Slow Down, Sip, Savor

IMG_2041Each weekend that I’ve escaped the city and the confinement of my supermarket’s warehouse has emphasized how voracious I am for pause and sunlight. Winery hopping, for me, is not about a profligate’s drunken afternoons; I get a sense of calm when walking through vineyards. The way the tendrils of the vines wrap around the trellises. The way the soil sinks beneath my feet. The way blocks are aligned systematically by grape but the clouds, weeds, and deer don’t care. The way each bottle’s contents can tell you what happened that year, historically and in the ground. The natural progress of a vine and the desire to pump out millennial-targeted gallons of fruit-forward elixirs is the simulacrum of our impatience for growth. I’m reading this book and there’s an excerpt that nailed what wine, beyond being a time capsule, does:

“Hell, wine teaches us this. If we’d only listen. It teaches us to take things as they come. In the vineyard, but also in the glass. Slow down, sip, savor.”

We forgot, or maybe just I forgot, how to do this. Even my writing – which has been a mental stretching exercise that allows my thoughts to flow into digital tributaries and gives me a sense of personal decompression – has taken a backseat to the barrage of professional epithets on my attention span. My mind is so tangled, so terrorized, poked and prodded like a dead jellyfish carcass sprawled out on the sand or trapped in a shallow tide pool. It feels good to type again.

Even in these strangely, wet summer days, the curvy, sexy silhouette of glass bottles coated in condensation gives me a second of focus. Watching a drop of water slide down the neck of foggy existence makes the world around it freeze for half a minute, like when your autofocus blurs the surroundings enveloping your subject.

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The death of Anthony Bourdain, world-traveling foodie storyteller of the page and screen, has stung deeper than expected given our mentorship was rooted in my imagination. I’ve been pouring over articles written by and about him and podcasts that commemorate his raw soul. Those that ask questions about suicide, excess, hospitality, and happiness. Even in his passing, he explores layers of the human condition that we have yet to understand and introduces bridges to the unknown that we haven’t had the courage to cross.

Sharing a meal or a glass of wine can bring about the feel of coming home. Eating a fried ball of kibbeh dunked in molasses left over from the plate of marinated soujok or a winemaker’s latest white whom they treat like they’re introducing their child to the outside world, a parent letting go of their baby’s hand before they walk into their first day of preschool. Their children need time to mature while they’re out there unarmored. Let it lay down refers to how a bottle needs to rest for years for the complexity to find its place, let it breathe to give it time in its environment, give it a sense of where it now is. It’s about patience for that unfolding, that extraction of pleasure that can come from touching every edge of a carafe, more surface area of discovery. Maybe each of us is a bottle that needs to lay down, that needs to breathe, that needs to be consumed by another in order to come home.

 

If you need to talk to someone, we have a suicide prevention hotline.
If in Lebanon, call 1564. If in the US, call 800-273-TALK (8255).

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Thoughts from a First-Time Voter

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Unlike most of my graduating class who hit 30 this year without ever exercising their right to vote, in the last parliamentary elections of June 2009, I was eligible to vote having turned 21 in February of that year. But I didn’t. At the time, it felt like my vote in the South would be useless. For many in the Jnoub, my extended family included, Hezballah – like other parties across the country – provided wherever the State itself failed and that resulted in unshakeable loyalty. The kind that can still excuse all the humanitarian injustices that have come after. It wasn’t a voting process for me when there were no alternatives to the ones that had always held power. Plus, I didn’t even live there.

What would my vote do beyond waste paper and gas?
Up until a few weeks ago, I still thought that way.

The only time I’ve voted was for our student representatives in AUB SRC elections and, even then, when my friend wanted to run as an independent, he had to ally himself with the bigger parties’ lists just to win votes by association. The university elections are seen as a microcosm of the state of the country’s current highly educated voters and there you had it: independents couldn’t even run alone, much less win. But that was 10 years ago.

Flashbacks of the Beirut municipality elections reminded me of when I worked with Beirut Madinati FOR ONE DAY, and how much that day reignited the dying embers of hope and the need to take action versus talking about others taking action for me. The simple, “vote or don’t complain” is solid. We are stripped of all nagging rights if we don’t exercise the one that can lead to actual change, even if it’s the illusion of it.

And then, a friend told me we have an independent list in the South.

