Lures of Little Lebanon

Reading again about the terrible atrocities and horrific suffering in the Middle East, I’m aware that although many American are able to name the cities and rivers in that region, many have little knowledge of the way things were only decades ago.

I wrote the following in 1966 for the Minneapolis Star Tribune after I returned from serving in the Peace Corps and traveling through the Middle East.


Lures of Little Lebanon Enticing, Powerful

By Barbara Hoffbeck Scoblic


(originally printed in the Minneapolis Star Tribune on Sunday, April 17, 1966)


EDITOR’S NOTE: Barbara Hoffbeck, who taught English in Thailand for two years as a member of the Peace Corps, spent six months traveling through Burma, Nepal, India, Iran, Lebanon, Jordan and Greece on her way home to Big Stone City, S.D. Her stay in Lebanon lasted longer than expected.

We were window shopping in Beirut, Lebanon, and stopped to admire the large dahlias, asters and other flowers at a sidewalk shop. The owner, seeing our interest, chose two long-stemmed roses, and, with a smile, handed them to us.

Another time I heard, “Bonjour, mademoiselle,” as I hurried down a side street. I stopped and looked back.

The shopkeeper of a candy store where I sometimes bought a few things was leaning over the counter. With a smile he gave me a few freshly carameled nuts.

These are two of the pleasant things that happened during my stay in Lebanon.

A friend and I had allotted five days on our itinerary for the little country, but the mountains, the flowers, the blue of the Mediterranean Sea, the gracious people, the interesting streets and the gay music made us stay longer.

On a spring day with the sun shining we postponed our plane reservations for the first time. After three postponements, we canceled our reservations all together. In the end we found jobs, sublet an apartment and lived in Lebanon for five months.

Lebanon, at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, is at the crossroads between East and West and is a blend of the two—French and Arabic are mixed easily in conversations, the minarets and mosques and the steeples of churches add height to the skyline, and European styles mix with traditional dress in the streets.

Though the country is small (only 130 miles long by 30 miles wide), there is much to see.

There are the stately cedars of Lebanon, on the slopes of Dahr el-Kadib, about 75 miles from Beirut. Contemporaries of these trees were used by Solomon to build his temple and by the pharaohs to build their boats. Today, as the country’s national emblem, they’re the lone design on the Lebanese flag.

Fifty-five miles east of Beirut on a road that leads over the mountains is Baalbek. It was used by the Phoenicians to honor the god Baal and later by the Greeks, Romans, Christians and Moslems.

The Roman ruins there are the largest in the world and the six remaining columns of the Temple of Jupiter are among the most beautiful.

Byblos, 25 miles up the coastline from Beirut, is said to be the oldest continually inhabited seaport. Now a little town (known as Gebal) it was once the seat of Phoenician civilization.

The forerunner of our modern alphabet was developed there. Traces of a Neolithic village (dating back to 5,000 B.C.) have been excavated and ruins of more recent civilizations can be explored.

Thirty miles from Beirut is Beit-id-dine. At Beit-id-dine is the palace of the Emir Bechir, former ruler of Lebanon.

With intricately carved wooden ceilings, fine marble furnishings and mosaic floors it is a beautiful example of 19th century Lebanese architecture. Sometimes the Lebanese president uses it as a summer home.

A ride over the mountains to the Bekaa plateau makes an interesting day’s trip. On such a ride a person might see trees heavy with blossoms or fruit, a mosque with a beautiful aqua-blue dome, fields thick with flowers, Bedouins herding their sheep, an occasional camel and certainly villages. A village in Lebanon is worth a close look, with its red-tiled roofs, narrow streets and beautiful mountain views.

Near Beirut is Dog River where the consecutive conquerors of Lebanon, including Nebuchadnezzar, have carved their names. To the south are Tyre and Saida, two old Phoenician cities with long histories.

All of these places can be reached easily and inexpensively by “service.” These are taxis in which the passengers split the fare and which follow a fixed route.

Their stations are in the center of town. Taxi and “service” fares should always be agreed upon before the trip. “Services” can also be taken as far as Damascus in Syria and, with one transfer, to Jerusalem.

But a person need not leave Beirut to enjoy Lebanon. Beirut is a pleasant mixture of old homes and modern buildings, cobble-stoned streets and new highways.

There are bazaars where you can buy fruits, vegetables, flowers, shoes, clothes, gold jewelry, almost everything. The bazaars are a whirl of activity, color and sound.

Or there is the campus of the American University 0f Beirut. Its location, overlooking the Mediterranean with mountains in the distance, makes it one of the most beautiful anywhere.

Or there are shops along the more modern streets with all the goods of the Near East for sale: rugs from Iran, mother-of-pearl mosaics from Syria, saris rom India.

To me, the most interesting place in Beirut is the Borj (also known as the Place de Canons), the square in the old section of the city. Here a person should just stop and look.

One will see sheiks in their long white robes and veils walking past importantly; priests with long beards and black robes or monks in brown cassocks and sandals busy on errands; career girls wearing impossibly high high-heeled shoes tripping over cobblestones; porters moving steadily under their heavy loads through traffic; Moslem women in black dresses, their faces covered with black scarves and seemingly guided by radar as they move along the crowded sidewalks.

The old, the young, the ordinary, the interesting, they are all there to be seen on the streets and sidewalks near the Borj.

As a British friend said when trying to explain her enjoyment of Beirut, “It’s alive.”

A tourist need not “rough” it. There are many new hotels in Beirut. But it’s recommended that a visitor make reservations before he arrives.

One of the best hotels is the Phoenicia. New and modern, it not only has every comfort, but also a beautiful view of the sea only a few yards from its door.

Offering the same view is the St. Georges. Long the traditional hotel in Beirut, it offers its own waterfront and beach,

Although Arabic is the native tongue and French the second language, any English-speaking person usually will have no trouble communicating.

There are many restaurants that offer excellent European and American meals. But Arabic food is aromatic and delicious and several meals of it should be included in a visitor’s schedule.

Some of my best meals were served in small restaurants along out-of-the-way streets.

A friendship began this way. Knowing that typical foods and typical prices wouldn’t be found in Western-style restaurants, my friend and I entered one with only three tables.

The owner didn’t speak any English and we didn’t speak any Arabic, but we were soon served a delicious meal of “homos,” a thick mixture of chickpeas and sesame oil, and “kefta,” ground meat and chopped parsley broiled on a skewer, which we ate with round flat Arabic bread.

We returned often. Our conversations largely consisted of “Good?” and our reply, “Good. Very good.”

One day, through an interpreter, the restaurant owner invited us to his home. We spent a very pleasant Sunday afternoon with his wife and children. Although he said few mutually comprehensible words, we smiled and laughed a lot.

There are many ways to say “welcome” in Arabic. A visitor in Lebanon will hear them often.