Coming Home

One day, while taking a taxi in Beirut, we drive past some men who are  shouting out to the cars, trying to hail a taxi back to a place called ‘Shem’.

I ask the driver where that is.

‘Syria’ he says.

‘From here?!’

He nods and shrugs.

I’m trying to work out how much the taxi fare would cost, but my mind keeps harping back to their grief-stricken faces.

There are more than half a million Syrian refugees currently in Lebanon. The figure is always changing depending on who you talk to, most of the time an exaggeration numbering in the millions, although they’re not far off. For a country of only 5 million and with about 400,000 Palestinian refugees already living in limbo here, this feels like an epic burden for Lebanon. Almost one fifth of the population are refugees.

It’s a hard fact to grasp given how Australia cries foul over the almost nothing number of a few thousand refugees annually (who they mostly imprison anyway). In my mind we are suddenly a pathetic blip on the map of the world. We are an insignificant nothingness of selfishness. We do not possess a shred of compassion. I feel the shame spread through me and see red.

***

IMG_4289

My experience of Lebanon to date has largely been a Christian one. There are two reasons for this. One is that this is the part of the country where my family is from. And the other reason is that it’s the area deemed safest for me to travel to at this particular time. It has already been decided that I am bat shit crazy to have come to Lebanon at all, given the numerous travel warnings advising me not to, so I don’t risk it with trips down south or to Baal’bek and Tripoli.

For most of the trip, I feel an inexplicable sadness about not being able to see all sides of Lebanon. I know deep down that something is missing.

‘They’re different to us’, shrugs the Christian local about their Muslim counterparts.

Are they really though? I question this notion constantly.

I remember my cousin could identify a Syrian refugee almost immediately. I asked him how he can tell.

‘You look in their eyes and you know’, he shrugs.

(Side note: this is also the method used for determining when to overtake a car – I quote, ‘You just look into their eyes and you know which way they’re going to go’, so I think we can all agree that the ‘eye glance’ is not an entirely reliable method either way).

And yet, I still try to catch a glimpse of their eyes. I see darkness, not from an inherent ethnic difference but the product of their tragic hopelessness. They see indifference reflected back from most people. They stop at me and linger a little bit, because maybe they see something different for the first time in a long time. Someone who cares, who gives a shit about what happens to them.

I remember seeing one family huddled in an abandoned building in Jounieh, the only light coming from a single candle. They’re watching a broken TV. I can’t stop looking at them or thinking about how they’re squatting next to an extremely expensive mansion and how that mansion belongs to friends of my friends.

 One of the boys sees me looking, and I turn away quickly in shame.

We are all of us the same.

***

By the port in Beirut we are walking along the promenade searching for a restaurant. The call to prayer wafts out from a nearby mosque. It’s the first time I’ve heard it in the two and a half weeks that I’ve been there. My face lights up.

‘You like Islamic culture’, the Christian boy says, clearly bemused, as though I’ve been waving Muslim-themed pom poms in my hand.

 ‘Can we stay and listen?’ I ask.

So we sit on a bench, watching the sea and listening to the deep song of prayer. I watch the men as they approach the mosque. When it’s almost over I look over expectantly, hoping to hear more, but it has stopped now and I feel a slight panic, wishing it would come back.

We resume our walk to the restaurant. It’s a hardly noticeable Italian seafood restaurant by the water in one of the oldest buildings in the city. When we walk in, we’re immediately offered the Ramadan special. This is the feast the Muslims eat after fasting for an entire day. If you can imagine a normal Lebanese feast comprising of almost everything available in the kitchen and then some, you would probably struggle to understand just how epic the Ramadan feast can be.

They bring us generous plates of hommous, baba ghanoush, fattouche salad, bowls of chips and potatoes, small manouches and mini pizzas, a soup course, plates of pasta, an entire fish, roast chicken and roast lamb respectively, cups of apricot juice, bread, fruit, baklava desserts, coffee. It seems like this meal will never end and I am almost crying on the floor from a food overdose comatose. The waiters are wonderful, doting on our every demand, bringing refills of apricot juice; fearing we’re not happy with something and bringing us more of it (‘no please, really, no more food’).

