Saturday, November 15, 2014

Another Day in Beirut

Last night on the winding eight mile drive up the mountain my taxi driver pulled over to get another 24oz beer and asked if I wanted one too, and I was pretty close to saying yes. But let's back up.

Yesterday morning I woke up and played Settlers of Catan. Only it was the most intense game of Settlers I've ever played. My housemates and I have played Settlers almost every evening for the last week and a half, so there was nothing unusual about that. Yesterday, though, we were entertaining a young couple from New Zealand we'd met in Jordan a month before, and when we learned the night before that they played Settlers, a match quickly ensued. They won, which was highly unacceptable, and meant that yesterday morning was the rematch.

The night before we'd stayed up to the wee hours of the morning arguing about theology, so the game got off to a late start, and turned into a race against the taxi that was coming to collect the Kiwis from our doorstep. Catan is not a game that is easily rushed––but if you've never tried it you should. It adds a whole new element of stress. I didn't win, but neither did the Kiwis, which was really the point.

Our guests left, and we jumped on a bus headed for the city. It was Friday, and every Friday I play soccer with Syrian refugee kids down in Borj Hammoud.

After rendezvousing with some other friends of my friends who wanted to come this week, we made it to the school where we play. I was about then starting to feel the fact that while I'd already worked out once that morning, thanks to the unexpected speed game of Catan, I'd eaten nothing all day but candy and hot chocolate. So as most of the kids hadn't arrived yet and there was more than enough help, I ducked out to find some shawarma.

As I was walking back from the cafe in my soccer shorts, I heard a little, far-away sounding voice squeak: "Androus!"––my name in Arabic. I spun around but didn't see anyone. Then a little face popped up over the wall of the flat roof of a building about four stories up. I waved and it giggled and then disappeared. It was one of the little girls who comes to play soccer every week.

It was a such little thing, but somehow it made me feel really strange. Here I am in this completely alien environment––a poor Armenian neighborhood in a city in Lebanon full of refugees––and somebody here knows my name. Actually, a whole bunch of people––albeit little people––do. How weird is that?

I thought about it as I went back to the organized chaos that is helping with two concurrent games of soccer between 70 exuberant little Syrians who all want you to play goalkeeper on their team.

The games ended around dusk so the kids could have time to get home just before it got dark, and my housemates and their new friends and I headed out to find some food. Since we were in an Armenian neighborhood, I took everyone to Mano which is a sandwich shop/deli that specializes in different kinds of Armenian sausage.

Mano is on Armenia Street, which, if you follow it across the bridge eventually splits into Pasteur Street and Gemayzeh Street and leads you through Mar Mkail––which is basically where everyone in Beirut who "goes out" on Friday night "goes out" to. The friends of my friends had to meet someone in that general direction, so, fortified with some Armenian sujuk, we headed over the bridge and started the mile-and-a-half walk.

In a little side street off of Mar Mkail is an establishment named Chaplins themed and decorated entirely around the actor Charlie Chaplin. Despite its slightly off the main drag location and general hole-in-the-wall appearance, it is quite popular. This may have something to do with Charlie Chaplin, but I tend to think it has more to do with the fact that between the hours of six and nine every night, shots cost 2,000 Lira––that is, $1.33.

One of the friends of my friends who I was meeting for the first time was Palestinian, but grew up between Lebanon, Jordan and the States, so it was interesting talking to him about his life experience split between those three places. He remembered Mano from his parents taking him there as a child and was surprised I'd known where it was. When I mentioned Chaplins existence to him off the cuff, he insisted we go there as well––although I'm less sure it was because he remembered it from his childhood.

One of the coolest things about living in such a transient city is how many people you meet. One of the strangest things about it is that you often quickly and casually say goodbye to those people forever. Whether it was the Kiwis who spent the night with us, my friend's friends, the kids we played soccer with, or really anyone for that matter.

Then came the usual struggle of getting back up the mountain. While it was still only 7:30pm or so (basically mid-morning by Beiruti standards) Taxi prices had already gone up and there is no bus that goes directly from Gemayzeh to where I live. In the end we took a service from there to the Doura round-about, where we found a group of taxi drivers standing by a convenience store drinking. One was willing to take us up the mountain for a very reasonable price, and Almaza in hand, got behind the wheel and plunged us into the wild Beirut traffic.