The photos of my migrated friends’ purple thumbs say that they want a home to come back to, that they haven’t let go just because they’ve left, that they remember what forced them to seek other shores, that they too believe in the power of their voice.
Perhaps foolishly, I feel like my vote matters even when I’m not casting it in Beirut, the city where I live and (try to) breathe. Dare I say it, it may have more power to prove to others that times have changed if it’s placed in the South where Amal/Hezballah roots run deep. If anything at all, my vote will mean I did not genuflect at the altar of complacency and corruption.

It began with Beirut Madinati proving that these lists could exist despite the fact that they lost. Here we are, two years since then, with full lists comprised of sixty-six fresh faces going for parliament. In these final hours, don’t forget or forgive what we’ve been through for the last decade.

 

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Still from the series, Westworld


There are alternatives and that in itself is progress that shouldn’t be overlooked. There are angry people who don’t want this path for their country but there is no deus ex machina in this narrative, there is only our vote. There are the privileged who can afford to say no to bribes, sacrifice an afternoon for a ballot, and thus, start to shift the tide for those who can’t. I don’t expect the independents to win but just one seat for us can put a hole in their yachts anchored at Zaitunay Bay. With each round of votes, their vessels will fill with the stagnated water they’ve left us in.

As far as nations go, Lebanon is still an infant but her first steps have to start somewhere. We won’t get there this Sunday and we may not get there in another 4 years. She won’t run across the finish line in a fortnight but I’m willing to crawl if it still gets us to where we need to be because Lebanon won’t be a toddler forever. One of these days, she’s going to be a grown woman and we all know you can’t mess with one of those.

99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall

 

Bottle Of Beer In The Sand Looking Out To Sea

Courtesy of Stokpic

Impending nuptials have a way of seeping into the psyche of the parental layer of your inner circle. I get asked if I’ve found someone, if I’m talking to anyone new, if I’m “on the apps.” This, coming from your friend’s relatives, is less awkward than you’d imagine. It is rooted in good intentions but, time after time, it does weigh on you.

 

The accidental, additional pressure is intensified because I think about it too. I contemplate if my gut shouldn’t be trusted when I feel this match isn’t mine, if I wasted too many nights not making it my active mission to find my boo, if I’ve been doing it all wrong from the start. But you’re not allowed to voice concern on this search yourself because you’re a strong, independent woman who don’t need no man. And yet, those around you interfere and worry for you because you’re a strong, independent woman who, god forbid, don’t need no man.

The life I am proud of is like a case of beer with one bottle missing. How do you find that person that fits in with all the other bottles of your life? I have been assembling my crate for three decades. If I’m to make room for another bottle to complete my set, it needs to be a Limited Edition 200th Anniversary Guinness. I don’t actually care much for beer but the metaphor sticks: in order to accommodate their existence in the case that is your life, it needs to bring added value to your entire collection. I have been told that seeking this obscure Guinness is expecting too much. Are you destined to do it alone and fill that void with bubblewrap instead? Isn’t it still a void if filling it with an empty Corona doesn’t really make your box fuller in effect? Can you tell I’m working on a shipment of alcohol?

“You’re too picky. You’re too smart. Your standards are too high. You need to readjust your expectations. You’re picking crappy suitors. You’re not trying. You’re trying too hard. You need to put yourself out there. You need to stop and focus on yourself. You’ve got time. Stop thinking about it and it’ll happen. Aslan ma fi shabeb bil balad.”

I wonder about this gap because I’d like to buy the dual-pack of Cinnamon Toast Crunch for two. If I excise this wondering and assume that I’m destined for one box of Cheerios for as long as I walk this earth, have I carved out a vital organ from my torso? Does it mean I have one less badge from the girl scout sash of what I’ve accomplished? Does it affect the measurement of how much I’ve lived?

I want someone who knows buying throw pillows “to put on the guest bed” actually means they’re for building a sturdy fort on the balcony. I want to find the stabilizing Karen to my off-balance Hank Moody. I want to find my complementary dork and I’m not denying that. I want to share my porch swing but I’m not willing to strike a Faustian bargain in order to find a mate.

