Destinations, Lebanon, Musings

(Chaos Is.) Beirut, Lebanon

August 9, 2012

“Unfinished business. Loose ends. Broken sidewalks.” Notes scribbled in my little Moleskine notebook, under the heading “Chaos Is.”

Welcome to Beirut.

The rallying point at Martyr’s Square; The Grand Mosque behind.

“Lebanon?” people would ask as eyebrows lifted and the telltale hint of concern or excitement danced around the word.

Depending on the inquisitor’s level of comfort with the notion of visiting the Middle East, they’d press for more logic behind the decision to add a place of such turmoil and challenge to our itinerary.

“Why Lebanon?”

The short answer: my college roommate (one of the most true and level headed women I’m blessed to know), Jodi, has been living and working in Beirut the past few years and invited us to pay a visit if her address fit into our route.

The medium answer: Ted and I were both curious about the truth behind the hazy, sandy, stark and scary, mysterious and misunderstood reputation of the Middle East and both wanted to experience a piece of that world for ourselves. And, um, truthfully: we’ve eaten so many meals at Ya Hala in our Montavilla, Portland neighborhood that we literally salivated at the thought of family-style meals of Lebanese mezze in its true place of origin.

After three weeks of new friends, banned books, challenging conversations, shared meals, glasses of Lebanese wine and bottles of local brew, hours of leisure on calm seashores, miles walking chaotic city blocks, lectures at the base of buildings bearing bruises and wounds of war, visits to lush urban oases and book stores and cinemas and veggie markets, after all this, we should be able to answer the question:

“What did you think of Lebanon?”

The very long answer: We’re still thinking.

Somedays I chide myself for being “behind” on the blog: for not sharing stories and photos in near-real-time. But truthfully, I think it’s for the best in certain cases. These experiences percolate slowly, settling in our spirits while the full expression of notes and flavors have a chance to mature. For now, internalized thoughts may come across more easily over coffee (or tea!) than text.

But in the meantime, a first round of simple answers might surprise you >>

The newspaper lies, the radio lies, the TV lies, the streets, they howl with the truth.
-Henry Miller

>> It’s “difficult, difficult, lemon-difficult” to describe.

Middle Eastern news has confused me over the course of my life. Generalizations and stereotypes, gaping holes in historical study, lack of direct connection, skepticism and cynicism: they’ve all contributed to an unfortunate level of naivete, and I suppose my deep desire is to somehow convey through these posts the facts and truths and new perspectives I’ve been introduced to in hopes that you, too, can see this place on the planet with new eyes.

The conundrum, though: only by walking the city and village streets and making my way down mountain and valley trails, breathing the air, soaking up the senses (physical and metaphysical, truly) could I begin to barely scratch toward a deeper comprehension of Lebanon. If that’s the case, how can I possibly make a meaningful difference in your impressions with simply these words and pictures?

Those Romans. Building baths everywhere…

>> Ruins captured my imagination in new ways.

Sometimes my patience for ancient architectural ruins runs out. (Gasp!) And yes, the most visible layers in the city are Roman and Byzantine, but the experience of imaging through time past Ottoman and Roman history and all the way back to Phoenicians and Canaanites felt deeply meaningful to me. Somehow different than similar scenarios of ancient ruins jumbled together with modern buildings on more western shores of the Mediterranean.

Beirut was founded as early as 3,000 B.C., before Jerusalem, Athens, Damascus, or any other current capital. In a vast area where hundreds of buildings demolished during the 1975-1990 civil war have now been razed, archeologists have uncovered layers of Canaanite, Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman and Ottoman civilization.
-Under Beirut’s Rubble, Remnants of 5,000 Years of Civilization

>> The Old Holiday Inn got under my skin. (Left side: hiding behind the trees.)

The first time Ted and I walked by the building, we were with our new friend, Wade, a history teacher and colleague of Jodi’s who volunteered to lead us across the city and give us a mini-introduction to Beirut (on our way toward a future post: a visit to the 961 Brewery!)

I knew the skyscraper by reputation: epicenter of Beirut, Lebanon’s civil war, a remnant monument bearing bullet and bombshell wounds as old as the 1970s. But seeing it in person was a harsh dose of reality. Standing on streets where people had been gunned down, it felt achingly real. It wasn’t a WWII story of heroes and iconic battles as taught in star spangled text books. It wasn’t a site of ancient Roman battles with chariots and spear and subsequent quaint medieval villages.

It was a giant lingering skeleton with no closet to hide in. It was an image of a modern-day civilization where people just older than me were born into chaos.

“Beirutis always lived in this peculiar half-light between security and insecurity, war and truce, in which there were always enough periods of quiet to go about one’s day but never enough to feel confident that it wouldn’t be one’s last.”
-Beirut to Jerusalem

The Old Holiday Inn is actually owned by the Emir of Kuwait and his family, and they’re not in a rush to do anything with the shell. The Lebanese army occupies the structure now, and guards posted outside keep snap-happy camera wielders from capturing shots. I felt like a rebel sneaking a picture of a reflection of the tower and its stories of blown out windows and empty rooms.

Over the weeks, though, the shock wore away. And by the end of our stay, I noticed myself walking right by. Chilling to realize how quickly painful reminders wear down the psyche to the point of ambivalence…

>> Seeing so much development trouble made me an eensy bit more grateful for our bureaucracy and red tape at home.

