Ma salameh w thanks pour tout l’arak!

I stare at the yellowing wall in front of me with the obnoxious florescent lights shining down on the hallway. I think about how many hours – or days – of my life I’ve spent sitting, pacing and standing in this purgatory: Beirut’s infamous General Security headquarters in Adlieh.

How am I feeling? That’s complicated.

It’s a mix of extreme relief, continuing anxiety and also a deep sense of sadness. If all goes well – if there’s no complication – I’ll be boarding a plane to leave Lebanon in the morning without plans to return.

I’m relieved because the representative from the U.S. embassy assured me the General Security would return my passport today (it was confiscated several months ago for a second time, due to ongoing residency issues that I won’t go into). I’m still anxious because I know that complications aren’t out of the question, despite the confidence the man at the embassy exuded over the phone a few hours ago.

And why am I sad?

Beirut has become my home. I’ve been living in Lebanon for five years. And although it may not be easy for some to understand, this place has become a part of my identity in ways that I can only attempt to explain.

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When people ask me why I love Beirut, I tell them: “I grew up here.”

I don’t mean my parents raised me on these chaotic Mediterranean shores. My formative childhood years were spent far away, across the ocean, along the shores of Lake Michigan. But Lebanon is the place a 23-year-old version of me chose for himself, a place where this naive, dumb and impressionable white American boy decided he would build a life.

What happened in the five years since then? Everything happened.

I became an adult. I became independent. I questioned everything I thought I knew and realized just how stupid and ignorant I was.

I learned to love myself, like really fucking love myself. I gained confidence, found success, and accomplished so many dreams.

I loved and I cried a lot. I felt alone and I learned to embrace the loneliness.

After five years, I routinely found myself dancing alone in my apartment happy as fuck just to wake up and face the day.

That’s me now, and I don’t know how to explain it, but Beirut did that. She made me into this confident, happy and excited guy. Somehow I went from that shy, naive kid to this bold guy who will book tickets to random destinations and show up without knowing anyone or anything, figuring it out as I go along.

I transformed from that insecure and clingy kid into someone with friends scattered around the world, friends that I shared more with and feel closer to than I could have ever imagined before.

I’m comfortable now, comfortable with who I am and confident that my future is bright.

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* * *

“Jason!”

I hear my name being shouted from inside the office in front of me. I quickly stand and enter.

“Come with me,” the uniformed Lebanese General Security officer tells me.

He leads me into an office across the hallway, where another uniformed man has my file open. He looks at me, looks at the file and begins to question me gruffly.

“What is your profession? Where’s your address in Lebanon? Do you have a number?”

I answer the questions, quickly and robotically. How many times have I answered these questions over the last year? Every time I watched the officers write down my responses, wondering if they were actually recorded anywhere.

A part of me is annoyed, questioning why this process has to be so tedious and complicated. At the same time, I consciously realize that I’m a foreigner, and privileged as an American at that. A Syrian or Sri Lankan in the same situation probably wouldn’t even be in this room right now.

And generally, after five years, I have developed a tacit respect for the Lebanese General Security and the Lebanese Army. Having lived through periods of immense insecurity in Beirut, I’ve learned to recognize the crucial role these men and women play in keeping the country safe. Sure, they may overstep sometimes, but Beirut hasn’t had a bomb since November 2015, and the credit needs to go somewhere.

I start to remember the last interaction I had with a Lebanese soldier, at a checkpoint over the weekend.

On Saturday, just a few days ago, I decided to take one last road trip to the North of Lebanon. Over the past few years, some of the best memories have been weekend drives into the mountains, through the Bekaa Valley or along the Mediterranean coast.

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I was fortunate to make local friends early on that shared a passion for regular adventure. My friends and I would almost weekly head out with little plan or just a general destination, off to discover new areas and unique hidden spots throughout the country.

Sometimes we would have long discussions on these drives, touching on any and every topic from politics to sex, to films, music and everyday gossip. And sometimes we would drive in silence for hours, taking in the beautiful landscapes passing us by, stopping occasionally to snap photos to be posted on social media later.

#LiveLoveLebanon crew … that was the nickname one of my close friend’s colleagues gave us.

So before I left, I just wanted to breathe the fresh mountain air and see my home from above one last time.

