A clash of cultures?
We often hear of the “East” and “West”, seemingly dichotomous worlds whose cultural boundaries “clash” more often than they meet. The relationship between them is longstanding, forged over years of multiple encounters that are deeply intertwined with the history and legacy of colonialism. European expansion in (what Western travelers and scholars named) the ‘Orient’ was motivated by a host of factors: from economic expansion and the discovery of new trade routes; missionary quests and the spread of religious ideals; to political motivations and the search for power. A particular blend of confusion, fear, and mutual fascination with ‘the other’ framed these colonial encounters, giving rise to an “East” and “West” that Orientalist painters, writers and poets imagined.
The relationship between East and West is complex, to say the least. Colonial legacies and postcolonial discourses weigh heavy, and perhaps their most notable critic is Edward Said, whose seminal work—Orientalism—examined the power relations underlying these encounters. Contemporary travelers to the Orient are faced with a visual conundrum: do they let their eyes see the countries as the Europeans who came before them did, or do they embark on their journeys with fresh outlooks that shatter preconceived notions? The answer, I’m afraid, is neither simple nor direct. Whilst Orientalist discourse can never be an accurate reflection of the East it claims thorough knowledge of, its words and paintings take symbolic inspiration from occurrences, customs, and traditions that are part and parcel of everyday culture.
Lebanon: an orientalist itinerary
This small country overlooking the Mediterranean is a melting pot of Phoenician, Roman, Ottoman, and French colonial ruling legacies, a melange that has produced its unique cultural heritage and much orientalist discourse to accompany it. Rather than dismiss what their paintbrushes and pens have to say, we urge budding travelers to explore Lebanon with an Orientalist itinerary in mind for the many hidden gems they will encounter; let your eyes, minds, and hearts explore an Orient so often spoken for but rarely left to speak for itself.
Looking for a room with an orientalist twist? Try Zanzoun, one of our Beirut Bed & Breakfasts.
Head to the northern city of Tripoli for a walk around its impressive souks and a tour of its hammams—beautiful structures that offer a glimpse into Ottoman Lebanon. Equally impressive are the souks in the southern city of Saida, where you can score a few bargains and enjoy delicious traditional pastries. You are likely to find small cafes tucked into stone archways, with customers enjoying a shisha outside whilst playing cards; much like a scene from an Orientalist painting, these frames offer a snippet of everyday life.
Ibn Jubayr, a traveler from Andalusia, penned ar-Rihla, an account of his Pilgrimage to Mecca and Medina in the 12th century. He wrote about the powerful port city of Tyre and the bridal procession he witnessed there, a spectacle merging faith and custom in beautiful fashion. Today, the ‘bride of the sea’ boasts one of the cleanest beaches in the country, as well as the impressive archaeological sites that would make any history enthusiast’s heart flutter (pg. 58, Other Routes: 1500 Years of African and Asian Travel Writing; Tabish khair, Martin Leer, Justin D. Edwards).
One of the most of most famous 19th century travelers to Lebanon is Alphonse de Lamartine, who named the country a site de mes rêves, a perfect Eden with mountain, sea, and fresh air. He spoke of the picturesque traditional homes dotting the Chouf mountains and the splendor of Emir Bashir’s palace in the village of Deir El-Qamar—sites that you can enjoy and marvel to this day. His travels took him to the summits of snow-capped Sannine, couverts de neiges éternelles (covered in eternal snow), and back down to the heart of Baalbek, city of the Sun, whose ruins left him awestruck: “C’était en effet la merveille du désert ; la fabuleuse Baalbek, qui sortait toute éclatante de son sépulcre inconnu, pour nous raconter des âges dont l’histoire a perdu la mémoire” (pg. 454, Voyage en Orient, Vol. 1; Alphonse de Lamartine). His writings bring us along for the journey, but we urge curious minds to come see the beauty of these sites for themselves, as words do not do them justice.
Another French travel-writer, Gérard de Nerval, was fascinated by the melange of great religious traditions he found in Lebanon (pg. 240, French Romantic Travel Writing: Chateaubriand to Nerval; C.W. Thompson). Much has changed since his visit, green has given way to concrete high-rises, but what remain are defiant markers of Lebanon’s uniqueness: the church next to the mosque, the veiled woman and her comrade in a mini-skirt, the burqa and the bikini at the beach, the man in his sherwal next to another in jeans…a unique blend of faiths and customs, inviting all those of open minds and hearts to embrace it with open arms.
The Lebanon we love
Our Lebanon is a mix of the beautiful and mysterious; the symmetry and asymmetry of the lines and curves on traditional homes and in old souks, the quaintness of hidden cafes, the rush of finding a delicious baklava store around the corner, the kohl-rimmed eyes of Lebanese women walking the streets of Hamra, and the click-clack of pieces moving along backgammon boards… it is more than Orientalist painters and writers could have ever imagined.