Lebanon’s land/property management laws are a mess and countless other crumbling buildings around the city are limbo, caught in complex webs of ownership, archaic and unchangeable tenant contracts.

>> The colors and shapes, windows and graffiti in the city drew me in…

Turkish, Lebanese, and French Architecture met for a mixer and color came to the party.

>> The streets were a stage; the performance familiar and foreign all at once

Displays of mundane daily life…veggie shopping, car washing, carpet cleaning…became suddenly new. Calls to prayer echoing down corridors between apartment buildings spun a normal western city-scape on its head.

>> Life in a balcony culture can be pretty peachy.

Open land for roots and water were scarce at ground level; green space in the city was at a premium. Above the streets, however, pockets of well-tended plants and fragrant blooms grew hopefully, extending arms toward space and sky, softening the outlook on the world. Chaos below held at bay (for the time).

For the final two weeks of our stay, we house-sat for Jodi, tending her collection of green and growing things…doting on the lemon tree and deadheading the geraniums, watering the willow branches and watching over the succulents. We found ourselves often staying in, cooking meals, seeking refuge from the heavy, hot summer heat, and treating the retreat from the city as a retreat for the soul.

The balcony life provided surprises, too. As much as it’s high and removed and enclosed, it’s also perched and open, waiting for the world to walk by.

In a city where firecrackers sounding like gunshots go off nearly every night while beastly fears of violet outbreaks gnaw restlessly at a subconscious level, it was admittedly hard to resist the instinctive urge to panic when loud sounds came up from below. When Jodi was home, we could rely on her translations of situations (and explanations for firecrackers). But once alone, our discernment became a bit more limited.

Just a few days before we left, the windows began to rattle and loud voices cried out.

There were sounds of marching, of drums.

Was it protest?


We had only a few more days before our flight out of the country. Troubles in neighboring Syria had added tension and worry to the air before we arrived, but we had Plan Bs in place in case of trouble and we’d been absolutely safe so far.

The drums continued, and then the sounds of instruments.

I took my camera out to the balcony and waited, unsure of what would appear when the noise makers came around the corner…

And then, there they were.

An entire procession of friends and family, marching, singing, playing music, cheering, and chanting for a young girl celebrating a milestone in life.

It was beautiful.

Life goes on, doesn’t it?

Yes, Beirut was unfinished business, loose ends, and broken sidewalks. But it was also new beginnings, unexpected revelations, and flowers growing through cracks in the pavement…

It was humble. It was grand. It was telling. And I’m listening and learning still.

One of my favorite sightings during our stay in the city was this sign posted at Beirut Design Week:

If you can make it here, you will make it anywhere.
Welcome to Beirut!

>> Yes. If we could make it there, we’ll make it anywhere. That’s what I think of Lebanon.

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  • Reply Deb Abele August 10, 2012 at 5:49 am

    Beautiful, thoughtful post. Thanks for taking me with you, Bethany and Ted!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 11, 2012 at 12:55 pm

      So glad you’re along for the journey, Deb : ) xx

  • Reply Lindsay August 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Absolutely lovely! You captured Beirut so well.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 11, 2012 at 1:03 pm

      Thank you, Lindsay. It feels like words and pictures barely, barely scratched the surface…so many thoughts and impressions and observations swirl beneath. Such a rich experience; I’ll spend ages processing.

      So glad that our paths crossed and that you helped shape our experience! : )

  • Reply Stephanie - The Travel Chica August 10, 2012 at 11:56 pm

    This is the most interesting post about a destination in the Middle East I have read in a long time. Glad you guys had a “local experience” there with your friend … and glad let things percolate a bit before writing this.

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 11, 2012 at 1:23 pm

      I’m grateful that we could settle in for a bit and spend time with insightful hosts. They shared so much great food for thought… Still percolating, really ; )

  • Reply Emilee August 11, 2012 at 5:59 pm

    Truly Excellent account of Beirut. It is such a city of contradictions and you captured this in a meaningful way in your photos and commentary. Nicely done!

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 17, 2012 at 11:03 am

      Emilee, so pleased to hear that my observations and impressions ring true. The experience of entering in to the culture and observing for three weeks’ time was truly profound. Thank you for your kind words!

  • Reply Gillian @OneGiantStep August 12, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    I have never been but your post seems to capture all the tumultuous feelings I heard from others as well. Having a chance to vist someone is a great was to REALLY see a place, isn’t it?

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 17, 2012 at 11:08 am

      Absolutely. It makes such a huge difference to be able to connect with someone living in a new(-to-us) location. Especially in a place of such complexity as Beirut. I’m so grateful that it worked out to spend time visiting with and learning from friends.

      Thanks for reading, Gillian!

  • Reply Yara August 12, 2012 at 6:19 pm

    Thank you for describing my city in such a beautiful, truthful, unbiased way. Your last sentence really captures Beirut’s essence. Love it or hate it, it’s a challenge that makes you feel alive on a daily basis…

    • Reply Bethany ~ twoOregonians August 17, 2012 at 11:11 am

      You’re so welcome, Yara. Thank you for your kind word, and thanks for reading xx

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