April 28, 2008

Beirut, Lebanon

The most dangerous situation in Beirut was that I might have never left as it was a welcome oasis after traveling for a month through more conservative Arab countries where drinking an afternoon glass of red wine at a see-and-be-seen restaurant, wearing a tank dress and gossiping Old Hollywood with a former publicist while commenting on the quality of botox injections of the fellow patrons just doesn’t happen. You can take the girl out of New York or L.A, but it’s hard to reverse, especially when fed one too many falafel sandwiches while suffering estrogen-comrade-deprivation; my arrival in Beirut felt like a familiar homecoming.
Lebanon is a fascinating and beautiful country made up of a rich and diverse blend of contrasting elements; Valentino and Armani Casa stores line the streets of a heavily-secured, once-bustling, now nearly-deserted Downtown whose landscape consists of newly constructed skyscrapers mixed with the bombed out shells of buildings affected by 14 years of war. It is as easy to find a Mosque and Church on the same block as it is to hear the Lebanese people seamlessly pass from Arabic to English to French in the same sentence. And much like the West coast in America, one could reasonably travel from the bright blue waters of the Mediterranean to the snow-capped mountains outside Beirut in the same day.
Walking the streets of the city can be harrowing at first sight. There are reminders of the many years of civil and regional war on every corner, but like the Lebanese have done, after some time you grow resilient to the images of rubble, bullet holes, soldiers and security checkpoints and focus on all the beauty that remains. As a foreigner whose only introduction to home turf invasion were the attacks of September 11th, it took some time to process what this country has been through and how they have survived with kindness, style and grace. It could explain why there is a national affection for a good party and dancing and drinking into the early hours of morning is commonplace. The night I went to the dance club I felt 22 years old until dawn assaulted that fabricated reality and I awoke later in the day to accurately feel every bit of my 33 years, give and don’t take 10.
I happened to be in Beirut at a very unique time in their political history – there is no president in office; that means none, nada, zilch – gone fishing – be back in spring – better luck next time. The standstill can be felt among the residents who are, understandably, cautious to make new business endeavors before this “minor” issue gets resolved. While walking to Downtown on one of my first days there, before I knew any of the current events, I happened to see a billboard advertising a Lebanese art fair and below the sign was a parking lot full of tents. I was excited to see some local crafts but as I approached all I saw were men and lots of hanging laundry. “Hmmm,” I thought, “Why are these artisans selling their laundry?” It wasn’t until later that I learned I walked right through Hezbollah protest territory in search of some local culture; I guess I got it just not in the form of art!
I met Tania at the Port View Hotel, a family-run business in the happening neighborhood of Gemmayze, and we hit it off right away. It wasn’t because she was the only woman I had a conversation with in more than a month, it was because we were kindred explorers sharing a passion for the unknown. It was way more refreshing to have female companionship than it was to drink the local Almaza beer, but then again, it was nice to have both. Tania would take me to great sights outside of the city (Lady of Lebanon, Byblos) and then we would end our evening at a seaside restaurant, sipping beer or local Lebanese wine, while she told me wild stories of her days as a flight attendant for Middle East Air or taking a job as an Arabic-English translator in war torn Fellujah. I stayed longer than planned, a trend I seem to be starting with myself, to get my maximum dose of the female companionship - cold beer combo before heading back to Syria where the only excitement at 4 a.m is the wake–up call to pray.

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