Woke up early and came over Mount Lebanon to Beirut from Damascus in a taxi with a Christian couple who sat with their one year-old daughter speaking a dialect of Aramaic...YES, Biblical Aramaic, as we ground efficently through the border posts. It costs $10 to exit Syria (you have to love whoever thought of that policy) and we were on our way, descending through orchards and bullet-marked buildings to Beirut's smoggy valley.
We stashed our stuff at the hostel in a room with two odd characters who refused to speak to us; one was reading a book called, I Was Dr. Mengel's Assistant. In the lobby a pale-skinned skinhead in dark-glasses pumped our hands with a soldier's grip, and spoke flawless Arabic. Spooky.
On our walk down to Le Chef to eat lunch, a guy called to us from the doorway of a hardware store, "Yo, homeboy, how's it going?!" I thought I was in DC cause the brother sounded Latino. But no. He continued with a welcome that was a reminder of some of the forces that have torn Lebanon apart in the last half-century:
"Welcome to OUR side of town. You guys, watch your step on THEIR side."
Later that afternoon I watched rich students making the rounds at American University of Beirut, girls with heads uncovered, talking and walking with men, wearing Western clothes. It was a far cry from Sultan Qaboos University; I didn't see any seperate corridors for female students.
At AUB, we tried to go swimming in the Mediterranean; it was a perfect November day. The female security officer gave us the rundown:
"The tunnel is closed this year, but you can jump the fence...no problem, you guys are American!"
I felt some type of way about this--a combination of guilt and confusion--was she joking? Being sarcastic? Expressing some type of recognition of the American the-world-is-my-playground attitude?
A few other things stood out about our visit: The friendliness of the people, of course--the "dragonfly bite" (Fisk's words) of hospitality and beauty; the notorious Phalangist militia headquarters down the street from our hostel; the bustle and burning trash of the Palestinian camp; the old Mercedes taxis, and the haunting images of the burned bodies of children at the memorial for the 1982 massacre of Palestinians in Sabra and Shatila by the Lebanese Christian Phalangist militia. For those looking for more information on Lebanon and modern Beirut, I can do no better than to recommend Robert Fisk's work Pity The Nation (At least until my colleague GP unleashes his cold-blooded analysis of Lebanon's agricultural sector on the world.)
Ferouz sang of Beirut:
to Beirut--peace to Beirut with all my heart
and kisses--to the sea and clouds
To the rock of a city that looks like an old sailor's face.
From the soul of her people she makes wine
From their sweat she makes bread and jasmine.
So how did it come to taste of smoke and fire?
The following day, I stood with a group of Americans in the Captain's Cabin bar as they cheered their asses off at 7 o'clock in the morning. We watched bleary-eyed, as Barack Hussein Obama became the next president of the United States. A change had come. Peace to America with all my heart and to Iraq and Afghanistan, and Iran, and Congo, and Sudan and every forgotten corner of the globe where they huddled over TVs and radios listening to President Obama's moving acceptance speech.