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The Beirut Diaries – The End of another First Week

29 August , 2010

Or:  a city of Transformation

It has become entirely usual for me – food lover extraordinaire – to find myself in a country where Ramadan is celebrated by a large part of the population every year: Morocco in October, Turkey in September, and now, again, Lebanon in the middle of August. As the plane touched down against the night glow of Beirut by night, images of manouche (flatbread with olive oil and thyme) and sweet cups of treacly coffee began to overcome my senses. I found myself thinking I ought to track the moon charts far more closely to ensure that I take holidays in places where I easily can find food and drink during daylight hours.

I need not have concerned myself. No sooner had my bags been placed in what was to turn out to be the first bed in a week-long series of changing houses, I had been whisked off to a beach party just south of Beirut in Jiyeh’s Atlas beach, a place where religious fasting requirements were truly the last thing on anyone’s vodka-hazed minds. This Mediterranean beach was transformed by Israeli bombing in 2006 into a vicious oil spill, and now has been reclaimed by the city’s artistic crowd as party central. Ahlan bi Beirut! A city where the hijab somehow – or just about – coexists with bikini-clad gyrating bodies, plastic or otherwise. A city which, according to the preferred clichés of every guidebook, demonstrates its determination to survive with an exhilarating display of joie de vivre. This, I was to discover, is a quality which I would need to adopt as my own rather quickly indeed.

The trouble with finding a house in post-war central

Apparently, finding medium-term accommodation in Beirut is a Herculean task. Firstly, there are almost no street names in Beirut. Nobody has an address. “I live in the street opposite the Byblos bank, down the side alley in front of the barber shop on the second floor. Next to the petrol station owned by Charbel’s father”. Akid. So, in order to locate a studio which appeared to be advertising itself for rent on the internet, sans telephone number either, my friend’s father resorted to Google maps with which we armed ourselves when walking around the neighbourhood. By the time we got there, the studio had disappeared into the flowering bougainvillea, if it had ever existed. Nobody had heard of the place.  Everyone might know someone who rents out a room or a flat, but it is always bokhra (tomorrow), and the leads, or even descriptions, are never clear.

Perhaps I ought to have anticipated this, given a fifteen year civil war, a generation that still largely lives at home until marriage and comparatively few foreigners to whom to cater. Nevertheless, emboldened by projections of modern Beirut, I arrived with dreams of a charming, renovated Italianate house, where I would write in my balcony, wrapped in wisps of black cherry shisha. Daily Power Cut, please (the burdensome reality now causing mass protests). It is time for a reality check.

Faced with no organised system of house-hunting, I have been reduced to walking around the two portside neighbourhoods which I love from morning until night, stopping to ask in every hairdressing salon, grocer shop or even passer-by whether they happen to know of any flat for rent, or houseshare. In the shake of a date tree, I have morphed from lawyer to lady of the street, without the slightest shame. Usually, the response is a click of the tongue, followed by a pitying sigh of exasperation. “Nothing, my dear. You won’t find anything here. It is very difficult”. Given that I have been living in the midst of a plague of giant flying cockroaches, this universal response has been mildly unnerving.

Scavengers of size and scale

The size of my hand, the miserable reddish-brown creatures scuttle across the cement floors with an arrogant scratch of their antennae, landing on white pillows and towels with a profusion of blood and disdain. I am determined not to let them keep me awake, but the hardness of the bed – constructed by the side of the road, no doubt, from polystyrene, rocks and sawdust in the poorest Beirut suburbs – conspires with the night-time scavengers to force me to spend nights without rest. I have become the ultimate Hotel Whore, switching inexpensive beds for a night to try to find somewhere to sleep. Six beds in eight nights is a record even Paris Hilton may find enviable.

In the meanwhile, another type of scavenger has set upon me. The make-shift broker. The go-between who promises to assist me in the interminable hunt. She will call me with promises of quality accommodation in the wealthy suburbs, failing to mention the basement damp in what was said to be an upper storey flat, or furniture that disintegrates upon touch. Worse, she will call me with the promise of Shangri-la, a room on the St Nicholas steps of buzzing, hip Gemmayze (where I have been searching), setting out her “professional terms of business” (for which please substitute 15% commission of the total rent), on a flatshare with an English girl which has been advertised online, and which I have already seen and which has already been promised to me if I can wait two more weeks – and still, though Madame Broker had absolutely nothing to do with it, the scavenger wants her commission. Ah yes, flat-hunting in the forty-plus Celsius of daytime Beirut is not easy at all and as we speak, I have my bags in my friend’s car yet again, this time with a promise of a night in the mountains near Tripoli to escape the August heatwave.

Patriotic play

Bored of the hunt already by midweek, and with the letters of the Arabic alphabet swirling in my tired brain like a series of senseless dots and lines, I headed after my daily intensive Arabic class to the beach at Batroun, about an hour north of Beirut, with Zeina and a Russian/Lebanese friend of hers to sink ourselves in soupy Mediterranean waters and feast off chunks of watermelon, fried fish with tahini, rounded off with potent arak. Off the rocky shore lie two tiny little islands, probably each about the size of a deformed Tesco supermarket trolley. Both are blessed with a Lebanese flag that flies its patriotic spirit proudly in the thick, night air. Patriotism here is a national sport.

Earlier in the week, as we sat drinking ice-cold beer in a Gemmayze pub (topic of conversation: househuntinhg, akid) there was a ‘spot of bother’ in central Beirut. We stayed well away, of course, but Hezbollah leader, Nasrallah, was to be seen giving an impassioned speech on all television screens in the local shops and cafes, and something seemed to be stirring. Given that the UN Special Tribunal on Hariri’s assassination now has been delayed until at least December, we were all somewhat unsure at the time what was happening. The ‘I Love Beirut’ Facebook page was awash with the national anthem, but otherwise, life carried on as normal.

There was still yoga at the Sivananda Centre, though without air conditioning in the pretty marble-decked 1930s building, a meditative hatha class transformed into Bikram yoga for me, as the sweat left me sliding unnaturally and entirely without grace.

The ability to carry on drinking caiprinhas was normal despite rocket fire and machine guns erupting a few blocks downtown, as a result of a “personal fight” between a Hezbollah member and a small Sunni political group whose shadowy links to Syria make them potentially suspect. The Lebanese Home Minister has called for a total ban on arms in the capital city. Yep, Good luck with that one!

The ability to sleep through the chants of the Lebanese army patrolling the streets at 5am to make sure calm prevailed during the night was equally normal, though the American girl next door snored loudly through her sleeping pills (cockroaches, buggered-up beds and rocket fire don’t make for an easy sleeping combination).

A peaceful end to the week

And with that occasional episode over, Ramadan continued well into the week with manouche being baked on rounded kilns from dusk until dawn, and pomegranate juice being squeezed for the poor, fasting souls who are without water as the rest of us down litres of it per day in these sweltering temperatures. The first week in Beirut draws to a close, and as I remain both distinctly homeless and hot, I decide that the best solution is to launch myself in the direction of Hamra; during the civil war, it was a hotpot of armed men, prostitutes and students. Today, it has morphed into a trendy, university area packed with bars, BMWs and bling. When in doubt, do as the Lebanese do. Forget about it. Have a beer. Look beautiful.

Until the next time.

August 27th 2010, Beirut.

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