I drove alone, just me, the car and a shuffled playlist. I didn’t use Google Maps. I knew the roads. Years of riding and driving with friends allowed me to navigate most of Lebanon with ease, only occasionally needing to check an online map or casually asking someone for directions.

* * *

“Jason? You’re Jason?”

I’m back in the hallway pacing. An attractive Lebanese woman in uniform is addressing me. Her long blonde hair and perfectly styled makeup contrast nicely with her military fatigues and boots.

“Yes, that’s me,” I reply.

“When do you want to travel?” She asks in only slightly accented English.

“My ticket is for tomorrow morning,” I reply, getting nervous.

She checks her watch, and then looks up reassuringly.

“OK. We have until 5 p.m. Don’t worry. We are processing your file now,” she tells me, before walking off and entering an office down the hall.

I hope she’s right, but either way, I guess it’ll all be fine. Breathing in and out deeply, I continue to pace.

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* * *

Driving north on the highway, I first pass through the urban sprawl of Beirut. Small high rises pass beside me, with bright neon signs pulling the attention of passersby.

Roadster. Crepaway. BHV. Zaatar W Zeit. ABC. All these brands I knew nothing of before Lebanon, they’ve now become familiar and comfortable. This sprawl continues passed Jounieh, passed Byblos … and I keep on driving.

After nearly an hour, I turn right, heading up into the Lebanese mountains. The landscape changes abruptly, as I begin to pass through mountain villages, climbing steadily in altitude.

I’m listening to some deep house club music with the windows down. The weather is perfect, sunny, warm – but not hot – and the air is so fresh. The clouds billow like beautiful cotton over the mountains to the left, and I’m newly impressed with the beauty of the greenery combined with scattered villages on the mountainside.

I feel so completely happy, so utterly content. What a life I have! How fortunate I am! I’m the luckiest guy on earth!

Ma fi ahla mn hayate … Maybe there are people as happy as me, but I can’t imagine one could be happier.

After nearly another hour of driving, I pull of and park by the legendary Cedars of God, Arez. I want to walk through this small forest one last time, to breathe the air and feel the importance of this small nation. I want to sit and look up at the sky and just exist in that space for a final moment.

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* * *

Hours later, I’m on a different floor in a remarkably similar hallway of the General Security headquarters. It’s nearly 5 p.m. and I’ve paid $100 in fines. I’ve seen them place stamps on my passport, and I’m starting to believe I’ll actually get this document back by the end of the day.

I’ll have my farewell party tonight after all and say goodbye to everyone, but not goodbye … just see you later. I’ll make my plane and I’ll see my family for the first time in nearly two years.

It’s grandma’s 80th birthday party on Sunday and all my cousins, aunts and uncles will be there. I can’t miss it and I’m so excited to see everyone. Yes, I think it’s safe to believe that I’ll be there with them.

“Jason!” The voice shouts my name from behind the half open office doorway.

I enter.

“Here you go. You’re done,” the man says.

“Everything’s fine? I can travel?” I ask just for confirmation.

“Yes,” he says, clearly eager to leave and head home.

* * *

I’m at the top of Lebanon, I’ve reached the highest peak: Qurnat Al Sawda.

To my right I can see the Bekaa Valley stretching until it reaches the Syrian mountains. To my left, I can just glimpse the Mediterranean at the extreme end of the picturesque mountains blanketed billowing cotton clouds.

The sun is bright. The air is fresh.

I close my eyes. I breathe in deeply. I turn around slowly, taking in this moment from every angle.

I love this place. It’s so beautiful, it’s so perfect.

Reflecting, I think about my time in Lebanon. So much has changed, I’ve transformed so much. Underneath everything, I still feel like I’m the same kid, but I’m wise now, more aware, confident and I’m happy – happy in this content and peaceful way.

I’m not afraid of the future. I’m not worried about failure or problems.

Five years ago, I boarded a plane to a strange country without knowing anyone. My hopes were high and I had no expectations. Now, years later, I’m leaving with more friends than I can count. I earned a masters’ degree, traveled to so many new destinations, learned so much, helped build a successful startup and honestly, reached a level I only dreamed of when I left the U.S.

