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Into the wild: camping by Nahr Ibrahim - [more]
By: Rayane Abou Jaoude
Date: Saturday, August 17, 2013

BEIRUT: Drive along the long, winding and isolated road. Pass the banana trees, the electricity companies, the rest stops and the families eating and drinking by the riverbank. Make a stop at “Mountazah al-Wadi,” or Valley Park.

Park the car and start walking downhill, following the almost deafening sound of the river until you find yourself an elysium in the shade. Pitch a tent, and take it all in.

For those who enjoy the pastime of getting lost in the wild, Nahr Ibrahim makes for a happy camper. Unlike a number of other natural settings in Lebanon, Nahr Ibrahim is not a reserve nor is it protected, which gives campers the ability to freely roam about and pitch their tents wherever they find suitable.

Once off the main highway, the road leading to the campsite – though somewhat narrow and isolated – is breathtaking, with the river and the high mountains offering but a glimpse into what awaits nature enthusiasts and adventurers.

Although the fact that the space is entirely public and unmonitored does have its perks, it also means that with strong and unpredictable river currents and a difficult hiking trail lacking ropes or rails, visitors are advised to go with a professional or someone who has outdoor experience.

Nahr Ibrahim – or River of Abraham – is known as the river of Adonis, the god of beauty and desire. The myth goes that Adonis was injured by a wild boar by the river. As his lover Astarte ran to save his life, his blood was mixed with the water, supposedly the reason the river turns red every spring.

Astarte fell on her knees and etched her love story with Adonis on the sand by the river forever, and Nahr Ibrahim is now also known as the River of Immortal Love.

The river is formed by powerful waterfalls in the mountains of Afqa in the north of Lebanon, and pools into small basins where campers, tourists, and just about anyone else can enjoy taking cool and sometimes even freezing dips on hot summer days.

A number of Lebanese adventure groups, such as The Footprints Nature Club, Great Escape and Vamos Todos, organize hiking and caving trips to the area, but camping enthusiasts mostly choose to fend for themselves in the wilderness as Nahr Ibrahim is a relatively small site.

Campers usually prefer to pitch their tents on the rough cement by the water rather than on the grassy stretch, keeping close to the many plastic tables and chairs for those who want to rest under the shade. Public bathrooms are also a few meters away.

It is ideal to get to the campsite before dark to get things in order and, more importantly, to look for firewood, for no camp is complete without a roaring fire in the evening over which to cook hot dogs and marshmallows. Following the meal, it is generally best to lie on sleeping bags, canvases or towels for an unobstructed view of the night sky.

The key is to turn in early in order to get a fresh start the next morning, catch the sunrise, and dip into the cool river waters. The only wild creatures to worry about are the nastiest of all beasts: not wolves or coyotes, but mosquitoes and creepy crawlies, so a can of bug spray can be useful.

For those deciding to rough it, trekking a few kilometers deep into the valley can be awe-inspiring: that’s where the river widens and the trees grow lusher and greener in the midst of the towering mountains, ideal for a leisurely morning hike.

Once you reach the small waterfalls feeding the lagoons, taking a swim will make your labored breathing and your aching limbs worth it. This secluded paradise also offers small cliffs and rocks to dive into the water from, a gentle reminder of a world free of walls.

Although the camping site is for the most part quite safe, there is always the slight danger of thefts, as it is a public land and there is no security in the area. As a result, taking precautions and being with a big group of people is always preferable.

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Lebanon Water Festival makes a splash - [more]
By: Beckie Strum
Date: Saturday, August 17, 2013

BEIRUT: The countrywide water sports event, Lebanon Water Festival, will get local and international enthusiasts diving, surfing, skiing and sailing starting Sept. 3.

The festival will last through the month of September and aims to promote water sports in the country and the importance of preserving Lebanon’s coastline. Discounted classes in various aquatic activities will carry on throughout the month, as will a sprinkling of competitions and free shows by professional water skiers.

Creators Annette Khoury and her father, world water-ski champion Simon Khoury, launched the first Lebanon Water Festival last summer, drawing more than 14,000 people to watch and participate in events at several of the country’s major beaches.

The organizers have expanded this year’s program to include three new locations: Batroun’s rocky beach, Anfeh in the north, and Jiyyeh south of Beirut.

The festival’s creators hope to raise awareness about which parts of the country are best for particular water sports, Annette Khoury told The Daily Star. The new locations bring the festival’s coverage to six cities in total, including last year’s spots of Kaslik, Dbayyeh and Tyre.

“What we’re trying to do is to label each city as the best place to do this or to do that – and slowly, slowly we’re going to map out the coast,” she said.

For example, Jounieh has a reputation as the country’s hotspot for water skiing all summer long. But few know that this time of year, the calm waters of Tyre are better suited for a late-summer sea jaunt, she explained.

Khoury and her father have also expanded the water sport offerings this year, adding surf and stand-up paddle boarding, kite boarding and apnea – or free diving.

There will also be a free nighttime international water ski performance Sept. 14 in the Dbayyeh marina with fireworks and other fanfare.

The first edition of Lebanon Water Festival sought to boost local and international interest in water sports in the country. And that goal was certainly met, Khoury said.

During the past year, people interested in water sports have bombarded the festival’s Facebook page and Khoury herself with inquiries about the best place or person with whom to do their favorite water sports.

“It’s clear we are answering to a need,” she said. “The demand is incredible, people are asking can you give me the name of so and so or the number of this place – answering these questions is basically what I’ve been doing all year long.”

Khoury and her father had played with the idea of doing mountain sports, but the demand for more water activities kept them looking seaward.

In the spirit of accessibility, Lebanon Water Festival will open all of its competitions and shows for free to the public, Khoury was quick to explain, even those locations that ordinarily require membership. For example, people will have access to locations like the exclusive Dbayyeh marina via its public corniche.

Last year’s public shows were a great draw in places like Tyre, where Khoury said public sporting events are rare but important to fostering community. More than 12,000 people crowded the Tyre beach, hung from balconies and off the southern city’s corniche at last year’s show.

One of the additions to this year’s show lineup includes a special Lebanese water-ski team to be trained by Simon Khoury. He and Annette have two weeks to train around 25 young people in basic show elements like the human pyramid, water ballet and other moves, she said.

For those not interested in standing on the sidelines, Lebanon Water Festival has roped in the help of a number of instructors from around the country, namely surfing instructor Ali Elamine, kite boarding instructor Tobia Kmeid and water ski instructor Tarek Fenianos.

Prices for sports have been reduced to attract as many interested enthusiasts as possible, and competitions and races throughout September will offer students new and old a chance to show off their skills.

Lebanon has a lot of touristic and economic potential surrounding water sports, Khoury said.

The country is one of three known places with a natural hole capable hosting international free-diving competitions, she said.

The country has a wealth of diving spots rich with historic relics and wildlife. For example, Tyre houses the only underwater Phoenician city and elsewhere in the country there are underwater ship wrecks, tabletop coral and coastline caves to explore.

Lebanon Water Festival will offer foreigners and locals a rare opportunity to explore the underwater Phoenician ruins in Tyre. Some are coming from as far away as Argentina to participate in the international underwater photography competition, which will focus on this sunken ancient city.

One of the underlying purposes of the festival is pushing for the cleanup and preservation of Lebanon’s coastline, which has been the object of environmentalists’ scorn for decades.

Proving the worth of the country’s coastline in terms of tourism and local jobs is arguably the best way to push municipalities to protect and conserve the sea. Lebanon Water Festival is doing just that with the help of other non-governmental organizations, particularly one called Purple Reef.

Purple Reef is conducting research across the country’s coastline about natural flora and fauna and the toxins harming them. They also do educational projects and seek to preserve the countries fisheries by using such things as water sports as a way to supplement the incomes of fisherman, who are the most familiar with the countries seaside, Khoury said.

For more information about Lebanon Water Festival and its calendar of events, visit www.lebanonwaterfestival.com.

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From the rubble, a new winery emerges - [more]
By: Niamh Fleming-Farrell
Date: Monday, August 12, 2013

BHAMDOUN, Lebanon: In Le Telegraphe, the French bistro-style restaurant run by the Chateau Belle-Vue winery in Bhamdoun, a single ceramic tile embedded in the wall holds pride of place. The item, salvaged from a ruin, is the only piece of the Hotel Belle Vue that remains intact, but the community-centric spirit of the once-famed establishment is revived in Naji Boutros’ wines.

Built to showcase a stonecutter’s craft, operated to finance a generation’s education and then closed to the public to house an extended family, the 26-room Hotel Belle Vue was a mainstay of Boutros’ maternal family for decades.

It was in a wing of this sprawling home nestled in the hills of Mount Lebanon and filled with parents and uncles and grandparents that Naji Boutros spent his childhood, relishing the mountain air. These days, he readily admits his teenage self’s preference for days spent among grapevines and olive trees over nights on the tear in the country’s capital.

“It was a very beautiful childhood; it was fantastic,” Boutros tells The Daily Star, that is until the mid ’70s.

“Then of course the war came and we were uprooted from here,” Boutros says, describing how repeated rounds of fighting in the mountain village just 21 km from Beirut eventually drove many of its predominantly Christian residents to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere.

Boutros was among the first of those to leave, departing in 1983 for France before moving on to the United States for university, where he met his wife, Jill.

It would be almost a decade before he would visit his hometown again, and several more years before the desire to return to Lebanon would become too strong for the then-London-based investment banker to ignore.

“Life was not easy in London,” he says. “I was making lots of money as a city boy, but it was very empty. I’m someone who grew up touching, feeling, seeing the result of what you seed, what you grow, having the fruit.

“I [also] felt I was losing my family,” he continues. “I did not know my children. I did not know my wife. And I was really not happy.”

The melancholic Boutros talked about Bhamdoun ad nauseam. “I was almost obnoxious,” he admits, “everything was better in Bhamdoun.”

But when Boutros ventured back to Bhamdoun in the early ’90s, he found “90 percent of the old stone buildings destroyed,” including the beloved work of his great grandfather’s hands – the Hotel Belle Vue.

Standing among the rubble that remains of the Hotel Belle Vue today, Boutros states simply, “the house was here.” Then he points out the domed stone roofs of what were the cellars, the lone hint of the grand stone structure with sweeping staircases that once stood on the site.

Looking around, Boutros grows wistful. “You grew up in a place and there’s no house. You dream, you dream of it and there’s no house, no stones, nothing. They had [even] uprooted the trees.”

“But” he adds, “There was a tile.”

On an early trip back, Jill uncovered the intact ceramic tile from among the hotel’s debris. She packed the treasure away for Boutros to discover when he opened his suitcase in London.

“She said, ‘We’ll come back one day,’” he recalls.

In 1999, they did just that. The first thing Boutros did was replant his grandfather’s vineyard, which covers just under a hectare. With Vivaldi’s Four Seasons booming through loudspeakers, he set about the task in honor of his family’s memories and in an effort to return some greenery to a village once well-known for its viticulture.

In addition to a number of workers Boutros hired to help with the task, others, hearing the music, came to assist with the planting effort. Then a cousin asked whether Boutros would replant his vineyard too.

Concerns that the cousin’s land may have been mined didn’t stop the band of workers, now on a roll, from powering ahead with the planting. It was a decision they realized the stupidity of a week later when the Army pulled a number of cluster bombs out of the field.

“We were really stupid. We had a higher objective. Having a higher objective makes you forget about the lower objective,” Boutros says, reflecting on their decision.

By now, word had spread of Boutros’ project, and many of the old Bhamdoun families whose lands had also fallen into disrepair began to come to him with a simple request: “Naji, plant our land.”

That first year Boutros planted four families’ vineyards. Today, Chateau Belle-Vue has some 24 hectares of vines in assorted locations around the village. Most are now owned by the winery, but some are still in the hands of their original Bhamdoun families and Boutros pays for their use either in wine or money.

In 2003, the winery produced its first vintage – a mere 3,000 bottles, made and pressed by hand. On their labels, the bottles carried an image of the Hotel Belle Vue in all its former glory and its name – La Renaissance.

Little did Boutros known that four years later, when the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend was released, the wine would win a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in London.

Indeed, Boutros admits that winemaking is the only project he’s ever undertaken where he really did not know where he was going to end up.

But the Bhamdoun terroir provides some natural magic for winemakers, offering on its rugged slopes a variety of microclimates. In his original family vineyard, Boutros demonstrates this, pointing out two visibly different types of soil just 2 meters apart.

