The first thing that attracted me to him was the way he spoke Arabic. When I say this, you must bear in mind: speaking Arabic carries with it an array of performative designations. It is an outwardly expressive language, you do not simply speak with your words, but with your entire body – your whole person becomes engaged in the act of speech. In this way, he spoke Arabic with a confidence his whole body reflected. I felt so insecure around him, and saw in him all the attributes I longed for. His flawless Arabic accent signaled a stronger attachment to home than I had ever experienced, and his confidence was something that had always escaped me. When I fell for him, I fell hard.
It happened in Wadi Rum. I was standing in front of our tour group’s minivan taking a phone call, while holding an exasperated conversation with our guide. The sun hit him at just the right angle, and all his features were accentuated – his brown hair suddenly a little blonder, his nose casting a long shadow on one side of his face. While my friends and I had taken refuge from the merciless sun, the bright glare did not faze him. He stood, defiantly, under the sun, basking in the natural spotlight.
I didn’t want to leave his side. His enthusiasm was intoxicating and gave me a sense of joie de vivre just to be near him. In the desert, the red sands – remnants of what had been coral reef millennia ago – slowly darkened, then turned pitch black. I couldn’t see anything past my own hand, but he was there. He was my guide.
I fell in love with him. For the way he felt things either just a little, or with an extreme passion that lit him up like a fuse. For the way he disagreed with people’s jokes. For the way he held his cigarette like a movie star, so nonchalantly, almost with contempt.
My short-lived infatuation with everything he did reinvigorated my love of life. I clung to this feeling, but paid a high price for it: I became dependent on him. In many ways, I trusted him too much. I had been ready to change myself for him, to give him all of me. But for what?
When it became clear that nothing was going to happen between us – a fact that clung to the recesses of my brain like week-old gum on the bottom of a table, something I had latently known but chosen to ignore – I thought first of Beirut. It hurt me how much I clung onto him for any emotional reaction directed at me, and in Beirut, I could finally give myself the space to forget him, I said to myself. In Beirut, I will learn to love myself again, to be gentle, to reconnect. I needed to go to Beirut to recover from him.
Since migrating from Lebanon to Canada, my visits to Beirut have been my only constant source of solace. Beirut, for me, is a place where one can forget the past. Whenever I come back to Beirut, I feel re-energized. I am home. No matter how fraught the concept of “home” is, how fucked up it is here. I see myself in the contradictions of the city: beautiful, yet chaotic.
Montreal, where I am based, is a walking city, but Beirut is not. In Montreal, I can walk along the tree-lined streets of the Plateau with no destination in mind. I catch a breeze and time seems to stop. Fuck if you are able to walk around Beirut without encountering obstacle after obstacle though. In Beirut, I drive. I drive around and feel the energy of the city. I drive around to try and forget him.
Tonight, I plug the auxiliary cord into my decade-old stereo system in my even older car, and wonder what to listen to – Frank Ocean? Mashrou’ Leila? I hit shuffle, put the car in drive and take off down the coast, from the northern suburbs of Beirut toward the heart of the capital. Beirut is most beautiful at sunset, donning an entirely new façade as day fades into night.
As the setting sun approaches, Beirut’s near-constant honking, the yelling and cursing of fellow drivers, slowly melts away. The heat, which turns your car into a moving sauna during the day, dissipates. People seem calmer. Neon shades of blue, purple, pink, and red saturate the landscape. As the sky burns with the setting sun, the sea turns a perfect shade of pink, another violent day coming to a close.
On these nights, I am on autopilot, completely immersed in my surroundings, my hands automatically swerving left and right, gliding over potholes, maneuvering around cars on the highway. I have no destination in mind. Just me and the city.
When I drive past an old oak tree, its branches spanning both sides of the highway, I know I have reached Beirut’s center. At night, this tree is a dark sentinel, advising me to approach with caution. Who knows what the city hides tonight? I take a right, down to the seaside road. Lights are starting to appear in the buildings, from the skyscrapers next to abandoned lots, to the old stone houses marked for death.
Tonight, as I drive around the city, I pass the many coffee vendors lining the coastal streets that encircle Beirut. Small carts on the street serve piping hot coffee, peddling up and down the corniche at all hours of the day. I glide by the small cafes that deliver the coffee straight to your car, an entire lane of cars impatiently waiting in line for a fix. At night, the urge for coffee turns into requests for “three small whiskey bottles with ice,” which are delivered straight to passenger seat windows. These coffee vendors remind me of the simple pleasures that dominate this city.
Tonight, at long last, the song I am playing ceases to remind me of him. Driving alongside the sea, I glimpse the fishermen stationed next to their fishing rods, waiting patiently. These drives represent my twisted relationship with Beirut. Rather than driving towards a final destination, I am driving away from something, towards nothing. I am always driving away from something it seems – a problem at home, a failed relationship, an overwhelming sensation of claustrophobia, an unrequited love.
On these drives, I am in control of my surroundings, of every choice I make. I am alone in the world, and cherish this specific kind of “being alone.” I am one with this city – it is of me, and I am of it. I feel alive in its energy, completely aware of the world unfolding around me, with each passing corner and turn, traffic light stop, and acceleration. Driving like this gives me the sensation of invisibility. I am a specter in and of Beirut, one of its many lovers and victims.
As I make my way back home on the airport road, the sun collapses into night. The city, that cunning behemoth, is alert, yet uneasily at rest. I surrender to the flow of the road, taking me both nowhere and everywhere. I think of the people I pass on the street – so many people, and so many more cars than ever before. I wonder what their escape is.
Every day in Beirut can be a struggle. But tonight, just for tonight, things are ok. I am ok.