Real Bride: Planning a Wedding in the Bekaa Valley – Lebanon
26 February, 2016
Crystal and Hussein from Houston, Texas married at the Massabki Hotel in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon on the 7th of August, 2015.
Hussein and I both come from Large families (I have a blended family of 9 siblings and he has 4 and a very large extended family) and both of our families are on opposite ends of the world from each other. We wanted both of our families to be a part of our wedding and that said, we realized we would have to have 2 events. Since interfaith marriage is not legal in Lebanon we knew we had to get our marriage license beforehand. I am originally from Delray Beach, Florida so it made sense to have a ceremony there. My grandfather obtained his notary and performed the ceremony on the beach I grew up on and we celebrated at my childhood home with homemade Italian desserts and a Lobster food truck, aptly named “Mobstah Lobstah” … comically perfect for an Italian family from Boston. No frills just a barefoot beach wedding with a house party. Then on to the ultra formal, over the top Lebanese wedding celebrations complete with fireworks and dancers.
Lebanese take weddings very seriously, they are big affairs. In Lebanon we had a ceremony of sorts with a Sheikh, this is not typically part of the wedding and is done with just the couple and the Sheikh a few days before. Then we had a Henna party the night before in Baalbek, a Mulid (celebration of the Prophet’s birthday) and photography session in Baalbek on the wedding day and then the wedding reception in Chtaura, which is about 20 minutes from Baalbek. We chose this destination because Hussein is from Baalbeck and he has a large family that still lives there. We planned the wedding in 1 year. We booked the hotel 10 months in advance and booked our travel and rental car about 6 months in advance since the summer is peak travel time and flights tend to sell out, get more expensive and much longer as it gets closer to travel time, if you aren’t vigilant flights can get upwards of 30 hours with layovers.
We actually picked our venue about 2 months before we got engaged. We went to the hotel for lunch and fell in love with the Garden venue- complete with cobble stone, a river running down the middle, surrounded by trees and two swans named Romeo and Juliet. When we got engaged it was no question where we would be married so we set our date around the hotel’s availability. All things considered it was not horribly difficult to plan, as they say- the devil is in the details. The big things were the easiest. Venues in Lebanon normally offer a full service wedding package which includes seating, DJ, music, fireworks (yes fireworks- this is huge in Lebanon), food, and cake. Also, we weren’t overly concerned with tasting the food and cake because the hotel is known for its food and Lebanese weddings normally offer about 26 courses of Mezze or appetizers that are placed on each table and the main course is a rice and meat dish, so choosing was not difficult. We also chose not to have a cocktail reception since we did not have a ceremony there was no need to entertain guests early on. However those packages were available and alcohol and hookah was available for purchase by guests. The cake they offer is pretty standard, ornate cake decorations weren’t offered and we did not request it, and the cake you cut is huge and actually fake so it makes for great pictures. We went to the hotel a few days before the wedding to get a feel for the space and go over the last minute details. We discussed the fireworks and opted for a waterfall firework display during our first dance at the crescendo of the song- the manager of the hotel kept a close eye and the second I went into my first turn he cued the fireworks.
The parts that required planning were Flowers, photography, Invitations and the dance troupe. There are several options for flowers, including one offered by the hotel. We ended up booking a local florist in Baalbeck named Hekmat, a friend of my Brother-in-Law (it is a small town so everyone is a friend or relative). I used WhatsApp to message Hekmat over the course of 6 months with pictures from Pinterest of flowers I liked. He would message me back pictures as well. Email can be overwhelming and emails can get lost in the sea of spam and other vendors, so I used this App because it’s a free messaging app no matter what device you have, and the pictures are better quality than other messaging apps. Most people internationally use WhatsApp.
The photography was the biggest challenge. I searched for months and contacted several photographers. I wanted photo journalistic style photos, as opposed to posed and fake looking. Most wedding photography in Lebanon is a bit too posed for my liking and anyone that was just barely photo journalist style was insanely expensive, travel photographers are also pricey, even if the package isn’t, you have to take their travel costs into the calculations. To add to it, Photographers get booked up pretty early. Finally, I found SMS studio and George Lteif, we communicated through email mostly. I had a lot of concerns since I hired a wedding company for my beach ceremony in Florida and the video and photos turned out so horrible, SMS and the staff there were very patient and reassured me every step of the way that they would not make the same mistakes. We met with them 2 days before the wedding and coordinated with them on the schedule. A big plus here is that one of the main photographers, Gaby, spoke English and was a huge help to me on the wedding day. We received all of our photos in medium resolution on a DVD about 3 days after the wedding, the high resolution photos and video come about 3 months later and they send DVD as well as uploading a video online for sharing. I gave them links of wedding videos and trailers that I liked online and they also took the raw footage from the ceremony in the US and will be incorporating it into the final video. Also SMS Studios provided wedding favors. Instead of the traditional wedding favor we opted for a thank you card that matched our invites with a picture of each guest at the wedding.
