The Angel of Lebanon

The Angel of Lebanon

“You have your Lebanon and its dilemma… My Lebanon is a flock of birds fluttering in the early morning as shepherds lead their sheep into the meadow and rising the evening farmers return from their fields and vineyards. You have your Lebanon and its people. I have my Lebanon and its people…”

Khalil Gibran

 

Text : Lena Gevorgyan   
Photo : Mariam Loretsyan

 

Do you believe in love at first sight? Well, I do and I have always remained true to the phenomenon of never having a second chance to make a first impression on both people and places. I believe you either feel the vibe inside at the first moment or lose it forever. Lebanon was love at first sight. It embraced us from the very first second our plane rushed into the Lebanese clouds, opening its warm heart of blue lagoons, jungle of skyscrapers, gradient of beige shades and scent of jasmine. Lebanon is love.

For many people Lebanon is associated with blood, conflict, politics and war. But just come and visit this place. Lebanon, that has been occupied by at least 16 countries is about strength and wisdom, patience and gratitude. This is a land of feasts, happiness, tasty food, oceans of coffee, unstoppable conversations and love. This country breathes contemporary art, architecture and design. The cultural identity of Lebanon has become its strong character.

They call her Beirut

They say she always finds her way to each person’s heart and does the impossible to bring you back to her shores. They believe she is the Paris of the Middle East. They call her Beirut.

We drive along the streets of Beirut devouring the distance and reaching the other cities and villages in Lebanon. The music is playing. Fairuz – the diva of the second half of the 20th century is still trendy throughout the region. Her voice is sweet as middle eastern desserts and as feminine as Beirut. The car windows are open and the wind steals the lyrics of the song… “She is made from the people’s soul, from wine, she is from… Jasmin, a taste of fire and smoke, Beirut has a glory of ashes. Hug me, you are mine…” They say this city is female, astonishing, I always compare cities with people and believe they have a gender.

Zaitunay bay around Beirut Marina, breathing with modern architecture by Steven Holl, or Bernard Khoury is an excellent answer to war. One can hear the city whispering “destroy me, I will be reborn by arising from the ashes.” But Beirut is about preservation as well. She is like a strong woman with a broken heart, ready to admit the fact that her wounds are still open and bleeding, but proving life is about catching the moment. She understands that the process of healing needs much time, but she is brave enough to look forward, magically turning the wounds into scars of experience and living evidence of her own life and story. There is a building situated in the Centre Ville territory in Beirut, once a border between Muslims and Christians that has become living evidence of the civil war. The bullet riddled building has preserved all its wounds to become a museum exposing the traces of war in the nearest future.

Mornings in Beirut begin very early, when the fragrance of coffee with cardamom fills every inch of the house. Our friends say that eating is the most important activity here and I love that. No, “eating” is the wrong word, better to say “feast,” because people in Lebanon never just eat to satisfy the feeling of hunger. They enjoy the process, making it a sacred ritual. People can just sit in a restaurant for hours enjoying the variety of meals, one tastier than the other, talking, smoking argileh and singing traditional Lebanese songs. Every day is a festive meal day here. How can one eat so much? Just go and dance all night long in Mezyan, or drink wine in Bartartine, one of the oldest spots, and enjoy the nightlife of Beirut.

Buildings in Beirut are like pages from books, or websites, maybe even blogs or digital stories exposing the latest samples of visual elements. The information seems to be a real burden for them, but they carry so many words in them that one can just stand and read, or watch them. Dozens of advertisement signs, nameplates exposing the detailed information about a person, door signs, instruction plates, posters with different quotes, all mark their own spots on buildings, shining bright at night. These open books are silent storytellers giving a voice to the entire country.

I was not born in Beirut, but this territory is a land of ethnic diversity, so it hugged me. I feel home here and it’s mine too.

 

The Angel

I love the moment a new city opens up and starts speaking to you via quotes written on walls or through people. We met Angel who was sitting with a cat on some of the oldest stairs connecting Mar Mikhel street with Achrafieh. Her voice interrupted to ask if we are from Armenia. She spoke western Armenian, the old wrinkled woman who was dressed in nostalgic clothing.

“What is war, that once ruined this land? Nothing. Life is a war, we fight every day for our existence. But do you know that at the same time life is the most magical phenomenon of all that I love so much,” she said.

Her name is Angela, but everyone calls her the Angel of Beirut, as she takes care of all the cats in the district, her only true friends. Angela is a descendant of Armenian genocide survivors, born and raised in Beirut. “My big family is gone, I’ve lost my husband because of the doctor’s failure a few years ago. My son and daughter, the only people alive, live in the USA, they want me to go and live with them. But look into my eyes, this is my Lebanon, my beautiful Beirut, my stairs and my cats, how can they go on without me? And believe me, you should trust no one but yourself,” Angela says.

The Angel of Beirut saves and feeds cats, hosting them in her apartment. She has experienced all the disadvantages of post-war Lebanon, which has taken its toll on her skin, but proudly highlights that the land is not to blame for that. “Lebanon is a land of happiness and love. I loved my husband. I don’t know where he is now, I do not know where I will go, I do not know what there is in the sky, but there is only one universal truth for me. I want to cherish my life every second up until my breathing stops in my sleep. I pray and demand this from God, I have the right,” she says.

Beirut spoke to us via this woman blessing us to live – “There is nothing more dangerous than someone who wants to make the world a better place. Start from yourself, this is where an endless source of inspiration is hidden.”

