now the Help and Hope Institution
Shemlan is also famous for having been home to the British spy school, the Middle East Center for Arabic Studies, one of the best places for foreigners to learn Arabic. The school now houses the Help and Hope Institution for mentally handicapped children run by the Dar Al-Aytam Al-Islamiyah.

We headed back to Beirut around 3 p.m., just in time for a shower before making our way to GeekFest

But first I took Alexander around Hamra, showing him some landmarks such as Café Younes and the Commodore Hotel. We then took a “service,” or shared taxi, to visit the famous Monot Street.

Alexander and I were looking for a taxi to take us to the Beirut Art Center, where GeekFest was held, when a car stopped ahead, just across from Al Amine Mosque in Downtown Beirut.  It was our friends Naaema Zarif, Darine Sabbagh and Walid Khalife. We hopped into the car with them and went for a quick bite at Beirut Souks.

We finally made it to GeekFest, the fourth organized in Beirut and the second one I attend outside of Dubai.

GeekFest founder Alexander McNabb opens the talks
Alexander kick-started GeekFest in Dubai in 2009. It is held at two-month intervals and the concept has now spread all over the Gulf and the Middle East. It is the biggest, most interesting and fun gathering of virtual friends. It is where the virtual social media world joins the real world.

The theme of GeeFest Beirut was games and gaming -- here Mortal Kombat
The theme at the fourth Beirut GeekFest was games and gaming. Over 300 people attended the event that was “un-organized” by the very talented Gigalb team. I don’t understand much about games, but they were a hit and you can have a look at some photos of the event.

The venue was perfect and covered two very large spaces – indoors for all the games, outdoors for the talks. There was a buffet and loads of beer. GeekFest is always a good occasion to put a face on names we know through social media platforms and we all sat around till nearly 11 p.m.

When leaving, we fancied a last drink and headed to one of the many new bars in Hamra where we sat and talked till 2 a.m.

As you can imagine, I slept like a log that night. Saturday was just as exciting and you’ll read all about it. I walked around another area of town and also attended an event in Downtown Beirut…