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.
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?’
‘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…