Sunday, May 16, 2010

Beirut Story

A young man stood beneath the ruins of what had once been a glorious Venetian-style building smoking a cigarette and wearing his idleness proudly upon his sleeve. He watched as the people walked by, watched a fat mother pulling along a crying girl in a bright yellow dress, watched the hijab-clad women walk behind those for whom modesty was no concept, watched the taxis go by leaving trails of exhaust behind them. The relic above him had been spared most war damage but was desecrated by years of neglect and disuse. Trees grew from the crumbling concrete balconies while the street level of the building held a stylish eye glasses shop, a cell phone store, and a tiny market selling useless junk, its windows covered in posters of a politician running for municipal elections who looked suspiciously like Alex Trabek. Flags of various countries competing for the World Cup hung from a rope outside. The American flag was noticeably absent, as it was in all the shops with World Cup displays across Beirut.

“Kifak?’ the young man suddenly shouted in greeting another young man across the street.

“Mneha. Shu fi ma fi?” The newcomer, a light-skinned man in his early twenties, narrowly avoided being hit by a motorscooter driving the wrong direction down a one way street as he walked towards his friend. He ran his hand through his curly hair and laughed.

“Where are you going?” the first man asked in English.

“Library. I have a paper due tomorrow.”

“You always have papers!” he replied laughing.

“Because I study a real subject!” His friend playfully slapped him on the shoulder.

“We go to meet for a drink tonight. Will you come?”

“If I finish. Wayn brooh?”


“Tayib. I will call. Ciao.”

The first young man threw his cigarette butt on the ground as his friend walked away and reached into the pocket of his jeans to start a new one, pulling out a piece of paper with the pack. He mechanically read what was on the paper before throwing it to the ground.

Call me – 71693199 – Molly

Molly was an Irish chick he had met at the pub to whom he had paid a little too much attention. He didn’t like Western women. He told himself this was because they were too sexually liberal, but occasionally he recognized his dislike of the strength and confidence they exuded as a result of Western gender equality. Molly also worked for an international NGO, and he despised these neo-imperialist organizations who felt they needed to “fix” his country.

The old man who ran the small junk shop sat outside it in a white plastic chair. An empty one sat beside him until another man arrived to fill it. He was younger than the shop owner and what remained of his hair was still black. The two of them jabbered on in Arabic for a time before an old man shuffled up and greeted them with boisterous hand gestures that contradicted the limited mobility of his legs. The younger man stood up.

“Sit down,” he said in Arabic as he extended a hand to the place where his corpulent body had been.

“Yislamu, yislamu,” the old man replied in gratitude.

“Ahlan wa sahlan, ahlan wa sahlan. Kifak, ya Fadi?”

“Mneha, alhamdullah.” The conversation continued in Arabic among the three of them with the younger man standing in the middle of the sidewalk, oblivious to pedestrians who had to squeeze by him to pass. The old man pointed to the young man standing idly and smoking another cigarette.

“Look at these young people standing around all day doing nothing. They are spoiled. Their parents provide them with fancy cars and money to go to nightclubs and shopping and they do nothing with their lives. Nothing!”

“But there aren’t enough jobs for all of them,” the younger man replied.

“Of course there are but they won’t do them. Look at the construction works in this city – the Palestinians and the immigrants do the work because the Lebanese young people won’t do it!” He sighed. “This construction. They are destroying Beirut in a different way than the war. They build these skyscrapers that have no soul. I used to be able to see the sea and the mountains from my window. Now I see nothing. Nothing! Only ugly high rises. A tragedy in concrete!”

The shopkeeper lit a cigarette and kicked a candy wrapper on the ground. “I don’t recognize my city anymore. Downtown has no character. I remember running around in the days of my youth. Oh, the nightlife! Now it is Western chain restaurants and exclusive nightclubs for the superficial young people who only care about materialism.”

The old man broke into a song by Lebanon’s most famous chanteuse, Fairouz.

“To Beirut…
From the soul of her people she makes wine,
From their sweat she makes bread and jasmine.
So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?”

His mournful wail was but a pale reflection of Fairouz, but the pain and soul was just as deep. His lamentation was interrupted by the clatter of screeching tires, crunching metal, and angry shouting. Two cars had collided at the intersection. Culpability laid with one of the drivers who had refused to obey the recently installed traffic lights of Beirut. Despite driving through the red light, he still blamed the other driver.

A crowd gathered around the accident, more because it was something that happened rather than out of curiosity. The three men in front of the shop halted their conversation to stare at the scene before them, and the young man gravitated towards the corner because it was something to do. He flicked away his cigarette butt and lit another with the indifference of a child who gets clothes for Christmas.

The owners of the wrecks did not stop yelling even as they exchanged insurance information. They drove away without involving the police and the street returned to its bustling idleness.

“I am out of cigarettes,” the young man told the shopkeeper, who disappeared inside the shop before retuning with a pack. The exchange of money must have triggered something in the young man’s brain, because he took out his mobile and made a call.

“Allo, Fouad? Kifak? Mneha, mneha. Shoof, bedi birooh Costa. Yalla. Ok, see you in a few minutes.” He would meet his friend at the Italian coffee chain. The old man made a sucking sound so typically Lebanese and shook his head.

“See?” he began in Arabic. “The young people are the reason we lose our city. If they do not go to the Western coffee shop and pay four dollars for a fancy Western coffee drink, these chains would not be destroying the soul of Beirut.”

