May 28, 2019, Beirut, Lebanon.
Here’s what I notice being back in Beirut after four years of life on the other side of the planet in San Francisco. It is a quieter, a bit. There are fewer refugee children on the streets. The shoe shine boys are older and taller and maybe a shade more resigned than they once were, or maybe that’s me. More glass sheathed skyscrapers (destined to remain empty) towering along the shoreline. More businesses (including my favorite movie theatre) are shuttered. Uber has arrived and made getting around for those who can afford it easier in a city without street names. ( Ok, I miss my bipolar “service” rides just a little.)
Most of the city seems to me unchanged, though: the cajoling over better seats on the Middle East Airlines flight here from Europe, the tearful, affectionate family reunions at the airport, the surly monosyllabic immigration officer (who nevertheless found plenty of time to chat with my 20 year old daughter, I recall) as he checked each and every page of my passport, I suppose for an offending Israeli stamp. My bag being lost, yet again, and then the strange labyrinthine search for stamps and forms and clearance to get it sprung from the airport when it does arrive. Far from it being delivered to where I was staying, I spent the next morning trudging up and down stairs in the airport, trying to make out the Arabic signs overhead, passing through no less than four baggage scanners (including one where a workman was trying to shove his 10 foot ladder through)… down back corridors, finally finding my security officer with the necessary stamp, a young woman in battle fatigues staring listlessly at a twerking dance video on a wall-mounted screen, before beckoning me in and serving up the required stamp. It is hot, a brownish haze hanging over the highway north of the capitals. One-eyed, entitled stray cats stretching out on cool sandstone walls.
I am very happy to be here, I am not sure why. Maybe I am a little inspired talking to people about new programs to help refugees and poor (“marginalized” in the NGO jargon) Lebanese find work in the online economy–the reason I am here–maybe it is the glimpses of the gorgeous Beirut as it once was, the sandstone walls, the profusion of delicate pink bougainvillea spilling over dusty treetops at a deep blue Mediterranean. I am standing in the shade breathing in sweet sea air.