“This is the secret. This is why our wine has a full bouquet, a very complex taste. One [soil] is very clayish; one is less clayish,” he explains.

Chateau Belle-Vue now produces two reds, La Renaissance and Le Chateau, and a white, Petit Geste.

Joseph, an elderly resident of Bhamdoun and one of the men who helped Boutros out with that first round of planting, still manages the vineyards today. He points out that they have never had to use fertilizers on the vines because “we have everything in this land.”

From 6 a.m. daily until almost sundown, Joseph can be found among the vines. He says the grapes speak to him: “If I forget a vine, I hear a cry behind me, ‘Why don’t you talk with me?”

Joseph still recalls the village before the war. “If you came here before the war, you would see a paradise. It was all grapes for the arak, for the wine,” he says.

Boutros has been working hard to recreate that paradise, planting olive trees and close to 150 cedars in addition to the vines. At the outset, he also vowed to give $1 per bottle back to the community, but says that he has ended up “giving a lot more than that,” through funding educational scholarships, health care expenses and distributing heating oil in winter.

As far as possible, Boutros employs locals, and he has successfully managed to turn the annual harvest into a community activity.

“All the village comes when we pick the grapes, especially the young people,” Joseph says, adding that he takes the harvesting season as an opportunity to share the history of the village with a young generation he feels has largely turned away from the land in favor of computers.

Yet even as Boutros drives around the village pointing out cedars he’s planted, he grows frustrated. Although Bhamdoun is far less defiled by concrete monstrosities than other villages in Lebanon, there is still a wealth of poorly planned construction.

“This is the real cancer of Lebanon, the cement,” he says, adding that many of the new buildings popping up violate laws governing their height and size. “We try to protect as much as we can, but at the end of the day urban planning need to help in the protection.”

“If they had a bit of a brain they would look at the examples of Napa Valley, of Bourgogne, of Bordeaux, of Samoa County, of the wine country in Australia, in New Zealand. It generates more tourism and it employs more people than ... [other] industries.”

Reflecting on his winery project and the work he has done in the community, Boutros says: “It will pay off in the end. If it doesn’t pay off monetarily, it has paid off with beauty.”

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Chaya team rows 5,801 km across Indian Ocean - [more]
By: the daily star
Date: Wednesday, August 07, 2013

BEIRUT: Maxime Chaya, the first Lebanese to climb Mount Everest, looked to set two more Guinness World Records as his team of three landed in the Mauritius Islands Monday after rowing 5,801 kilometers across the Indian Ocean.

Chaya, along with team members Livar Nysted, 42, from the Faroe Islands, and Stuart Kershaw, 33, from the United Kingdom, set a new speed record for the fastest time rowing across the Indian Ocean at 57 days and 16 hours. They are also the first team of three to row across any of the world’s oceans.

Chaya, Nysted and Kershaw departed from Perth, Australia, on June 8 for a trip that lasted just under two full months on board an 8.8 meter rowboat.

Before setting off, Chaya was most concerned about the psychological strain of the journey, he told The Daily Star in a pre-trip interview.

The three men were on two-hour, rotating sleep cycles in order to share rowing duties. When they weren’t sleeping or rowing, they were trying to make up for their huge calorie deficits by stuffing their faces with 6,000-7,000 calories a day of dehydrated meals, chocolate, trail mix and other snacks.

Chaya regularly posted pictures and details of serene sunsets and sunrises, as well as the various wildlife the men encountered: albatross, flying fish, families of whales and sharks.

The crew also encountered its fair share of snafus. Smack in the middle of the trip, the men had to resort to their limited fresh water supply after their desalinator – which made potable water from the ocean – broke down for about a week. The autopilot also gave out near the end of the trip.

That and a number of other potential catastrophes caused by stormy seas were either fixed or abated.

The so-called tRIO boat was equipped with satellite communications, enabling the crew to stay in contact with their weatherman, fans and loved ones. Judging by the tone of his Twitter posts, Chaya and his teammates were getting a little stir crazy by the end of the trip.

“I long for a shower. A Bed. Warm hug. Dry clothes. Shave. Full night’s sleep,” Chaya posted on Twitter alongside a photo of himself looking bearded and exhausted.

In another post on July 31, a week before landing, he posted: “We’ve spotted a floating plastic bottle and toothbrush today! Ahhhh! The joy of witnessing civilization again after so long.”

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Fractured take on Beirut's cultural scene - [more]
By: India Stoughton
Date: Tuesday, August 06, 2013

BEIRUT: Beirut's cultural scene exists in multiple spaces, forms and contexts at the same time, some manifestations of culture ephemeral and spontaneous, others long-running and programmed months in advance. Made up of a complex collection of individual players, organizations and ever-shifting collaborations, it is difficult to summarize or characterize in any definitive way.

"A Fractured Mirror: Beirut's Cultural Scene and the Search for Identity" is a short report by American history and area studies graduate Eric Reidy, who moved to Lebanon last year after completed his studies.

Reidy ambitiously sets out to outline not only Beirut's cultural production, dissemination and reception, referencing plastic art, film, music, poetry, performance and writing, but also the role of such art in reflecting – and its potential in overcoming – the social, religious and political divides that permeate Lebanon's complex social fabric.

The report, published by the Samir Kassir Foundation and funded by the European Union, was recently released in the form of a 40-page booklet, which grew from a series of interviews with local artists and cultural figures conducted by Reidy for publication on the Samir Kassir Eyes (SKeyes) Center website.

In his introduction, Reidy asserts that the project sprung from a desire to establish where Beirut, as a cultural center, was hiding its culture, and what role that culture played in the life of the city. With no connections in Beirut, he approached two (unspecified) Gemmayzeh galleries and asked to be put into contact with their artists. By following a chain of connections, he explains, he came into contact mostly with what he defines as artists involved in "grassroots cultural activities."

In some ways Reidy's report resembles the recently published "Peeping Tom's Digest No.3: Beirut," in which the Paris-based editorial team established an organic network of connections with local artists, curators, critics and gallerists to document an impression of Beirut's visual art scene from an empirical, outsider perspective.

Unlike the Peeping Tom team, who made it a point not to draw any conclusions from or try any kind of analytical or critical engagement with the material they gathered, Reidy not only documents but also attempts to contextualize and expand upon his material, concluding with his own recommendations.

He has evidently made an effort to speak to artists from a variety of backgrounds, working in a range of media. However, with a total of just 25 interviewees, the opinions put forward by each artist are for the most part left to stand in a vacuum, neither corroborated nor contested by those working in a similar area. This is problematic when their testimonies are used to draw conclusions about the cultural scene as a whole.

Painter and draftsman Guylain Safadi, who exhibited a selection of paintings and etchings at Artlab gallery last November, speaks as the sole representative of Syrian artists in Beirut, for example, while Abdel-Rahman Katanani stands in for Palestinian artists and playwright Rahel Zegeye for migrant workers on the culture scene.

One thing that Reidy does successfully is emphasize the geographical confines of Lebanon's art and culture scene, which for the most part exists only within what emcee Zac Allaf refers to as "the plastic area of Beirut" – a strip extending from Ras Beirut to Nahr Beirut, bounded by the sea on one side and the onset of the city's southern suburbs on the other. Within this small area films are screened, plays staged, gigs performed and exhibitions held by the same small group of players and for the same small group of viewers.

Reidy, who is concerned with cultural activity and production in Beirut as a microcosm of social divisions along economic, religious and political lines, is searching for examples of cultural activity that overcomes these invisible demarcations, uniting citizens he sees as otherwise marginalized or disenfranchised from the "elite or commercial pop cultures."

He returns again and again to the metaphor of Beirut's cultural scene as a shattered mirror, reflecting a fragmented society, providing examples of four cultural manifestations that he feels unite, rather than reinforcing divides. All four involve free performances in public spaces, allowing passersby from diverse backgrounds to participate.

Reidy highlights the annual Samir Kassir Spring Festival (a troubling choice given the foundation's involvement in publishing the report), the Yafta Sessions, live poetry performances in public spaces, Whispered Tales, a collection of stories gathered and performed in villages in North and South Lebanon, and the Naked Wagon, a portable stage taken around the city by bike and unfolded to provide a venue for public performance.

These examples demonstrate instances of nonprofit cultural activity intersecting with a wider cross-section of the public than might be found at a commercial gallery opening or a ticketed performance. But with the exception of Whispered Tales, all are based in central Beirut, the same "plastic area" that provides the limited fertile ground for most of the capital's other cultural activities, whether public or private, charitable or commercial.

Reidy's concluding suggestion is that what is needed for culture in Lebanon to overcome obstacles such as lack of state funding, censorship and social divisions is a "Lebanese Artists' Project," a collaborative initiative by civil society organizations that would employ artists to complete projects, thereby helping to create "an inclusive and equalizing social narrative" and "break the division between art and public life."

Where the funding for such a project – which Reidy compares to the Federal Writers Project established by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt to support writers during the Great Depression of the 1930s – is to come from is left to the reader's imagination.

Overall Reidy's report is an interesting read and makes some valid and valuable points about cultural production in Lebanon. But his conclusions about what Beirut's cultural scene consists of and whether it unifies or divides are rendered unconvincing by the limited scope of Reidy's interviewees, and by a number of unaddressed topics, such as the role commercial galleries or even nonprofit institutions such as the Sursock Museum, the Beirut Art Center and the Beirut Exhibition Center play in promoting and disseminating culture.

"A Fractured Mirror: Beirut's Cultural Scene and the Search for Identity" by Eric Reidy is available free from the Samir Kassir Foundation's offices in Ashrafieh. For more information call 01-397-331 or visit www.skeyesmedia.org

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A love affair between jazz and opera - [more]
By: Chirine Lahoud
Date: Friday, August 02, 2013

ZOUK MIKAEL: A band of lucky spectators were privileged to witness a unique two-hour concert Wednesday, an exceptional blend of jazz and opera.

The Zouk Mikael Festival continued its festivities with a performance by U.S. operatic soprano Monica Yunus, U.S. jazz musical talent and singer Jonathan Batiste and his band, Stay Human.

The performance opened with the music emanating from within the rows of spectators seated in the Roman amphitheater, where the first notes of Batiste’s melodica (an instrument combining piano and harmonica) could be heard.

The musician then stood up to reveal his smart attire of a nicely cut beige suit and bow tie. For a few minutes he played his instrument while strolling between the seats and tables. At one point he sat down next to a girl; at another he kissed a woman on the cheek. It was enough to ensure that everyone in the venue felt at ease.

Wednesday’s concert may not have been as crowded as expected, but it was clear that those spectators who had turned out were connoisseurs of jazz music. Lebanese-American blues guitarist Otis Grand– who will be performing in a few days – was present among the spectators, enjoying the laid-back performance by this young jazz prodigy.

Batiste was accompanied by his band, Stay Human. Comprising two drummers, a bassist, a saxophonist and tuba and trombone player, the ensemble performed with evident enjoyment – their pleasure at performing in Lebanon coming across as loudly and clearly as their melodies.

Then soprano Monica Yunus made her entrance, every inch the diva in a sublime pale rose dress, adorned with diamantes. The minute she sang the opening strains of Nat King Cole’s “Embraceable You,” many of the spectators began to applaud.

Throughout the show, the audience witnessed a true spirit of teamwork. The musicians and singers were continuously smiling at each other and listened to one another with great respect. Each time there was a solo session – whether drum or vocals – the other musicians would either leave the stage in order not to steal their fellow performer’s thunder, or stay silent, displaying their mutual esteem for one another.

Later in the show, all the performers descended to the front of the stage to sing an a cappella version of Charles Fox’s “Killing Me Softly with His Song” – a hit covered in 1996 by hip hop band The Fugees. The new version gave at least one listener goose bumps.

Batiste showcased for the Lebanese audience his talent and dexterity in switching from one instrument to another, moving from piano to melodica to drums. At one point, he joined one of the drummers on the set in delivering an amazing drum session, a moment that betrayed a great show of friendship between the artists.

Later on, Stay Human’s two drummers competed in drumming battles, at one time each moving from one drum set to another and then facing one another while playing tambourines, trying to see which was better – all in a friendly, gentle way.

One of the drummers – Joe Saylor– proved to be an outstanding musician with magnificent technique. At one point he placed a drum on the front section of the stage. All the other musicians and singers stepped back, and a long, dynamic, exciting drum solo began.

