We caught a shared taxi from Damascus to Beirut. One sky blue and one scarlet passport stamp later I was in Lebanon! I promptly fell asleep and woke up in solid Beiruti traffic. We had less than an hour to make it to a pub in Achrafiye to watch the England game, and there was no way we were going to make it. Jumping out at a random junction we looked for the nearest place with a TV set. The perfectly named Balad Cafe came to our rescue.
Ed’s flat was in Hamra, in mainly Muslim West Beirut. Rue Hamra, the main thoroughfare, was lined with hotels, cafes, and chain stores – H&M, Vera Moda, Starbucks. His flatmate Elizabeth was painting her toenails and chain smoking Gauloise Azraq. We dumped our bags and Ed put on the deafening dubstep that would be the soundtrack to our stay in Lebanon. That night, they took me to ladies’ night at a Hamra bar. Having packed for two months on about two hours’ sleep, using ‘Can I wear this in Tehran?’ as a rule of thumb, I felt incredibly dowdy in comparison to the Beirutis around me.
This got even worse at the beach the next day. Raoche, a beach in West Beirut; you descend from a street of high rises and palm trees to a rocky outcrop with crashing waves and blue pools. Planes fly low overhead, coming in to land at Beirut International. Lebanese guys dare each other to jump off the rocks and families paddle in the shallows. That day, the sea was rough; white spray crashed on the rocks, and a strong wind took the edge off the heat, which was good, as I was sunbathing in leggings.
I tried to walk Beirut. I fell in love with Cairo from walking it for hours on end, sweaty and with my feet aching. I wanted to do the same for Beirut. I walked around Hamra, up towards the AUB campus to where you can see the Holiday Inn and around towards downtown. The road leading to the campus was home to a homeless man who apparently used to be an AUB professor until he lost all of his family in the civil war, and subsequently went mad. Also on this street: a woman selling sweets who used to run a brothel on the Green Line. This brothel was the safest place in Beirut as both sides would leave it alone. I walked through downtown, which reminded me overwhelmingly of an artist’s simulation of a city; clean, smooth, surfaces, the imposition of order, people and plants carefully controlled. I accidentally walked through what I think must have been the street with Hariri’s villa and had my bag searched twice.
The Hariri (Sr) memorial in downtown was like stepping into a refrigerator. Aggressively air-conditioned and curiously impermanent-feeling, a collection of tents and Portakabins, it was filled with wreaths, Lebanese flags, and Quranic inscriptions. A security guard followed me around, trying to get my phone number; I got tired of giving him the brush-off and left pretty quickly.
We went to parties in flats in Gemmayze and Achrafiye. Walking down darkened streets past shrines to the Virgin and neon churches, we persuaded a guy closing his shop to sell us beer. ‘This is where the fascists live,’ someone said. The fabric of Beirut is torn up, full of holes. Sometimes literally: the battle scars on walls, the gaps in rows of buildings. Metaphorically, too. It’s hard to forget. The house parties got better as they went along. I met a British journalist who had been living in Kabul for five years. He was glad to be leaving Lebanon, he said, because of the war. What war? The war that’s on its way. ‘And that’s the future of British journalism?’ Ed muttered to me.
We watched the England-Germany game at an English pub in Achrafiye surrounded by expats drinking AlMaza and wearing red and white. I developed an affection for the German striker Ozil but kept my mouth shut. This was partly due to his faintly sad eyes but also due to the regular pronouncements of a large English man standing in front of me. Every time the unfortunate Ozil got a touch this goon would should ‘He’s not German, he’s a fucking Turk!’ A few AlMazas in and I was muttering darkly about how I was going to start some shit if he didn’t stop. Outside the pub I got talking to a German-Turkish guy who was holding forth on the Mavi Marmara. ‘If I were the Israelis, I would have done exactly the same thing.’ His friend, a UN employee in Beirut, was more melancholy. His posting was finishing soon and, like Mr. Five Years in Kabul, he was glad to be going – because of the impending war.
Soor (Tyre) is two bus rides and a hot, dusty walk away from Beirut. We plunged straight into the sea before Ed could warn us of the jellyfish; later, we saw a Lebanese guy pick a huge one right out of the water, holding it by the bag, and carry it off somewhere. I was reminded of a friend who once said to me, on the subject of jellyfish, ‘How can you trust an animal that has an anus but no mouth?’ Akiid, akiid. We were given a lift to a different beach by Bob, a friend of Ed’s, who turned out to be pretty much the king of Soor; everywhere we went, ‘Yaa Bob, yaa Bob’. I sat in a cafe on the beach, drinking AlMaza and smoking nargileh, and realised this was the first time in a long while that I had spent a day without writing or reading anything. Liberation/panic?
Ali is a Lebanese friend of Ed’s, a small slim guy with long black hair and a wide smile. He and his mother Laila work in Beirut’s only Communist bar, Abu Ali. We went there for a drink; inside, it is plastered in Che posters, even the tables constructed of collages of the great man. Ali did much of the decorating; a master of the collage, his room has been featured in zines, with Mao rubbing shoulders with Feiruz (and an entire wall devoted to Lindsay Lohan). He mocked my Arabic accent. ‘Izzayik? Amalayik? Oh my god, you’re full masriyah.’ (I don’t think I have an accent, but I am mocked everywhere in the Arab world, it seems.) When I left, he presented me with a poster and recommendations of Feiruz songs.
I raided Ed’s books and read a lot of Joe Sacco. I ploughed my way through Fateful Triangle and when I finished it I felt like throwing it against the wall, I was so angry. We went to Sabra and Shatila and bought fruit and vegetables in the market. Every building was marked with a slogan, an icon, a face. Hamas was popular, as was the PFLP. People you met told you within ten seconds of conversation that they were Palestinian. The memorial garden in Shatila is the site of a mass grave. (Perhaps not the one that the Israeli army had a direct view of during the massacre, but let’s move on.) It’s hidden behind market stalls and we had to find someone to unlock it for us. I’d seen pictures, videos, read about Sabra and Shatila, but to stand there made it hard to breathe.