Coming home in Beirut

“Welcome Mr David. Why are you so late?”, Mady said as she opened the door to the apartment that was to be my temporary home in Beirut.

After showing me around the place and giving me the three keys I would need to get from the street to the apartment, Mady gave me the schedule for the power cuts for the forthcoming days: Tuesday 6-9 am; Weds 3-6 pm; Thurs 12-3 pm; Fri 9-12 am.

This is useful information in Beirut. I soon got used to planning my day to avoid dark hours in my room without air conditioning and wifi.

I had arrived at Mady’s much later than planned, so late in fact that the taxi driver she had organised to meet me at the airport was just about to give up and go home after standing at arrivals waving a piece of paper with my name on it for well over an hour.

The queues for the immigration desks were long and I’d chosen the wrong one. Here, instead of one long zigzagging queue that leads to the distribution of passport holders to the next available desk, there were several separate lines: so you had to select one. It’s not just a matter of opting for the shortest queue though, this is a more complex game than that, because it depends on the speed people are processed at the desks: visitors with unusual or dubious passports can take much longer to be allowed entry, slowing down the queue and causing a backlog. Being experienced at airport queue analysis, I chose the second shortest line, because there was a second desk at the end of it for special visas, which wasn’t constantly used, so the officer there occasionally called forward people from our general ‘foreign passports‘ queue when he wasn’t dealing with the ‘specials’.

Before joining any queue though, I had to fill in an immigration form and go to a separate desk for a ‘visa on arrival’, with its own separate queue. It was after waiting in line here for ten minutes that I saw another sign pointing towards the cashier desk where people were paying their visas fee, preferably in US dollars. I assumed I should go there first before joining the queue for a visa, but decided to check by asking a man in uniform. He glanced at my burgundy coloured EU passport and said I’d be given a free visa so I didn’t need to be in this queue at all, nor pay at the cashiers desk. Then, along with a young woman with a Cypriot passport I was directed to the general lines and it was here I decided on my queue-joining tactics. I kept my eye on the Cypriot woman in the shorter (but surely slower, I was sure) line, because she was my marker, my moving benchmark of the speed of shuffling, as we edged forward towards the desks in the distance.

It was a tight queue of around a hundred glum passengers, each of us standing within body-odour proximity of the next, subtly jostling for position like a slow motion Formula One race: Give the guy behind even the smallest gap and he’d overtake you.

British queueing etiquette didn’t apply here, that unspoken acknowledgement of who arrived first and so will remain ahead; that unwritten convention that in a moment of distraction if you don’t move forward quickly to close the gap your position will still be honoured.

The informal Lebanese by-laws about personal space were already different here too, and I hadn’t even officially entered the country yet. Bodies bumped and touched in the claustrophobic channel without apology, and I had no option but to do the same, recalibrating the extent of my territorial boundaries. I also rapidly desensitised myself to the unromantic caresses of strangers’ hairy and sweaty arms on mine.

In the hour or more that we inched forward, my progress couldn’t keep up with that of my unknowing Cypriot pacemaker and she eventually passed through the bureaucratic bottleneck nine places ahead of me. Serves me right for trying to be clever! Finally it was my turn to stand at the immigration officer’s desk. Then with another stamp in my passport I proceeded through Customs with my backpack. As the doors to the arrivals hall slid open, I spotted my name waving on a sheet of paper behind the crowded barrier. And at last I could see daylight again.

From the balcony outside my room of the sixth floor apartment the sunlight was intense and hot.

Mike or Mady would come to water the pretty potted flowers twice a day and sometimes we’d sit there in the evenings, chatting as the day faded into night. Mike told me about his time fighting in the civil war.

He explained that the boundary between the two sides in the conflict was the main road, Bechara El Khoury, pointing and explaining that it was just at the end of this street, a few hundred metres away, where the cafe and bakery Paul now sits on the battle-scarred junction.

Later he showed me the empty shell cartridges from the tank he commanded, now used as pots for tall dried flowers in the apartment, but they were semi-disguised by Mady who had wrapped silver twine around them, using her handicraft skills to make domestic artefacts from the litter of war. There were a few handfuls of bullets in the bottom of a drawer in the living room and Mike told me with some enthusiasm which of these souvenirs were from Kalashnikovs or other weapons wielded in guerrilla warfare in the nearby streets.