They were friendly, hospitable and wonderful and I am moved to tears at the end of it, wanting to savour the smallest Muslim experience I can find in the country. My friend laughs and says I’m always crying. Another time we’re sitting in a seafood restaurant overlooking the seaside town of Jounieh and the Mediterranean sea as the sun calmly sets over it. I am half drunk on Arak and try to pick up a piece of watermelon with my fork and miss. I finally stab it with my fork, bring it to my mouth and it falls onto my lap. I burst into laughter and out of the corner of my eye I catch a glimpse of the sunset. Suddenly and unexpectedly I burst into tears once more.

The boy looks at me, utterly perplexed.

‘Why are you crying?’

‘I don’t know. I’ve never seen anything so beautiful before in my whole life’.

It’s my second last night in Lebanon and I don’t want to leave. I am overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the place. The abundance of love in every place. The way it looks to be constantly blessed with miracles from a deity and cursed by humanity all at once.

Most of all I’m afraid of never returning.

***

I still think back to that time when we got lost driving to the airport and drove through south Beirut. Trying to ask for directions, my friend leans over and pulls my dress down over my thighs for modesty, as it’s slipped up from putting my feet up like a lounging heiress.

‘This is Hezbollah territory here…don’t ever come here on your own’, he warns, seeing my face light up with curiosity.

He winds the window down and asks the first few men he can find how to get out of here (because we were slightly panicking about being there). The standard procedure in Beirut is to be told to ‘go down this street and then ask someone else’, prompting you to ask about five more people before you find it (if you find it).

The name of the area is Dahieh. In French it’s ‘la Banlieue Sud de Beyrouth’ meaning ‘the southern suburb’. It’s a predominately Shia-Muslim suburb south of Beirut on the way to the airport. Prior to the 2006 bombing by Israel, it was a residential area as well as a commercial area with malls and stores and home to many souks. Now it appears to be a run down version of its former self, with barely there shops, broken buildings and rubble, temporarily propped up with sheets of corrugated iron and messy markets. There are people everywhere, bustling along, selling things, smeared with black dirt from working. They speak differently here and look at us like we’re foreigners.

‘This is where the car bomb went off last month’, my friend says casually while driving through.

I tried to take a photo but he brushed my hand down.

‘No, not here, you can’t take photos’, he warns and he hardly seems phased by anything, so I know not to argue (but I sneak one photo in anyway).

I was scared while driving through here and I had reason to be. Only a week ago, three weeks after coming home, another car bomb killed 22 innocent people. I read lines in an article and feel numb. The words will haunt me, I know it:

‘I heard a huge explosion. It threw me several metres,’ said a woman in her 50s who said she had been talking to her brother in his shop.

‘I don’t know what happened to my brother. I can’t find him’, she said, bleeding from wounds to hands and face.

I picture the men who gave us directions, the lines in their faces and the kindness of strangers. I was there. But I was there, I think, over and over again.

I was there and now I’m here and nothing makes sense anymore.

Later when we’re out of the dangerous suburbs, he gives me permission to bring my camera out to take a photo of something he spots coming our way.

‘What is it?’

Two grown men wearing hats with umbrella propellers attached are trying to sell the hats and other knick knacks to people in the cars, walking through the sweltering, murderous heat of Beirut and facing constant rejection. By now I have recognised them as Syrians, although I can’t look them in the eyes to verify this. My friend finds it funny but I am crying, forcing him to wind the window down and hand them all the spare change I could find. They thanked me profusely, trying to give me the umbrella hats, but I didn’t want the damn umbrella hats.

‘Lat tibke’ my friend says, serious again.

‘Hak, hedde Libnan’

Don’t cry. Just like that, this is Lebanon.

But it’s useless for I am inconsolable.

I know my great-grandparents walked from Sydney to Lithgow selling random knick-knacks and it’s how they survived. I know they had no idea what they were selling; that they would sell contraptions to Australians like can openers, and  then later they would struggle to open cans of their own. I know they survived because they were strong and they were lucky to be accepted here.

 The Syrians are not lucky but I hope they are strong.

