This article is about hospitality and getting lost. Or rather, it’s about these things but also about forgetting where you’ve been and where you want to go. The truth is the reasons for me to be in the Lebanon are obscure, even to myself, and the bewildering bustle of Beirut is an apt backdrop to a wondering novelist who is searching for a MacGuffin that has its root in a bloody, complicated past of the incredibly long internecine Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990). But here I am, fresh from Northern Europe and the peaceful lands of Scandinavia, the peaceful co-existence of Norway, Sweden and Denmark mirrored perhaps in the polite familiarity of the cuisine, and as I drive in from the airport, the hills receding as rolling banks of scintillating lights in the dark night, I don’t waste a minute in dropping my stuff off and heading out for a drink.
I’m staying conveniently on rue Armenia, which is in Mar Michail, the trendy go-to part of town that is in effect one long strip of bars and restaurants. It takes me a moment to actually find the apartment, the directions are elliptical and the puzzle isn’t all that easy to solve (the MacGuffin is long forgotten already) but soon enough I’m outside the right door, and find the keys in the window frame where they were supposed to be, and a quick change of clothes and I’m walking down the very much alive and kicking rue Armenia, deciding on which place to grab a drink. I have no idea how much a drink costs. I’m not even sure I’ll manage to figure that out exactly during the trip. But that first beer is as delicious and thirst-quenching as any I’ve had in my life, and so it was worth every Lebanese penny I paid for it. After I have my fill I return back down the street headed for home when I spot a bar on a prominent corner and I decide to have a last nightcap. The bar is empty save for two other customers and soon enough we’re talking, and soon after we are talking we are talking about having a shot together.
Every country is victim of its own stereotypes. Which, as we all know. is unfortunate. I’m Irish and I have to admit even this article isn’t helping the stereotype of the Irish who like to drink, all I’ve done is talk thus far about the first thing I did as soon as I got to country – indeed a whole part of the world – for the very first time: I went and got a drink. But be that as it may, one stereotype of the Lebanese is that they are deeply hospitable, how if they like you, they will be as open and generous toward you as if you were family. Indeed I do hear ‘welcome’ and bienvenue consistently when I’m here, these words begin and end conversations, and I believe in their sincerity. The Airbnb I’m in also has two enthusiastic Germans staying and they loan me their guidebook (I suspect my lack of preparation or any stated goals for being here unnerves them a little) in which I come across on one of the very first pages the following: ‘The Lebanese are generally very open and welcoming and will often go out of their way to help foreigners. Return the gesture by being equally polite and friendly.’
So I accept the shot and we all talk the forgettable chatter people exchange in a bar as it closes up at the end of the night. The two fiercely handsome barmen speed up the wash down and soon we’re all talking about going to the Armenian part of town for food, and it’s being insisted that I join. The last thing I want to do is go to another part of town, exhausted, a bit light on my feet, and in need of my bed as I am, however I tell myself I’ve just arrivde here and to lighten up and follow the roll of the dice.
First we go for a drink in one of our group’s apartment. But this is not the story I want to tell, so I should change the gears a bit I guess.
So now there’s three of us left. The two barmen and me, and we stop a service taxi and bundle in. These are the taxis that run non-stop picking people up and dropping people off along the way, the route changing, morphing, digressing as people hop in. They insist on paying the couple thousand Lebanese Lira such a ride costs – not a large sum, but still, how generous I note. Soon we are in a restaurant, not all that fancy, a pretty relaxed place and Khalili is ordering a selection of plates and we sip black tea from paper cups, talking quietly about life in Lebanon and other things I no longer remember. Lost to the night and the possibility that they were in fact ever uttered at all.
And sure enough the food was itself a cliché, hummus and fatteh and so on, all delicious and easily scoffed with pita bread and fresh mint and tomatoe and onions. And sure enough these two guys who just met me insist on paying. It was cheap after all, they shush me with this, and I have no other choice then to let it slide. In turn, I offer my sincere appreciation.
But again, this is not really what I want to talk about: the article is about generosity, yes, but it is also about getting lost. I tried to go back to this place and it took me an incredible effort to relocate it, in a kind of spectacular way the place eluded my best efforts at navigation and puzzle solving, it slipped through the net of Google maps, the app I use for jogging ‘Moves’ and which tracks all my movements (so it can probably then go and sell it to a government or a perverse marketing department further down the line) and which I studied at length. I even I went back to the bar and got Khalili to tell me where it was we had this delicious early morning feast.
I did everything I could, using the finest apps and asking local people in my non-doubt absurd sounding French and still the place eluded me. I don’t feel all that bad though, Beirut is not an easy place even for taxi drivers. One night I drove around for the best part of thirty minutes trying to locate an apartment building in West Beirut, my friend on the phone speaking Arabic with the taxi driver (he only spoke Arabic). I never had so much fun in a taxi. It was truly baffling. The MacGuffin – long, long forgotten.
It’s not really all that far from where I’m staying. Rue Armenia slops down the hill and crosses two large dual carriageways before it crosses over the somewhat sad and desiccated Beirut River, more sewage one suspects than river water. Then one is in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian neighbourhood of Beirut, that was founded just over a hundred years ago when Armenians fled the genocide of their people and arrived in large numbers by boat to the safe haven of Beirut: much like Syrians today. They settled here, in what was a marshy area of land on the outskirts of the city, and slowly it grew up into the vibrant part of the city it is today and where you can read anti-Turkey graffiti on the wall and, if you’re lucky, find Abou Hassen’s hummus house. This is easier said then done.
 Beirut, Jessica Lee, Footprint Focus: Bath, April 2014