Expat Exodus

Saying Goodbye to Friends

Living as an expat anywhere in the world means being away from your loved ones. Wherever we end up, our friends become the closest thing to family.

It’s inevitable, particularly living in the Arab world where we will never be the citizens of the country, for the expat journey to end.

The past year has been particularly difficult as one by one I’ve watched good friends make the hard decision to return to their native countries. The impact of falling oil prices has had a crippling effect on jobs across all industries.

expat-exodus-1

Geraldine and her family left Dubai in December 2015

Last Summer residents first began to witness the large exodus of expats across the region, mostly families, where one spouse had lost his or her job. Summer or Christmas are usually the most common times for families to pack up and leave, as it ensures their child’s education is not disrupted.

expat-exodus-2

I caught up with Lisa for the first time in Sydney earlier this year after she left Abu Dhabi in 2009

The high cost of living has also played a critical role in expats leaving the GCC. Some families have even opted to separate, with dad staying on and working in the region while mum and the children return home. The main trigger is the cost of education. Here in the UAE private school fees continue to rise, with some schools often charging more than USD 10,000 for kindy.

expat-exodus-5

When you’re an expat your friends are your extended family

The expat exodus has become the most talked about issue at mummy group gatherings – many said their good byes this past week as schools wrapped up for the winter break. My eldest daughter, Janah, a Year 7 student, said three children in her class would not return in the new school year.

This past week I learned that another friend left Dubai.  It’s the fifth family that has returned to their country over the last year.

As I look back on my 8.5 years in the UAE, I’m reminded of the mass exodus, post the global financial crisis. I had only been here for six months when it hit our shores. The impact was felt across all industries. We were among the few families who survived it and we watched as Dubai and neighbouring cities rebuilt.

When old friends leave, it opens the door to new friendships. I’m looking forward to welcoming newcomers to the city. To my old friends, we will always have DUBAI.

In Brief: 7DAYS to shut down   

On December 22, 2016, Dubai’s most loved newspaper, 7Days, will print its final newspaper.

The current trading environment and future global outlook for print advertising remains severely challenged,” explains 7Days CEO Mark Rix. “Whilst it was our stated intention to re-focus and restructure the business for 2017 and beyond, it has since proved not possible to create an acceptable cost base that could deliver a viable and sustainable business.

“It is therefore with great sadness that we announce the unique 7DAYS news brand will close and thus, cease to inform and entertain the UAE in its refreshing and inimitable way.”

The closure leaves about 50 people, some friends, without jobs.

 

 

Finding My Way Back

IMG_9675Almost two years have passed since my last post. I can remember the day I lost my passion to write: it was not long after I found out I was pregnant with my fourth child.

Since then I’ve given birth to a beautiful baby girl, Amalia, but the journey to this point has been long. Once, writing was my way of processing what was happening in my world. It was the easiest way to vent or to express happy moments. Written words were far more powerful than spoken.

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I’m slowly coming back. There is so much to tell you. My battle with prenatal depression was perhaps the main reason I stayed away. I lost control of my coaching voice and it took a long time for it to resurface. I’ll write about it soon.

I’m still in Dubai. I can’t believe it has been almost nine years in this incredible city and country, which really does hold a place in my heart. The United Arab Emirates is our second home.

Let me introduce the new addition to our family. Amalia was born on 20 October 2015, and shares her birthday with her father. She completes my beautiful family.

2016 was also the year I met some very special people. After years of speaking on the phone and hearing their horror story of escaping the Syrian war, I met my aunty Hiyam and her family during a short trip to Lebanon. I also met my uncles, my mother’s brothers, one of whom lost his battle with cancer in November. It was a truly sad day, as I had only just started to lean more about my extended family. Having a base in the Middle East has allowed me to discover more about people I’d only seen in photographs during my childhood. I’ll write more about it over the next few months.

As one year ends and another is about to begin, I’d like to take this moment to wish you safe and happy holidays.

My Arabia will be back with so many wonderful stories.

Business in Arabia: Risking it all to pursue a dream

Bounce: The jumping revolution comes to the Middle East

Bounce: The jumping revolution comes to the Middle East

Australian businessman Ross Milton gave up a high-flying job to pursue a dream. MyArabia.me recently caught up with the Managing Director of Bounce to find out more about the jumping revolution in Dubai.  

Anyone who has lived in the United Arab Emirates long enough will tell you that Dubai is built on entrepreneurship.

