Not exactly the Axis-of-evil that blunder-butt Bush labelled Iraq, Iran and North Korea back in his presidential daze, but hardly the cote-d’azure either, Lebanon rarely features on most peoples holiday itineraries. For this reason alone, Bad Sounds editor Ben “Sadhu” Sand flew there for a week of sun, sea and six o’clock beers. Joining him Denmark’s very own “Ring Them Bells” guitar wielder Jan “Muggi” Johansen, and legendary bathroom comedian Ruben Wolle.
With scenes of Anthony Bourdains ill-fated journey to the country- caught up in the middle of a war with Israel and confined to a hotel scanning out over the city as helicopters set the skyline on fire and the sirens never abated- running through my mind, I touched down at the airport. A slight knot in the stomach, but an equal measure of optimism and excitement.
To discover the underground music scene in Lebanon.
Sample at length the local alcoholic beverages and their effects on the mind.
Attempt to DJ at one of Lebanon´s clubs.
Rent a car and see if we can slalom through the Beirut traffic on our way to the North.
Eat a vast bounty of Shawarma, Felafel, Hummus, Pita, Salads and other oddities.
Get out alive.
Vastly exhausted after three days which included consecutive 6 a.m. wake-up calls to head into desolate rock formations of Petra and spend sun blistered hours wandering lowly mountain paths and basking in the glory of the rock city, floating like a tourist tosser on his back under bright skies on the Dead Sea, and then the typical low-cost airline departure times of 7 a.m. I was mildly pleased to see I was the only tourist on the small plane headed from Amman to Beirut. Only some loud mouthed Americans behind me who were obviously there on business (and made sure the entire aircraft knew how much money they earned per month) and a couple of Egyptians. We landed at Beirut International Airport. Fuck. A country I’d wanted to visit for decades and now finally was being realized.
I glided through security after they had gone through my entire passport seeking out Israel stamps which would cause my immediate departure, then got my bag, bought a bottle of Talisker and headed out to catch a cab to my hotel. Speeding down the highway my first impression of Lebanon was a woman swerving wildly as the bonnet on her car had flipped and she was literally driving blind. The taxi driver waved for those behind us to slow down as she managed to bring the car to a halt without much further adventure. Two minutes later we drove into a tunnel only to see a tractor that had clearly failed to read the height requirements and gotten its digger stuck in the ceiling. I’d heard rumours about the traffic. Maybe they were true.
Talal Hotel. A small, friendly guest house above a garage next to a road where Lebanese people sped past in rocket blurs while talking on their phones and checking their hair. I caught a few moments rest before asking the receptionist for a decent place to eat. Wandered the old side streets of Gemmayzeh for a few hours, ended up randomly walking into the coolest looking bar (Torino Express), had my first Lebanese brew, chatted with the owner (German/Lebanese dude who looked like he played in Blonde Redhead) and managed to secure myself a DJ slot the next Wednesday. I momentarily thought I had lost my mind whilst peering out the window I saw a car rolling by with nobody at the wheel. Moments later a valet parking attendant sprinted down the road, slowed the car down while another random passerby jumped in the front seat and slammed on the brakes. Haha… Lebanon.
Day 2 was a heady mix of eating one of the best ever falafels (recommended by Beirut’s own serial playboy), catching a shared bus to Hamra and wandering around for the best part of the day, sampling the most amazing grapefruit orange juice (delivered by a man who sent his 5 year old daughter next door for a knife which was the size of a fucking pool cue which she demurely wandered into the store holding aloft and handed to him, sharp side facing), drank a couple of Almaza’s while negotiating yet another DJ gig which never worked out due to sheer exhaustion at having spent so much time imbibing.
