Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Breakfast in Sidon

Sidon's Qalaa or Sea Castle
What do you do on a Sunday morning in Beirut? Well, in my case this week, I was driven down south to the port city of Sidon for breakfast!

With my friend Jennifer Haddad behind the wheel, we set off around 9.30 a.m. Her colleagues, Rabih Wehbe and Mariam Seif el Dine, drove in front of us. Bahia Allouche, a native of Sidon who volunteered to serve as our tolerant guide, joined us in the seaside city.

The approximately 40-kilometer (25 mile) drive south took only 20 minutes without the weekday traffic madness. The highway all the way south hugs the coastal road and banana groves typical of the region. We passed by Shoueifat, Damour, Tiyeh and Rmeileh before arriving at Lebanon’s third largest city.

Sidon, or Saida in Arabic -- which means fishery -- has been inhabited since 4000 BC and is one of the most important Phoenician cities and perhaps the oldest.

The Baha'eddeen Mosque
The Baha’eddeen Mosque, built by the late prime minister Rafic Hariri and named after his father, greets you at the city entry with its 36-meter-high dome. It is a modern take on Turkish Ottoman mosques and can be seen from all around Sidon.

We headed straight to the seaside promenade, lined with cafés and restaurants, for a traditional Sidon breakfast. This consists of all kinds of hummus (chickpeas) dishes. Among them: fatteh (chickpeas with yogurt, fried bread, fried pine nuts, garlic and oil), hummus balila (chickpeas with lemon juice, garlic and spices), hummus mshawsheh (chickpeas with tahina or sesame paste, lemon juice, garlic and spices). We had our fill of hummus varieties and fresh Arabic bread, olives, tomatoes, salad and pickles… The whole breakfast, followed by tea, came to LL 30,000 ($20).

A traditional Sidon breakfast
While waiting for our delicious meal to be served, I couldn’t help hopping around to take pictures. It was my first visit to the city that takes its name from the first-born of Canaan, the grandson of Noah and is mentioned in the Bible at Genesis 10:15, 19. When I last lived in Beirut during the civil war, it was difficult to get to move from one street to the next, let alone around the country.

I crossed the street to take pictures of the famous Qalaa or Sea Castle (, built by the Crusaders in the early 13th century. The fortress is right next to the port. It also sits opposite Al Qalaa Hotel, one of Sidon’s two hotels, which takes its name from it. The second, Hotel Yacoub, is in the middle of the city, close to the old souks and opposite St. Elias Cathedral.

Sidon was already bustling with pushcart street vendors selling all kinds of goods, and the cafés were bustling with people also out for shopping, breakfast, arguileh or sheesha (hubble bubble) or just wandering around in the beautiful warm weather of November this year.

The alleyways of the old souks
After enjoying our breakfast, the five of us decided to walk it off and explore Sidon. We headed to the old souks, dating from the Mamlouk era, and first passed by the traditional maze of narrow alleyways lined on both sides with tiny shops and kiosks selling fruits, vegetables, spices, meat, chicken and everything imaginable. Luckily, Bahia was able to guide us through the maze of alleyways, until we reached Bab El-Serail. It is a central square where many events in Sidon take place, especially during the Moslem fasting month of Ramadan. Beautiful little streets lead from the Serail back to the seafront and the port. All around the square, the buildings have been restored, as have the streets of the old souks.

Rabih, Jennifer, Mariam and Bahia in Khan El-Franj
The winding alleys took us to Khan El-Franj -- the Caravanserail of the French -- that was built by Emir Fakhreddeen in the 17th century to house French merchants and goods. The imposing walls and arched entrance lead into a large courtyard surrounded by covered galleries.

We walked along the Sidon Corniche, crowded with families strolling along, children riding horses, fishers about to head out to sea and boats preparing to ferry people to the nearby islands.

We also visited the Fish Market where fresh fish is sold by bidding every morning. By then, there wasn’t a lot left, but the fishermen were still proud to show us their catch, especially the flying fish which they explained is dried and offered as a good omen to ladies who miscarry.

Sidon is a city of vast contrasts between the beautifully restored souks and the more popular and run-down area. It feels vibrant and bustling and can boast of so many different specialties, like hummus, fish, falafel, carpentry, soap, perfumes and two Arabic pastries: ghraybeh and sanioura

It was all too soon past 1 p.m. and Jennifer and I still had to go up to the mountains, to my mom Vicky’s village of Ain Anoub and Bshamoun (see Bahibak ya Libnan post, November 22).
Thank you Jennifer, Rabih, Mariam and Bahia for such a lovely day and for your patience while following me around while clicking my camera in all places.

You can join us on our walk around Sidon here.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Talking Social Media at LAU

Ayman Itani introducing me to the LAUSocial class
I had the great privilege to address the Social Media class at Beirut’s Lebanese American University (LAU) on Wednesday, November 24. I am thankful to Ayman Itani (@aymanitani) for that. He gave me the opportunity to talk about the evolution in communications and publishing over the last 50 years and to share my fresh experiences in blogging on my web log, Mich Café, and in dabbling with social media.

It is the first time in the Middle East that a class in new media is offered at LAU. It familiarizes Communication Arts students with journalism, radio, TV, film and theater.

Here’s how I encapsulated the change in the communications and publishing graph to my small LAU audience:

The time is 1955
The person who was to become my boss as a publisher 20 years later was studying journalism at AUB and editing the student weekly, Outlook. He recounts that his journalism teacher taught him all about the Linotype machine used in printing at the time and the art of picking headline fonts and sizes manually.

