(No, I haven’t parked my emotions anywhere! Every time I go to do that, they resist me and tell me that without emotion I cannot capture the spirit of Beirut!)
Beirut is the handsome young man shyly smiling as he bags the roasted chestnuts from his homemade cart, generously adding an extra aromatic two after he weighs them and just because I told him that I hadn’t enjoyed eating this delicacy in a long while.
Beirut is the beautiful young woman, her hair covered, wearing her tight tights, leaning against a tree as she lovingly gazes into the smoldering eyes of her partner.
Beirut is the three young women sipping their coffee, one with flowing black hair, the other with a baseball cap and the third with the traditional headscarf, giggling as they scroll through their iPhones and read aloud the latest Lebanese joke making the rounds.
Beirut is zigzagging through the horrendous traffic, jaywalking one’s way through the narrow streets, adrenalin pumping as one of the hundreds of motorcycles comes to a screeching halt just in time. Red Lights are only a Suggestion here; few consider them a Mandatory Law! Nevertheless, there are less accidents and fatalities per capita here, and amidst all this chaos, than there are on any given day on the highways of Fairfax County! Go figure!
Beirut is walking in the streets at your own risk: trying to avoid the potholes; maneuvering around the rubbish; not slipping on a soapy pavement; not walking under a balcony lest some flat owner decides to flick his cigarette butt onto the street; holding tight onto your purse lest it is snatched.
Beirut is the little hole-in-the-wall fruit and vegetable shop whose proprietor is sitting on his rickety chair just outside the door, waving to a friend, greeting a customer as she walks in, taking his sweet time while inhaling a puff from his shisha before following her in.
Beirut is the chichi set togged out in their designer outfits, meeting for lunch at the upscale restaurant, and the ordinary folks dipping their bread in hummus at the modest seaside café.
She is an enigma!
She is the innovative new play that just opened at one of the theatres; the lecture delivered to the intellectual crowd; the modern art exhibit at the arabesque gallery; the latte sipping usual customers perched at their signature cafes; the latest European fashions by Brioni and Valentino elegantly displayed in the stunning windows that the locals call “Beirut’s Rodeo Drive.” Here, too, are Lebanon’s talented and world-renowned designers flaunting their incredible fashions from dazzling shop windows.
For those who cannot afford the theatre or the art galleries, there are the hundreds of Arabic shows and soap operas on their local TVs, as well as the humorous Lebanese skits and jokes coming through their iPhones, shared over a cup of coffee bought from the street vendor in one of the hundreds of wayside makeshift cafes.
She is the group of elegant professionals talking and laughing as they meet for a power lunch at the ritzy restaurant, and the young students – nerds, preppies, hijab clad while others bare their inviting cleavage – joshing with each other as they crowd the university steps waiting for their next session to begin.
She is the young woman who was barhopping with her heterosexual and gay friends last night and whose parents, not knowing whom she mingles with, have continuously preached that homosexuality is a deviation.
She is the middle-aged man whom I used to fight politics with over thirty years ago as he hotly extolled the virtues of the Christian right-wing factions and that same man who now tells me that it was only a few thousand criminals and some unscrupulous politicians who ruined this country. He has no affiliations these days with any faction. He knows that they all used him, used all of us. Religion is not his “thing” anymore! It has turned him off! Way off!
Beirut is where the Christian boy has never seen a Muslim, and the Muslim boy who has never played with a Christian boy. She is the hefty bare armed Christian Mama who is haggling with the vegetable cart peddler in the midst of the Muslim neighborhood where she has been living all her life, and where a Catholic school hosts more Muslim boys in one of its classes than Christians.
She is the paradox where traditional older women are reading “Fifty Shades of Grey,” and where the younger set is enjoying uninhibited wanton love that would horrify their oblivious parents.
She is where you can find prostitutes of any color, any age, any position that you fancy, the hashish, the cocaine, the mafias of all persuasions, the underbelly of a traditional society where Christian girls are shagging with Muslim men, and Druze and hijab covered women are having intimate liaisons with men of different faiths. If only their parents knew, their hearts would stop! Many of this younger generation have set their own values; they do not give a damn anymore about the biases of their parents!
Beirut is the local privately owned hospitals managed by young professional Lebanese men and women, cooperating with Johns Hopkins and other medical centers in the US and elsewhere.
She is the hundreds of upper class women devoting their power, money, connections, time and experience to a volunteerism that amazes me! They support the hundreds of organizations that are helping everyone from Syrian refugees, to Palestinians, to orphans, widows, handicapped and old people. They make the country and the region proud!
Beirut is that elegant older Frenchman deciding to retire in her warmth, to ski at noon and then to go swimming in the afternoon. He blends in with all the other foreigners: the spies and political operatives canvassing this small country; ever ready to ship out and leave their conspiracies behind to cause the inhuman damage that has been hovering over this exceptional and resilient space all these decades!
She is the breath-taking privately owned museums, the incredibly stately old homes (some, sadly, are torn down rather than preserved!), the tiny alleys with their quaint cafes and antique shops. She is also the falafel, the shawarma, the mankoosheh all just freshly, aromatically made only for you!
Beirut is also the stolen artifacts robbed from her historical belly and are now lying in hiding with greedy collectors; some brazenly displayed in foreign museums and amongst the private collections of foreign entities, and we all know who some of these thieves are, don’t we?
She is the enterprising entrepreneurs and shipbuilding Phoenicians now fanning the globe, wheeling and dealing, in some places wielding their power and wealth and displaying the ugly traits of that unconscionable neo-colonialism that we often politely call capitalism.
Beirut, in some of her aspects, is a microcosm, a mirror of what is happening in most of the world’s capitals. Moreover, because she is so tiny we can see what is occurring elsewhere using the very same lenses through which we are viewing her: sex, drugs and money, political corruption, greed and malaise have become universal! Most of the world’s capitals are suffering, as she is, from these same syndromes. Maybe the one small difference is that most of those dying on Lebanon’s streets are because of politics; most of the dying in the West’s cities is due to violent acts that are very rarely political. Despite that, the per capita crime rate in Lebanon is much lower than it is in the US, for instance!
Yet, her people, the Lebanese people, are what make her so unique and so enchanting. They draw us to her magnetically like the sirens once occupying her beautiful shores. They have the magical charm that ensnares and enthralls us like no other. It is why we, her citizens and immigrants, keep on returning, never wanting to let go of her.
She is our Beirut!
She is a paradox!
We will remain steadfast until the evil doers withdraw from her streets and then we will sprinkle the jasmine attar and rose water and pave the way for the younger generations that they may enjoy her as we once did, knowing that they will most probably take better care of her than we ever did!