Friday, March 29, 2013

Three Days in Beirut

I slept on a flight for the first time in my life. I mean really slept – for nine hours in a row. The last site I remember was somewhere in Canada. By the time I woke up we were somewhere over Croatia or Serbia. I suppose the tension leading up to the trip was higher than for others…I had been sick of work and Washington and really needed to get away.

The arrival to Beirut was a sort of homecoming. The flight pattern took us directly over Ras Beirut and Hamra, the place that held my heart captive in my absence. The city seemed to glow brighter than I remembered; although a new skyline of incandescent skyscrapers accounted for some of the radiance, most of the light came from Saturday night traffic. Indeed, it was the first thing Chris noticed and his introduction to the functional insanity that we call Lebanon. I watched, amused, as he experienced his first near-collision in a Beirut taxi as we made the fifteen-minute-turned-forty-five trip from the airport to Hamra. We gave up on the cab and walked the remaining blocks when we were close enough, dropped our bags, and headed straight to my friend Amigo’s pub.

Chris and Amigo got along well and we had a blast. Two Armenian guys with whom I had the pleasure of drinking many times were the bar’s soul patrons; I struggled to recall their names though we had conversed many times about serious subjects and some not so serious. It was from them I had learned about Lebanese-Armenians and with whom I had shared my first basturma. They returned to the bar on our second night at our request.

It was disturbing to see the bar so empty on a Saturday night. Part of that is Amigo’s fault – he doesn’t allow single young men into the bar because he is afraid they are there to hook up with girls – but a lot of it has to do with the economic times in Lebanon that are a result of the conflict in neighboring Syria. Not only have the tourists stopped coming, but many Lebanese have gone abroad to seek better and more stable opportunities.

We saw evidence of the economic conditions the next day as I took Chris on a walking tour of the city (a tour that was to have adverse consequences for the entirety of the trip.) I led him on a path from our hotel to the sea; he marveled at our proximity to the water when it first revealed itself to him from behind the buildings of the American University of Beirut, mere blocks from our starting point. We descended a graffiti-covered stairway next to the university and ambled down to the corniche, where I had walked and contemplated the complexities of living so many times, as I wrote about here. The weather was strange; rain surrounded us but it was sunny where we stood. Once or twice the sky opened for thirty seconds or so and zipped right up again. Clouds had disappeared Mount Lebanon, and it would be two days before its snowy peak appeared to us.

The walk to downtown is not that far in comfortable shoes – perhaps twenty minutes at a steady pace. Chris seemed to be more interested in the mammoth yachts in St. George’s Marina than in the bombed out Holiday Inn hovering above it. Both told a story about Beirut and about life after the apocalypse, where the haves have everything and the have-nots live in bullet-riddled memories of a glorious city. The haves have taken the sea away from the people; highrises have blocked the view for those who had one for decades, and the monstrosities have blocked the sun from the corniche, leaving the people to walk the promenade in shadows for much of the day. Worse, though, is how the highrises have blocked the sea air from the city, trapping the city’s pollution inside and leaving it to suffocate under the Mediterranean sun. Haves and have nots, the story of the world. It’s a wonder the Earth still spins, isn’t it?

Downtown Beirut is a testament to man’s propensity to create beautiful things. The architecture is an amalgamation of styles that has transformed the city into something unique to the world. Mosques and churches abound, many of them centuries old. In between our bouts of wandering, we stopped for part of a Greek Orthodox mass and most of a Maronite Catholic mass, the latter being more annoying than interesting because the priest undertook what is possibly the longest consecration in the history of Catholicism.

In that same span of wandering, Chris entered the big mosque, the one I jokingly refer to as the St. Hariri Mosque because Rafik Hariri built it on top of a much more modest mosque and he is buried there. You can only say that to certain folks – to some Hariri is a deity. To his credit, he did pull Beirut out from the rubble, though his company, Solidaire, and its development activity are a major source of tension. Instead of rebuilding downtown for the Lebanese people, the post-war development, led by Solidaire, catered to wealthy Gulfie tourists and the Lebanese elites. When the tourists stopped coming to Beirut, so did their money, so a number of downtown stores sit empty, a physical manifestation of the economic consequences of the conflict in Syria. It’s somewhat ironic that  the Syrian situation has had such an effect on the area. Hariri was assassinated in a car bomb in 2005 by pro-Syrian agents, most likely Hezbollah. The empty shops seem like Assad’s last “Fuck you” to his dead enemy.

I took Chris to Gemmayze, a Christian district just over the dividing line between East and West Beirut. The district is full of bars and lounges and is something of a miracle considering its proximity to the “frontline” of the war. There is no shortage of buildings pocked with the scars left by bullets and bombs, but the life beneath them makes them something of an afterthought, at least in the evening hours. It was Sunday afternoon, however, and nothing was living. We scoured the area looking for an open bar to rest Chris’s blistering feet; the distance we had to walk because everything was closed made them worse. We did find a spot, however, with a bartender named Wissam who may have been the friendliest guy in Beirut. He was a young Shia who, from what I could tell, had discarded religion and possibly had been estranged from his family. He was, after all, employed as a bartender, one of the four jobs he worked to make ends meet. His situation is not unique in Beirut; sometimes it feels like the Lebanese are mere servants to their Gulfie overlords.

We walked around a bit more, through an Armenian neighborhood, the dull financial district, and back through downtown to Hamra. Sometime that evening we napped, though not really by choice, as the time change had caught up with us. We eventually awoke to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day at Amigo’s. It was an evening of Guinness, a failed attempt at live oud music (the original guitar), a late night seedy club, and dawn munching of chicken shawarma from Beirut’s famous Barbar.

We slept late the next day. I treated Chris to a Lebanese dinner at Raouche that night, laughing as he practically yelled at me for ordering plate after plate of food – hummus, fattouch (salad), labneh (yogurt), soujouk (spicy sausages), and grape leaves. The thing I had missed the most about Lebanon was the food, and I made sure to have one of everything I loved in those three days. This dinner, for me, was the highlight and what I had been looking forward to more than anything. Mezze is like tapas, probably more familiar to Americans, in that you order several small plates of food, but Chris didn’t know that. That’s why it was so funny when he couldn’t believe how many plates I had ordered.

We ate well the next day, too, at Pepe’s Fishing Club in Byblos, where we chose our own red snapper to go with hummus and a salad of tomatoes and feta cheese. The bus ride from Beirut did not end with climbing through a banana grove like the last time I stopped in Byblos; by then I had been on that road many times and knew where to tell the driver to drop us off. No bus stops in Lebanon; it’s a miracle there are any comfortable buses at all!

Lots of old stuff in Byblos – it is the oldest continually inhabited city on the planet, founded by the Phoenicians 5000 years ago. The highlight is the thirteenth century citadel from the Crusades, but Roman ruins, Phoenician ruins, Persian ruins, pagan ruins, and buildings from the Ottoman Turk period can be found in the area. Largely spared damage during the Lebanese civil war due to its homogenous nature, it’s a good place to see what Lebanon was like before the country tried to commit suicide. (So it goes.)

We watched the sun plunge into the Mediterranean and just like that, the day was over, as was our brief Lebanon adventure. We flagged down a minibus on the side of the highway to take us back to Beirut, where we’d spend our remaining hours playing darts and drinking Almaza at my friend’s pub. I confirmed my status as darts champion of Hamra (haha), and a taxi took us to the airport at 4am.

Soon, though, disaster would strike…

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