Before coming to Beirut, I asked a couple of Lebanese friends at the office in Montreal if I had anything to worry about. They were both the same: “No, no! Nothing to worry about so long as you don’t go into Hezbollah controlled territory”. I was confused and innocently asked “how would I know if I am in Hezbollah controlled territory?” They both laughed and said, more or less, “don’t worry – you can’t get in there – you can’t accidentally wander in there – relax!”
So, I arrived in Beirut late at night and was dropped at my hotel which was a complete shithole. I am not saying this because I am comparing it to the luxurious place my mother and I stayed at in Istanbul. It was a shithole by any reasonable standards. I have no problem staying in shitholes when traveling but there are limits. In this place, the filthy wallpaper was peeling off, it was dirty and the bed was just disgusting. I do not even want to go into describing it anymore. And the water was not working.
I was distressed but I had noticed that on my way up to my room that there was a button in the elevator named “Bar” just above the ground floor. I thought to myself ‘right, I’m going to go and have a beer and just chill out’. When I got in the elevator and pushed the “Bar” button, it simply did not move. So, I went to reception and asked why I could not get to the bar. I was told gruffly “there is no bar here”. I protested saying “but there is a button on your elevator that says ‘Bar’ and it won’t go there”. The guy at reception looked at me very firmly and said “listen, my friend [people in the Middle East love to refer to Westerners as “my friend” regardless of whether they mean it or if they hate you], there is no bar in this hotel and you cannot go to that floor.” Miffed, I asked him if the hotel had Wi-Fi service. “No sir”, he said, “not here”. Upset, I asked him if there was anywhere open where I could access the Internet. “Of course, sir”, he said, smiling broadly, “here in Beirut everything is open 24 hours a day – go out the door, turn left, turn right and then left again – there’s a place called ‘Vogue’ that has Internet”. Incredulous, I looked at him and said “Vogue? Are you sure that’s the name of the place?” He assured me it was and off I went.
The streets seemed mean, dark and dangerous. I was not wrong. When I got to ‘Vogue’ there was a terrace with some gangster types drinking and playing a dice game I do not know. There was a very unpleasant-looking young man standing in the doorway and I asked him if I could use the Internet. “No”, he said curtly, “place is closed!” I did not know what to make of this and said, waving my hand at the gangster-types, “but clearly it’s open – look at all of these guys!” He opened his blazer, revealing a gun and said “it’s closed to you, my friend…” I put my hands in the air, said “thank you very much” and fled back to my hotel where I went straight to bed trying to think happy thoughts and convincing myself that I was not in the heart of Hezbollah controlled territory (of course, I was not but it felt like it at the time – I was just staying in a shitty part of Beirut). Worse, I picked up a stomach bug in Turkey (I stupidly ate a street kebab there) and was running to the toilet about every hour even though there was nothing left in my stomach to drain.
To any Lebanese friends reading this who are getting upset, this story gets a lot better. I allowed myself to sleep in a bit the next morning and then set out. I walked along the beachfront which was quite spectacular. From my experiences in the south of France, the Mediterranean seemed like a calm lake more than an ocean. But here, as the waves came crashing in – it felt like a real bone fide ocean and I love that. Seeing and listening to waves rise and smash themselves on rocks makes me intensely happy (and horny) for reasons I cannot explain.
I turned into town and lost myself through the maze of streets. I was very impressed by how happy and generally prosperous the people seemed to be. I saw very little poverty (maybe I just did not stumble into the poor areas) and I was always greeted with genuine, big smiles – I was reminded a bit of Thailand in that sense. Just genuine friendliness with no expectations of anything in return. It does not surprise me that Beirut was once the Paris of the Middle East and is becoming so again. Still, the scars of war are still present on the streets – bullet-riddled and bombed out buildings, etc. I was also struck by all of the military presence on the streets – big, brawny men with automatic weapons slung across their shoulders. They were friendly too but it was strange to be surrounded by so many guns!
I ended up walking down a street called ‘Bliss Street’ (how cool of a name is that for a street?) which runs along the grounds of the American University of Beirut and into an area called Hamra. I was hungry and found a narrow alley with restaurants but not too touristy. I had the most delicious seafood pasta I have ever eaten in my life and it cost almost nothing. There were a couple of guys with their girlfriends sitting next to me at the restaurant and me, having my great big mouth, started chatting with them. Next thing I knew, we were all sitting together having an awesome time. The conversation only went quiet when I mentioned my next stop was Israel.
“Why are you going there?”
“Because I’m a traveler in the neighbourhood.”
“You know – most of us Lebanese have no problem with Israel. We hate the Hezbollah and Iran. But they shouldn’t have bombed us 2 years ago. They killed so many innocent people who have nothing against them.”
“I know,” I said. “I agree with you but fear, if you are an individual or a country, can make you do irrational things against innocent people.”
After this exchange (which I have obviously abbreviated), everything relaxed again and the gang I was with took me to a nightclub (no, I do not remember its name or in what part of town it was in) where we had some drinks. They paid for everything and would not accept a thin dime from me. I did not get back to my shithole (er, I mean, hotel) until after 2:00 am. I am so grateful for the companionship and generosity of those Lebanese guys I met there. Wonderful people… just such a pity my camera battery was dead… Hopefully I will get some of theirs as I gave them my email address.
The next day, I arrived early at the airport for my flight to Israel via Cyprus. There was a patch of grass close to the departures gate where I went and sat to drink a coke. Not long after, a soldier marched over to me. Here is the exchange:
Soldier: What are you doing here?
Soldier: WHAT are you doing here?
Me [irritated]: I’m waiting for my flight. What’s it to you?
Soldier: Where are you going?
Me [stupidly]: Israel.
Soldier [raising his machine gun to my head after blathering into his head piece]: Are you CIA?
Me [in shock]: What?!
Soldier: Are you CIA?!
Me: I’m a tourist for God’s sake! Here, look at my passport – I’m English!
Soldier [after looking at my passport and blathering more into his headpiece with a sneer on his face]: Have a good time in Israel, tourist…
He marched off leaving me mystified about Lebanon. I had been frightened upon arrival, delighted by the people while there and totally terrified on the way out.
Farewell Lebanon – you are a mysterious place but I love you anyway.