The Freelancer’s Guide to Lebanon
Bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south, Lebanon is at the crossroads of the Arab world and the West. It also houses what most would call the Middle East’s “sexiest” city; its capital, Beirut.
Please note: All photos in this post are copyright of Storyhunter Karim Mostafa. You can view some more of Karim’s brilliant work here. Thank you, Karim!
There are approximately 4.5 million people in Lebanon which has a surface area of 10,452 square kilometres (4,036 sq mi). Beirut is the capital and the largest city in Lebanon (1.9 million people).
What is spoken:
Arabic and French are the official languages. Lebanon was under French Mandate for 23 years (between 1923 and 1946). 40 per cent of Lebanese people are considered francophone, and 70 per cent of Lebanon’s secondary schools use French as a second language of instruction.
English is also widely spoken and taught in many Lebanese secondary schools. All three languages are used in business circles so expats working and doing business in Lebanon should be able to converse easily enough if they know one or all of these languages. It is not uncommon for locals to mix Lebanese Arabic, French and English into their daily speech and even sometimes within the same sentence.
If I only speak English, do I need a fixer?
You may be able to get by, but it is highly recommended to get a local fixer. There is always going to be a barrier if you don’t speak the language.
Turning up on your own might cause you problems or at the very least keep you marginalized. It is not the easiest country to get around in. There are no specific maps or public transportation and driving is a headache. You also need to know the right people. A local fixer will speak the language, know who to talk to, where to go and how to get there.
Tip: Make sure you choose someone who has some sort of experience or who, you make sure can take you where you want to go. You can’t just hire any Arabic speaking Lebanese as your fixer and expect them to be welcomed into any area.
The most important thing to know is that your passport must be valid for 6 months following your date of entry and that it must not contain any Israeli stamps or visas. If you have any evidence in your papers of having been to Israel, even if it’s a tourist visa from when you were 15 years old, you will be denied entry into Lebanon and may even be subject to arrest or detention.
There is no specific journalist visa,and work visas are difficult and expensive. What generally happens is freelance journalists enter the country as tourists and then renew their visas as many times as they need to.
The tourist visa can be acquired at the airport, and is valid for 30 days. It is free. However, immigration will give you two months minus one day (59 days) without renewing, if you are leaving the country. To stay beyond 59 days, you must renew at the nearest General Security office. This will extend your tourist visa to a total of three months.
Once you are in the country, you can then apply for a renewal (before the expiration date on your visa) by visiting any general security office (see general-security.gov.lb for a list of offices)
You’ll pay US $34 for renewal and it will be valid for two months. Bring the equivalent in Lebanese money, since they don’t accept U.S dollars at general security offices.
Press card requirement:
To receive a press card, you must be working for a media outlet, full-time. The Ministry of Information does not issue press cards to journalists working on tourist visas.
The Foreign Press Club is an informal group open to anyone working as a journalist in Lebanon. The group has periodic meet-ups and an annual Christmas party. The most useful resource is the Google group which connects journalists through email and group posts. To join, email the group’s administrator: Leena Saidi at firstname.lastname@example.org.
You are not required to get a permit if you’re shooting on the street. However, avoid areas with politicians or military — you will likely need a permit to shoot in those areas. Even with a permit, you may be prevented from shooting these people directly, or the building they’re protecting.
How to get a permit: go to the municipality of the area you’re going to shoot in. It is generally a quick and easy process, but make sure to check their opening hours, since they may have limited times where the mayor is available to sign your permit.
Journalists heading to film in Beirut’s southern suburbs and other Hezbollah-controlled areas will need permission from Hezbollah’s media office and an accompanying escort.
Government press office: Ministry of Information (Hamra St. and Rome St. across from Fransabank)
Marwan Choucry will process your permit for you if you have the required paperwork. If you need a permit to film or cover a story inside Hezbollah-controlled areas, sensitive areas, or the southern security zone, this is the starting point. You will receive a permit from the MOI, then proceed to Hezbollah or Army media relations. You cannot get a permit without a letter from the organization you are working for detailing the story you are covering. If you are freelancing on a tourist visa, your permit will be temporary and expire once the story is published.
What to be careful for:
People and officials in Lebanon are very suspicious of cameras. Don’t take it for granted that you can take a picture anywhere, especially if you have a professional camera. This can also apply for smartphone photography, mainly if you point at a man in uniform or an official building.
