Afternoons with the Sursocks: Sawfar & Beirut

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On the tree-lined road of Sawfar, known there as the corniche, there is a relic of the Lebanese past that people have forgotten. When asking my friends about the Sawfar Grand Hotel, most have never heard of it or its story but they know of “that big old abandoned structure off the main road of the town.”

Turns out, in the 60s, Sawfar was the happening place to be for all established families of Beirut as well as the travelers who passed through there thanks to the railway. The Sawfar Grand Hotel was built in the late 1880s by the Sursock family and was the first casino in Lebanon. Because it was built around the same time the train station was opened across the road, travelers taking the Beirut-Rayak line would stop there to stay at the hotel which was notorious for its casino, cinema, and nightclub, the Monkey Bar.

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I had always hoped to sneak onto the property and explore solo but the problem with that plan is that you never get the backstory right. You don’t know who walked the halls before you, who danced on the broken tiles under you, or who fell in love in the courtyards around you. Without the story, these structures remain unidentified bodies in the morgue, rotting down to the bone. They’re still part of what once was but they’re less human and you don’t know who they were when they were alive.

After finding out that the property was owned by the Sursocks, I got in contact with Roderick Cochrane, the youngest son of Lady Cochrane and grandson of Alfred Sursock. He was surprised I hadn’t already been to the hotel but even more flabbergasted that I was asking for permission to access the property first. That’s just not how things are done in Lebanon when it comes to the abandonment of our historical gems. Rarely do you find people who even pay attention to their existence, let alone respect their boundaries.

The hotel itself was never managed by the Sursock family and had various families (Tueni, Najjar, Rihani) renting it over the years. Government officials, Saudi kings, and other foreigners would take up residence at the hotel because it was a place they could easily get to and comfortably speak in Arabic. No need to fly to Europe. Apparently, the restaurant was a draw as well; George Rayess, the first Lebanese chef to publish his own cookbook, was a cook there.

It closed once the civil war of ’75 broke out but Roderick says that business started to dwindle a few years before that because of the proliferation of air conditioners in Beirut. Summers were bearable and less people made the trip to mountain getaways by then. After closure, it was the headquarters for the Syrian army who also contributed to the damages of war by stripping the wooden beams from the roof and burning them for warmth as well as dragging the elevator engines down the stairs, creating deeper gashes in an open wound. It, along with the Sursock’s villa there, suffered through the war and was looted by inhabitants and militias. And so, like all hotspots of Lebanon, the hotel’s heyday was in the 1960s. The more I find out about our past, the more I find myself wanting to have a Midnight in Paris trip to the days when our country was more advanced than it is today. We all seem to be enamored with the fantasy that is now long gone.


When asked why the Sursock family seems so adamant about preserving old Beirut, he replied, “it’s a special mentality. Although the Sursock money came from being merchants of cotton and wheat and things like that – things have changed. We don’t operate in that vein anymore. We don’t have money in the banks, we have it in properties.” Both villas’ gardens are used as venues for weddings and private events now. However, Roderick’s attachment to the properties is more sentimental than economical. He lives in the Beirut villa and spent childhood summers in the villa of Sawfar, named Donna Maria after his grandmother. He says,“it’s about family. If we lose our properties little by little, what will be left of us?”

When it comes to saving what is left of our architecture and history, we have no one to blame but ourselves. Laws have not changed, corruption continues, towers rise. “The Lebanese are merchants, they think about profits. They don’t think about the future. They forget about the past and they don’t think about what’s got to be good for their descendants or what country they’re going to leave for them.”  Sighs all around.

Roderick seems to have hope in the younger generation when it comes to change though. He senses their anger and understands their frustration, but commiserates with those who leave for better opportunities. “You have to survive,” he says. He notes how most who stay behind only do so to inherit family businesses since typical salaries aren’t the numbers you can build a life with.

After meeting him and talking about his family’s legacy, work toward preserving Lebanese heritage, and the summers in spent in the town above Aley, Roderick granted me my wish of visiting Sawfar and advised me to “park my car at the villa and take a stroll down through the corniche past the gendarmerie, down to the hotel across from the train station.” He also informed me that Lady Cochrane was spending her summer in the renovated servant’s quarters of their old villa and that she’d love to have a chat. A chance to talk to the woman who was there throughout the glory days of the country and started APSAD, a foundation for saving our heritage in the 1960s? Roderick was suddenly my genie and I was already somersaulting on a magic carpet.