We made it about two blocks when one of my housemates realized he'd forgot his backpack somewhere in the city and jumped out of the car. While my other housemate and I were concerned, there wasn't really much we could do, and so continued on with our driver.

It was now just me in the back and my housemate sitting in the front passenger seat when the driver pulled out his smartphone and handed it to him. Texting and driving is dangerous, especially when you have a bottle of beer in one hand, so the gentleman had fortuitously handed the phone to my housemate with an open text conversation and began dictating to him in broken english. This got  rather awkward when it became apparent that the person on the other end of the conversation was a woman the driver was involved in a rather steamy affair with. The exchange was cut mercifully short only when we pulled in at a convenience store to buy some more beer.

Refueled for another couple miles, we continued on up the mountain and arrived safe and sound at our front gate. About 45 minutes later, my other housemate made it back, backpack in hand, and we put a rather mundane capstone on the day by cooking a light supper and watching TV.

It was another day in Beirut.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

Running in Beirut

Running in Lebanon is rather dangerous. Even registering for a race can be somewhat hazardous.

Today I went downtown to pick up my number for the Beirut Marathon 10k event this Sunday and found the entire district was blockaded in what looked like preparation for the D-Day invasion. As it turns out, the invaders were about three dozen posh looking Lebanese, protesting that the national parliament a few blocks away had just voted to reelect itself for two more years. The most dangerous person there was probably the girl with the clipboard [right foreground], yet I still had to run the gauntlet of the Lebanese Army, Internal Security Force, six US Humvees, UN Peacekeepers, and about 200 men with M-16s [not pictured, because they don't like it] to get to the ritzy Beirut Souks shopping plaza where they were doing pre-registration.


It honestly wasn't bad when I lived down in Gemayzeh in a hostel. Then there were actually sidewalks. That is, when they don't completely block the sidewalk to put up a billboard advertising the race you are training for, forcing you for one horrifying second to hurl yourself into the right-most lane of a four-lane highway. But since I moved up the mountain things have got exponentially worse.

There is now nothing but miles of extremely steep, twisting road with barely enough room for two small cars to pass each other and no berm at all, but on which cement trucks and transport buses make up most of the traffic. There are some parts where, when walking, you basically have to just press yourself against the cliff-face, close your eyes and pretend you're somewhere else as a diesel semi-trailor grinds past you nine inches away.

There are still places you at least can run, though. The secret is to find side roads with large military checkpoints. Side road means less trucks, and large military checkpoint means slower trucks. As an added bonus, the view is often quite breathtaking.


Unfortunately, if there is one thing I hate in this world, it is wild dog-like creatures. And out here, in the howling darkness that is everything east of the last Lebanese Army checkpoint on the Beirut city limits, there are wild dog-like creatures.


But every silver lining has its cloud.

Today I helped tutor some Syrian and Iraqi refugee students at an after-school program run by a friend I met at Arabic school last month. The main reason I came was actually to help him and some other friends get back to my apartment on the mountain for a long-promissed dinner that evening, but I was assured I'd be helping the students with only English grammar and the Arabic alphabet. An hour of algebra homework later, and we were piling into my friend's Peugeot hatchback.

I don't have a car, so I'd only ever taken the bus on the 30 minute (without traffic) drive from Beirut up to my place, so just getting to the base of the mountain was somewhat stressful, and could really be a post unto itself. We made it, though, and after getting on the right road at the roundabout at Mkallas, we headed up the mountain and all breathed a deep sigh of relief.

Then the car broke.


After watching a YouTube video on how to pop the hood of a Peugeot, pouring several liters of water into the radiator reservoir, and watching them trickle down the highway back toward Beirut, we discovered that the hose connecting the radiator reservoir to the radiator was ruptured. I'd always rather wondered what it would be like to get stranded on the side of the road in Lebanon. So it's almost a relief to have finally experienced it now. It was also good that it was within a few––albeit extremely steep––miles of my apartment. So after convincing everyone that pouring water all over the red-hot engine block was not a suitable substitute for a functioning radiator, we pushed the car about 40 ft. uphill, abandoned it, and jumped on a passing bus.

I felt quite bad about my friend's car. But dinner was delicious.

And after a succession of Almazas, sitting on our balcony playing guitar and chatting as we looked out over the sparkling on-off lights of Beirut and its suburbs 1,600 ft. below, I felt quite alright about the whole thing. Even the algebra.

As it turns out, though, driving here is still worse than running. And that's really something to feel thankful for.