Headed back to Gemmeyzeh and hit up the guest house to wait for the two arrivals from Denmark. The door opened, Jan and Rubenwolle entered, each carrying a one liter bottle of some spirit procured at the airports duty free, we had a cheeky sample, headed out to Torino Express and ended up meeting the two mad Norwegians (Matias Nordahl Carlsen, and his counterpart in crime: Jørgen Ekvoll who run the notorious website http://2famous.tv/2012/04/19/
After wolfing down the most delicious steak sandwiches at Comme Ci Comme Saj we headed to the Norwegians fortress to sit, listen to tunes, and talk about starting a festival in the mountains in Lebanon this summer. Stumbling home at 4am we did what any real party animal does in Beirut and headed to Crew Bar where all the bartenders gather after their clubs are closed. An electronica DJ was spinning as we headed in rather jolly from the previous inebriation attempts, but still able to order with a straight face and sit in the corner chatting with random Beirut-ites until the call for bed was too strong an urge to resist. The receptionist just laughed when we knocked on the door at 6am ready for slumber dragging our heels up the long staircase.
Day 3 was filled with a visit to Le Chef to gorge on Tabouleh, Baba Ghanoush, Hummus, Pita, Chips, Salads of various and wonderful incarnations, all washed down with Lebanese micro-brewed beers. We then headed up to the back streets of Gemmayzeh and ended up lost down narrow alleyways with bullet holes sprayed all over the place, overgrown paths, crumbling buildings, places to live or start a bar or die, just 200 meters from the most hip street in town. Absolutely wide-eyed and giddy we spent hours climbing stairs and walking down alleyways taking pictures. Sat out in the full sun and let it really dawn on us that we were in fucking BEIRUT. A place all three of us had always wanted to visit. Finally we were here, we had 2 DJ gigs to look forward to, and an attempt to squeeze in a visit to the Kadisha Valley too if time allowed.
The next three days passed by in blurs. Up late, walked around Hamra, other districts who’s names fail me, visits to Torino, regular visits to Le Chef, watching Champions League football in the basement of the hotel with Zee Mad German and Brennan the O.C. dude who was a pleasure to hang out with, always drinking from his 8 percent beers and pushing his glasses up (His constant chagrin at the “Dumb Yank” jokes spewing out of Zee German at inopportune moments only beset by his own tale of how after finally spending an hour convincing Zee German that not all Americans are stupid, they walked out of a bar only to see graffiti on the side of the wall that read: “Alaska loves Labanan”). All 5 of us watching the game, shouting profanities at how shit Chelsea were playing while in the far corner an employee snored under a huge pile of blankets.
The night of the DJ gig came after much huffing and puffing around alleys and hills, basking outside in the full sunshine, eating late night bizarre pizzas near the guest house, listening to Serial Playboy #1 play his dance choons downstairs in aforementioned football-hall-cum-sleeping-
After about 3 hours, with some of the crowd dissipated to head home to a new workday I started playing the Stooges purely out of curiosity at what would happen. The place went apeshit. Shirts flew off, mosh pits started, couches were hurled, lamps swinging, poor bartender girl ran upstairs in hysterics which left the bar un-girled and therefore open for everyone to go back and start helping themselves to generous pourings of liquor and beers, the crowd got drunker and drunker… the walls were sweating, the floor drenched in spilled liquids and the marks which would become future bruises. At 2 am we were told to stop, and the damage was done. We hurried out, still beaming/buzzing at the nights success and walked home steaming warm in the slightly chilled air.
The Kadisha Valley
After literally 8 days of excess and sleepless nights miraculously the three reprobates managed to wake up before 12, pay our hostel bill, catch a cab (tiny little fiat who’s boot didn’t shut properly) and drive over to the bus station area where we could catch a mini-van to Kadisha, or Bcharre. In typical Eastern fashion the cabbie dropped us off at the wrong place, gesticulating crazily in which direction the bus left from. The bus didn’t go from there. We ate a huge Chicken Shawarma, we waited, we walked left, right, up down, past shops, each passer by pointing either in the direction we came or one we had already been to. FINALLY we found the bus in the complete opposite end of where we had been told. It was leaving in 15 minutes. Empty. Tons of space. Seated we grabbed our waters and headed off into the unending sprawl that is Beirut. One hour later (after having passed the hotel where Anthony Bourdain was holed up for 10 days)
We finally escaped the clutches of the city, turning off from where the sapphire oceans lapped along the beaches and constructions of the city. What followed was one of the most beautiful rides on earth. High villages, endless fields, peaks, the sea further and further away, old ruined churches, markets, plantations filled with flowers, and then the higher altitude and the snow capped peaks surrounding Kadisha, the valley to the left with its limitless waterfalls and monasteries perched between rocky outcrops, ancient villages where Khalil Gibran ran as a child, and the slow ascent to where the village of Bcharre clings perilously to the side of the mountains.
