Midnight Oud to Beirut

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 “Sodade”. 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.

Paintballin’, Blowjobs and Hizbullah

OK, so if that title doesn’t boost my page hits, I don’t know what will.

It comes from a short service taxi ride I took the other day (in service taxis, you pay a reduced fee and then the driver takes other passengers along the way).

Two boys, about 19 or 20, are sitting in the back seat when I hop into the cab near my apartment in Hamra. From their nearly perfect American English peppered with a few Arabic bas, ballah and khalas, I guessed they were students at the American University of Beirut.

They are having the sort of conversation I used to hear among boys and girls on the back of the 24 bus in San Francisco on the way home from school – who did what sexually, how far they went, the scandalous context. Voice volume is typically elevated in a sort of exhibitionism: the conversation is as much for the other passengers as it is for the kids.

In San Francisco, these conversations are lurid, and at the same time painful. One has the sense that such working-class kids – often around 16 years old – want to tell the world their activities to convince themselves of the gravity of lives too often laced with suffering. A sort of public transportation therapy.

Back in the service taxi, the kids seem to be approaching similar topics from a different angle – one less crude but more annoying.

“Oh man, so she didn’t even give you a blowjob?” says AUB Boy 1.

AUB2: “No, man.” He pauses as a girl crosses the street. “Oh, I think I know that girl. OK, I definitely know her. I can’t forget that ass. That girl has a nice ass.”

AUB2 says this as if he is trying to convince himself that he really thinks this, and maybe to show off to his friend, and to me (foreigner) that he is capable of such comments. It lacks the rawness of the SF conversations, and the undertone. It is not mixed in with other talk about who got beat up, who has a gun and the excesses of intoxication, as it would be in SF.

These kids are privileged AUB students, even if they do live in war-torn Lebanon, I think.

“Hey man, you wanna go paintballin’ sometime?” says AUB1.

“Sure man, definitely.”


If the middle-aged taxi driver with Islamic prayer beads hanging from the rearview mirror understood any English (I do not think he does), he might recognize the reference to paintballin’. He is Shia, I soon learn, and a staunch supporter of Hizbullah, so there’s a decent chance he lives in Beirut’s southern suburbs, where, incidentally, the local paintballin’ facility is also located.

As we drop off the kids in front of AUB, the conversation between me and the taxi driver turns to politics. (It’s inevitable; I should never have told him I am an American. But lying – even little lies – is almost as exhausting as these political conversations.)

I learn that the taxi driver holds Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah in very high esteem. “He is the only honest politician in the world,” he says, or something to this effect. I am still getting used to the Lebanese accent, and my comprehension veers from total to foggy. He says America should leave Lebanon to its own affairs, he complains about Rice and Bush.

I agree, but I draw the line when he says Barack Obama is a liar. The driver is mad because, he says, Obama kicked out two veiled women from a campaign event. (A story based in some fact, apparently.)

He drops me off in a cheery mood – I always seem to be able to effect this with taxi drivers – and I walk by the bars of Gemayze to work.


Woah, I think. These are the paradoxes of Lebanon. What will be the “conversation” that occurs between the Blowjob Bros and this taxi driver’s children one day?

Maybe what they want is not so different. Maybe, because of my vantage point, I have seen the same thing from different angles. I hope so.

Bahia Axe in Beirut and Damascus

Just a quick update (many more to come):

I am enjoying the heck out of myself in Damascus seeing old friends, although there does not seem to be enough time to see everyone. I will feel terrible that I was not able to visit every person I have a connection with while here. But it’s just impossible.

A great highlight of the last few weeks in Beirut and Damascus has been the existence of capoeira in both. There are good players here and bona fide capoeristas with years and years of experience.

That’s meant an instant community for me, no hiatus in training, and something anchoring my life in places both old and new. It’s what ties all the places I visit together.


Dubai to Beirut

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.