Lebanon: The greatest food and wine country you've never visited (Part 1)
As the plane lifted into the sky above Beirut, the last vestiges of the city’s inky hills, flickering with the headlights of crepuscular movement, disappeared. The Lufthansa Airbus banked west over the Mediterranean towards Frankfurt. For a few minutes, the pale pink of dawn veiled the landscape in the foamy beige of a vintage or romance filter popular with Instagrammers. I squinted through my portal at the rising sun. It glinted eerily with the silver of a newly minted nickel. Clouds unspooled around it in sharp, shiny threads. Below, the sea spread into the corners beyond my vision like a pool of glittering mercury. What a strange sunrise, I thought, as I finally shut the shade and started to type.
The last nine days in Lebanon had been strange, but in an unfamiliar and surprising way. Sure, it’s a messy place. The burden of a violent past has contributed to the current contentious, and by most accounts, gridlocked, religion-based political structure. Unchecked sprawl and unfinished development projects devour the coastline and blight swaths of the interior. Syrian refugee camps seep into cities and countryside, threatening local security while straining resources. Traffic congestion that makes New York look like the wilds of Idaho forces locals and visitors to rethink their day-to-day schedules – or abandon plans wholesale. Regularly scheduled power outages force businesses and the affluent to run generators, leaving those without resources literally in the dark.
These points alone may be enough to convince someone not to go. Indeed, trepidatious tourists should avoid reviewing the U.S. Department of State’s list of warnings. They’d never board the flight otherwise. But beneath all the chaos of a country trying to modernize with little planning or restriction, subject to what some call a thinly veiled multi-theocracy, lies the true heart of Lebanon: it’s generous people, their hospitable culture, their curiosity, openness, and enthusiasm for sharing their rich traditions of food and drink. And for this, I found nine days insufficient to know this tiny mountainous country on the fringes of the Middle East – but I tried.
Before delving into why Lebanon deserves recognition as one of the world’s greatest food and wine destinations , it’s critical to have historical perspective. Thus, this article is broken into two parts.
Lebanon’s food and wine history extends back thousands of years. The Levant, as it was known generally before a series of contemporary political borders shaped it, was where humans first learned to farm. Moving from a hunter-gatherer existence to a semi-sedentary agricultural society gave people the freedom from day-to-day survival to pursue advanced interests like weapons, tools, and wine. But the history most Lebanese refer to as having the greatest implications for modern life, is that of the 20th century.
Before war erupted in the 1970s, Beirut went by the moniker Paris of the Middle East. “With its French Mandate architecture, its world-class cuisine, its fashionable and liberated women, its multitude of churches on the Christian side of town, and its thousand-year-old ties to France, it fit the part” wrote Michael J. Totten for City-Journal Magazine in his piece “Can Beirut Be Paris Again?” But in 1975, a nasty civil war broke out that shattered both city and country. As Totten reported, more than 100,000 people were killed – when the population numbered less than 4 million. And “civil” was a misnomer. “The war sucked in powers from the Middle East and beyond—the Palestine Liberation Organization, Israel, Iran, France, the Soviet Union, the United States—but no country inflicted more damage than Syria, ruled by the Assad family’s Arab Socialist Baath Party” Totten wrote.
When The War ended in 1990, as differentiated from a subsequent conflict between Israel and Shiite militant group Hezbollah in 2006, the country was in tatters. Bombs and bullets had decimated entire sections of Beirut as fighting split across the Green Line -- the division between opposing religious groups. The Taif Agreement, negotiated in 1989, restructured the existing sectarian power-sharing scheme that favored Christians to divide governance equally between them and Shia and Sunni Muslims.
Knowing Lebanon’s history gives valuable context for new visitors. While Tuscany has a long, complex and even salacious past, the movie set magic of its landscape checks many of the sightseer’s boxes. They’d be forgiven for inquiring about the wine list rather than the power struggles between medieval era Guelphs and Ghibellines. But much of old Beirut and surrounding areas were destroyed, often rebuilt haphazardly or with an eye to luring monied Gulf Arabs with luxury consumerism. Heritage buildings continue to be demolished for high-rises; architectural footnotes erased. Thus, Lebanon requires a deeper look than surface level viewing.
Despite the vicious tenacity of war, daily life in Beirut goes on, albeit on different planes. Consider the newly built Beirut Souks in downtown. The façade of this outdoor mall is meant to recall an old Middle Eastern market. But watching parents chase gleeful children next to women in platform stilettos walking tiny dogs in front of 5th Avenue shops, one can imagine being in any metropolis of the developed world. A few blocks away: Roman ruins abut the towering minarets and blue dome of Sunni Mosque Mohammad Al-Amin. Further afield, slums and refugee camps.
About a mile away, the Gemmayzeh zone attracts the young and outgoing, and is more down to earth than the sterility of wealthier, high-rise dotted districts. Rue Gouraud supplies vibrant street life rife with Parisian-style cafes, coffee bars, revisited Lebanese restaurants, and cocktail dens. Here, bits of former Ottoman and French-fashioned architecture remain, either reconstructed, reimagined, or in a state of florid Venetian-esque decay. Art galleries and book stores line unpaved streets with crumbling sidewalks, while electric cables strung like holiday lights, connect buildings.
It was deep on a Saturday night in Gemmayzeh that I understood Lebanese openness. A key metric of any city is the friendliness of strangers, and I met more on the streets of Beirut in a few hours than I have in New York City in a year. Walking along Gouraud revealed throngs of good-natured revelers spilled out into the night, the fragrance of apple-mint shisha clinging to the air. Striking up a conversation was easy. Most were curious about my presence in Beirut, pleased I knew of the city and wanted to visit. How other Americans perceived Lebanon was a question asked repeatedly in earnest. I replied truthfully: I was surprised by the torrent of positive interest in my trip; more than any destination I’d been to all year. And the most frequent comment was: “You’re going to love the food.”