There is no way to extricate yourself from the problems faced by the country where your family is from. It should live and flow freely through us, a souvenir of the hardship faced by all of humanity but especially our own. I always imagined that the compassion I grew up with towards Muslims and Palestinians was something unique to our family. Maybe it is but I don’t think it needs to be.

We should all care. We should all cry. I’m not sure why we don’t.

***

I couldn’t shake the feeling of nostalgia and sadness throughout the trip. I remember sleeping during the day in my uncle’s house, on a thin single mattress. I could feel the sun on my face. I’d get up every so often, walk around and then go back to sleep again, thinking about all the things I had never stopped to consider. Why don’t I see my family more often? Why don’t I visit them every week? Why did I spend weekends doing nothing, sitting by myself and staring at nothing, when I could have been with them? The idea of spending the day doing nothing but sitting with people, who, up until a few weeks prior to that moment, were complete strangers to me, but are now my family, filled me with such happiness and contentment now. I didn’t need anything else.

‘But aren’t you bored just sitting around in the village?’ they’d ask me.

But it’s not just sitting. In the words of a lovely friend currently going through a bad patch, it’s about ‘practising mindfulness’, being aware of every second in that moment. The brief moment saying goodbye to my younger cousin, as she tries to feed me a rolled up bread sandwich of laban (a local sheep’s cheese), tomatoes and cucumber.

‘Eat!’ she laughs, forcing it in my hand.

These people are part of me now, even if I can’t always see them.

I remember just crying to myself in my room, thinking about my grandparents and what they must have felt having to leave this place. All of a sudden I’d hear the church bells ringing and the distinct sound of chatter and happy shouting. These sounds would comfort me; remind me that I’m not alone.

There are so many Lebanons and they live inside every single person in every single place. We are all connected. It’s a wonder to me that we don’t see that almost intrinsically, that we don’t look to the Egyptians, the Iraqis, the Syrians, the Iranians, and most of all, the Palestinians and feel that same pulsating heart beat run through us all. I’ve always said that if they could just figure this out, if they could just hold hands, they would be stronger than anything else. That keeping them divided has been the Western Imperial Key Strategy for decades now. This is the only way there will be peace – to not give in to that strategy, to rise above the differences and come together.

I must have seen so many things emblazoned in my memory. I cried so many tears and laughed hysterically. I felt that happiness was something I had a never ending access pass to. I danced with a manic fervour and stood still with quiet contemplation. I wondered and remembered and imagined what it was once like, letting every emotion course through me freely. Physically I felt marked by the scorching sun and cooled down with the reprieve of the great sea. I held snow in my hands and felt the chilling cold air in the highest point of the mountains. I prayed and climbed to great statues and sat in cave-like churches at the highest point of the mountains. I threw a coin in the Jeita Grotto, asking for it to keep me alive and bring me back here, hoping we could be given more than one wish, but if we didn’t, still opting for the wish of returning over surviving. I lit a candle asking the Virgin Mary to keep me safe. I climbed to the top of the Harissa and I kissed our Lady’s feet. I savoured every morsel of food offered to me. I watched as the lights flickered on and off and sat in the darkness, thinking, wondering, breathing with life, untainted by negative thoughts, appreciative of only that moment. I spoke multiple languages, words foreign even to me, emerging from places I didn’t know existed. I drank the thick, mud-rich, dark liquid of their coffee and smoked the argileh at midnight on a busy street that ran slightly diagonal on a steep incline, while a boy asked the waiter if he would look the other way as I stole a tiny cup of coffee as a souvenir, and the man smiled and indulged my adorable thief-ish ways.

I fell in love with the place and in return some of its people fell in love with me. I found another home in a place I never imagined could take me in like that. A place that could love, love, love me unconditionally.

There, I came home to a place and left a fragment of my soul. The return to this one home has been especially painful but I feel better knowing that at one point, I was whole.

whatever, world.

‘Obama DOJ Asks Court to Grant Immunity to George W. Bush For Iraq War’ ‘…alleging that the planning and waging of the war constituted a “crime of aggression” against Iraq, a legal theory that was used by the Nuremberg Tribunal to convict Nazi war criminals after World War II.’