 

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Still from Californication

 

It has led me to this thought: it may not be in the cards for me. It could be that I’m supposed to be alone. I don’t say it as a cry for pity or from a feeling of running out of time as a result of turning 30, that societal deadline of expected self-establishment. I don’t say it out of fear of being the only name on all the wedding invitations to come. Accepting this as my possible status quo from now on is healthier than wondering if something is missing whenever a friend’s mother asks if I’m still single. Right now, I am alone.

Except I’m not.
My case is pretty full, lhamdilla, and I’ve always liked bubblewrap.

Foreigners’ Responses to “I’m From Beirut”

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So do you live near the terrorists?”

“Ohhh, a Lebanese girl. Hellllllo.”

“Yeah, I’ve been to Dubai once.”

“So you speak Lebanese or Arabic?”

“OH BEIRUT. I LAAAAAV BEIRUT.”

“You speak Arabic? That’s sexy.”

“Hummus!”

“Really? But your English is so good.”

“I am also from zere.”

“My grandfather is Lebanese but I haven’t been back since 2005.”

“My mother has Lebanese heritage but I’m too afraid to go there.”

“23&Me says I’m 4% Middle Eastern!”

“I’ve had that Moozar wine.”

“Ouuuuuu that’s different. What’s that like?”

“Really? What were you doing there?”

“That must be SUCH a long flight. I could never do that. 4 hours tops for me.”

“I like Lebanese men.”

“So how’s that trash thing going?”

“Do women have to wear that thing?” *does circular motion around face*

“Yikhrib baytik 3arifit 2ennik 3arabiyyeh! Laike tfaddale la 3andna 3al mat3am hon 3al yameen.”

Aging in Napa Valley

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It happened. I’m not a twenty-something anymore.

I did not predict that my grocery store gig would be the point of intersection for my two fields that are polar opposites: design and general bio. Learning about viticulture has allowed for my biology degree to be dusted off and come of some use, almost a decade post-graduation. If only someone would’ve told me then that I could use it to understand and appreciate fine wine & food. I would’ve still gone off to become my group’s token artsy hipster but it would’ve alleviated some of the guilt of having a science degree in a drawer all those years.

February means it’s my blog’s birthday too. Six years, making me five times older than this little labor of love that started as anonymous and aimless ramblings.

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Robert Mondavi Winery, Napa Valley – 2018

Being in Napa Valley has solidified one pure truth: I love everything barrel-aged. Cabernet, balsamic vinegar, maple syrup. Anything that’s a little oaky makes me grin like a baker sniffing a fresh focaccia. Well, that makes me grin too. How appropriate to be turning 30 in wine country, where aging makes something more valuable, more complex, and more layered.

 

Despite establishments being legally required to card customers purchasing alcohol, I have been mistaken for being underaged at liquor stores, bars, and the DMV. I will humbly blame this on my love of Harry Potter clothing but it’s surely been uplifting to have winery staff point to me specifically and ask if I’m over 21 as I simultaneously exit the twenties. Never have I heard “babyface” so many times in my thirty years like I have this week. Maybe it’s all a ruse, they can secretly tell, and are all graciously easing me into the next age bracket.

With that said, I’m aware that my body is not as confused as the sweet staff of Stag’s Leap Wine Cellars. I’ve noticed that my slow metabolism is even slower, that more smile lines aren’t fading when I frown, and that some grays insist on stubbornly sticking out of my dark, curly mane. With time, as every year passes, you learn maturation does not happen overnight. With time, you learn to appreciate fragility and you witness deterioration. But ultimately, with time, you learn that time itself is also finite yet fast.

But it is not all regression. Aging is cedar, vanilla, and spice. It’s toast, honey, and almonds. Aging is life’s flavor and to drink a wine is to reflect on that lifetime. Aging can only give you depth that will never satiate an audience, leaving them eager for another taste, for another way to experience that life again.

Who wouldn’t want to be that for someone?

 

When Will You Be Back?

Update: Georges Nasser features will be playing until next week. It’s been extended! Details at the end of the post.

In a special showing earlier this week at Metropolis Sofil, I caught a double-feature in honor of Georges Nasser, the Lebanese director of Ila Ayn, the first Lebanese film to go to Cannes. Ila Ayn (To Where) addresses the desire to emigrate, a desire that overcomes all Lebanese, even then in 1957. In A Certain Nasser, the documentary about the director, Nasser says that he used this storyline because it was one that was so inherently Lebanese: the illusion that leaving to the US would be the greener grass in comparison to our red earth and concrete monoliths. We imagine that life will be more prosperous, more fruitful, more our own, if only we could have it away from here. Again, even then in 1957.

