It is getting quite hot here – it’s been close to 100 for the last few days, and combined with the humidity it can be stifling.
When I arrived in Beirut, I had a fantasy of sleeping with the floor-to-ceiling glass doors open onto the balcony, with curtains billowing and the dawn pouring in above the rooftops, probably accompanied by Cesaria Evora singing “Soledad”. But I discovered on my second night here that if you leave the door open, a mosquito is liable to single-handedly ruin your life, biting your face and droning ever more lowly as its gut fills with your blood over the course of a long, sleepless night. So to sleep, I close the door of my fourth-floor room and turn on the AC. (And if I don’t use the AC, I wake up in about a half hour drenched in sweat.)
The other evening was a very warm one, and just as I was dozing off the power went out, and with it, the AC.
In the ensuing quiet, I heard a strange sound. It was a haunting melody played on strings, so faint I couldn’t tell if it was my imagination or not. I got up and opened the doors, walked out onto the balcony and peered into the night, listening.
It was there, coming from the street below, where it was very dark because the electricity was out: the tremulous, smooth notes of an oud. The music filled the street for a few minutes and then stopped, and I saw the oud float up on the hands of a group of men sitting in front of a sandwich shop. It flashed in the ambient light like a gem, luminous, perfect and lusciously full-bodied, as more hands received it to put it in a car.
In the streets of Beirut, you rarely hear anything but the screech of tires and of horns and Arabic pop music blasting from fancy cars that, in their luxury, are incongruous with the pot-holed, rules-free roads. You see half-finished construction projects and garish ads for beauty products, cigarettes, alcohol and soft drinks. Haze obscures the mountains.
So hearing this oud – that most authentic of Arabic instruments, whose sound is the cry of longing – lovingly played in the silence of the midnight was like listening to a secret whispered about the real soul of Lebanon.
Beneath all of the scar tissue, it seemed to say, beneath the plastic consumerism and the chaos and the violence, somewhere in the tired soil of this land the seeds of its essence lie quietly in wait for the chance to grow again. There are still fingers that play those ancient, gentle Lebanese chords, though you may need to have a power outage in the middle of the night just to hear a few bars.
It is a theme on which I will expand in my next post, about my visit to one of Lebanon’s last stands of cedars.