Saylor was like a hummingbird, moving his hands so quickly it was difficult to decipher all his movements. His technique seemed utterly unique – at least to this journalist. He played with his elbow; putting his foot on the drum in order to change the sound effects. It was a display that left most of the spectators gasping in amazement.

“The energy that you are giving [us],” Batiste said, “is very positive and uplifting.”

The artist and his band have been on tour since the beginning of June, and they chose Lebanon as their last stop before going home.

Batiste played some of his greatest tunes, among them “St. James Infirmary,” which gave the sense of being in a jazz club in Louisiana (his hometown).

At several points during the performance, the musicians got down from the stage to get closer to the public, bridging the gap between performer and spectator. Yunus – who had left the stage – came back to join all the others in the venue rows, helping to metamorphose the whole amphitheater into a stage.

“LOVE” – another of Nat King Cole’s hits – was sung magnificently by Yunus, along with Doris Day’s “You are My Sunshine,” which was chorused by everyone in the venue.

At one point, Batiste asked the band to stop playing, explaining to the crowd that “[they] can’t play this kind of music with everyone sitting down.”

The reaction was immediate. Everyone stood up and sang in unison. The band and singers walked between the spectators singing, followed by a small crowd. It was like being part of a informal party or a jazz gig with friends.

For two hours the amphitheater was transformed into a jazz microcosm, where Yunus’s voice infused the groovy tunes with grace and power. Who would have thought that jazz and opera would go so well together.

The Zouk Mikael International Festival continues Aug. 5 with a performance by Otis Grand. For ticketing, please call 01-999-666.

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Ramadaniyat festival fuses food, shopping and a do-good spirit - [more]
By: Beckie Strum
Date: Wednesday, July 31, 2013

BEIRUT: The charitable Makhzoumi Foundation, which has provided iftars and festivities during the holy month for around 15 years, launched Monday night the first ever Ramadan bazaar and festival at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center. Souk Ramadaniyat Beirutiya Festival will continue after iftar, from 9 p.m. to 1 a.m., through Thursday night. The souk houses artisans and small-scale craftsmen, as well as pricier local designers, live Arabic entertainment, children’s activities and plenty of food.

Thousands were present for the opening night and BIEL’s cavernous space allowed for numerous different festival activities. The main stage began the night’s entertainment with live renditions of Fairuz’s career hits and whirling dervishes; a contemporary art exhibit attracted wanderers; and foreign embassies served up food and cultural facts.

Makhzoumi is an non-governmental organization with program arms extending into microcredit, vocational services, health care, democracy awareness, environmentalism and other welfare services.

Gradually over the years, Makhzoumi has expanded its seasonal projects, from iftars more than a decade ago to art exhibitions last year. The festival at BIEL is the culmination of Makhzoumi’s Ramadan efforts and an event that its leadership plans to host annually.

“It’s been 15 years that we’ve been working during Ramadan,” May Makhzoumi, president of the foundation and wife to founder Fouad Makhzoumi, told The Daily Star. “We started offering food rations to NGOs, to mosques even to some churches. Then a few years ago, maybe in 2005, we started doing Ramadan tents at all our centers around the country.”

Aside from the festival this year, Makhzoumi is still organizing iftars around the country. At Verdun Square, 2,500 meals are distributed every night through Makhzoumi and the help of partner NGOs, she said.

One of Makhzoumi’s biggest projects is giving loans between $500 and $7,500 to small businesses – anyone from taxi drivers to tailors, Makhzoumi said. This year’s festival brought together holiday revelers from the city with dozens of Makhzoumi’s microcredit beneficiaries, many of whom manned stands selling handmade lace, decorative items and food preserves.

The do-good spirit was also present in rows of stands promoting other Lebanese NGOs peddling their own causes and souvenir items. Save Beirut Heritage offered hip clutches on which pictures of the city’s historic Ottoman buildings were printed; and Save the Grace, a nonprofit company distributing the city’s leftovers to the needy, was selling promotional teacups.

Festivalgoers on the opening night clustered around a few of the popular tents – most of them dolling out food.

People squeezed to find a place to stand near celebrity TV chef Richard Khoury, who was demonstrating Ramadan recipes. Tents for the Italian and Egyptian embassies were also bustling as people waited to try Egyptian staples like Oum Ali, a raisin-studded bread pudding, and koushry, a poor man’s street food made up of pasta, rice, lentils, chickpeas and tomato sauce.

Wednesday night will feature more whirling dervishes and live Fairuz songs, while Thursday will see live oriental music and singer Pascale Sakr performing along with her orchestra.

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No sweat: Lebanese life before air conditioning - [more]
By: Rayane Abou Jaoude
Date: Tuesday, July 30, 2013

BEIRUT: The sun is blazing, the asphalt is baking and the air is stifling. With summers being unbearably hot and humid, electric air conditioning, invented at the beginning of the 20th century, has moved from a luxury to an absolute necessity. When the electricity is out, the modern technology we miss the most during this sweltering season is not our television set or our Internet connection – it’s our air conditioning.

People have been trying to control indoor temperatures for centuries. Wealthy citizens in ancient Rome circulated water through their homes using aqueduct systems. It is even said that the Roman emperor Elagabalus imported snow from the mountains on donkey trains and kept a mountain of it in his garden. Ancient Egyptians hung damp mats on their walls, and used lotus leaves to fan themselves.

It sounds almost impossible, but as it turns out, the era sans-air conditioning was more than tolerable. It may have also had some qualities that made life much more valued.

For example, the windows and doors would be open day and night, a simple net was strung across windows to keep the mosquitoes out. The openness encouraged people to talk and welcome each other more. And to some, air conditioning has undermined the entire purpose of summer: People now flee to the indoors instead of out.

“People don’t know their neighbors now,” said Laurence Attieh, who has lived in Beirut all her life and is now in her mid-80s. “Back then, there were no apartment buildings. Many people had small homes with small gardens where they could enjoy the shade from the trees with their neighbors and just be outside.”

Most of the senior citizens The Daily Star spoke to said temperatures decades ago could be just as intolerable as they are today. But older houses were made of thick stones and high ceilings that kept homes a little cooler because the heat would rise. There were also fewer cars, which meant exhaust pipes would not smother residents with fumes.

There were also more trees on the streets and around homes, which cast comforting shade during the scorching months of July and August. The coast was less developed and beaches were generally free, which meant residents of Beirut and Jounieh could walk just a few kilometers and cool off in the water. Before electric fans were invented, ceiling fans were the next best thing, especially since they weren’t particularly costly.

Urbanization had yet to attract villagers to Beirut, so much of the population also still lived in villages, away from the city, where it was naturally cooler and breezier.

When all else failed, people resorted to sleeping on their balconies, porches and even roofs to take naps during the day or to spend the night to escape the oven that was the bedroom. Paper fans and wide-brimmed hats were trendy – and practical – accessories, and cold showers every now and then would do the trick.

Families avoided preparing hot meals, and popsicles and ice cream were a surefire way to keep cool, at least for a little while. Food was also kept in higher places in the house to keep it fresh, or in wooden boxes that resembled small closets protected with steel bars to keep the insects out.

The first modern air conditioner was invented in 1902 by the American Willis Carrier. It was originally designed for industrial air-quality control. Home air conditioning didn’t become available until after WWII, and it only became common in Lebanon around the early ’80s, but it was, even then, still scarce.

Mary Bagdassarian, who lived in Dora for most of her childhood and is now in her late 80s, said residents in the area would make a habit of hanging makeshift tents on their roofs during the summer.

“We were lucky enough to have a balcony, so we would put mattresses out at night to sleep on,” she said. “Others would put their mattresses under vines and hang up blankets to keep their privacy.”

Bagdassarian added that because her family’s house was built of thick stone, it was naturally cooler inside, and whenever she felt the compulsion to cool off, the sea was only a short walk away.

Another popular method people used was to soak their feet in buckets of cold water, and use paper or cardboard as impromptu fans.

“We would sleep on the roof and count the stars,” Attieh said. “You can’t even see the stars now, there are buildings everywhere.”

Children would also take a dip in irrigation canals because the water was cold and relatively clean. They would also wash refreshing fruits in the canals, such as watermelons.

They didn’t complain too much over what they didn’t have, or what they missed, and as insufferable as the heat could be, at least they suffered together.

“Even with the air conditioning on, people still whine,” Attieh added. “We would just go outside, even go to work, with sweat dripping off our brows, and it was OK.”

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Lebanon's Vanina Girls Make Trash Glitter - [more]
By: Tafline Laylin
Date: Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Whereas most people would scarcely give a pile of old keys a second glance, the Vanina girls from Lebanon see in these disused materials new life as glittering jewelry.

Tatiana Fayad and Joanne Hayek have been friends since they were small children and first started collecting random objects as potential materials for new jewelry pieces while they were in college.

That was seven years ago. Now they are working together in a northern suburb of Beirut as Vanina – a rather cheeky name inspired by a French song from the 1970s.

In an interview with The Daily Star, they said they chose this name for their fashion studio because the song’s upbeat tempo and feminine quality resonate with their mission as designers. And it does, but there is also a certain social and environmental awareness that drives their choices as artists.

Rather than buy new materials for their accessories, for example, the duo find value in discarded objects that have special aesthetic qualities.

“We took the concept of taking an everyday object and giving it a higher value,” Joanne Hayek told the paper. “It’s a call for waste management.”

One of their earliest jewelry collections, “Coined,” was comprised of old Lebanese coins decorated with beads, patterns, or words.

Another, “Disc-carded,” involves using bits of metal from CD discs, which have lost their appeal since the advent of iPods and iPhones.

Parts of the keys mentioned in the introduction were used in a collection called “Unlocked.”

In addition to having a clunky, industrial edge, these pieces were created to encourage people to be friendly and neighborly, like they were before Beirut became overrun with high-rise apartments. They are reminders to “keep doors open.”

Taken both metaphorically and physically, Vanina’s upcycled jewelry communicates a message, which is perhaps what distinguishes them from a great number of contemporary jewelry makers.

Like solar power versus oil, their work replenishes the earth while others, who are still stuck on the idea that only gems and precious metals are worthwhile as adornments, extract from it.

Of course, they aren’t the first in Lebanon to join a growing number of international artists and designers who reuse existing materials in order to spare landfills and slow down unsustainable consumerism.

Although they are using recycled materials that are normally frowned upon in Arab societies, the pair have been incredibly successful and their designs have appeared in several respected fashion magazines.

In Egypt, the recycling trend is also catching on slowly. We recently interviewed a group of girls who have turned plastic into marketable products that encourage Egyptians to pay better attention to where stuff comes from and where it lands up.

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Sculpture as light as air, or obsolescence - [more]
By: Chirine Lahoud
Date: Monday, July 29, 2013

Beiteddine: In the relatively rarefied world of Lebanese modern art, the Basbous family of Rachana occupies a space akin to the one the Rahbanis occupy in the country’s musical heritage. Michel Basbous, a pioneer in modernist approaches to sculpture, had an only son in Anachar – which, as the lore of the land informs one, is “Rachana” spelled backward. In his early years, Basbous the younger worked at wall decoration. Later he decided to pursue sculpture as a profession. Invariably he was seen as following in his father’s footsteps.

Nowadays, Rachana has a toehold in Beiteddine, with a smattering of Anachar’s recent works scattered about the village.

“Balance & Light” marks the first collaboration between Art Lounge and the Beiteddine Art Festival. It assembles eight massive sculptures within the former silk factory that houses Art Lounge’s Beiteddine franchise. Three more of Anachar’s works squat in the garden outside Art Lounge, while an additional nine of his sculptures can be found on display at Beiteddine Palace, not far from the festival main stage.

Anyone familiar with the oeuvre of Anachar may recall “Shattered Sun,” the prominent exhibition of the artist’s work, staged a bit more than a year ago at Zeitouneh Square in Wadi Abu Jamil.

“Balance & Light” displays a broader range of steel sculptures than the Wadi Abu Jamil show, highlighting the artist’s deployment of architectural motifs in his work.

What first draws the viewer’s eye is the sheer scale of these pieces – which can attain two meters in height. With the exception of the stainless steel work “Midnight Sun,” all the pieces in Art Lounge’s Beiteddine show are confected from a reddish steel, which imbues the exhibition with the rusty hues of obsolescence.

Also intriguing in Anachar’s work is its thematic transition from astronomical shapes – as though he were taking inspiration from the heavenly bodies – to more mundane forms like ladders, towers and steel sticks, evidently taking inspiration from architecture.

As the title of this exhibition suggests, light is also important aspect of Anachar’s works.

