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.
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.