When you’ve seen a cab driver use a belt as a whip, dined in Hezbolland, drank in a bomb shelter, worshipped a wine God (Baccheus), partied with a “Penguin”, and somehow managed to scratch off a “superficial layer” on your cornea in less than a week’s time; it’s hard to decide what story is worth elaborating in this limited 500 word post below. So, here goes nothing…
If you’ve never been to Lebanon, you’ve never been graced by the millions of political posters gracing its walls, light posts, billboards, taxis, and t-shirts like confetti. Extremely amusing (although often confusing), these posters showcase every well-fed parliamentary, religious, and otherwise famous figurehead in the Middle East. Often distinct only by mustache style or an expensive pair of sunglasses, some of these posters don’t even have words or political party symbols to accompany them. Needless to say, I’ve got a poster or two drawn up in my head for the next time I visit the country to establish my celebrity status… (“California Love”)
These political posters didn’t have any influence on us tourists whatsoever; until our third evening. After a day spent touring the Druze part of the country and one of the smaller cedar forests, our taxi driver/guide decided he was going to “make things easy for us” and have us over for dinner. Unsure of how to turn down the offer, as this cab driver surely didn’t invite all of his passengers over for dinner, we went along with the kind gesture. Pulling off the highway in South Beirut, our driver began to share a little more about his neighborhood…
Largely inhabited by Lebanese, Syrians and Palestinians, this tightly compacted community of high-rise apartment complexes was probably taller than it was wide. It also happened to be a former Hezbollah governed community (before the unity government was agreed upon just recently), and our driver was quick to point this out to us whenever possible (“this building was bombed in 2006,” “this police officer is a Hezbollah member,” “I don’t associate with anyone in this neighborhood,” etc).
I don’t know if he was working the awe factor, trying to intimidate us, or knew that we’d seen one too many terror-related movies, but his references to the hostile surroundings did nothing less than suggest I shouldn’t speak English while walking on the streets.
Walking to the apartment as inconspicuously as three Irish and one American can in a community bustling with young boys showing off on their mopeds, old men smoking hookah, and women bargaining at the open-air markets; we diligently followed our host to his 7th floor flat. Half-way up the stairs, the power went out, and I’m fairly sure that our certainty of the situation went right with it.
After fidgeting for ten minutes, making small talk, exchanging nervous smiles, and raising eyebrows of suspicion to one another, we had no idea of what would soon unveil itself; literally. Then, just as quickly as we had found ourselves in the empty room, a charming young lady entered with a huge smile, perfect English, and in standard Lebanese style, very fashionably attire.
The daughter of our cab driver, this young lady’s presence immediately eased the tension in the room and for the next hour and a half, we were able to speak, dine, and drink coffee with this lovely family (father, son, and two daughters; mom was sleeping). Learning more about their lives in the neighborhood, their struggles to afford college, their determination to succeed through hard work, and their perfect acceptance of their lives was nothing short of humbling. It was also the first such intimate family experience any of us had had since moving to the Middle East; and hopefully not the last.
Leaving the flat, we were all a little more grateful for our lives, and a little better versed on the true Beirut; it’s not all Bliss Street.