Hi! I had this article published on Yourmiddleeast.com in July, and I just realized I should also share it on here! I am very aware that this piece romanticizes the city of Beirut, which, given the recent influx of Syrian and Palestinian refugees, is presently experiencing a great strain on both its economy and infrastructure. In this regard, this essay may not a very useful piece of journalism. Instead, perhaps, it is a love letter, a memory, a shadow of a Beirut that was, once, and remains, sometimes, still.
You do not remember that the color of the Twitter logo actually exists in nature until you touch down in Beirut airport. The sea extends outward from the foot of the runway like an immodest shadow of the sky. The air is sweet and smells of the fruit stands – decorated high with pyramids of fresh almonds – that line the edges of the city. In this heat you imagine the nuts are sweating, fragrant in their pale, woolly jackets.
You enter Beirut in late afternoon. The smoky scent of oil tankers is carried and distorted like a distant voice along the water. The sweet and smoky fragrances complement one another, and, like people, live together. You meet up with friends at dusk to secure a table before Iftar.
“Hi keifik ca va!?” is the clichéd greeting that people use to exemplify the Lebanese language, but as an oversimplification of something very interesting, it entertains you little. You find more compelling the hundreds of foreign words that Lebanese incorporates easily into the unusual architecture of its Arabic. “Al chapooi,” for example, means “hat” and comes from the French chapeau; deghri means “straight ahead” and has roots in both ancient Turkish and Phoenician dialects. Banadora, the Lebanese word for tomato, comes from a thousand-year-old Italian-Arabic pidgin called “Lingua Franca,” that was used for Mediterranean trade. Nearly every language in the world derives its word for “tomato” from the Nahuatl language of Central Mexico’s “tomatl” (including the MSA TamaTim). Only Italians, who nicknamed the plant “golden apple,” or pomodoro, have an etymologically distinct name for the fruit; it is from pomodoro that Lebanese derives banadora.
Only one among your friends is observing Ramadan, but you all break fast together with a date as news of sunset echoes through the neighborhood. To drink, you choose between qamar addeen and jellab. You marvel at how the former is poetically called “religion’s moon” rather than “chilled apricot juice.” You opt for jellab, however, the black-purple date syrup laced with rose water, almonds and golden raisins floating on top like jewels.
Dinner concludes with fresh cantaloupe the color of a banana milkshake. It is so densely flavorful you hallucinate that the taste of every cantaloupe you have ever eaten has been magically compacted into this one. There is an inverse correlation, observes your friend Nasser, between the quality of wifi and of fruit. The latter is damaged by the impressive number of hormones, chemicals and genetic modifications that industrial agriculture in wealthy countries use to make crops 1) resistant to weather variation and disease, 2) longer-lasting once harvested, and 3) more charismatic looking (size, color, symmetry, shine) on a grocery store shelf. These manipulations gradually breed both flavor and nutrients out of produce. The only places that the long fingers of bioengineered agriculture do not reach, he contends, are those in chronic instability, like Lebanon. The same holds true (to the opposite effect) for wifi quality; Lebanon is reputed to have the #1 worst wifi of any country in the world (you suspect this assertion is magnified by a certain local flair for melodrama). Wifi is, of course, globally ubiquitous, albeit dysfunctional in…war zones. And places where the looming possibility of war discourages the construction of stable public services. Oh, if you knew how many unrequited lovers you have, Lebanon.
You return home that night to deafening explosions outside your apartment. In the streets of Beirut, infijar is one of the most common words you have been hearing lately. You cannot sleep, as thunderous noise pulses the dark outside in measured bursts, somewhere between the sound of an automatic weapon and a bomb. Of course, these explosions are just firee’3a, fireworks, set off from the roof of your building to celebrate Germany’s latest World Cup victory. (You note that Lebanon still needs to clarify its unfettered emotional dedication to German football.)
Slowly, the noise, smoke, and dull hum of ambient light dissipate. This neighborhood, at least, rests its senses.