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This week’s explosion in the port of Beirut not only woke those who were just taking an afternoon nap, but also memories of my visit to that city. It was a short visit, barely enough for a first impression, and it was many years ago. Back then, I didn’t take any photographs, nor did I take any notes. This was in the bleak old times before I discovered writing, when I was still laboring and toiling as an attorney. Yet, let me try to piece together some fragments from memory.
The year was 2005, and Beirut, or indeed all of Lebanon, had just been rocked by another massive explosion, killing Rafiq Hariri, the Prime Minister. Actually, there were bombs going off all the time, which made it the perfect destination for me. I am not the type of guy for a boring beach holiday.
I still have the Lonely Planet guide for Lebanon and Syria, 2nd edition from 2004, and I am browsing it now. I should have marked the spot of my abode on the map. But I haven’t, which suggests that I was very confident to find the way back. I was walking a lot, because I found the buses too complicated. Anyway, walking around aimlessly is the best way to explore a city.
Only upon arrival had I taken a taxi from the airport. It was already dark, and either there were no more buses that evening or one of the taxi drivers was too quick to snatch me off the street. I remember lots of potholes, some of which may have been remnants of war and tears rather than of wear and tear, and some tanks on the side of the road.
I’ve had this feeling many times, and I love it: Arriving in a country for the first time, knowing nobody, not speaking the language, not knowing where I will end up, nor what will happen. And smoldering smoke, tanks in the streets, gunfire lighting up the night sky. There is a little bit of tension, sure, maybe even worry, but excitement and curiosity are winning big time. I was probably smiling.
“Where do you want to go, Sir?”
“I am looking for a cheap accommodation, maybe something like 20 $ per night.” It was the cut-off mark between cheap and not cheap in the Lonely Planet guide, at least at the time. And because everything would be new, I wasn’t really worried about where in town I would stay.
I remember that we were just going straight the whole time, which showed that he was a fair taxi driver, and then he turned right and there we were. He took me up to the second or third floor of an apartment building, rang the bell and explained what I wanted.
“For how many nights?” an elderly gentleman asked.
“Three nights,” I said spontaneously. I only had one week altogether, and I had booked the return flight from Damascus, so I still needed to go to Syria. I recommend booking your flights like that, because it gives you a very rough outline of your trip. But leave everything in between free to be filled with what lies on the way.
It must have already been after 11 pm, because the owner of the hostel showed me straight to bed, for which he only charged 6 $ per night. It was a room shared with 5 other people. Now, I don’t mind the sound of sirens and snipers, but I can’t sleep when someone is snoring. The men all looked like construction workers of some sort, and they were snoring like bears. I slept really badly, if at all, except for the last hours in the morning, because they had to leave early and go repair some building that had been blown up. Once I got up, I realized that I was basically in an apartment that had been turned into a hostel. This was AirBnB before computers. It worked fine without them tech guys fiddling with it, thank you.
The next day, I walked around aimlessly. I stumbled across the place where Rafiq Hariri had been assassinated, and saw what a huge blast it must have been.
All over town, buildings displayed scars from the Lebanese Civil War, which as a child I had seen so much about on the evening news, without ever understanding anything. Except that it was dangerous and complicated, which had probably fostered my fascination for Beirut.
In fact, walking along the Corniche, it felt like in any other Mediterranean city. People were strolling, the waves were crashing, men were selling roasted nuts, children were screaming with joy, young people were looking as attractive as possible. “Paris of the East” the city had been called before the civil war. Looking at the buildings, I couldn’t disagree more. But looking at the people, I could see it.
I hadn’t had any time to prepare for the trip. At the airport in Istanbul, waiting at the gate for Beirut, I was the only white guy among Middle Easterners. One of them asked, concerned: “Are you sure you want to go to Beirut?” Well, I had no back-up plan. A young woman, very attractive, working for the UN in Vienna, and going home for Christmas gave me lots of ideas and things to see. I wrote them down, but she just recommended nightclubs, discotheques and other party places. When she got up, one of the men sitting around us said: “It seems to me that the young lady misinterpreted the intention behind your trip to Beirut,” and he smiled mischievously. I later threw away the notes, although they included her name and phone number. Anyway, I had no phone.
