A Week in Beirut
September 19, 2012 | by Nathan Deuel
I wake up early to make ice cream for an old friend who is visiting from Riyadh. I blow a fuse in the power converter getting the machine to turn fast enough, but I have a spare fuse and all is well. The visiting friend, Matt, flies in on Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is now a member of SkyTeam, so you can use your miles on Delta or Air France. That night, Matt, my wife, and I stay up late drinking beer and wine and telling stories about the life we shared in Riyadh, where my daughter was born and where Matt still spends weekends DJing parties.
Matt and I follow the old coast road up to Byblos, where the ticket taker laughs when I say we met in Riyadh. He asks, “You are an American?” When I confirm, he says, “Ahlen Wa Sahlen,” which means “welcome.” Under a blazing September sun, Matt and I climb ten-thousand-year-old stairs, noting how few guardrails or official paths there are. Then I find a pomegranate tree growing from rocky soil, and we pause to admire the strange fruit hanging from gnarled branches. Hungry, we take a car to a fish restaurant that’s been open forty years. Lunch is grilled sea bass, which we eat on a table in the water, so that waves wash up our legs and sometimes splash on the fish, giving it a little more salt. Before we can leave, our waiter insists on my taking a shot. I ask for something brown, and he takes down a bottle of coffee-flavored Patrón.
I make sure Matt sees this killer little cassette shop, Deep Music, which is just down the block from my apartment. Then we have a final lunch at a nearby restaurant, where they bake their own bread and many, if not all, of the salad greens are local and organic. We each drink a spicy pale ale, brewed by a guy I see around town, and then we share a bowl of merguez sausages drowning in sour syrup, and a seafood frikeh made with an intensely, earth-green grain.
Matt is gone and our larder is low, so I take my daughter to Bou Khalil, the nearby grocery store, where she loves to ride in a cart shaped like a car. There’s a little trunk, and she likes to stash things back there. I have to remember to pay for it, if it’s something we want, like a bottle of tonic water, or to put it back if it’s something ridiculous, like Nutella or a brick of ten sponges. Saturday’s trip was special, because the deli guy gives the little girl a free slice of turkey. She also has her first swimming lesson, and my wife cries watching her dog-paddle, her eyes raised to the ceiling.
Out for a walk, I see two elderly gentlemen in pressed pants smoking cigarettes, sitting on a wall, staring at the sea, where waves crash on old rocks. A boy with a ducktail haircut rides toward them on a scooter, a wooden contraption positioned on the seat behind him, from which bread is swaying. The old guys flag him down and order loaves, and the salesman smiles, cracking the bread open, spooning out heaping piles of zaatar, the ubiquitous spice, which seems to makes anything it touches somehow more delicious than should be possible. The men sit there chewing.
The lady who cleans our house, Marie, who is from the Philippines, tells us about watching a Lebanese woman this weekend ask her friends to get up from their chairs at the Pope’s open-air mass. The pontiff had come to Beirut to spread his message of peace. "This isn’t for you," the Lebanese woman says to Marie’s friend, who is also Filipino. "You’re just a visiting worker."
That night, my wife, who is a Middle East correspondent, takes some time to make a homemade pizza. The three of us—father, mother, daughter—eat on our flower-choked balcony. While the ladies do the bath and sleep-time ritual, I begin writing a letter to a Croatian friend about what’s going on, telling him we’re safe—despite the leader of Hezbollah calling for protests all week. In the letter, I want to make a joke about the situation, about what is being called “Muslim Rage,” but as I am typing, my wife rushes over. She’s heard a gunshot outside, and a bunch of yelling, and she wants to make sure I knew.
On the way home from a café, I pass a newsstand. This is on a major street, with heavy pedestrian traffic, and what I see makes me freeze. There it is: that Newsweek cover you’ve all heard about, tacked up beside a Cosmo and some Arabic gossip glossies. To my amazement, people walk by, paying it no mind. Perhaps they are in a hurry to get home or to a gathering at one of the nearby bars and restaurants. The newsstand guy is asleep, but then I see him move, and with eyes barely open he takes a long drag from a cigarette.
Nathan Deuel lives in Beirut and is an M.F.A. candidate at the University of Tampa. He has written essays for Salon, Slate, The Awl, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others. Previously, he was an editor at Rolling Stone and the Village Voice.