I was sitting at Gordon’s Cafe across from the Nahar Building in Downtown Beirut, having another lunch break with my boss, who also happens to be my dad. I said, “I think I should write a book.” He agreed but asked about what.
“Who’s story would you tell?”
He paused and said, “but who wants to read about your life?” I have to thank dad for keeping me grounded in my own insignificance up against the Malalas of the world. I am not special, I am not more than what I am. I do not love more than I do. But my story is the only one I know, the only one only I can tell.
I fell in love once.
Like the Common joint that addressed hip-hop like it was a woman, I wrote about Lebanon like she was the boy I fell for in my early twenties. When I wrote about her, it felt like I was writing about him too but my love was hers, he was just the gateway drug that would keep me coming back to her for another hit. And I kept coming back to her. For a while, I confused the two. They were one, his memory so intertwined in the memory of a lost city I never inhabited. Like the nostalgia that overtakes a fallen nation’s countrymen, remembering only the highlights of what once was, he became my Beirut in the 60s. It was after he was gone, only after I let him go, that I saw her. And with time, I saw myself letting go of her too.
And even then, when I chose to leave knowing that sunflowers and sunshine were on the other side, the day I left for LA, she made me cry.
I was walking along the Manara Corniche, right across from the rickety Ferris wheel when I spotted graffiti of the word tabki (تبقي) on the wall. There are two letters in Arabic for the K sound – one that is more guttural, more back of the throat and then there is one that is softer, more delicate. Even their shapes reflect this personality. When used in words, like say in the word tabki, you get different translations. The heavy ka makes it translate to stay. The soft ka makes it translate to cry. The two words encompass what living in and leaving Beirut can feel like each time you pack a suitcase with a bag of pita bread and a jar of zaatar Halabi. When you stay you will cry for all the things she cannot do for you and all that you could do if you left. And when you leave, you will cry for all the things you cannot do for her and all that you can do without her. It seems tears accompany that question of when will you return? regardless of where you’re returning to.
Beirut is broken and beautiful. In your arrogance, you want to save her but she never needed rescuing for she is the survivor in this round of sudden death. She will outlive you just like she outlived all who loved her before you. Perhaps you’re the one who needs rescuing while you’re convinced you’re her savior. Perhaps it gives you purpose as she can keep breathing while you suffocate beneath her. She may be broken but that is all she knows. And it’s the only way you know her, the tragic her, but she’s not waiting for you to love her.
Her. Beirut is a woman. Her sounds under your skin and her songs in your head. Her smell inhaled and trapped in your chest, sticking to your insides like the black tar that lines the jagged roads to the airport. Seductive through her own endless destruction, pulling you into her and throwing you into the gutter of an unpaved side street draped in a web of cables, white undershirts, and mass graves of fiery garbage. She is intoxicating like a night filled with too much wine & laughter, an afternoon of diesel smoke and Fayrouz on repeat, a morning breeze with mustached fishermen that live in the throes of the Mediterranean waves.
She is your fantasy, your nightmare, your runaway dream that infects you, defines you, depletes you, defeats you, and deceives you.
Beirut is a woman because she gets up and leaves you.
Even if you can’t leave her.
So it’s true: I fell in love once. With her, with my Lebanon, over and over again.