Beirut is a teacher and the greatest lesson it gives us is to be reckless, infinite, emotional, human… “My people’s wounds have flourished, and mother’s tears, you are mine, hug me…”

St. Stephen's Church

The Cedars of God

I love how the amazingly unexpected view of a new city opens while observing a country from inside a moving car. Some three or four hours’ drive and here is fairy Bsharri- a tiny town of the only preserved original cedars of Lebanon. So, do you want to see the giant cedar, the symbol of Lebanon depicted on the national flag? Just come and visit Arz ar-Rabb, translated as the “Cedars of God,” a forest of cedars.

Also, this town is known as the birthplace of great Khalil Gibran. Phoenicians lived here in ancient times, now the silence of this town with apple and walnut trees is filled with Gibran’s poetry, “Your Lebanon is a political knot, a national dilemma, a place of conflict and deception. My Lebanon is a place of beauty and dreams of enchanting valleys and splendid mountains. Your Lebanon is empty and fleeting, whereas my Lebanon will endure forever.”

 

The birthplace of contrasts

Bourj Hammoud is a town in Lebanon mainly populated by Armenians but also home to others. I guess this territory is the birthplace of contrasts.

Bourj Hammoud was founded by survivors of the Armenian genocide. All the posters and the writings around feature Armenian surnames. Although the town is diverse you can hear people speaking western Armenian. It is one of the most hospitable spaces in Lebanon, though each place visited here breathes hospitality. If you want to try real basturma (dried beef), visit “Basterma Mano” and you will be rewarded with happiness. Don’t ever forget to eat the best shawarma with sujuk (a dry sausage). Your life will never be the same again after tasting it in front of the café where the smiling guys make it. Go and eat shawarma outside to make a simple cafe into a theater where you take the first row to watch a real performance of life running at that very moment in Bourj Hammoud. The taste of sujuk here really differs from what we have in Armenia.

Arax street, with its hundreds of shops is the most desirable place in Bourj Hammoud. Every second passerby will probably approach you to ask for directions to Arax – the heaven for shopaholics.

All the buildings here are dressed up with millions of different curtains, covering each balcony like a blanket despite the hot weather. This place has an honorable position and can compete with Naples, Sicily, Toscana, or with Stepanakert in the Republic of Artsakh with the amount of laundry on display hanging out to dry. You can certainly read the stories of the people living in these houses from observing their laundry. And you can read these laundry books for hours. This district is a real authentic open-air museum telling the real story of the residents. By the way, while discovering the streets of Bourj Hammoud buy some raw fsto halabi (pistachios) from the local bazar, though your fingers will become red and you’ll break all your nails while trying to eat them, but trust me it’s worth it.

Everywhere you look are overhead electric power cables blocking the view of the sky above. I just wonder how these millions of endless multicolored cables work all together. And believe it or not, each cable matters in creating its own significance in the entire structure of existence. It seems they dream to become real lines in a notebook making the sky into a blank page so you can write down your own story. I think electrical engineers are kind of geniuses here. How do they navigate the millions of multicolored cables?

Bourj Hammoud is beautiful along with its trashy streets, paper like houses, noisy people, bikes, refugees and the smell of the sea. And this place is a real heaven for those forever in love with the texture of layers.

Famous Pigeons' Rock in Beirut

“Batrounian” fresh made lemonade

The music is still on in our car. Ziad Rahbani the son of Fairouz has often satirized Lebanese politics and has been strongly criticized. He brought new jazzy waves to Lebanese music and is well known for his performances. “Talfan Ayyash” seems to be a humorous song at first listen, but our friend translates the lyrics about Ayyash, who called and said why he did not call before, he lied and said much that was untrue. A simple story of a general issue hangs in the air the moment we reach Batroun, one of the oldest cities in the world founded by the Phoenicians. This city is unique with the wall the Phoenicians built for protection from the waves and their enemies, with St. Stephen’s Church that reminds me of the houses in Gaudi’s Park Guele, with narrow Greek-style streets and with an indescribable lemonade. Whenever in Batroun just go and drink the local freshly made lemonade, take away a big glass or you will regret it after. Bring your lemonade to the terrace of the Greek Orthodox church overlooking the sea and the remains of the ancient wall. A sunset here is a must-see view through arched belvedere framing. A perfect place to think about “all the details you can find only caught between syllables and breaths.”

“You have your Lebanon, I have mine”

Lebanese people celebrate being alive each single day. So, what is life? Maybe nothing else but a period consisting of seconds that build our story like bricks. Catch them, dance all night, celebrate every moment, spend your time with those who are worthy of it and who deserve your time, don’t be a puzzle, be a sponge, ready to absorb everything new. Catch the milliseconds and all the in-betweens, make them yours, create your day, explore the life beyond "what if" and design your own story. Watch the reflections, there is always another side to what you see.

Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, opened in 2008

Liters of Lebanese coffee with cardamom and tons of middle eastern desserts, hundreds of miles driven, unlimited portions of the tastiest meals, rivers of lemonade and local beer, endless seconds of unstoppable conversations, and a million minutes of happiness and laughter with those I’ve chosen. Choose those who choose you. “Finifugal” means I hate endings, trying to prolong the final moments of what I love, but Lebanon is the beginning and “It will endure forever.” “You have your Lebanon with her problems, and I have my Lebanon with her beauty,” Khalil Gibran.