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Lusting for Lebanon

By Sherveen Ashtari

Pigeons' Rock © Sherveen AshtariPigeons' Rock © Sherveen Ashtari

Having been born in the Middle Eastern country of Jordan, I've constantly had to point out to misinformed but well-meaning strangers that my country of birth is in no way related to the NBA superstar Michael Jordan. A fairly liberal and stable country in a volatile neighborhood, Jordan is perhaps best known by the rest of the world for its eloquent and progressive queen, (who also happens to be quite easy on the eyes), and for a long list of historical and religiously significant sites such as The River Jordan, the desert city of Petra and The Dead Sea. Growing up in Jordan, I was dipped like a teabag in and out of the murky cup of religion and politics, and was exposed to a rich heritage and a challenging language that is at once poetic and harsh. But one of the main perks of growing up in a country that borders many ancient civilizations is the ease with which I could hop into my car, fire it up and drive to what is, in my opinion, one of the most beautiful countries in the world – Lebanon!

My bias perhaps springs from a nostalgia to a childhood attached to the Lebanon most Arabs know and love from having heard, like a unifying daily ritual each morning on most radio stations across the region, the angelic voice of Fairouz – the most famous Lebanese singer to have ever enchanted Arab ears. My bias could also be the result of my bookishness. Many Arabs consider Lebanon to be the intellectual and artistic capital of the Arab world, home to a plethora of book publishers, and to the most delicious assortment of new and second-hand bookshops I have so far come across in my life. In fact, the bookshops are my main excuse for my frequent, spontaneous visits to Beirut, Lebanon's capital city.

Our Lady of Lebanon, Harissa © Sherveen AshtariOur Lady of Lebanon, Harissa © Sherveen Ashtari

What distinguishes these bookshops, in addition to the vast array of titles one finds in them (I once found a rare copy of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, but regrettably had neither the money to pay for it nor the physical strength to lift it), are the friendly, indulging owners. One of my most precious memories of Beirut is when I spent a few hours lazily sipping tea with a middle-aged, clearly bored and talkative bookshop owner who pulled up a chair for me and said, Sit please, the books can wait. He then sank a biscuit into his mint tea and shared anecdotes about the civil war, poked fun at religion and politics, and whispered to me, not without amusement – and as if simply to see my reaction – “I am a Marxist. ”

“Oh Monsieur,” I said, trying politely to emulate the Lebanese way of squeezing French words into conversations. “Marx was… well, I do find some of his opinions interesting: Religion is the opiate of the masses. So true!” My diplomacy paid off, and he gave me a good discount on a few paperbacks. His little antique bookshop continues to be a cherished stop on each of my visits.

But one needn't be a bibliophile to appreciate Lebanon. It's enough to love beauty and to have a certain appreciation (tolerance?) for chaos, hyperactivity, and contradiction to develop a weak spot for this little country. Beirut, known as the Paris of the East in its glory days, is a breath-taking capital that, despite having lost some of its former allure, still maintains a Parisian air and a sad romanticism that has survived invasions, constant political unrest and a vicious civil war which has left its signature on buildings throughout the city in the shape of bullet holes and charred destruction.

Beirut is balm for the senses. It is embraced both by mountains with cascading wilderness and the deep blue Mediterranean. The Raoucheh promenade, famous for its Pigeons' Rock, is a treasured escape for many. Whether one chooses to go for early morning jogs, or decides to romantically or contemplatively amble the promenade at sunset, inhaling the brisk salty breath of the Mediterranean truly is the kiss of life for anyone with a speck of worry in his or her heart.

Another aspect that strikes me very deeply is the soothing spiritual feel of a country torn by sectarian and religious hatred. The inner peace I experience in Lebanon is nothing short of bewildering. Both mosques and churches are so stunning one feels impelled to enter and pay an homage to beauty, whether by praying or by simply remaining still and digesting the experience of the place. The Islamic call to prayer and the song of church bells can often be heard echoing at the same time, reminding one that buildings forgive and forget much sooner than humans do. I've lit candles in churches that throbbed with hymns and the devoted recitations of the Rosary, and enjoyed the sad dignity of mosques that five times a day beckoned the faithful to prayer.

Old Road, Byblos © Sherveen Ashtari
Old Road, Byblos © Sherveen Ashtari

A Christian acquaintance laughed surprised when I asked her, tongue-in-cheek, to find me a nice Maronite man who would agree to marry me in Saint John's Medieval Church in the city of Byblos. She responded, somewhat seriously, that her brother was looking for a nice girl. “You already have a bit in common, ” she said. “You both studied business, and you both want to get married here. ” She winked at me and I couldn't help but smile. Maronites are Semitic, Eastern Catholic Christians and followers of Saint Maron in the Levant. I, on the other hand, am a Secular Humanist.

In Lebanon, there is a very vibrant nightlife with restaurants and nightclubs, and summer festivals with legendary prima donnas. There are old Phoenician cities lapped up by the sea or camouflaged in the verdure of mountains; there are beaches with spans of white sand, pretty girls in bikinis and tanned, charming sweet-accented men. There is Lebanese cuisine and legendary Lebanese hospitality, both so remarkable that all your attempts at enjoying a meal elsewhere might forever be ruined. There is art, there is culture. There is spirituality and there is hedonism. Things I have seen taking place on the beaches in summer belong in a R-rated movie. There is more to Lebanon than I could describe in a thousand or even ten thousand words. True, maybe it is my bias speaking, but you won't know until you get there.

Sherveen Ashtari has written regularly for Capulet Art, a gallery in Vancouver. She is also a freelance writer for the Canadian Immigrant. Her publishing roll includes previous and forthcoming works – Thrive in Life, Off the Coast, Persepolis, Kurungabaa, The Art of Losing, and re:moved. All images © Sherveen Ashtari