There are two types of entrepreneurs, says Ross Milton, former global chief financial officer of Mars Food Group. The first, he says, are young and usually unrestrained by family commitments. They can tolerate risk better, because if something doesn’t pay off, they have plenty of time before retirement in which to rebound. Milton points out that these young entrepreneurs are usually unable to self-fund their ventures, and need to attract the right investors.

The second type gets to Milton’s age, (41), have saved up a reasonable amount of money and then have a crack at funding something. This is riskier, concedes Milton, who has put his life savings into creating Bounce, one of the most popular indoor sporting venues in Dubai. “I still have two young children who are at school and university is still to come.”

Ross Milton, Managing Director of Bounce Middle East

Ross Milton, Managing Director of Bounce Middle East

We meet at Bounce headquarters in Al Quoz, where we are surrounded by 80 interconnected trampolines and 500 square metres of circus-grade padding and air bags. It’s hard to believe that a year ago this was the home of dozens of offices, marble floors and slabs of concrete.

“It was extraordinary! We had big cranes tearing this place apart, cutting through the concrete, until we dropped out a whole floor,” he recalls.

It was during these times, Milton says, that he would lie awake, questioning his decision to give up a high-flying executive role to pursue a 20-year dream to start his own business.

Before moving to the United Arab Emirates in 2012, Milton was based in Los Angeles, where he was the global chief financial officer for Mars Food Group, and the company recorded $3 billion in sales. It was where he honed his entrepreneurial skills.

“As a CFO, you are the right-hand man of the CEO and you end up doing a bit of everything,” he says of his 14-year-career at Mars. Milton transferred with Mars to Dubai as the Senior Vice President of Human Resources, where he guided, trained and developed 8000 employees across Africa, India, Middle East, Commonwealth of Independent States and Central Asia. Mars, he notes, had recorded $7 billion in sales in this part of the world.

Over 150,000 people have bounced since the sporting venue opened in June 2014.

Over 150,000 people have bounced since the sporting venue opened in June 2014.

He was barely into his new role in Dubai when he decided to take the leap ‒ contrary to his long-held belief that he would start his first business back in Australia, where he has a strong personal network and a familiarity with the laws and regulations.

But in August 2013, on a visit home with his family, Milton had his first encounter with Bounce, the indoor trampoline park. Within two months, he had signed a franchise agreement, acquiring the Middle East rights.

“The United Arab Emirates, like Australia, is an entrepreneurial country. Everyone can have a crack at anything,” says Milton. “I looked at this market [Dubai], and thought, ’Oh my gosh!’ You’ve got obesity issues, kids sitting in their rooms playing games on their computers, and the climate isn’t helpful for getting outside and playing sports. As I thought more and more about it, this was the place.”

Bounce Middle East was no ordinary venture. Milton was still employed at Mars, and he says he wasn’t about to leave his job unless he could find a building and acquire the licenses.

Finding the right location was a challenge. He ruled out Jebel Ali and Dubai Investment Park as too far out for patrons. And, unlike other parts of the world where the commercial real estate market is developed, Milton discovered that none of the 30 agents he contacted had a comprehensive overview of what commercial properties were available.

“I was driving up and down the streets hoping to see a For Sale or For Rent sign,” he says, shaking his head.

The search led him to the streets of Al Quoz, a commercial area located just minutes from Mall of the Emirates. Having found the right area, his next challenge was securing a building large enough to house the space-hungry concept. Once he’d found the building, he had to get the area rezoned and obtain a sports license.

In April 2014, Milton resigned from his post at Mars, and, in June 2014, Bounce Middle East opened its doors. Since then, it has welcomed over 150,000 visitors and inspired numerous copycat businesses across Dubai.

“I learnt a lot of lessons along the way,” he says. “I think next time I would put additional clauses in contracts to give myself a little breathing space. It was a big leap. There were nights when I stared at the ceiling and wondered what I had done.”

Looking around at what he has created, Milton says, “I get to work with, train and develop young people; the average age of my team is 20 years old. I get to help develop their experience and skills.

“There is nothing better than when you have three parties running at the same time, with 60 kids running around screaming, carrying on and having a blast.”

Can you slam dunk while you're bouncing?

Can you slam dunk while you’re bouncing?

Tips

If you’re starting your first business, Milton strongly recommends you start with a franchise. Why start from scratch when there is a good concept? “You have support in branding and marketing, and assistance with execution. You just have to adapt the idea to the market.”

