My Beirut Vacation
The most dangerous thing about Beirut is the traffic. There are no traffic lights, no signs, apparently no rules: it's every man for himself. The oddest thing about it is that it seems to work just fine. I didn't see a single accident in the five days I spent there, not even a fender bender. Chalk it up to the remarkable civility of the people of Beirut, the safest city I have ever set foot in.
A curious and serendipitous series of events led me to my little holiday in Beirut. Back in January I received an invitation to attend a conference to be held there under the auspices of the California-based Institute for Historical Review and the Swiss organization Verite et Justice. These organizations fall into the category of Holocaust Revisionism, currently the very hottest of hot potatoes on the academic front. I've been following the subject in a casual way since 1994, and with the recent publication of Norman Finkelstein's book, The Holocaust Industry, popular interest in this particular field of inquiry is swelling.
What most Americans don't know is that the topic is entirely off-limits to historical investigation in most of the Western world. In Canada, Australia, France, Spain, Austria, Belgium, Germany and Switzerland, individuals engaged in public debate over the finer points of this issue have been fined and imprisoned. Here in America, teachers and college professors have been summarily dismissed from their posts for expressing heretical views on the subject. Myself, I really don't care to pick over the finer points of an antique atrocity, particularly one that's been so seriously overexposed. There are plenty of underexposed atrocities being perpetrated right now, so many that it's difficult to keep up with them, let alone make an effort to stop them.
I got a good cheap ticket on a Swissair flight. Nobody fucks with the Swiss, and I figured the food would be better than the slop offered up by American carriers. All my friends said I was nuts. I got my lawyer to draw up a will. I didn't think anything bad would happen?I have incredible luck?but I like to cover my bets. Meanwhile, every Jewish organization in America seemed to be mobilizing against the conference. The Wiesenthal bunch and the ADL brought pressure on the U.S. State Dept. to intervene and stop this blasphemous thing. The American ambassador met with Prime Minister Hariri of Lebanon, and shortly before it was scheduled to open, the conference was canceled by order of the Prime Minister.
Things couldn't have turned out better for me: I now had a round-trip ticket to Beirut, lodging for five nights, and no agenda whatsoever. I'd done some research and talked to a few ex-military characters of my acquaintance who'd been stationed there. By all accounts, Beirut was a serious party town. "Oh, dude," said one former SEAL, "the nightlife in the Root is slammin'! The bars don't close! Take your milk thistle, your liver's in for a rough ride?"
I packed my white fatigues, a couple of Hawaiian shirts, my Graceland baseball cap for protection against Evil Spirits, and my white Fila Sammy Sosa sneakers, the ones with the clawlike treads, in case I had to make a quick getaway. I got it all into a carry-on bag. I remembered my toothbrush. I thought about packing a couple of rolls of Quilted Northern, but figured that customs might find it insulting and start gratuitously breaking my balls. A fellow journalist had suggested a low-key wardrobe. "Wear a suit or something," he said, "try to look like a Canadian." Fuck that: I'm as American as Mickey Mouse, and twice as friendly. There's nothing to be gained by fakery, and it only arouses suspicion. I figured to go for the all-out tits-on-the-table Yankee push, smile at everybody and really throttle up the old charisma. I briefly considered packing a couple of hits of acid, and then thought better of it. This was to be a booze adventure, strictly legal.
I arrived in Beirut at 4 a.m. on Sat., March 31. You can smoke in the airport there, so I was unconcerned with the minor delay in getting through customs and the visa procedure. I had to fill out a couple of forms, and I had a perverse impulse to write "serial killer" in the space where they wanted to know my occupation. Sanity prevailed, and I settled for "writer."