Our stuttering bus dropped us off outside Tiger Hostel, and we were welcomed in by the kindest Ethiopian woman who had been working there for 3 years. We dropped our stuff off and headed out into the “town” to hit up some food with views to die for. Sitting overlooking the entire valley with the sun beating down, Almaza’s in hand, it rarely gets much better than that. Just before entering the restaurant an Australian on a tiny scooter stopped us, told us that the upstairs area at the bar next door gets “wild” after 10pm most nights, then sped off shouting “G’day mate”, we never saw him again. (Note: The bar was closed when we went back at 10pm, fat lot of good he was).
The rest of the day was spent walking around the town, climbing building sites for the best views, heading to an internet cafe to idle away the nonexistent nightlife with the towns pool table and a Mr Bean-like Englishman who was there for six months studying Arabic and was faulty of even the most basic social skills. He managed to learn the game of shark which Ruben and Jan taught him through bleary eyed explanations, and continued to stutter and splutter as only Brits do. The walk home was a long one, steep climb to the top of the mountain where Tiger Hostel welcomed us with its Ethiopian decor and innumerable paintings of Jesus and a fireplace with a painting of a fire draped over the front. Jan and I stayed up sipping Talisker and talking of old times while Ruben passed out from all the excitement.
Final 24 Hours
We woke fairly early, met by two extremely amiable Italians who had just arrived. We ate a splendid breakfast and headed by taxi up to the fabled Cedar Trees of Lebanon. The drive itself was stunning, up higher into the arid high altitude desert-like nature. Old men shouted at us from the side of the road with their toothless grins, ladies sold fresh fruit hanging on ropes. We reached the top. The entrance to the cedar forest was closed due to “snow”, but a friendly girl told us to jump the fence and head in. We did so. Half an hour of trudging through snow with the sun aloft, gorgeous trees dotted around, and Jan creating a make-shift sled with a cardboard box and hurtling down the side of the mountain at lightning speeds. Snowball fights and the slow walk back down the mountain under clear skies with snow capped peaks and barren fields around us.
Walking one specific corner we encountered a man selling pomegranates. He shouted at Jan “You handsome man”, then Ruben came wandering down and he suddenly shouted “HEIL HITLER! MARIJUANA!!!”. “You want marijuana?”, “20 dollars”…. We politely declined and kept walking…”15 dollars”…. “10 dollars”… I held up my hand and signaled 3 dollars, and we kept walking…. “5 dollars, no 10 dollars”…. and 15 minutes later while we had walked almost a kilometer down the road we heard the distant echo of his voice bouncing off the rocks… ” OK… THREE DOLLAR”. Moments later an army guard picked us up in his battered car and rolled down the rest of the mountain back to Bcharre while attempting to communicate in my broken French. Back at the guest house, Miss Ethiopia had prepared a home-cooked stew from her ancient land which absolutely kicked our asses. It was super. That washed down with a local red wine set us up perfectly for the journey back to Beirut.
The last bus left Bcharre at 4 pm. By 7 we were back in the big city, back in the den of devils. Back to Talal, back to Brennan and Zee German. I had almost forgotten that I was to DJ at Torino Express that night, so I hurried back to get my laptop, threw on a clean t-shirt and waded through the glorious streets to begin. Suddenly it was 3am. Ploughed with limitless beers and tons of compliments I left the bar, said my farewells to everyone, headed back to the hotel, grabbed my backpack, jumped in a taxi and headed straight to the airport to fly to Istanbul. Completely exhausted and rather inebriated– it’s a miracle I even got through the security, but sometimes it does help to wear sunglasses.
As the early morning sun rose over Beirut I spent my last few precious moments sitting in front of two obese Danish women on the plane who spoke with such annoying, aggravating voices that I almost wanted to turn around and stuff a sock in their mouths. Constantly talking about how they missed Danish chocolate and how Beirut was ok, but Denmark was better, my eyes drifted out as the plane sped down the runway and as we lifted into the sky the mountains were visible in the distance.