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Still from Ila Ayn (1957)

But “wherever you go, there you are,” right? Through his characters, Nasser wanted to show that it’s not a guarantee, that leaving won’t give you what you’re looking for. That leaving may mean you’re walking away from the happiness you don’t know you have.

Seeking another horizon is not uniquely Lebanese but we all know that we have gotten good at leaving. So good that we don’t come back. It’s not that we don’t have forces pushing and keeping us out: poor salaries, skyrocketing prices when it comes to property and goods/services, and the taxing toll of stimulation on your entire nervous system. A fresh, warm manoushe can only do so much before you are left wondering why you have to struggle to maintain your inexplicable short fused irritability.

I have found that the question, “when will you be back?” has become attached to many cities but mostly, to my Beirut and California’s Los Angeles. Where do you stay if you’re forever meant to return to somewhere else? Where do you imagine your adult roots to be planted? Do they need to be planted at all?

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Time Hasn’t Forgotten the Palmyra

Almost 2 years ago, this video was picked up by the local blogs and had its 15 minutes of social media fame before passing the baton to the next flavor of the week. It was the first time I had ever heard of the Palmyra. How did such a magnificent time capsule go unnoticed? Was I the only one who didn’t know Baalbeck had more than Roman pillars, sfee7a, and the summer festival? Even with my insatiable curiosity, I’m also guilty of ignoring what we collectively take for granted but usually of being oblivious to the existence of these treasures altogether. After passing through, I know the title of that video is off. Palmyra isn’t the hotel that time forgot, it’s the hotel that the Lebanese forgot. Time is a permanent tenant there.

Whenever I venture outside my bubble, there is a closeness among strangers that I have only seen in this country with no degrees of separation. Before my group headed over to the temples, we discovered that one of my fellow explorer’s grandfather was a manager of the hotel for 25 years. Somehow, residents of Lebanon have a backlog of each others’ stories as if they are common knowledge. Google searches are unnecessary when you have updates flowing across seas and digital devices. The question, “wein sar?” is for the analog Newsfeed, the oral source of the whereabouts of people you once knew yet still know. Upon hearing of my plans to drive up to the city of the sun, I learned all about the Husseinis from dad before even getting in the car. He and his brothers were school classmates with the Husseini brothers. Baalbeck, like Tripoli, is dissociated from Beirut to the extent that Beirutis could mentally categorize it as a city in another country. This is why I find these overlaps to be humbling: we are not as separated as we try to be.

“But I don’t know Rima Husseini though. She must be Ali’s wife.
He’s the one who bought the hotel back in the 80s.”

After I tell Rima, it’s confirmed to be true. But she’s not just Ali’s wife, she also happens to be a university professor of Cross-Cultural Communication & Conflict at LAU. She talks about the hotel and I recognize snippets from interviews she’s given with international publications. Romantic one-liners aside, what I admire is the fervor she has when she speaks about gender roles, the patriarchy, and internalized misconceptions about Baalbeck although she is not originally from there. She’s like the aunt who you hope is coming to the family gathering so you can have Turkish coffee and complain about your dad’s archaic overprotective ways. Her energy is ineffable.

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Please note the humans circled in red just so you grasp the size of the Temple of Bacchus

Baalbeck is home to ancient temples of Bacchus, Jupiter, and Venus. When fit into the ethereal narrative of the Heliopolis, the hotel is a contemporary ruin in itself. According to Al Jazeera, “The Declaration du Grand Liban – which established the boundaries of modern-day Lebanon as determined under the French Mandate – was signed at the hotel following World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.” Considering those who were guests there, it is stitched into the fabric of Baalbeck’s place in history. It has a twin in Athens just like our Bacchus Temple mirrors the Parthenon of the Acropolis.