I went out and hailed a cab to the Hamra district. We hurtled out of the airport and onto the highway at something like 90 mph, and the driver didn't lift the pedal from the floor until we turned off onto Hamra St. When we got to my hotel on Rue Jeanne D'Arc, he demanded 40,000LL for a ride I knew should cost no more than 25,000 ($16). To hell with it, I thought. It was late, and I only wanted to shower and sleep in a clean bed with fresh sheets. I gave it to him, with the admonition that "I know what you're doing here, and you owe me one: I'll be needing a cab." He thanked me profusely and offered his business card. I was into him now. He might not be a friend, but he knew that I knew he was overcharging me and I'd paid him anyway. I liked the balance of that equation: so much for the Ugly American. I never bothered to collect on it, of course.
I slept until nearly sunset, when the call to prayer awakened me. I showered and dressed and set out for the Hard Rock Cafe, down by the beach. I figured if there were any other Americans in town, I'd be likely to find them there, no matter how stupid they might be. At all events, the bartenders at Hard Rock were bound to be sensitive to the needs of an American tourist in search of some party action on a Saturday night in Beirut. I made my way down the narrow curve of Rue Jeanne D'Arc to Bliss St., where the American University is located. There were no Americans to be found, but the cramped architecture gave way to hidden courtyards and open balconies through which I could spy upon the private life of Beirut, families at dinner and bored girls smoking cigarettes, old men sitting with glasses of arak and fondling their worry beads.
The gene pool has been very good to Beirut. The people are strikingly handsome and fit, the men lean and muscular in that wiry way that comes only from hard work, and the women are spectacularly beautiful, healthy and robust. The anorexic lollipop girl does not exist in Beirut, and if Calista Flockhart were to magically appear on some streetcorner there, I have little doubt but that some kind soul would take her in and feed her until she was well.
Bliss St. is full of little food joints: creperies and ice cream parlors, manoushet and falafel, Dunkin' Donuts and Blimpie. I passed a McDonald's as I made my way down to John Kennedy St. and on to the Hard Rock Cafe. It's across the street from a mosque at the foot of Paris Ave. The place was deserted when I entered. I bellied up to the bar and ordered an Almaza, the local beer, and a shot of Wild Turkey. I don't usually do shots, out of deference to my liver and my gremlin tendency, but the Mediterranean was lapping at the shoreline right across the street and the presence of true antiquity put me in a romantic mood.
"You're an American?" the bartender asked.
"I'm a New Yorker," I replied. "It's not exactly the same thing."
"I understand," he said. "I was in New York once, and I kept wondering where all the Americans were."
A luscious young waitress came bursting out of the kitchen. "Oh, I love your shirt! That is beautiful!" she exclaimed.
"Thank you," I said. "It's from Hawaii. I've never been there."
She looked at my hat. "What is Graceland?" she asked. "Is that a sports team?"
"No no, it's Elvis Presley's house," I explained. "It's sort of a shrine, a temple."
"Ah! I love Elvis!" With that, she hustled off to an arriving group of German tourists. The bartender looked at me and said, "She's Palestinian."
I ordered a second round and leaned in toward him. "So what's the hash situation here? Can a guy score, or should I just put that out of my head?"
"It's not so safe," he told me. "The government has been cracking down. Possession is six years. If you meet someone, well yeah, but be careful."
"Where do the kids go to drink? Where's the party?"
"Ah, you want to go up to Monot St. Lots of good bars there, Saturday night, it will be good."
"What about this club I've been hearing about, this B0-18? Is it worth it?"
"B-Zero is very expensive, very crowded. It's out past Forum de Beirut. It's mostly gay."
I left him a respectable tip and grabbed a cab to Monot St. It was a quick and harrowing ride through several dark and narrow streets, and then we turned a corner onto a triangular plaza and it looked like spring break: college kids swarming all over the streets moving from bar to bar. I handed the driver a generous 5000LL and exited the cab, entering the throng. The plaza was ringed with bombed-out shells of buildings. At street level, there were bars: Key Largo, Geenie's and, farther on, the Atlantis. There was a camel hanging out by a palm tree next to a bar down a little side alley. At first I really thought it was a DT. I was so completely shocked by the sight of a camel at a bar that I failed to make a note of the name of the place. I couldn't possibly order a drink there. This animal was huge. The thought of the thing going berserk or spitting on me would never be out of my mind.