Finally, there was the Henna Party. Usually the bride and groom have separate parties the night before the wedding and the groom makes an appearance at the bride’s party to get henna and then he leaves. We had a join party since I didn’t have family and friends of my own. We didn’t preplan much of this at all, his family helped with this which is customary. We booked a local coffee shop for the evening before the wedding, the food was prepared by his mother and the deserts and juice provided by an uncle. We had a DJ arranged by the venue and a friend gifted us a dance troupe performance.
For both Weddings and Henna party I got creative planning and purchasing our clothing and accessories. I bought my Lebanon Dress from Tradesy and saved about 50% of the cost, I got my Henna gown on discount from TJ Maxx designer section and ordered all of the accessories from Etsy. For bridal party gifts we got travel kits and filled them with toiletries, perfume and makeup samples as well as sunblock since both were destination weddings.
Legal / Medical Requirements
You should have Valid Passports and, given the political landscape of the area, if you have travelled to Israel before and your passport is stamped you may need to get a new passport to avoid any difficulties at customs.
I did not need a translator because my husband spoke fluent Arabic and most of his family spoke English. Generally it isn’t hard to get around because many people do speak English and most menus are offered in English. However a translator would be useful.
No residency requirements or vaccinations. As always, don’t drink the tap water and limit intake of raw meats and unpasteurized dairy- I am a daredevil and always jump at a chance for raw Kibbeh but that’s just me. No other medical requirements. Check with your state department website or equivalent.
In Lebanon you cannot get legally married if you are interfaith. My husband is Muslim and I am Christian. So I would recommend getting your marriage license at home if you are like us. If you are of the same faith you have to go through a mosque or church to get married, I suggest contacting local churches for more information. We chose to have a small ceremony and backyard party in Florida with my family before we left, we then filed our marriage certificate in both Florida and the Lebanese Civil Court, the requirements for this are online and pretty straightforward, we simply mailed everything they required and they give you the originals back.
We flew into Beirut, drove from Beirut to Baalbeck. The flight can range anywhere from 10-30 hours depending on when and how you book. There are no direct flights to Lebanon, the closest direct flight from Houston was to Istanbul and then a quick hop to Beirut. If you book last minute you may have an overnight layover or several lengthy layovers. If this happens the best option for you to do is fly somewhere closer, stay a day or two to make the most of your trip and then fly from there. The drive is about an hour and a half depending on traffic. If you are not from the area I highly suggest arranging local transport. The signs are mostly in Arabic, French and English, but there are some that are only in Arabic. There is a great blog that can give you some starting points for tours- Lebanonroad.blogspot.com.
Lebanon is a stunning and culturally rich country, it was referred to as “the Paris of the Middle East” at one time. Beirut is still known for parties, nightclubs and food scene. Baalbek is a little known area in the mountains, in the heart of wine country. In case you didn’t know Lebanon produces some phenomenal wines. Baalbek is home to the Roman Ruins of Heliopolis which is a UN World Heritage site. When we got engaged I immediately announced I wanted to take photos in the ruins, especially since we take a photo in front of Bacchus’ Temple every year I wanted one in my wedding dress. This idea was met with immediate laughter in Lebanon because no one had done it before- they thought it would be cheesy. I held my ground and I am ecstatic I did. The Photographer has our picture in their window in Beirut now.
Baalbek is in the mountains so normally the weather is amazing and it cools off at night. It was the hottest month all year when we got there, luckily we got a cold snap for the night before and of the wedding. We arrived 1 week prior to the wedding and stayed 1 week after. If I could have I would have stayed a bit longer to relax. But everything happens pretty quickly once you get there so there is no need to go earlier. Our accommodations were with family in Baalbeck and at the venue for the wedding weekend, and from there we went to a beach resort and a boutique hotel in Beirut. We went to the Ruins, Vineyards- Kefraya and Ksara are my favorite. Much of our free time was spent with family. After the wedding we went to a few local attractions: Vineyards, the Jeita Grotto, and Beiteddine Palace, Moussa Castle and then the beach and Beirut.
