Beirut, Lebanon and Dubai
Middle Eastern Paradise

by Guest Reviewer  ANDREW JOHNSON

It’s a thirteen-hour direct flight to get there, but well worth it. On Emirates Airlines, the journey from New York City to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates seemed to breeze by. With your personal screen in front of you, there is a choice of about 500 channels to choose from, including over 250 movies plus numerous CDs and games to play through your earphones. There is no charge for the earphones or the occasional drink (liquor included), making the amenities outstanding.  You schedule what you want to see for the whole trip and can view about 6 or 7 features, including the most recent or classic films plus an array of Disney movies. What you watch may be stopped, paused, rewound or played whenever you wish. In between, fine food is served--with wine if you wish.  An outstanding flying experience!
Dubai is an architect’s dream – “you create it, we’ll build it.” There is always ongoing construction of high rise residential dwellings as far as the eye can see. And remember, the hundreds upon hundreds of skyscrapers are all on desert sand. Huge tiled waterways abound – talk about land and water from what was just sand – an engineering marvel! Roads are always clear of construction as alternate lanes are created so work will not inconvenience the driver.

Petrol (gasoline for the car) costs about $1.40 for the equivalent U.S. gallon. Hotels are even six and seven star, if you can visualize this. It’s Las Vegas meets Hollywood with different cultural motifs, even in the vast and gorgeous shopping malls, each with its own theme. Nothing like it in our country can match them. And all signs are in Arabic and English (equal size a must in both languages) with English spoken by almost everyone.

The most famous hotel is the seven star Burj Al Arab, with the Royal Mirage (where we stayed for two nights when not with the family) coming in second. The Mirage’s sumptuous rooms, mammoth pools and beach (with the Arabian Gulf water at about 80 degrees) rival any top Manhattan structure. On the soon to be completed Palm Island (actually looking like a palm tree overhead) there is talk of a hotel with ten floors being built, five of them underwater. Imagine looking out your window and seeing fish swimming by! Dubai, at every turn and view, is a wonderland of modern creation which was both eye-boggling and mind-boggling.

The 7 Star Burj Al Arab Hotel in Dubai
Believe it or not, under construction and nearly completed is a huge indoor ski slope. It will have its own snow and enable skiing in what used to be a desert.  A desert trip also highlighted our stay. With accommodations provided by Arabian Adventures and Bassam Chamoun, the Safari Operations Supervisor, as our driver and guide, we ventured out in a four wheel drive van and went up and down and across the dunes. (The van’s tires are deflated to half the pressure for the desert and then reinflated to normal pressure for the roads.)  An experience in itself! And the sunset in the desert was breathtaking. We then went to a camel farm where we mingled with the animals, took photos, and shared experiences with the locals who ran the facility. They offered the finest tasting Arabic coffee and freshly picked dates. Culminating the evening was a sumptuous buffet banquet in the desert as we sat on cushions and small tables on the carpet over the sand. It was replete with a belly dancer and our actually riding a camel (not just posing for a picture). It has always been my intention to ride this animal, which I did – a bumpy but interesting mode of transportation.

 Dubai also boasts Multiplex cinemas with the newest films worldwide. In one of the shopping malls, the Century Cinemas seemed to be doing a brisk business. Ultra modern with all the conveniences of sight, sound, seating, and refreshments, the complex was described to me by the regional marketing manager, Omema T. Eid, a cordial young lady. This particular multiplex was in the Mercato Shopping Mall, which this summer had a Walt Disney character motif.

The lush grounds of the 6 star Royal Mirage Hotel in Dubai                                                                One of the many swim pools at the Royal Mirage Hotel

We journeyed to another hotel, the Mad’inat Jumer’irah, to have supper one evening. To get to the many restaurants from the hotel lobby, one boards a small boat that goes through canals, connecting the numerous sections of the spread-out hotel. Fascinating, intriguing, and straight out of the Arabian Nights, one must keep in mind that all is created, man-made from the desert almost a Venice in the United Arab Emirates.  The malls include mammoth supermarkets selling all you desire, including electronics, appliances, clothing, and of course an array of food from all over the world. While parents are shopping in the malls, children can be left at fully-supervised facilities--and at modest cost.

The restaurants are closely supervised by the government and have the best food and cleanest accommodations one would want. Excellent food can be had with one of the local fish, hammour, outstanding.  Dubai for me was an unbelievable experience, and I never felt lost or out of place in speaking English--nor in the way I dressed. True, the average afternoon temperature was about 116 – 126 degrees, but one gets used to it as air conditioning is a way of life in this paradise.

The bustling Mercato Shopping Mall in Dubai.                                                               The ageless, unspoiled desert at sunset in Dubai
After the week spent in Dubai, we took Middle East Airlines to Beirut, Lebanon. On board for the short flight, I viewed over two hours of classic vintage Walt Disney cartoons of the thirties and forties, the majority of them Silly Symphonies. (I’d personally love to have this tape in my own collection.)
 Beirut, Lebanon still shows signs of the devastating civil war that practically destroyed this city once called “the Paris of the Middle East.” Yet one can also see the many new buildings that have gone up, restoring life and architecture.