Mike and Mady were interesting characters, helpful hosts and became kind friends. When it was eventually time for me to leave and move on, Mady gave me some prayer beads as a gift, which I still carry with me in my backpack.

Each morning the narrow avenue below was alive with hooting traffic. Sometimes there was also the sound of the siren of an ambulance from the Lebanese Red Cross, desperately trying to get through the chaos of cars. One day I noticed a sign on one of the ambulances parked outside the hospital. It was a red circle with forbidding red lines across it, but in the place of a cigarette or other banned object or activity was simply a rifle. No guns in the ambulance please! For me it was a shock and a reminder that this is not my country; things are different here.

No, this certainly wasn’t England but at some moments it could have been mistaken for France. Directly across avenue Gouraud from my apartment was Kassab, a patisserie that could hold up its head proudly in Paris, displaying outrageously sweet, glistening gateaux and a colourful range of calorific treats, sold in beautiful boxes. Along the street was the Eglise Saint Antione, a Catholic church with an imposing copper-green door, decorated with images of saints.

My high view of Beirut brought back memories of my first visit to Paris many years ago, looking down from a rented room to the tree-lined Rue de la Four. I also heard more recent echoes here from Marrakesh, another city also influenced by the French yet at the same time clearly not European.

Further down this avenue was Le Chef, which despite its name didn’t serve gallic cuisine but authentic Lebanese dishes: it became my favourite place to eat. My palette wistfully remembers tastes such as hummus with pine nuts, lentil soup, cassoulet of beans in garlic sauce, and the freshest, tangiest and greenest of taboulets.

I had come to Beirut as a traveller but also to work. It was one of those trips when I brought my laptop in my carry-on rucsac, travelling light but fully equipped as a digital nomad, as capable of doing any online work as I would be back at my office when connected to wifi, yet enjoying a different environment, another country.

When not working, I had time to explore this fascinating city like a tourist. More ordinary things, my daily routines and tasks were a novelty too: shopping for food, topping up the Lebanese SIM card in my phone, finding good coffee, and navigating from place to place on foot or by taxi. Even chores like washing clothes were a refreshing break from my usual domestic habits back home.

Travelling is not just about the spectacular, the polished images for holiday brochures or Facebook, but the ordinary little things of everyday life in a different place, that make you engage with a place, and its people.

On my first afternoon I discovered Urbanista, a stylish cafe that serves as a workplace and meeting room for location-independent freelancers. As in other such places around the world, the ratio of laptops to coffee-cups was high. Many people worked alone, others were in calls on their phone or online, and meetings took place around the larger tables suited for the purpose.

I found other good places to work too, but finally settled on Aaliya’s bookshop and cafe as my office, paying my daily rent in purchases of caffeine and sometimes breakfasts or brunches. It’s always a pleasant feeling to become recognised by the staff, who soon remember how you take your coffee, and chatting with them as you arrive, so that even after a few days you are regarded as one of their regular customers.

You might think I was spoiling a holiday trip by having to work some hours each day, and I guess that’s one way to look at it; but another point of view is that I had the bonus of a holiday whilst working.

When I’d logged off each day, my free time was in Beirut not Bury. The view out of the window wasn’t Lancashire rain but Mediterranean sun, and there were new places to go, new things to do, new people to meet.

When heading back to my apartment each day after venturing out into other parts of the city, I started to recognise certain landmarks as I approached the familiar territory of the Gemmayze quarter where I lived. Even after a few days, as I passed by the blue-domed mosque, safely crossed through the racing traffic of Bechara El Khoury, and walked along Gouraud, I had that distinct feeling that I was on familiar ground again, back in my street, and nearly home.

Copyright © David Parrish 2018.
Published 28 July 2018.

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Coming home in Beirut

“The traveler sees what he sees. The tourist sees what he has come to see.”

G.K. Chesterton

“To my mind, the greatest reward and luxury of travel is to be able to experience everyday things as if for the first time, to be in a position in which almost nothing is taken for granted.”

Bill Bryson

“He who would travel happily must travel light.”

Antoine de St. Exupery

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