“What do you want?” the younger man asked. “We have war for fifteen years. Where does money come from to rebuild the city?”

“Hariri rebuilt downtown with no regard for the people of Beirut,” the old man replied curtly. “He wanted more money. Money, money, it’s always about money! Money and power! That monstrosity downtown is not a mosque; it’s a temple for Hariri!”

“Hariri, God rest his soul, did much to rescue us from our own destruction,” the shopkeeper replied rather timidly.

“Why did he not rebuild the buildings as they were? Why did he have to take the sea away from the people?”

“He’s not the only one building high rises,” the shopkeeper replied with an arm gesture that mimicked the skyscrapers.

“These rich people, they left like cowards during the war and made money in America and returned to take advantage of Lebanon being weak from the war!” The old man was shouting, but no one seemed to notice. “They cheat their fellow Lebanese. It is shameful. Shameful!”

“They are trying to make reforms,” the shopkeeper said. “Insha’allah, the government will make regulations and…”

“The government! What good is the government? They are all the same people who tried to destroy the country, or they are their sons! What good is the government, I ask you. They are the ones responsible for destroying Beirut during the war and now!”

Neither the shopkeeper nor the younger man could disagree.

“These men are not Lebanese – they’re slaves to the Syrians and the Iranians and the Saudis and the French and the Americans – especially the Americans!”

“Some of them aren’t.”

“Hizbollah are slaves to the Americans, too, because they are obsessed with the Americans! They would rather destroy Lebanon than stop obsessing about the Americans!” The old man threw his hands into the air. “Hizbollah is the whore of Lebanon!”

The younger man could not help but smile at that statement.

“When is Lebanon going to be Lebanon?” the old man continued. “When will we stop being puppets?”

Across the street, a young American sat at an outside table at the locally-owned coffee shop, sipping a cappuccino and trying to follow the conversation across the street with his limited understanding of Lebanese Arabic. His ears had swallowed the word “Amrikiin” and he could not help but listen. Despite being critical of American foreign policy and the materialistic way of life of Americans, he found himself increasingly defending America, which surprised him because he had left his country in disgust.

A young girl who should have been in school approached the American trying to sell him lottery tickets. She would be prevented from growing up to be a beautiful woman by the curse of poverty, a circumstance resulting from the coincidence of her birth as a Palestinian in Lebanon.

“Please sir,” she begged in Arabic. “Please sir, please,” she said as she pushed the lottery tickets under his nose.


“Please sir.”

“La. La, la!” Her insistence made him angry. He shooed her away like a stray dog. He pretended to stir his coffee so he didn’t have to see the shame in her desperate eyes. She couldn’t have been more than ten or eleven but had lost the innocence of childhood long ago. As she drifted away the American tried to push guilt from his mind.

“I can’t buy from every beggar who approaches me,” he muttered to himself. “I can’t save them.” His cappuccino was topped with liquid chocolate in a pattern resembling a spiderweb. “We are all trapped in our own way,” he continued. A burly man stared at the muttering American as he walked past the coffee shop, but the American was unfazed by the attention. “Why are there no American flags in the World Cup displays? What kind of propaganda do these people hear?” The burly man disappeared around the corner, but not before the old man spotted him.

“Khalas!” he screamed. “This is one of Hariri’s slaves!” He nodded towards the burly man. “I knew his father. He was a very bad man and so is his son and his friends. They would eat from the floor if Hariri told them to. They cannot think for themselves! All of them are rotten!”

As the old man said nothing further, the younger man said, “Well, I should be going,” and left the shopkeeper to the ramblings of the old man. The American had lost interest in the conversation and was only waiting for his check when a young Lebanese man sat down at his table.

“Alex!” the Lebanese man said.

“Hey, Jad, what’s up?”

“We are going for drinks tonight. Will you come?”

“I don’t know, Jad. Anna and I were planning on dinner…”

“Bring her! And other Alex, too! It will be our own United Nations pub!”

“I just don’t know if I should drink tonight. It’s too much…”

“Every night is good for drinking!”

Alex’s eyes wandered to the flower boxes full of red geraniums that lined the rails of the terrace as if they reminded him of something painful in his past.

“We’ll see,” was his reply. “These damn Lebanese waiters! I just want my check. Where is he?”

The old man across the street was right about the young people. Jad supposedly had a job but there he was a 3pm cloaked in overpriced jeans and an overpriced t-shirt that said “LOOK AT ME!” in large silver letters. It should have been the uniform for these elite youth. Jad’s position was supposedly that of “graphic designer,” the typical program of study for these elites who couldn’t be bothered to work hard or dirty their hands. Rather than building the country, they played around on computers all day holding the most inane conversations on social media sites in bad English and broken Arabic using the bizarre linguistic system that mixed the Latin alphabet and Western numbers rather than using Arabic script.

“You are in a bad mood; this is the reason to have a drink!”

A bus rolled by with two boys in pinstriped uniforms dancing in the aisle with no concern for the movement of their dance floor. They would grow up to be like Jad.

“Fine, I’ll go, but not for very long.”

“You always say that.” Jad stood to go and made the slightest of hand motions, prompting the waiter to come to the table. Alex paid his check and included a tip despite the poor service. As he wandered down the street and out of sight, he muttered curses about the Lebanese people and the chaos and filth in which they lived.

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