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How did this dumb kid from Michigan get to the point where he could navigate the crazy roads of Lebanon without a map? How did I get to the point where I found so much enjoyment in my own company that I could take this road trip alone and want it that way?

If someone had told 23-year-old me that I would be driving alone around this country and like it, I would have laughed in their face. The idea of navigating the roads would have seemed crazy enough, not to mention I hated being alone.

I don’t anymore. I like it. I learned to enjoy the moments of silence in my apartment, and the quiet anonymity of traveling solo. I’ve found peace inside my own thoughts and comfort in befriending myself.

At the same time, this internal comfort has positively influenced my relationships with others. I found that accepting myself and enjoying my own company allowed me to give better to those I love. I’m more honest now, more open and more trusting.

And I’m confident enough to be vulnerable with people, not fearing their rejection.

All of these things run quickly through my mind as I breathe the fresh mountain air. I’m home. What is home though?

Home is here. Home is now. Home is me.

I am home.

* * *

Days later, I’m surrounded by my family. Everyone came to my parents home in southwest Michigan to celebrate grandma’s 80th year.

It’s surreal to enter my teenage bedroom again. My parents haven’t made any changes and the walls are still the green and blue we painted them when we moved in. The snapshots of me with high school friends are still there, and my old yearbooks are in the closet. My matted photographs are stacked up on the floor, and old magazines are piled under my futon.

Who was this 17-year-old kid? Would he be shocked to see me now? Could he have ever imagined the last five years of my life?

My first morning back, I wake up early before the sunrise. Putting on my running shoes, I tell my parents I’m headed out for a run.

“Be careful running on the busy road between here and town. The sun isn’t up yet” my mom warns.

My dark humor kicks in.

“I’m sure I’ll be fine, mom. But wouldn’t it be so funny if I got hit by a car and died today in Michigan … after five years living in the Middle East?” I say laughing as I head toward the front door.

“Jason! That’s terrible,” my mom says as I walk outside. Clearly, she isn’t amused.

Jogging down my secluded street, I see the first rays of sunlight coming up over the trees. The air is so fresh. Everything is so incredibly green, and the crisp morning air gives me strength to run faster and better than I have in weeks.

I pass the liquor store near my house. I pass the St. Joseph river. I cross the bridge and enter the Village of Berrien Springs. Turning right, I run towards Kephart Street, where my grandma lives and more famously, the street legendary boxer and activist Muhammad Ali once called home.

The houses are the same, little has changed and I like it. Five years have passed and yet I feel my past has been caught in a time warp. Obviously, it isn’t true. The subtle signs of my parents’ aging seem exaggerated after nearly two years apart.

But I know, deep down inside me that I’m home in this place. My soul was born here, in this very village. I always loved it. And then I saw the world. It opened up to me in an amazing way and I became addicted to movement.

And now, I’ve made another big move. I’ve left all those amazing Lebanese friends, that nice apartment, the crazy drunken Beirut nights, the abandoned Roman ruins and those rugged mountains behind.

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Sure, I’ll miss Lebanon, just as I miss Michigan. But miss is a weird word. Because it’s not so much of a sadness, as it’s a sort of happiness. It’s a nostalgic memory, a beautiful thought that brings a smile to my face.

Lebanon, I will always love you. I’ll love your mess, and your chaos, and your perfection and everything between and around.

It’s part of me now. I’ll always have Lebanon.

“Love knows not its own depth until the hour of separation.”

– Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet

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It’s always fine

Salim is throwing up in the bathroom. I’m laying drunk on the bed. Maiassa is there too, rambling some drunken thoughts.

I’m drunk, but I drove home. So it’s fine.

But there’s no water. Fuck. I try to flush the toilet. I try to use the sink. There’s no water.

Salim is throwing up in the bathroom upstairs. I’m downstairs. I’m not laying in the bed right now.

“There’s no water. Like, I mean there’s no water … no water in the sinks and toilets.”

Fuck.

Maiassa asks if she should go buy water to drink.

I try to explain that there’s no water, but there’s drinking water.

“Salim, you can’t flush. There’s no water.”

Fuck. I’m laying on the bed. Maiassa is laughing. I’m laughing.

I need to text Davy. I need to warn him. Fuck the bathroom smells so bad.

