By the second day of our stay in Cyprus I had abandoned my cappuccino habit in favour of Greek/Turkish/Cypriot-style coffee – not because it’s a superior brew but because it enhances the feeling of being somewhere foreign. And two weeks later, in Beirut, I was delighted to find that not only do they make coffee the same way but also add a pinch of cardamom, the taste of which intensifies the exoticism still further.
It was only a 25 minute flight from Larnaca and its lavish, EU-funded airport but Beirut really seemed a world away. The snarling complexity of the place is daunting and, with only five days to take it in, one felt the pressure to wring the most out of the visit, starting with the basics – finding places to eat ‘authentic’ Lebanese food. Sniffing them out can be a lengthy and random process but, with the help of a guide book and sensible shoes, it can be narrowed down considerably. The general principle of sticking to low-rent areas also helps. The French, when they were in charge, did their best to civilize the locals by introducing their own cuisine – especially in the posher parts of town: the new colonists – big money interests – added a layer of blandly international hotel chains with their sanitised, themed restaurants; and McDonald’s, Burger-King et al are all there too, jostling for market share.
But Beirut, being a big city with a diverse cultural base and vast disparity in wealth-distribution, allows plenty of scope for all styles of eatery to thrive. It’s a place where mosques stand next door to basilicas, vying with each other in their splendour and magnificence; where sky-scrapers sprout amongst old Ottoman villas; where bullet-riddled ruins blight the cityscape while complex disputes over their ownership remain unresolved; where bills can be settled in USD or LBP (but preferably USD); where Arabic, English and French are spoken; where the two universities – one American Protestant, the other French Roman Catholic – compete for converts; and where holding hands with the opposite sex in public places is disapproved of, while women with fastidiously covered heads smoke hookahs in cafés. It’s no wonder a nasty civil war broke out back in 1976.
One day we had a trip planned – out to the ruins of Baalbeck then on to the Bekaa Valley to visit a famous winery – but bad weather obliged our host to change the itinerary and we went instead to Byblos, taking in a few notable churches on the way. Our guide was very knowledgeable about the history (I didn’t know that the first form of alphabetic writing was discovered on a sarcophagus unearthed at Byblos – or that there is a Roman Catholic branch of the Greek Orthodox Church, for example) but he was also informative regarding the politics of Lebanon. It’s complicated: the various religion-based cultures are further divided by clan and political allegiance. And, intermittently, international pressures are brought to bear in efforts to influence a country which is variously seen as a funnel for middle-eastern wealth, a buffer against Syrian refugees (there is no ferry service from Beirut) and a liberal playground for rich Arabs from the conservative Gulf States. I did my best to make sense of it but I could really do with a diagrammatic learning-aid. That evening, as compensation for the aborted trip to the winery, I savoured a fine bottle of Chateau Musar, put aside thoughts of geopolitics and pondered instead the more agreeable aspect of French-Jesuit missionary activities.
For our last lunch in Beirut we chose the distinctively Lebanese ‘Auntie Salwah’s’, as recommended by the guide but, back in Larnaca that night, I was stricken with a bout of violent vomiting (is vomiting ever not violent?) and the next morning couldn’t face coffee of any kind. Still, I reckon I’ll be OK by the time I get back to safe, familiar cappuccino-land.