The artist works to entice the onlooker’s curiosity with a game of light and shadow, encouraging her to read forms that, as the show’s press materials suggest, “are not immediately recognizable.”

Depending on the perspective from which she gazes at individual works, and the light at her disposal as she does, the viewer may feel she is looking at a completely different sculpture.

The Beiteddine Palace chapter of the exhibition arrays several tall sculptures alongside one another other. The works’ titles – “Beirut-Dubai,” “Beirut-Paris,” “Beirut-Mecca,” “Beirut-Damascus,” “Beirut-Cairo” – give the series the aspect of a totemic travelogue, which each work personifying the artist’s vision of their interrelationship.

Among the most expressive works here is “Beirut-Damascus.” The center of the tall steel structure has been voided. Hanging in this absent rectangle is a chain that drapes into a coil atop the plinth in which the piece is embedded.

This moveable element gives this otherwise static work an aspect of movement and voice, as it is simply to imagine the clanging of the chain as it strikes the metal structure. Even for those innocent of the vexing relationship between the states of Lebanon and Syria since independence, Chains have specific, generally negative, associations – imprisonment, censorship and restricted freedoms. One with local knowledge, and an upbeat perspective, might see in it the pervasive ties between the two countries.

At the former silk factory, the 100x100x65 cm structure entitled “Lost Time” is a G-shaped steel structure adorned with a ball and geometrical motifs. Although the structure appears broken and on the verge of collapse, it also evinces continuity and harmony. For some, the sculpture may recall the sort of time-space vortex you’d find in a science fiction movie (Mario Kassar’s “Stargate,” say) or a clock that’s stopped ticking.

Other works evoke Lebanon’s past.

“Now & After” (100x34x24 cm), for instance, is comprised of three towers, representing destruction. From left to right, observers face a filled, solid tower, with steel bits at its base. The second is a bit more hollowed out, crumbling to bits. The third depicts the collapsing foundation, with only a thin structure remaining upright while broken shards of steel fall from it.

Redolent of the ruined edifices that dot the country’s landscape, this material degradation also defines the obsolescence of form generally.

The dualities in Anachar’s works – the weight of steel and the play on gravity, static and movement, construction and destruction – will challenge some viewers’ way of seeing.

Anachar Basbous’ “Balance & Light” is on show at Art Lounge Beiteddine (Silk Factory) and the Beiteddine Palace until Aug. 31. For more information, please call 03-997-676.

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مزرعة بلدة... عكارية وادعة على ضفاف نهر الأسطوان - [more]
By: منذر المرعبي
Date: Friday, July 26, 2013

وطنية - مزرعة بلدة، بلدة عكارية وادعة على ضفاف نهر الاسطوان الذي يتقاسم معها الحياة، مخترقا أراضيها والبساتين المنصوبة بأشجار الزيتون والفاكهة المتنوعة فضلا عن غنى جانبي النهر بأشجار الدلب العتيق والصفصاف والجوز وغيره.

كل من يقصد مزرعة بلدة يسرح نظره بما يشاهده من جمال رباني رائع حيث الاخضرار يحاصر البلدة من مختلف زواياها، فضلا عن انتشار الطواحين القديمة الجميلة بمناظرها التراثية والتي كانت يوما مقصدا لمختلف القرى والبلدات المجاورة لطحن القمح وكم كانت تدور الحكايا على هدير احجارها.…وتشهد البلدة نهضة انمائية خدماتية لافتة بجهود رئيس البلدية احمد الشيخ الذي طالما عمل على تنمية البلدة ورفع شأنها انمائيا وخدماتيا متعاونا مع المجلس البلدي والفاعليات وأهالي البلدة ومستفيدا من علاقاته الواسعة مع مختلف الفاعليات السياسية والاجتماعية والتي أثمرت تنفيذ عددا من المشاريع في البلدة وأهمها إنجاز القصر البلدي الذي يحتوي على عدة طوابق ويشمل مستوصفا صحيا وقاعة للنشاطات الاجتماعية ومكاتب للبلدية. وقد أشرف هذا المبنى على انتهاء العمل فيه وسيتم تديشنه قريبا، بالاضافة الى ان البلدة ستشهد قريبا تدشين مسجد تم بناؤه على نفقة المحسن الكبير خالد الشيخ والذي يتميز بهندسة معمارية رائعة في داخله وخارجه ويحتوي على قاعة للمناسبات، فضلا عن جمالية داخله من حيث المساحات الفسيحة التي خلت من الاعمدة ومنبره المصمم بطريقة فنية رائعة، كما قبته والمئذنة ويحتوي على جناح للنساء.

وفي البلدة تم تنفيذ عدد من الجدران التي بنيت بطريقة فنية تراثية واستعمل فيها الحجر الاسود البازلتي بالاضافة إلى توسيع أقنية الري وغيرها من الخدمات الاساسية.
وتنشط في هذه الايام السياحة البيئية، حيث أن المقاهي والمطاعم على ضفاف النهر تكتظ بالزوار من كل المناطق الشمالية والعكارية نظرا لجمالية هذه المواقع وغناها ببيئة جميلة ومياه النهر العذبة والنظيفة من أي تلوث لأن البلدية تعطي اهتماما كبيرا لهذا الموضوع.

واعتبر رئيس اتحاد بلديات نهر الاسطوان ورئيس بلدية مزرعة بلدة احمد الشيخ ان "الطموحات الكبيرة بالوصول بالبلدة الى مستقبل افضل على كل المستويات ولدينا العديد من المشاريع التي تدرس مع المعنين ومن أهمها توسيع وتعبيد الطرق والصرف الصحي والاهتمام بالبيئة ومن أهمها حماية النهر من التعديات".

وأكد أن الاهالي يتمتعون بحس وطني هام ومن خلال التعاون بين الجميع سنصل حتما إلى نهضة إنمائية وبيئية بكل معنى الكلمة"، لافتا إلى أنه "قريبا سيتم تدشين القصر البلدي والذي تم انشاؤه في عهد البلدية السابقة ونحن اكملنا البناء ليكون في خدمة البلدة وابنائها".

وأشار إلى أن "البلدة شهدت في الاعوام الماضية حركة سياحية ووطنية لافتة من خلال مهرجانات طواحين الاسطوان التي أقيمت على مدى عامين ما ساهم في ابراز وجه البلدة السياحي والتراثي والوطني، وعرف كثيرين على البلدة. كما كان لهذه المهرجانات بعد وطني حيث تم تكريم الجيش اللبناني وإقامة معارض حرة بالطبيعة لفنانين ونشاطات مختلفة للاطفال".

وقد شكرالشيخ القيمين على لجنة مهرجانات طواحين الاسطوان على ما قامت به من جهود هامة، متنميا "عودة هذه المهرجانات الي رحاب البلد"، داعيا "ابناء البلدات المجاورة للعمل على حماية نهر الاسطوان من التعديات البيئية لأنه شريان حيوي هام جدا لا يجب أن نتركه مرمى للنفايات والمجارير. ودعا الوزارات المختصة الى وضع حد للعبث بالبيئة والطبيعة".

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Hotel-village concept pops up in Ehden - [more]
By: Beckie Strum
Date: Wednesday, July 24, 2013

EHDEN, Lebanon: Every patch of evening traffic on the way to Kroum resort in Ehden sent the car’s air-conditioning into a temper tantrum; and us, too, as a humid 32 degrees Celsius turned the drive into a sauna of burnt-rubber and car exhaust. When we climbed up the first bend from the valley village of Mazraat al-Nahr, however, the temperature took a noticeable turn as well. The windows went down, the scarf came on, and by the time we broke through the blanket of fog on the Ehden mountaintop, the temperature had plummeted to a brisk 18 degrees.

A cloud had taken a temporary pit stop on the village during its trip over the mountainous region of Zghorta. We could see nothing but what was directly in front of us, and even the roadside condominiums were suspended in fluffy grayness. It was through this that the Kroum compound, a development project still in its infancy, came into view.

Distance-wise, Ehden is about 120 kilometers from the capital Beirut. But it’s a universe away in terms of just about everything else: biodiversity, clean air, cool summer temperatures and tranquility. Perched on a mountain 1,200 meters above sea level and surrounded by north Lebanon’s natural wonders – the Horsh Eden reserve and the Qadisha Valley, a cave-pocked, ascetics’ escape – Ehden attracts thousands of visitors each summer.

Kroum was the latest edition to the resorts and hotels that dot Ehden when it opened for a pilot month last summer. This July, Kroum opened for its first full season, which will run until October or whenever the rainy season starts, said manager Sayed Accary.

Some parts of Kroum appeared very much like a project under construction.

For example, workers were finishing up the structure of the hotel’s soon-to-be outdoor club and lounge. But the essentials for the hotel were finished: a line of elegantly minimalist hotel rooms each with their own private balcony; a compound of luxury suites surrounding a pool and Jacuzzi; two massive, heated swimming pools; a poolside bar serving sandwiches and snacks; and, the real gem, Le Matbokh, a traditional Zghortian-style restaurant.

Kroum plucked much of its staff from the surrounding villages. The chefs were village ladies, and the various waiters, receptionists and other help were a smiling cadre of helpful and chatty young people. They escorted us directly from the car to Le Matbokh, where more of them were baking sesame kaak bread or grilling it with cheese.

When complete, Kroum will offer a contemporary fusion of urban modernism and mountain tradition. That contrast was already taking shape.

The utilitarian architecture and minimalist design scheme created a contemporary resort feel, so did quirky surprises like a three-person bicycle leaning against the entrance and poolside double beds. But Kroum’s management also preserved the best the area has to offer, namely its cuisine and dramatic landscape. The resort was built in a linear layout to give guests the best view possible.

Kroum sought to add a little urban sophistication to the nightlife scene in Ehden. Accary compared the future lounge, slated to open Aug. 1, to Beirut’s Iris: a laid back, sunset to sunrise club with live music or DJs.

He estimated Ehden had around four night clubs, which all had more or less the same concept: Arabic music led by a man and his piano. Le Matbokh started hosting its own Arabic music nights with an emphasis on adding diversity to the local scene through oud players and local bands.

It was also Le Matbokh that grounded Kroum to its location by serving up Zghorta-specific so-called “mother-to-daughter” recipes.

There were five different kinds of baked kibbeh on the menu. The local rendition of arass were softball-sized kibbeh filled with rich melted animal fat. The kibbeh nayeh was made from goat meat, rather than beef and lamb fat, and a perfect, unadulterated bright pink. Locally made goat cheese called darfieyeh shared a plate with slices of watermelon. The loubiyeh bil zeit (green beans in olive oil) was tomato free, and a cold plate of chicken liver was doused in a deliciously sweet, paprika sauce.

There were of course Lebanese mezze staples prepared in their universal form, like hummus, mutabbal, garlic labneh, soujouk and makanik sausages, and shanklish (though here it was called by its local name “jibjob”).

The morning meal came complimentary with a stay at Kroum and consisted of any local breakfast dishes your heart desired: labneh, eggs still sizzling in olive oil, zaatar and cheese manakeesh, doughy pockets of butter and sugar, olives and varieties of homemade jam – called “tatleh” by the locals.

By the time Kroum is finished Le Matbokh will be but one of a number of cafes and international-style restaurants at the resort.

Kroum plans to develop its 140,000 square meters of land with more than just a hotel resort. The project, which is slated to take six more years, will include a number of cafes and restaurants, a small shopping village peddling local crafts and foodstuffs, a second hotel and villas for long-term residents. Kroum is also planting fields of its own fresh fruits and produce to service its own eateries.

Still, Accary readily agreed that the political situation had made it a less-than-ideal time to open up a new hotel in the country, where tourism has slowed to a snail’s pace.

Last year, Ehden canceled its annual music and entertainment festival after violence in Tripoli, sparked by the war in neighboring Syria, had scared off international performers.

This year, the political situation has deteriorated in other parts of the country, though the Ehden Festival is prepared to go ahead as planned starting the first week of August.

Accary was surprisingly upbeat about the season. “We depend greatly on expats returning to the area, and they always come even if there’s war,” he said. “Also the new trend for the past three years is [people] from Beirut. Beirutis love to escape.”

For more information about Kroum, visit its Facebook page at www.facebook.com/KroumEhden or call for rates at 79-100-507.

