(Article Two out of Three)
I am languidly sipping my tea and inhaling my cigarette at a Zaitunay Bay café while the Mediterranean breeze caresses me voluptuosly teasing every one of my senses, and as the sun erotically nuzzles me with its warm rays. Bobbing on the sensuous ripples of the sea are the numerous yachts lying in the shadow of the lavish new buildings dotting Beirut’s coastline. It is, verily, a Kodak moment!
Yet, the other day, another bomb exploded in Haret Hreik, the second since my arrival, killing, maiming and leaving another slew of bereaved and traumatized innocent citizens in its aftermath. At my childhood school where I was visiting, the usual precautions went immediately and calmly into effect, what we would call “Lockdown” in the States, sans the drama! Is there another bomb coming, another bloodbath? Slowly, and as the day went by, I could feel how the bustle was slowing down so that by nighttime it became sadly quieter than I had heard it since my arrival. A friend cancels her visit. She has, as she usually does in such instances, taken a sedative and climbed into the cocoon of her bed. PTSD is a very common malady here.
The incredible contrasts of this city are surreal!
We drive up to the building where a security detail immediately surrounds us. Gruffly: Who are you? Walkie-talkies become active; handbags searched; escorted into the elevator; a security code punched before Otis moves up! I feel transported to the set of a CSI episode!! A valet opens the door of the ultra-posh and elegant apartment, behind him a very prominent Lebanese greets us warmly as we go in to visit with his wife. She is the intelligent and beautiful woman whom I had met several years back in London and who now warmly embraces me. Casual chitchat ensues for a charming two hours and then, escorted by the same security detail, we take our leave!
A starkly contradicting reality took place earlier in the day, walking towards Hamra Street, once Beirut’s Champs Elysee, I passed by about a dozen indigent Lebanese youngsters, and younger Syrian refugees with their mothers, begging on the streets. There are no security details for them! Heart-wrenching! Lebanon now has these refugees to deal with, on top of the Palestinian refugees, on top of all the problems visited upon it by the collaboration of a belligerent and vindictive American and Israeli foreign policy that has been devastating the region for decades, as well as by its totally greedy and inane Lebanese politicians! The injustice is appalling!
It is surreal!
I stroll in the new downtown, the Solidere district, that visionary Hariri legacy, and I am astounded! Historic Roman ruins and relics, beautiful mosques abutting old churches, remembrance gardens and ultra-modern stores, posh eateries, lovely walkways and sleek escalators eerily reflecting that eclectic Beirut I once knew so well; sadly bemoaning her miserable fate.
That same afternoon I find myself visiting with a relative, passing through dilapidated buildings, some still bearing the gaping holes that bombs and artillery had raped. Here are apartments housing the unemployed young men, the bereaved mothers, and the crippled man with the blown off legs who had fashioned a slab of wood mounted on four wheels that serves as his transport, maneuvering it as he goes begging for the day.
It feels so surreal!
Visiting with my friends – some of whom I have known since I was nine, others for fifty years and more – is a most magical experience! We immediately pick up from where we had left off, as if these past thirty years have been but a moment in our lives. There is no hesitation, no silent pauses, no feeling of estrangement! Just as it was before the sounds of gunfire and missiles drowned out all our hopes and happiness. Eerie! Amazing! Sad! Exhilarating!
Daily, the turmoil in the region ominously announces that there is more turbulence yet to come. People carry on though, not because they do not care, or because they are apathetic, they certainly are not. However, they have been seasoned enough by these relentless years of war to know that it is this Moment, this Now that they have to savor and enjoy before the next bomb detonates, the next politician is targeted for assassination, before another local, regional or international malfeasance once again brings their lives to another jolting halt!
It feels so surreal!
The Daily Star, Lebanon’s English newspaper, announces that The Globes and The Grammys were a fashion show for Lebanese designers this year; some of our Hollywood stars were dressed in their beautiful productions.
This uplifting headline eclipsing for a brief moment the other dismal headlines: the Hariri Trial, the corrupt jostling of Lebanon’s politicians and feudal lords, the war on Syria, the explosions in Iraq, the drones in Yemen and Afghanistan, the military takeover in Egypt and on and on ad infinitum of the region’s turmoil.
It is certainly surreal!
It is as surreal as Lebanon is with its arena hosting, as it has for the past many years, the intrigues and conspiracies, the local, regional and international players vying for that coveted title of Dominant Matrix while Lebanon’s politicians play the whore to the sado-masochistic games of nations!
It is surreal!
Almost every building is a fortress. Concrete slabs, iron poles, roped barricades, security codes and bodyguards, soldiers and police officers ringing these mini cities within the city. Even the individual apartments are forts; their occupants, more than anywhere else, considering them their refuges and shrines. Within that serenity, they can pretend that life is normal; their double-glazed windows barring the constant wail of sirens; within them, they do not have to engage with their traumas; inside their walls, they can deny the myriad dysfunctional aspects and relationships of their lives. Sadly, I realize that this never-ending tragic situation has touched all of us whether living here or having immigrated elsewhere; that our lives are all very dramatically affected. Some of us have painfully come to terms with these circumstances and ourselves; others have maintained the easy way out opting for denial: that narcotic, that aphrodisiac that allows them to wake up the next morning!
It is so surreal!
We, in Lebanon, have no illusions anymore about our lives and politics. We, in America, are rife with delusions that we live in a free and democratic country. It is only a pathetic Fata Morgana that comes at the horrifically shameful price of killing, maiming and upending the lives of millions of innocent human beings!
It is all so, so very surreal . . .