‘My Middle East adventure’
Sue Novell remembers the sights and sounds of her ‘work’ trip to Lebanon
In 1973 I was 21 and very excited to get a job in London as company telephonist at Middle East Airlines’ office in Green Park. I had been there a few months when the manager told me that all new employees had the opportunity to go to Beirut in the Lebanon for a two-week induction course. Go to Beirut? I could not believe my ears! I was in a complete state of excitement, telling my parents that I was going to Lebanon with everything paid for. All I needed was spending money! Famous cedars, ancient ruins, delicious mezze to eat… I couldn’t wait! I met up with seven colleagues at the airport – three girls and four men. We all held different positions within MEA and were various nationalities. At Beirut airport it was extremely hot and there were lots of soldiers. Then we saw a young man with a wide grin on his face making his way towards us. He was called Bassam and was our guide for the fortnight. He was handsome and spoke perfect English… we hit it off straight away! We got on the minibus and were soon travelling towards Beirut along dusty roads lined with glorious orange trees. At our hotel in central Beirut, surrounded by the noise and bustle of the city, we were paired off to share a room. I was with a bubbly American girl called Ella and we got on very well. The waiters were always flirting with us and used to slip notes under our door, sending us into fits of giggles. Bassam and I agreed to meet up and he said he would introduce me to other MEA staff to show me around Beirut. Every day was then a routine of spending the morning in college (I don’t think we learnt anything), followed by a cheese roll with pickles for lunch and various trips out. Beirut was an exciting and vibrant city, full of wonderful shops and restaurants. Every shop we went in would serve you thick bitter coffee and delicious honey and pistachio cakes. Then most afternoons excursions were arranged – one day we stopped off at Byblos and dressed up in Lebanese costumes to wander among the ruins. Another trip was to the mountains to see the famous
cedars of Lebanon. It was truly amazing to travel for about an hour out of Beirut and its hot, dusty climate and find yourself in the snow-capped mountains. We had Lebanese mezze in a quaint little café tucked in the mountains and tried Arak (an alcoholic drink made with aniseed). At the famous gold market in the heart of Beirut, everywhere you looked were shops full of fabulous gold jewellery and coins. I had promised myself I would buy something special there and I came home with a gold ring with a tiny turquoise stone that cost me £21 (a lot of money in those days) and I still wear it. The evenings were fun. Bassam took me to many places and my father had a business contact there, a lovely middle-aged couple who took me out and about. I remember one place where a belly dancer came gyrating through all the diners! I tried many exotic dishes and in between courses you always had to partake of the infamous ‘hubbly bubbly pipe’… what an experience – and, yes, one of those came home with me too! Lebanon was a country full of great contrasts and beauty. The Lebanese girls I met were so kind and patient. They always found time to show you new places and introduce you to different foods and experiences, and I met a great bunch of people from all over the world. There were so many wonderful memories of Lebanon; the chanting every morning in the glorious sunshine, the orange trees everywhere and exotic flowers, the mouthwatering pastries, pistachio nuts and copious amounts of Arak. On our last night, we had a gala ball to say goodbye and thank you to everyone. It was a wonderful night of fun, laughter and being with good friends. We ate a sumptuous banquet and then danced till the early hours, and raised a toast to all who had been instrumental in making our trip so special. Now I look back and think, did we really go to that beautiful country and do all those once-ina-lifetime things and see sights that we will never see again? Beirut may no longer be the same place, but it will always have a special place in my heart. I cherish the opportunity I was given and consider myself very lucky to have had such a wonderful Middle East experience.
‘Lebanon was a country full of great contrasts and beauty’
Sue with her other lucky colleagues from around the world
Beautiful Beirut will always hold a special place in Sue’s heart