Also, you should know that electricity in Lebanon is cut systematically depending on locations. For example in Beirut, it is cut off for 3 hours every day between 6am and 6pm. (The time slots are 6am-9am, 9am-12pm, 12pm-3pm and 3pm-6pm).
Most (newer) buildings and all commercial businesses have generators to compensate for power cut.
Police can ask to see your documents and inspect you at any time of day or night. It’s important that you have ID on you at all times.
It’s definitely not safe to shoot in areas controlled by Hezbollah and areas that have a lot of military (near official buildings or near politicians’ houses, generally in the middle of the city).
112 for police or 140 for Lebanese Red Cross
Shared taxis or services
Beirut is totally covered by service [ser-vees], or shared taxis, which are usually older Mercedes with red license plates and a taxi sign on the roof.
You can hail them at any point on their route and you have to yell your destination (not a specific address but a general district) before getting in the car.
They have the right to accept or deny you depending on whether or not you are going in a direction that’s convenient for them. Going rates are generally LBP 2,000 flat fee ($1.30) for trips within the city, and LBP 3,000 ($2) to LBP 10,000 (approx $7) for trips to outlying areas.
If the driver nods or gives you a sign to get in when they stop for you, this means they’ve accept the service price. If they are not OK with the service price, they will drive by or tell you either “serviceyn” (which means double the flat fee — LBP4,000, or $2.70), “taxi” or any amount they want to charge you, which is up for negotiation.
When you get close to your destination, the driver will ask you where you want to get out. If you recognize the area you want to be in just ask to stop. You can give them a more specific address, and the driver will drop you as near to it as he likes, often pointing out in which direction you have to continue on foot to get there.
The driver will likely be picking up other people along his route car-pool style (it can get cozy). This is why it’s so cheap. They also won’t go the shortest way, but may take some small detours in search of more passengers.
Don’t expect air conditioning or heaters. These service cars are usually very old.
Taxi drivers in Beirut are notorious for overcharging tourists, much more so than in neighboring Syria. Most will demand absurd fares, paying 2–3 times the service rate for these rides is very common. If you’re pressed for time, paying 2 service fees (“serviceyn”) may be a compromise (4,000 LBP, $2.70), otherwise you may have to wait a bit to find an honest cab driver willing to take you for LBP 2,000. Also, virtually no one tips cab drivers unless some extraordinary service has been rendered, like a very long wait time while you run an errand or something.
Reputable Beirut-based taxi companies generally have English-speaking drivers and well-maintained cars. These normally charge you around US$100 for a half-day hire and US$150 for a full-day hire.
Here is a list of private taxi companies: http://www.beirut.com/Taxis
It is best to choose one which has a station in your area so it’ll take them less time to reach you. Once you arrive at your destination, the driver will call in to the main office and get you a price estimate.
Buses are quite confusing and not the most recommended mode of transportation. The buses themselves are quite old and it is virtually impossible to have a specific and consistent timetable or schedule.
Tip: Download the Zawarib app on your smartphone for a map of bus routes in Beirut. Buses to Saida and the South leave from Cola. Buses north leave from the station on Charles Helou in Gemmayze. Buses to Zahle and the Bekaa leave from Hazmieh, along the highway or the intersection near Kanisat Mar Mikhael in Chiyah.
Beirut is not a bike-friendly city and you will hardly see people riding bikes apart from on the boardwalk-like sidewalk by the shore. There are some bike rentals though for the brave, and the cyclers.
If you are feeling brave enough and would like to drive in Beirut:
The driver’s license requirements in Lebanon state that you must have a full driver’s license valid in your country of residence. An international drivers license is also required.
Anyone hiring a car in Lebanon must be at least 23 years old and have held your license for at least 2 years.
Lebanon has the most religiously diverse society in the Middle East. Most are Muslims (54%), 40% are Christian, and 5% are Druze.
Shias are concentrated in Southern Lebanon, Baalbek District, Hermel District and the southern suburbs of Beirut.
Sunnis are mainly residents of the major cities: west Beirut, Tripoli, and Sidon. Sunnis are also present in rural areas including Akkar, Ikleem al Kharoub, and the western Beqaa Valley.
