I just got into Beirut and I’m really happy to be here. It helps that I spent all of my last day in Dubai (Sunday) in traffic and scouring megamalls in 113 degree heat for “Canadian cigarettes,” which a guy here in Lebanon had asked me to try and pick up. No luck.
The Palestinian-Syrian guys i was hanging out with are living large in Dubai, notwithstanding their residence in the neighborhood they refer to as “Karachi”, a rundown Pakistani area where my friends sleep three to a room. Rent is astronomically expensive in Dubai, but goods and services are cheap. They have enough money to go out and watch Euro Cup games, and I have to say that despite the fact I find Dubai totally distasteful, I am happy to see these guys finally relaxed. They have lived in a refugee camp with something of a refugee camp mentality for their whole lives, and it was nice to see them puffing sheeshas at a seaside Lebanese restaurant called Shu, watching the football game and feeling carefree. These friends were unbelievably hospitable to me the whole time and I barely had to spend any money.
But other than that… whew, Dubai is a crazy place. And not really a pleasant one. (The fact that I got strip searched on arrival for no reason at all does not, of course, help its image!)
The emirate is a hectic menagerie of half-inhabited skyscrapers barely visible in a sky choked with desert sand and Gulf humidity. It is definitely among the most bizarre places I have ever seen. Pakistani and Filipino workers — along with everyone else — are walking around in the heat with a kind of dazed look on their faces. To call it soulless would not be an exaggeration. All the communities there appear haphazard, temporary and recent. It’s a money pot, but not much more.
So it is great to be back in Beirut. It feels like a homecoming. Everything is familiar — the big trees, the humid but not suffocating Mediterranean air, the bars with their neon signs in narrow streets, with the shadow of mountains looming behind them. At moments, it feels like it was only yesterday I was last here (it was October 2006). At others, I simply feel it has been far too long. I’m anxious to experience this region with Beirut as a door to understanding it rather than Damascus.