In Search of the Silver Lining
It’s painfully easy hating on Lebanon. No matter where you look, there’s incessantly a blatant reminder of how archaic the country’s infrastructure is. We still suffer from electricity outages day and night – where else in the world does that happen? Many a country reflect a lower GDP per capita than we do, and yet they’re not living in the dark (pun intended).
Forget the countryside, you’d be hard-pressed to find a smoothly paved road devoid of potholes anywhere in the capital. If you’re ever reeling from indigestion, just get behind the wheel and go for an excursion. That’ll solve your tummy troubles in no time.
How about the air and water pollution and the seeming indifference to ameliorate either? What of the historic ruins that are open to the public to trample upon and abuse, rather than being the objects of painstaking preservation and care? We count as one of the oldest civilizations in the world, laying claim to Roman and Byzantine ruins from tens of centuries ago that attest to empires far more advanced than we can ever hope to be.
|The ancient ruins of Beit Mery suffer from littering|
Don’t get me started on the despicable internet download and upload speeds, no matter what government telecom provider Ogero alleges regarding the installation of fiber optic cables in the heart of Beirut. I reside just north of the capital, in a rather populous city a mere two kilometers from a hub, and ADSL is frequently spotty. Ogero still doesn’t offer unlimited consumption packages, so if you exceed 200 GB in combined upload or download volumes, you pay hefty surcharges. Elsewhere in the world, phone carriers like T-Mobile don’t put a price on data – it’s all free. Oh my, we have such a long way to go.
This essay could easily degenerate into a dissertation on the demerits of Lebanon. But Beirutista has always endeavored to paint a positive portrait of Lebanon, in spite of the plethora of drawbacks coursing through this country’s clogged veins. So let’s shift the vantage point and seek out the silver lining of what Anthony Bourdain referred to as “one glorious, messed-up, magical, maddening, magnificent city.”
Shall we highlight the “knefeh” first? Anyone unfamiliar with the decadent pastry layering semolina and molten cheese stuffed inside a sesame-studded "kaakeh" and drizzled with syrup is seriously amiss. I’ll be honest: I don’t have a strong preference for the so-called cheesecake of Lebanon. At most shops, you’ll find it to be excessively sweet and heavy on the paunch, which is why I characteristically shy away from knefeh and the calories it packs in.
But the other day, I had an epiphany at Amal Bohsali’s patisserie in Qoreitem. The proper dose of oozing cheese, a crunchy shell of semolina, a light swirl of sugar water as requested, and a fresh-baked pocket of bread to envelop it came together magnificently. And it didn’t weigh down on my belly or conscience.
|Knefeh by Amal Bohsali (photo credit: instagram.com/amal_bohsali)|
Okay. All right, Danielle. We all know that food in Lebanon is one of the salient strengths and sources of pride around these parts. Yes, I aver, we do cuisine better than most, and you need not take my word for it: there’s a reason the Mediterranean diet is all the rage, with its emphasis on abundant produce, legumes, pulses, yogurt, olive oil, and seafood. Our soil and climate are perfectly conducive to natural bounties, and it’s no wonder our wine industry is blossoming beautifully, boasting over 50 wineries throughout the country.
We’ve got a solid handle on our mezza – have you tried the latest Lebanese brasserie named Seray in Minet el Hosn? We can even imitate foreign food concepts like the American burger quite convincingly (I recommend Overdose961). We craft delectable and elastic Arabic ice cream, or booza. And our version of the pizza, dubbed “manakish,” is often the first thing expats cite when they conjure up the image of a quaint Lebanon.
Outside the realm of food, we’ve made some headway on the electricity front in the form of imposed metered readings on residential consumption. Previously, generator owners would collect a flat fee computed by the hours of outage and the price of fuel. Now, residents pay strictly based on their home use. For example, in July 2018, we forked over LBP 240,000 (US$ 160) for 10 amps. This year, during the same month, our bill amounted to LBP 83,000 (US$ 55). That’s a reduction by nearly two-thirds! We’re getting there, slowly but surely, I suppose.
Our national airline carrier Middle East Airlines (MEA) features one of the most rewarding frequent flier programs in the world. Trust me, I would know, as I’ve racked up miles with many carriers and witnessed their worthlessness. Other airlines no longer reward passengers 1 mile per 1 mile flown, opting for a convoluted algorithm hinging on price of ticket and the sub-class of your seating class (were you aware Economy is separated into dozens of tiers labeled by the letters of the alphabet?). MEA still plays it classy, meaning in the worst case scenario, the least amount of points you’ll be awarded is the number of miles you flew.
|Cedar Miles, the frequent flier program of Middle East Airlines, is rewarding (photo source: stepfeed.com)|
And did I mention their twice-yearly 50% off award redemption campaign? For a period of six or so weeks, fly to any destination for half the normally required miles. That’s unheard of!
I concede, MEA does charge inflated taxes and airport fees, but hey, something’s gotta give, right? In a country where exorbitance is the rule, MEA is hardly a black sheep.
It’s admittedly a challenge finding beauty in a country so deeply mired in chaos, lack of progress, and disillusionment. But we all need a reminder from time to time that this haven of ours has its charms, and maybe we ought to focus on the haves rather than the have nots. Tis the prudent thing to do, wouldn't you say?