Monday, March 1, 2010

Where Everyone Knows Your Name, Even If They Pronounce It Funny

My day usually consist of this: 10am meeting in Hamra (the neighborhood where I live), walk to the office in Achrafiyeh (a half hour walk), work until 4pm in the office, have a meeting at 4 or 4:30 either in Achrafiyeh or back in Hamra, and go to an event in the evening, sometimes at universities, sometimes at NGO offices, sometimes at caf├ęs. When 8 or 9pm rolls around, the day is done. That’s when I go to Evergreen.

Evergreen is a pub owned by a guy named Amigo that is around the corner from where I live. It’s a quintessential dive bar. The walls and shelves are covered with all sorts of items given to him by his customers – odd hats, flags, knickknacks from other parts of the world, and things you might find at Spenser’s Gifts. Behind the bar is a wall of money from all over the globe, most of it with messages to Amigo on it. On the ceiling are rolled up “wishes” that customers wrote, pieces of yellowed paper hanging like bats in a cave. In a way, it’s appropriate, because Amigo is like a vampire, as he never sees the sun. He opens his bar beyond daylight hours and roams the streets of Hamra whenever his last customer leaves or when he feels like closing. People sometimes come in at 3 in the morning. Other times, he kicks everyone out so he can go have some fun. (I love this thing called freedom here, where there are no imposing laws telling you what time you have to go to bed.)

There are a few customers that are there nearly every day. One is a retired general who’s called General. There’s another called General, too, because he looks exactly like General Aoun, one of the infamous political figures in Lebanon.

I'm learning Arabic from them. I could spend hours pouring over lessons and texts and listening to pre-recorded language tapes, or I can sit in a pub with a bunch of old guys and just listen to what they’re saying. I a few weeks away from where I was when I took my Arabic proficiency tests in terms of listening and reading, and I’m amazed at how I am remembering obscure words, sometimes randomly.

It’s important that I be able to speak Arabic because soon I will start traveling to smaller towns and villages to meet with civil society groups and not everyone speaks English outside of Beirut. It’s also important because showing you’ve attempted to learn their language gains the trust of people who may be skeptical of a foreigner. I’m fairly certain that in two or three weeks I will feel comfortable having a conversation in Arabic, as long as I keep up my study regiment and my trips to Evergreen. (The latter shouldn’t be a problem.) I only wish Lebanese dialect wasn’t so different from Classical Arabic, because I feel like I’m learning two different languages at the same time.

I often eat dinner there. Sometimes Amigo will share his dinner that he’s cooked for himself with me; other times Amigo or the General (the real one) will order food for delivery and we sit there and eat it at the bar and they answer my questions about Lebanon. A few days ago I tried Armenian food for the first time – it’s spicy, not like Lebanese food. Of course I liked it. I rambled on about how I love spicy food and how I love hot sauce and now I have to bring in my bottle of Frank’s Red Hot Sauce for them to try. If I can ever figure out how to light the stove in my place, I’m going to cook Cincinnati chili for them some time. (I think you have to put a match on the burner when you turn the gas on, but this scares me.) This is the Lebanese way; I’ve been few places where the people are as generous.

Of course, there are also people my age and younger who come in, people like the two German guys whose names I always forget (but whom I beat at darts) and Ashkan from Iran who teaches at AUB and with whom I’ve gone other places in Beirut and Sami the AUB track runner who told me I was too tense and Dr. Paul the Plastic Surgeon and his friend Tarek and many college students who make me feel like I’m in the age group of the old guys.

Oh, yes, and there is the dartboard. I triumphantly won five dollars from Amigo when I defeated him on Saturday two games to one, and we’re not talking the game where you get three of each kind of number but the game called 301 where you have to hit a double (double is the tiny ring on the outside of the board) to start the scoring and you count down to 0, ending your game with a double. In the final game, I needed 5, which meant I needed to hit a 1 and a double 2. I hit both. Yes, I am still gloating about it, ha ha ha.

Last night I was suddenly hit with a memory of Pub 13 in Luxembourg where I learned how to play darts. When Amigo first asked me if I had ever played, I said yes, but I couldn’t remember where. Last night I remembered, and I couldn’t stop remembering. This trip feels a lot like that one. It’s been a dozen years and I’ve some life experience and the caution that comes with it, but I haven’t felt this energized since then.

The other night I had a dream that I was in Ohio and I wanted to go back to Beirut but there were no flights and I couldn’t get anyone to drive me to the airport. I was so upset in the dream. But when I woke, I couldn’t help but laugh, because I realized that I was still in Beirut and still had a lot of time left. I’ve fallen in love with the chaos, with the dirt, with the sounds of construction drills and hammers and shouting, with the occasional cockroach crawling across the bar, the insane drivers, the dreadful traffic, the incessant honking of horns even as it drives me crazy.

But damn Israel if they attack this spring like some people think might happen. And damn the Obama administration and the United States if they sit back and let Israel do it. Or maybe I shouldn’t say that. Political talk is banned in Evergreen. Religion, too. Of course, I haven’t been thrown out yet.

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