It’s like they haven’t heard that people are doing far more dangerous things than waging an illegal war against an innocent nation and killing millions.

Things like LEAKING PAPERS TO THE INTERNETS.

Liban, Liban, Liban

IMG_4285

I’m sitting in the oldest city in the world, drinking a gin and tonic. I can feel the sun on my back and see the forceful, sky-blue waves smash below my feet. A cool breeze blows in from the Mediterranean; it is calm and indifferent. I look down; the bar is literally on the water. I’m eating a fattouche salad, the zesty tang of the lemon and sumac hitting me in the face, because it knows it’s the ‘Mohamed Ali’ of salads (the greatest).

I laugh to myself in that moment as I remember the advice of my best friend before leaving Sydney. I’m unwittingly taking all of her advice at once.

‘Make sure you swim in the Mediterranean, eat fattouche, flirt with cute boys and wear dresses’.

A group of young Lebanese guys and girls sit next to us. They’re eating a range of mezze, laughing, gossiping and drinking Arak (an anise-flavoured 60%+ alcoholic spirit that will cure you of all ailments and will have you drunk in no time). One of the girls has long dark hair, flawless olive skin, a perfectly sculpted body and a fierce look in her eyes. She gets up to dance with one of the boys. Her face is bright red from the sun and possibly also, the alcohol. She dances nonstop for a few hours, before attempting to climb down into the water for a drunken dip.

My friend murmurs that she’s crazy and drunk and will probably drown but she’s my actual hero and I can’t take my eyes away from her.

It’s the most perfect place I’ve ever experienced. Soon I am also drunk from underestimating how much alcohol was placed in my drinks (a lot). I attempt to swim as well but fail, the strong waves pushing me against the large stones. Laughing deliriously all the way, the girl smiles at me and points to her thighs, which have bruises on them from falling. I nod understandably, already feeling the bruises swelling on my own battered limbs.

When it’s time to leave, I don’t want to and only reluctantly go because I’m too drunk to resist.

***

Back to Beirut and Summer is most definitely in full swing here. The days are long, hot and sticky; stifling you to sleep in the searing shade of the afternoon. Bits of sunlight filter in through the old window where you have made a home for yourself. You stick your legs up to catch the sunlight; you’re fast asleep by the time it hits you.

It’s fun to be alive in Beirut. Death is real here and it taunts you. You walk through the streets thinking over and over again,

‘Today I’m alive’.

And that’s the main activity for the day. Staying that way.

You wake up. It’s almost midnight. You panic, thinking you have lost time, but the night is just beginning.

The bars are mostly empty until the early hours of the morning when they awaken from their slumber, suddenly swarming with people from all parts of the world. I eventually find the cool art deco bar I’ve been looking for (it was hiding behind two dark red doors). It’s small and fits maybe 40 people at best. Bob Dylan is crooning in the background. The bar is long, wooden and solid and the walls are made from simple stone and a vaulted ceiling painted in brown tones. The old style cinema seats are up against the wall. The place exudes an old world charm. Old Colonial style English fans spin round and round. The dapper bartenders are frocked out in sweet barbershop style smocks and grinning from ear to ear.

IMG_4290

I strike up a conversation with the manager Nino after he makes my drink. I was confused about his whisky sour. It tasted odd.  I realised after translating from Arabic, that Limon actually means orange and lemon as we know it needs another word after it to clarify: ‘limon homid’ – that’s the yellow lemon you see. So I explain to Nino that all the Sour cocktails I’ve drunk in Lebanon have been strangely not right and is it possible that a long time ago, a Lebanese bartender read the recipe as ‘orange’ instead of ‘lemon’? Could it be that they’ve just been doing it wrong all these years? He laughs and says he can make it without orange juice, but I still worry for the translators in the bar industry.

Soon he becomes my new friend. He says he knew instantly that I was not from Beirut.

‘But how can you tell?’ I cry out frustrated, hoping to blend in like a local due to my Lebanese heritage.

‘You look different, in your face. And you dress differently – very nice clothes! The girls here…they can be more casual’.

But he admits I do look like a non-Lebanese Australian girl (I don’t understand how this works !!)

