I say Lebanon, you say . . . ?
If nothing springs to mind, I can’t say I blame you. I hardly knew anything about the country before moving here five years ago. So here are a few things I’ve learned. Read on, and you might even find yourself tempted to visit.
1. Beirut might just be the safest big city in the world. Seriously. True, it’s not what the travel advisories are telling you. But the reality on the ground is that street crime is almost unheard of. Elementary kids walk back and forth to school unaccompanied. Women can walk alone at night just about anywhere. The threat of terrorism does exist . . . as it does in New York and Paris and elsewhere around the world. Don’t let it stop you from visiting.
2. Lebanon boasts the best food in the Middle East. Fluffy hummus drizzled with olive oil, tabbouleh of finely chopped parsley and tomatoes — they’re classics. Hindbeh, twice-cooked dandelion greens topped with crunchy fried onions is one of my favorites. Raheb, a chopped salad of smoky eggplant and sweet peppers drizzled with olive oil and pomegranate molasses, is another hit. Mezze, the small plates, are the highlight, but ordering at least one plate of grilled chicken, meat or sausage for the table to share is de rigueur. For your stomach’s sake, you may want to skip the sawda nayeh — raw liver served with chunks of raw fat.
3. Local wine is becoming a thing. The Lebanese have long had preferred whisky or beer for their evenings out, and the local anise-based arak is the quintessential accompaniment for a table full of mezze. But wine has been produced in Lebanon since Phoenician times and, finally, it is coming into its own. Vineyards are springing up around the country, and there are now some 50 wineries in Lebanon, several of which are building up their clientele with wine tastings, property tours and sumptuous lunches near their gorgeous vineyards.
4. The supposed Christian/Muslim divide isn’t what you think. Churches stand next to mosques, musical church bells and calls to prayer ringing out throughout the day. There are 18 officially recognized religious sects in Lebanon, largely living peacefully cheek by jowl. And best of all, 21 public holidays to accommodate everyone.
5. Hash is grown here, but smokers prefer shisha. According to a 2015 report in Time magazine, a whopping “9,000 acres of Lebanese agricultural land [is] used to grow cannabis, producing thousands of tons of hash annually.” The Lebanese government makes periodic crackdowns on hash farmers, but the army tends to have more pressing things to do than mow down fields. Regardless, you’re much more likely to see someone smoking fruit-flavored tobacco through a water pipe, also known as a hookah, shisha, nargile or argileh. Smoking rates in Lebanon are sky high (45 percent of adult men smoke), and shisha is the pipe of choice.
6. The nightlife really is that good. Especially in the summer. Beirut is famous across the region for its bacchanal. Megaclubs like White, on a rooftop by the sea (Sea Side Road, Dora; 961/3-060-0909; whitebeirut.com,) and B018 (Dora Highway, Karantina; 961/5-580-018; facebook.com/B018Beirut) with its retractable roof are classics. The cabaret at Music Hall (Starco Center; 961/3-807-555; themusichall.com) is inimitable and unmissable, with its eclectic mix of Elvis impersonators and traditional dabke dancers, and it moves to an open-air venue for the summer. Armenia Street in Mar Mikhael is popping every night of the week, with customers from the countless restaurants and bars spilling onto the sidewalk. Those tempted by a quieter evening can check out one of the city’s chic rooftop lounges, such as Iris (An-Nahar Building, Wegyand Street; 961/3-090-936; irisbeirut.com), for a sundowner.