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David and Noel Coory

  Middle East Trip

June 2005


Today Friday 24 June

Saturday 25 June

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Monday 27 June

Tuesday 28 June

Wednesday 29 June

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  • Warm, friendly people.

  • Many men who look like me.

  • Caring parents and quiet, well behaved children.

  • All families seem intact.

  • Absence of arthritic people and walking sticks.

  • Christian Lebanese mostly fine looking people.

  • Most Lebanese seem to have quick, alert minds.

  • High proportion of men smoke.

  • Pervading smell of stale cigarette smoke.

  • Older male smokers look haggard and unhealthy.

  • Exceptional clear skin of young people.

  • Large attractive eyes of women.

  • No threat of street violence or robbery.

  • No drunkenness or swearing seen or heard.

  • No arguments or angry talk.

  • No yobbo youths.

  • Beirut an unusual mix of elegant and rundown buildings.

  • Cars and taxis mostly battered and rusty old Mercedes.

  • A country being rapidly rebuilt.

  • Many street shrines to Virgin Mary.

  • Constantly cruising taxis pulling up alongside you when walking in the streets.

  • Non-stop tooting of car horns night and day.

  • Reckless, pushy drivers.

Friday 24th June   Lebanon – Egypt – Lebanon    

Boring four hours in clinical Frankfurt Airport

After flying all night, we wake up to dawn sunshine about an hour out from Frankfurt, Germany. Noel and I slept as well as we could with the lack of legroom, but I kept waking up.

The headrest in the tops of aircraft seats can tilt out at the edges to hold the small airline pillows issued and to stop your head lolling about from side to side, and the seats recline slightly. This helps you get some sleep, but is not ideal.

We are served a German breakfast – omelette with ham, fried pastry and spinach, a croissant bun, NZ butter, and Austrian strawberry jelly jam. Plus little squares of fruit, and apple juice to drink.

Finally, after 11 long hours long in the air, we land at Frankfurt Airport.

Frankfurt airport.

As we walk off the plane, down the passageways into the airport, Noel draws my attention to how quiet the mostly German passengers are. Not a word is being said, just a silent orderly walk through the vast airport. Quite the opposite of the noisy chattering Singaporeans.

Sterile stainless steel of Frankfurt Airport terminal.

We have a four hour wait here in the Frankfurt Airport, before flying on to Cairo, and then on to Beirut.

Frankfurt is rather a colourless, clinical airport, all stainless steel and tiles, and no colour. Rather like a large commercial kitchen. Seems to match the somewhat austere but efficient, male German personality.

There are only a few shops in the stopover holding pen part of the airport. The staff seem rather unfriendly. We wander round the few shops and notice how the health-conscious Germans seldom do things by halves. Warning signs on the cigarette packets are loud and clear.

Loud and clear warnings on cigarette packets.

This is a huge airport. It even has a ‘no driver’ monorail shuttle train from the outer part of the airport where we are, to the main terminal. Time drags, so to fill in time we test out the shuttle train. It is disconcerting to board the train, have the doors close automatically, and see it take off with no driver.

Smoking is forbidden everywhere in the airport, except for certain small areas designated for smoking. You can see one of these areas in the photo below. These are highly smelly for a non-smoker to walk past.

Smoking area in Frankfurt Airport.

We also come across these green signs below. They seem a little odd. We suppose the one on the right is pointing to an emergency exit, but can’t see one, and the first sign points down to the floor.

Odd signs.

This next sign has flames, and again points to the floor. Nearby is a panel in the floor that looks like it could be a trapdoor, but we can’t find a way to lift it up to see what’s underneath.

Sign with flames.

Most international airports now have a money container for departing passengers to leave their surplus local currency, which is then donated to charity.

Airport charity money container.

We try and send an email to the whanau from a public computer, but the German language instructions and probably our mental fog from too much broken sleep on the last flight, defeat us. So we sit patiently in a sunny spot and read some American newspapers we find there lying there.

I am surprised how weak the mid-summer noon-day sun is, pouring through the window. More like a NZ winter sun. Outside temperature is 30°C.

We fly over the spectacular Swiss Alps

At long last we are airborne again. Another Lufthanser flight, this time to Cairo, Egypt. Most of the passengers look decidedly Arabic. My sister Barbara and two of my sons, Michael and Alec would not look at all out of place among them. Nor do I for that matter. However, Noel’s facial features, his tallness, blue eyes and sandy hair are quite different. More German looking.

These Arab passengers are talkative and outgoing and speak with many hand gestures.

On the way we fly over the Swiss Alps. Very spectacular. This trip takes about five hours.

The spectacular Swiss Alps

Egypt and the Nile river from the air

Egypt looks quite fascinating from the air. From what we can see it is all totally brown, even the apartment buildings, apart from an approx 10 km wide swath of green either side of the Nile. This is due to irrigation using canals from the Nile.

