Middle East 2019 – Conclusion

I keep this blog in defiance of the great Lebanese poet Kahlil Gibran, who wrote:

Travel and tell no one,
live a true love story and tell no one,
live happily and tell no one,
people ruin beautiful things.

I write to tell everyone who can find this blog how much I love traveling.  It’s probably my very American identity that aligns the spirit of this blog with Mark Twain, who wrote:

Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.

I travel because I love visiting new places, meeting people, and trying new foods.  I love being gobsmacked at how little I know about the world.   There is no amount of reading the newspaper or watching documentaries that can ever tell me what the lemonade at Petra tastes like or how quiet the desert in Wadi Rum is at midnight. I guess that is why I always loved the line from Good Will Hunting when Robin Williams’ character says, “I bet you can’t tell me what it smells like in the Sistine Chapel.”

This trip was great and quite different for me.   We traveled with a lot more people than I am accustomed to and I had to get used to that.   When Spencer, Samer, Holly, and I travel we each have a role and one never feels too much burden.  This time, Samer and I both were definitely the leads of at least half of the trip.  There was some stress with that identity, but nothing I didn’t overcome.   “Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” I guess.  Samer had the added responsibility of being the translator.

With all of that being said, this was an excellent trip that I enjoyed.   I think 2 weeks is a great way to see Jordan and Lebanon.   Jordan and Lebanon could not be more different.  Jordan is an Arab country with a fairly cohesive identity to a westerner. Lebanon is an Arab country with a grab bag of identities from all over in it.   When you are in Jordan, the language of the country is obviously Arabic.   When you are in Lebanon, you never really know what language to choose.   Signs are in Arabic, French, and English.   Hell, in the right neighborhood you’ll also see Armenian.

An unexpected outcome of this trip was about my career.   It’s no shocker, that I have not loved my work for the last couple of years.   I left the trip wondering if I could make a business at being a modern-day travel agent.   I’d happily research and design an untested itinerary for a trip and sell it to you.   I love reading about places, chatting with locals online about unrecorded opportunities, and making a plan for others to follow.  Honestly, I think I am pretty good at it. This is not a tenable business plan, but I have fantasized about it since I left.  It’s more evidence that it may be time to do something different with my profession.

In order to coordinate everything, we used apps like tripit, travefy, and splitwise.  I am sad to see travefy is disappearing.  It was a great app to create itineraries.     I thought Royal Jordanian was a good airline.   I would like to visit Jordan again and explore Amman.   I could see myself doing 3 days there before a trip to Lebanon. I will return to Lebanon.  There is more to see, more food to try, and more wine to taste.

Everyone should go to these 2 countries.  I am not sure I would do anything different.  I enjoyed myself at every stop. I really enjoy the Middle East.  I struggle to make sure that I am not patronizing or fetishizing the Middle East.  I do not understand it, I do not fancy myself an expert in it, but I will continue to humble myself to its people and cultures.  It is only then, that I (maybe we) can begin to learn about the Middle East.


Lebanon – Day 9: Good-bye Lebanon

Our last morning in Lebanon lent itself to packing and teary goodbyes.  Our flight was around 1 PM, so we got to enjoy the morning with Chafica.    We stopped by Samer’s sister’s house to say goodbye to her and the kids.    The kids were as ridiculously adorable as they were the first day.

There was a little traffic on the way to the airport, but we made it with plenty of times.  We checked into the Cedars lounge, which is a very nice lounge.  They have some ancient artifacts in glass cases, comfortable chairs, and a good coffee machine.

After that, we returned to Amman and then back to NYC.   Goodbye Lebanon.   Without a doubt, I will return. I have friends, family, and memories in this weird little country on the Mediterranean.   It’s not a home for me, but I hold it quite close.

The last time I visited was Maria and Edward’s wedding.  An opulent event cast in the shadow of Samir’s illness.  It was a weird week.  I don’t want to give the impression, I didn’t enjoy myself.  I really did.  It was amazing, but on that trip, I was not there to visit Lebanon.

This trip was very different.  I was here to see Lebanon and enjoy myself. This time, I did both of those things more than I could have imagined.

Next – Middle East 2019 – Conclusion

Lebanon – Day 8: Free Day

We had a bit of a late start because we didn’t get in from Music Hall until 3 AM.   I wasn’t hungover, but I was definitely tired.   We decided to explore Broumanna a little bit before lunch.   We returned to the Unicorn Coffe House.   I had the same order as the day before, a Greek frappe. It is the best way to consume instant coffee.

We returned to the local chocolatier, Le Noir Atelier Du Chocolat. Chef Pierre Abi Haila made us taste a tremendous amount of chocolate.  It was all quite delicious, and we basically bought most of the chocolate they had in the display case.   Le Noir is moving locations (near Unicorn)  because it is currently in this seemingly abandoned shopping mall called Centre Rizk Plaza.   Functional abandoned buildings near active construction are one of the Lebanese things that just never makes sense to me.