Milton adds, whether you’re a general manager or a business owner you’ll never be an expert in all fields. There are several key areas to understand:

  • Architecture and construction: Whether you’re starting a coffee shop or a sporting venue, you will need to think about design and layout.
  • Law: You will be dealing with contracts and tenders for construction companies.
  • Finance: Identify where the money is coming from and what the tax regulations are.
  • Personnel: If you’re planning to hire staff, what are their job descriptions? Where do you recruit them from? What benefits will they receive? And is it all in accordance with the country’s labour laws?
  • Training and development: What courses (such as first aid) will your employees need?
  • Public relations and marketing: Do you have the right digital strategy? What do you know about digital? How will you engage with, and sell into, the community? How will you stage a launch, making sure that everyone in Dubai knows about you?

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Coffee With…. Two Tone

Put simply, Dubai-based rapper Two Tone is the quintessential example of a person who never gave up on his teenage dream, despite getting side-tracked by building a multi-million-dollar souvenir empire.

As part of a new section on my blog, Coffee With.…., My Arabia caught up with the Moroccan-Dutch entertainer ahead of his debut Dubai performance at RedFest DXB.

You're never too old to follow your dream

You’re never too old to follow your dream

Gone are the long locks he sported during his ‘Hatin’ on You’ collaboration with Krayzie Bone, of Bone Thugs-n-Harmony; today, Two Tone has made over his image with guidance from his stylist wife, Haydee. His hair is considerably shorter, and his earlier urban style has been replaced by an eclectic combination of stylish jackets, pants and his symbolic sunglasses. After all, he is representing Dubai, a city known for its glitz and glamour, on the international music scene.

But it’s not just his image that has evolved. To secure more radio airtime, Two Tone has reworked his sound, fusing Latin and Middle Eastern beats to create hits such as ‘Senorita’ and ‘Keep on Going’, which both hit number one on iTunes.

While the United Arab Emirates has just started hearing Two Tone’s music on radio, the 38-year-old artist, whose work has often been compared with Flo Rida’s and Pitbull’s, has been building a fan base across parts of Europe and Morocco for many years.

‘Before “Senorita” was released, I had made many songs, but because they were hip-hop the radio stations couldn’t play them here, because they’re very filtered,’ he said. ‘I met with Erick Machado, a Cuban artist living in Dubai. I wanted to see the combination between Latin music and hip-hop and basically a little bit of Arabic influences.’

Born Rachid Ben Messaoud, Two Tone first discovered his love for hip-hop as a 14-year-old growing up in the Netherlands. Influenced by American West Coast hip-hop artists such as N.W.A, Snoop Dog, Ice Cube and Tupac, the youngster began memorizing their lyrics and performing at school, eventually joining a Dutch underground rap group, 252 Maindrive. Despite the group signing with a Dutch label and travelling to the United States to release their first album, Two Tone says it never eventuated, due to a dispute between the Dutch and American record companies. He left the group to pursue a solo career. Family commitments saw the rapper put his music on hold for many years, until he moved to Dubai in 2008.

However, he says, it wasn’t music that brought him to the Middle East.

‘A friend of mine had an idea to do key chains, so we bought the rights to a [Robin Ruth] franchise for the Middle East,’ he says. ‘We started from a small kiosk, selling key chains, then adding hats, bags and slippers. We now have shops in most of the malls and do customised products for Atlantis Hotel, Burj Khalifa and the Jumeriah Group.’

Success of his souvenir empire in Dubai has allowed Two Tone to focus on his music

Success of his souvenir empire in Dubai has allowed Two Tone to focus on his music

In 2011, the success of his souvenir empire allowed him to refocus on his passion.

‘My partners encouraged me to focus on my music,’ he said. ‘By that stage I felt like I was getting a little old, so I thought I’d move to the background and start producing and inspiring other people.’

Fast forward to 2015 and it looks like Two Tone’s success is building, with many projects in the pipeline.

In a Snapshot

As a young man with an Arabic background, how did your parents feel about your interest in hip-hop and rap?

They’re very supportive. They weren’t familiar with the music when I first started, but now they are very proud. I’m not embarrassing them, so that’s a good thing.

Do you prefer to write your music or freestyle?

Over the last few years I haven’t written as much. I like to freestyle and improvise because it gives you so much freedom. Now when I record a song, I don’t write it down. I go in to the booth, I put the music on and rap about the subject. And when I like something, I record it and keep going until there is a full song.

Your ultimate collaboration?

