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

 

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From Corporate World to Family Business: A Lebanese Tradition of Transition

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The struggle is real.

There are so many misconceptions tied to the working for dad route. The assumption is that you’re living a cushy lifestyle, able to jet off to Milan for a weekend on a whim, and incessantly receiving special treatment just for being the boss’ offspring. A chunk of the Lebanese youth, including myself, have decided to go for this path professionally and I want to shed some light on the truth of it.

BEFORE I GET ON MY SOAPBOX, SOME BACKGROUND: I work as the creative strategist for our American imports chain, Wesley’s Wholesale. Basically, I’m the advertising/marketing/PR/anything-on-Adobe/all-around-social person of the company.

Why would you want to work for your family?

When I thought about my career path and how I would grow in a corporate structure, I saw myself being able to do the work to make it to the summit. It was not a question of capability, it was more about investing in the future. Climbing the ladder, especially with Lebanon’s salary margin, looked depressing. If I wanted to live according to the standards that I’m used to while growing up, it was hard to imagine how to do that given the limited liquidity a corporate job could offer, even in the long run.

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Your salary is probably SO much higher than what it was at your old job.

Not necessarily. Working to run an expanding business doesn’t automatically equal Rich Kids of Beverly Hills status. There are more costs, more sacrifices, and more spending when you’re trying to keep all the cogs greased. A machine won’t run on prayer alone. However, at the end of the day, you’re busting your butt for your family empire, not partners behind glass doors. You’re not focused on the monthly wage because you’re looking at the bigger picture. This is your livelihood, it’s what puts your sisters through college, it’s what you can build your future-life on.

So you’re guaranteed a top position where you’ll never be fired. How difficult for you.

It’s not like being crowned a duchess. Do not assume that all heirs/heiresses of family empires are undeserving brats. There is immense pressure with such an inheritance. Knowing that suddenly there is a beast that you need to figure out how to tame when you were used to caring for domesticated kittens? It’s overwhelming.

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If you’ve got that position or that’s the road you’re on, it’s because your bosses think you’re worthy and up to the task. They see your potential even if you don’t. If you’re useless, no one’s going to drag a dead horse, not even your parents. They’ll only tolerate you for so long before they chuck your ass out. It’s not personal, it’s business.

What do you even do there? Aren’t you a designer?

I’m a designer with a background in advertising. This comes in handy when expanding a mom & pop, brick & mortar imports empire. I use what I learned via the art of selling in order to improve our model and approach. Branding, in-store customer experience, public relations, brand equity – so much of design thinking is part of running a retail business.

In essence, being part of management is like working for a start-up and your job title doesn’t encompass all that you do. You have to wear many hats and learn all facets of the business that you aren’t qualified for for one simple reason: it’s your business. There’s no such thing as “that’s not my job” because everything is your job. If someone slacks off or makes a mistake, you have to put out the fires and pay for the damage.

Wouldn’t it make more sense to hire someone more qualified for the job? 

In absolute terms, yes. If your spawn is in a completely unrelated field, not in it to win, or plain incompetent, finding someone else would be the better option. I can understand why many families don’t do this though: trust. When you have started a business that is making dough, you’re not going to grant the inside info to a stranger. The secrets of the trade, the magic sauce in the burger, the heart battery thing in Tony Stark’s chest – you can’t give away your recipe for success or you could risk betrayal. Confidentiality clauses can only get you so far before John Doe is stealing your concept and suppliers from right under you.

Don’t you have any brothers?

I can do anything my nonexistent brother could’ve done. Like a boss. Next question.

But you get to do whatever you want, right?

There is more freedom. Creatively, I have direct contact with my client at all times (dad) and I have more flexibility to work on side projects because I dictate my own work load.

But do I get to sign off at 5pm everyday? No. At Sunday family breakfasts, you talk about incoming shipments. At birthday parties, you ask about people’s thoughts on blue corn tortilla chips. Even when walking down the aisle of a Whole Foods for some soap while on vacation in New York, you’re thinking, “oh my god, these chocolates would be such a hit at Wesley’s.” Work never stops, you’re always on the clock. Heck, I’m even blogging about it.