Christians are concentrated in east Beirut and its suburbs, the area north of Mount Lebanon, Zahlé, and Jezzine. Christians are also present in Lebanese North areas including Zgharta, Bsharre, Koura, and Batroun.
Druze are concentrated south of Mount Lebanon, in the Hasbaya District and Chouf District.
How is religion visible in day-to-day life?
You’ll see mosques and hear call to prayers in Muslim neighborhoods. You’ll see churches and hear church bells in Christian areas. Both can be heard loudly around certain mixed areas particularly Downtown Beirut.
In some of the more conservative neighborhoods, you’ll see modern-and-veiled women (ie: in western clothes but wearing a veil). Burkas aren’t customary. You’ll also see religious symbols as well as religious holiday decorations on the streets.
Lebanon is a liberal country. You don’t need to worry about having to cover up and you can drink alcohol anywhere and anytime (including on the streets). The only situation where you’ll be asked to cover up is if you go into a mosque.
Things you’ll find here that you won’t find anywhere:
- Call to prayers and church bells sounding off at the same time, filling Beirut’s soundscape with a cacophony.
- Veiled women and women in bikinis side-by-side / Music blasting from night clubs competing with morning call to prayers.
- Extreme hospitality: Lebanese people will always want to invite you for a meal.
- If you stop at a red light, cars behind you will get very impatient. Traffic laws are merely suggestive.
- All the food anywhere is amazing (most people would agree).
- Chaos and lack of rules.
- Nightlife in Beirut is booming 7 days a week.
- Resilience: even after an attack or a bomb goes off, it won’t take long before the Lebanese are on the streets again, in cafes, in restaurants, in nightclubs.
What are major faux-pas:
Asking someone their religion (this is slightly more acceptable if you’re a foreigner).
Are there restrictions for working as a male journalist:
People (mainly other men) are more wary of you as a man than they are of women. Don’t be surprised if people are warmer in general to your female colleagues. If you are an American and among Shia in a Hezbollah area, some people will be cautious until they really know you and why you are there. There aren’t many specific restrictions, other than the fact that you automatically garner more suspicion with security. If traveling by car through checkpoints, an all male group will be stopped more frequently than one that is mixed male and female. Sometimes traveling with a female colleague can go a long way in getting around without as much scrutiny.
Are there restrictions for working as a female journalist:
Bridgette: Compared to other countries, such as Egypt, I feel FAR less restricted. The differences of various areas of Beirut and Lebanon dictate what I wear and where and who I’d go with. I try to navigate the lines of both my foreignness and “femaleness” on a case-by-case basis. Sometimes it requires playing up and sometimes playing down either of these features, depending on the situation. I guess my thoughts on being a journalist in Lebanon are less about the fact that I’m female than just being a journalist in general. People are very media savvy in Lebanon. You may think you are in a small town and no one knows you are there, but people do and you need to be upfront about what you are doing there and have the proper connections or you could end up in serious trouble. Being a woman and making local friends allows me to walk through areas unnoticed and unbothered. But this is more about knowing the right people than what I look like.
Ellie: I don’t feel that there are any huge restrictions as a female journalist. I would say that, like many countries in the region, it can be harder to get things done as a woman and harder to command authority! However in general I really do feel pretty free and certainly in comparison to other countries I have worked in. I do think that as a woman you can often charm your way into tricky situations that you may want to document and it certainly helps with the authorities. Sometimes you do start to get sick of being leered at on the street but mainly it is not intimidating and I feel safe walking around the city, both day and night. Beirut is a very welcoming and vibrant city, to both men and women.
How to blend in:
You won’t really ever blend in, if you want to be invisible in the way you were in your home country. The most important thing is to listen, not be loud, learn and speak Lebanese Arabic. Embrace your foreign identity while being sensitive of the culture and politics around you. Being able to communicate well in Arabic is the most important way to connect with people and assimilate. And make Lebanese friends :)
Ellie: I personally probably do dress more modestly than most Lebanese on a night out but that is simply the way I feel more comfortable. Certainly when working in Bekaa valley or other more conservative areas in the country I like to be wearing loose clothing — again this is not compulsory it is simply a personal choice.
Saifi Urban Gardens is a very charming hostel in a great location with lots of foreigners and friendly people who would love to help you. It is cheap and good for short term stays. Beware, it can be quite loud.(from 16$ per night).