Chris Brown.

How hard is it for a rap artist to come up with a name that sticks?

A name should come naturally. When I was rapping, I noticed that when I had a slow beat I used a low tone and then, when I had to speed up my flow, I would use a higher pitch. When I was playing, many people would comment about my different sound. That’s where the name originated ‒ my ability to rap in two tones.

You just released a new song with Virgin Radio’s Kris Fade. What is ‘In it for love’ about?

There are a lot of women in Dubai who are not in it for love; they’re in it for other reasons. It’s a funny song. We were having fun in the studio and it came out good, so I said, let’s release it.

Finally, what is the next step for Two Tone?

There is another huge event coming up. It’s still confidential, but I’ll be opening for a big group in Dubai. Then I’ll be touring in Spain with one of the world’s biggest Latin artists, Romeo Santos, who had the biggest-selling album in the United States last year. I’m also in negotiations with Marc Anthony to do a few days on tour with him in Spain ‒ plus, my next single is coming out soon.

You can catch Two Tone perform his latest hits at Red Fest DXB later this month.

 

 

Syrian refugees face a new kind of hell

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

Syrian mothers trying to keep their children warm in a refugee camp

“Words simply cannot describe the sorrow and despair facing Syrian refugees in Lebanon today,” stated Lynn Tabbara, a co-founder of Intaliqi, a Lebanese-based NGO set up in 2013 to empower socially disadvantaged women in refugee camps across the country.

According to the UNHCR, the UN’s refugee agency, there are over 3 million Syrian refugees scattered across the Levant, making it the “biggest humanitarian emergency of our era”.

Lebanon is hosting the largest number of Syrian refugees in the world, with over 1.3 million living in makeshift tents in northern Lebanon and the Beqaa Valley. Many, according to Ms Tabbara, are not registered, making it difficult for them to access aid. And being registered, she said, “Unfortunately it doesn’t guarantee them access to aid, given the scarcity of resources”.

“The situation is also deteriorating quite quickly,” she added. “We visited some of these camps around two years ago and conditions today are significantly worse. Refugees in the camps live in extreme poverty and every day struggle through life. Their displacement has stripped them of their humanity; children have lost their childhoods while adults seem to have given up on life. Their basic needs of shelter, belonging and protection are rarely met. Access to education and healthcare are luxuries few can afford.”

The winter months cause these refugees the most distress. Earlier this month, Lebanon and parts of the Levant experienced one of the worst snowstorms in history. According to Lebanon’s state-run news agency, in North Lebanon’s Akkar region “snow fell at just 200 metres above sea level, completely cutting off villages and towns above 1,000 metres. Certain villages were buried under more than 150 centimetres of snow.”

But despite snowstorm Zina tapering, there appears to be no end in sight for the Syrian refugees in Lebanon. The destruction left behind has been catastrophic, making life unbearable for those families living in makeshift tents.

“We have tragically witnessed babies and elderly frozen to death,” said Ms Tabbara. “Refugees have to face the snow with practically no shoes on and very few layers. Their frail bodies are often unable to protect them from the freezing cold and sub-zero temperatures. Blankets are often used to protect the tents from water leakage, instead of providing warmth to their bodies. They have practically no heating and unreliable electricity.”

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Intaliqi team loading trucks filled with much-needed aid for Syrian refugees in Lebanon

Since its establishment, Intaliqi has set up programmes to assist Syrian refugee women, among other programmes aimed at vulnerable and displaced women. However, the harsh winter conditions Lebanon has witnessed this month required Intaliqi’s prompt intervention on a much wider scale.

“We felt compelled to act decisively and lend our support to as many affected by this crisis as possible. Our hearts ached for every man, woman and child who was literally freezing to death,” she added.

“In partnership with other NGOs, private donors and businesses, and with the strong support of the local and international communities, we are trying to reduce the impact of the crisis by assisting some of the refugees and providing them with basic survival needs.”

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Children have lost their childhood as a result of the Syrian war

Ms Tabbara started a personal social media initiative to raise donations from close family and friends; what she didn’t expect was the rapid international response to the initiative.

“We have been overwhelmed by the response so far! We have now set up collection points in Lebanon, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and the UK. People from all over the world are sending us donations to help those in need. We are forever grateful to the priceless support we have had from businesses and individuals who truly believed in us and made this initiative a success,” she said.