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In Bikfaya, everything is just peachy - [more]
By: Samya Kullab
Date: Tuesday, July 23, 2013

BEIRUT: The village of Bikfaya is revered for two crucial contributions to Lebanese society: politics, as the birthplace of the Kataeb Party, and in the month of July, white-fleshed Babcock peaches, said to only grow in the area. The village’s mild temperatures coupled with its altitude of just about 900 meters are ideal conditions for this particular species of peach to grow. And for the locals, harvesting the rare variety of peach has always been a family affair.

Babcock peaches were named after American professor E.B. Babcock, who developed the type after crossbreeding strawberry and pento peaches.

The peaches are white, with a brilliant red core, and sweeter and juicer than other varieties of peach. As it was first introduced to Lebanon in the town, Babcock peaches continue to be Bikfaya’s hallmark fruit.

“We have something that doesn’t exist elsewhere in Lebanon,” said Hana Najjar, who owns a family-run peach orchard in the village.

It’s introduction to the Bikfaya area, he recalls dates back to the 1930s, when a group of Americans presented the seeds to the village with the help of Maurice Gemayel, who was acting as the deputy to Pierre Gemayel at the time.

Hana’s father, Elias, was the first farmer to sow its seeds.

Today, brothers Antoine and Hana Najjar take care of the orchard their father cultivated, the latter pointing out that though the seeds were planted in the early 1930s, the first harvest took place four years later.

“My uncle Elias never got married,” explains Hana. “He was married to the peach orchard.”

Indeed, one needs to be utterly devoted to a peach orchard to guarantee a successful harvest. Peach trees are vigorous, and require regular pruning and thinning, as well as fertile and well-drained soils.

Everyone in the village speaks of the role peaches played in their childhoods – picking them from the tree, placing the ripe ones in boxes before sending them off to the local supermarkets, brushing off the excess fuzz and dust with the ends of broomsticks.

“I have two children,” Hana says. “One is a doctor and the other is an engineer, so I don’t know who will take up the orchard after our generation.”

The family’s hopes for orchard are said to lie with the younger Aboudi Najjar, Hana’s nephew, but he says there are many factors hindering his desire to take up peach cultivation, chief among them being the challenges associated with achieving profitability.

“We aren’t agricultural professionals today, we have a peach orchard, but its operated by the family,” explains Aboudi, who is a businessman himself, supplying Lebanon with Jelly Belly, an American candy, “So today my father is an expert, but these days it’s not his main business.”

Prioritizing other business ventures means the peach orchard belonging to Aboudi’s father, Antoine, must be maintained by paid workers.

“We make very little profit and there’s a lot of competition,” the younger Najjar says

He explains that because of the short shelf life of the peaches, at most three weeks, they need to be sold immediately upon the harvest.

“It’s like gambling: You pick the peach and if you don’t find someone to purchase it immediately, it’s all lost,” Hanna says.

There are a number of more organized peach plantations in the area but that nevertheless cannot produce Babcock peaches.

“The second problem is water,” Aboudi adds. “There isn’t enough.”

The lack of precipitation in the area during the summer months, and existing water shortages mean the Najjar family has to purchase water from external sources to replenish the peaches and ensure a productive harvest.

Moreover, peaches are susceptible to infection from various disease-carrying insects and the cost of pesticides is another aspect of peach farming making it an expensive endeavor. In particular, Babcock peaches are vulnerable to peach leaf curl, brown rot and the peach twig borer.

“I don’t think many people are growing peach plantations anymore, because it’s a very sensitive product, it’s better to plant apples, pears,” Aboudi says. “Peaches are very sensitive.”

What Aboudi wants most, he says, is for the Agriculture Ministry to recognize Babcock peaches as a distinct product of Bikfaya, a prestigious seal that he believes will boost its added value and ensure its lucrativeness.

Peaches, like other fruits, can be eaten just as is, or preserved with some citrus and water as jams and baked in pies.

“You can find peach jams in the supermarket, but our peaches in Bikfaya are a different and rare variety,” Bikfaya local Nicole Gemayel explains. “If you plant the same seed elsewhere, you’ll have a different peach.”

With a little creativity, the fruit can be used as the confectionary touch to savory recipes, such as Bikfaya local Leila Sayah’s peach mankousheh.

“It’s my own recipe,” she says proudly, distributing the thick chunks of peaches, stewed in water and cinnamon, on top of the bubbling cheese of an already baking mankousheh.

The seemingly incongruous sweet and salty flavors are much like the climate of Bikfaya, where the peaches were grown: fruitful and robust.

...
برحليون أو بئر الحلوين بلدة بشرانية أثرية وصلتها المياه حديثا - [more]
By: بدوي حبق
Date: Tuesday, July 23, 2013

وطنية - برحليون بلدة في قضاء بشري، تقع الى الجهة الغربية منه، مصدر الكلمة سرياني وتعني "ابن القوة والجمال او بئر الحلوين".

تقع برجليون على منحدر فسيح يتجه صعودا من الغرب باتجاه الشرق بخط مستقيم يتدرج من اسفل منطقة شيرا أي عن علو 625 مترا حتى مقر سيدة ديرونا على علو 1325 مترا، ثم ينحدر ليواصل ارتفاعه من جديد فيبلغ قمة "تلة القموعة" التي ترتفع 1375 مترا عن سطح البحر.

يحدها من الشرق بيت منذر وحدث الجبة ومن الغرب قرى بنهران ومتريت ورشدبين التابعة لقضاء الكورة، من الشمال الغربي مقر الاحول المتاخم لحدود قضاءي الكورة وزغرتا، ومن الجنوب خراج قرية حردين التابعة لقضاء البترون.

في بلدة برحليون تنتشر معالم أثرية، منها ما هو تاريخي ومنها ما هو ديني ومن معالمها التاريخية "موقع رأس القموعة"، وهو أعلى بقعة في برحليون يرتفع 1375 مترا عن سطح البحر وهذه القمة تقع بين قرن أيطو شمالا وقمة جبل حردين جنوبا وهي مشابهة لهما في الشكل والارتفاع. ويمتاز أسلوب بنائه الروماني بحجارة ضخمة مقصبة قطعا مستطيلة.

"موقع بعفشا" يقع بين خراج بلدتي برحليون وعبرين، فيه العديد من الآثار المخروطية، وما زال أصحاب الأملاك يستخدمونها حتى اليوم لتخزين المياه لمواشيهم، وفي منطقة شيرا في أسفل برحليون، غرف جنائزية منتشرة في اماكن متعددة وهي قبور مستطيلة الشكل منحوتة بدقة في الصخر او في ارض صخرية مسطحة ويعود معظمها للعصور البيزنطية كما يقول ابن البلدة الكاتب الاستاذ مجيد طراد. ويوجد سبع نواويس منقوشة في الصخر تصل اليها بعد اجتياز باب صخري يؤدي الى غرفة مساحتها 15 مترا يبلغ ارتفاعها مترين.

ومن معالم برجليون الدينية دير القديسين قوزما ودميان ودير سيدة ديرونا الذي كان مقرا للبطريرك لوقا البنهراني في فصل الصيف الذي يمضي الشتاء في بلدة بنهران وفي الربيع في دير القديسين قوزما ودميانوس، كما يقول الاستاذ مجيد طراد ابن البلدة نقلا عن الاب ناصر الجميل الذي ينقل بدوره عن البطريرك بولس مسعد.

كذلك في البلدة دير مار نهرا ودير مار يوسف وسيدة شيرا وكنيسة مار انطونيوس البادواني وكنيسة مار انسطاسيوس التي تحولت فيما بعد وعام 1949 الى مدرسة رسمية. عدد سكانها يتراوح بين 4000 و4500 نسمة بينهم 1500 مقيمين في البلدة وحوالى 3000 مهاجر الى اوستراليا والارجنتين وكندا والولايات المتحدة من بينهم نائبان في أوستراليا أحدهما ديرل طراد والاخر جاكي طراد. ومن رجالاتها المشهورين في الوطن القاضي سليم ابي نادر الذي تقلب في مناصب قضائية مهمة في لبنان وهو صاحب مجموعة التشريع اللبناني ويعود له الفضل في استحداث اول مجلس بلدي سنة 1964.

ومن رجالاتها ايضا الخوراسقف يوحنا طراد وقد منح رتبة شرف في الحرس البابوي من البابا الراحل يوحنا بولس الثاني ويعود له الفضل في انجاز معظم المشاريع العمرانية.

برحليون فيها العديد من المثقفين وهي البلدة التي تسبق كل جيرانها بنسبة المتعلمين والمثقفين، فيها العديد من الشعراء حيث أن أغلبية أهلها يتذوقون الشعر كتابة ونظما وسمعا كما تجد في برحليون العديد من العسكريين الذين يتطوعون لخدمة وطنهم.

كانت البلدة تعاني الشح في المياه، وقد وصلت اليها المياه حديثا باهتمام وسعي نواب المنطقة وبدعم من الصندوق الكويتي. فيها العديد من المزروعات البعلية كالتفاح والزيتون والتين وحديثا شجرة الكرز. ويعتبر تفاحها من اجود انواع التفاح في لبنان.

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Baalbek, Lebanon: Where the Roman ruins outstrip Rome - [more]
By: Adrian Mourby
Date: Monday, July 22, 2013

(CNN) -- I approached Baalbek on a hot, dry day out of Beirut, down a broken road where children played, oblivious to passing cars.

I pulled up by a small hut on the outskirts of the city, where I'd been told to ask for Abdul Nabi al-Afi.

There he was, a slim, cheery, weather-beaten man who offered me coffee.

I was sweating from the heat, but Abdul found Lebanon cold at this time of year and he was wearing a blazer over two pullovers.

I sat down to hear how this former sergeant in the Lebanese army had found himself guardian of one of the most extraordinary sights in the region.

A former Lebanese army sergeant, Abdul Nabi al-Afi found an archeological treasure in a rubbish-filled gorge.
A former Lebanese army sergeant, Abdul Nabi al-Afi found an archeological treasure in a rubbish-filled gorge.

Treasure beneath rubbish

Twelve years ago, Abdul had retired from the military and returned to the Beqaa Valley -- a broad, green swathe running for 120 kilometers through eastern Lebanon -- and his home in Baalbek.

"Many Palestinian refugees had moved here in the time I'd been away," he said, "and I saw they'd been throwing their rubbish into an old quarry."

At a loose end, Abdul started removing the garbage from the site near his home.

As he did, he uncovered an ancient object -- the largest single stone ever carved, lying at the bottom of the quarry.

It was a huge piece of limestone, longer than a school bus and estimated to weigh more than a thousand tons.

Carved by the Romans more than 2,000 years ago, the monolith had been intended for the nearby temple complex of Heliopolis.

Now a Lebanese flag flies at one end of it, and, over the cafe Abdul has set up nearby, a sign trumpets: "La Plus Grande Pierre dans le Monde."

A Roman sarcophagus found at Heliopolis. The temple was far vaster than anything seen in Rome itself.
A Roman sarcophagus found at Heliopolis. The temple was far vaster than anything seen in Rome itself.

Three gods

Traveling in the Middle East, I'd heard of Baalbek but not of Heliopolis.

As we stepped down into the old shallow quarry, Abdul pointed to the huge white columns of an abandoned temple visible on the horizon between two concrete housing blocks and loops of telephone wire.

"In those days Baalbek was known as Heliopolis," Abdul said. "Our temple was the biggest ever built by the Romans.

"Here they worshiped not one god but three: Jupiter, Venus and Bacchus. Today Heliopolis is a UNESCO World Heritage Site."

Abdul receives no government assistance for his upkeep of the quarry and the monolith so, as I was leaving, I bought a guidebook from his shop for $7.

Would he ever leave Baalbek, I asked as we shook hands.

"I can't," he said. "The quarry would go back to the way it was. I won't let that happen."

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A ram in the Becaa Valley: despite regional strife, this Lebanese enclave retains a certain calm.
A ram in the Becaa Valley: despite regional strife, this Lebanese enclave retains a certain calm.

"Die Tempel von Heliopolis"

I drove on through the scruffy outskirts of modern Baalbek, parked my car and bought a ticket for ancient Heliopolis.

A group of young German men marched into the ruins ahead of me. They weren't the first: German students have been coming to Baalbek for more than a century.

Before World War I, the Kaiser, an ally of the Ottoman Turks who then ruled here, sent his best archeologists to excavate and secure the ruins.

A drawing of their proposed reconstruction pinned to the ticket booth reads: "Die Tempel von Heliopolis, Ba'albek."

At the combined size of several football pitches, the three temples of Heliopolis were built on a scale much larger than anything seen in Rome.