Oh, so…are you happy or not?

In the last few months, I’ve met a lot of people who told me they tried the family thing for a while and couldn’t stick with it. It’s not easy blurring the lines; it depends on the nature of the business, clashing personalities, and what someone wants to do with their life and where they want to do it. For now, I’m giving it a try. Like any job, it has its plusses and minuses. Regardless of the duration, I know my time isn’t being wasted when it’s going to la familia.

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The 3-Month Itch

I’m off again after 3 months of being back and I’m THRILLED to be hopping onto a plane. The appalling images of the garbage trails have been flooding my channels. I walked through RHIA’s departure floor last August thinking that it would be solved by the time I returned but here we are, 6 months later, with the same shitfest.

Before my latest flight to CDG, I had lunch with my laptop at Cafe Younes in Hamra, an old hideout of mine during my second-round-of-undergrad-days. Maybe it was a move to remind me of when I felt like there was a lot of possibility ahead. A refresher of those vibes before I bask in West Coast living and become removed from the headache that is the Levant and its neighbors’ temper tantrums.

We try to grow our businesses, we fill our calendars, we pour more hard-earned cash into something we hope will be a sustainable source of income and/or purpose. We try.

Or we leave for some fresh air so we can keep doing the above with some sanity when we come back like the labrador that returns to an abusive owner only to be kicked in the face again. I can’t help but ask: what makes us come back?

Oh Lebanon, I may love you too much for my own good but even love grows tired when one side’s fighting the battle alone. Here’s to hoping some of this garbage gets sorted out before my return. And I don’t just mean the trash.

Nike+ Run Club: Byblos was our Valentine

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Taken by Ali Itani

As readers of El-Tanein Diet know, the Nike+ Run Club (NRC) runs twice a week from the Nike store in Beirut Souks every Tuesday and Thursday evening. However, what is not advertised on their flyers is the NRC-organized fun runs on weekends. I stress on the words “fun run” because the main point behind this group is to run for the sake of running, not for medals or podiums.

Leading the pack in this group of awesome folk is Mark Jibran, the NRC coach and all-around positive force of nature. Having a good coach should not be underestimated when it comes to sticking to a fitness regimen. If one’s trainer pushes too hard or doesn’t know how to motivate effectively, then they have failed as a trainer. What seems to fall through the cracks when finding a personal trainer or fitness advisor is not the reps or preferred activities used to get one in shape, but the personal approach they have while one is undergoing training.

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Mark Jibran, NRC Coach – Taken by Ali Itani

And that is where Nike hit the jackpot with Mark. He knows how to deal with people and he knows how to push without making you want to throw spiky pineapples at him so he’d back off.

For each coach, there is a pacer: Mohamad Marhamo. With M&M, the NRC is guided by two smiling and seasoned runners. We are pushed to keep running at our own best pace or, at the very least, to keep running. We are told how to stretch, how to stay hydrated, and how to exercise correctly. And if that wasn’t enough to convince you that they know what they’re doing, both are members of De-Feet Runners, a group of ultra-marathoners who run marathons back-to-back for 6 consecutive days to raise funds for charity.

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Mohamad Marhamo, NRC Pacer – Taken by Ali Itani

Running with these two on the Beirut corniche will show you that this group truly does run BEY. Be it at 6am or 6pm, fellow runners all over the path call out a happy hello to M&M because they are deep-rooted members of this athletic community that is alive in our city. While the rest of us sleep in, these guys are out there enjoying the sunrise and serene calm that you rarely associate with our chaotic capital. By being part of this group and going for runs at the crack of dawn, I got to witness this spirit and, dare I say, be part of it even if just for a few instances.