Among the supporters of the campaign is Lebanese-Australian beauty Jessica Kahawaty. With over 160,000 followers, the former Miss World Australia urged her followers on Instagram and Facebook to get behind the campaign. “These are LIVE images of four Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon that I’m personally helping,” the Yahoo Maktoob presenter posted on her social media pages. “If you aren’t aware already, many children are dying from starvation.”

Speaking from her home in Sydney, where she’s currently completing a law degree, Ms Kahawaty told me that her message was that we should live in harmony with one another and provide an education to those who are most vulnerable in society.

Jessica Kahawaty

Jessica Kahawaty

“The most important thing right now is providing basic life necessities such as food, water, warm shelter and medication to the displaced minors and their families,” she said. “The issue is obviously a very complex one that will take many years to resolve and the scars are engraved so deep they will show for generations to come, but eventually, it would be imperative to place these children in schools and make sure they receive at least universal primary education in order for them to have some opportunity in life.”

It’s just as terrifying in the Za’atari camp – Jordan’s largest refugee camp – where the UNHCR says that dozens of families remained camped in emergency shelters last week after their tents collapsed under the weight of snow.

“This storm has had a big impact on refugees here, and it’s making their daily lives even harder,” said UNHCR’s Nasreddine Touaibia. “Being in a camp is already not a comfortable situation, so if you add to it this extreme weather – strong winds, rain and snow – the situation now is pretty bad.”

In the UAE, more than USD 45 million was raised earlier this month as part of the UAE Compassion Campaign to help the displaced refugees in Lebanon, Jordan, Gaza and Palestine.

Shoes are delivered for children in refugee camps

Shoes are packed and delivered to children in refugee camps

But more needs to be done says Ms Tabbara. “They still need blankets, boots, jackets, kids’ clothing, gloves, scarves, socks, canned food, bread, fuel coupons and medication to help them get through the coming winter months.”

Do your bit to help the Syrian refugee crisis: contact Intaliqi by email at info@intaliqi.com or by phone +961 70706167.

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Reckless Parenting in Arabia

Young children are often left alone at home

Young children are often left alone at home


“Parenting classes should be mandatory, whether you are adopting or not, and would include an evaluation of your current physical, mental and financial state as well as how ready you are to take on the rigors of parenthood. Our children are our most precious natural resource, and there is absolutely no other way to parent but to put them first.” – Dale Archer

Parents living in the United Arab Emirates will nod their heads in agreement after reading this piece. Some might be surprised while others simply won’t care. If you’re out of the country or the region you might be shaking your head by the end.

If you think seeing children hanging out of moving vehicles, jumping around in the back seat with no seatbelt on and sitting on the driver’s lap in a fast car is reckless, that’s nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you.

Working in the events industry in the Middle East, I have come across parents from all walks of life. There are those tearing their hair out desperately look for a lost child, and once she’s found, embrace her with love and care. And then there are those who drop off five and six year olds alone at an arena with not a care in the world. Others won’t realize their child is missing until we announce that he has been in our care for 20 minutes and we need his parents to come and claim him.

In one situation, I was confronted with a disturbing parental decision. I had invited my daughter’s eight-year-old school friend and her mother to attend a family event. On this particular day, the arena was filled to capacity, 3500 people. While doing my regular rounds to see whether my guests had any problems, I came across my daughter’s friend.

It's not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

It’s not uncommon to see children in movie theaters without adult supervision

“Where’s your mum?” I asked. “She’s left,” the quietly spoken girl responded. Beside her was another little girl, her friend. I looked out into the distance and saw her mother and another woman leaving the arena, heading down the stairs and out the door. A million and one thoughts and profanities went through my head. What on earth was she thinking?

I dashed past several people. “Excuse me! Excuse me!’ I said, as I ran towards the woman. Still trying to catch my breath, I put my hand on her shoulder. “Hi, how are you?” I asked casually. “I’m glad you could make it.” She introduced me to her friend, another Lebanese mother.

“Where’s your daughter?” I asked.

“She’s sitting down with her friend,” she responded. And then the tales began.

“Aren’t you staying?” I asked.

“No, we’re going to have a cup of coffee,” she said casually, as though it were normal to leave two eight-year-old girls alone at a large event.

“I’m sorry,” I said, “Unfortunately the rules don’t allow you to leave your children unattended at these events.”

“But we do it all the time when we go to the movies,” she continued. “They’re old enough and mature enough to be on their own.” Wow, I thought. Was she serious?

Sadly, many poor parenting decisions end in tragedy. And we’ve seen many here in the UAE and worldwide.