Hostel Beirut is the first official hostel in Beirut Located in the safe neighborhood Geitawi close to the buzzing Mar Mikhael. http://hostelbeirut.com/ (18$ per bed)
Great places to work from:
Cafes with free wi-fi can be found in every neighborhood in Beirut. Here are some of the best:
- Urbanista serves breakfast as well as quick bites, with a delicious salad bar, platters, hot and cold sandwiches, coffee, desserts, juices and drinks.
- Dar Located in the heart of Hamra, Dar Bistro is an oasis from the hustle and bustle of the city. Enjoy great food and fine drinks in a friendly atmosphere. Visit their boutique bookshop to browse through a hand-picked selection of titles. Dar offers a variety of delicious sandwiches, green salads, tasty desserts, and fresh juices, along with a roster of creative drinks.
- Dawawine is a cultural center located in the heart of Gemmayzeh. The center houses a 32-seat movie theater, a bistro serving delicious food, a library, a bookshop specializing in books on film, dance, theater and music and a conference room.
- L’appartement is a multifunctional open space in a cozy apartment where you can drink, create, eat and discover.
- Balima is a friendly boutique cafe serving French snacks. The magnetic allure of Balima is that it’s situated in the middle of Downtown with the calm atmosphere, greenery and beautifully decorated buildings of Safi Village surrounding you.
- Cafe younes retails high quality coffee that is freshly roasted and ground on the premises. They also wholesale ground coffee to order as well as whole beans, boasting a wide selection of blends made of premium quality Arabic beans as well as decaffeinated coffee. Socially aware and culturally active, the cafe hosts small events like poetry reading nights and music nights.
- T marbouta is a restaurant, cafe and pub — an all-purpose space for the creative and conscious. It hosts film screenings, live music and lectures.
Some of the coffee shops listed have various locations so be sure to check their other branches to choose the one that is most practical for you.
Equipment rental shops:
- Media Square http://www.mediasquare.tv/
- Gamma Engineering http://www.gamma-engineering.com/
- Platform http://platformstudios.com/
- Final Cut Equipped http://finalcutequipped.com/
Cheaper camera and lenses rental (no sound equip):
- Photo Paladium http://www.beirut.com/l/2531
Internet in Lebanon is extremely slow (among the slowest in the world) and very expensive. There is also a bandwidth cap applied by the government that begins as low as 4GB and only goes as high as 25GB for consumer packages.
Sending large files may require you to send them overnight but make sure your modem is connected to a UPS — an electrical apparatus that provides emergency power to a load when the input power source, typically main power, fails. There are power cuts often. Similarly, loading a one-minute video on Youtube might require you to let it load while you do your laundry, grocery shopping, take a shower and read a book.
Telecom companies recently announced they will be transmitting data over 4G so using internet on your phone will be much faster. But don’t get too excited, because there’s a download/upload limit on that too and then it gets costly.
There are three options for internet in Lebanon: local Internet Service Providers (ISPs), Alfa and MTC service through 3G and 4G modems, and Ogero. Ogero is the government provider and provides the best internet service in Lebanon. HDSL and ADSL service is available. Information on how to contact and apply is listed on their website (ogero.gov.lb). Ogero offers speeds up to 8/mbs and unlimited data. Alfa and MTC offer different packages, including the most expensive but fastest speeds in the country. 40GB of 4G service will cost you $100/month. Local ISPs offer up to 5–6/mbs with caps up to 100/mbs. The highest level subscription with a local ISP will cost around $60–70 a month.
This site provides a guide to getting internet, including the packages available in the market.
The standard voltage is in between 220V — 240V. The plugs are type C: Round, two-pin plugs and type D square, three pin plugs.
Lebanon accepts dual currency: US dollars and Lebanese Liras (LL) or Lebanese Britis. The exchange rate is fixed at 1500LL = 1USD. American ‘cents’ are however not used. Once payment is made, change can be received in LL, USD, or a combination of both. You can withdraw money in both USD and LBP.
Credit/Debit cards: Many shops, hotels, restaurants, bars etc accept international payment cards such as Visa, Mastercard, Maestro or American Express.
Automatic bank tellers: Withdrawal can be made from any automatic bank teller found in any region of the country. Withdrawals can be made in either Lebanese Lira or the US dollar.
Travelers checks: Lebanese banks can exchange them very easily.