We spent a great deal of time visiting family and friends who had visited us here in New York City plus those we met for the first time. We sat outside in cafes for late supper and were privy to live entertainment and the many street fairs. All is not up to what it should be as yet, an example being that the electricity still goes off at least four or five times a day for a short period of time.

Going up via a cable car high above the city into the mountains, our first stop was to Harissa to the Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. One sees both Muslim and Christian paying respect to this patron saint, who was originally a Muslim before converting to Christianity. We climbed up the 110 winding steps to the top of the shrine which overlooks the Lebanese coast. The story has it that the statue miraculously turned not to face the direction of Beirut out of contempt for the civil war and destruction that was taking place. Whatever the cause for the shift, it is obvious that the mammoth statue faces toward a different direction today with no apparent marks as to its shift.

Farm raised camels are very affectionate-especially to other camels                                           The author and his brother-in-law do their version of the
                                                                                                                                                   Crosby-Hope "ROAD TO MOROCCO"

Baalbek is the site of ancient Roman ruins. Imagine walking through the very same paths that those from the past twenty centuries have trod. Festivals are presented in the giant amphitheatre, and the historical place draws multiple tourists all year long. The site includes a shattered stone bust of Marc Anthony.
Small churches and monasteries lie tucked away in the mountains.

Many of these are not tourist attractions, as only the locals living in the vicinity know about them. One such church, St. John the Baptist, went back to the first century AD. There were striking paintings on the walls of the sanctuary, the church unbelievably beautiful. The nuns were most cordial, spoke English quite well, and described the self-sufficiency of those living and having their life of worship in this monastery-church. In Zahle, we had lunch at the famous Casino Restaurant Arabi. There were so many varieties of Arabic food in the outdoor setting, where an actual river runs through the middle of the restaurant.

One thing quite prominent in homes and restaurants is the narguili (water pipe), which many are always seen smoking. Narguili itself comes from a Turkish word, and the practice is said to have originally started in the Ottoman Empire and spread throughout the Arab world. In Egypt and Dubai, it is called shisha.

Even from the beaches, the growth of Dubai is evident.                                                         Dubai-construction is everywhere. This is a site for a new hotel.

Going north one day we visited the ancient city of Byblos and a monastery dating back to 300 AD. Our visit to this monastery in the mountains included chatting with two friendly nuns who were tourists and had been taught by Mother Theresa. They described the ancient order and church to us.  A bus tour to the mountains took us to Kalil Gibran’s Museum and burial place. This world-famous author, painter, and philosopher, known especially for his literary work, “The Prophet,” lies inside a mountain; all of his possessions were sent from New York City (where he spent his later years) to his beloved Lebanon and are on exhibition. We were disappointed, as the whole of the hermitage inside the huge mountain is under construction and only a portion of the exhibition can be viewed--difficultly at that, what with cable and debris strewn around.

A visit to St. Anthony’s Monastery, carved into a mountain and dating back to the fourth century, close to the beginning of Christianity, was eye-opening. On view in the museum was the first printing press ever in Lebanon, with a Guttenberg metal arm that printed manually. Natural “air conditioning” cools the carved out cavern in the mountain, and the Maronite Church on the premises is simple yet outstanding.

We also traveled south to Judaidat Marjayoun near the Israeli border. We had traveled south to see my wife’s relatives and the house she grew up in, which today is almost completely destroyed save for the stone walls still standing. Incredibly, a fig tree is growing through the center of the house. Beirut, as well as all of Lebanon, is forever changing. The ancient and old remain in all their splendor while the rebuilding process continues and is ever in evidence.

                                    Our Lady of Lebanon Shrine is on top of a mountain overlooking Lebanon's coastline.              The Baalbek Roman ruins in Lebanon

Dubai and Lebanon, two places ever changing, indeed made this a very different three-week vacation, an exploration of cultures somewhat similar to our own and yet not like ours at all in other respects.

The Cedars of Lebanon, a forest of trees with the oldest dating back six thousand years,
is breathtaking. As you walk along a prescribed path,
the air smells like you’re in a cedar closet in the fresh mountain air.

Footnote:   There always has to be something that happens that’s so heinous as to rattle comprehension. When we flew into Beirut via Middle East Airlines, there was no trouble with baggage weight. (We’d been very careful about this.) But when we left to go back to Dubai, seems the showing of the American Passport put dollar signs in the eyes of the beholder. With exactly the same weight we came in with, less gifts given to relatives, it was deemed we were overweight to return to Dubai. How was this possible? But caught in the situation of having to argue and missing our flight, caught in a no-win situation, we had to pay a whopping $233 for these “overweight” bags! This certainly impacts negatively on the airline and also the country it represents. What a pity to shade the many affirmatives this country has made with this wheeler-dealer action! With such stories circulating among disgruntled visitors, how can people hope to get outsiders to share in the many advantages of coming to a country having so many attributes and sites to offer?

All Photography by Lisa E. Johnson

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