Irrigated Egypt and desert in the distance. (Nile not shown in picture.)

Cairo apartments from the air.

Rainfall is virtually non-existent in Egypt. Cairo the capital has on average over 360 days each year without any rain. Further inland they never see rain at all.

Cairo is a teeming city of 17 million and is the principle city of the Middle East. Most of the people live in apartments. This is probably why the city looks to be only about the size of Auckland, despite its millions.

We land at Cairo airport and step out of the plane into a blazing hot sun. The airport is huge and sprawled out as far as the eye can see in all directions.

The Cairo airport terminal uses buses to transport passengers to and from the planes that land. This is probably due to no rain or cold temperatures. Other airports need to use covered walkways.

‘King Farouk’ makes our Cairo airport stopover interesting

After being crammed into three buses, we passengers are driven to the military style airport terminal. But Noel and I are turned back at customs before we can collect our bags and directed into a holding area for in-transit passengers.

This large room is reminiscent of a third world, military dictator residence in a James Bond film. Faded, old worlde elegance, high arched ceilings, marbled and concrete floor, a twirling fan, floral sofas and armed soldiers.

A self-important young male official, dressed immaculately in a white uniform and with an eye for the ladies, sits at a desk and guards the entrance to this his domain. He demands our passports and orders us to go inside and sit and wait. We tell him that we hadn’t yet collected our bags.

"Your bags will be brought here!" he states imperiously, then turns his full attention to a woman passenger and smiles and fawns all over her.

So we sit on one of the sofas and wait and wait.

We wonder how the baggage handlers will know which luggage is ours and where we are. So we approach the official a second time and are again told imperiously that our bags will be brought here.

I have little trust in the man. So we sit and wait some more.

The time for our flight to Beirut is drawing near and our anxiety deepens. We call the official ‘King Farouk.’

King Farouk at his desk (circled).

Middle East toilets

Noel goes to use the toilet but sees there is no provision for toilet paper, just a water hose with a squirty tap on it. Fortunately he’s not so desperate to go as to need to test this appliance. I went and had a look also. I should have taken a photo of it.

Evidently this is the normal way in the Middle East, due to lack of sewage systems and water to handle toilet paper. However most tourist hotels provide toilet paper, but some of the cheaper ones give you a lidded bucket to put it in.

An Egyptian bus driver comes to our rescue

Some suitcases eventually arrive in the room but our two are not among them. King Farouk does not seem over concerned. He even gives us back our passports.

Then our worst fears are confirmed. The bus driver comes in to take us to the main terminal to catch our plane. We go with him in the bus, hoping we can find our bags at the terminal, but the departure terminal turns out to be a totally different building about a km away from the arrival terminal.

I am offering a silent prayer that this situation will resolve itself when I suddenly remember that we had been given a baggage chit at Frankfurt airport. So I fish the chit out and show it to our bus driver, who is an alert, older and more capable-looking man.

He finally understands what our problem is and springs into action. He hustles us back on to his bus and we roar off back to King Farouk’s domain. As we do so we hear the loud wailing Moslem call to prayer. It is very loud, and to me has a moving, haunting quality about it.

Egypt is almost entirely Moslem so I wonder if our driver will stop to pray. He doesn’t. We arrive and he quickly hurries us out of the bus and inside the arrival terminal, running as he goes. We surprise a lone Moslem airport worker praying alone on his knees on his rug in the hallway. Embarrassed he scrambles to his feet and hurries off.

King Farouk meets his match with our bus driver

Our driver runs us back to King Farouk and shows him our baggage chit. A hot argument arises between them with lots of shouting and gesticulating. Finally King Farouk picks up his green dial phone and slowly dials a number. He shouts and gesticulates down the phone, and just before hanging up, pauses and says ‘salaam’ (peace).

Another brief argument, then our bus driver hustles us on down to customs, running all the way. He walks through the barrier and Noel and I go to follow him. But a customs officer stops us. The bus driver barks at the customs officer and he stands aside.

There were our two suitcases, standing all by themselves, guarded by a girl. What a relief. The bus driver beams. We grab the wheeled suit cases and tow them along behind us as our driver runs us back to King Farouk.

No tip for King Farouk

Noel gives our bus driver a US dollar as a tip. He grizzles we are stingy. Noel then also gives King Farouk all his Singapore change. I didn’t see Noel do this, and I probably would have objected, but it turns out OK.

We hurry back out to the bus with our suitcases and sit down. Just before we drive off, King Farouk comes charging out and tells Noel that his "Singaporee money no good." Noel tells him, "That’s all the money I’ve got. So finally he gets off the bus and goes back inside. Noel then gives the Singapore money to our driver. He was the one who deserved it. He seems happy and drives us quickly back to the departure terminal and tells the customs officers to hurry us through which they do.

