Beirut: You Always Remember The First Time.

The Foreign Office advice was clear, do not go to Lebanon, and if it’s absolutely necessary then under no circumstances should you go to the Southern suburbs of Beirut, do not go to the South of the country and do not drink the contaminated water supply.

Sitting in the cushioned back seat of a lime green Mercedes parked in the southern Beirut suburb of Borj El Brajneh, I felt a sharp twinge in my abdomen, it caught me by surprise and I winced, I leaned out of the window to see where my newly found friends were. We were parked in a breeze block built shanty town, war damage and smouldering garbage. Ibrahim was emerging from a side alley with a grin on his face; the other two were following behind him. Did you get it? I asked as they all climbed back in the car. Yalla says Ibrahim clearly pleased with himself. We had just bought a second hand carburettor.

It was the early 90s, officially the Lebanese civil war was over and the last of the western hostages had just been released. An air of optimism was prevailing; the Syrian army had it all under control. Americans were banned from flying into Lebanon and for the rest of us it was far from a simple task to get there. I found a ferry from Cyprus.

In the smoke filled waiting room at the port of Larnaca I was being peppered with questions from the Lebanese expatriates waiting for the same Russian tug; Am I in the UN? Have I been before? Do I have a place to stay? Do I know anyone in Lebanon? My negative answers were making me nervous and the others dismayed. Eventually we were all summoned to a waiting mini bus, it was dark, and the curtains were pulled closed. Someone said we are not even in Beirut and already we are being kidnapped.

We boarded the boat and all headed below deck to the bar to continue taking the piss out of the idiot foreigner. The bar was small, semi-circular and mostly maroon. Natasha was working the bar and the guys kept asking for drinks that involved her having to climb the spiral stairs, as the boat lurched to the port side the Lebanese lurched to the starboard side to get a glimpse of Natasha’s thighs as she fetched the drinks.

I shared a cabin with Robert and spent most of the night being re-educated on everything I thought I understood about the Lebanese civil war. As the dawn broke the boat entered Journieh harbour and I was not feeling as confident as I had been. Perhaps Robert would guide me through the formalities and into town.

The customs shed resembled a fish market, the guard poked at my rucksack as if it was the last flounder of the morning catch.  Tourist he repeated a couple of times as though he had never said the word out loud before, I smiled and he nodded me through. Outside I looked around bewilderingly, I heard my name being shouted, and there was Robert waving from a taxi as it sped away.

I had walked the full length of Rue Hamra to the San Lorenzo Hotel, dripping in sweat I paid for a bed in a shared room, the clerk handed me a key and a litre bottle of water, in the room which resembled an army barracks with a row of empty beds and a lonely cockroach as the only other guest, I glugged every drop of the water, then I went to the sink to wash my face but there was no water. I looked at the empty water bottle on the bed and it dawned on me what had just happened. It would take another 24 hours before the pollution would seep into my veins.

Rue Hamra was busy with dilapidated traffic, hawkers selling knock-off perfume, money changers and cigarette sellers, I slipped down a side street, past the American University and onto the Corniche, bullet riddled buildings tottering beside a solid blue Mediterranean Sea, calm and chaos. A Ferris wheel miraculously still standing and rusting in midday sun of the Luna Park, bill boards advertising Crossfire walking boots and Syrian tanks sheltering in their shade.

I poked my camera through a hole in a barbed wire fence and within seconds was surrounded by shouting Lebanese soldiers; I had missed the sign for Military Beach Club, a schoolboy error, they wanted my film but despite only having shot two frames I argued to keep it and managed to extricate myself and promised them and myself to behave in the future.

 Beirut is slumped exhausted at the base of Mount Lebanon and the Corniche is the dividing line between the city and the sea, the esplanade providing respite and reflection, walkers and sunbathers, smokers and coffee drinkers. I munched on a handle of bread spread with a triangle of cheese.

It wasn’t just the heat and humidity that was draining me, I was overwhelmed, poverty I had seen before but this was Armageddon. Standing at the entrance to a side street, starring, bombed out buildings full with families, shells of cars, the haze of burning rubbish; I wanted to enter the street but was rooted on the spot. I thought I was prepared for this but I clearly wasn’t.

I hadn’t come as a tourist nor as a photojournalist, the previous couple of years I had immersed myself in all things relating to the Middle East, I wanted to learn and understand, I had researched extensively all I could prior to travelling, I was carrying more books than camera equipment. I knew nothing. I was out of my depth, had made a huge mistake, in my mind I could see the faces of the Lebanese expats in the port waiting room, they knew.

