Beirut – where woe meets wow

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Not sure when I heard of Beirut for the first time.

It must have been at some point during my childhood. When the TV screens were showing the world a bitter, soul destroying war which took 15 years and thousands of lives in a long river of destruction and despair.

Fast forward 20 years. Beirut has rebuilt itself. And much like somebody coming out of a lethal relationship, it licked its wounds, made itself pretty again and went out to charm.

This new B is excessive, blonde, plastically- enhanced and extremely fancy. B wears the shortest skirts and the highest heels you’ll see in the Middle East, a heart-stopping combo for the innocent traveller from Amman or Cairo whose jaw drops and car engine stops in the middle of the unforgiving traffic.

Beirut smells heavy and green as it whizzes past in a red car, gusts of laughter and shiny hair. 

But underneath the glamour and the ease, Beirut hasn’t forgotten. Its bullet holes, its beautiful yellow villas now blind, torn inside out, the tanks going through the city in the middle of the day. The restlessness, the anguish. The memories. It all still hurts. 

I don’t know how or when the wounds will heal completely. But one thing is certain. Beirut the charmer, the woe and the wow, will not leave you untouched. 

 

sunset boulevard

villa

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Beirut 2013 017

A day in Umm Qais or the life and times of a young Greek poet

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Umm Qais 086Umm Qais 088On this day more than 2000 years ago, Meleager, a young Greek poet from Gadara (today’s Jordanian village of Umm Quais) is taking shelter from the burning sun amid the flowers. The valley is quiet, the Sea of Galilee is glimmering in the distance, Syria’s hills rolling gently to his right.
Meleager’s body stretches out in delicious repose, his eyes are slowly closing when (and at this point can we please pause and think of how amazing it is to read a 2000 years old poem on our screen?)….
‘In the middle of the street
Alexis!
Summer had all but brought the fruit
To its perilous end
And the summer sun and that boy’s look
Did their work on me!’
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meleager_of_Gadara”>http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Meleager_of_Gadara)

This is all Mealeager cared to tell posterity about that afternoon in Gadara. Not sure what happened next.
But I’d like to think that they had dinner in this square basalt house, intoxicated by more than the fragrance of these flowers.
Dinner served in a clay pot, the remains of which are still here today, in the magic archeological abundance of this place, a sort I’ve never seen before. Hundreds of ancient wonders waiting patiently to be excavated. Beautifully carved columns, mighty remains of a past fallen among the thistles. Enormous crickets and versatile lizards are keeping them temporary company.
Anywhere in Europe, any random square meter of this vast wealth would be immediately and solemnly cordoned off. Labels in 4 languages, an audio-guide and a shop selling Umm Qais lighters would immediately replace the lizards and the crickets.
Not sure my friends Meleager and Alexis would like that. Look at them gossiping lazily in post-prandial bliss.
‘Blimey, Alexis, what do you make of these Cynics all over the place? Don’t believe in wealth, power or fame, reject all possessions! Surely that’s a bit extreme!’Alright, traveller, enough easvesdropping.
I’m now going to let my two friends exchange views on the hipsters of the ancient world undisturbed as the summer sun did its work on me too.

‘I never forget a face’

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I used to think I have a reasonable memory of faces.

I remember random faces from the past, strangers that never crossed my path in other ways than through some meteoric quirk, quickly shot down in the sea of their anonymity.

An old Irish gentleman I once saw in an airport calling the waiter ‘boy’. 

An American marine drawling invitations to prayer on the edge of a swimming pool.

A Saudi driver emerging grim-faced from a coffee shack on the side of a dusty road.

A crying toddler, the English father slamming down his thick book in simmering fury at the disturbance, the Spanish mum fading under a sun hat, grandma singing softly to herself .  

They are all revered exhibits in my inner museum of strangers.

But coming to the Middle East has dwarfed my museum to the dimensions of someone’s old shoe box left near the Prado.    

What I used to label as a reasonable ability is in reality quite sub-standard. People here never forget a face. They say they don’t and they don’t. Ever.

