Once Upon a Time I was 25 and in Beirut

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Once I was 25, once I was a master student in humanitarian assistance, finding myself in Beirut for the last semester. A friend asked me how I felt about the anniversary of the harbor explosion and the honest answer is this; whenever Lebanon pops up in the news, I wish the news would be better, and I also have ambiguous feelings about the country. May I share them?

It was the longest period of time I had spent in a foreign city. Beirut was a colorful postcard at a first glance, with its bright lights and turquoise beaches. But there were dark sides beneath. This was a year before the Israeli summer war, when many of the young people I had met left for Dubai; before the Arab spring; and way before the harbor explosion wounded an already wounded country.

The men I met all had blackberrys and wanted to drive nice cars. Topics among most of the girls were eyebrows and when to get married. I rarely felt a connection. Not that this would have been necessary; I experienced a fatigue among the young, educated population, with the foreign students coming to Lebanon to do their thing (“gender projects in the Palestinian camps!”; “photography and community development!”), and it was hard to blame them. There’s a self righteousness among many young, white activists that can be hard to digest.

I also found myself disappointed in the world of NGO, at least in Lebanon, where the influx of foreign funding seemed to do as much harm as it did good. Having been so passionate about my field, making it to a prestigious master program, I lost some hope in the role development aid had in supporting a society towards positive change. Yes, there was poverty and despair in the Palestinian camps and among the many very poor Lebanese. Yes, there were a number of internationally funded projects to improve the situation. And the equation between the two rarely made up. Corruption; different actors getting the most they could off inconsistent funding; donors with suspicious agendas – it was all news to a 25 year old idealist.

The autumn seemed to consist of electricity cuts; people who didn’t keep their promises; men I weren’t into who tried to ask me out or invite themselves to my flat; and corrupt NGOs contributing to the inflation that made it hard for most Lebanese people to make a living.

Beirut was as inconsistent in its appearance. The nightclubs, the breathtaking mountains, the hardcore religious preachers, the sectarian hatred that seemed to creep in anywhere. Well-off youngsters spent hundreds of dollars on vodka and cocaine in one night in Gemmayze street; while in the poor suburbs, people worked 12 hour shifts for ten dollars a day, cockroaches ruled the blocks and sewage water overflowed the streets.

I made friends with some Swedish-Lebanese families that had moved back to Lebanon, and the comfort was a relief (that, and a burned cd of Kanye West’s Late Registration, purchased in the black market in Cola bus station); I often found myself hanging out in their living rooms.

Then I was preparing to wrap up my field study for my master thesis; focusing on the outcomes of dialogues among university students from different sectarian groups, and head back home. And then, after months of ignoring men’s phone calls to my Nokia 1110, I fell head over heels, stumbling in to an unfamiliar feeling of anxiety and euphoria. One of the Swedish-Lebanese moms cautioned me; “There are many guys here, be careful who you choose. There will be differences, you know.” But this one, I was sure, was special.

Still I remember the details; the leather jacket, shiny black hair, spotless skin and a hoarse voice. I would have fallen for his type in any part of the world. I can still point out which table at the Hamra bar we once shared our secrets at.

We hung out as friends. He shared my values. He was educated, from a well off family – and a communist. He’d taken classes in domestic violence, even educated me on the subject. But most of all: he listened to me. Was interested in what I had to say. And he seemed to like me, too. He smoked a certain type of cigarettes that I liked but didn’t know where to get.

“I won’t tell you where I buy them”, he said with a grin, “so you’ll have to meet me every day before you go home.”

At the same time, my research among students who had taken part of coexistence dialogues, showed me a different side of Lebanon. Many of the students I interviewed were non prestigious and down to earth. It started to seem possible, what I had been longing for. People who spoke of things like coexistence, peace with Israel, staying in Lebanon, contributing to the positive development of the country. I started to regain trust in this beautiful country; that it was possible for it to heal and corruption to be fought by the young, enthusiastic people I had met; and I also regained hope in the fact that international funding could make a difference.

The night of my flight, he came over to the simple, overpriced studio I rented. We spent some hours talking before a car was going to pick me up at midnight. Having given most of my stuff to the Syrian janitor who lived with his wife and five kids in a single room at the bottom floor, the flat was bare, my bags packed. I asked him to read a short story of Hanan al-Shaykh and give me his opinion, and we discussed it. Neither one dared making the move. After we had hugged goodbye and he’d left, it took around 15 or 20 minutes of thoughts like it’s not necessary, just drop it – then I picked up the Nokia cellphone.

“I forgot to tell you something. Can you come back?”

Within a few minutes he was at my door and before I knew it, I was in his arms. We kissed, carefully, for what felt like an eternity, while the clock was ticking fast towards midnight.

From the view of my balcony, I watched him disappear down the Hamra street, into the foggy December night. He smoked a cigarette and his leather jacket was open. He raised his face towards the sky and the rain, closing his eyes as if he was in a dream. I felt I was in one, too. All the disappointment that had gathered inside of me had seemed to vanish.

Tears started flowing when on the airplane. It wasn’t the first or last time a man made me cry from one airport to another (and this man would make me cry on flights again, which I didn’t know at the time); but this one felt different. It was like soulmates meeting each other in a lost place. I wondered if I would ever see him again. And I would, even though it would take several years.

I still believed in love; love as a force greater than long distances, cultural differences – and that the fast money and lifestyle of Dubai wouldn’t change someone for the worse.

That was a beautiful, childlike belief. Whenever Lebanon pops up in the news today, I wish I hadn’t heard the bad news. I wish that memory could have been my very last memory of him, and of Lebanon. I wish I could have had that belief forever.

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