Lebanon welcomed an unlikely American with open arms

// T H U R S D A Y

It was 11 PM local time, my cab driver had been waiting for me for nearly an hour and a half at the airport gate. The lack of wifi and long lines at the border made my arrival into Beirut the opposite of seamless.

While waiting, I’d struck up a conversation with the man in front of me to pass the time. He was Finnish, a scuba diver instructor, and quite well-traveled. He’d seen many countries, all of the Arabic countries in fact, aside from Lebanon. 

He mentioned that the US had issued a travel warning to Lebanon while we’d been in flight. My alarm was low as these warnings were loosely given by Trump where it concerned places unknown to him. And well, we were here. 

Soon enough, I was in front of the border control officer. After some slow question and answering, another officer pulled me into a separate room. Plenty of confusion and waiting later, I returned to the same line and easily passed through. 

What I found on the other side of customs was a plaque bearing my name and a nevertheless grinning man ready to say hello. As I walked toward the car with my driver, we spoke in a mix of French and English. The entire ride, he covered the local history with each passing neighborhood. Lebanese hospitality was no joke.

The remainder of the drive consisted of a narration of the city as it enfolded around us. We started in the Arabic quarter were buildings were more torn down than the rest. The driver repeated a few times the fact that he hadn’t met an American in a very long time.

He shared a story of formerly bringing an FBI agent from the airport to the city center. The caricature read like the movies. The agent apparently requested they avoid driving by the area where we were passing through.

Whether this extra measure of security was necessary is uncertain, but the driver explained that the war had just ended at the time. The agent was understandably on high alert in an unknown place. 

I watched as fallen buildings lay outside the car. Many were part of my diligent research leading up to the trip, and it was odd to see them in the flesh.

As we inched our way closer to the Airbnb, I wondered how I’d get in contact with my friend. With no data, I felt a bit naked. The lack of connectivity made reaching him a near impossibility. 

Luckily, I quickly got the impression that Beirut was small or at least had a small town feel. In proof, as we wandered the streets in search for the apartment, a man approached our car with a friendly gesture. After a cordial conversation, the driver said goodbye–seeming to remember only then that I was still in the car.

We took a few exploratory rounds to find the right house. It’s funny how Beirut’s streets are organized. When looking for something, you search by area rather than street name.

I tried to dig up the address, but oddly all that was listed was the name “Sassine.” We were in the old historic quarter of Beirut, and you could tell. The driver was no stranger, and he walked me to my door like an overly protective dad. Granted, the streets were filled with nothing but stray cats.

// F R I D A Y

I was early to rise and the first to see the sun. It felt as if, in all of Lebanon, no one had laid their eyes on the sky before me. The night was restful and as my first true morning in the country, I longed for the view. My body clock did as well so there I stood, peering over the short countertop and overlooking the old city below and the sea I knew lay beyond. 

The hue that surrounded the clouds was impressive–deep pinks melded with a color that was an equal cross between sky blue and a rosy pink. The shades were so vibrant and complementary that it was hard to look away.

Nevertheless, I let my eyes wander, scoping the apartments to my right and left. The streets below were empty and a mass of plants lay on a balcony across from where I stood. The green contrasted sharply with the crumbling edifices.

White walls tinged with bits of brown and gray, worn with time and war. Their bareness was met with the rich life of vegetation. The hot climate lent an amazing energy that seeped from the hanging mass of green and into the quarter.

I felt the spirit of Lebanon in that bolded the cityscape, yet every turn was unmet with any other forms of life.

// P R E S E NT

I landed in Beirut on September 20, 2019. For one week, I visited the Lebanese countryside and capital city, and I was left with a strong impression of the people, the culture, and the way of life. Oh, and the food.

My trip was marked by evenings in dance clubs, laying at the beach by day, afternoons passing unassuming refugee camps, hitchhiking on the highway, and watching the sunset along the rolling hills.

The people I met were open, warm, yet facing a crisis of political and economic corruption. You could see the residual signs of civil war (1975-1990) between the bullet holes and crumbling bricks.

One month after my trip, on October 17, 2019, a peaceful uprising overtook Lebanon. Large numbers protested against the corrupt, sectarian government that has driven Lebanon to the brink. For more on this.

Flash forward almost a year, on August 4, 2020, an enormous explosion reduced the port of Beirut and surrounding area to rubble. The country captured the attention of international media and politicians due to the calamity that killed 200 people and drove over 300,000 survivors to homelessness.

Shortly after, I found footage documenting the effects on Gemmayzeh, the neighborhood where I’d stayed. As the most hipster quarter of the Lebanese capital, Gemmayzeh had been dotted with cocktail bars, cafes, and brunch spots.

Sip Cafe, where I’d spent a few hours nursing a flat white, is now decimated. Liza Beirut, where I’d enjoyed a true Lebanese brunch feast, is equally faced with blown out windows, and fallen tables and ceilings. The Sursock Museum, which I’d also visited to explore Lebanon’s history described in the country’s trifecta of tongues: Arabic, English, and French, is also destroyed.

I have such gratitude for my hospitable stay. I thought to donate more on my own, but I knew this warranted something else. (Hi)stories are magically transporting, depictive and important. So is travel.

Let’s pledge to tell more of them, and spread the love in these strange times.

x

~ Meg

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