Shrine to Ba'al

The complex was actually constructed on top of a shrine to the Canaanite god Ba'al.

To build it, the Romans had first to create a vast plateau above the valley.

That alone must have been an extraordinary undertaking.

Location of Beqaa Valley and Baalbek Location of Beqaa Valley and Baalbek
Location of Beqaa Valley and BaalbekLocation of Beqaa Valley and Baalbek

During the Christian era, the temple complex was quarried for buildings including the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (the new Roman capital) and the rest was roofed over to create a church of dimensions not seen again until the building of St. Peter's in Rome.

When Islam came to the Beqaa Valley, the steps of this church were hacked away to create an inaccessible Muslim fortress held in 1175 by the mighty Saladin.

Crusaders besieged it several times but never broke through.

Today the complex still towers over this low-rise city.

The occasional tourist wanders through in the company of a guide -- like Abdul, always well wrapped up against the sunshine -- but you can have it to yourself most of the time.

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Vanishing tourists

With civil war raging in its eastern neighbor, Syria, and security always fierce in Israel to the south, tourism has dropped off drastically in Lebanon in recent years.

Nature has also played a destructive part.

Inching away from Africa, the Arabian tectonic plate has caused three earthquakes at Heliopolis, bringing columns and pediments crashing down.

Yet still it somehow stands, huge and white, an ancient marble enclave within modern Baalbek.

The temple wins the crown for most impressive archeological site in the region, but there's much more to see.

At Hermel there's a mysterious pyramidal tower thought to have been built 3,000 years ago -- no one knows why.

Things might be slightly ramshackle in the Beqaa Valley, but its attractions are world class.
Things might be slightly ramshackle in the Beqaa Valley, but its attractions are world class.

Lebanese white

Lebanon may be dry but it isn't, so to speak, necessarily dry.

Château Ksara (+961 88 134 95), founded in 1857 by Jesuit priests, created one of the first white wines in Lebanon.

"Until recently we received 7,000 visitors a year," Sabah, who works in the visitor shop, told me.

"This valley still produces more than six million bottles of wine a year," she continued. "We sweep the car park every day. We're optimistic."

Everything might be slightly falling apart in the Beqaa Valley, but then this strife-torn region often has to rely on the goodwill of people such as Abdul to maintain its world class tourist attractions.

Nevertheless, the valley exudes calm.

It's seen a lot of history and knows it'll see more.

Now, when the most recent chapter of that history has scared most people off, could be a good time to go.

Baalbek is approximately 85 kilometers east of Beirut. Lebanon-R-Us is one local company offering tours of the city and its sights; +961 76 513 800.

The monolith and Abdul's cafe are located near the eastern entrance to Baalbek -- look for signs. No set opening times or entrance fee to the site.

To visit ancient Heliopolis, look for signs within Baalbek pointing to "The Ruins"; open 8:30 a.m. until 30 minutes before sunset; children under eight free, adults $8; guides are hired from around the ticket office, at the southeastern end of the temple complex, and cost around $14 an hour.

More information on visiting Baalbek can be found on the Baalbeck Municipality official website.

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A Summer Night with the Rahbanis - [more]
By: Chirine Lahoud
Date: Friday, July 19, 2013

JBEIL, Lebanon: A refreshing breeze blew through the Byblos International Festival’s seafront venue Wednesday evening, and the stage’s lighting design projected a magical quality upon the proceedings. Colorful lights glittered from the rocks offshore, while the lapping of waves could be heard in the background, promising to transport those assembled to a place far removed from the heat of economic crisis and humidity of security concerns. The promise was kept by vocalists Ghassan Saliba, Hiba Tawaji, Ronza, Nader Khoury, Simon Obeid and Elie Khayat, who gathered for an evening of music by Lebanon’s first family of music, the Rahbanis.

“Rahbani Summer Night” saw the sextet of soloists accompanied by the National Symphonic Orchestra of Ukraine, under the baton of Volodymyr Sirenko, reinforced by an ensemble of local tarab musicians and a 20-voice choir.

Produced and orchestrated by Oussama and Ghady Rahbani, this tribute to the works of Assi and Oussama Rahbani kept the audience awash in music for almost three hours and propelled it to its feet on multiple occasions.

Oussama Rahbani manned the piano during the show. Ghady read poems – some of which brought tears to the eyes of certain spectators.

“The Rahbani nation,” he read at one point, “is for everyone,” a sentiment that provoked the audience to burst into applause.

The orchestra and the chorus – a blend of Western and Middle Eastern instrumentation that included violins, cellos, harps, derbake and other Arabic percussion, vocals and winds – mingled to form a musical cocoon about soloists and audience alike.

The lyrics were in Arabic but this was no barrier. Whether the vocalists were performing solo or in ensemble, the energy and mood of each was obvious and irresistible, even to spectators who couldn’t understand what was being recited and sung.

Although she seemed a little shy at certain points, Aida Tomb (aka Ronza) was as resplendent in her red gown as her voice was dazzling.

If anything, her quiet stage presence only added to the sophistication of her performance. Much famed in the 1980s, the erect and smiling Ronza demonstrated that the passage of time need not diminish talent.

Perhaps the most surprising singer of the evening was the purple-clad Hiba Tawaji (b. 1987). Shifting from subtlety to dynamism, Tawaji aroused goose-bumps (if not tears) in many spectators.

Tomb and Tawaji’s duet performance was flabbergasting.

Listeners also cheered Tawaji’s stirring rendition of “Ya Hajal Sanin,” a tune made famous by Fairouz. The instant she warbled her first notes of a cappella, the Byblos audience wailed and waved their arms in the air.

Ghassan Saliba was another crowd pleaser, compelling the audience demand an encore from him – a request to which he was pleased to comply. When Oussama Rahbani left his piano stool at one point to demonstrate a few dance moves, most of the spectators could be heard to express their astonishment.

Vocalists Simon Obeid, Elie Khayat and Nader Khoury also proved to be outstanding performers, each marked by elegance and respect. Obeid’s stage presence is not unlike that of a matador. For his part, Khoury’s calm elocution made him look every inch the embodiment of a hakawati. Khayat’s powerful voice made certain female listeners visibly quiver.

Maestro Sirenko conducted the orchestra with great subtlety and his modest professionalism was a great pleasure to witness. Each musician followed Sirenko’s gestures the way a puppet would his master. Beneath his steady hand all the individuals on stage were unified as a single entity.

He even betrayed a sense of humor, and made the audience laugh a few times. Unable to leave the stage because the voluminous gowns of the female performers blocked his way, Sirenko gestured significantly to Ronza and Tawaji until they understand they had to move.

This evening in Byblos was a tribute not merely to the music of the Rahbani brothers, but to the country’s cultural heritage generally.

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Documentary captures history of Holy Valley - [more]
By: Antoine Amrieh
Date: Wednesday, July 17, 2013

QANNOUBINE, Lebanon: In a string of caves buried in north Lebanon’s Qadisha Valley, paintings – hundreds of years old – tell the story of the pious monastic life that once thrived there. Such stories were uncovered as part of the “Caves of the Valley” documentary, which is being filmed as part of the comprehensive cultural survey project of the valley of north Lebanon. The project comes after more than a hundred caves and hermitage sites were discovered there.

The movie employed modern filming techniques in order to make the video appealing for an international audience. The director compared the video quality to that of National Geographic and said he plans to show the video at international film festivals.

“It took the specialized filming crew more than a year of strenuous and risky adventures to reach all the caves dispersed in the valley,” said Milad Tawq, the film’s director and director of photography.

“This hard work required will, determination, toughness and faith amongst harsh natural conditions and in a rough terrain full of risks.”

Qadisha Valley, otherwise known as the Holy Valley, is divided into three parts: the eastern part near Saint Lishaa, the central part in Qannoubine Valley and the western part near Our Lady of Hamatoura and Qozhaya Monastery.

Several of the caves are carved deep underground with stalactites and stalagmites like Al-Atem, Al-Habiss, Barzo, Shamaa and Qantara.

Other kinds of caves are former hermitage sites, where monks used to live ascetic lives withdrawn from society. They include the caves of Saint Estefan, Mahbasa, Morbo, Shothit and Brohit.

In ancient times, several caves were turned into cemeteries for these monks like Al-Abed, Al-Mahbous, Our Lady of Generosity and St. Simon.

Other caves discovered in the valley had artwork on their walls, relics of the people that once lived there during ancient times. Such caves include Naameh and Shamas. In the White Lily cave, Malak cave and Al-Halyan, the colorful paintings depict the history of the Qadisha Valley.

“Caves of the Valley” has captured the rich history of the valley through its caves, a project meant to promote the unique cultural heritage uncovered in the area. The documentary was produced by the Patriarchate League of Qannoubine, and was financed by the Issam Fares Foundation.

“We have used modern and special techniques especially to capture the bright, dry, dark and water-submerged caves,” Tawq said. “The lenses and the lightning equipment used are internationally certified and also used by the high-quality documentaries of the National Geographic channel.”

The film depicts the caves throughout the four seasons, Tawq said.

“In some times we had to wait for the water level to lower a little so that we can enter the caves and film them. At the end the film included all the caves whether the deep caves, spiritual, cemeteries or artistic or was used for residential needs by the valley residents.”

In terms of documentary picture quality, the film is the first of its kind for Lebanon, Tawq said.

“It documents a lost society that perished with time, due to natural factors and human negligence.”

Tawq noted that the film will be screened in the international festivals for documentary films in France, Italy the United States and elsewhere.

The first screening of the film will be at the summer headquarters of the Maronite Patriarchate at the Kesrouan village of Diman in August.

The screening will be attended by Patriarch Beshara Rai, Cardinal Nasrallah Sfeir and President Michel Sleiman, who has shown enormous support to the project, Tawq said.

The project is part of a bigger goal to raise awareness about the religious history of the valley.

In May, UNESCO agreed to finance the Maronite Patriarchate’s project to conduct rehabilitation works in the Qannoubine Valley village, part of an area classified as a World Heritage Site.

Rai has tapped two local architectural firms to prepare plans to revitalize area villages and turn Qannoubine Valley village, land owned by the Patriarchate, into a model village to highlight the region’s history of spiritual activity.

The dirt road, which will be rehabilitated by UNESCO, is 4 kilometers long and links Saint Lishaa monastery and Qannoubine Valley village in the qada of Bsharri.

All the paths to be constructed should maintain their rural character. Two stone paths along the sides of the road will remain unpaved following the renovation.

The executive coordinator of the Comprehensive Cultural Survey of the valley and script writer George Arab spoke about the difficulties they faced during the project.

“Discovering all the caves, hermitages and landmarks of the valley were some of the hardest phases of the project, but we succeeded though it was risky,” Arab said. “We uncovered remains that tell the story of people who were content with the minimum resources as a way to preserve their faith and freedom.”

The film will be adapted into Arabic, English, French, Spanish and Portuguese, he said.

Christians should find the documentary particularly interesting, as it discusses the history of their religion in the country.

“This knowledge is the key to their survival,” he said. “They should always listen to the bells of the Holy Valley, which rang for the first time in 1112 in Qannoubine Monastery and still do. They should know the biggest challenge is to keep these bells ringing loudly.”

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Old Baghdad comes alive in Beirut - [more]
By: Meris Lutz
Date: Tuesday, July 16, 2013

BEIRUT: When Sahar Taha was growing up, she and the children of her Baghdad neighborhood would go house to house during Ramadan, singing songs and collecting sweets. She remembers it as a time of joy, when the community renewed its bonds through collective fasting and late-night visits. “I think today children have different interests and modes of expression,” said Taha, resplendent in a turquoise abaya. “They don’t even play in the street anymore.

“Today we are living in the era of globalization, which has also come to Iraq, so the habits of children have changed with the computer and the Internet. A lot of things disappeared in terms of customs and traditions.”

Ramadan, like Iraq, may have changed in the years since Taha left, but she was happy to resurrect the spirit of old Baghdad for one night at the newly inaugurated Iraqi Cultural Center in Verdun, the first such center in the Arab world.

As Taha took to the stage Friday evening with Ashtarout, her seven-woman band, she wasted no time in addressing the specter of violence that seemed to hang over the audience, comprised mainly of Iraqis, Lebanese and Syrians. It was one day after 44 people were killed in attacks across Iraq and less than a week since a massive car bomb wounding dozens in the Beirut suburb of Bir al-Abed.

