Many foreigners have an idea of the Middle East that Lebanon does not fit into. It is a country of mountains, rivers and beaches, it is not in the desert! In addition, not all Lebanese wear hijab and the burka. Whilst Lebanon is very open and comprises many religions, it also has a great deal of traditional Arab culture. In many ways it is a gateway to the rest of the Middle East.
How should I dress?
Lebanon is a country of mixed religions; there are in fact 18 official religions in Lebanon! So you will find many parts of Beirut have a mixture of people who are dressed conservatively and those who dress exactly as Westerners. In Lebanon you may dress as you please, there is no male or female dress code. However, some neighbourhoods in Lebanon are more conservative than others, so be aware of the kind of area you are going to and dress accordingly. As a general rule, in conservative areas it is best to cover your legs and shoulders (men and women). In other parts, such as the Christian areas, there is no dress code, you are free to wear whatever you want. However, walking around in a bikini top and shorts will draw a lot of unwanted attention from men who are not used to seeing women dressed this way in the street.
Lebanon is known for its nightclubs which are often situated on rooftops. If you decide to go to a nightclub, you need to be aware that you will need to book a table on the weekend or you may not be allowed in. This requires some serious money (at least $200), and the dress code will be smart casual or some places formal.
There is no need to wear the hijab (headscarf) unless you already do so or you plan to enter a mosque. If you enter a mosque then women will also need to cover their arms, legs and chest. Men are expected to dress modestly in a mosque (although they may not be challenged, unlike women). This means wearing trousers and a shirt that covers your shoulders.
What should I do during Ramadan?
Because of the diversity in religious beliefs in Lebanon, the Ramadan period is not always obvious if you are in the downtown area or Christian areas. In Muslim areas, please be sensitive to eating and drinking in front of them unless you know them well.
However, when Muslim’s fast for Ramadan, they do not expect other religions to follow their laws. In the Christian areas during Ramadan it is business as usual and you are free to eat and drink as you please without worrying that you are offending anyone.
Be aware that some drivers will try and tell you that you need to pay for a taxi when you thought you were in a service (pronounced “servees”). If there is no one in the car, it is sometimes easier just to clarify with the driver when you get in that you want a service. It is possible to get into a lot of arguments with drivers at the end of the trip if there is any doubt about this. If you say “taxi” to the driver he will assume you are going to pay the standard rate which is 10,000 LL. Some drivers will try to cheat you and say that a taxi is $10 (15,000 LL) and this is not true – no matter what the driver tells you (for example you need to pay for the air conditioning!!!). Some Lebanese people will tell you that you don’t need to tell the driver you want a service, but the experience of many foreigners is that it is usually better to be clear (unless the driver already has people in the car).
All taxis in Lebanon can be recognized by their red number plates. To use their services, there are generally three options: a servees (a shared taxi from the street), a private street taxi, or the service of an official taxi company. Whichever option you choose, ensure you have enough small cash on you, as most taxi drivers are low on change (‘Fraatah’). For detailed information, see http://www.living-lebanon.com/getting-around-by-taxi-beirut.html
Checkpoints are unfortunately a part of life in Beirut. They are usually run by the Lebanese Army who are very well trained and will always be polite to foreigners. You will rarely be asked for your passport while crossing them, unless while checking your permission to visit the south of Lebanon (see http://www.living-lebanon.com/south-lebanon.html). Always be polite to the Lebanese Army, they are working very hard to keep Lebanon safe. If you are very unlucky and some political violence breaks out in the area you happen to be in, then go directly to the Lebanese Army as they will help you to leave the area safely. Always follow their instructions.
The Lebanese Armed Forces has a mobile phone app that tells you where in the country there is any trouble. The app is called LAF shield. You can also use it to inform the LAF that you are in trouble and where you are. At the moment it is only in Arabic however, so until you can read and write, be careful you don’t accidentally send a message to the LAF that you are in trouble!