There’s no water. But we can just sleep now. Yes, just sleep now. Tomorrow we’ll figure it out.  I mean in the morning. It is tomorrow. You know what I mean.

“The party was so cool. We drank so much. Where’s Omar?”

“Omar went home. He texted me.”

We just need to sleep.

“Are you OK, Salim?”

He doesn’t respond. He just lays there. Maiassa wants to go home. She can’t drive home. She’s too drunk.

Just sleep. It’s fine. We’ll figure out the water in the morning.

Just rest. Just rest. I close my eyes.

Davy is home with Alex. They’re drunk. Did I sleep? I can’t tell. I’m drunk.

“There’s no water?”

They ask if they should buy drinking water. I try to explain. There’s no water in the sinks or toilets. The house is out of water.

Maiassa is awake. Salim is throwing up again. The bathroom smells so bad.

We’re all drunk. Five drunk people in a tiny apartment without working toilets, showers or sinks.

“If anyone else has to vomit, please vomit outside. I’m so sorry, really. We’ll figure it out in the morning. Just sleep. It’s fine.”

I ask Salim if he is OK. He isn’t OK. He throws up more. The bathroom smells so bad.

Maiassa wants to drive home. She’s so drunk. Just rest. Just sleep. It’s fine.

We’ll figure everything out in the morning. It’s fine.

It’s always fine.

I sleep. I wake up. Salim is still asleep in the bed next to me. I go downstairs. Davy and Alex are sleeping on the futon. Maiassa must’ve left.

I check my phone. Maiassa got home fine. That’s good.

There’s no water. It’s 8 a.m. I can’t sleep. I slept late … I mean early, but I can’t sleep. The bathroom smells so bad.

Salim is still sick. He’s apologizing.

It’s fine. It’s really so fine.

The water will come. We’ll figure it out. I don’t care about the mess.

I go to buy gallons of water to flush the toilets. I almost throw up opening the bathroom door. Salim takes care of it. He’s strong enough now.

We try to call a water truck. Davy and Alex are still sleeping. The water truck tells us to call back later.

Maiassa is texting, saying she wants to come back and experience this with us. She’s crazy. Everyone is sick. There’s no water.

Suddenly, the water comes back. I can hear it rushing. It’s amazing. It’s like Christmas, or something.

“The water’s back, al hamdillelah!”

Salim laughs. He’s feeling fine, not great, but sort of fine.

We’re laying there in bed. He’s sick. I’m slightly hungover, but not bad.

I look at him. He looks at me, sort of.

The power goes out.

It’s fine.

Oh those memories of Tyre

Not everything lasts forever and some things last longer than time.

Tyre is an ancient city. Once an island port city for the powerful seafaring Phoenicians, Tyre was considered impossible to conquer.

Then … Alexander the Great conquered it.

But today, some few thousand years later, the city remains as a vibrant seaside city, just waiting to be explored.

A few months back – and a lifetime ago – some friends and I drove south to spend the day enjoying the city. I’ve been to Tyre many times, but every time I return, I’m glad to be back.

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Once upon a weekend we went to Qadisha Valley

The origin of its name comes from the Aramaic for “holy.” It has been a sacred spot for Christian monks since just a few centuries after the prophet Jesus walked on Earth.

But, who cares? Qadisha Valley is an incredibly beautiful green paradise buried deep in the Lebanese mountains. That’s what matters and that’s why you should go as well.

We left at 5 a.m. to drive north and catch the sunrise en route

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And then we drove a bit more … quite a bit more … and reached the valley

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We decided to go visit the famous Colombian monk; Dario Escobar

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Dario was friendly, especially with the ladies …

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Anyway, we kept hiking

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The place reminds me of Jurassic Park tbh

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Just without the dinosaurs, unfortunately

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Leh taxi?

“Leh taxi?”

I’m leaving this party at the German Oriental Institute, I don’t know if it’s the right name. I met a Tunisian-German. I met a German-German. I thought about fucking them, both of them. Is she jealous? Of course she isn’t jelous. I’m drinking wine. She’s drinking arak. We are smoking cigarettes. She tells me she told him, “I love you.” I told her she is stupid. I didn’t use those words. I don’t know. Maybe I did. I don’t know. I drink more wine. She leaves. I talk to other people I know. I wish I left with her. I thought about leaving with her. She would have been mad. Why would she have been mad? I could have told her I loved her. I could have told her she is the only thing that makes sense. Why didn’t I tell her? I’ll never tell her.

