What makes Beirut like Paris? I am about to find out as I finish my second episode of Murphy Brown and descend into Rafic Hariri Airport. The airport is clean, well organized, and signs in Arabic, French, and English abound. But no easy way to downtown exists, and so Beirut might as well be a third-world city in my opinion, along with New York and most of South America. What’s worse, I have no internet so I cannot hire an Uber and must negotiate a fare with the inevitable assholes that lurk outside the airport. I negotiate from $45 to $35 and then get passed between cabs and drivers until I don’t know who knows what, and who's expecting how much. When the time comes to pay, I end up giving an assortment of American and Emirati money valued at $48. So far, Beirut sucks in ways that Paris certainly does not.
When we arrive at the night’s hostel, I see occasional hijaabs and regular miniskirts. Tourists and locals alike are living through their phones on every corner. There is Starbucks. There is even a McLaren dealership. Gas is sold by the tank, at reasonable prices and I still paid 48 bucks for a 15-minute ride from the airport. So far, they aren’t getting a ringing endorsement from me, but I’ll try not to let my taxi experience soil my opinions of this world city.
At my hostel there is AC, purportedly, in the dorm rooms, and lockboxes for my things. I have stayed in worse places, but it takes an hour for the owner to show up so I don’t know that for certain until he arrives. In the meantime, I wander the area for some pictures, only finding ones worth taking at Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque. As I stroll by, a man on a park bench with a disabled leg calls me over. I know in this moment that the man will either murder me, ruining my opinion of Lebanon forever, or he will provide some kind of wisdom that will save this trip. Ahmed sits in a white tank top, his heavy brow, twisted leg, and slight underbite making him look like a dog who’s been beaten by more than one careless caretaker. In broken English, he talks about politics, and the politicians who figuratively kicked him. We talk government, corruption, and Hezbollah, which he believes to be the most powerful force in his country.
The man thanks me for chatting with him, and accepts a few dollars. He believes corruption has made this a country of great disparity. He watched wealth pour into his city after the bombings in the 90s, but got nothing for himself. Much of the city still looks destroyed, including my hostel, but parts of the city display incredible development. They have a McLaren dealership, for God’s sake, but no public bus system. Walking around Beirut takes most of the afternoon, and I witness wealthy tourists schmoozing with the ruling class, and a poor middle class trying to make it, voiceless.
I find dinner in an American-plus-shawarma spot where I can try famous Lebanese hummus and eat chicken in lavash bread. Americans harass the waitstaff and I feel ill. I regret coming to Lebanon, or to Beirut, that is. I am sure much of this country is lovely, but I don’t get any sense of authenticity no matter where I go.
In the morning, I chat with my hostel owner. We have the same governments-are-crazy conversation, but here I don’t buy it. Someone has to do more than complain on park benches. One has to make signs or form organizations or Tweet. Write a travel blog that subtly uses a comparative approach to criticize malignant political machines in your own country. Ahem. Just do something! But the young seem happy and beautiful and they club and vacation in the Paris of Europe without a care in the world. The old folks are the "woke" ones here. They remember what fighting is like, and why it matters. The kids just eat their shawarma and burgers. Things are fine. Why rock the boat?
“Every week, seven or eight Syrian doctors stay here to interview at German embassy,” the hostel owner tells me.
“Do they succeed? Do they get visas to go to Germany?”
There’s at least one war going on under the noses of the Lebanese. There is pain and suffering, but it’s hard to see in the glistening capital. It’s only the older men and women, those who know what to look for, who tell you the real story.
I am hugged like a brother when I say goodbye to the hostel owner. The older folks are nice here. Nice to me, anyway. It’s as if I am not a child of Lebanon, so they can talk to me, tell me the truth. They tell me the things they’d be afraid to tell their own kids. The Serbian man I met in China was a child of an end-of-millennium war. His dad cried himself awake, got angry, hit him, and refused to open up.
Maybe they put on this lavish new mask because they fear that opening up will bring it all back. Why be the Middle East when you can be Paris?
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.