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The delicate woman spoke of the peak of Sawfar’s summers when she was young and how things have transformed since then. Less people visit villages, more people moved to the city, and the spirit of the youth has slowly evaporated. The house had an esplanade where her mother made a floor for dancing and, before she was born, her father planted all the trees along the corniche, the trademark of Sawfar’s main road. She says, “it’s one of the only villages that hasn’t been spoilt by concrete.”


Lady Cochrane’s family is a multinational smorgasbord. Born in Naples to a Lebanese father and Italian mother, married to an Irish nobleman, and relations to French, American, and Canadian in-laws, it is quite the compliment for such a worldly woman to say that “Lebanon was one of the most beautiful countries you can think of when I was young. Beirut, you would never believe it but, Beirut was simply beautiful, one of the most beautiful cities of the Mediterranean.” After all, she would know.

As she speaks, I can’t help but feel guilty for not pumping my own grandmother for stories like this. She’s 10 years younger than Lady Cochrane (who’s 93) but doesn’t reminisce; she’s more concerned with electricity cuts of the present. As if she heard my thoughts, Lady Cochrane then mentions her plans to have windmills installed in Sawfar so the village can have an alternative electricity supply. She may be aging, but she’s still leveraging her influence. On top of that, she studied town planning for 7 years but never got her degree because she couldn’t make the last term move abroad since she was married with children by that time. “We’ve ruined our mountains, our cities, everything. We should make an island and put all the skyscrapers there and rebuild Beirut the way it was before. We create Beirut as it was, with lovely buildings and green spaces.” So who’s got a spare island? Maybe Dubai can lend us one and we can supply the towers.

“Everything good in Lebanon was suppressed. But there it is, we still have a few places left in the mountains.” She feels it’s too late to save what is left of Beirut; I hope, for Lebanon’s sake, that she’s wrong.

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Saying No to Temporary Fixes

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It’s ironic that in mob movies, members of the mafia use “waste management” as their cover when asked what they do for a living. Here, our mafia of politicians also has nothing to do with waste management. As has been the trend, whenever there has been an injustice in our society, a Facebook event pops up announcing a march against it. After the garbage fiasco this past week, an anti-corruption demonstration was planned for Saturday afternoon (yesterday) in front of the Grand Serail in Downtown.

I’ll admit that I haven’t gone to every protest but I felt like it was my civic duty to be present at this one in particular. If I didn’t go, I was a fraud: a hypocrite for not practicing what I preach. In essence, our presence at every march is necessary – we need to stand together when any member of our community or any issue that affects it is being defended and/or highlighted. We need to unite as a common front otherwise we are the ones to blame when our rights are violated or our politicians make poor decisions on our behalf and we quietly accept them. You have to take responsibility for your part of the equation before blaming others or authority. That also applies to the issue of garbage collection. As one citizen was saying at the protest, “this is our trash, we should sort it.” It is the country’s duty to collect and dispose of their people’s waste, but it’s the people’s duty to reduce their individual contribution to it. Once you do your part then you can be angry for them not doing theirs. It’s also about taking responsibility for putting such people in power and then suffering the consequences of our own votes. What’s done is done though so let’s deal with our present situation.

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I’m glad there was a demonstration. I’m amused when, after bumping into a friend there, she told me, “it’s my first mouzahara.” It was admirable to see people bringing their children there, exposing them to the issues that should be fought for instead of surrounding them with sectarian rhetoric. It was good to see the faces I see on Facebook, the ones who write about the problems, also there in person. It was great to see Lebanese flags, no party colors. It was commendable to see a peaceful approach to getting our voices heard. Who was listening though? The crowds looked indistinguishable from the ones at our summer street festivals and that’s what seemed wrong. I wanted more anger. I wanted more people. I wanted more alternatives presented for what happens once everyone goes home. Without a long-term plan, will there be change?