Tips at restaurants are generally 10%, but not required.
Bars/restaurants where expat journalists tend to gather:
Mezyan, Dar Cafe, T Marbouta, in Hamra. Urbanista in Gemmayze. Internazionale, Vivyan’s, or Anise in Mar Mikhael.
Not-to-be missed places
- Pigeon rock is a natural landmark (also known as the Rock of Raouché). Located at Beirut’s westernmost tip, the two huge rock formations, which stand like gigantic sentinels, are a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.
- Jeita grottos are beautiful karstic limestones caves spanning an overall length of nearly 9 kilometres (5.6 mi)
- Baalbeck is a town in the Bekaa valley which contains some of the best preserved Roman ruins in Lebanon
- Byblos is a mediterranean port city known to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. It was the first city in Phoenicia, the birthplace of the alphabet.
- Batroun is a coastal city in the North of Lebanon. It boasts beautiful beaches and a vibrant nightlife.
- Shouf Cedars is a nature reserve in the Chouf District of Lebanon. It contains a beautiful Cedar forest, the national tree of Lebanon.
- The public beach in Tyre is known to many as the best beach in Lebanon and the cleanest. It charges no admission fee unlike a lot of other beaches in Lebanon.
Best local restaurants/watering holes in town:
- Tawlet Souk el Tayyeb for some home cooking
- Chez Sami for very good fish
- Sahyoun for very good falafel sandwiches.
- Onno in Bourj Hammoud for the best Armenian food
- Leila — good, not expensive Lebanese food, in restaurant setting
- SUD — for your Mediterranean fix
- Al Falamanki — good Lebanese food
- Mezyan or Walimat Warde for live Arabic music
- Torino Express for a fun hole-in-the wall
- Junk Yard for a cool space
- Iris rooftop for a beautiful view
Dragonfly — known for their great cocktails
Greedy Goose — a great place to catch sports matches in a real pub atmosphere
Metro Medina — good for theatre, music and cool bar
Radio Beirut — good to meet people, live music and DJ’s
Helpful resources for journalists: (sites, magazines, apps):
Newspaper in English: http://www.dailystar.com.lb/
Newspaper in French: http://www.lorientlejour.com/
Zomato is the “Yelp” of Lebanon https://www.zomato.com/
For daily cultural events http://www.agendaculturel.com/fr-Accueil
For various subjects and events http://www.beirut.com/
To meet other expats http://www.internations.org/beirut-expats
Interesting read: A critique of reporting on the Middle East http://www.jadaliyya.com/pages/index/1627/a-critique-of-reporting-on-the-middle-east
Storyhunters who collaborated on this:
Andrew Cagle is a filmmaker and visual journalist currently covering the Arab world, directing and producing short to feature length documentaries. He has been living in Beirut for the past year and has experience producing films in the US, South Sudan, Jordan, Palestine, Haiti, Rwanda and India.
I think for a lot of people, Lebanon is a base to cover the entire region. What makes Lebanon enjoyable in this context is that it’s a meeting point of sorts and there’s a great diversity of people, language and culture. It’s a very open country, socially and politically, to a certain degree. It also has tons of natural beauty to explore and enjoy. It’s the kind of place you can work hard, rest well, learn and make good friends.
Ellie Kealey is a freelance photographer and videographer based in Beirut, Lebanon. Over the last two years she has documented everything from midwifery to music festivals and her stories have been featured in various publications. Some of her most recent assignments have included working in Ghana, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and working for UN Habitat in Afghanistan.
Lebanon is a unique country like no other. One moment you can be lying on the beach in your bikini and the next you’re on the Syrian border. In many ways, Lebanon has everything to offer. When I’m asked what Lebanon is like, I simply say organized chaos. One of my favorite projects was documenting a visiting Dutch comic artist as he met Syrian refugees in their settlements in the Bekaa Valley. He drew these comics in real time and to watch the children’s reaction to his work was both moving and comical!
Dania Bdeir is a Lebanese writer/director of Syrian origins. She was born in Canada but moved back to Beirut where she got her Bachelor’s degree in graphic design at the American University of Beirut. She is getting her MFA in film at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and is currently living between Lebanon and New York. Dania has always had a passion for Lebanon and sharing the untold stories of the Middle East.
I believe the expression “can’t live with it, can’t live without it” was meant for Lebanon.