The UAE is still coming to terms with the news of a five-year-old girl who fell to her death from a high-rise building after she was left alone sleeping as her mother partied with her boyfriend on New Year’s Eve.

I’ve lost count of the stories over the years of children falling from windows of apartment buildings after they were left unattended.

Just last week I dashed across a busy carpark and scooped up a two-year-old boy who had wandered out of a nearby park. One car had swerved and missed the child, and it looked like he was on a collision course with another 4WD.

Fortunately the child was wearing an identification bracelet. I called the father, who then contacted his wife inside the park. It took the mother 25 minutes to come to the main gate to collect her son. Not even a hug for the little boy or a thank you!

As parents, we can’t take any risks with our children’s lives. They’re irreplaceable!

Majestic Lebanon

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

Lebanon remains a hidden treasure in the Middle East

‘Would you like to come with me to Lebanon?’ my father would often ask me when I was a teenager, as he planned his annual trip to his home country.

“No!” I’d reply arrogantly, shutting down any idea of travelling to that place so far away.

I’d heard the stories of girls returning home to be married off to a cousin who was only ever interested in getting an Australian visa – his ticket to freedom. As the years passed, my father stopped asking and I never broached the subject.

Shamefully, my youth was spent distancing myself from my Lebanese heritage. Lebanon was a tiny nation far away from Australia, where I was born and raised. It reminded me of my father’s strict Middle Eastern culture, one which shaped my lonely teenage years ‒ not to mention the poor reputation the Lebanese community had in Australia. Why on earth would I want to be connected to the country?

My father is from a small village in Syr el dannieh, in North Lebanon, 22 km from the country’s second largest city, Tripoli, and several hours from cosmopolitan Beirut. Throughout my childhood I’d heard tales of gun battles and family feuds – my uncle was once shot in the crossfire between two quarrelling neighbours.

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

With my husband and children admiring the breathtaking view of the Qadisha Valley

The image of Lebanon in my mind was a far cry from the real beauty of this small country, bordered by Syria to the north and Israel to the south, and situated at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland. Its rich history and cultural and religious diversity is a result of all these influences.

Like the millions of Lebanese expats scattered around the world, my father and mother left Lebanon at the beginning of the Lebanese Civil War in 1975. Before that, my mother says, Lebanon was compared with Switzerland, and Beirut was the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. They, like many other Lebanese, had planned to return, but 40 years on they are still in Sydney, Australia. Fifteen years of civil war created great divisions among religious and political groups that still stand today, making life difficult and even dangerous.

As I grew older and became more fascinated with Middle East politics, the need to travel to my parents’ birthplace grew stronger. My first visit in 2011 with my husband and three daughters was brief – four days to be precise ‒ hardly any time in which to explore this majestic country. Two days were spent dashing through a rainstorm; a quick photo on the Corniche (Raouche’) was the only proof that I had visited Beirut that year. Finally, I had made it to Syr, where I met my aunt and cousins for the first time. Their faces and voices were familiar; the years we’d spent talking on the phone made the introduction easier. I’m not sure I would have made the journey so far north had my father not been staying in his hometown that year. The pride on his face made the visit worth it; he was clearly happy to see me explore his part of the world.
Although it was difficult to do or see anything with my three small children, we still managed one important trip to my father’s property in the mountains. As snow fell, dad and my cousin Fadi guided us further north, stopping along the way to take photos of the mountainous terrain, and for my daughters to stretch their legs and play in the snow. But as the sun set over the snow-covered mountains, I knew I was exactly where I needed to be. In that moment, I promised myself that I would return to explore Lebanon fully.

Pigeon's Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Pigeon’s Rock from the Beirut Corniche

Living in Dubai made it easier to travel to Lebanon. From Sydney, Australia, it takes up to 19 hours, which is an effective discouragement. Several months after my first visit, the Syrian uprising began, and the hundreds of thousands of refugees spilling into the country had a profound impact on Lebanon. The United Nations estimates that today there are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon. My mother’s extended family, including my aunty and her family, escaped Homs in Syria and now live in Tripoli.

Lebanon is deeply divided over the Syrian war, creating further problems for the country. In August 2013, a car bomb ripped through a busy shopping street in Hezbollah’s stronghold in the southern suburbs of Beirut, killing 21 people and injuring hundreds. It was the deadliest attack in the Lebanese capital since the 2005 assassination of the former Prime Minister, Rafic Hariri. December 27, 2014 marked the first anniversary of the assassination in Beirut of former Lebanese finance minister Mohamed Chatah.

