Thursday, December 18, 2008

Masjid al-Quba

Masjid al-Quba, Medina, Saudi Arabia ©Tauseef Mehrali 2008
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Saturday, December 13, 2008

A Brief Break in Beirut

On returning from Hajj I was pleased to see that my account of a short stay in Beirut earlier this year has been published in this month's Emel magazine.
A Brief Break in Beirut

We stood out like the proverbial sore thumb. In reality, it was a sore foot and some luminous yellow crutches that made us stand out. A few days previously, across the border in the Syrian capital, my wife had re-enacted her own Damascene moment at the Eastern Gate of the Old City. Rather than a blinding light catalysing a religious revolution, her episode involved a stack of paving slabs and a third metatarsal, necessitating a visit to the nearby French missionary hospital. So it was with a limb wrapped in plaster of Paris and copious pain-killers that we crossed the border, one April evening, into Lebanon in the back of a weathered Chevrolet with an equally weathered taxi-driver at the wheel.

We were advised to give a wide berth to Lebanon let alone the volatile southern suburbs of Beirut. Since the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri on Valentine’s Day in 2005, Lebanon has experienced a string of assassinations, rising political and sectarian tensions and a 34-day war fought between Israel and Hezbollah. The collective wisdom of the Lonely Planet’s online Thorn Tree Forum helped us put aside our misgivings though. As we checked into the Mayflower Hotel we drew further comfort from the knowledge that this hotel, a former hangout for seasoned journalists, had safely housed these hacks during the brutal civil war.

The Mayflower lies very near to the uber-fashionable Hamra Street (or in keeping with Beirut’s French-leaning sensibilities, Rue Hamra), the retail heart of Beirut. Fashionistas and fashion-victims patrol the street and emerge from gleaming SUVs. During daylight hours the street is thronging with shoppers and by night it transforms into an open-air catwalk. There are some gems amidst the endless clothes shops including the Lebanese branch of the ground-breaking Al-Saqi books, just off the main road. Bibliophiles can also find a cluster of bookshops near the American University of Beirut, originally a missionary outpost know as the Syrian Protestant College, locally referred to simply as AUB. Librairie du Liban, the publishing house responsible for the ubiquitous Arabic dictionary by Hans Wehr and the increasingly common place Lane’s Lexicon, is amongst them.

Soon we were drawing not only comfort but courage from the souls that had passed through the Mayflower and it wasn’t long before we found ourselves braving a freak rain shower to attend a photography exhibition in southern Beirut. We’d picked up an emotive flyer in a theatre foyer the previous day advertising the exhibition entitled Algerie: Photographies d’une guerre sans images (Algeria: Photographs of a war without images). The showing was taking place at the unassuming but outrageously named Hangar, on Haret Hreik. As we entered the southern districts of Beirut the areas’ political affiliations became increasingly apparent; forests of Amal and Hezbollah flags and insignia vied for prime position in our field of vision. The central reservation of the road we were driving along soon sprouted a column of street lamps, each hosting a picture of a fighter killed in the recent conflict with Israel.

The exhibition, hosting a decade’s worth of photography by Michael von Graffenried from the Algerian civil war, was a moving collection. The images captured the incredible human suffering, injustice and brutality of that conflict. The parallels with Lebanon’s own situation did not go undetected.

We emerged from the Hangar into yet another downpour and quickly made our way to the nearby Ramadhan Juice at the Ghobayri Crossroad to take shelter. A muscular bearded man with a neck wider than his head sat at the till and politely enquired what we’d like to drink, pointing to the framed menu behind him. Alongside the menu was a huge mural of Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah looking benevolently down upon the juice drinkers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the first drink on the menu was a Katyusha rocket cocktail. After much deliberation though we opted for the less incendiary and far simpler mixed fruit cocktail and watched some al-Manar as we sipped our concoctions.

The dilemma that faces amateur Arabists when travelling through the Middle East is one of language. Modern standard and even classical Arabic are far more commonly taught in the West whereas the language on the street, ‘aamiyyeh or colloquial Arabic, is a far cry from the rigid grammatical structure of its more formal counterparts. Needless to say we reduced many Lebanese to tears of laughter as we requested assistance, directions and prices in the equivalent of Shakespearean English.

The language of food (and not only love) is thankfully universal. We enjoyed some excellent meals in Beirut, none surpassing the wares offered at the longstanding Kabab-ji which has outlets throughout Lebanon. The delicious kebabs and mezze being served up were even more palatable with some sumptuous muhammara, a walnut and roasted red pepper accompaniment. Nearer to our hotel, a Swiss patisserie that appeared to be untouched since the French mandate, provided us with some tasty treats. (To the genial old lady running the store, I extend my apologies for dripping coffee all over your shop floor).

A crucial stopover in Beirut has to be the corniche, where the Mediterranean Sea laps at the Lebanese shoreline. The people-spotter buried in each of us cannot fail to be unearthed by the panoply of characters promenading alongside the coast. We wandered past Pigeons’ Rock, an outcrop of rock jutting up from the mainland not dissimilar to some of the physical geography off the Dorset coast, and our collective consciousness was suddenly invaded with the dredges of GCSE geography that we carried with us.

The much lauded Downtown area proved to be a bit of an underwhelming experience. The area was the cultural heart of the city before being destroyed in the civil war. It has been painstakingly restored but the perfect, unblemished facades of the buildings make it feel a little surreal. Several security cordons were filtering access to the area resulting in a disproportionate number of well-to-do Beirutis dining al fresco while their rotund children were chased around with spoonfuls of food by their Philippino nannies. The fact that I was frisked by one of these security cordons did nothing to endear Downtown to us. However, there is something undeniably alluring about strolling around amidst the vestiges (some original, but mostly touched-up) of a huge spectrum of architectural periods and forms from Crusader to Ayyubid and from Mamluk to Ottoman.

We hailed a taxi outside Charles Helou bus station to take us back to Damascus without much difficulty. Our apparent stroke of good fortune was soon blacked out by the cigarette fumes from the living chimney that was our taxi driver. Through the clouds of ash we struggled to see him and breathing became a little tricky until we convinced him that on this occasion, open windows was a better choice than air conditioning. He soon got talking and was elated by me underestimating his age by a decade. He disclosed that he was a father of four allegedly demanding children and as a result not a great fan of Eid.

Our driver got us safely back to the Old City in Damascus and once again we felt like we’d stepped out of a time machine.


A month after our visit, the country erupted in yet another bout of the cyclical violence that has plagued the tiny state. A poignant extract from Khalil Gibran’s ‘The Prophet’ follows the title page of Robert Fisk’s Pity the Nation and it remains just as resonant.

Pity the nation that is full of beliefs and empty of religion.
Pity the nation that wears a cloth it does not weave, eats a bread it does not harvest, and drinks a wine that flows not from its own winepress.
Pity the nation that acclaims the bully as hero, and that deems the glittering conqueror bountiful.
Pity the nation that despises a passion in its dream, yet submits in its awakening.
Pity the nation that raises not its voice save when it walks in a funeral, boasts not except among its ruins, and will rebel not save when its neck is laid between the sword and the block.
Pity the nation whose statesman is a fox, whose philosopher is a juggler, and whose art is the art of patching and mimicking.
Pity the nation that welcomes its new ruler with trumpetings and farewells him with hootings, only to welcome another with trumpetings once again.
Pity the nation whose sages are dumb with years and whose strong men are yet in the cradle.
Pity the nation divided into fragments, each fragment deeming itself a nation.