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For Valentine’s Day, we decided to take on the cultural port city of Byblos (Jbeil) for an early morning 10km run through the old souk and asphalt road to Amchit. On the bus there, while still trying to figure out how and why I was on my way to run on the morning of my 28th birthday, I was also debating how many kilometers I would actually do. The warm-up was set at 2km so that was the minimum but where would I stop? I’d done 10km in the Beirut Marathon but that question popped up, like it does before every NRC meetup, do I feel like it today?

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At every kilometer, my mind would ask, “are you ready to turn around?” But as I neared the halfway point where M&M were waiting with water, I had other NRC members making their way back and cheering me on. So I thought, “yalla, another kilometer and then you’ll stop.” And that’s how it went on until I did the entire 10. I did it thanks to their cheerleading combined with my mind not wanting my body to succumb to being closer to the age of 30. HA.

I was never a runner. Hell, I still don’t think I can call myself one. But maybe, in the future, with the help of NRC, I will be.

Beirut, Be Good

  

The other day, I was thinking that this has been the longest stint I’ve had in Beirut in the last 2 years. Personal trips and business flights had me in and out of Lebanon a lot. People used to say that that is why living here was bearable. I had the breaks needed to cope. It was the opposite though. Only after I started traveling more did it get harder and harder for me to stay.

This week has shown me a side of my country that has left me uneasy. I feel the violence that occurred on Saturday was a blessing in disguise. Although people were assaulted and violated, we were shown where we stand in the eyes of “our leaders.” The Lebanese public demanded basic rights and were met with force. The government brought on the same response that every action they’ve done leads to: bringing the people to tears, only this time it was via tear gas and brutality rather than frustration and disappointment.

Had the demonstration remained civil and truly peaceful, the woes of the protesters may not have reached the rest of the public at home and abroad. Escalation and injustice attracts international media attention and creates necessary pressure on those responsible.

I admit that I was not there on the 22nd. I was discouraged, time after time, feeling that our efforts were wasted and heading in an unclear direction. And I will also admit, hearing about the water cannons made me fear for my own safety. After seeing my friends fall, my fellow citizens take hits – I was relieved that I was safe at home and repulsed by how they were treated. I had given up. That didn’t last very long though; sitting behind screens felt wrong and their fire rekindled mine. My dad and I decided to join the protesters earlier this afternoon before the shit hit the fan again. Seeing the crowd slowly grow as the hours passed is the kind of thing that needs to be felt so the public knows their voice matters, that maybe they’re not powerless. I’m not a fan of movements that ask for the fall of the government and do not propose plans; we need strategy. With that said, I am an advocate of supporting the community that shows what Lebanon is really about. 

Unfortunately, it got dangerous after we left and my spirits are sinking again. The test now will be when the demands of daily life return. What worries me is what happens next. Did we just need a weekend to vent? What is our long-term plan to avoid repeating the same mistakes? How do we ensure that we will have new leaders that will respect our existence and represent the public instead of their own interests? Will the fall of our broken system really improve this situation? Things need to change. If not now, then when?

My expat friends abroad have made me feel like I’m one of the last guardians still here, still trying to build a future in dysfunctional purgatory. This coming Saturday, however, I’m leaving you Beirut. I will be back but I don’t know if I’ll stick around once I’ve had a taste of a stable nurturing environment that will feed my hunger for more. I’m choosing the same path that many before me have: to invest in myself first so that I can invest in my country more effectively later on. I need to do this. If not now, then when?

I hope that the bond that unified us against corruption doesn’t buckle, I hope that our media stays objective, and I hope that we maintain our stance with dignity. Lebanon, I don’t know how to love you anymore but I don’t know how to stop. I haven’t left yet but all I ask of you while I’m gone is that you be smart, be strong, and be good.

Staying Productive When Unemployed

Courtesy of Stokpic

Courtesy of Stokpic

By unemployed, I mean not going to an office every day. That means you could be freelancing, applying for higher education or a new job, or planning world domination via miswak toothbrushes. Whatever your reasons are for not clocking in, here are some tips that I came up with from my own summer of unemployment.