“Hopefully next Ramadan will be calmer and more hopeful,” she said. “Tonight, although there are many great Iraqi songs for sadness, we have chosen joyful tunes because we must always hope for a better future.”

For the next hour and a half, Taha kept her word, transporting the audience with lighthearted tunes from the 1950s and ’60s, as well as newer compositions based on the works of contemporary Iraqi poets.

The opening strains of such favorites as “Shlonak Aini, Shlonak” (How are you, my love, how are you) and “Mali Shughl bil Souk,” (I have no business at the market) drew cries of recognition bordering on relief, while the classic “Marou Alayi al-Helween,” (The pretty ones pass by), made famous by the legendary Iraqi vocalist Nazem al-Ghazali, provoked cheers and spontaneous shouts of “Allah!”

Although the songs were ostensibly playful, the undertone of loss was unmistakable.

“Every song has its flavor, its significance and meaning, but they all talk about Iraq and love for one’s homeland,” said Taha, speaking to The Daily Star following the performance. “For us expatriates, nostalgia is a disease, and the longer we are away, the more the nostalgia comes flooding back.

“Music is the vehicle through which we express our longing and nostalgia, and release the pressure and the love,” she continued. “Music is what brings people together. Politics divides us, but music brings us together.”

Ever mindful of the historical and social contexts behind the traditions that influence her as an artist, Taha is as much a musicologist as a musician. She has written extensively as both a music critic and researcher, and even credits music with helping her beat cancer three times.

Her latest album “Ashaqouka Enta” (I Adore You) is a collection of songs based on the works of female Sufi poets from the 8th to the 21st centuries.

“Sahar is a committed artist, and a spiritual one at the same time,” said the novelist Latifa al-Hajj Kodeih, who was in the audience Friday evening. “Especially during Ramadan, one feels that this type of art brings you closer to spirituality and turns you toward the heavens and the spaces that you need, especially in light of the crisis in the Arab world.”

The center, which falls under the aegis of Iraq’s Ministry of Culture, only opened last month. The concert last week was the first of four cultural evenings to be hosted by the center every Friday throughout Ramadan.

Ali Aweid al-Abadi, the center’s director, said Beirut was a natural location choice. “There is a cultural depth and vividness in Beirut,” he said, “and a deep relationship between the Iraqi and Lebanese cultures.”

Abadi went on to say he hoped the center would play a central role in fomenting creative and intellectual exchange between Lebanon and Iraq with lectures, readings, concerts and other events.

Speaking as an Iraqi artist, particularly one who has been living outside her country for many years, Taha said founding a cultural center was a “necessary step” and expressed her readiness to help “in any way” she could.

“This center is a point of communication, a meeting point between Iraq and the outside, and between creative forces from all over the Arab world,” she said. “Culture is much more important than politics.”

For more information about upcoming events, call the Iraqi Cultural Center on 01-786-650.

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Lebanon's Reconstructed Refugee Camp in Tripoli Up for Aga Khan Award - [more]
By: Laurie Balbo
Date: Sunday, July 14, 2013

Why do we love “makeovers”? What draws us to images of women dunked in hair dye and better lighting, or old furniture stylin’ after sanding and new hardware? The reconstruction of the Nahr el-Bared Refugee Camp in Tripoli, Lebanon is an architectural “before” and “after” with improvements far deeper than a slap-on of fresh paint. The project is a contender for a 2013 Aga Khan Award for Architecture, a $1 million award to be awarded in September.

The camp is Lebanon’s oldest and largest. Founded during the 1948 Arab-Israeli conflict, it evolved over generations from tents to permanent buildings, only to be flattened during a 2007 clash between the Lebanese army and an Islamic militant group (image above).

This project kept the essence of what was destroyed and upgraded it, opting to invest in enhanced public space and greatly improving the lives of 27,000 Palestinian refugees.

The United Nations-led planning effort involved the entire community. The idea was to rebuild something instantly recognizable to former residents. Using large scale plans, designers and residents worked to recall individual homes in correlation to their old neighbors. Camp landmarks were recorded and neighborhoods outlined, and the collective memory of the community was mapped.

The original camp followed the building typology of the refugees’ villages, which, in turn, was based on an extended-family collective. The old town road network had provided the only open space. The new town included a design goal to triple non-built areas from 11% to 35% of total landscape, achieved by giving each building an independent structural system allowing for vertical expansion up to four floors.

Former building positioning was respected, but footprints reduced to increase public space. A series of eight construction phases began in 2008, and in April 2011 residents returned to new homes, schools and shops.

The built environment influences human health as surely as diet and disease. Architecture that weaves together the physical and social fabric of a community deserves recognition. Kudos to the Aga Khan Award for Architecture for throwing light on another stellar project.

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World's 7 most dangerous and remote islands - [more]
By: Mike Sowden
Date: Friday, July 12, 2013

Idiotic TV shows and "latest apps" bumming you out on the 21st century?

Ready for some "me time" on the world’s remotest islands?

Golden sands and swaying palms are for pretenders -- the reality of solitude is different, as these terrifyingly distant landfalls demonstrate.

1. Tristan Da Cunha

1,750 miles from South Africa

Tristan da Cunha
Long way back if you forget your camera.

The British island group of Tristan da Cunha stands profoundly alone in the South Atlantic.

The nearest landfall is South Africa, 1,750 miles east, and to the west, South America is more than 2,000 miles distant.

It’s the world’s most remote inhabited island chain -- so precariously occupied that when a volcanic vent erupted in 1961, the whole population was evacuated to England.

Reaching Tristan Da Cunha

This is no easygoing excursion. To quote the official website:

“There are no package tours for independent travelers, no hotels, no airport, no holiday reps, no night clubs, no restaurants, no jet skis nor safe sea swimming.”

All visitors need to clear their arrivals in advance through the Island Council, and they also need to obtain a Police Certificate (a 40-day wait is typical).

Sailings: around 10 a year from Cape Town/Namibia, each taking five to six days to reach the islands, US$800-1,500 for a round trip. A list of available ships can be found on the official website: www.tristandc.com

2. Bear Island

400 miles off Europe's north coast

Bear Island
Somewhat like an oceanic Chernobyl.

Bjørnøya, better known as Bear Island, is the southernmost island in the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard, 400 miles north of mainland Europe -- but only on paper, given that it’s almost 150 miles south of the island chain it’s lumped in with.

It’s been a nature reserve since 2002 and has a lively history of failed occupation -- hard to believe for a place comprised of barren cliffs, near-zero precipitation and risk of leaks of radioactive material from the nearby wreck of a nuclear submarine.

Reaching Bear Island

Getting to the heart of Svalbard is a relatively simple matter -- there are daily flights from Oslo and Tromsø to Svalbard’s capital Longyerbyen, on the west coast of Spitsbergen.

Now it gets tricky. Research vessels infrequently call on Bear Island (the Norwegian Polar Institute makes an occasional appearance), while individually chartered boats and the occasional adventure cruise (such as this one from Polar Quest) haul in the remaining visitors.

3. Bouvet

1,000 miles from Antarctica

Bouvet
Everyone welcome -- as long as you have a very good reason.

Tristan da Cunha is the remotest inhabited island in the world -- now, welcome to its uninhabited, far bleaker counterpart.

Its cliffs are sheer. It’s almost entirely covered by a glacier. In winter, its seas are pack-ice.

And its nearest neighbour is Antarctica, a thousand miles to the south. In short, idyllic.

Reaching Bouvet

The entire island is a nature reserve -- so unless you can make a compelling case for visiting, you’ll be blocked by Norwegian authorities.

Get permission and it’s now a simple matter of finding a research vessel, quickly mastering a valuable skill such as arctic geological surveying or marine biology and then getting someone to land you via helicopter (there are no ports or harbors).

If all else fails, try becoming an amateur radio enthusiast: in 1990 a multinational expedition of operators spent 16 days on the island.

4. Bishop Rock

30 miles from England

Bishop Rock
Nice lighthouse, but not much room for anything else.

Regarded by Guinness as the world’s smallest island with a building on it, Bishop Rock stands at the end of Britain’s Isles of Scilly, where coastal waters give way to the fury of the Atlantic.

In 1847, engineers started building an iron lighthouse there -- and it washed away in a storm. Its extraordinary successor, first lit in 1858, stands to this day.

Reaching Bishop Rock

Visiting the most southwesterly point in Britain is surprisingly easy -- the St. Mary's Boatsmen’s Association runs day-trips from the Scilly Isles.

But as Martin Hesp notes here, even on a “calm” day you’re in for serious chop.

The image of Bishop Rock is used under a Creative Commons license, courtesy Richard Knights.

5. Boreray

60 miles off mainland Scotland

Boreray
Everest is more conquerable than this little rock.

Love the Scottish islands, but want something with a little more bite? Head west of the Outer Hebrides and you’ll find the archipelago of St. Kilda, 40 miles into the Atlantic.

It’s one of Scotland’s five World Heritage sites, with a main island that was abandoned in the 1930s when crops failed. Imagine the surprise of archaeologists when they found that one of its least hospitable islands, Boreray, was occupied in prehistoric times.

Reaching Boreray

Since Boreray comes under the protection of the National Trust of Scotland, you need their permission to visit.

Then? Lots of time and lots of luck -- with a rugged shoreline and savage sea-swell, this isn't an island built for landings.

According to one guide, more people have reached the summit of Everest than have landed at Boreray since the NTS took ownership in 1957.

6. North Sentinel Island

400 miles from Myanmar

north sentinel island
About as close as you want to get to North Sentinel Island.

North Sentinel is one of the 572 islands making up the Andaman chain in the Indian Ocean’s Bay of Bengal.

It’s surrounded by dangerous reefs, but North Sentinel is intimidating because of its inhabitants. The Sentinelese want nothing to do with the modern world and have repeatedly rebuffed attempts to make peaceful contact, sometimes with deadly violence.

Reaching North Sentinel Island

You’re kidding, right? If the above description didn’t put you off the idea, this article about a pair of fishermen who strayed onto the island certainly should.

7. Rockall

270 miles from Ireland

Rockall
What's the minimum size for an "island"?

If you think Boreray sounds forbidding, try sailing 187 miles west of it. Rockall is the tip of an extinct volcano reaching 20 meters above sea level, in seas with waves recorded as high as 29 meters.

In 1955, it became the final territorial acquisition of the British Empire -- allegedly due to fears the Russians would build a missile battery on it.

Reaching Rockall

In the words of the Rockall Club, “visiting Rockall is difficult, completely weather dependent and not cheap."

Your best bet is contacting Kilda Cruises and arranging a tailormade excursion. Or you could sail there, lash yourself to the rock and claim it as your very own micronation -- but you wouldn’t be the first.

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A workspace of calm in the heart of hectic Beirut - [more]
By: Brooke Anderson
Date: Friday, July 12, 2013

BEIRUT: Imagine going to work every day in an old Ottoman mansion with lush green gardens of olive, pine and palm trees, a pond of goldfish and a turtle. That’s exactly how around 30 Lebanese entrepreneurs will now be spending their days – in the elegant and opulent Sursock Palace gardens.

“This should be a space for the entrepreneur community by the entrepreneur community,” says Hala Fadel, chair of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Forum in the Pan Arab Region, which along with Bader Entrepreneurs is behind the initiative.

Named Co-Working +961 after the location’s country code and having opened at the beginning of this month, the initiative is the first of its kind in the Arab world.

“Living in Lebanon is stressful to begin with, and starting a company is more stressful,” says Fadel, who has initially arranged a five-year lease for the premises, nicknamed the Kiosk.

“Everyone with a different idea should feel attracted to come and make it happen.”

Fadel, who attended the University of California Berkeley as an undergraduate and started her own telecom company while doing her business degree at MIT, says she was inspired by the Googleplex in northern California, the sprawling corporate headquarters of the world’s top search engine. There, the environmentally friendly office buildings are surrounded by tall green trees. Employees are encouraged to bicycle around the facility instead of drive, and they are given extra time to work on their own creative projects.

Although Sursock is a much smaller space in the middle of Beirut, its striking beauty and serenity sets it apart from the rest of the city. The high-ceilinged rooms of the Ottoman villa, originally a Turkish bathhouse, are embedded with marble and wooden mosaics. The grassy courtyards have small picnic tables for informal meetings and brainstorming as well as a pingpong table for recreation. The house’s small garage has been painted and equipped with a table and chairs, a nod to how tech giants such as Amazon started up in a garage.