With so much unrest in Lebanon, I had put off my return until now. If the Lebanese people could bravely live through this tumultuous unrest, there was no reason why I shouldn’t return and explore Lebanon.

Exploring Lebanon
Giving in to fear would mean giving in to the militants and political factions happily spreading hate and tearing a nation apart for personal gain.

A family wedding in Beirut was the perfect excuse for us to visit Lebanon in December 2014. We put our fate in God’s hands and booked five return tickets. We were tourists, desperate to explore every corner of this splendid country.

As we arrived in the capital, I was taken aback by the strong presence of Lebanese soldiers posted on almost every street corner. Amid the Christmas decorations, colourful lights and Coco-Cola-influenced Christmas tree, it wasn’t uncommon to see tanks and armed soldiers posted in densely populated areas such as Beirut Souks, a major commercial district in the Beirut Central District, with over 200 shops and department stores. Visiting the Beirut Souks is a must if you travel to Lebanon. It is home to the finest designer labels, from Hermes to Carolina Herrera and high-street labels such as Zara. If you’re looking for a place to dine, the Met (Metropolitan Café) is perfect for a light meal or traditional Lebanese coffee.

The civil war left visible scars on the tattered, bullet-pocked apartment blocks. Narrow streets make it difficult for cars to pass, so locals usually get around on scooters, and it’s not uncommon to see three people on one at any time. Bed sheets replace windows in poorer areas where Palestinian and Syrian refugees are housed. Beggars line the streets. Hussein, our tour guide, says Palestinians and Syrians are too proud to beg and the women carrying babies as a way of seeking sympathy are Gypsies who make a living scamming tourists. Anyone who has ever been stuck on the border between Tijuana, Mexico and the United States will understand how it feels to have small children and women approach the car, bang against the window and demand money. I was confronted with this again when a mother with a small child pleaded for money as we drove through the popular streets of Hamra in West Beirut.

Where else in the world you see a mosque and church side by side?  Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Where else in the world would you see a mosque and church side by side?
Mohamed Al Amin Mosque in Beirut

Once we’d left the heart of Beirut, our first trip was north to The Cedars (Arz Libnan). Our private tour of Lebanon took us on a scenic drive through Becharre – the poet Khalil Gibran’s birthplace – to the Qadisha Valley. Despite the cool temperatures, we insisted on stopping to admire this deep gorge carved by the Qadisha River. Located at the foot of Mount al-Makmal in northern Lebanon, the Qadisha Valley is listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site because some of the earliest Christian monastic settlements were situated here. I couldn’t believe this hidden treasure was in Lebanon and that I had shunned such beauty throughout my youth.
With a few more stops along the way, we managed to climb the windy, slippery road leading to The Cedars. During the heavy snowfall period, The Cedars, perhaps one of the most beautiful spots in the country, is populated with locals and tourists who enjoy skiing. At the entrance to The Grove stands a cedar tree believed to be hundreds of years old.

The Cedars of Lebanon

The Cedars of Lebanon

Baalbek, a town in the Beqqa Valley, contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon. Despite my pleas, we were strongly advised by our family in Beirut and in Sydney not to visit another UNESCO Heritage Site. According to our relatives, I was at great risk. Militants have been known to target westerners travelling through the Beqqa Valley. ‘Your wife looks American,’ one relative told my husband. ‘She’s an easy target for kidnappers,’ another added. When you travel to a country where there are strong political and religious divisions, your best source of guidance is the locals and tour guides.
The next part of our journey took us to the city of Tripoli, where my mother grew up and where my aunts and uncle live. We stopped briefly at one of the most famous restaurants, Abdul Rahman Hallab & Sons, for lunch. For years, I’d heard about their knefa and baklava, and had to try some of these traditional Lebanese desserts.

At nightfall the call to prayer echoed out from Al-Salam Mosque, where just 18 months previously a car laden with 100 kg of explosives had ripped through the mosque, leaving a huge crater and the floors covered with blood. It was the second bomb to explode that afternoon; minutes earlier, the Taqwa mosque had been targeted. Dozens were killed in the blast and hundreds more injured. Now, however, the mosque was packed with worshippers who had arrived for prayers.

