April 10, 2016

My Kind of Town

The street  running along the old market (on the left). Sea at the end of the road.
My new favorite place, Saida. I drove there with a friend, not for any reason in particular, but because we happened to be in the neighborhood.  Saida (also known as Sidon) is the type of town that, if it were situated in say, France or Spain, would be absolutely overrun with tourists from April to end of September.
You’d have throngs of people armed with cameras lining the streets, stopping at every shop or alleyway, and pointing at the quaint features of this medieval town. As it is, this town in situated in Lebanon, and nobody but the locals hang out here. Which is nice for me, because tourists hate it when a place is populated with other tourists.
It is quite a special town. It has a small historical market, a ‘souq, which is absolutely authentic and alive.

There are narrow little streets, lined with puny little shops, with alleyways, gateways and little doors branching off in all directions. The street plan has clearly evolved over the centuries, instead of being planned in one shot. You walk under little tunnels and arches, people live above the souq in houses that can be reached by crooked and narrow stairways. This is no place for wheelchairs. It is a totally pedestrian zone; cars do not fit, and even donkey carts wouldn’t be able to make it through most of the alleys. No idea how they used to stock their stores in the old days. Some people move around on electrical scooters, so there is no traffic noise. Of course there is the everlasting generator hum, due to the government’s equally everlasting inability to provide a country with 24 hours electricity.
There are schools, mosques, churches (even a small ‘cathedral), a synagogue (abandoned), little workshops, a soap factory (restored and turned into a museum), bath houses (some still in use) and even a ‘palace (opulent house, more like it).
And so we spent some time finding our way through the old souq.
Garbage trucks do not fit, so there is a man with a broom stuck cleaning with a rolling bin
The entrance to a mosque
I read up on the town, and am quite lirious about it (as you will notice). Unlike Jbeil (Byblos), which seems to have been restored with just tourists in mind, and Sour (Tyrus), which is pretty much a dump, this market is in the process of being restored, bit by bit, in a rather unobtrusive manner. You notice that it looks good, but it does not have the Disney-like quality of the Jbeil souq, or like parts of the old market in Tripoli. Not everything is (yet) cleaned up, so you still see the really old buildings in disrepair, but it is easy to walk, there is no garbage, and if you like good deals, this is the place to go.
A bit of a stereo type, but I thought this man fit perfectly in this environment
It probably isn’t true, but I imagine that this is the way it must have looked in the Middle Ages. It would make a fantastic back drop for a movie set in medieval times. This would require the removal of an extensive network of cables, for electricity, phones and television, running along the walls.  Obviously these were not used back in 1600, and were added as an after-thought.
This particular city-centre is a mix of many time periods, but a lot of it is Ottoman (Turk), a time period which runs roughly from 1500 to 1900.

Dried ginger on the left, cinnamon bark, and larger cinnamon pieces on the right. Okra hanging over the box in the middle
Old kinds of dried beans, herbs and spices. In the back is something that looks like mummified oranges which I think it is.
Mloukhiyeh (which seems to be called Jew's Mallow in English.), a popular dish here.
And then there is the butcher. This is either sheep or goat, can't tell the difference.
The town is known for a number of small industries, such as glass blowing, soap making and carpentry, and these have largely been maintained, although glass blowing is no longer present in the souq. Otherwise, the market is divided up in section, a natural process, where shops sell similar wares. There is a shoe market, complete with shoe makers, a jeweler’s alley, an underwear and bra section (an extensive one), a vegetable and meat section (rather small), and some parts only sell dried goods. One alley way only sells upholstery and curtain materials. For your basic needs, you’d never have to leave the souqs.
The shoe market. Converse for $12.
And the shoemaker is right next door.
I thought shoe makers use glue, but apparently they use nails
The old market is lined with slightly more modern stores, but still very old-fashioned in their set-up and decor, and they sell absolutely everything. From tea cups to brooms, to herbs, dish washing detergent, hair dye and children’s toys.  (for Dutch readers; a bit of a Winkel van Sinkel idea.  Some of the items they sell would be deemed very exotic in Dutch eyes. Hand-made wicker baskets, feather dusters made from ostrich feathers, wooden bird cages, many-colored water pipe hoses, prayer beads and carpets, and metal devices used to heat up char coal for the barbeque (or the argileh). I wonder how these guys do their inventory (if they even make one).
The ostrich feathers on the right, argileh hoses hanging
Sponges (from the skeleton of some type of cucumbers),  wicker baskets, herbs, canary cages, charcoal heaters etc. A bit of everything
In the old days these items would have been carried in from far away places, in caravans over trade routes (I am getting carried away here). There are a number of old khans’, where these traders from around the region would come in, sleep, and trade their wares. Most of them are in disrepair, the only one (the largest) that is restored is the Khan el-Franji (The French market).
And of course, there are the inhabitants, which are (I assume) the families of the store keepers, and so you see women with their shopping bags, little children running around, and men on their way to wherever. There are also your usual ambulant sellers, who move their ware, usually seasonal fruit, on carts. This month strawberries seem to be in season, as well as fresh almonds (never seen them in Holland, you eat them whole here, skins and all) and akidinia (loquat, or eskadenia, in English). The town is alive.
These sell their wares from mobile carts
This man sells 'foul', broad beans, which you eat with lemon and kamouneh (cumin powder)
Now if you were to shoot here a medieval movie, all you’d have to do is remove the cables, provide the inhabitants with medieval clothing, and tell just to continue their lives, and pretend the cameras were not there. You might want to ask if they could hide the mobile phones as well. Other than that, the place is authentic. No set builder could recreate it as well as here.
The old town, of which about the market is a quarter, is a jumble of buildings from different time periods with different purposes (shops, religious places, houses, palaces). Some of them are in good state, and many of the buildings that were restored have been done so with funds from either private organizations (Haririr, Zeidan and Audi are big sponsors), the Word Bank, the Islamic Wafc or foreign governments. Very few restorations are paid for by the government.  
These ladies sells their goods right on the street.
There are listed monuments that remain unrestored and in dire need of immediate intervention. (…) The owners who inherited the building are multiple and not in agreement on how to proceed or who should invest or live in it. They do not have the means to restore or upgrade the building. The government does not offer financial support in the form of micro loans or subsidy programs. ‘
‘There are historic monuments that remain in private ownership but rented out. Those who use the monuments pay old and low rent and do not have the means for proper upkeep and restoration.’ (source)
I really liked the way they displayed these shirts. They do put a lot of care in display, and what they have, is on display.
An old khan that has not been restored
But since the restoration is not a joint and gigantic operation affair, but everyone does its share, the place retains its ‘real feel’-  as far as I am concerned.  Not all restorations are done the same, at the same time and to the same extend. For a study on the old town, go here.
There is obviously more to Saida, as this only shows you the old market, which consist of only a quarter of the old town, but for the moment, this is my kind of town.
The fountain on Sidon's main roundabout. I like how this app (Snapseed) can make pictures look like postcards from the 60's.
And a last one, the canary, which hangs in every single shop.


Anonymous said...

Very sad, this country has so much unrealized potential, I keep saying if, if, if, the list is getting longer. Your Blog gives a little hope, but things keep getting worse.
I wish you saw Lebanon during the good times.

Anonymous said...

If you see the French Guy can you please ask him to fix the train for us, love your Blog! thank you for writing!

Anonymous said...

Zo, de foto's zien er eindelijk weer goed uit.

matty.welch said...

Been following you since the start (Im the one from Chicago, Kansas City, and now New York). Thanks for giving us all a perspective of Lebanon that doesn't exist in the media. Cheers from Queens NYC!