Last October, I cashed in some of my accrued airplane miles and traveled to Beirut, Lebanon for an extended weekend holiday. I was immediately enchanted by the city.
My first morning there, I walked along the Beirut promenade, lulled by the breeze off the Mediterranean Sea. Many Lebanese were out that morning as well. Young, fit individuals jogging with their bodies proudly on display. Old people ambling along, wearing the respectable clothing that they wore for the jobs they were long retired from. A continuum of modestly dressed Muslim women. Some wearing hijabs and formless attire, some wearing head scarves and yoga pants.
As I walked that morning towards my Airbnb in Gemmayzeh, a trendy neighborhood with lots of cafes and restaurants, I glimpsed the confluence of Lebanon’s culture and history. Old European style architecture next to cultureless modern design. Deteriorating buildings with bullet holes from the country’s 15-year civil war being renovated by the city’s developers. A massive mosque neighboring a colossal church, both next to a vast archaeological site exposing Roman ruins.
While I stood at an intersection waiting for the signal to cross the street, a young Syrian refugee holding a baby begged me for some change. I stared ahead and eventually crossed the street.
Around noon, I met my Airbnb host at the Urbanista, a coffee house near where I would be staying. He led me to the apartment which was on the fourth floor in a nearby building. I would have to use the stairs because the elevator wasn’t working. The décor of the apartment was sparse but charming with a subtle Mediterranean vibe. My host showed me to my room and gave me instructions about how to use the backup generator that would power the apartment during the nightly brownouts that affected the city. Gasoline would power the Wi-Fi during these electrical shortages.
After checking in, I explored the neighborhood, encountering several old, churches with alien crucifixes. Maybe Orthodox, Coptic, or Nestorian Christians—Levant sects that I never encountered growing up in the Midwest. Eventually, I wandered upon the St. Nicholas Stairs that climbed upwards and was lined with restaurants. I stopped at one of these restaurants and order the manti lunch special with a local Lebanese hard cider. While I waited and sipped my alcohol, I listened to a British tourist sing along to the Bobby Marley and Lauryn Hill duet of “Turn Your Lights Down Low.”
I want to give you some love…I want to give you some good, good lovin’.
The relaxing café ambiance of that moment pierced my heart. I was wiping my eyes when the server arrived with my manti. Everything ok, sir? Yeah, I’m fine.
Later that night, I returned to the Urbanista and waited for someone to show up.
After my October weekend in Beirut, I wanted to return the very next month. But the Lebanese people revolted.
In the months following the revolution, the city somewhat quelled, but things did not improve. There were shortages of trade goods and US dollars. People weren’t paid their salaries; they lost their savings; and the value of the Lebanese pound began to inflate. Still, I entertained the idea of visiting Beirut again.
However, the Coronavirus soon shut everything definitively down.
As world started to open this summer, I toyed with the idea of visiting Beirut. I watched the case numbers of the country, monitored the flights in and out of the country.
But then the Port of Beirut exploded, destroying a portion of the city, and burying my memories in debris and ruin.
Here are the links to two of my blog posts after my weekend in Beirut. The first link is to photos that I took during my wanderings of the city. The second link is a short screenplay I wrote inspired by that weekend.
Please keep the people in Lebanon in your thoughts, and if you can, please consider donating to the country’s disaster relief. The following article provides some suggestions.