The Vineyards are a must see, I do this every year. Other good trips are to Byblos and the Cedars as well as Jounieh to the Harissa Shrine. There are so many churches that are stunning in Lebanon. No matter what you do, you should definitely plan a few excursions. The country is absolutely stunning. Be sure to arrange a professional tour service if you do not know the area.
We had 165 wedding guests, 200 Henna Guests and 350 Mulid Guests. All of the guests were family of the groom and close family friends in Lebanon. Only my mom and dad came to Lebanon. Most people lived locally so we only had to arrange hotels for my parents and us. We stayed at the Kanaan Group Hotel in Baalbeck and then at the Massabki Hotel for the wedding.
Before the wedding we spent most of the time making final preparations and choices. Everything generally gets set in stone in the 2 or 3 weeks before the wedding. Two days before the wedding we visited the Ruins in Baalbeck and then visited the Sheik to have the marriage solidified in Islam (Christians do not have to convert). It isn’t a big event like in the states. Casual dress, a quick 10 minute ceremony with a few vows, a gift promised and then it’s done. Only my parents and father-in-law came. The day before the wedding was spent preparing for the Henna and then the Henna Party was in the evening.
I spent the whole day at the hair dresser. My hair was not cooperating so he had to start over at 1pm and didn’t finish until 3pm. This was the only problem since the ruins close at 6 and the Mulid was from 4:30-6:00pm. I would caution to get your hair started and finished as early as possible.
The afternoon is for the Mulid, this is basically a celebration of the Prophet’s birthday. Men get together and read form the Quran, one photography and video crew went with the men and one stayed with me. It is custom for the groom to take the bride from her parent’s house, since my parents don’t have a house there, He picked me up from his parent’s house. At about 6:00 we were on our way to take portraits at the ruins.
The reception started at 8:30. We had to wait for the dance troupe, Zaffe, to get there as the bride and groom’s entrance is the highlight of the night so we waited in the honeymoon suite with a bottle of champagne. At 9:30 we split up and Hussein went with the Zaffe for his entrance, complete with dancing with his family for a song. All the while I waited across the property for my cue to enter. I was cued to enter, my song “from today” by Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram played, fireworks started and everyone stood and watched me enter with the Zaffe. Once I got to the dance floor We had a traditional dance with the dance troupe and our families, then the father daughter dance to “The Riddle (you and I)” and our first dance. At the end of the night as people were leaving we had a cart at the exit with a traditional hot cream dessert.
Best wedding memory was our first dance- we took lessons for 2 months to learn a choreographed fox trot to Louis Armstrong “A Kiss to Build a Dream On” (it took me 3 years, a groupon and a trick to get him to the first dance lesson). We opted out of smoke machines but thank god they didn’t listen because I kept stumbling over my dress as we went backwards and the smoke machine covered the wobbly feet. At the crescendo of the song waterfall fireworks went off just as he spun me out on my first turn- I was terrified of the fireworks being cheesy but it was so perfectly timed and magical- and no one expected it!
After The Wedding
After the wedding we planned several excursions including visiting 2 local vineyards, visiting an old palace, castle Moussa and then a couple days at a beach resort with our family, ending with Beirut. We went to 2 local Vineyards Kefraya and Ksara. Ksara has natural caves so its amazing to tour the vineyard before you taste. Kefraya has an upscale restaurant and a fantastic tasting room. Then we went to Beiteddine Palace, we saw several brides taking portraits here, it seemed so stressful! There were hundreds of people, I couldn’t imagine taking portraits here. The Jeita Grotto is amazing, there are two levels of caverns (the lower one is toured in a boat) and you can drink the ice cold water. There are also diving expeditions- I am planning on doing this next time! We took my parents to Moussa Castle, a Lebanese man has spent his entire life building a castle brick by brick with animatronic statues powered by the water that runs under it. It is such a unique sight to see. Finally the beach and Beirut, Lebanon has a lot of full service luxury beach resorts along the beach, I highly recommend going to Edde Sands in Byblos or if you want one closer to Beirut check out Pangea Resort. You can smoke hookah and drink Lebanese rose by an adults only pool, swim up bars, live music and great food.