“It’s fully booked” said a voice from behind me, I had been looking up at the shell scarred frame of the Holiday Inn, the voice belonged to Ibrahim and his clear sense of humour drew me to him, I accepted his initiation to lunch, the comfort of a cafe sounded more appealing than the idea of food at this stage.

 I sat on an up-turned paint tin while Ibrahim spread newspaper on an oil spilled table, we were joined by his friends and two grilled chickens, small plastic bags with anonymous pickled vegetables and a bottle of Arak, surrounded by scrap stripped from cars and the remnants of cars stripped of scrap.

The chicken was soon devoured; despite the shadow war shattered building all around the conversation avoided the subject, I had only had a morning in Beirut and was already war weary, how do you feel after more than fifteen years. We left the workshop and walked over to the only complete car, Ibrahim tossed me the keys and said I could drive; I tossed them back, today had already tested me, not that I thought he was serious anyway, the four of us got in the Mercedes and we set off for where I had no idea.

It was hard to tell if this was a typical working day for Ibrahim and the others or the days antics were for my benefit, either way as we returned with the carburettor we decided stop at a subterranean pool hall, bottles of Almaza beer were passed round, joshing and japes, pool balls bouncing on the floor and grown men giggling like girls.

The power was off when I got back to the hotel, I heard a crunch as I made my way to my bed, I was the only guest, I slept soundly.

I sat in the Cafe de Paris and sipped espresso, Beirut was going about its business. I had been reading Jean Makdis, her Fragments of Beirut, and her words coupled with the fragments I could see all around me was wrenching; I had tears in my eyes. The history of Lebanon is littered with disturbance; a country the size of Yorkshire that once enjoyed the eponymous moniker of Switzerland of the East, a playground for the Monaco set during the heady days of the 50s and 60s and a byword for ruination by the 70s. A sectarian mezze, eighteen religious groups who have rarely seen eye to eye. It was already fragile place when the PLO helped tip the balance in 1975 and unleashed fifteen years of brutal strife.

Much of the downtown part of the city was utterly devastated, other part were busy with the usual machinations of commercial life, there were quarters of overcrowded hovels screaming with urchins and just around the corner would be faded French styled villas fragrant and blooming and all within meters of each other, but what they all had in common was the incessant peppering of bullet holes.

As I explored and tried to record as best I could I would either be thwarted by Syrian soldiers who would step out of the shadows of a derelict building to wave a figure at me, or that I was simply unable to invade the privacy of public poverty.

Most days I would pass by the car repair shop and see my friends, often we would walk down to the Corniche in the evening and drink coffee served from mobile vendors. Chatting about cars and football, I mentioned I had owned an MGB Roadster, I knew little of the different makes but Ibrahim was an encyclopaedia, he rattled off the variations and spec of each model and said that there’s MG in Beirut, and with that a red Roadster roared along outside lane of the Rue General De Gaul, “you see” he said matter-of-factly.

Back in Cyprus earlier than I planned, the state of my intestines was causing serious discomfort, I bumped into Robert who said he was surprised I got out at all, I was not sure I actually had.

I spent the next few days sitting on a bench looking out to sea; the Lebanese coast is just a couple of hundred kilometres away, but how far in reality from the package holiday resorts is immeasurable. I tried to process everything I had experienced over the previous ten days, the complexity of the politics, the simplicity of the hospitality and the extraordinary expense of ordinance. 

For all of us there are definable moments in our lives when we turn the page of one chapter and begin another, this was one of those moments. Beirut changed me and my life would never be the same again.

…………………………………………..

Thank you for reading and sharing. This is the first of two parts, in the second part I explore Lebanon beyond Beirut.

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45 thoughts on “Beirut: You Always Remember The First Time.

  1. “The power was off when I got back to the hotel, I heard a crunch as I made my way to my bed, I was the only guest, I slept soundly.” This made me laugh out loud – despite everything that is far from funny in your richly written piece.

    1. I’m glad it made you smile Phil.
      There is always humor in the most grotesque situations but obviously, a fine line when it comes to writing about it.
      Thanks for reading and taking the time to comment, much appreciated

  2. A wonderful account but I think I mayhave missed when exactyly this was. I would absolutely love togo to the Lebanon. My grandmother and aunt spent some time there during tyhe war as refugees, and always spoke of it as an idyllic place. How things change. I was by chance yesterday looking up travel possiblities to Syria again – One weekend ten years ago and I seem to be totally infected withthe desire to get to know more of the middle east better. Thanks to your blog I am beginning to find out more.

