We were laying over in the airport in Istanbul when the coup happened. People gathered around the bar television to watch tanks rove the streets and jets fly low over the city. It was no surprise why our flight to Lebanon was delayed - Turkey was in a state of emergency. It was only two weeks before that an Istanbul airport was bombed. I'm not sure if these factors had anything to do with the ungodly service in the restaurant, but we were left with nothing to do but make new friends and buy each other drinks.
The captain and crew huddled at the terminal, deciding whether or not to fly. After some hours without word, people began forming a boarding line. "What's happening?" One of us asked. "They're going to try it," a traveler replied. Try it. Just what you want to hear getting on an airplane. Once in our seats with our new best friend, also named Karim, we sat for an hour and a half waiting for a good moment to take off. In the meantime, we got a taste of the Lebanese spirit: people cracking jokes that made people laugh five rows away, names and stories being exchanged over shared snacks. It was, hands down, the most enjoyable hour and a half I've ever spent on the tarmac.
The Lebanese people are known for their life-affirming philosophies and fun-loving nature. From what we found talking to people around Beirut this seems to stem from some counterintuitive sources. First, they've seen so much war in their geographical seat at the heart of middle-eastern conflict that social separation between Muslims, Christians and everyone else has greatly diminished. The focus has been shifted toward living and loving life, and that takes tolerance. Second, Lebanon is the most liberal and progressive of the Muslim nations. Besides that, the land is absolutely beautiful. Sunshine always helps.
Beirut, known as the "Paris of the Middle East," took us by surprise. Contemporary music wafted through windows of bustling bars into the streets where girls in short skirts and boisterous young men moved about with beers in hand. We found that Lebanese spirit of friendliness and helpfulness everywhere we went, inside and outside of Beirut.
It is a city of stark contrasts - high-class strip malls with stores like Prada and Louis Vuitton sprout like plastic flowers from ancient ruins; bullet-riddled structures, bombed out from the last war in 2006, lean tiredly on the backs of sleek, modern buildings. You'll find a church on one block, a mosque on the next, and a strip of bars at the end of the street.
These contrasts extended also into the responses that we got from those that we interviewed about happiness in the midst of the refugee migration in Lebanon which has, with a population of under five million, taken on over two million refugees. For some perspective, the U.S. has a population of well over 300 million and has agreed to take on only 85,000 refugees. Our mission was to understand the impact that this undertaking has had on the Lebanese attitude toward happiness and quality of life.
Each person that we talked to was either extremely enthusiastic and optimistic about the situation or just plain morbid. We hardly found anybody who fell in the "moderate" category. We felt our lowest point of deep frustration with this leg of the documentary when a taxi-driver dropped us off on a corner, leaned in close and gravely looked Karim in the eye. "Honestly," he spoke sadly, "there's no point in looking for a happy Syrian. You won't find one in Beirut."
The problem, as we found out, is that those who entered Lebanon with refugee status aren't allowed to get a job that isn't in manual labor. So Syrian doctors, lawyers and artists are being forced to flee their homeland and then take up jobs in Lebanon as construction workers and waiters.
We left Lebanon with a mixed bag of feelings. It has taken me longer than usual to post this entry because I've needed some time to digest. This journey has not been free of frustration, and it is a difficult thing to admit that we feel that we were unable to penetrate Lebanon in such a short period of time. I wish that I could wrap up our findings in some neat little package and leave us all with a fuzzy sense of hopefulness. I come to realize, like so many explorers who came before me, that the world is much larger and more complicated than the one drawn out in the sea-monster-illustrated sketch that we had in hand when we set sail.
I'm learning a valuable lesson about taking the map and placing it gently in the garbage. That has meant scrapping our itinerary. For now, Denmark is off the list; Germany, rainchecked. As a result, the last several weeks in Portugal have been positively transformative. On Saturday, I'll fly to meet Karim in Rome, and I'll have so much to share in the next blog post. Until then, friends, remember not to plan so hard and follow your gut.
Your humble explorer,
A big hug and so much thanks to Karim's mom, Nelly, for hosting and spoiling us in Beirut. And a shout out to Karim's brother, Yousef. You da man.
A hilariously impromtu interview turns out to be one of the more insightful ones.
Playing live on the air at Radio Beirut. We couldn't believe it either.
We don't get ruins like these back home
Hm. Has a nice ring to it.