BEIRUT: Rarely do you come across a description of Beirut as a “family friendly” destination. But Joanne Sayad, a New York transplant to Lebanon, begs to differ.
Using her experience raising three children in Beirut, the author has written a guidebook specific to family fun, entitled “Gotta Love Lebanon.”
“In a place like New York you may have the great galleries and museums, but here you have a rich history of archeology, which you don’t have in other cities,” Sayad says.
The problem is not that Beirut lacks family activities; families must simply get out there to discover them.
“You have to find the unique richness and the character of the place. Try to explore and discover,” she adds.
The book covers a wide array of activities in chapters on museums, libraries, art and music classes, cultural institutes, outdoor adventures and even summer camps.
“I thought about my own kids, what were the chapters of them growing up,” Sayad explains, listing the major blocks of activities from birthday parties to beach outings.
Sayad says the options for families have grown immensely since she moved to Lebanon in 1991.
When her children were young, Sayad used to take them to rollerblade in parking lots of monasteries because there were no open, public spaces. Nor were there many options for museums, in stark contrast to her own childhood in New York City.
“When I arrived I was like, ‘where the heck are the parks here?!’ And, literally, there were two museums. The Sursock and the National Museum,” Sayad recalls.
“But everything has changed now,” she says, excitedly listing places like the Silk Museum, the AUB museum, Sidon’s soap museum and the resurgence of public libraries led by the NGO Assabil (Friends of Public Libraries Association) in cities around the country.
“With a public library, you’re giving tools to your citizens and a whole generation. It’s what your citizenry needs – good libraries, museums, open spaces.”
Similarly, the options for outdoor adventures and ecotourism have expanded in recent years.
“Lebanon, 10 years ago, wasn’t thinking about how to preserve the nature. The country was focused on other basic things and they’re still struggling,” Sayad says.
“Now, ecotourism is up-and-coming. [Many places] only really launched a few years ago.”
Today, families can visit numerous nature reserves: the Tannourine Cedar Forest, the Ammiq wetlands, the Chouf Cedar Reserve, Horsh Ehden and a range of others.
Eco-accommodations are also available in pockets around the country, from the Bekaa to the Metn or Tyre.
The challenge, Sayad says, is simply finding your way.
“This stuff spreads by word of mouth. It’s not listed anywhere,” Sayad says, pointing to the example of the Taanayel Eco-lodge, a restored, traditional village in the Bekaa Valley where guests sleep in adobe houses.
A place like Taanayel can be difficult to find unless you know how to look for it, Sayad says, because it will usually be listed under an umbrella of NGOs – not the usual places parents will search for outdoor adventure listings.
“You’re looking for a vacation, not a nonprofit,” she says with a laugh.
In this regard, Sayad hopes that the book will be useful for new arrivals to Beirut, but also Lebanese who have lived in the city their whole lives.
When you live in a place, she says, “you work, you have the places you go and your routine, so you never see what’s five blocks out of the way.”
One of her favorite tucked away gems is an art school called the Artwork Shop, located on a tiny street in Ras Beirut, a few block from AUB, yet completely off the beaten path.
“If you were not walking down this tiny street or living around the corner, how would you know this place?” Sayad asks.
Sayad’s goal for the guidebook was to pick out these listings and make life easier for parents.
“I wrote it in the mindset of being a mother. So I broke it down in a way that parents think,” she says.
The book is full of recommendations given as though Sayad is talking to a friend, with personal details and quirky jokes.
“Say you’re asking about an art school, I’ll tell you who the owner is, where they trained, a little background on the school, so you can connect [with them] on a personal level. I think that’s what makes [this book] a little bit different.”
It was also important to Sayad to include activities for teenagers and adults, such as art or music classes, language courses and information on annual cultural festivals.
Beirut may not be a simple city to navigate with the family, but rewards await those who are adventurous, Sayad assures.
“There are ups and downs to living here, which is true of everywhere – Beirut or New York. You find the silver lining.
“I tell parents, pack some labneh sandwiches, put your kids in the car and head to your favorite place.”