BEIRUT: It’s true – even if a cliche – that Lebanese are known for their hospitality.
Tourists searching for the Roman Baths or the National Museum are given directions with a smile, and there’s always someone saying, “Ahlan wa sahlan!” But there is a class of Lebanese who take hospitality to the next level, offering visitors not just tea or coffee, but a bed or couch to sleep on, free of charge.
The practice is called couch surfing and thousands of Lebanese have joined in.
Though there are several online sites that match those who need a place to stay with potential hosts, couchsurfing.org is the most popular in Lebanon and globally. Members fill out profiles with information and photographs, similar to other social media sites. Those planning trips can send requests to be hosted, while those with empty couches can wait for requests to be sent to them or scan general requests by travelers coming to their city.
Many Lebanese couch surfers say they were motivated to join in order to share their city and culture, as well as meet locals when they travel.
“I went on a trip to Bulgaria and I didn’t meet any Bulgarians, only Lebanese and other people on tours. It was a pity!” says Cathy Abou Farah, 27, who has hosted 15 couch surfers since she joined last summer.
“When I go to a place, I don’t like to feel like a foreigner, I want advice on what to do,” says Ali Chehade, 26. “I don’t like to be stuck with a map, walking around a city for a week without talking to anyone who lives there.”
Beirut is a popular tourist destination, but it is not backpacker-budget friendly, especially when it comes to accommodation. This drives up demand for Beirut couches, but most members say it’s less about saving money than about meeting new people.
Shahrazad Nachett, 22, who’s from Spain but lives in Beirut, says she reads requests carefully to make sure that they aren’t solely motivated by their wallet. She’ll be hosting a Libyan couch surfer in a few days and says that his message to her showed that he had taken the time to read her profile.
Chehade too expects that couch surfers will be looking for more than just a place to sleep.“I would be offended. I’m not a free hotel,” he says.
Similarly, hosts are expected to do more than give up their couch.
“They expect you to at least have a drink or coffee or show them around. Otherwise it’s not interesting,” says Abou Farah. “I take them to Raouche, Byblos or Baalbek, depending on what we feel like doing.”
“I’ll skip work, cancel appointments. I like to take them to visit my extended family in the south,” says Chehade.
It’s really about spending time together, says Abdul-Ghani Habli, 25, one of just a handful of couch surfing hosts in Sidon. He recently went to Turkey, where he stayed in a flat with three other couch surfers and their host. The five of them went to a basketball game together.
Abdul-Rahman al-Chammaa, 24, was also attracted to couch surfing by this kind of exchange. He signed up after a friend hosted a Brazilian for a month. The three each play a musical instrument and had regular jam sessions together.
Rana Tayara, 31, says she joined because she was living in England and looking for people to go hiking and camping with. Since she’s been back in Beirut, she’s been living with her parents, which makes hosting difficult, but often takes visitors around the city and attends regular couch surfing events.
While couch surfing naturally encourages socializing, the site is careful to stress that it is not a dating service, though it does sometimes work that way.
Nachett says her former roommate found love through couch surfing after hosting a member from the Ivory Coast for two days. They stayed in touch online, Nachett explains, and eventually, she moved to the West African country.
Despite couch surfers’ enthusiasm, not everyone in Lebanon is convinced it’s a good idea.
Chammaa says there is a certain snobbery that makes some Lebanese less receptive to the concept.
“People think you should be able to afford a hotel,” he says. “Also, some Lebanese want to know who your parents are, where you’re from, and that’s who you are.”
Most couch surfers say friends or family have told them they are “crazy” for hosting people they’ve never met in person. Some admit they not all are entirely forthright with relatives, opting to describe their guests as “friends,” rather than explain couch surfing.
But they argue that the system of references on the website actually makes vetting potential houseguests easy.
“You look at the references, at the amount of details they provide, and the number of pictures. If you see someone with 10 pictures of themselves traveling, it’s probably a legit person,” says Chehade.
People seem honest when they write references, Abou Farah says.
“They’ll say, ‘he’s weird’ or ‘he’s dirty.’ And once you have bad reference there’s nothing you can do,” she says, explaining that they cannot be erased.
Most couch surfers say they have turned down requests.
“My funniest request was from a Turkish couple who wanted to come on their honeymoon. I just started imagining,” Abou Farah says, trailing off. She told the couple she was busy.
Looking through requests and hosting takes time and energy, but couch surfers say it’s worth it.
“It’s a great way to expand your international network and it’s a way to travel without traveling,” says Chehade.
Abou Farah agrees. “With Lebanese friends, you spend all day at the office and then you talk about the office,” she says. “With couch surfers, they tell you about biking in Kurdistan and hiking in the Himalayas.”