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Neighborhoods: Zouk Mikhael - Monnot - Zoqaq el Blat etc...


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Neighborhoods: Zouk Mikhael - Monnot - Zoqaq el Blat etc...
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Neighborhoods - Cedar Wings - October - November 2011

Zouk Mikhael: The Once Silk Market

Driving uphill towards the old market of Zouk Mikhael, notice the old houses. They display beautiful architectural elements; small wrought - iron balconies and terraces, shuttered windows and noble doors. Modern shops are scattered everywhere. New neighborhoods were built.

But look for the old market neighborhood. Its spirit seems gone, leaving behind very few artisans faithful to their métiers. An open massive wooden gate marks the entrance. The morning atmosphere sounds so quiet that nothing can interrupt it. The cobblestone street stretches ahead, lined with souvenir shops and cafés.

In their small workshops, the artisans perpetuate a family business. Wadih Aoudeh is the shoemaker and baboush-maker at the souk. Michel Salmouneh is one of the nawl weavers. He's 85 years old and has been working since he was almost 15! Time has left its mark on their faces as well as on their spirits. They generously smile, and in their serene looks, you can read years of wisdom. They are proud too. The souk was one of the most important silk markets in the region and attracted clients from Lebanon and other countries.

The furniture restorer Joseph Trad, never forgets the day in 1952 when he moved his business to the souk. That day, Camille Chamoun was elected President of the Republic. Standing behind his beautiful old working table, Joseph holds a large pair of scissors engraved with the name 'Daouk'; he had bought it from Souk el Tawileh some 50 years ago! He repairs furniture according to the old tradition.

Looking at artisans, one can think that they hold the past of the souk's neighborhood. In their minds are old pictures of a busy neighborhood and lots of creative designs!

Here is a portrait of famous Lebanese neighborhoods, revisiting them with a different view, away from ordinary promotional clichés. Some neighborhoods have moved forward towards modernism. Yet all still have artisanal tailors, shoe-makers and furniture restorers... The inhabitants are the essence of such neighborhoods. As you discover their spirits, buy their crafts and taste their local specialties.

Monnot: A charming Atmosphere

Investors are going beyond the neighborhood's history, introducing contemporary lifestyle into the Yassouieh Quarter. It is also called Monnot, after Ambroise Monnot, the Jesuit missionary who built Saint Joseph University in 1875. Located near Beirut Central District, Monnot offers pleasant evenings in its restaurants.

But during daytime, the neighborhood is calm except for a few delivery cars, builders and restaurant staff. Explore Monnot on foot and discover its characteristics. When Jesuit missionaries settled in what was quiet terrain overlooking the Mediterranean, the neighborhood was slowly urbanized. Look for the dead-end streets, where often traditional houses with red tiled roofs and three arches became a small building in the early 20th century. The French Mandate architecture is also present, often with oriental elements.

Walking along the neighborhood streets is an opportunity to discover traditional shops. The butcher is still there as well as the grocers, the men's shirt tailor and the young baker. Edward Shehwan repairs TV sets, and Dyran Ferechetian, like his father, still makes beautiful lampshades. Most of them have been there in Monnot neighborhood ever since they moved in some 40 years ago.

For the feel of a real urban cultural evening, see the agenda for Monnot Theatre programs. The Bibliothèque Orientale is located next to the Jesuits Fathers' residence as well. There too is Musée de la Préhistoire, with its exceptional collection of prehistory tools.

A few steps away, the Jesuits sell their freshly produced dairy products from their Taanayel Convent in Bekaa Valley. A visit of Monnot's Domaine des Tourelles winery boutique is an opportunity to taste the elegant Bekaa wine. The neighborhood is changing, but its early 20th century atmosphere persists.

Zoqaq el Blat: Wonderfully Authentic

The quarter is located to the eastern side of the Grand Serail. The Ring Bridge divided it into two: the renovated neighborhood with Robert Moawad Private Museum on one side, and across the bridge, the original authentic section where many buildings were left abandoned.

Inside, feel the atmosphere of the remote past

Zoqaq el Blat is a neighborhood where life goes on at a place that seems to be slower than any other Beirut residential district. Palaces, villas and grand residences were built during the 30's and 50's as intellectuals moved in. The neighborhood was the center of the Lebanese social cultural renaissance. The locals nostalgically remember their names and their places.

It was the first neighborhood in Beirut to have a paved road in the 1860's, hence its name. Time and the 1975 war have left their impact on the buildings. Yet the architecture remains something to admire. Look carefully at the old balconies and verandas; the ramps consist of small columns or are built in art deco style. Others are of wrought iron.