Let Side Projects Take Center Stage
Use the flexible schedule to work on the side projects that were always lower on your list of priorities. When you have a full-time job, it’s tough to burn the midnight oil on something that isn’t a must or hasn’t fully taken shape yet. When the day’s events are up to you though, you can recalibrate where you want to invest your minutes. Not all side projects have to be grandiose and extra ambitious. It can be as simple as getting through all the books on Obama’s summer reading list.

Keep To-Do Lists and Deadlines
Without a boss or manager keeping you in check and the sun luring you into beach bummery, it’s not hard to waste away ending up in an endless lethargic stupor. Having daily lists of what to do can keep you on your toes, making sure you cross off the most basic tasks for the day. Just remember to be realistic with your expectations of what you can accomplish. Being productive AND sleeping in is doable, just set up the schedule that works for you.

Stop Feeling Guilty
You need discipline as mentioned above but you will have the propinquity to revel in the newfound freedom. There is beauty in being able to wake up when you want and shift things around on a whim. Learning to be okay with doing nothing temporarily every once in a while is a skill that has to be acquired. In the technology age when we’re all incessantly connected and online, we need to master the art of stillness. And if you’re wasting too much time/energy vegetating and living the funemployed life, take up a new hobby and eat more falafel. Those vegetarian sandwiches cost $2 and keep you full all day.

Courtesy of Stokpic

Courtesy of Stokpic


Change Desks for the Day

Get out of the house and off the bed. Changing it up helps you feel like you’re going to work, especially when your home is supposed to be the place you turn off your brain. If you need to get work done that doesn’t depend on internet connection, go to a spot that has bad wifi. You’ll be too frustrated to bother connecting which will force you to pour your energy into the tasks at hand, spending less time reading The Atlantic articles about millennials. Trying different hideouts to camp for the day with your laptop/sketchbook/agenda can be a fun way to get acquainted with your surroundings. You’ll test cafes and meet people who are a) escaping electricity cuts
b) researching something you could be into or c) wearing a tarboosh because they’re a lost Italian tourist.

Be selective with where you go though because spending hours on end at coffee shops can rack up quite the bill unless you’re one of the types that orders one cappuccino every 4 hours. A balanced way to assess how much you should ingest at a cafe is to base it on: how much internet you consume, how many other laptops are there, and how many waiters have changed shifts.

Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

Not to sound like a preteen on tumblr but with freedom, books, flowers, and the moon, who could not be happy? 

A Maktoub 3 Loubnan Update

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

It’s been a few months since the launch of Maktoub 3 Loubnan, my very own little side-project. So far, I’ve received a total of 3 postcards. Unfortunately, snail mail is slower than initially expected but that’s alright. As long as I know that it’s working, the patient anticipation will make every postcard arrival sweeter.

What I do think about though is how generations before us used to communicate. The postal system was only functional for a good 150 years since stamps weren’t put into circulation until the Penny Black in 1840. And I’m saying “functional” as in, the majority of the world’s population depended on it for correspondence. Now, we text, email, and whatsapp. Communication is so cheap, so accessible, so…fleeting. Gone are the days when your loved ones had to wait months on end to hear your news or get an “I love you.”

Call me sentimental but snail mail is still a beautifully personal way to talk to someone. It takes effort to find the card, to write out the thoughts with ink, to slap on a stamp and pass it on for delivery. It passes through multiple hands and shoots to make the journey. But when the recipient gets that piece of mail, there’s part of that person on paper. It’s concrete and real. Ultimately, it’s human.

Could an email ever look like these?

I do hope that this slowed pace doesn’t discourage the rest of the Lebanese diaspora from sharing their memories of Lebanon via postcards. However, as an insurance policy, take photos of the front and back of your cards before posting them. That way, if your postcard doesn’t make it home, at least the photographic evidence will make it to my inbox. Email them to info@maktoub3loubnan.com.