‘You look like an Australian girl who works for the embassy. She’s very beautiful and comes here a lot, with her security guards’.

I am suspicious of the Sheree look-a-like but take the compliment all the same.

I’m a bar girl at heart. Throw me in a good, tiny bar and I’ll have navigated my way through the menu, the non-menu, the bartenders and the people, all in the space of an hour. Take me to a nightclub on the other hand, and I will turn into the orange juice Sour cocktail mentioned above. I can’t do them. I hate most of the people there, I feel suffocated and claustrophobic. You can’t talk, the music is usually terrible and you have to take drugs, probably, I wouldn’t know. Not to mention they’re ridiculously expensive. Whatever, I’ll pass.

This all changed in Beirut because the nightclubs are phenomenal over there! There is this sense that anything goes. You are young (not always) and free (always). The claustrophobe in me rejoiced at the concept of the OPEN AIR ROOFTOP NIGHT CLUB. We venture out to one rooftop mega club called ‘White’ which fits like a thousand people, and we drink expensive whiskey straight from the bottle brought to our table by the waiters, who also carry a giant box of ice.

Now for the dancing. The dancing!! There’s no dance floor per se. Lebanese people are great like this. They just dance wherever they can find space – on tables, chairs and on each other. It’s all very rogue and chaotic. Before you know it, you’re swept up in the fervour. It’s 4am and we still have to make the two-hour drive back to the village. I’m told I passed out on the way home and I was carried back by my 6ft3 giant of an admirer, who has to walk past my 80-year-old cousin to get to my uncle’s house. The older cousin is awake at this hour and sees us from her balcony.

She laughs and asks if I’m dead, a question I often pondered myself, wondering if this was really just the heavenly afterlife.

After leaving the village to stay in Beirut, I’m still carried back to my room, sun burnt and half drunk, so nothing really changes. The alcohol portions here are ridiculously strong. Their concept of ‘one shot’ probably equates to three standard drinks. This confuses my tiny metabolism. I’m even drunk while driving through a checkpoint and drinking in the car, (hey, who needs breathalysers, when you have THE NATIONAL ARMY!) but the soldier simply laughs and waves us through. I’m determined to be stopped at a checkpoint but it never happens. I’m quietly disappointed.

Nobody really cares much about anything here. Anything goes.

In Beirut, only some people want to know where you’re from. Most of them couldn’t care less, which is indicative of Beirut’s casual indifference to the rest of the world. You can hardy blame them. This city has been everyone’s playground: from partying tourists to  filthy rich royals and celebrities, foreign invaders, neighbouring occupiers, waves and waves of refugees, and decades long internal civil strife. It has rarely been given the chance to breathe and stand on its own. It could breathe now but it seems to be suffocated with the silence of a quiet summer.

I admit I am frustrated by some of the people I meet. I try to woo them with pleasantries and Australian kindness but they’re not having a bar of it. I lose my shit when walking down the street and asking the 8th person for directions and them shrugging at me.

The following week an army man will tell me not to take photos of a building and will ask me for my camera. I will tell him no and glare at him, stubbornly. My friend will look bewildered and slightly alarmed by my sudden, ill-timed brazenness. By then I won’t care anymore. I will denounce the city temporarily. Somewhere along the way, I’ll come back to it though, possibly around the 3am mark while eating a kebab and a felafel at the same time, after dancing wildly on someone’s shoulders.

You are my Blood

‘We are blood, you and I’
 
An elderly woman dressed in black said this to me in a small village in Lebanon. She was my father’s cousin and I had only just met her. She smiled and tapped her wrist, as though the blood we had in common was stored in that exact place.
 
I can still remember a moment from my first day of high school that has stuck with me. We went around the room to introduce ourselves for the first time. When it was my turn, they asked why I chose to come to this school. I explained in a small voice that one of the reasons is that my cousins came here and it was a bit of a tradition.
 
‘Oh, who are your cousins?’ My classmates asked.

Well I didn’t really know them at the time but I listed some names that I had heard being thrown around at home. Remarkably enough, one random girl, a real country girl, yelled out

 
‘Did you say Lucy?! THAT’S MY COUSIN TOO!’
 