Lebanon is a blended country in both religion and culture. The Bekkaa Valley is home to the best vineyards in the region, there are Christian, Druze, Sunni and Shia towns and most of those are still blended, Baalbek is predominantly Sunni but they have a few historic churches side by side with a beautiful gold-domed Mosque and they even decorate the entire town for Christmas and recently erected a virgin Mary statue in the Christian area of the town. That in mind, if you are in a smaller town like Baalbeck there aren’t any bars or alcohol available so if you would like an alcoholic beverage you can purchase liquor in a neighboring Christian town, Zahle is about 20 minutes and it is a must see! There is great shopping and food, scenery and nightlife.
Lebanon is on a rolling power supply from the government, however all hotels and venues have private generators for power. Keep this in mind while travelling and for purposes of accessing the Internet. Every destination has its own set of challenges and Lebanon is no different in that regard, read up on local culture and customs and just have fun with it, my dad was elated to find out that sarcasm is an integral part of Lebanese culture…yes it absolutely is… and he fit right in.
Advice For Others Considering a Wedding in Lebanon
First: if you are interfaith you cannot get married in Lebanon. I would recommend getting legally married at home and then if you must have a full ceremony perhaps have a friend perform a ceremony, look at your state’s requirements for marriage- it’s pretty easy and cheap to have a friend or family member get a notary, Justice of the Peace or priest certification online, I had my Grandfather do it, and it is so much more memorable and meaningful then running to the courthouse over lunch.
Second: Hair and Makeup- My sister-in-law shared several Facebook pages of salons in the area, the style in Lebanon is very structured and dramatic updos and dramatic heavy makeup. I prefer a softer natural look so I took some tips from my makeup artist in the US and youtube. My hair- Rawad and Rayan are the BEST in the Bekka Valley, I would not go anywhere else, plus they are close to the ruins and walking distance to the hotel in Baalbeck. The big tip here is have pictures of what you want your look to be and get there very early on the day of your appointment. Most salons have Facebook or Instagram pages but not working websites.
Third: The highlights were the Ruins. But it was almost ruined because of some unplanned hair failures. I was supposed to finish my hair by 12:30, instead I didn’t finish my hair until 3:30 then Hussein had to leave for the Mulid. This was the one unplanned hiccup that almost sent me over the edge, luckily my mom brought my makeup to the salon so I could get ready and then the photographer talked me off the proverbial ledge while my dad comforted me with a neat scotch from his private reserve. The ruins close at 6pm, Thanks to my father-in-law we were allowed in the ruins after it closed close to sunset, this turned out to be advantageous for lighting and heat… do not count on this though.
Keep in mind everything is open to the public so it can be stressful if it is a busy day and you have tourists in all of your shots. July and August are the hottest and busiest months. They have a music festival at the ruins and because of that there was scaffolding, concert tents and other construction where, normally, it is just pristine and natural looking. I would plan around the festival if at all possible. Also because of the heat it would have been excruciating in the midafternoon, we had planned to have white parasols, fans, bottled water and sunglasses for the earlier planned shoot. Another detail worth mentioning- the ground is red clay, I suggest you bring along a friend to assist in holding your dress, especially if you want the train down. I bustled mine. Also- Where a high pair of platform wedges- it’s easier to walk in and you won’t ruin your wedding shoes. Another plus side is that mine made it so my dress was just a hair off the ground so no stains!
Setbacks and Tips
Invites: Invitations were a hassle only because the invites are hand delivered in Lebanon typically just a few weeks before the wedding. They also had to be in Arabic not English, and I am not accustomed to the wording and form of invitations there. WhatsApp worked for this as well, my husband’s sister would send me pictures of invites to choose from and his mom did the rest. TIP: If invites are a big deal for you or you have a very specific theme, I would recommend that invitations be made as early as possible, there are resources in the US for invites in Arabic and I could have shipped them abroad had I had the time. That said I did not put a lot of effort into a stated theme or matching themed invites, this would have been much more difficult. At the end I chose a simple Cream colored invite with gold embossed Arabic script and they were beautiful.
Travelling: When travelling with your wedding dress it can be stressful and most planes don’t have full sized closets, even if they do they are completely full with flight attendant luggage. I got extremely lucky, a pilot on the longest leg of the trip offered to lay my dress out in his private quarters. WIN. TIP: So either purchase a dress that can be flattened or be sure to have a travel steamer that can handle the voltage…mine exploded- luckily the dress was made with tons of creases so it wasn’t noticeable. My dress for the ceremony was light English netting so it was very easy to travel with and flatten in overhead compartments. In hindsight, I would like to say I would have checked everything, but I couldn’t leave this to chance.
