Grand Bizarre #8: Les Vacances du Savon: Notes from Lebanon
By J.A. McCarroll
February 16: 9 06 P.M.
As soon as our wheels hit the ground, the cabin reverberates with hearty mediterranean applause. I guess the Lebanese, like Turks, Midwesterners, and Texans, clap when a plane lands, a practice that always makes me feel like everyone else on the plane knows something I don?t.
In addition to making me nervous, the applause comes too late to really influence the flight, once we?re safe on the ground, there?s no need to praise the pilot ? his job is done. I think it would be far more effective to mock the flight crew in the case of heavy turbulence, unscheduled crash landings, or engine trouble at three thousand feet, using negative attention to spur them towards safety. This is the same technique I used to utilize as an English teacher, which probably explains why I no longer work with children.
February 16: 9 31 P.M.
The road from the Airport to the city of Beirut is, apparently, where the majority of foreign kidnappings took place during the civil war. This is absolutely not a fact I?m happy to be in possession of. With this information, elements of the drive to the city as banal as bullet holes, armored roadblocks, Hezbollah flags/ graffiti, and the driver?s curious reluctance to make eye contact with me seem to be, somehow, a little sinister. ?We live in Istanbul,? I say in three languages, trying to establish a rapport with our driver, ?it?s a very big place. Much better than America.? He ignores me until it?s time to pay for the ride.
As we get out of the cab, I find the major features of Beirut to be in jarring contrast. There is a beautiful mosque that looks like the Lady Gaga to Sultanahmet?s Madonna, with slenderer minarets, tanner brickwork, and a flirty blue roof. Bordering the mosque is the street we are staying on, which appears to be entirely bars and non-halal hot-dog stands. Bar names include ?Sin,? ?Lord of the Wings,? and ?Sushi time.?
February 16 : 10 47 P.M.
Oh my god, this is the strongest gin and tonic I?ve ever bought. Marry me, Beirut.
February 17 : 10 28 A.M.
Since Lebanon is roughly the size of New Hampshire, there is a real possibility that we can ?do it all? on our trip. With that in mind, we are crammed into the Lebanese equivalent of a dolmuş hurtling southwards towards Tyre, which is supposed to have great beaches, turtle nesting grounds, palestinian refugee camps, and roman ruins, all more or less within walking distance from each other.
Currently, we are an hour and a half south of Beirut and are crossing into what my Time Out Lebanon cheerfully calls ?Newly Secured Territory.? What this actually means is that the area has recently moved from Hezbollah and PLO control into that of the Lebanese army, who maintains quite a few roadblocks and bunkers, all couched behind charmingly painted Lebanese flag barrels, which seem to be more weather-friendly replacements for bags of sand.
February 17: 3 02 P.M.
?Well actually, we?d like a table outside,? says an elderly German man, giggling slightly at his own mirth. The bartender doesn?t laugh, and neither do I. In the last hour I?ve been eating hummus and drinking beer at the hotel bar, three other people have made the same joke. The wind and rain howling outside the bar are clear indications that I probably won?t see any turtles, ruins, or palestinians today. The beach, however, is visible from the window. It looks great, if a little misty.
While I?m very happy eating hummus and drinking, it becomes clear that my companion (who, it should be noted, is also my girlfriend, but ?companion,? sounds a bit more worldly, you know?) and I can?t exactly afford to do so for the rest of the night. By virtue of my comparative Arabic and French fluency, it is decided that I will have to go out and look for a wine store.
February 17: 3 40 P.M.
I think I have hit rock bottom. I?m holding a bottle of local red wine, while the ancient store keeper, a very resigned man with a broken right arm, gamely struggles to open it with a dull and chipped wine opener. Despite having use of both arms, my attempts to do the same were met with scorn, as were my attempts at communication: the only classical Arabic phrases I know are ?good evening,? ?united nations,? ?my uncle is an officer in the army,? and ?May god make it easy for you,? none of which seem to be the right choice for the moment.
When it is finally open, he offers me the cork to sniff, ?c?est bonne?? he asks in age-warped French. Luckily for both of us, it passes inspection and I stash it under my coat, shielding it from both the gale-force winds and the hotel management.
February 18: 2 16 P.M.
On a quick day trip to Sidon, we visit the famous Soap Museum, which is exactly what it sounds like; fun for the whole family, as long as they enjoy bothering their companion who does not like soap. ?Look,? I shout, ?these are authentic soap makers? logos!? I take approximately seventy pictures, most of which are of my companion glowering at some saponification-related ephemera, although some are of the soap itself, which is pretty, I guess.
During the fifteen minute long movie that explains how olive oil becomes soap (spoiler alert: I did not pay attention, but it looked difficult, and ironically, filthy) right before the denouement where the finished product is revealed, my companion whispers in my ear, ?I?m going to fucking kill you.? Our fellow viewers, a well dressed lebanese couple, carefully pretend not to understand.
We decide to head to head back to Beirut, post-haste, without buying any soap, although I wash my hands four times in the rest room and consequentially smell much more rose-y than I would prefer.
February 18: 4 36 P.M.
Entering Beirut from the predominately Shia south, the absence of posters featuring frowning mullahs becomes rather conspicuous. The rain, which was beautiful for the entirety of our mini-bus ride north, suddenly makes an appearance as soon as we start walking, forcing us to dash inside the nearest hotel and consume the most expensive cup of coffee I have ever drank. Being at the penthouse level makes me feel like both a king and a sniper, a juxtaposition that rather spoils any attempts at conversation with my dampened girlfriend.
February 20: 8 42 A.M.
It?s our last day of vacation and the first sunny day. Originally, our plan was to go to Baalbek, which boasts enormous Roman ruins, the headquarters of Hezbollah, and a close proximity to the country?s best vineyards, but we were turned away by a very stressed minibus driver who asserted that snowfall made the roads six times more expensive. Instead, we decide to go to Byblos, which has plenty of old things, fantastic fish, and no snow. ?Lin al minibus deal Byblos?? we ask, receiving very specific directions to a nearby silver van.
February 20 11 42 A.M.
Quick Arabic lesson: the word for the city of Byblos is Jbil. The word for the city of Tripoli is Trablous. If you happen to very confidently ask for ?byblos? in Arabic and then fall asleep on the minibus, you will absolutely end up in Tripoli, a city the guidebooks cheerfully refer to as ?little Damascus,? although it should be noted they were written when that was sign of stability, and not a warning to foreigners carrying notebooks.
Our mistake only becomes apparent after asking several street merchants for ?les rounes ancienes,? and receiving blank stares. After wandering around and looking for landmarks, we encounter a sign which proclaims, ?Welcome to Tripoli,? in swooping Arabic script that we must trace with out fingers and sound out loud.
In lieu of an expensive fish lunch, wine tasting in the mountains, or visiting Hezbollah headquarters, we decide to make the best of it and check out the local attractions. There are two: an ancient crusader church that is now a mosque, and a little building called ?Al-Khan al Saboun,? which translates as ?The soap inn.? My companion says several very bad words. I realize that this is quite possibly my best vacation of all time.