Bewildering Beirut (Where am I?)

     I hadn’t been hearing great things about Lebanon. It was said to be expensive, modern (nobody wants modern until they are sick), accommodation is problematic, and most damning of all, the falafels were too dry. The dry falafels was a claim from some Syrians at my hotel in Damascus as I was checking out. Upon hearing this I threw down my jacket in a huff, dropped my bag and said, “Then forget it! Life is too short for dry falafels—I’m staying!”
     I am going to try and keep an open mind. I can live with a more expensive town for some days. I’m excited about warmer temperatures. I’m excited about being in a new country. First time in Lebanon!
     People also say that Lebanese women are beautiful, but I am going to keep an open mind about that, too, because I know the phenomenon: you travel in countries where the women are covered and then you come to a place where lots of women are wearing “normal” clothes and suddenly everyone looks like Salma Hayek. My beef with the women on this trip is that many shave their eyebrows and instead draw them in. I like the traditional big Middle Eastern eyebrows. That’s just me.
     The whole day was one niggling annoyance after the other, nothing by itself a big deal, but can I get a break on my birthday? I got one of the last beds in the only reasonable hotel in Beirut, a $12 dorm bed in a place run by gruff men. Within my first hour of walking around I saw a car with California license plates (expired registration–tsk, tsk) a Ferrari dealership, a man walking a chihuahua while drinking a bottle of Perrier, more fifi bars than I could count, and here is lil’ ol’ me, new in town, the light rain falling on my head like a reproach for dreaming it would be better weather here, and feeling like the lone outsider who doesn’t belong.

     I stopped a family on the street to ask where the post office was as I wanted to get there early tomorrow. I switched on my flat, slow, deep, accent-less English that I have honed over the years to perfection: “Excuse me, do you speak English?”
     Of course, it stopped them in their tracks. I’m good.
     “Yes,” the mother said, at attention.
     “Do you know where the post office is?”
     They looked at each other blankly and murmured before finally admitting that they didn’t know and directed me to two pointy-haired boys on the corner. The mother said, “Maybe those two boys know, but they probably don’t speak English.”
     “It’s OK, I can try,” I said, “But what is the word for ‘post office’ in Arabic?”
     The three all nervously looked at each other again and said that they only spoke English. I was dumbfounded by that and asked, “But…how would you ask them?”
     They didn’t have an answer and I appeared to have embarrassed them by the question. They wanted me to go into a restaurant to ask someone, but I went straight to the boys. I gave them the standard greeting of “Salaam Aleikum” (Peace be upon you).
     They exploded in laughter. “Salaam Aleikum! HAAAA!” and then mocked me with the answer in unison, “Wa-aleikum as-salaam!!!” and whooped it up like it was the punch line of a great joke. What was I supposed to say?
     They were actually quite helpful, telling me that the post office and most everything else was going to be closed for the next two days.
     And it is supposed to rain the next three days. And why is everything closed on a Sunday? Isn’t this a muslim country? No one can explain this to me.

     Downtown Beirut feels like downtown West Palm Beach, Florida, It feels fake and fancy and looks pretty in a faux Italian, don’t-touch, sterile way. The big difference is that there are tons of attentive police in full military gear with automatic weapons at the ready. There are barricades and their presence is everywhere.
     It took a lot of running around looking for a place where normal people eat, and all I could find to eat was this above, my birthday dinner.
     The cherry on the top of my wretched birthday was two inconsiderate, snoring guys from mainland China (I didn’t have to ask to know where they were from) in my dorm room who proved, once again, that it is impossible to whisper in Chinese.

     See the guys with guns on the left? I saw the two Chinese snorers come out of Dunkin Donuts so I screamed 'Shoplifters!' and they were mowed down in a hail of bullets. Belly laughs all around.

     Have you heard the claim that there has never been fighting between two countries that both have McDonald's? Doesn't Israel vs. Lebanon disprove that?

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Bewildering Beirut (Where am I?) — 6 Comments

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  2. hi kent! maybe beirut seems weird to you, way too western and all but give it some time and surely don’t miss out the rest of the country. Maybe consider going in spring? Beautiful place, great food and very kind people. At least, to me they were kind 😉
    Did you get the chance to go to baromètre café? Don’t miss the local almaza beer and ksara red wine, it is deeee-licious!
    again, keep the faith and maybe a little late but: happy b-day!
    grtz, karin

  3. You’re the second person I know in as many months that has said exactly the same things about Beirut. The other was a lot more critical though.

  4. Hey there! Welcome to Lebanon, the hometown of bizarre contrasts.
    First things first, we, as Lebanese people, nearly never say Assalamo Alaykoum, a Marhaba would have been more “adequate”, just like a Sabah el Kheir (as in good morning), or even a good old Bonjour (with a Lebanese R).
    Secundo. Even if the majority of the population is Muslim, a few decades ago, when the constitution was written, the majority was Christian, and that’s why Sunday is a holiday.
    And finally, I just hope you’ve had a positive overall experience.
    Your blog is very interesting, light and funny posts. Just hope you’d reconsider the number 1 middle eastern country position 😛
    Have a safe life (can’t say trip, since you’re always traveling)
    Lebanese guy.

  5. Lebanese guy, Thanks for your comments. I had no idea about #2. That’s good to know. I did have a positive experience; I only wish I had better hostel options, which I write about today. I look forward to returning!

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