I went to a little Red Sea resort a year after first spending a couple of days there. The waiter put down an empty lemonade glass and greeted me with a wide smile.

“Hello! You were here a year ago! You like hummus!”

As indeed I do so I proceeded to create new memories of my appetite.

I once left a bag in the corner shop. A month later, I went back and the guy handed it back to me as if we’d parted 5 minutes ago.

People here care about faces. They scrutinise every centimetre of unknown skin until it is so firmly implanted in their memory that the combined bulldozers of time and new- foreigness can’t possibly dislodge it.  

In Egypt I once spent a morning walking around extremely busy Islamic Cairo.

Later the same day, I happened to be back in (roughly) the same area.

A guy I had never seen in my life stopped me:

‘You’re back! Why?’

‘How do you know I’m back?’

‘I never forget a face.’  

 

Through the looking glass and what Alice found in Dubai

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Dubai&Doha 002Dubai&Doha 021
I landed in Dubai on a hot, steamy morning and made my way through the shiny lobby to a shiny car which took me to my shiny hotel. My little capsule of cool air proceeded to glide noilessly on the wide road, among other white capsules sailing the river of traffic between silver giants.
I pressed my nose against the glass and looked at the occupants of the other white capsules. Some contained energetic Indians, some bored-looking Russians and some impeccably white-clad locals glued to super phones.

I stayed in one of Dubai’s towering hotels. 
All have alluring balconies lining up against the milky sky. Magnificant balconies, thousands of them all through the silver city. All sealed off. After an hour of pressing my face to the glass in silent desperation, I asked Reception. ‘Government regulation, ma’am’ chirped the pleasant young woman from the Philippines. 

In the evening I rode the metro with the thousands of people who work hard in the city of glass and are barely able to keep their eyes open at the end of a hard, long day. Heads lolling against the glass.

I went to a mall with a huge tank inside. Where some people were diving and others were watching them on the other side.

Pressing their faces against the glass.

Come to Dubai, it’ll be class, oh my my, you can touch the glass!

7 things about living in the Middle East or Versatile Me

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Cairo moto coupleLadies and gentlemen,

Now for some breaking news! It appears that my ramblings have not gone unnoticed in Riga as its smartest, funniest expat (who lives at http://expateyeonlatvia.wordpress.com/) has nominated me for the Versatile Blogger Award! 

So I am to:

  • Thank the person who gave you the award& Include a link to their blog

Thanks again, http://expateyeonlatvia.wordpress.com/:)!

  • Next, select 15 blogs/bloggers that you’ve recently discovered or follow regularly& Nominate those 15 bloggers for the Versatile Blogger Award

I tried!

But versatile as I am, the process of cutting and pasting links& then letting people know they have been nominated had me labouring fruitlessly for about half an hour and then was duly abandoned.

So instead, could I nominate everybody who reads this post for the Versatile Blogger Award? I know it’s not quite how it’s done but I would love it if you could please take me up on this and spare me the misery of endless drafts going to the bin due to excessive pasting.

Living in the Middle East has taught me that rules are optional so instead of telling you 7 things about myself I thought I’d tell you 7 things about living here.

1. There is no such thing as bad coffee (unless you are having it in a hotel for breakfast which is a universal curse so it doesn’t really count)

2. Most men go to the barber weekly

3. The most usual icebreaker is ‘hello, are you married do you have kids how old are you?’  

4. If you think a shop is too small to have what you’re looking for you’re probably right. What you don’t know is that the owner knows somebody who knows somebody who will have it ready for you somewhere.

5. Traffic rules are entirely optional.

6. Nobody uses street addresses. Ever. A typical taxi journey involves the driver staring at you wordlessly as you mumble a street name, then stopping next to a man who’s crouching on the pavement eating pumpkin seeds. The driver asks for directions, the seed eater stares wordlessly. Then he shouts at somebody who’s making a falafel nearby. Who calls his cousin.   

7. ‘With my family” is the default answer to most questions the inquisitive traveller might ask about weekends, holidays or any other form of free time

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