This lack of preparation meant that I probably missed a lot of beautiful places. But one which I didn’t miss was the campus of the American University in Beirut. With it’s own section of the beach, it felt like UC San Diego. Come to think of it, maybe I should apply there for an exchange semester. I mean Beirut, not San Diego. In the USA, people are too crazy for me, all of them carrying guns.
I also remember walking down the Green Line, which had been a demarcation line for much of the civil war from 1975 to 1990. Now, it was just another street. There was nothing dangerous about it, although people said that far in the south, Hezbollah was living. Anyway, I was using the one of my passports without stamps from Israel, so I wasn’t worried. How would I notice when I was in Hezbollah territory, I asked. “More guys with guns,” one person said. “You will see that they pick up the trash more regularly,” someone else joked, and I understood why people voted for a party that was regarded as a terrorist organization elsewhere.
Whenever I went into a shop, people wished me “Merry Christmas”, and I had a hard time reconciling that with the lack of snow, with the warm temperature, and with all the signs in Arabic. Many people who haven’t been to Middle East think of it as a mono-religious Muslim place, but it isn’t. There were plenty of churches, and on Christmas Eve, they had the doors open, so I could hear the hymns and songs as I walked by. Each church had at least one tank with soldiers in front of it.
Because I wasn’t writing back then, I did a lot of things differently from how I would do them now. Instead of going to church, I went to the cinema and watched “Lord of War”, a film about an arms dealer. It wasn’t a particularly good movie, but I found it fitting for where I was.
Naturally, whenever I met people, they asked where I was from and what I was doing. When I said, always obliged to the truth, that I was a lawyer from Germany, their eyes widened, they became even more polite, and once, upon hearing that information, a lady in a falafel store said: “For you, it’s for free. I wish you all the best!”
It was only on the second or third day, as I was reading the local newspaper Daily Star, that I realized why people treated me with such unwarranted deference. You remember that the Lebanese Prime Minister had been assassinated earlier that year? The Lebanese investigation didn’t go anywhere, and thus the UN appointed a special investigator. That person, whose investigation was ongoing at the time, was Detlev Mehlis, a German prosecutor. He was held in the highest regard in Lebanon, and people put a lot of hope into the international investigation. Apparently, when they met a German lawyer in Beirut, they automatically assumed that I was on his team.
But people were generally extremely friendly. After the first day, as I got back to the apartment, the son of the owner asked me how everything was. I said, half-jokingly, that I should sleep during the day and go out at night because of the snoring men in my room.
“Oh, I am so sorry!”, he apologized for what was none of his fault. “Let me speak to my father, maybe we can give you a private room.”
That was good news, and I told him that I would of course pay more for that.
He spoke to his father briefly, and informed me: “We actually have a private room for you for the next two nights. It would be 20 $ per night, though. Is that acceptable?”
It was very acceptable.
And when I was shown the room, I realized that it was the father’s bedroom and that he would be sleeping in the living room, just so that I could have a good rest. I felt terrible and wanted to offer that I could sleep in the living room, but there were more people sleeping there already, and I might not have gotten any sleep again.
The apartment was close to Charles Helou bus station, a mere 300 meters from the port which was completely destroyed this week. Of course I am wondering what became of the people with whom I stayed. If they survived, they are probably in the streets, cleaning up the city, stepping in where the government is failing.
By the way, whenever you think of Lebanon, don’t forget that this is a country ravaged by wars, civil wars, currency devaluation, inflation, food shortages, yet it has taken in the largest number of Syrian refugees per capita. If that little country with a heap of problems can take in one refugee for every four of its own citizens, then we can all do more to help, too.
But nobody saw this coming in 2005. Quite the contrary, on the last day, I went to Charles Helou bus station, looking for a bus to Syria. “Don’t pay more than 10 $,” my host had instructed me, worried that I might get overcharged. As I got to the bus station, it seemed eerily empty and windy, though.
“All buses have been cancelled, because there is a snowstorm in the mountains between Lebanon and Syria.” That was bad, because I had to catch the flight from Damascus in three days. But the adventurous tale of whether and how I managed to get to Syria is better left for another time…