Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Shocking Vision in Beirut

Anne and I are out by ourselves for a walk in the city while Sonya meets with her business. We turn a corner on a very clear, dry, shockingly far-seeing day and gaze -- at??? Between two lines of tall buildings a wide avenue offer us a view of an ice-white cloud sitting on top of the distant hills… until –???
We realize it’s not a cloud at all but the distant, snow-bound high massif of a summit in the Mount Lebanon range called Sannine.
It looks like a vast suspended glacier of pure supernaturally white matter lying intimidatingly high above the city. It looks like an avalanche waiting to happen. Or a tidal wave poised above the fragile civilization beneath it... No, just a vision of the Alps glimpsed from a coastal city.
A few blocks later, we turn in another direction and see the light gray-blue water of the Mediterranean Sea.
That’s the high point, in both senses, of our outing. We also have the pleasure of locating a historic architectural treasure Anne found described in a guidebook – a restored red-stone medressa (school building) built by the Mamluks in their characteristic low arch and dome-roofed style around the time Genghis Khan was savaging the greater neighborhood. Unlike the Europeans, who were forced to steal their treasures from Egypt and Greece, the Lebanese discovered this by accident when an excavator driver found his controls frozen whenever he tried to dig up the spot where it was buried. So they dug by hand.
Look! A miracle!
Some other surprises are less pleasant. We find armed soldiers manning checkpoints around the central square of the rebuilt tourism-oriented downtown, called the Place d’Etoile, because of a demonstration somewhere in the city. It may have something to do with Syria, but no one we talk to does more than shrug; these things happen. Still, soldiers with automatic weapons, military vehicles, checkpoints don’t make a good impression. We seem to be the only tourists around.
Then comes the adventure of the central post office. In the US, a post office is a place to get stamps. Here it’s also somewhere to apply for official documents and get them certified. It seems the place hasn’t quite figured out how to do both. We are sent to one line, then told to go to another; then everyone is sent back to the first line. An employee comes on duty and addresses a computer, but the line does not move. Then a man with an armful of papers comes in and begins a long argument in Arabic with the woman who appears to be in charge – if you can be “in charge” when nothing is being done. She appears to be telling him to wait in line and he appears to be telling her all the reasons why he cannot do that. Eventually, he wins. She bends over his paperwork. Nothing happens to our line.
We leave without the stamps for our postcards. The Phoenicians may have invented writing, but I doubt they found anyone to sell them a stamp.
Our walk back to Sonya’s neighborhood, starting out from my dead reckoning on which way to head, calls for frequent recalculations and stops for directions. “Reconfiguring,” goes the automatic voice in the head.
We have a map, but the problem is the streets don’t have signs. That makes it difficult to determine which street one is currently on and seriously diminishes the value of a map.
In a working class neighborhood bakery we find a cashier with some English but no idea where Saniyeh Park is. Considering how many parks there are in the city (off hand I can’t think of another), we’re surprised how little knowledge there is of a place not very far away.
After all, we’re walking.
“Walk? No, no, a taxi.”
“No, thanks. We want to walk. So do you know to get to the park?”
“Let me get you a taxi.”
Since the Lebanese are much friendlier and more helpful to strangers than Westerners, it’s not that they’re holding out on us. They don’t know. I think it may have something to do with the idea of “park.” They don’t use them. The other problem is “walking.” In a city where taxis are plentiful and cheap, why walk when you can get into a taxi and sit in traffic?
Finally we run into a group of teenaged boys who put their good English to use. Combining local knowledge with staring at our map, one of them points out the direction of a major street that helps us get our bearings.
Two days later we do the whole thing over and get lost in a different way.