Saturday, July 12, 2008

Beirut Blues.....and the Theory of Relativity


Along with Paris, London, Rome and New York, it's one of those legendary global cities that everyone should visit at least once in their lifetime.

To most people, it's a cauldron of political instability that dominates the news headlines with alarming regularity, but it's always held a special allure for me. That's something about this city, the Paris of the East, that conjures up romantic images of adventure from a forgotten, sepia-tinged era and the impossible joie de vivre that is the very essence of Beirut's soul.

It's a city I worked and lived in for the larger part of a summer two years ago. Now, I was going back to visit for a few days and hang out with some fellow backpackers I had met in Syria.

The last time I caught a glimpse of her was still etched in my memory, gazing wistfully from the deck of the Orient Queen, an ocean liner chartered to ferry refugees to the safety of Cyprus, as Israeli jets rained down steel and death on Beirut's hapless inhabitants below. I remember having a MacArthur-esque moment, silently vowing to return one day, as the skyline I had become so intimate with slowly melted into the horizon.

Now, l felt anticipation welling up within me, as the taxi sped along the Damascus-Beirut highway to an eagerly awaited reunion with a long-lost lover.

As her familiar skyline gradually materialized in the valley below, I impatiently willed the taxi to go faster in my mind, despite the breakneck speed at which it was already hurtling down the narrow mountain roads.

I found my friends at the Al Nazih Pension which, along with the adjacent Talal Hotel, seemed to be sheltering just about all of the handful of intrepid backpackers in town. The hostel itself was an unremarkable hole-in -the-wall, but merits a mention here though, just for the sheer bizarreness of the staff there. It was run by a wizened old man, who we quickly nicknamed Grandpa. There were another two staff members that were creepy, both in different ways. Eddie, a young former male nurse, sported a unibrow and had this disconcerting habit of feeling up the male backpackers at the hostel, while hitting on just about anything in a skirt. The other employee, whose name I never caught, had considerably less personality than a mortician.

Meeting back up with the troops was great, and I played the role of tour guide and showed them all of my old haunts, such as the expensive-looking downtown restaurant, Al-Balad, which serves one of Beirut's best-kept secrets in its cheap, affordable Ouzi (a lamb dish).

And Bliss Street, that popular, traffic-choked drag outside the American University, with its second hand bookshops and cheap food vendors.

Some of the old zest of Beirut's cafe culture has returned. We watched a couple of the Euro '08 games on huge screens amidst the al fresco cafes that were teeming with locals and tourists. There was even a smattering of Western tourists around, all of this just mere weeks after the heart of the city had been paralyzed for 18 months by opposition protesters living in a tent city. For the briefest of moments in my mind, I was almost taken back in time to 2006, when I watched the World Cup games with a special someone in that very location.


Then, like the trailing end of a gentle summer breeze on my cheek, the feeling passed.

Something felt different. Sure, it was great to return to the place that had been my home for a summer, but there were all the little things that had inevitably changed since then. Many familiar sights greeted me like long lost friends, such as the Starbucks café where I spent so many scorching Sunday afternoons nursing a frappuccino, but like unseen ghosts from the past, I mourned what I had lost. Nothing big, just the little things.

A cafe run by a friend had closed permanently, according to the staff at the adjacent Starbucks. I tried to get in touch with him, but attempts to reach him at the phone numbers I had were futile.

Being haunted by inexplicable feelings of loss and emptiness at being in the city without that former significant other, as if I didn't quite belong there without her.

Then, there was the city's legendary nightlife.

Eddie, a college buddy who now lives and works in Beirut, was gracious enough to take us for a night on the town. Here again, though, I was disappointed by the high expectations borne of my previous experiences. For one, it's almost impossible to get in most places with 7 boys in tow, as we soon found out. For another, Rue Monot, once heaving with fashionably-dressed young Beirutis and a cornucopia of clubs and bars, was a mere shell of its former self. Eddie explained that the partying scene in Beirut has since moved on to the adjacent Gemmayze district and other areas of the city, instead of being centered around Monot, as it used to be.

Allow me the vanity of quoting from an article I once wrote in a school magazine: Nostalgia's a bitch, and man, did I feel her teeth gnawing at me constantly throughout my sojourn in Beirut.

We also ventured into the southern suburbs of Beirut, the stronghold of Hezbollah, in search of a certain restaurant that had been featured on the BBC news, and also because the other lads were curious to see this "infamous terrorist neighborhood". The details of our misadventures there and our brush with members of the "Party of God," however, merit an email in themselves, which will follow sometime in the next week, when I get the chance to put it together.

The reports we had heard from other backpackers before we arrived of "tanks being everywhere on the streets" also proved to be somewhat of an exaggeration. While there were some armored personal carriers and the odd tank or two, they were usually situated near strategic positions, such as the homes of important government members. The only inkling that normal service hasn't quite resumed in Beirut yet was the presence of scores of soldiers cradling M-16s on just about every street corner.

Which brings me to my next observation.

Despite the large number of troops on the streets, Beirut, on the surface at least, seems to be recovering its hedonistic culture of the good old days. It's hard to think of any other country in the world where the people could go on living and partying so nonchalantly surrounded by such a heavy military presence, as if totally oblivious to the political crisis paralyzing the country.

Maybe it's a form of mental escapism, a way for Beirutis to forget their problems and where they are and simply lose themselves in the pursuit of mindless pleasure.

Or perhaps this is normalcy for Beirutis. A warped sense of normalcy, in the sense of the word as we know it, yes, but if conflict and political crises are all that you know, then any chance to celebrate is to be seized and savored, such as the temporary lull in tensions that Beirut is enjoying. Remember, this is a country that was gripped by civil war from 1975-1990, and after a false dawn of a few years of peace, was plunged right back into the horror of war just two years ago.

Looks like ol' Einstein's Theory of Relativity is still alive and kickin'.

My time in Beirut passed all too quickly. Over one last hearty lunch at Al-Balad, it was with a heavy heart that I said farewell to A. and K., my traveling companions for almost two weeks now , for the second time in a few days, this time for good. Email addresses were exchanged and promises to stay in touch were made, but deep down, I think we all knew that this could very well be the last time we saw each other. Passing ships in the night, perhaps.

That's the thing about the nomadic lifestyle. No matter how many wonderful people you meet on the road, or how great the times you share, there's always the inevitable painful good-bye, with nothing left to hold on to but those precious memories and photographs.

And so it was with Beirut. I'll be back again soon enough, I'm sure, but the experience will be different once again, with new faces and new places. It's a city that you never experience the same way twice. The one thing that won't change is I'll always be powerless to resist its Siren call.

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