I went to yesterday’s protest knowing that it would either inspire or disappoint me. Sadly, it was more of the latter. I admire the activists that organized it and took action. Enough complaining without movement. But while standing there, I was surprised that there weren’t more people, that the ones there weren’t furious, and that the general consensus of the older generation was a pessimistic “what’s the point?” 

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Last night, I returned to Beirut from Broumanna and, from that altitude, there was a very visible gray cloud suffocating the entire city and we prayed that it wouldn’t rain. Driving (or diving, I should say) into it, the streets were a post-apocalyptic scene of burning dumpsters and filth.

The solution that they came up with yesterday post-protest was new landfills in new locations. But the people aren’t standing for it. Jiyeh residents have closed down the highways to South Lebanon because they don’t want to be the next Naameh. They may have inconvenienced a lot of people heading to/from the South today but they have every right to say no to a decision that will inconvenience them with a nation’s trash for an undetermined amount of time. We cannot let those in charge think that these “solutions” work. After seeing how they handle such crises, I wouldn’t want the trash moved to my backyard either. We have to reject this solution before it’s too late…again.


mouzahara: demonstration

5 Steps to Survive Lebanese Wedding Season

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

1. Don’t Post Wedding Selfies

The beauty of having friends and family from different non-overlapping circles is that you can wear the same dresses to their occasions, even if they’re a few days apart. It is possible to last an entire wedding season with one dress if you do not document it heavily.

However, by posting a full-length-mirror selfie to Instagram, you’ve officially retired that OOTD to next year’s rotation because Noor won’t forgive you for wearing the same dress to her wedding next month – I mean, it’s like you don’t even CARE.

If you don’t want to recycle wedding outfits, then hashtag your heart out because you looking FINE and that hair won’t stand a chance against our humidity or surround-dancefloor-while-clapping duty.

None of this applies to men. Boys, just change your tie and you’re in an entirely new outfit. Life is unfair.

2. Power Banks

You will be there for at least 4 hours and you will be using your phone to either chat, take photos, or [insert social media addiction here]. Your phone will die. In the 21st century, that will cause people who are not in your physical presence to assume you’re also dead. That, and you could get very bored or be forced to talk to a relative who keeps asking about your age and marital status.

Make sure your lifeline is fully charged when you leave home and keep a power bank on you or stuffed in your little clutch.

3. The “3a2belik/lak” Drinking Game

3a2belik is the Arabic sentiment that means “hopefully you’re next” – at a wedding, it’s referring to going down the aisle. Besides hearing this from everyone including the valet parking guy, one of the best features of weddings is the open bar so, every time you hear a “3a2belik/nefrah minnik/nshallah mnshoofik 3arous,” take a sip from your glass of Chivas or a shot of tequila. At a large wedding party, make it 1 shot/3 3abeliks.

If you’re at a conservative wedding (i.e. no booze), replace the whisky with spoonfuls of tiramisu. The traces of rum may do the job or, at the very least, you’ll get a decent sugar high that’ll make you giggle your way through the night.

4. Take on a New Identity

When at a social function like a Lebanese Wedding, you’re bound to meet people. You may even be at a table full of new faces. Now is your chance to pull a Frank Abagnale and invent a whole different persona. Keep your name but change all the details. Don’t worry, they’ll never admit that they Facebook stalked you only to find out you are not a massage therapist with a condo in New Mexico.

Be careful though – you’re in Lebanon which means a person you don’t know could turn out to be your cousin. At that point, inform them about Step 3 and let the bonding begin.

5. Uber/Careem it Home

Unless your face is glued to your phone’s screen because you’re being an antisocial millennial and only showed up for the shrimp cocktail at the buffet (no judgment), you will not want to drive home because of three things:
a) Existing in heels
b) Not knowing the road back to civilization
c) 3a2belik Drinking Game/Open Bar

Avoid it. You could even go home in an Uber Black since you’re all fancy. Treat yo self. And wedding planners, get some promo-codes for your guests so everyone can drink and be merry…and safe.

Mabrouk to all the new couples of the season!

10 Signs You’re a Lebanese Designer

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Courtesy of Death to Stock Photo

1. You frequent coffee shops based on their internet connection, not their coffee. That, and their interior decor. If you can pretend you’re in Brooklyn or Berlin, then you’re a loyal customer. This is why Urbanista is designer headquarters; it’s got the best wifi and if you stay there long enough, you’ll eventually feel like your #deskfortheday is across from Central Park on Lex.

