Boarding the plane at the hellish Heathrow airport, it felt a bit like flying to Beirut in the mid-1980s. The plane was empty except for a few Lebanese and a handful of Europeans. Two francophone Lebanese girls recognized eachother and struck up a conversation (in French). When the airplane meal was served they inquired at length about the preparation-- was it broiled or sauteed?-- and insisted on surveying the dishes before they committed to either spaghetti or salmon. I felt like telling them that the food was British and, by virtue, boiled to bland perfection.
I carefully scrutinized all the non-Lebanese passengers; could they really all be spies? An elderly lady seated across the aisle might have passed for a missionary, save for the vulgar display of sunburnt cleavage. Why was she flying to Beirut? To learn to bellydance? The redfaced middle-aged Briton sporting shorts and a poloshirt was surely an agent for MI6. He spoke loudly about cluster bombs. He must be one of the spies posing as NGO workers that I've been hearing about.
The young woman sitting next to me on the airport shuttle to the plane was from France. She worked for a refugee agency in Beirut and was returning to pick up the belongings she left behind during the July war. "I was staying in Achrafiyeh and my apartment was in Hamra. It was too dangerous to return to get my things before I evacuated," she said. I didn't inquire if it was common in her line of work to flee the site of a burgeoning refugee crisis; perhaps she is a paper shuffler, which is just as well done from a remote, cushy location. Like Paris.
Upon arrival at Beirut airport, I felt like a kid in a candy store, grinning from ear to ear in anticipation of the sweet smell of garbage boiling in the Meditarranean sun. Visas are still free for European citizens; no questions asked at immigration as to the purpose of my 11th visit in the span of 12 months. Welcome to Jizzini's Lebanon. First stop on the way home from the airport: a kellaj stand in Verdun.
This morning, the rainy season began. A storm erupted, just as Israeli fighter jets flew over Beirut. I couldn't tell if the deafening noise was from sonic boom or thunder. Neither could the neighboring kids who started screaming at the top of their lungs. I turned on the TV. Apparently they violate Lebanese airspace on a daily basis.
The army is out in full force in Achrafiyeh. Previously the soldiers just stood around for hours on end. Now their mandate dictates that they patrol the streets on foot. A tank is stationed outside the UN building downtown; a canope of leaves hitched above the tanks allows the soldier on duty to nap in the shade.
The electronic billboard at the entrance to Hamra street tells me that 608 days have passed since Hariri's assassination. Soon it will reach 999 days and then the billboard will re-set itself to 0. I simply can't wait.
Over dinner at Regusto's in Hamra, R's mother, whom she refers to as "Information Central" called to say they were bombing Beirut. "Who is bombing where?" R. asked. "I'll call you back," came the answer. And indeed, in the distance we could hear faint booming sounds. Information Central called back. "It's just a wedding."