His first part-time job in the mid-1950s was to produce -- in-house and by 6:30 in the morning -- some 80 copies of a 12-page “AP News Bulletin.” The bulletin was to be read by the top brass of ARAMCO (Arabian American Oil Company) who had little, if any, access to fresh U.S. news. The 80 copies produced at the AP office in Qantari were then sent to Beirut airport, where they were air-couriered at 8:00 a.m. via Middle East Airlines (MEA) to ARAMCO headquarters in Dhahran.

His duty was to report to work at 4:00 a.m., pick up the overnight news-roll from the ticker, quickly do the “copy tasting” and editing, and have the news items ready for typing (remember, no cut and paste). A skilled typist came in before 5:00 a.m. and keyed in the copy on 12 stencil-typing sheets. These were proofread (remember, no spellchecker) and handed to an office assistant. The latter used a stencil duplicator to produce 80 copies of each page before stapling, packaging and rushing the lot to Beirut airport to be airlifted to Dhahran.

My future boss lived in Ras el-Nabeh and walked to Qantari to be at his desk at 4:00 in the morning (remember, no laptop to work from home).

Lessons: From picking fonts by hand, to walking, to typing and stenciling a typewritten page, to biking to the airport, to flying the news bulletin to Dhahran etc. So no computers, no TV, no US news on radio, no telex, no fax, no mobiles, no phone cameras, no in-house printing, no Internet, no email, no Google, no Yahoo, no Twitter, no Facebook, etc…

The time is 1975
I join Monday Morning and the civil war starts heating up. Communications (TV, radio, international phoning) make headway but the rest are still lacking.

Because of the difficulties of commuting during the war and the lack of modern-day communications, we had to improvise. So instead of commuting we started using an archaic system to record interviews by phone. No mobiles meant if telephone lines were cut -- and they were always -- you were cut off from the world. No digital cameras meant you needed a photographer to go with you always. No instantaneous news or photographs by means of Social Media allowing every individual to be a news reporter and photographer.

More significantly, by the mid 1970s, we had moved from picking fonts by hand to becoming the first in Lebanon and the region to install and use the Electronic "Selectric" Composer -- an automated, direct impression composition unit introduced by IBM in January 1975. But most other instruments of communications were still missing in the early 1980s (like, for example, computers, mobiles, digital cameras and the Internet).

The time is 1985
We are in London. We go to an exhibition on High Street Kensington… We get the first Apple computers, first Kodak duplicator and Cheetah telex and embark on the desktop publishing of a newsletter, Mideast Mirror, aimed at a worldwide audience. We had subscribers in the United States, Europe, Canada, Asia and Japan. Absence of the Internet and fax machine taxed our company’s finances enormously. Telex costs with correspondents were in the range of 100,000 pounds sterling per year. The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war was in full swing and a telex from our man in Tehran and one from our correspondent in Baghdad took ages. Those costs would have been zero had there been a World Wide Web. Same goes for distribution. No email meant consideration of the Concorde to fly issues of the newsletter to subscribers in Washington or California, Ottawa, Tokyo etc…

The time is 2000
Easier publishing and communication allows our company Mega Media to provide news analysis content from London to the Daily Star/International Herald Tribune in Beirut. Although we had a network of 18 correspondents in the major Arab capitals, the Internet, emails, fax machines, mobile phones, and all the rest made publishing so much easier and cheaper… We were already feeding content collected from across the Arab world, edited in London and fed to a newspaper in Beirut almost instantly.

The time is 2009
I get my first laptop. I start hearing about Facebook, Twitter and Social Media. I jump on the bandwagon. I was reluctant at first, thinking to myself, “I don’t have that many friends!” Little by little, the virtual world of Facebook, and especially Twitter, becomes more of a reality with events like GeekFest, Twestival and tweetups.

The time is 2010
Here I am, talking about Social Media, Twitter, Facebook, and Blogging…

Thanks to the encouragement of tweeps, I start my blog, Mich Café, in July. It is a way of sharing my life, my experiences, my travels, my views, my family and friends and my pictures… It is also a platform where I can put all my experiences in publishing to use.

Mich Café is gaining readers by the day and they come from all over the planet, including Lebanon, Dubai, the United States, the United Kingdom, Russia, Canada, Jordan, France, Sweden, South Korea, Israel, Norway… Readers’ comments drive me to keep sharing my thoughts, experiences and opinions through new posts. So, I blog regularly, tweet actively, and continue to be thrilled about where all this is heading.

Think of the millions of people who are now doing the same. That’s the Social Media revolution we have today. Social networking has transformed the way we live, communicate and do business.

LAUSocial 2010: Tala, Lama, Lea, Ivette and Elie
While media moguls of the 21th century struggle to evolve, the educational system now needs to play a crucial role in empowering a generation that will eventually become the driving force behind the momentous changes in the media landscape.

[My audience included LAU students:
Lama Al-Haqhaq (@lamaHQ)
Tala Al-Riz (@talariz)
Lea Giusti (@leagiusti)
Elie Attié (@elieattie88)
Ivana Hindi (@ivanahindi)
Diana Bachoura (dianabachoura)
Ivette Saber (@ivettesaber) and
Mariam Haidar (@haidarmariam)

Thank you to Ayman Itani for inviting me and thank you to the LAUSocial class for receiving me.]

(You can view more pictures here)