Back, to the chocolate. In the United States, Le Noir would be a very high-end chocolate shop that I could barely afford to visit with any regularity.  Pierre is an impressive host who is extremely proud of his craft.   I think he should work with Suraya and sell his chocolate through them in the United States.  That act will single-handedly destroy any of my fitness goals, but Philadelphia would thank me for it.

After lunch, I took a nap and Samer visited Beirut with Annie and Greg. I finally found some time to do some reading, and I started Being Arab by Samir Kassir. Coincidentally, I walked past a site that memorializes him in downtown Beirut at the beginning of the week. Kassir was assassinated in 2005 (probably by the exiting Syria security personnel).

For our last night in Lebanon, Chafica made a tremendous amount of food and Maria made us delicious beef tongue.  It was a great meal that we enjoyed on the balcony with lots of family and friends.

Next – Lebanon – Day 9: Good-bye Lebanon

Lebanon – Day 7: Byblos

Samer and I took the morning off and Holly F. led the group the Jeita Grotto and Harissa. I’ve seen both.   The grotto is far more impressive than a statue of the Virgin Mary.  Samer and I walked in Broumanna.   We started by getting coffee at a place called Unicorn Coffee House.   I discovered it during my last trip to Lebanon in 2013.  This was the first time in almost 2 weeks, where we got to enjoy each other’s company.   We’d both been playing host or trip leader quite a lot, so it was nice to chat about the news and gossip.

We stopped by the local chocolatier to ensure that he’d be open tomorrow when we had more people with us.   We were forced to sample some chocolates and we returned to our walk.   We visited a music shop where I looked at drums.   I wanted to buy one for Samer, but we decided to wait and see what our luggage situation was like.   They were $300, but the price seemed reasonable as they were hand made in Egypt.

From there, we walked up to a farm/market owned by a local monastery called Ferme Mar Chaaya.   It’s a pretty walk and I bought some things to take home.   I found these hot peppers stuffed with labneh, that I thought were particularly delicious.  We ate them with dinner that night.

After that errand,  we took a taxi to pick up Maria, Edward, and the kids in order to go to lunch.  Samer treated us to an excellent restaurant called Al-Sultan Brahim in Jounieh.  The food is really good and we ordered so much fried fish that we could barely finish it.  The restaurant is named after a tiny fish that I think is the hamour fish.  You eat them whole and they are delicious.  The lunch was filled with lots of yummy dishes including squid served in its own ink and far too much arak.

We were stuffed with food and it was only getting hotter, so we probably didn’t spend as much time in Byblos as we should have spent.   Byblos is old … I mean really old.   Archeologists think it could have been settled in 8800 BCE. The ruins are currently in the town of Jbeil.  There is another Crusader Castle, there because they built them all over. This one was built in 1100 CE.     There is evidence of the Phoenicians being there in 3000 BCE.

Joe Amara was our guide and he would point to something and say, “this is quite old.” He led the tour with comedy and concision.  When we asked a question, he would instruct us to “read about it when you go home.”  On the occasion that Samer would interject with a fact, Joe would say “Samer is constantly banalizing our history and culture, please ignore.”  The small amphitheater was built in 218 AD, and it must have been lovely to attend with the sea as the backdrop.



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Photo Credits: Spencer McGee & Josh Ferris

That night we all went to the best night club in the world, Music Hall.  At this time of year, it is outdoors, so it is a different experience than when I was there in 2012.  We all had a really good time.  I thought that the musician who did the Queen covers was really good. The Russian band was particularly entertaining when the screen behind the band started showing the soviet flag flying. It was a great night.

Next – Lebanon – Day 8: Free Day

Lebanon – Day 6: Tripoli

I was really excited to visit Tripoli.   Like Tyre and Saida, I never visited this city before.  It has a reputation for being a very old city because the wars that ravaged Beirut left Tripoli mostly unscathed. I’ve always thought Tripoli had an ancient literary vibe to it, but maybe that is because I obsessed over the burning of al-Saeh Library a few years ago.

On our way to Tripoli, we stopped at the Our Lady of Noorieh Monastery.  It’s a Greek orthodox monastery with a beautiful view of the Mediterranean.  No one needs to stop for long, but it is quite lovely and has a nice olive farm on it.


Eating at Tic Tac Abou Rami
Photo Credit: Josh Ferris

Our guides for the day, were our friend George’s parents, Rosa and Antoine.   They took us to a restaurant called  Tic Tac Abou Rami.  It was delicious.  They served us chickpeas about 5 different ways.  While we waited for a seat, the neighboring bakery gave us a piece of pita straight from the oven.   It was so good. We ate fatteh, hummus, ful medames, chickpeas in a tahini sauce (not blended), and lots of vegetables.