Soldiers guard Lebanese Streets

Soldiers guard Lebanese streets

Today, no one takes any chances. Armed Lebanese soldiers and tanks heavily guard Tripoli’s streets. Cars left unattended with the engines still running are always a great concern. Unlike Beirut, which has been partially rebuilt since the war to attract tourists, Tripoli is rundown and dirty. Old buildings destroyed during the civil war remain standing, a stark reminder of the city’s harsh history.
Knowing I was just metres away from where one of the deadliest car bombings had taken place since the war, it was hard not to feel anxious. Even in Beirut’s city streets, you need to be alert. The country is still stricken with problems, and car bombs can go off unexpectedly at any time.

We’d situated ourselves in a suburb east of Beirut, Sin el-Fil, literally translated as the ‘tooth of an elephant’, staying at the Hilton Grand Habtoor. After living in a Muslim country for seven years and listening to the call to prayer five times a day, it was odd waking up to church bells ringing on Sunday. There are 18 recognised religious sects in Lebanon, and Christians and Muslims form the majority. The most recent study conducted by Statistics Lebanon found that approximately 54 per cent of the population is Muslim, divided equally between Sunni and Shiite. Christians make up 34 per cent of the population, which explains why many parts of Lebanon are richly decorated with Christmas trimmings.

Jeita Grotto cave

Jeita Grotto cave

Between family gatherings, we managed to sneak in another impressive tour. On this day our journey began in the valley, Nahr El-Kalb, 18 km north of Beirut, and continued to Jeita Grotto, followed by Harissa, a small mountain village 650 metres above sea level, and ancient Byblos.

On the way to the grotto, we took a small diversion to a war memorial commemorating the Australian diggers who fought in World War Ⅱ. I knew little of the involvement of Australians in Lebanon during the war. Australian troops, part of the 7th Division, fought as part of an Allied force in Syria and Lebanon against the Vichy French. According to the Australian Lebanese Historical Society, the first Australian casualty was Nicolas Koorey, a 26-year-old Australian of Lebanese descent. Four hundred and sixteen Australian troops were killed in the battle and over a thousand were wounded. It’s certainly a history lesson which needs to be more widely taught back home in Australia. It would help to heal the widening gap between white Anglo-Saxon Australians and Australian-born Lebanese youths.

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

Australian Memorial in Lebanon

As we left the memorial, I felt moved and excited at the same time. Our next stop: Jeita Grotto.

Breathtaking. Captivating. Mesmerising.

There are not enough adjectives to describe this natural wonder located in the valley of Nahr El-Kalb. Millions of years are frozen in drops of water. A very frequent drop-by-drop water flow forms stalactites on the ceilings and stalagmites on the floor of the galleries and halls.
Recipient of the 2013 World Tourism Organisation’s award for best tourist site in the Arab world, the Jieta Grotto houses one of the world’s longest stalactites. It measures 8.2 metres and is located in the upper grotto. This is a must if you’re travelling with children! My daughters, aged nine, eight and six, would not stop talking about their ‘cave’ experience, where they took turns to steer a small vessel in the lower grotto. The girls have travelled to many parts of the globe, including France and Italy, but nothing captured their imagination the same way their trip to Lebanon did.

Once we’d completed our 90-minute tour of the grotto – pictures were not allowed inside – we moved on to Harissa, the home of Our Lady of Lebanon. The village is located 20 km north of Beirut and is accessible from the coastal city of Jounieh by road, or by a nine-minute cable car ride. The best view of this picturesque country is from the cable car to Harissa, from where the city and the Mediterranean Sea look breathtaking. Because of its religious significance, Harissa is often visited by Roman Catholic popes.
On my first trip to Lebanon, I was told that I had to visit Jbeil (Byblos) during the Christmas holiday period. One of the oldest cities in the world to have been inhabited without interruption, Jbeil is situated 40 km north of Beirut. The history lesson continued as our tour guide, Bernadette, recounted the influence of the Phoenicians, Crusaders and Romans on the 8000-year-old city. After their tour of the Byblos Castle, the highlight for my children was putting on a performance in the Roman Amphitheatre. Jbeil is now a tourist hub for its ancient port, fish restaurants and shopping at the traditional Lebanese souk.

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

Jbeil (Byblos) Port

There is no doubt that this was one of the most emotional journeys I’ve taken. I rediscovered myself and reconnected with my Lebanese heritage. When this tiny nation attracts so many negative mentions in the media, few could believe how deeply enriched Lebanon is by history and beauty.

I wish I’d known it earlier.

Head to my instagram account @arabianmum to see all the images from my trip to Lebanon
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