BEIRUT: Lebanon hasn’t been the choice location for new beginnings recently. But Saskia Nout, a Dutch expatriate looking to start over, defied the security warnings and set out to discover the country from its famous attractions to its hidden villages.
From her personal travels and research, Nout compiled a guide to the country and published a book, “Living Lebanon,” in the fall. She’s now in the process of turning the hard copy into a smartphone application and dynamic website, which will go live in the next month.
Her book and soon-to-be website put the emphasis not only on what to see but exactly how to get there. Information that most of Lebanon’s popular guides fail to provide.
Her efforts are evidence that Lebanon’s allure can be more powerful than the fear of its deteriorating security situation. Nout spoke to The Daily Star about her projects and defiant interest in the country.
Q: How did you end up coming to live in Lebanon?
A: I traveled in Iran, Syria, Jordon, Turkey and Egypt and I figured out that I would like to live in the Middle East for a while. But then I never found a country that I could picture myself living in. I was in Lebanon for a week [in May 2010], and in November I went back. That’s when I started to realize that life could be so different.
Q: How did you say goodbye to life in the Netherlands?
A: I’ve known a while that the Netherlands wasn’t for me, but I didn’t understand where I could be. I had this really good job, I bought a house and I did a complete reconstruction.
When I came back from Lebanon, I was still in the reconstruction of my house and when I finished it a friend came to me and said, “Oh Saskia, you must be so happy that you’ve finished your house and now you can relax.” And when she said that to me, I started crying. I was like, “No I’m not, I’m not that happy.” So khalas, I knew then.
Q: How did Living Lebanon come about?
A: I was hiking by myself in the mountains and it just popped in my head I’m going to write a travel guide. You experience a lot of foreigners coming here and not knowing what to do or where to go. I’d been traveling a lot by public transport and by car and getting lost like crazy, so I said this is what I’m going to do. I just started writing and traveling, writing and traveling; there was not a lot of structure.
Q: What does Living Lebanon add that other guides don’t?
A: I have places that I put in that I think are not in other books. Like the Khiam Prison [in south Lebanon], for me it’s very interesting the layers of history. It’s a nice area and a really interesting place, though it’s not very beautiful to see. The first two times I came to Lebanon I didn’t go to the south, but when I finally went I thought why are people so negative?
There’s also a place called Ouyoun al-Samak; it’s a lake in Akkar and every time I Googled it, it popped up as some mystery place. Everybody was like it’s beautiful, but there was not a description of how to get there. So I went with a friend, and it took us hours to find it.
Q: What will the website feature?
A: I’m working on the website; it will be released in a month. It will basically be comparable information but when it comes to the website, there will be updated information, new restaurants, more pictures. I think it will be much bigger than the book because it’s a different kind of tool.
Q: What has made Lebanon feel like home?
A: Going out to the mountains, my friend never contacted anyone, he just bumps into people and says, “I’m going to the mountains. Come on.”
Everything is spontaneous; there are no expectations. Dinners were organized and they would be like there’s a dinner this afternoon, and you would not even receive a time but still you would get there and the whole table would be full.
I’m a really [outdoorsy] person. I love the weather and I love the sun. For me, if you have a mountain, you only need a hot chocolate and the view and I’m happy.
And I hate supermarkets; I want to buy my vegetables at a small vegetable store.
I don’t want my tomatoes to be red and round but tasteless.