I sort of oozed my way through the crowd into Key Largo. I've been fishing around for a nice venue for my retirement plans; there's no point in getting old in New York unless you have money, and I don't. Key West is too expensive and there's no privacy among the locals, but Key Largo is on my short list. The bar had a nice Florida Keys feel to it. It suited my wardrobe and the music was good, some kind of Arab rock sound, crunchy and sinuous and above all unobtrusive.
I slid into an empty slot at the bar and ordered an Almaza and a shot of Turkey. Two really cute girls, early 20s, I figured, were sitting on the bar against the wall and smiling at me. One of them looked just like a little Mediterranean elf, a la Vaughn Bode. I could feel the blood surging to my groin. So could she, apparently. She gave me a very sly smile and said, "Are you an American?"
"I'm not sure," I said. "I'm from New York."
"I like your shirt."
"Thank you. It's from Hawaii. I've never been there."
We made small talk for a while, I had another round. It could have gone somewhere but the idea of sex made me nervous. I know it sounds genuinely parochial, but the idea of sex with foreign girls feels too much like pedophilia to me. An American girl is more likely to know just which part of my act is a con, and comply anyway, freely and of her own will.
I gracefully let the conversation drift away and ordered another beer. I engaged with some young men drinking on the sidewalk just outside the bar. We swapped some bad jokes, and they taught me to say "Fuck you" in Arabic: "Arey fik," as in "Arey fik, Arik!" They despise Sharon. A young student named Philip articulated it best: "In most countries, they put their war criminals on trial. In Israel, they make them prime minister." Another young man advised me, "It's good that you came now. The tourist season starts soon, so the Israelis will probably start shelling."
I wandered down to Geenie's, the interior of which is a series of arched brick grottoes furnished with low tables and comfortably cushioned seats. It was only slightly less crowded, an older crowd, and the music was much louder. I felt a little paranoid, like there was something deeper going on beneath the drinking, something I maybe didn't want to know about. I had a couple of more beers and left. I wandered Monot St. for a while, eventually finding myself standing in the center of a vacant lot, gazing around at the J.G. Ballard landscape of war-torn buildings and neon. It was past 4 a.m., and the revels showed no sign of winding down. I hailed a cab and went back to my hotel, where I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow.
I slept in all day on Sunday. The Hamra district is much quieter than my neighborhood in Manhattan, perhaps because there are no car alarms or Dominicans screaming in the streets. I got up at about 6 p.m. and watched Star Trek for a while as I knocked back a couple of Almazas. CNN was reporting that Milosevic had been arrested. I took the evening call to prayer as my cue to shower and get dressed. I decided to do a bar crawl through the Hamra to the Hard Rock and back.
I ducked into a place called the Rose & Thistle, figuring there might be a few Brits inside. My appetite vanishes when I travel, and I wanted to sample some of the local cuisine. I was hoping maybe I could hook up with a fellow Westerner who might have a contact for some hash so I could jump-start the munchies. It was not to be at the Rose & Thistle, where two Lebanese guys about my age sat drinking thick Turkish coffee and watching an episode of Cops.
There is no street crime in Beirut, but there are scenes to be avoided. I wandered the little streets, up and down the hills of the Hamra, dipping into the tiniest and most obscure bars I could find. I stopped in at the Hard Rock, where a German tourist with a guitar was serenading a group of his countrymen with a fairly good rendition of "Love in Vain." Behind the Hard Rock, across Ibn Sina St., two beautiful girls leaned on a balcony high on a hill overlooking the sea, smoking and drinking.