So, I waste time. I chat. I pretend I’m interested. I don’t want to be here. I talk about my ex. I talk about how I loved her. I talk about how I fucked it up. I talk about how it was fair. I listen. I don’t care, not really.

I get more wine. I decide to leave. Fuck this shit.

“Hey are you leaving soon.”

“Talk to me in five minutes.”

She isn’t leaving soon. I decide to leave. I’m leaving.

“Bye! I’m leaving. Let’s do something soon.”

“Let’s do something tomorrow.”

“If not tomorrow, this weekend.”

“Friday!!”

I’m walking on the street. Where the fuck can I find a God damn service? Fuck. I have to walk to the highway. Whatever.

I walk. Should I smoke a cigarette? No. Fuck it. I will smoke when I get home.

“Mar Mikhael?”

I get in the cab. We are driving. I check my phone. I see her message, nothing important. What am I doing? Why did I leave? God damn, I wish I was more social. Fuck those people. I didn’t like them anyway. They will all leave soon. They’re not worth my time. I’m sick of people leaving. Khalas.

“Btfadal. Ana benzel hone.”

I open the cab door.

The driver asks me something about why I’m not paying “taxi.”

“Leh taxi?”

He says something about how it’s taxi only now. He is full of shit. He thinks I’m a foreigner. I am a foreigner. I’ve been here four years. I will never be Lebanese.

“Ma 3andi aktar habibi.”

It’s a lie. I have more than $200 in my wallet. I don’t care. This is the game. I get out of the cab. He drives away. I cross the street in front of a speeding car. Fuck it. He won’t hit me. They don’t hit pedestrians.

I’m walking down the side street to my crappy apartment. I stop to light a cigarette. Fuck it. I don’t care. I keep walking. I’m almost home. This is my street.

What am I doing here? Fuck. I just signed that one year contract on that amazing flat. I’m trapped. I can’t leave. I did it again.

Lebanon is like a clingy lover, a relationship that you can’t move past.

I stand outside my building. I’m smoking this God damn cigarette. Fucking Cedars are so God damn cheap. I’m not exercising. I’m not doing anything. I’m not moving forward. I’m stuck. I’m trapped. I trapped myself. Maybe if I told her. I start having the conversation again in my head.

“I love you. You’re the only thing that makes sense. I always want to be with you. I don’t know if I can make you happy. I don’t think you want me like that. I don’t know if I will always want you like that. Sometimes you might want someone else. Sometimes I might not want you. But I love you. I don’t know. It doesn’t make sense. I’m scared. I don’t know how to tell you. I will probably never tell you. You won’t care. It’s not like the movies.”

What am I doing here? I’m doing research, research for my novel. It’s a novel I will probably never write.

Let’s be honest. This is just my life. It’s a dream. It’s a mirage. It’s a fantasy or a half truth.

The cigarette is half finished. A couple walks past me, entering our building, this shitty place with the fucking Virgin in the entryway. Maybe I won’t finish this cigarette? Maybe I will never leave Lebanon? Maybe nothing will ever change? Maybe I will never tell her? Maybe it doesn’t matter.

No. I will smoke the God damn cigarette until the end. Then I will smoke another inside. Fuck it.

I finish the cigarette. I put it out in the dirt under the shrub by the entrance. I enter. I don’t look at the God damn Virgin. Fuck her. She is dead. What the fuck.

I’m so happy. I love this shit hole. I love this shitty place. I trapped myself. I can’t leave here. I can’t leave her. I don’t know what to do. I’m going to stay here. There is no future plan. There is nothing without her and this place.

“Leh taxi?”

Why not taxi?

I arrived in Lebanon 4 years ago yesterday

What happens in four years? Everything happens.

