Who Remembers the Lebanon of the Not-So-Distant Past? Let Me Jog Your Memory.
Lebanon has arguably never seen worse days than those we’re weathering now. Constant electricity outages; a seemingly unresolvable fuel shortage translating to long lines at the pump; rampant hyperinflation; poverty engulfing three-quarters of the population; rising unemployment; the depletion of medicine; oversaturated hospitals and healthcare facilities…all impetuses propelling the mass exodus of emigrants who will go literally anywhere to escape the trials and tribulations of home.
Where were we just two years ago, and where are we now? Ever see those memes split into two columns, juxtaposing “How it started” and “How it’s going”? Yeah, well, in Lebanon’s case, it just isn’t going. End of story.
No doubt many of us find ourselves reflecting on the not-so-distant past, nostalgic for the golden age we didn’t even know we were reveling in until the rug was violently pulled out from under our feet. Here's what I've been missing most.
1. Who remembers when Anthony Salamé and Frankie Walters ruled the airwaves? I distinctly recall Virgin Radio’s debut to Lebanon in 2012, one year after my arrival. Anthony – an Australian-Lebanese comedian – used to rap his own hilarious tunes (does “Djej and Toum” ring a bell?) and gush over his adoration for raw kibbeh, while poking fun at his sweet co-host, Frankie, who is part-Lebanese, part-British. Their on-air chemistry was undeniable, and they kept us commuters intrigued during the morning hustle.
2. And who could ever forget Gavin Ford in the Morning? He was the longstanding host and life of Radio One, who washed up on the shores of Beirut from England decades before and could never bear to part with his adopted Mediterranean perch. Writing about him posthumously makes my eyes well up. I rubbed shoulders with Gavin at a number of media events, and two things struck me about him: his prominent stature and his immediately personable character. He had a wonderful humility about him, and he was genuinely interested in having rich discussions. Gavin still comes to mind often, as does his eloquent co-host Olga Habre, who has since relocated to Dubai. Since Gavin’s appalling murder in his Broumana home in November 2018, Radio One has gone off the air permanently.
3. When it came to lavishness and hospitality, nothing could compare to Le Gray nestled in the heart of downtown Beirut. A bastion of modernity with an appealing architecture unlike any other, Le Gray was home to Gordon’s Café, a trottoir hangout that served the best high tea in Beirut. Their lemon poppy seed cake was an unrivalled treat. I could wax poetic for hours (and believe me, I have, as evidenced through the sheer number of blog posts dedicated to nearly every aspect of the establishment, from the spa, to the accommodations, to the fancy dining, infinity pool, and rooftop venue). Suffice it to say that there really was nothing grey or bleak about Le Gray: it was unequivocally sublime.
The rooftop infinity pool at Le Gray, which overlooked Beirut Port
4. Did you ever try Castania’s honey-roasted peanuts for 250 LL? I was spellbound with those little bags. They made the perfect snack before dinner, as I roamed the corridors of Beirut Souks waiting for my husband to get off work. Back in the day, you could buy a 90-g bag of “cricri” (coated peanuts) for 1,000 LL (equivalent then to $0.66). Five sticks of Trident gum would run you 500 LL ($0.33), and a 330-ml can of soft drink was priced at 750 LL ($0.50). Each of those numbers has been multiplied by at least 10 to reflect today’s pricing. Seriously now, do you have the heart to shell out 8,000 LL for a can of Pepsi? It’s mind-numbing.
5. Did anyone else ever take advantage of the matinee showings at theatres across Lebanon? In this country, matinee means 2 PM at most movie houses (only Vox inside Beirut City Centre used to boast séances scheduled as early as noon). If you were free and keen, you could sit back and enjoy a Hollywood blockbuster for a mere 9,000 LL ($6).
The Vox Gold lounge at Beirut City Centre
6. Isn’t it hard to believe that “service” taxis would set you back just 2,000 LL a few years ago? A full-fare private cab started at 10,000 LL if you didn’t wish to vanpool with other riders. Now, what can 2,000 LL fetch you at the grocery store? A 500-ml bottle of water? A dinky wafer bar coated in sketchy “chocolate compound”? The other day, I paid 1,500 LL at a local print shop for one A4 B&W sheet of paper.
7. Every time I pass by a gas station, anxiety sets in. Will it ever go back to no lines at the pump, no overnight queuing for that precious fluid presently priced at 205,000 LL per tank (20 l, or roughly 5 gal)? It’s as though the higher prices soar, the greater the demand. And that cascades to delivery prices set by couriers like Toters, who only today announced yet another adjustment to their rates (beginning at 15,000 LL and distance-dependent). I miss hearing the words “free delivery.”
8. Perhaps one of the few things that haven’t surged in price is mall parking. City Mall charges 3,000 LL for the first three hours and 1,000 LL per hour thereafter. Le Mall Dbayeh parking is complimentary. Then again, I always did believe in free parking – why should you have to pay a dime if you’re rendering payment at a vendor for acquired merchandise? Where’s the incentive in that?
9. What crushes my heart the most is all the food and beverage outlets that have caved under the weight of the multiple crises gripping Lebanon. I need to update this page and mark the shuttered establishments as “Closed”, but I just can’t bring myself to do so – cue the flood of memories and wistful tears. Lebanese people are renowned for their entrepreneurial spirit, their risk-taking, their unchecked ambition and optimism. All of that has been snubbed, and a rare few have been able to keep their businesses open and flourishing at a profitable level.
The communal dining table at Lobster Society, Mar Mikhael, 2017. On the right, its founder Karl Naim, who also created ChefXChange. Both innovative concepts have since withered away.
What do you miss most about pre-2019 Lebanon?
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I mostly miss arriving late for my flight and that awkward feeling that starts to kick in on the last eve each time I leave Beirut. Must admit it was way better than the urge to leave that's intimating my now or the disgust caused by security check personnel with masks down to chins at the airport.ReplyDelete