I roamed up Ibn Sina St. to a joint called Los Gitanos, down an alleyway. I stepped in and immediately got a bad vibe about the place. Inside it was all red lights, the kind of setting the Tibetans advise you to avoid in the Afterlife. There were three guys and a woman inside, all clearly connected to the establishment, all very shifty, and after a quick exchange in a language I couldn't identify, one of the men grandly offered me a seat at the bar, which overlooked a sort of pit where it was obvious that some kind of "exotic dancing" took place. I've never liked tittie bars, and this one was like something you'd find on the northern end of Rte. 9; it was gruesome and very menacing. I figured I'd have a round and split.
"How much for an Almaza?" I asked.
"Fifteen thousand," replied the bartender.
I'm not terribly good at figuring exchange rates, but 15,000 covered an Almaza, a shot of Wild Turkey and the tip at no less than the Hard Rock Cafe, which I knew was not cheap. I said, "I think I'll pass, thank you," and split.
I headed back down to Paris Ave. and walked until I came to Uncle Deek's, a little coffee and ice cream joint with some chairs out on the sidewalk. They had bottles of Almaza in a cooler. I bought one for 2000LL and took a seat next to a bunch of guys in black jeans and t-shirts drinking coffee.
One of the guys looked at my hat and smiled. "Graceland," he said, "Elvis Presley. You are an American." It was more of a statement than a question.
"I'm from New York," I said. "I'm a New Yorker."
"But Graceland is in Memphis, Tennessee," he replied. "Is that far from New York?"
"About a day's driving, maybe two. Not that far."
They all laughed. "America is very big country," he said. "What brings you to Beirut?"
I told him about the conference and the cancellation. I told him I was enjoying my little holiday in Beirut very much, which was true. He translated into Arabic for his companions. During the translation, there was a little flurry of inquiry regarding the conference, and I could make out the words "Zionism" and "anti-Zionism" in the stream, as well as the name "Garaudy." French scholar Roger Garaudy is one of the better known of the revisionists.
"What do you think? Did Hitler kill 6,000,000 Jews?" he asked.
"I don't know. I wasn't there. A lot of Jews died, a lot were killed. I have questions, no answers."
"Are you a Nazi?"
"No. I have too many Jewish friends. I could never be a Nazi. I don't think the Nazis would like me very much."
"What do you think of Israel?"
"I think it's racist. I think it won't last. I think the Palestinians are being treated the way Hitler treated the Jews."
He again translated my words for his companions. One of them looked up at me and smiled. He offered me a cigarette from his pack of Marlboros. I accepted.
"He's Palestinian." The Palestinian extended his hand. I shook it in a full 70s "black power" handshake. They laughed.
"What do you think of Hezbollah?"
"I don't know anything about them. I only know what I see in the American media. I know that desperate people do desperate things. I know that."
Yet again he translated, and yet again they laughed, quietly, knowingly. The Palestinian said something in Arabic.
"He says you have a good heart." He paused. "Is it true that Elvis Presley never did a concert outside North America?"
"Yes. And so far, he has sold one billion records worldwide."
"Billion? One billion?" He was clearly impressed.
We talked into the night, them with their thick black coffees and me with my endless stream of Almaza. Around 4:30, we shook hands all around and they piled into a little red car with a Hezbollah sticker on the rear window and took off. I staggered back up to the Hamra and went to bed.
I awoke to the morning call to prayer, early enough to go down to the restaurant lobby and help myself to a fine breakfast of fresh tomatoes, cucumbers, a very spicy yogurt concoction, feta cheese, olives and croissants. I downed nearly a quart of orange juice and went back upstairs to shower and get dressed. I'd heard about a place called Pigeon Rock, off the western shore of the city. I was told that it looked amazingly like certain rock formations found off the California coast, and I wanted to see it. I needed some caffeine first, and coffee upsets my guts, so I strolled down Hamra Street to Starbucks for one of those chai tea concoctions they do.