2. The words “hipster” and “designer” are not interchangeable although you are the token-hipster amongst your non-designer friends. This has nothing to do with the fact that you like fedoras, plaid shirts, and craft beer. One pair of fruit socks does not a hipster you make. Okay maybe it does? But it’s not your fault H&M released a Coachella collection in Lebanon. You only shop there for basics anyway. And Balmain in November.

3. Papercup and Antoine Stationery are places you cannot visit if you are past the 20th of the month. If you do, you will not be eating until your next paycheck because you pulled a Carrie Bradshaw and bought a design biannual issue that costs $40. You don’t need another Moleskine notebook, a Rifle Paper Thank You card, or Choux a la Creme stickers. It’s best to stay away otherwise you’ll be caressing paper goods like you’re in a romcom sponsored by Fabriano.

4. If you identify yourself as an illustrator, you probably wear Converse. If you’re an art director, you have at least one pair of Nike AirMax. And if you’re a fashion designer, you probably own one pair of laced up brogues. If you’re just a creative in general, you have all three.

5. You use yamli.com to get words typed in Arabic.

6. As an undergrad, you interned at a top ad agency and you a) decided that that’s what you’ll do for a few years b) despised it and went to work in a boutique design firm in an old house in Gemmayzeh with high ceilings c) eventually left the country to do your Masters in Milan, Amsterdam, or the States

7. You’ve never bought original Adobe CS software (or any other software) because your university/office/Interlink installed it for you.

8. Your MacBook Pro had the price tag of a small used car. It is your child and if it were to ever get hurt, you would sit in the corner wondering which organ to sell to replace it.

9. Working on anything bilingual makes you go cross-eyed because Arabic and Latin have different rules when it comes to typography. Let’s not even mention the existence of trilingual briefs.

10. Your Teta still doesn’t know what you do. As far as she’s concerned, you’re a “drawing engineer” which got her approval because it means you studied هندسة. Thanks Yamli.

You Have Your Lebanon

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And I have mine.

Sietske, a Dutch blogger who’s been in Lebanon for ~20 years, recently posted about the tendency we have to sulk about our “situation.” It is a topic that I’ve discussed with my friends on multiple occasions: how there is an inclination for some nationals to diss Lebanon, be it from home or abroad.

Well, guess what? I can’t have that. You may have your Lebanon and I may have mine but, to the outside world, they are one and the same.

By being Lebanese, or a citizen of anywhere, you are effectively a representative of your nation. This does not mean that you gloss over its problems, pretend that it’s perfect, or downplay the serious obstacles that are incessantly popping up there. It does mean that you put these problems into their historical context, that you try to create understanding with an audience that may be misinformed or not know enough to pass judgment, and that you contribute to the inspiring image that your country can have if you let it.

Part of why Lebanon’s golden age is considered the 60’s is because that period’s been praised and talked about so much since then. How about instead of focusing on a time when Lebanon used to be glorious, we put the same amount of energy into portraying the greatness that Lebanon has today?

When someone asks you about Lebanon, if you answer with all the negatives and are quick to deem it a sinking ship, then you are choosing the easy route. This place can be difficult to defend and there is resentment. You feel that you should not be expected to be loyal to a place that never did anything for you but give you severe road rage, an overpriced lifestyle, and a useless passport.

I can sympathize with those who tease our system, our politics, our obsession with religion. I’m entertained by it just like anyone else who understands how aggravating these things can be. It’s comforting, in a way, to laugh it off when it feels like that’s all that can be done. On the other hand, when you nag just for the sake of it, you are filling a cesspool that does not need replenishing. If you are not satisfied with what is happening (or what isn’t happening) in the country, then there are three options: take action, stay silent, or leave. However, if you do leave, try not to trash the place that shaped you as an individual.

If you are abroad and you’re talking smack about your country, painting an ugly Monet of what we are, then you are being ineffective as citizens. You are lucky that you had the option to pursue other opportunities that may not have been available to you in Lebanon but you are not better than any other Lebanese person just because you left. Leaving does not mean that what you’re saying about the country has no relation to you. You are still Lebanese.