Co-working spaces are a relatively new phenomenon, having started in the United States and Europe around 10 years ago. The idea is to bring together those who might otherwise be working with distractions at home and give them an office environment where they can find focus and routine and exchange ideas with others. Among the most popular cities for co-working are the technology hubs of San Francisco and Berlin.

Over the past couple of years, the Arab world has seen a number of co-working spaces open their doors – from Morocco to the Gulf. So far, Beirut has three – all centrally located: Alt City in Hamra, Beirut Digital District in Bashoura and Cloud 5 in Downtown Beirut. Lebanon’s latest addition to such collaborative working environments is certainly its most elaborate, maybe even by global standards.

“I went to New York and San Francisco last month, and this is by far the most beautiful co-working space I’ve seen,” says Abdallah Absi, head of Beirut’s Entrepreneurship Club, who was chosen to manage the space. At Co-Working +961, he will be running his new business, Zoomal, a crowd funding platform for the Arab world.

As he worked with Fadel over three months to put together the co-working space, he says he made sure to assemble a diverse group of tenants – working in video production, Arabic editing, online health content and Web development – with the aim of allowing them to exchange their services with one another or commissioning them at lower prices compared with what they would find outside the space. All of this will be done at the highest possible Internet speed in Lebanon.

The entrepreneurs are each paying around $250 a month, a fee that varies depending on their schedules and locations on the premises – a relatively good deal given the real estate and services at their fingertips. In addition to the office environment, those using the space will have direct access to mentors and funders from MIT Enterprise Forum and Bader, both of whom have relocated to Sursock for at least the next year.

And what palatial workspace would be complete without designer furniture to fit in with the theme of a relaxing creative environment?

Interior designer, Nabil Gholam, furnished the space inspired by the colors of the villa, neutral tones of unpainted wood and metal as well as onyx lamps.

Gholam describes his work on the project as “understated” to the point that people shouldn’t even notice the furniture. Instead, his aim was to make his pieces functional and flexible, allowing people to easily move them around.

“You don’t have to sit behind your desk in a formal way,” he said about the entrepreneurs whose furnishings he designed. “They’re dealing with creativity and they’re trying to think outside the box.

In the spirit of the entire space, he said, “I wanted to give it a certain freedom. I wanted it to reflect the people who work there.”

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From the Cedars to the coast: Lebanese wedding venues that impress - [more]
By: Brooke Anderson
Date: Saturday, July 06, 2013

BEIRUT: Lebanon might be a small country, but there is no shortage of wedding venues for couples to celebrate their nuptials in style. Whether exchanging vows as the sun sets on the Mediterranean Sea, escaping the crowded coast in favor of a remote mountain location, celebrating at an old family village that carries sentimental significance, or going for quirky at an offbeat location.

“There are good places to get married all over Lebanon. There’s so much different scenery,” says Asma Andraos, co-founder of the event planning service Stree. She has been in the business for 12 years and has planned weddings at a range of venues, including derelict buildings.

“We’ve become experts at putting together weddings,” she adds, pointing to Lebanon’s renowned food and hospitality sector and the country’s penchant for big parties.

As soon as winter comes to an end, the beach resorts that line Lebanon’s coast are alive with the sights, sounds and smells of wedding festivities. Among the most popular are Edde Sands, a luxury resort in Jbeil that should be booked well in advance; Ocean Blue, also in Jbeil; San Stephano resort in Batroun; Les Talus in Jounieh; and Jardin de Vie, which offers a panoramic view of the sea and Byblos’ historic ruins, all set amid tall green trees. In Beirut, longtime favorites include the St. Georges Yacht Club and the Riviera Hotel.

Although beach weddings are no doubt scenic, events planner Aya El Kara, who runs event planners Essence-Ciel, says she prefers to do indoor weddings, where it is easier to control the sound and lighting.

Nevertheless, she says most Lebanese choose to celebrate outdoors – no matter the heat or humidity – so they can have an elaborate fireworks display at the end of the night. Another advantage of beach weddings compared to those in residential areas is that the music and festivities can go on all night.

But when it comes to weddings scheduled for July or August, the peak of Lebanon’s humid summer, many couples opt to celebrate in the more temperate climate of the mountains.

This can be anywhere from the Mount Lebanon villages overlooking Beirut, to the Cedars in the north. Wineries – such as Kefraya, Massaya and Ksara – and quaint villages in the Bekaa Valley are also popular, as are the lush green forests of the south’s hilly region. In the Chouf, conveniently close to Beirut, favorite wedding venues include Chateau Montagne, the Mir Amin Palace Hotel and the summer retreat of Eco Village.

For couples looking for a traditional setting with all the amenities that will accommodate a large party of family and friends, Arnaoon Village is a great option. The Ottoman village dates back more than 300 years and sits atop a hill overlooking the historic Msaylha Fortress near Batroun in the north. Some of the big old houses, complete with logs and chimneys, have been restored and are now used for special events.

“The location and landscape is special because it’s already an authentic village,” says said Rita Faddoul, director of sales and marketing at Arnaoon Village.

“The whole village is restored, and people who get married in Arnaoon feel like they’re getting married in their home village.” She adds that the bride and groom will often spend the entire day beforehand getting ready for their big day in the old houses, just as they would at home.

However, with the country’s deteriorating security situation, wedding planners told The Daily Star there were fewer weddings these days, while the country’s economic woes meant more couples were asking for lower budget options.

For Andraos, the most crucial part of finding the right wedding venue for her clients is making it personal, which she believes is best done when it’s at an old family home. If the couple is having their wedding at a place that’s “overdone,” which she says is the case 50 percent of the time, she tries to do something different for them.

Yet even after all her years in the events planning business, her clients surprise her with their creative selection for a wedding venue. The most unusual: a steel factory near Karantina – something even the most seasoned planner wouldn’t have dreamed up.

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Baalbeck Festival relocates to Metn - [more]
By: The Daily Star
Date: Tuesday, July 02, 2013

BEIRUT: The Baalbeck Festival committee confirmed Monday that it would relocate the 2013 festival to the outskirts of Beirut. As happened with Fayrouz’s performance of “Sah al-Noum” in 2006, it happens that the festival must “adapt to the difficulties facing the region,” the committee announced.

“This year, we announced a program that makes us proud. Unfortunately, the soprano Renée Fleming canceled her concert on June 30 and, in mutual agreement with the committee, Assi Hallani preferred to postpone his show in the Baalbek Citadel. In view of the developments, and after consulting the authorities, we have decided to proceed anyway, by relocating other shows exceptionally.”

Marianne Faithfull, Eliane Elias, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Fadia Tomb El Hage, Marcel Khalife, and those who accompany them, will perform just outside Beirut.

For the first time in festival history, concerts will be staged in Jdeideh al-Metn, in the magnanery (silkworm nursery) of the village’s 19th-century silk factory.

“We chose this place because it is still unknown to the public,” the news release said. “It is located on the outskirts of the capital and it is available in all regions.”

The venue may have changed, but performance dates remain fixed. Marianne Faithfull will perform Saturday Aug. 17; vocalist and jazz pianist Eliane Elias will take the stage Friday Aug. 23; Marcel Khalife will perform with his oud Saturday Aug. 24; Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s dance piece PUZ/ZLE, with the participation of vocalist El Hage, will be held Friday Aug. 30.

“In times of crisis, art and artists are the only ones able to soften the day.” – The Daily Star

Tickets will be available for purchase from Thursday at Virgin Ticketing box office. For further information you can contact the festival office at 01-373-150/1/2 or call the Virgin Ticketing box office at 01-999-666.

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Late-night feasting at Souk el Tayeb's Tawlet - [more]
By: Beckie Strum
Date: Monday, July 01, 2013

BEIRUT: Mar Mikhael's Tawlet restaurant has grown and is staying out late tonight – and every night for the foreseeable future (beside Sundays). The extension of the popular farmers market Souk el-Tayeb has for four years offered a traditional Lebanese lunch buffet, but officially opened for dinner and aperitifs last week, including an exhaustive list of local wines, a new craft beer, and jugs of fruity cocktails.

Tawlet by Night also brought in a new member of staff from Spain to help shape its evening morsels, such as platters of veggies, fresh mezze dips and herb rotisserie chicken.

By day, Tawlet invites home-cooking gurus from the country's disparate villages to serve up their extra-local cuisine unadulterated by "fusion" – a word Kamal Mouzawak, founder of Tawlet, sneered at as he uttered it.

By night, Tawlet's a la carte menu includes cuisine Mouzawak coined "modern mezze" – though one spoonful of the hummus or the mutabal and it was hard to taste the modern.

That's sort of the idea behind Tawlet's first dinner menu, "Jasmine Nights," he said. The staff has attempted to perfect rather than play with the classic recipes, while adding a few original cocktails and mezze that while not traditional, are so simple and locally sourced they very well could be.

"It's very traditional cuisine. The idea is to come here after work and have a drink and nibble. But why nibble on peanuts. Why not nibble on a very traditional kibbeh Zghortawiyeh [from northern Lebanese town Zghorta]?" Mouzawak asked.

Mouzawak sees Tawlet by Night (called officially by its Arabic translation Tawlet bil Leil) as a sort of stopover before heading home or a starter before a night out.

While we waited for the food to arrive, the quiet, dimly lit atmosphere was clearly conducive to the kind of deep (or not) exchanges that often follow several glasses of wine or accompany a shared meal. That seemed to be what Mouzawak was aiming to promote: a restaurant with a cafe mentality that accommodates people sipping slowly and eating whatever and whenever they want.

"We're very flexible. You can order five, 10, 15 plates: cold things and hot-cooked. You don't have to order a minimum," Mouzawak said.

He equated the concept to tapas bars in Spain, an appropriate comparison given that the creator of the menu happens to hail from her own resto-guest house there.

Gioconda Scott, a Brit by blood but born and bred in Spain, is an heir to a well-noted, family-owned guesthouse called Trasierra, located in the farmland north of Seville.

Christine Muhlke, a writer for Bon Apetit magazine, called Scott's food at Trasierra traditional Spanish, but lighter and brighter. The same could be said for her take on Lebanese cooking, which she learned directly from the women that run Tawlet's kitchen during the day, Scott said.

For example, the makanek – Armenian sausage with pomegranate sauce and pine nuts – is prepared using less fat, making the end result slightly lighter though still rich and savory sweet.

Similarly, the fattoush contains the traditional pomegranate flavor, but instead of a super-sweet dressing made from molasses, a scattering of fresh pomegranate seeds gives a subtler pop of sweet tartness.

There are, of course, things she did not dare mess with, she said, like the mutabal. The authenticity of Scott's traditional mezze was a real testament to her efforts learning Lebanese cuisine.

Though traditional mezze often contains less than five ingredients, Scott said, that's what makes them so easy to screw up. The slightest alteration in method, proportions, timing or temperature will cause recognizable change in taste.

"The simplicity of that dish [mutabal] means you have infinite methods of screwing it up," she said.

The word fusion is neither allowed nor appropriate to describe Jasmine Nights. But Scott's background in Spanish cuisine has crept its way into the menu in delightfully subtle ways.

The nibbles that come with drinks included a bowl of boiled quail eggs – so miniature and beautiful you don't want to eat them. Quail eggs are a common Spanish starter. Scott gave these a Middle Eastern flavor with a little bowl of cumin salt for dipping.

Back at Trasierra, snack-drink pairings included apple sangria and almonds. Tawlet by Night's drink menu includes several sangrias, only sold by the jug, accompanied by a plate of garlic-rosemary roasted almonds.

So after gorging ourselves on the new menu, The Daily Star recommends ordering the garlic-lemon mushrooms, for which manners were cast aside and forks were plunged directly into the hot saute pan. The crushed baby potatoes were also deliciously simple, as was the tomato salad with a hint of sweet golden raisins and the organic roasted chicken, which made us to pause to smell roasting being done in their outdoor rotisserie by the entrance.

Tawlet's flair for discovering talent also brought in something a little more central European to taste. Christine Codsi, an owner at Souk el Tayeb, found ultra microbrewery just south of Adma in the home of Emile Schruntz.

Emile, of Czech and Lebanese decent, brews several hundreds of bottle of Schruntz beer with his wife per year in an operation meant only as a hobby for friends' sakes, Codsi said.

Tawlet is the first outlet offering the beer for sale, and it is more flavorful than anything produced by the country's three major breweries. It's a beer that you want to drink and that makes you grateful for the influence of the Lebanese diaspora.

Tawlet by Night is open until 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more information, call 01-448-129.

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