And everyone laughed at her, but she wasn’t kidding. That girl’s mother’s sister actually married my dad’s cousin. So their children are cousins to us both. I could have grabbed the world in my hands, for how small it felt in that moment.
 
I’ve been thinking about that story over and over since hearing the sad news about those cousins and their Dad passing away to cancer. I’m thinking of them all, even though I see them so rarely. It’s almost all I can think about.
 
I think back to that girl who, only moments prior had been a stranger to me but was now my cousin through marriage. How when it was her turn to speak, she so candidly confessed that her father was dead and how everyone fell into an awkward quiet but she was perfectly fine with letting us know that inner most thing.
 
I think about how two sisters are now widows and remember how someone joked to the girl, that she was ‘Sheree’s cousin now’, as though that would make everything okay.

I think about how we are all blood and all connected. I think of this from time to time and keep a place for you somewhere near my wrist, tap it a few times to feel comfort. To come home.

Ya Beirut – I

 

A frail, yet seemingly gentle elderly man sits outside a shop on a street corner in Achrafieh, one of the oldest districts of Beirut. Two men sit with him but my eyes only skate across them. The old man looks straight into my soul, struggles to stand up hurriedly, takes his beret from his head and holds his hand to his heart, a wide grin forming on his face as he does so. There’s joy in his movements, as though his life depended on this very moment.

‘Bonjour mademoiselle, ahlo sahle’

He is welcoming me to his little part of the street.

I smile and nod a thank you and keep walking, but all I want is to stay there with him. I want to sit with him in near silence, watching the world go by.

This is the one lingering image of Beirut that refuses to fade from my memory. It is by no means the only one, nor is it an accurate representation of the city that I would come to know, but it is one of those rare moments that shake your world up a little before pouring you back out in the world.

I adore Beirut and I despise Beirut, all at once.

I want to stay and I want to leave.

Most of all, I’m not sure I want to be alone in Beirut. In all honesty, I am terrified about 85% of the time. The rest of the time, I am drunk on life.

***

IMG_4288

For the first time in a long time, here is a city which appears to have lost itself along the way. I say this already fully aware that it has endured decades of war, with the most recent onslaught of war occurring in 2006 and devastating the country, its people and the tourism industry it so famously relies on every summer. Beirutis famously continued to party despite bombs falling in the distance. The ability to keep going, the tenacity to endure these horrors, to crawl out from the rubble and rebuild – these are the legends of the city, stories that have outlived the shrapnel.

But everything has changed and something is not right here.

I feel it everywhere I go. Instead of a tangible, earth-shaking physical threat, there’s the fear and paranoia of the unknown, of not knowing who or where the enemy is, of not being able to walk around the streets without wondering if the next car you pass will be the one with the car bomb strapped beneath it.

It’s a city and a country, one of the smallest in the world, currently overrun with refugees numbering in the millions. They can barely cope with the current population, let alone the grief-stricken fleeing from their nightmares.

The streets are deathly quiet at night.

During the day you can only hear the frustrated sounds of horns blaring and people yelling.

There are few tourists and even fewer locals. There’s a sadness that follows you everywhere you go. It’s devoid of people and brimming with ghosts.

I want to shake them; I want them to be happy with me.

It’s a damn pretty city. I could look at it all day, with its neutral colours against the light blue sky, and a constant fog that sits drunkenly over the city. Long, winding, narrow streets snake along the Mediterranean and up into hills. Broken pavements, torn up with rubble make it impossible to walk in a straight line without looking down every so often, rendering a feeling of constant drunkenness.

It’s better to walk on the road although that’s a risky move too. No one walks here. It’s hot, sticky, humid and the air is thick with pollution. The city is flooded with cars. I am the only person walking these streets and everywhere I go, I’m only passing by groups of men. I’m not frightened, but I come close to it a few times when the sun starts to disappear…

The people are a real mixed bag of types. They all seem to be from somewhere else. A woman in a beauty salon with a silver crucifix necklace – she’s Christian, I tick off in my head. Three women in a bathroom wearing the hijab – Muslims. Man with a long beard and an angry stare. Slightly Angry Troublemaker Sunni Muslim (okay that one was named for me by the local). He did look angry, I’ll concede that. There are more people but I can’t stare too long at them. I meet two guys at two different places, who in hindsight look similar. They both tell me they’re from the Chouf mountains but they’re not Druze, they’re Christians. I spend the whole week wondering if they could be brothers.