Airline Lounges: are absolutely amazing. Check your credit cards or rewards programs to see if you get access to a lounge during your layovers, even if you don’t you can pay- anywhere from $25-50 per person, it is worth it to hang your wedding wear, sit in a comfy chair and feel posh and pampered for a couple of hours. We are members of the United Rewards program but unfortunately there was no lounge in our terminal at Heathrow (check your connections before you go) so we ended up finding a lounge we could just pay for, they even have “snuggle rooms” you can nap in!
Be Creative: and Etsy for everything. Literally. All custom made and all for a fraction of the price and headache it would’ve taken otherwise. Also don’t discount used websites like Tradesy. I got my Pronovias dress for less than 50% of the original price and most of the alterations were already done! Look at unconventional sources like the TJ Maxx designers section, I got my Marc Jacobs Henna gown at more than 70% discount and my cathedral length veil for photos in Lebanon. That was from Bed Bath and Beyond (yes THAT bed bath and beyond).
Dancing: Bring a pair of platform wedges- if you are taking photos in nature you don’t want to ruin your dress and shoes before the night even starts. Plus having wedges is a godsend when you are dancing- no one sees your feet.
Lastly, Alterations: Cleaning and Preserving. if you have more than one formal dress for your wedding ask your tailor about a discount- they will often work with you, and on that note- do not order your wedding dress a size up from your actual fit- this is a myth and will just cost you more in alterations. Keep an eye out for specials on wedding dress cleaning and preservation and make sure there is a window to see the dress. I didn’t check with my first dress and I was very unhappy with the result. For the second dress I got my package at David’s Bridal over the summer before my wedding at a 30% discount. They send you a box and all you have to do is box it up and send it off- all shipping is paid.
When you are travelling for a wedding you have to just have fun with it and at the end of the day if you have a beautiful natural backdrop and an ace photographer nothing else matters- choose your battles.
Wedding Photographer: SMS Studio – Mitri and Gaby Naheme- George Lteif was our planned photographer but had a last minute emergency.
Wedding Reception Venue: Hotel Massabki – Lebanon- they provided catering for food, cake and dessert as well as decorations and the DJ. The Hotel did EVERYTHING, and the food was absolutely amazing. We also did a dessert bar which is novel in Lebanon, everyone was talking about the food. The staff was very attentive down to every last detail…the manager even instructed one of our servers to be sure my dad had a scotch hidden away, since no one was drinking, he appreciated this since and I have video footage of him dancing the Dabke to prove it! They also had a menu to purchase items from the hotel with their logo- we got soap dishes to put our rings in at home.
Wedding Coordinator: None, although we had family to help. if you do not have family or friends in Lebanon I would suggest looking into a coordinator.
Bridal Hair: Reyan and Rawad.
Bridal Makeup: Myself after help and planning stateside with Palm Beach Makeup Pro Jen Raciti. Jen did my makeup for my Florida ceremony and wedding and gave me some tips to do my own in Lebanon. Also, I read tons of blogs and videos on wedding makeup and spent about 3 months testing products to ensure they worked and they didn’t make me break out.
Videographer: SMS Studio
Flowers: Flowers By Hekmat, Baalbek Lebanon
Wedding Favors: SMS Studio – they printed pictures of each guest and placed them in thank you cards; Florida Favors were Coozies from Etsy
Music/Entertainment: Zaffe troupe for entertainment
Local Transport: Family
Travel Arrangements: Etihad Airways, Turkish Airways
Others: Dress- Pronovias – purchased used from Tradesy, Love Marley by Watters from BHLDN, Marc Jacobs Sequined gown – Clearance purchase from TJ Maxx, Tailor – Memorial Tailors, Houston, TX
Dance Choreography: Beginners Only, Houston Texas The instructor provided a sped up version of our first dance on CD and via email. He also helped with my shoes, I wore my Badgley Mishka shoes to break them in during our dance lessons and one foot kept slipping out. He suggested dance bands- they are clear bands dancers use to keep their shoes from slipping. Also since the event was outside he suggested I get heel protectors. Both were godsends on the wedding night.
Etsy: Bridesmaids dresses, Bridal party barefoot sandals, Favors, Decorations, Photo Booth Props, Veil- Veiled Beauty, Boutenier, Seashell crown, custom draped crystal headpiece, dried flowers to toss at the ceremony, laser etched champagne glasses