Friday, 9 July 2010
Middle East, Day 3: Beirut
It was a 3 hour flight from Dubai to Beirut on a Fly Dubai 737, the contemporary equivalent, I guess of the common transport of earlier decades: the Bedford truck with people on the roof and the chickens. The seats were dirt cheap, but check in luggage was charged at an exhorbitant rate, so folks piled on board with the allowed maximum in hand luggage: one cabin bag and a laptop. You wouldn't believe the size of a cabin bag these days. And it's amazing what you can fit in a laptop bag if it's sufficiently large and you don't clutter it up with unnecessary extras like laptops. And it's surprising how every member of a family of 6 still needs the requisite two bags. The seats were filled with bearded men, and women in burkas, and tiny children, and Lebanese women looking energetic and colourful, and Lebanese men with dark eyes and moustaches and giggling, skylarking young people. Once the plane was airborne people left their seats to go and do a bit of socialising, but us uptight Westerners slept or read or both. In Beirut the customs formalities were, as usual, laid back and we were met by a taxi: an ancient Buick which took us here: the Hayete guest house in the heart of Christian East Beirut.
In Doha it was 34 degrees when the plane left at 3 am. Everytime I ventured outside my glasses fogged up the way they do when you open the oven door and for the same reason. Here, it has been in the high 20s all day, and I'm amazed that already that feels refreshingly cool.
Only 30 years ago people were killing each other in these streets. There are still houses riddled with bullet holes and the occasional building site completely empty except for a shattered wall or two, but mostly the damage of war has been replaced by new apartment blocks or, at least, new plasterwork. The streets are cluttered and the road rules seem fairly arbitrary. Shiny Porsches and Range Rovers jostle for space with the most clapped out old jalopies I have seen on the road anywhere since New Zealand in the 1960s. Lovely old mansions from the French mandate period sit beside bland apartment blocks. There are tiny shops jammed between buildings or into garages. There are immense modern shopping malls. Telegraph and power wires are draped everywhere in a way which might conceivably be purposeful. People drive and converse and sit in sidewalk cafes and smoke and converse some more. Drivers, in the absence of agreed protocols, communicate by sounding their horns and shouting. It is a wild, energetic, lovely, lively place that looks like the back streets of some ancient Spanish city with a heavy Arabic overlay and an infusion of Orleans, the French one not the New one, but then again, maybe the New one as well. People have lived here since the Roman days, and even before, and tomorrow we'll go and look at some of that stuff. For today it's enough to be here in this place that is DEFINITELY not Dunedin