Monday, November 14, 2005

A Bombshell of a City

Beirut is more a nighttime city, so when I arrived at 7 am on a Sunday morning, not much was open. John took Mic and I to a little restaurant near the American University of Beirut where we had pizza-like thingees for breakfast, and then we caught a service back to his apartment. Tourists can visit Beirut and never find the little neighborhoods that tucked away, like the one that John lives in in Ashrafeet. The damage from the civil war is still very much in evidence – bullet riddled and bombed out buildings are common. I can only imagine what the city must have looked like 15 years ago.

After arriving at his apartment John plied me with coffee and gave a brief rundown on Lebanese politics, of which I am woefully ignorant. Most of what I know about Lebanon is related to the Palestinian Refugees, and the Sabra and Shatilla massacre in particular. After his explanation I understood that I will never really comprehend the complexity of the civil war. It seems that most of the fighters switched sides, or at least switched targets in the course of the war, and I was surprised to learn what I thought was a war of Muslims against Christians ended up being Christians against Christians in the end.

The situation in Beirut is tense right now. I was there just after the Hariri Report had been released and most of the people that I spoke with said they were waiting to see what would happen. There is a lot of speculation about who killed Hariri with some people blaming the Syrians, some the Palestinians, and some international forces, and of course a variety of potential coalitions.

In spite of all of this, Beirut is very much a party city and the locals were out enjoying life every night that I was there. It was strange to be in Beirut during the last days of Ramadan because no one in the city seemed to be fasting. In Ramallah if you walk down the street during Ramadan eating or drinking you will be told (maybe politely, maybe not) to go inside if you want to eat/ drink/ smoke while the sun is up. Hell, one of the international students got yelled at for chewing gum, but in Beirut anything seemed to go.

I also have to report that what people say about the Lebanese country and her people is true – they are drop dead gorgeous. Admittedly, both seem to going through some expensive facelifts judging by the number of construction projects going on downtown and the number of bandaged noses (nose jobs) I saw at AUB. The people dress to kill and I gorged myself on some of the best mezza I’ve ever had.

Beirut feels more European than Middle Eastern but you don’t have to go very far out of the city to be reminded that you are not in Europe. The mountains and sea are stunning, however traveling between the two is extremely dangerous. I thought Palestinian and Egyptian drivers were crazy, but the Lebanese take the cake for their insane passing maneuvers: three lanes wide down a mountain road (that is supposed to be two lane, two way) that is so foggy you can’t see 10 feet in front of you, much less who is flying up the mountain at the same breakneck speed. Good thing I have death and dismemberment insurance . . .

I didn’t get to see half the things I wanted to while I was in Lebanon, mainly because my trip was plagued by the same bad luck I had at the border crossing. There were several instances of miscommunication, our rental car got towed for being parked in an inappropriate location (a promising sign of Lebanese civil infrastructure, even if there weren’t any signs labeling it as forbidden in English or Arabic), and I did not have nice enough clothes to make it into one of the famous Beirut dance clubs.

After the string of bad luck I had between having the apartment broken into, the difficulties at the border, and the frustrations of the Beirut trip I decided to skip Syria and head to Kuwait for Eid. It seemed like a good idea to chill out with my family for a couple of days. Besides, Syria isn’t really the place to be (particularly right now) if you’re running on a streak of bad luck . . .


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