The Starbucks on Hamra St. might be the only nonsmoking establishment in Beirut. People are a little baffled by it. Nobody sits inside. They sit outside, where they can smoke. I got into a conversation with a young man wearing a Syracuse University sweatshirt. I commented on my experience at Monot St. and how well-educated the young people are.
"Yeah, well, the thing is, as soon as they have their degrees, they leave," he said. "They go to Europe or America, because that's where the money is. Our economy really hasn't recovered from the war. It's a serious problem."
I finished my chai and set out for Pigeon Rock. It was a long, invigorating walk on a perfect spring day. I went up the hill to the Koreitem district and followed the streets around toward the Raouche. Crossing the streets involves a great deal of faith. The traffic is like a cartoon, it defies description. The cars go in every direction at mad speeds. At the Saudi Embassy, it simply came to a standstill: total gridlock. No one seemed to mind too much, there was none of the cursing or yelling that goes on here when this occurs. There was some beeping of horns, but not much. I trotted down the hill to General DeGaulle Ave., where I was confronted with an enormous T.G.I. Friday's opposite a bombed-out apartment building. I had decided to await the evening call to prayer before proceeding with my Almaza regimen, so I bypassed that and headed over to the Pigeon Rock Cafe, where I had a very tangy tabouleh and some hummus with a fresh carrot juice at a table overlooking the sea and Pigeon Rock.
Pigeon Rock does, indeed, resemble some of the odd formations off the California coast; specifically, it looks a lot like Seal Rock off Land's End in San Francisco, or certain areas around Point Lobos down past Monterey. I had a moment of rapture there, gazing out over the Mediterranean, thinking over the incredible history of this place. Lebanon has more in common with America than any other country in the Middle East, including Israel. It is a truly multicultural society, incorporating influences from France, England and the entire Mediterranean region. They are a people of many faiths, as we are: Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Maronite Christians and the Druze. They are a hardworking people. Even during the vicious civil war, the people of Beirut got up every morning and went to work each day, not knowing whether their homes would be standing when they got back. At the end of the war, they embraced each other again and went on as they go on. Beirut refuses to die.
I decided to walk the shoreline back to the Hard Rock Cafe. Coming down off the tall cliffs overlooking Pigeon Rock, I spotted a huge Ferris wheel. It was Luna Park, a down-at-the-heels amusement park just past the Military Beach. I wondered if it had been named after our own Luna Park, one of the vanished wonders of Coney Island. I tried to imagine what it was like in its glory days. I poked around a little, but it was closed and there was no one there to answer my questions. An old man played with a chubby little boy by the entrance, their laughter echoing off the walls of the deserted amusement park, and a beautiful girl walked by.
She was in her 20s and a large sketchbook protruded from the bike messenger bag she was carrying over her shoulder. Her eyes were as blue as the sea and her raven mane hung down to her waist. She was wearing faded blue denim bib overalls rolled at the cuffs and a pair of flipflop sandals. She plucked a flower from the razor wire surrounding the military encampment as she passed by it. She walked as if she hadn't a care in the world, completely unaffected, and I followed her up as far as the Riviera Hotel, where she turned and went up the street, up the hill to a little yellow house with a large open balcony and what appeared to be a fair number of bullet holes in the wall. I watched as she walked in the door, and then continued on to the Hard Rock.
I stopped in at the Hard Rock just as the evening call to prayer came out over the loudspeakers out in the street. Timing is everything. I had a shot and a beer and split to wander the Hamra. I hit a few bars on my way up the hill and was feeling pretty good when I heard a voice speaking Arabic coming over a loudspeaker. I turned a corner onto a pitch-black street and suddenly found myself in the midst of a solemn tent-show-revival type of affair involving some kind of hardcore dressed-in-black variant of Islam. It looked a little scary, but I just kept walking and smiling, hoping that the Graceland hat and the Hawaiian shirt would protect me from harm. I got some funny looks, but nobody bothered me and I proceeded directly to the nearest bar, a joint called Caves des Princes.