    1. Thank you Basia
      This was from the early 90s.
      Lebanon is beautiful and troubled, currently, due to government incompetence the country is suffering hyperinflation, there have been many protests, and needless to say dealing with Covid has been woeful. Once a little normality resumes and travel is a viable prospect a visit to Beirut at least would be lovely. The Food The Food.
      Syria on the other hand is far from viable. The war may have disappeared from the news headlines but things are far from stable. There have been multiple attacks around Damascus, mostly from Israel targeting the Iranian military but there have been others too. The war coupled with sanctions has left the economy devastated, shortages of fuel, constant electricity cuts, etc. I would say it’s not exactly unsafe to visit Damascus just now but that could change in a split second given the various dynamics still in play. It would be a heartbreaking place to visit. That said the hoteliers would be cocker-hoop to see you and would treat you with amazing hospitality, I cant tell you how much I wish this situation will change.

    1. Thank you Clive
      I really appreciate your support.
      I just noticed you are following me on IG and have followed you back. I love your BNW landscape images and so want to shoot something along similar lines-just finding the time and place as ever

      1. Thanks for following me on IG John, I appreciate it. I always look forward to your photographs and your articles, they are just so good.

  3. I admire your courage and strength in traveling to these destitute and dangerous places. I remember just driving over the cattle guard onto the Navajo reservation to interview for the teaching job I ended up taking. The poverty and estrangement there was shocking enough for me….a third world country in the midst of the US.

    i love your writing.

    1. Thank you Katelon
      While I don’t encourage reckless travel I do think it worth pushing the boundaries of our comfort levels, as you have clearly been rewarded for the experience.
      I am not attracted to danger, adventure maybe, my inspiration is humanity and being able to share the experience.

    1. Thank you Carolyn
      I would love to write a book. The amazing feedback I get from these pages is very encouraging, and yet, still the self-doubt and procrastination continue to prevent progress. All in good time I hope

  4. I love your stories. I’ve just created a Facebook group for personal story, personal essay, and memoir, the goal being for people to share their work there. Not many members yet but I’m working on growing it. I shared this post there; you are welcome to join and share your posts there if you like. Whole goal is to broaden the audience for work like this. https://www.facebook.com/groups/183022420241127

  5. Once again, your writing is moving, your photos are beautiful and filled with great emotion. I wish only that war in that part of the world would end. It seems it has become a way of life, this is what saddens me.
    I hope your gut survived intact.

    1. Thank you Jennifer
      I hope the same too. Although it has to be said that there are many parts of what we call the Middle East that is peaceful and lovely to visit and each having its own unique identity.
      My gut did survive, just.
      Hoping life in Wisconsin is treating you well

  6. Puts in perspective the whinging of those who think wearing a mask or staying home is such a curbing of their freedom and “rights.”
    Heart-breaking the utter stupidity of these conflicts.

  7. Pingback: Beirut: You Always Remember The First Time. – Universal gallery

  8. Your narrative is more dire than any crime novel, because we know that what you’ve experienced is unfortunately true. I admire your resilience to document these places in the aftermath of devastating wars, so your readers can learn of the subsistence living of the families who remain.

    1. Thank you Vivienne I really appreciate you reading and commenting.
      Hopefully, I am able to bring back positive stories as well as the dire and I have to say these days I am looking for more positive stories to tell.

  9. Both Syria and Lebanon are ancient beautiful lands that have now been trashed essentially by their own people. However we are managing to mess up our own Western countries now so certainly can’t claim to be better.

  10. I feel very fortunate to have found your blog, although you found me (thank you for reading my blog). I recently found out that my mother’s side of the family traces its history as far back to Yemen and ever since I have been unsettled with anxiety and curiosity to know more about that side of my history. I’m happy I found your blog and believe it will be a step towards learning that history and the rich history of the Middle East. Many thanks for your passion and efforts of bringing the Middle East right to our homes

    1. Thank you.
      Yemen is an incredibly beautiful country, I have sadly not yet had the chance to visit but would dearly love to. It’s unique in so many ways compared to other middle eastern countries, such a shame the current situation and only hope for peace and stability in the future.

      1. It is deeply sad the current situation down there. I hope you get to visit someday, and I will look forward to reading your beautiful narration of your time there 🙏🏾

  11. Pingback: Beirut: You Always Remember The First Time. – WRITERS POINT

  12. Not4wood

    John I felt like I was reading a story from Life Magazine. Very well written and just brings the reader in to accompany you in your travels. Thank you for sharing.
    Mark

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