Little Green Footballs

Friday, July 28, 2006

Watching Beirut die

Celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain reports from Beirut. [Salon]

Then, in the blink of an eye, everything went sideways: Relaxed smiles froze and disappeared. Suddenly, there was the sound of automatic weapons firing randomly in the air from a nearby neighborhood. And fireworks. Then cars -- a few of them -- teenage kids, women and adults, some leaning out the windows and waving Hezbollah flags and flashing the "V" for victory sign, celebrating what we were told, after a few quick cellphone calls, was the grabbing of two Israeli soldiers. Our fixer, a Sunni; Ali, a Shiite; and "Marwan," a Christian, who'd just minutes ago been pointing proudly at the mural -- all three looked down in embarrassment, a look of sorrow, shame and then resignation on their faces. Someone muttered "assholes" bitterly. They knew -- right away -- what was going to happen next.

Not that that stopped the party -- initially anyway. Beirutis like to tell you (true or not) that they partied right through the civil war. That it wasn't "cool" to seek shelter during an airstrike. That we "shouldn't worry. All the nightclubs have their own generators." That night, we continued to shoot (and drink heavily) at the opening party for the newly relocated Sky Bar, a rooftop nightclub with a view of the Mediterranean. Moneyed Beirutis -- all of them, it seemed, young, sexy and ridiculously beautiful -- drank vodka and Red Bull, and swayed (if not exactly danced) while Israeli jets flew menacingly low overhead. Were it not for the warplanes, it could have been Los Angeles or South Beach, Fla. The crowd was English speaking -- with the kind of West Coast, television accents you hear on sitcoms. Many were Lebanese Americans, returned to the country of their parents, or émigrés to America and Britain who'd left during the civil war and only just come back. I met and talked with Ramsay Short, the young editor of the newly launched Time Out Beirut, and he bragged effusively about their recent "Sex Issue," its cover depicting a woman's bare legs, panties bunched around the ankles. The issue -- provocative, to say the least, in a largely Muslim country -- had sailed through without censorship or even major complaint. Ramsay was happy about that. As he was happy that his town had rated its own edition of the snarky, urbane city guide. "There are only 15 cities in the world with a Time Out," he told me happily, "and Beirut is now one of them!" He did not look up at the planes. Later, we hit Barbar, a late-night post-nightclub shawarma joint where his mood became more pensive. Even then, before the first airstrikes, I think he too knew what was coming.

He got out safely, but -- as he points out -- he's one of the lucky ones:
A Lebanon I never got to know, a Beirut I didn't get to show the world disappears slowly over the horizon -- a beautiful dream turned nightmare. It's not what I saw happen in Beirut that I feel like talking about, though that's what I'm doing, isn't it? It's not about what happened to me that remains an unfinished show, a not fully fleshed out story, or even a particularly interesting one. It feels shameful even writing this. It's the story I didn't get to tell. The Beirut I saw for two short days. The possibilities. The hope. Now only a dream.

Amen.

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