>allah o akbar
>i am in beirut, lebanon.
never before has the term “holy shit” carried so much literality.
my flight from budapest to beirut was essentially painless, only 2 hrs (voices reminded me, however, that i was only mere kilometres from baghdad). when i walked out of the gate, the sea of arabs starring at my long hair, halter top, and shorts was a bit disarming.
even though this is a secular country, and women are not required to cover up (no hijab, no abbaya, no chador), some tourists feel naked in their shorts and tank tops and decide it’s necessary to cover up.
i do not.
middle east be damned, i stubbornly say. it’s 40 degrees outside, i’m wearing my goddamned shorts.
my taxi driver and i zoomed through beirut at 5am, trying to find the hostel i had booked ahead of time. we whizzed through dilapidated and bullet ridden areas, where stray cats and sleepless men hounded the streets. the lebanese military, even in the velvet black of night, are everywhere, holding their ak.47s as if they were haircombs.
being canadian, how often do we see guns, unless they’re attached to the hip of an OPP officer, or we’re out hunting caribou?
after searching for an hour and yapping back and forth between english, french, and arabic, my pleasantly chipper taxi driver suggested i spend the night at his place.
it begins, i thought.
“na na na na!” i waved my finger at him. “just take me to a hotel”
“no, you misunderstand. i am married. have 7 children! you stay at my place, yes?”
“la, shukran!” i tried to be as polite as possible. he dropped me off at the Versailles Home Hotel in the Hamra district, which is just a few blocks west of posh downtown beirut (“hamra” means red, incidentally, and i wonder if that is a response to the former “green line” area that was one of the roots of the civil war in the first place).
my hotel is posh and air conditioned. and unlike all the weeks i have spent wearing shower shoes in my european hostels, here, i have my own immaculate bathroom. i take 3 showers a day.
my first foray into the midday city was, shall we say, interesting.
as it is in the movies, they do indeed blast their arabic prayer chants through the streets. the wailing jeremiad of these chants echoes through the narrow streets of distorted cobblestones and crumbling asphalt.
allah o akbar.
la allah illa allah.
i nearly wept.
the traffic zooms in disorientation and complete chaos. the traffic lights don’t work, and are hardly obeyed when they do work. vespas zoom into oncoming traffic. the horn is haphazardly used like a turn signal.
and for the first time in my life, i literally stop traffic everywhere i go.
not because i’m uber stunning, don’t get me wrong. there are a combination of variants:
#1 my body language- women here walk slowly and with their eyes down. i pound confidantly through the streets with my head up and my fists clenched, ready to sock the first asshole who dares touch me.
#2 my attire – the muslims here wear the hijab. the christians, who do indeed show off their coiffures, arms, shoulders and cleavage, almost always wear long pants or skirts. it’s rare to find legs exposed above the knee. i am altogether bewildered at the courage that takes, given the immense heat. after an hour, my shorts are literally soaked through with perspiration.
#3 social expectations – here, all women are expected to get married, muslims and christians. and they are expected to remain virtuous until that very night of wedded “bliss.” so, it is reasonable to assume that the men here are a bit, shall we say, SEX-STARVED! they never get laid, yet all the western tv they get here teases them with the idea of western-casual-sex, and they are in wank-hell.
what is the result? when i walk down rue riad el solh, rue weygand, or rue emir bechir, every second car honks at me and yells out,
when i don’t respond, they try in french.
“madesmoiselle, que vous êtes charmantes!”
“que vous êtes jolie!”
when i start to grind my teeth and clench my fists, they try in english.
“you are so beautiful!”
“you are sexy sexy sexy.”
my guidebook tells me i should just ignore it and keep a low profile.
i have been yelling like the town crier.
SHUT THE FUCK UP.
i’ve even been stopped by a few military officers with cavalier uzzies, asking me for a kiss.
i respond with, “i think you know what you can kiss,” and i stomp in a fury up the winding streets. watch yourself, christine, you might find yourself with a bullet-induced spinal tap.
when i did make my way into downtown beirut, i was astonished by the absoulte posh yet barren streets. the people here have worked so hard to reform their city back into it’s glorious hey-day of the “paris of the middle east.” but no one comes.
the expensive shoe shops and glittering jewelry shops remain quiet. the french, italian, and thai restaurants keep umbrellas over their empty patios.
the military stand in camouflage in front of gilded palaces and 12th century mosques. people throw their empties on ancient gallo-roman columns that are barely standing. photos of rafiq hariri adorn literally every shop window. the soaring iron monument erected in martyrs square in tribute to civil war heroes is, ironically, bullet-ridden.
the holiday inn, which was erected before the civil war, still stands with so many bullet holes speckling its façade, you have to wonder if it’s structurally sound.
but the mediterranean water is so enviably blue. and today i walked along la corniche in the blister of the mid-day heat (elbowed a dirty man in the stomach when he tried to grab my body as i passed), and paused in front of the pigeon rocks to ponder.
my great grandmother sailed away from these shores 105 years ago to find herself. 105 years later, her great granddaughter returns to these shores for the exact same reason.
today i want to see some theatre, either at the Al-Medina theatre, or the Théâtre de Beyrouth.
i am loving and hating everything about this city, a fitting end to my five-and-a-half-week-long mediterranean extravaganza, i would say.
k’teer hairak, lebanon.