The neighborhood is slightly uphill; a refreshing breeze from the sea fills the air. Zoqaq el Blat embodies Beirut's authentic charm. The sumac trees grew in the abandoned gardens and often hide beautiful architectural elements. Follow Hussein Beyhum Street; the sidewalk is narrow and shaded. A stop at Ichkhanian traditional bakery is imperative. The Armenian community is present with its culinary culture featuring famous boerek and manteh - dough prepared with cheese or meat - a real delight!

Strolling downhill, admire the old doorways and window pediments. A few meters away is a carpenter's vaulted ceiling workshop. Inside, feel the atmosphere of the remote past; it simply postpones the passing of time. In fact, all Zoqaq el Blat's neighborhoods hold the splendor of an epoch.

Bourj Hammoud: A Colorful Place

The presence of a substantial Armenian community in that northern Beirut suburb has surely made all the difference. But Bourj Hammoud has more to offer than renowned talented craftsmen and succulent Armenian food.

I explored it during a street photography shooting. My camera lens revealed it in detail. It's amazing to see a neighborhood in early working hours. Shop-owners were hurrying to open their shops as women were rushing to do their shopping. But there were the grocery shops that also deliver coffee to the shop employees... Its scent fills the air and awakens the still sleepy staff. They gather in three or four on the sidewalk to sip the morning drink! Some happily posed for a photo thinking I was a tourist!

Slowly the narrow streets of the neighborhood regain their regulars and visitors. Always with my camera in hand. I walked along Bourj Hammoud streets. They seemed like a labyrinth with houses of two to four stories. Shops, of course, were at street level. The camera allowed me to see what the eyes fail to notice. Policemen, in their neat uniforms, were heading to their posts with pride and confidence. Men on scooters were passing by as well. It looked as if everybody in the neighborhood knew everybody as they exchanged friendly greetings - in Armenian of course, "Parev!"

Then I stopped at a bakery. It had the usual "manousheh" with thyme and cheese except for the chilly tomato paste topping! There were also the "biberov hats", bread made with flour, sugar and sesame cream or tahina, delicious with coffee! The neighborhood was slowly awakening, revealing the warm spirit of its people.

Hamra: A Trendy Neighborhood

It's probably one of those neighborhoods in the world that enchants visitors for something in its "air". Most of them even become addicted to it. Residential and business district, Hamra has become, in the last few years, a major Beirut attraction for its restaurants and cafés.

That "air" is of nostalgia for its glorious epoch prior to 1975, which only Lebanese could sense. The traffic is one of the things that never changed. Since early morning hours, cars flow in its narrow streets to the sound of taxis honking. On the pavements are few newspaper kiosks displaying the big headlines of the day.

As much as Hamra is adopting international cafes, pizzerias and restaurants, there are places such as cafe Younes, Maroush and Istanbuli... where the taste and smell of the good old days resisted change. Hamra Streets's "cafés trottoirs" are as ever on the sidewalks. Their names have changed, but the pleasure of sitting almost shoulder to shoulder with others is still enjoyable.

The neighborhood has always been a center of intellectual activity: universities, ministries, newspapers and art galleries have chosen it as their residence. It's also probably the only neighborhood in Lebanon with so many theaters that occasionally open. But Masrah Al Madina is a stage for regular and diverse artistic performances.

Walking along Hamra's streets in the shade of buildings that are far from scraping Beirut's sky is also exploring its nostalgic past. People are helpful, and some have adopted a bohemian style. Often you see local men sitting in the shade, gathering for a coffee to enjoy their timeless neighborhood.

Saida: The Old City's Neighborhoods

When you decide to visit Saida's old Medina on the Mediterranean coast, you would rush to see the Crusader Sea Castle, Audi Soap Museum and Debbaneh Palace then head to the Khan el Franj. But as you walk along the old alleys, stop to marvel at people and their métiers. Taste their products.

Every morning as merchants and artisans open their shops, vendors arrive pushing their cars topped with a beautiful display of fresh vegetables and fruits. The main street facing the Sea Castle becomes an open-air market. The cafés and "Fawwals" - hummus makers - have started earlier. Coffee pots are already hot; beans and chickpeas are simmering. Their scent fills the old alleys.

Soon around noon, the aroma of fried falafel makes your mouth water. It emanates from the snack shop at the corner facing the castle.

Like all neighborhoods in Lebanon, people in Saida know each other. When they meet in the alleyways that are more like a labyrinth, the conversation goes beyond simple greetings: asking about family, work and even commenting on the latest political issues! They are helpful and friendly when you ask them for directions.

The old city of Saida feels like one big neighborhood. Traditional métiers are perpetuated by the artisans. Some have vanished in many neighborhoods around Lebanon but not in Saida. The mattress and duvet makers are located in the vaulted ceiling workshops. Many people still prefer the comfort of wool to sleep. They renew their supply almost every year early fall.

When you go to old Saida's neighborhoods, remember to taste the bread at the bakery, to buy its soap, sweets and spices... as you absorb it, it becomes a part of you.
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