After brunch, we made our way to the famous souks of Tripoli.   While we were exploring, Antoine wanted to take us to the famous Soap Khan.  This is a courtyard in the middle of the souk that was made for the soap makers.   We all walked into a shop that sold blue jeans and through a backdoor into the courtyard.  We went to a soap workshop that started in the 15th century.   The place is called Hajjar and they make really high-quality soap.   We ended up buying quite a few souvenirs from the store and Holly B. got a free massage!

We continued to explore the souk and found our way into a sweet shop.  We tried a few things, but the one to stand out to me was something called jazarieh. It was a candied squash dish with nuts. It was very interesting. From there, we visited the crusader castle called Citadel of Raymond de Saint-Gilles.

This castle was built in 1100.  It’s a massive structure on top of a hill, that provides a nice view of Tripoli.   We did not have a guide while we were in it, so I only know what the guide book says.   There is not much of the original structure left, but the Lebanese military still uses it (though I do not know what for.)

We ended our tour of Tripoli with dessert at the famous sweet shop called Hallab 1881.  This was the most disappointing thing in Tripoli.   The desserts were good, but nothing to seek out.   We had mafroukeh and kanefeh. The owners tried to give us a tour of the back and all we saw was a used deep fryer. My suggestion is to spend your calories exploring the stalls and street food in the souk, rather than at Hallab 1881.

On our way home we stopped to swim in the sea.  We were told about a swimming spot at a brewery in the town of Batroun. Behind the Colonel Beer Microbrewery was a beach bar called Colonel Reef.  It was a very different than the beach in Tyre.  It was a rocky mess of a beach with a long dock, but it was a lot of fun.    One minute the water would be over your head and the next minute you’d be standing on a rock that had you completely out of the water.  I scraped my knees a few times. The beer was good. I enjoyed the lager more than the passion fruit beer.

Photo Credit: Spencer McGee & Josh Ferris

On our way home, we decided to stop at Diwan Al Hashem in Zalka for shawarma.  It is considered some of the best shawarma in Lebanon.   They make many different types of meat, including testicles!   We went for a simpler order of one beef and one chicken shawarma.   I did not enjoy the beef shawarma.  Their recipe includes putting lamb fat in between the meat on the spit to give it extra flavor.   I’ve never loved lamb and the gamey smell that it produces is a real turn off for me.    The chicken was excellent, but I could have done with a less sophisticated beef version.

Next – Lebanon – Day 7: Byblos

Lebanon – Day 5: Tyre and Sidon

We added one to our group this day.  Samer’s 4-year-old nephew, Maroun decided to travel with us for the day.   He was a great sport about everything. We picked up our guide, Rana Tanissa with Lebanon Untravelled and made out way south.  Rana leads tours with USAID in Lebanon.  Maroun suggested we stop at a ka’ak bakery for breakfast and we all thought it was a great idea.

Ka’ak is a ringed bread stuffed with things like cheese and or za’atar covered in sesame seeds.  They were very good and we totally made a mess of the car.  There were sesame seeds all over the place.

Our first stop was the Sidon Sea Castle. The castle was built in the 13th century by the invading crusaders. I think it is particularly interesting because it is built on a small island off the coast. A causeway was added when the Mamluks defeated the Europeans and took the city.  There is a lot of speculation on what the island was used for before the castle.   Some hypothesize that it could have been a palace for a Phoenician king.


Photo Credit: Spencer McGee

We did not visit anything else in Sidon and traveled to Tyre (also called Sour). I’ve wanted to see Tyre for more than 15 years. When I was in school I read about Alexander’s siege of Tyre and was flabbergasted. Basically, back then there were 2 cities. There was island Tyre and mainland Tyre. The people of Tyre used boats to go back and forth. Well, he decimated mainland Tyre, used the rubble to build a kilometer-long causeway to get to the island. There was a land bridge in the shallow water that connected the island to the mainland and he just built it out to reach the of island Tyre. When Alexander arrived at the impenetrable city he killed everyone who could not bribe there way out of it. (History note, those who did buy their way out went to create a new city called Carthage.) Now, there is not an island.  The causeway filled in over the years, and Tyre is a city on a peninsula.

The first place we visited was the Al-Bass Tyre necropolis and the Roman Hippodrome, another UNESCO World Heritage site. This site was affected in the 2006 war between Lebanon and Israel (ps. 118). The second ruins we visited were the Al-Mina archaeological site. There are Roman baths and mosaic floors in this area.


Photo Credit: Samer Badr or Spencer McGee

After feeling like we accomplished the history goals we headed to the beach. We went to a place called Cloud 59. Here we could get a table, order lunch, and enjoy the beach. It was really fun. I was probably the whitest and fattest person on the beach, so I drew the gaze of many a chiseled and tanned Lebanese. I recommend this beach to everyone. It’s a cool vibe, the sand is great, and the food is pretty good. Maroun really enjoyed swimming with all of us and we had a lot of fun with him.

On the way home, we got some coffee to go (called hand-me) and retired to Broumanna for the night.   We ate some food at Chafica’s house and all got to bed early.

Next – Lebanon – Day 6: Tripoli