Everyone looks at you, some out of curiosity, and some with a slight hint of menace. Parts of the town are quiet when usually they’d be full of bustling people. Some areas are a no go due to the fighting in parts of the country. But it’s Ramadan while I’m there and things have slowed down a bit.

Walking in Gemmayze, I hear a loud bang. I scream but it’s just a man slamming down a shovel on the ground, for no good reason. The men laugh at me. Later I’ll be walking through Gemmayze, will hear the sound of an explosion and it will be exactly what I fear it to be, only a few hundred metres from where I am. One person will die.

‘You’ll find it’s quiet during Ramadan’, one Christian tells me, fed up with all the problems. ‘It’s ironic. You almost wish it was Ramadan all the time’.

The friendliest people I meet in Beirut are mostly Muslims.

***

I’m staying in the ultra trendy, hipster area. Gemmayze. (it’s GEMMAYZING, I start to say). Littered with tiny cafés, shops, pubs and small bars lining streets that can only fit a few frustrated cars going in one direction. It’s normally swarming with people, but it’s quiet on the weekends and lively during the week (everyone goes home to their villages and towns and mountains on the weekends, seeking solace and reprieve from the heat of the city). The main street Rue Gourard is lined with an interesting array of buildings. Some are more derelict, half falling down edifices with so much character, they could successfully host their own television series. Every now and again you’ll spot casual bullet holes in the buildings from the civil war – ranging from a pitter patter of small indentations to large, ominous, deathly craters that could cradle a small child. Some buildings are broken and ruined – preserved in their neglect, as though they were left out to dry in the sun and someone simply forgot to collect them.

The colours of the buildings strike me next with a stark variety of neutral, innocuous colours of greys, creams and terracotta to light pinks, to light blues and light greens. They have stylish European buildings with French doors leading to tiny balconies Vintage Mercedes of a similar hue pocket the streets. They stand in contrast to the darkness. I want to sneak into one of the baby blue cars and take a long nap. Naps are a salvation here, a prerequisite.

Cars are flying through the streets, beeping their horns every few seconds, so you’re never really sure what the cars are trying to say and no one seems to know themselves. Scooters dash in and out of traffic, not a care in the world. Sometimes they stop in the middle of the road to talk to other drivers, creating traffic and chaos, more beeping, but they’ll move when they’re ready.

I spot a little boy in Gemmayze putting bread in a bucket, which is hoisted up by the man in the balcony above, a kind of pulley system. I laugh. They’re lazy here. From valet parking everywhere, to waiters insisting on bringing you everything.

It’s dirty and there’s pollution everywhere. My skin is constantly pockmarked with streaks of black ash which smudge randomly. Later I’ll be taking a shower and the lights will flicker on and off, like shower disco lights.

There are fireworks during the day. This terrifies me as I sit on a hotel rooftop in Achrafiye. I ask the waiter Omar what that noise is. Is it fireworks? He looks to the other waiter who nods an affirmative and Omar says yes, they’re celebrating the end of exams. I’m not convinced.

‘But in the day!? Are you sure?’

He laughs.

‘Yes I’m sure. Don’t be scared’

But later he tells me not to go to the area with the fireworks. And not to go west or past the line that once separated East and West Beirut, between the Christians and the Muslims. It feels strange taking sides.

‘It’s not safe for a woman to walk alone in Beirut’ he says, although I do it anyway.

Later he’ll text me to make sure I got home safely.

***

There are small boutiques, which are usually manned by one immaculately dressed woman, who looks bored until you walk in. She greets you with a bonjour. The clothes, shoes and handbags always seem to be from Europe.

‘You should stay here’, says one woman, who owns a specialty pen shop.

‘You seem like you belong here’.

In spite of everything, I feel that she is right. This city is broken and so am I…