The minute I walked in, I knew it was wrong. There were four really striking women in bikinis and a couple of obvious pimps in the dimly lit bar filled with smoke. I smiled, turned and walked right out. I picked up my pace a little and ducked into a tiny doorway in an alley next door to Le Meridien Commodore. The sign said "Caravanserail?Live Music Every Night" and I went in hoping for the best.
I got it: this was the bar I'd been looking for. It might be the bar I've been looking for all my life. Low ceilings and lots of exposed brick, gorgeous fabrics slung along the walls, interesting art, and a proprietor straight out of a Humphrey Bogart movie: George Karajian. George is Lebanese of Armenian descent, holding dual Lebanese-British citizenship. He opened Caravanserail in 1969. It is, indeed, open every night, and George is there, doing it all: he tends the bar, he sings in seven languages and he plays the guitar. The place was empty when I walked in. I sat down at the bar and ordered an Almaza and a shot of Jack Daniel's.
George and I got to talking, and I told him about the little rally I walked into. He explained that it was part of a Shiite religious observance going on called "Ashourah," which culminates with some kind of penitential pain frenzy involving razors and whips.
At about 10:30 the place filled up with a large pack of young people from Sri Lanka. A great deal of drinking was done. We wound up the evening singing John Denver's "Country Roads" in unison to some crazy kid's guitar.
On Tuesday I awoke for breakfast and immediately retired after eating. I dreamed about the circus. I got up and vomited profusely as Return of the Jedi played out on tv. It looked as if I was vomiting blood, but there seemed to be a memory of Campari. I showered and dressed and hopped a cab to the Nejmeh district, not far from Monot St.
This area was completely destroyed by the war, and has been entirely rebuilt. It is as beautiful an urban space as one could possibly desire, free of traffic and graced with open, classical Moorish architecture. I strolled over to some Phoenician ruins uncovered by the war. The signs warned all comers to stay on the path, but I wandered down into an ancient alcove and wondered just exactly how and why I had been brought to Beirut. How had this alluring boutique of antiquities pulled me in, exactly? Why was I being confronted with a multicultural society that actually works and has worked for 6000 years?
I went back to Caravanserail and got drunk. There is a wonderful print of a painting by Jack Vettriano on the wall there, depicting a couple dancing on the beach in the rain, in formal wear, attended by servants bearing umbrellas. George and I talked about Elvis. He knew about Elvis' generosity and his charitable works. He'd never known that Elvis grew up in a two-room shotgun shack. He didn't know that Elvis never toured outside North America, or that he'd sold one billion records to date. At the end of the night, I promised to send him some Elvis CDs and some Johnny Cash. "Elvis is the King of America," I told him. George looked at me and said, with no prompting whatsoever: "I think perhaps Elvis is not dead."
My flight out was scheduled for 3:30 Thursday morning, so I made it a point to sleep in all day on Wednesday. At the evening call to prayer, I prepared myself for flight and made my way to George's. We drank together and watched the bloody conclusion of Ashourah on tv: fanatics whacking each other on the head with razors, even children, sharing razors and whips, flagellating themselves. It was nothing like my experience of Beirut. It was horrifying. George turned off the tv and we listened to Russian gypsy music as we talked and the evening wore on.
I didn't want to leave. I gave George a TCB pin from Graceland, to ward off Evil. At 1 a.m. I took a cab to the airport and left. The flight back was uncomfortable and I had really bad cramps, probably from taking too much Immodium. At JFK, after nine hours without a cigarette, I was sufficiently along the way to a full lycanthropic transformation that the American bureaucrats just waved me through customs and all that. I stood outside smoking, waiting for the bus to long-term parking, thinking about flowers on the razor wire and that girl walking up the street to that little yellow house. Maybe next time I'll ask her out.
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