Egyptian men at the airport

We then go into the crowded departure lounge which is full of Arab-looking people, rapidly chattering. Egyptians seem quite volatile, rather like Italians.

Most of the men have mine and Raymond’s balding pattern. The men are rather short and stocky and most look confident, intelligent, tough, no-nonsense business men types.

We queue to have our passports and tickets inspected and are soon back on another bus, riding out to our Egypt Air plane, parked on the tarmac about one km away.

Bus ride to the plane.

Our Egypt Air flight to Beirut in Lebanon

The plane is guarded by two Egyptian soldiers with guns. There seem to be about two or three times as many staff as is required at this airport.

Our plane, (guarded by two Egyptian soldiers with guns, see below).

It is very hot on board the plane, and not all that clean. Egypt Air does not have a high reputation among airlines.

Before we take off there is a reading from the Koran over the loudspeaker system. The words appear in Arabic on the TV screens.

Words in Arabic from the Koran on the plane TV before take off.

Soon after we take off, I go to fill our water bottle from the plane tap in the toilet. But I see a sign there saying that the water is undrinkable.

After about 35 minutes flying we are ready to land at Beirut airport in Lebanon.

As we touch down, the Egyptians in the plane cheer and clap loudly.

Our first few hours in the Middle East have so far been highly interesting and memorable.

Our Lebanese tour guide a familiar face to Noel

It’s late afternoon in Beirut. The weather is clear, sunny and pleasantly warm.

As we go through customs we get our passports studied closely and we are quizzed intently as to why we have come to Lebanon. The customs man then goes out to find our guide.

He brings in a portly man and Noel can hardly believe his eyes. It’s the same dentist-guide he and Rana had when they visited Lebanon about five years ago. His name is Joseph Latham. But he has however put on a lot of weight since then. Joseph does not at first remember Noel, until Noel mentions the greenstone gift he gave him, then he smiles and remembers.

Beirut airport in Lebanon.

Noel with Joseph Latham our tour director.

Joseph then drives us into Beirut to our hotel. His car is a comfortable black Nissan, although nearly all the other cars at the airport appear to be Mercedes.

As we drive he tells us a little about himself. He was born of Lebanese parents in Nigeria and later spent 9 years in the USA. He is a dentist but cannot earn enough money in that profession in Lebanon. We were later to notice that nearly all the Lebanese people seem to have well formed and excellent quality teeth. Probably due to the wholesome vegetarian food diet and low use of sugary foods. But lack of money generally would probably be the main reason.

Joseph’s English is adequate rather than good.

The right pronunciation of Noel’s name

Joseph calls Noel ‘Nowell’ and so does everybody else we meet in the Middle East from this point on. So I begin using this pronunciation myself when speaking to the locals.

Also Joseph is pronounced ‘Yosseff’ in the Middle East. Joseph is also my grandfather’s name, Dad’s Lebanese father. Noel’s middle name is also Joseph.

The city of Beirut

As we drive through Beirut I find it quite exhilarating. Rather old, but full of character. Population is 1.9 million. The buildings are a 50-50 mix of spruced up and rundown. Lots of rebuilding going on. Also lots of traffic, mostly older cars, nearly all Mercedes. Some of the cars are total wrecks. Enough to give New Zealand WOF testing station mechanics nightmares.

Old patched up rusty Mercedes, 1960’s vintage.

The drivers here honk their horns a lot. In fact it never stops. For 24 hours a day there is a continuous toot toot of car horns. Mostly as a warning. And it seems as if all road rules are replaced by horn toots. If you pass somebody you toot. If you see a pedestrian on the road you toot. If you come to a busy intersection you toot. If you are a taxi driver, (and there are thousands constantly cruising the streets) and pass a pedestrian, you toot and call out ‘taxi!’

Most of the drivers are young and quite aggressive in their driving habits.

Elections have just been held here in Lebanon so there are candidate posters all over the place. Some of them are massive in size.

Our hotel in Beirut

Joseph drops us at the Plaza Hotel and informs us that a female guide and a driver will pick us up tomorrow morning at 8.30 am.

Our hotel room is a bit gloomy, but not too bad. We are on the third floor. Only one small window.

Our Plaza Hotel is on the corner of Hamra St and Mahatma Ghandi Street in the busy Hamra district. This area is popular with tourists as it is close to the city’s main attractions. Quite narrow streets, mostly one way.

The streets of Beirut near our hotel.

Our Plaza Hotel in Hamra, Beirut.

Out for a night walk around Hamra

Noel and I are thirsty and Beirut tap water is not safe to drink. So we go out to buy some water and for a walk around the Hamra area. Also to buy some takeaway food for our evening meal.

It is Friday evening and beginning to get dark .

The Beirut night is pleasantly warm without any of the mugginess of Singapore.