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Built in 1874, it is not a Hyatt but an overnight stay is equivalent to staying in an old mountain residence with loose doorknobs and antique plumbing. Ghassan Karaa, the concierge, is camera-shy which is a shame; I feel a strange familiarity to him because he reminds me of the grandpa I never met. Even the smell of the building reminds me of my jiddo’s home in the South. In early December, the cold isn’t piercing yet; it’s just enough to give you the sniffles while reading a book by the soubiya which has you going in and out of consciousness like a narcoleptic. You can go for a more expensive room in the L’Annexe, the renovated wing, but I felt that’d be skipping the entire point of staying at the Palmyra. And I’m not alone. I had thought that L’Annex was built to accommodate those who wanted an upgraded experience but Rima says it was so they would be able to renovate the pipes and heating of the original building while guests stay in L’Annex. They still haven’t been able to complete that though; visitors come for the real deal which keeps them from tearing open the walls.

Before going, as I was skimming article after article about one of the oldest hotels in the Middle East, the impression you get is that tourists are afraid to head inland to an open plain not far from the tumultuous Syrian border. However, when I asked Baalbeckis, I got the opposite opinion. Our temple guide, Mohamad Wehbe, said he gets mostly French and German visitors. Rima said the hotel’s guests are mostly foreigners eager to stay in the same place that saw so many royals of the past. It seems the reality is that tourists are the first ones who hop onto a bus to make the 2-hour journey up there from Beirut while it’s the Lebanese that are hesitant to challenge the reputation that anything beyond Aley is unsafe. Many factors contribute to this: the Syrian war, cars stolen and sent off to Baalbeck’s neighboring town of Britel, 4 or 5 army checkpoints, numerous Hezbollah flags, and sensationalized reports of feral hashish growers of the Bekaa Valley. But ultimately, refusing to break barriers is allowing this false association to persist, much like when Beirut is used as the West’s favorite synonym for a chaotic war zone. Our response to foreigners who fear our capital is, “visit and you’ll see what it’s really like” but we don’t apply that to ourselves when it comes to our own cities. In Baalbeck, if stones could speak, if temples could talk, they would tell you the stories of our people. Or you could go ask some of them that are still there.

The weekend we visit turns out to be the same weekend the hotel is exhibiting a collection of photographs commemorating the Baalbeck festival since its start in 1956. There are two older men, in their seventies, who have been working at the Palmyra since they were teens. Ahmad “Abu Mustafa” Kassab tells us how he witnessed it all, how he was there for all the big names we see on the walls in black and white. Ella Fitzgerald, Sabah, Miles Davis, Oum Kolthoum. Manhal “Abu Ali” Abbas said, while he was firing up the heater in my room after he brought me tea and cookies, that he has been at the hotel for 50 years. He had once tried his luck at joining the army but got rejected because of his poor eyesight. Had he been in the army though, he would’ve been sitting comfortably decades ago; however, he hopes to retire in a few years. Being a person who doesn’t know how to be pampered, I teetered between not wanting them to serve me and not wanting to offend them by rejecting their service. The dignity in these old men’s souls is palpable but they’re my elders yet pity would be an insult to all that they still give to this establishment. I was sufficiently awkward as I told him I hadn’t been to Baalbeck in over 15 years to which he retorted, “I haven’t been to Beirut in 15 years either.” He told me he’s only been 4 times in his life, that he doesn’t have work that calls for more frequent visits.


The hotel’s name has its own layer of complexity. Palmyra translates to “city of palm trees” and is also an ancient city in present day Aleppo, Syria. Restoration of the temples there is being mapped out after most of the site was destroyed by ISIL in 2015. The palmyra is also a palm native to Southeast Asia where a tree deity linked to it is related to fertility. This was the name chosen for a hotel built by a Greek who saw the potential in a spot along the pilgrimage road to Jerusalem in the French mandate which was then excavated by Germans & Ottomans. For me, I see a parallel. The hotel is like Lebanon: an aging structure that is ignored, an identity that is multicultural with colonial roots, a place that is haunted by the memory of glory days that are no more. Its foundations need reinforcing but it is still open and welcoming to those who seek refuge. Rima tries to bring the Palmyra back to life, to show the world that the Palmyra had a fundamental role in the history of its surroundings, to keep the Palmyra breathing because it’s worth saving. She does this even when her own faith in such a fight falters. Rima is the youth of Lebanon. Rima is me. Rima is all of us who are still here.

sfee7a: meat pies, specialty of Baalbeck
wein sar: what has come of him?
jiddo: grandfather
soubiya: fuel powered furnace/heater