Author: Marco De Oliveira

First Impressions Do Not Count – Beirut, Lebanon

Our bones thawed as we waited in that familiar chaos of airport pickups. Despite the familiar airport chaos, we enjoyed the heat and confusion.

Sammy, a well spoken, kindly kind of man, drove us home. He answered our barrage of questions with graceful and perfect words, drove slowly and carefully and you knew you were in good hands. The humid sea air invigorated me and I struggled to believe I was really in Beirut, Lebanon, I was expecting to wake up any minute now.

lebanon350Luckily, I didn’t and the sea air continued blowing. The hotel concierge opened my door with lightning speed and led us to a rather posh hotel, for my standards anyway. Surrounded by new and old apartment buildings we were lulled to sleep by the sounds of Beirut.

The buildings and shops stood at silent attention as we walked by, where are all the blown up buildings, old cars, street shops, men playing their first game of backgammon drinking their strong mud like coffee? We walked and walked and eventually had to decide between Starbucks, KFC or Costa for our morning coffee, I was stunned, not a good impression. I guess some people find shop-filled avenues beautiful, I unfortunately pay no attention to that sort of thing, and it simply does not impress me. We sat in silence, absorbing that beautiful Mediterranean sun, thank god for that.

Our rickety van dodged cars, motorbikes and checkpoints, ah now we were getting into it, despite the many obstacles in his way our young driver smiled and chatted in the front, totally unfazed.

The road snaked up and up; you knew whoever controlled the top of the hill controlled. Beirut city lay below us with its back to the sea, like a miniature city. The military checkpoints were well concealed and despite my expectations were few and far apart; there was very little evidence that this country has been plagued by war for so many years. I was partly impressed, partly confused, impressed by the speed of the recovery and clean up and confused as to how they managed to do this. The odd building that has had the shit shelled out of it, reminds you that you are in a very volatile area of the world.

I knew nothing of this country, I had read the opening chapters of the Lonely planet, and it didn’t really sink in, all I knew was that this place has been a war-zone for as long as I have had life, I knew the people here still live in fear of the next attack or war. I remember watching the Israelis unleash hell, day and night, on the telly, the war of words, who is right and who is wrong. This was not a long time ago, it was 2006. The coverage was extensive and casualties mounted up on both sides, and both sides were suffering the effects of war.

Our van picked up speed as we dropped into the Beeka Valley, a fertile valley a stone’s throw from Beirut; it was a beautiful sight, green and pumping life. Still the high-rise buildings flourished, it seems it’s the best way to live in Lebanon. It was a mere taster of what Lebanon has to offer, it’s not all just war and concrete, a taster that built up an incredible appetite. The Lebanese people we met were kind and their eyes burned with a fire, they smiled and ate, a lot. They possessed a genuiness and authenticity people you rarely see these days, they also possessed an appetite, and life revolves around the table, eating, drinking and generally enjoying all those good things in life. They don’t mess around, when it’s time to eat then you had better be hungry, our lunch time spread was fit for a king.

Olives, humus, fiery radishes, limp lettuce, juicy tomatoes, hot roasted aubergines, dangerous chillies, thin large bread, oh, the list goes on, not forgetting a shot of that bitter, sweet, muddy Lebanese coffee. Slowly I was scratching the surface; slowly Lebanon’s shinier side was emerging, like a shy child greeting its mother’s visitors.

Our rickety van ploughed on, screaming on every gear, the brakes moaned and bitched, the body ached and cracked, our smiling driver never even batted an eye lid, and soon Beirut came into view again, the high-rise buildings stood proud and the Mediterranean smiled at us.

Sammy was outside waiting for us, a thin veil of mist rose up and twirled excitedly in the air, like incense it wrapped around the lamp posts and caressed the pavements, an ungodly silence hung, hiding in the mist. The Mercedes coasted effortlessly and blended into the thickening traffic with ease and grace, like it was built for this environment, Sammy was very proud of his baby and it showed, the Merc wanted to please its owner.

“The oldest city in the world, 6000 years old, survived the wars and still flourished,” Sammy told us about Byblos with pride in his wrinkly eyes. Indeed Byblos was lovely, a quaint harbour with local fisherman mending their nets and local restaurants getting ready for the hungry people that would swoop down soon. We were early, and it pays, the light was wonderful and the people were just waking, it was calm and relaxed. Some will tell you that if you lived in Byblos you will live to be 100, I was starting to believe it… Though most of the buildings have been restored, the ancient atmosphere still lingers. Sammy was bombarded with questions, he barely had chance to chew his food, drink his beer, our appetite for knowledge was unquenchable, he obliged us and we were happy…

The sleepy city, stirred in our wake, we made our way through the empty streets to downtown Beirut, here we would be guaranteed bullet holes and shell holes. We had seen the blown up building from the car, and standing in front of them somehow made them more real and scary, the scars of war, the damage that metal does to concrete, the thoughts of the people who lived here, oh my god, what they must have gone through… It made for great photographs, the morning light perfect, highlighting the small circular bullet holes, the cool Mediterranean wind blowing on our sweaty bodies, our cameras focusing and shooting, focusing and shooting. Local people walked past and did not as much as look at us, they were used to the reporter types, sneaking around, lurking on the corners, waiting for the perfect moment to make them the perfect journalists, they just carried on with their day, oblivious.

The country once known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, now stood riddled with bullet holes, children played in the ruins and I hoped they would have more peaceful lives than their parents. Despite the bombings and shootings, progress was unstoppable, no war, or conflict can get in its way, an entire city centre sparkled before us, Dolce & Gabbana, Calvin Klein and Armani enjoyed the new buildings, armed police made sure only the well dressed, fat wallet people could be seen. Once again the rich enjoyed the benefits of air conditioned malls while the poor lived amongst Beirut’s nasty past.

My heart was racing, my hands were shaking and my throat begged for cool water, but it was good, it was instant, that kick you get from drinking really strong sweet coffee. A local Lebanese, once a fireman, proudly showed us his collection of exploded bomb shells and pieces of shrapnel stuck to pieces of tree while we drank the thick muddy coffee.

He just ordered his family to serve it up, and made sure there was cool water to follow the coffee, it was a genuine act of hospitality, no strings attached. Incredibly, these people have had such a tough life and yet they are so friendly and eager to show you that it’s not all bad in Beirut. Later that evening we were treated to dinner with Sammy at his place on the hills above the city, he shared a room with his mother, his belongings were few, but the view from his balcony was enormous and priceless. Sammy went out his way to show us true Lebanese cuisine, we were in luck, apparently, he managed to get “Birds, small birds”, the bite size birds melted in our mouths, their little feet crunchy in our mouths… at one stage during the meal I wondered if a regiment of soldiers was also invited, Sammy just kept the food coming, it was so good we just kept on eating…

In the end I realised that once you ignore the hideous high rise buildings, forget the war and its scars, forget the chaos and the potholes, forget Dolce & Gabbana you start to discover something totally different, something genuine and authentic.

I fought back the tear in my eye as we loaded our stuff on the trolley and walked away from Sammy; in a flash we blended in with all the other trolleys and disappeared into the chaos we had emerged from.

Photo by thriol on Flickr