You fall in love. You break up. You hate. You cry. You scream. You fight. You think you’ll die. You think you’ll wake up. You wake up. You drink a lot. You smoke a lot. You make friends. You lose friends. You make something beyond friends that is still just friends. You lose those people too. People leave. Everyone leaves. You stay. You travel. You travel a lot. You get on airplanes like some people try on new clothes. You swim in beaches with white sand and crystal blue water. You hike mountains covered in the greenest green. You ride trains across borders. You take boats through the waters. You ride elephants and feel guilty. You refuse to ride camels. You meet people. You fuck people. You have lots of sex. You do some drugs. You grow up. You act immature. You get an apartment. You buy random shit like pots and pans. You buy sheets. You buy a drying rack. You buy art to hang on your walls. You let strangers sleep on your couch. You’re so God damn high all the time and time begins passing like a blur. You love everyone. You love your friends. You love these travelers in your apartment. You love France. The air feels so different. You dance. You party all night. You go home with strangers. You go home with friends. You want everyone to sleep in your bed. You want everyone to always be there. You want everyone to always stay. You talk about buying that old house and letting all your friends live there. You plan to take care of everyone. You plan to pay for everything. You plan to be rich enough. You talk about your novel. You talk about your dreams. You’re going to live in Dubai. You’ll own a yacht. You miss South America. You have a real experience in Sri Lanka. You watch planes fly away with people you love. You cry alone at night when people die. You talk about moving back to a place where things are simpler. You talk about going further east. You don’t go anywhere. You start to see Istanbul’s Sabiha Gökçen Airport as your personal Purgatory. You interview celebrities. You sleep with celebrities. You interview influencers. You get invited to parties where the people you interviewed are also invited. You eat 5-star meals for free. You drink expensive cocktails for free. You realize your life is perfect. You tell everyone that nobody possibly has a better life than you do, maybe as good, but not better. You’re the happiest person in the world. You’re the most confused person you know. You’re naive. You’re intelligent. You’re foolish. You’re indecisive. You’re independent. You’re so damn needy. You can’t stop. You can’t finish anything. You can’t move on. You can’t make decisions. You can’t survive in the real world. You’re so God damn broken. You have so many friends. Everyone loves you. You’re so happy. You find out that nobody is perfect. You discover that everyone will hurt you. You realize that even places can reject you. You realize you’ve been chasing happiness all these years. You realize you’ve been chasing a ghost. You haven’t changed. You haven’t gone anywhere. You’ve always been happy. You just didn’t understand what it meant. You’re so God damn privileged. You’re so God damn white. You hate Trump. You hate Clinton. You hate the media. You hate politics. You decide to build a cabin in the woods. You decide to always be alone. You realize you don’t need anyone. You just need yourself.

But you’re friends are calling. You ask them if they want to drink absinthe.

What happens in four years? Life happens.

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Beirut’s coolest rooftop venue just opened in Mar Mikhael

I have to admit, I’ve never really been a big fan of Beirut’s famous rooftop venues. When you Google nightlife in this city, it’s one of the first things you’ll find but tbh, I’m #NotImpressed.

Sorry, but I’m the type that will take a cold beer on the street any day over drinking expensive, watered-down cocktails with a crowd that just came to snap selfies and check-in on Facebook.

13625390_352824308439460_2259790960415803324_nHowever, with the opening of Fabrk Urban Lounge in Mar Mikhael, I have to say there is now at least one really cool rooftop spot to enjoy in Beirut. Unlike Iris and the like, Fabrk isn’t pretentious at all. It’s the kind of place where you could actually see yourself going for happy hour just to enjoy and hang out with your friends.

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Even if you didn’t want to drink, the setting is chill and you can enjoy pool or foosball while snacking on some appetizers.

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While I wouldn’t say the food is top-notch, it’s definitely passable and the setting makes up for it. As far as the prices? Well, we all know that everything in Beirut is a bit on the pricey side and Fabrk follows the trend, but its not more than any of the other trendy pubs you are used to enjoying with your friends. Compared to other popular rooftops, I’d say it comes out to be much more affordable actually.

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Anyway, it’s definitely a placed I’ll be heading back to and I’d recommend you check it out for yourself. Try to catch the happy hour specials… but you might just find yourself staying later than you think. Really, the vibe is fun and chill.

Happy hour is from 5:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Call 71 448 800 for reservations and check the Facebook page for directions. It’s easy to find, right in the center of Mar Mikhael on Armenia Street.

Cheers!