Beirut at night in the Hamra area.

The Lebanese people

The streets are quite crowded, mostly vigorous, clean cut, handsome young men. Many of them look like Michael and Alec. Nearly all of them have skin which is clear and flawless, mostly slightly olive in complexion, although some are European white. Their clothing is tidy and without Western fashion extremes like low riding trousers. Nor do we see any shaven heads or skin piercing. They mostly seem cheerful, full of energy, talkative and alert. There appear to be no scruffy yobbos at all.

Many of the males smoke however and the smell of tobacco pervades the air everywhere. The elderly men who are smoking have a depressed, low energy look, with haggard skin. A striking contrast to the vigorous young men. However the older, non-smoking men look healthy and relaxed with their olive skin holding its age well.

The young people, both male and female are invariably slim. The middle aged men and women are mostly portly, but we do not see any obese persons at all.

Three Lebanese racial types

Later we were to notice that there seem to be three basic racial groups throughout Lebanon. First, the Maronite Christian Lebanese. These have a full, handsome, well shaped face, rather like the Maori people. The second are narrow-faced Arabs. These narrow-faced types appear to be mostly Moslem and have a more intense, serious look and darker eyebrows, compared to the more relaxed looking Maronite Christian Lebanese. Later Noel and I were to refer to these as the ‘Arab Terrorist’ type.

Then there is also a stocky, sturdy type of Lebanese, often heavy breasted in the women, with strong noses. We referred to these as the ‘Peasant’ type.

We didn’t give these names in disrespect, they just seemed apt to us for descriptive purposes. There even appears to be a bit of each of these three types in our own family. I think I have a little of the ‘Arab Terrorist’ in me and Dad’s sisters have a bit of the ‘Peasant’ type in them.

Beirut traffic

The Beirut evening traffic is hectic to say the least. It’s even difficult to cross the road. The cars are driven mostly by young men and they don’t stop for pedestrians, they just toot their horns at them. Taxis are everywhere. They continually slow down and toot to us, calling out "Taxi! Taxi!" We must look like tourists.

Street scenes and food

The mostly 3 to 4 storey buildings are generally old and many shops have closed for the night, and have shutters up over their windows. But there are all kinds of eating places open.

After buying a welcome bottle of water each, we stop at a crowded takeaway and look at the food. One of the attendants gives us a free sample of a small spinach pastry roll. Very tasty indeed. So we buy some and sit at the table outside and eat them.

Then we walk on some more and pass a military-type palace with soldiers standing outside on guard.

Unbelievably cheap gas

We also find a closed gas station and take a photo of the gas prices. The price seems way too expensive, but we find out later that the prices are per 20 litres, rather than per one litre.

We were further amazed to calculate that the price of petrol was only NZ25 cents a litre. Obviously that’s why thousands of empty taxis can cruise around Beirut all day and night.

Petrol is priced in 20 litre amounts. Cheap at NZ25 cents a litre.

The Moslem call to prayer

After about two hours walking and exploring, we walk back to our hotel. As we do so, about 9 pm we hear a very loud Moslem call to prayer.

This is a recording from the loudspeakers of a minaret tower of a mosque somewhere nearby. It is so loud as to be almost deafening, but to me has the same haunting quality of the one we heard in Egypt this afternoon. It is both sung and chanted by the muezzin.

Click here to hear the Moslem prayer call. (It may take a few minutes to load if you have a slow connection.)

This call to prayer is called the ‘Adhan’ and is made four times a day, or five times in more devout Moslem areas. The fifth call is made at 4 am in the morning, but for obvious reasons this is not sounded in mixed religion cities.

The call is staggered by thirty minutes at different mosques. ie, some will be at 9 pm and others at 9-30 pm. This helps if a Moslem is efficiently doing something he cannot stop, like a taxi driver carrying non-Moslem passengers.

We will hear this recorded call about eight times a day over the next three weeks, throughout the Middle East. It greatly enhances the exotic feeling of the Middle East, which is a totally different world from what Noel and I have been used to.

The traffic has died down a bit now but there is still non-stop tooting of horns.

Poor maintenance in our hotel

As we return to our hotel and prepare for bed, we begin to find things that don’t work properly. The room electronic safe doesn’t work. The shower is so clogged up with mineral deposits it only produces a single jet. The sink plug doesn’t seal. The light stand has a black, foot operated floor button to switch it on and off (which works well), but the 2 pin plug easily falls out the wall.

The power plugs in the Middle East are 240 volt and use two round pins.

Even now, at 10 o’clock at night, the tooting horns outside in the city streets don’t stop, not even for 10 seconds. I recorded the sound using my camera video/sound feature, (but later I accidentally deleted it as only a black picture appeared).

The sink plug doesn’t seal and the shower is only a single jet.

Next day Saturday 25th June

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