The more you insult your place of origin, the more you give others the right to do the same because it clearly doesn’t bother you since you agree with them. As a result, you’ve perpetuated the Let’s Take a Crap on Lebanon trend.

Let me put it like this: it’s like when you rant about how annoying your sibling is. Only you can complain about her annoying dietary preference for gluten-free no-wheat-flour falafel. As soon as your audience joins in on the bashing, it’s suddenly not okay anymore. It’s also similar to how some girls allow themselves to be called “bitches.” You using the term does not mean that you claimed ownership and made it empowering. It means you’re okay with its use, its derogatory connotation, and you’re indirectly saying “I’m fine with you using this term to describe me.” That’s exactly what you’re doing by allowing someone to call Lebanon a failure. You’re saying you’re okay with them calling you a failure. Should you be critical of its development, its government, its progress? Absolutely, but it should be constructive criticism and come from a place that hopes for more. Is it cosmopolitan, organized, and solid? No. But what you say about your own country, the place that is intertwined with your identity whether you like it or not, is a reflection of your character.

You are an ambassador of Lebanon to the world; after all, the best byproduct this country ever produced was the people that came from it. If the country has not made you proud, then prove that you are worthy of something better. Show others that this place that “still suffers from the echoes of civil war” is not a place that births damaged people. Change what it means to be Lebanese by being successful regardless of what your country couldn’t do for you. Prove that being from Lebanon is a strength, not a curse. Tell Lebanon’s story. Doing otherwise just makes me (and the rest of us) look bad and I won’t stand for someone falsely representing what I am. Stop associating my country, my heritage, and my identity with everything you (and I) don’t want it to be. Start embracing who you are or should be: a member of the community that is pushing back.

The Launch of Maktoub 3 Loubnan

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The more I toy with the idea of leaving Lebanon, the more I realize how many Lebanese have gone through the same contemplation at one point or another. Many left and many returned but most stayed in their new adopted homelands, setting up a life and roots for the future. What I find peculiar about our diaspora is how connected one becomes with the country after leaving it. This is not special to us alone – after all, you can’t be homesick if you never leave home. But beyond the undying tie to the land, for once, you find people identifying themselves as “Lebanese” rather than as a member of a sect or political party. Why must we leave to create this kind of solidarity with the one thing that unites us all together?

Thinking about how spread out my fellow nationals are led me to start this project:
Maktoub 3 Loubnan. I want to create a record of those who were once here or feel linked to Lebanon by paper, blood, or memory. If you’re Lebanese and not living in Lebanon at the moment, please send a postcard indicating your new homebase to the address below:

Maktoub 3 Loubnan
P.O. Box 16 – 7115
Sassine Square
Beirut, Lebanon

All I ask is that you share a written memory of Lebanon and send it home. I want to unite these memories and share them with the world. I want to tell the story of who Lebanon has given to the world and what Lebanon has given to its people.

Postcards will be uploaded on the photoblog under the same name effectively building a visual archive of the Lebanese diaspora.

Care to be a part of it?

A Community without a President

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Today marks two anniversaries for Lebanon: 15 years since the liberation of the South and 1 year since the beginning of our presidential vacuum. Twelve months of a second round of headless chicken syndrome and yet, I find that there are signs that Lebanon’s community is still there. We are still pushing forward, trying to create a country out of what we have.

Instead of having Lebanon associated with suicide bombings, political ambivalence, or whether or not it can withstand the increasing number of refugees, there is evidence that this place is made of more than the troubles it carries.

It seems there is more to a country than the person who runs it – there is its people.

The community is those who are fighting against domestic violence. They are the youth who give the staircases in Mar Mikhael a fresh coat of paint. They are the organizers of street festivals that remind us of the beauty of our Mediterranean sunshine and attraction to life. The community is the designers and artists coming together for Beirut’s 3rd Design Week. They are the people coming up with a civil campaign against the privatization of Dalieh. They are the activists pushing for more public green space, equal rights of migrant workers, and ethical treatment of animals. They are the dignified Armenians who ask for recognition of a crime against humanity rather than an apology or vengeance. Sure, they’re the ones throwing and attending the parties and concerts too. The community is those who are not waiting for a president to create their Lebanon. The community is made up of people who are building it anyway.