Notes from the Middle Sea: Cairo to Beirut
I had wanted to go by sea to Africa—in Mozia and Mazara del Vallo, a hairs-breadth from Tunisia, the continent is so close you can smell it on the salty air, taste it in the food (spiced fish pastries, delicate eggplant dip, jasmine gelato), see it in the streets—but working my way overland, eastwards from Tunis, would have been impossible. So instead, I take a flight to Cairo. In Sicily, little tokens of Pharaonic Egypt had cropped up at random, like small signposts: a scarab beetle door-knocker, a Sphinx-headed statue. But the first thing you notice when flying into the country is the vast implacable fact of the Sahara, the strangeness of the megalopolis blooming dustily in the middle of the dessert.
Cairo’s unlikely existence is of course made possible by the life-giving waters of its great river, flowing from central Africa’s Great Lakes to the Mediterranean. My first notebook entry from Egypt is a somewhat desultory comment from its building-thronged banks: dogs are crunching chicken feet beside the Nile, I wrote. The dogs were the happiest Cairenes I had seen—and certainly the only ones eating. Ramadan in Egypt is a serious affair, and fasting began the day after my arrival.
Last year I spent the holy month in Iran, and the difference in Ramadan atmosphere between the two countries surprised me. In the Islamic Republic, I met few young people keeping the fast, and although illegal (and punishable by lashings), it was technically possible and socially semi-acceptable to eat surreptitiously in public. In Egypt, not fasting is the exception to the rule—and eating and drinking occurs strictly behind closed doors.
In Cairo then, on the metro and in the sweltering, stately (but down-at-heel) avenues of Downtown, commuters emit a listless air: harassed, embittered, embroiled in their own private agony. This, at least, is how the human tide seems to me. Others affect beatific expressions, paging hungrily through copies of the Quran, hoping to read the scriptures cover-to-cover in the course of the holy month. Many men, sweating in their shirts and trousers, proudly display a brown-purple zebibah (literally “raisin”—the Arabic origin of Sicily’s sweet “zebibo” wine—a bruise formed through vigorous prayer) on damp foreheads.
A relative quiet—or so I’m told—descends on the city during this month, as shops and restaurants limit their opening times, and people withdraw to conserve energy. The city—with its endless hooting from traffic-clogged streets, hustling venders and thronged subway cars—didn’t seem particularly relaxed to me. Al Qahira, the Arabic from which our Anglicized “Cairo” comes, can be translated romantically as “The Victorious.” Mohamed, the young Cairene who patiently tries to instruct me in Egyptian Arabic, wryly informs me that “The Oppressor” is another, arguably more accurate, translation. Bent over Arabic phrases, both sweating heavily despite the breeze wafting off the Nile, exhausted by our respective commutes, we grimace in mutual resignation.
Even the upmarket expat-enclaves, like Maadi (where I was staying, on the southern fringes of the city) and Zamalek (where I took Arabic lessons, on a narrow island in the center of the Nile) can’t quite manage to rebuff the essential chaotic energy of the city at large. In Maadi, packs of stray dogs haunt the dusty streets (residential blocks, in this suburb, sometimes give way to patches of desert, like the dark promise of a post-apocalyptic world), and the tree-lined avenues (a major selling-point) are littered with the uneaten remnants of iftar meals: beans and okra desiccate slowly on the grassy verge, the unblinking sun roasting them to crusty sludge. Chicken carcasses and cow’s thighbones crop up occasionally on well-manicured lawns, to the delight of the dogs.
Between and about these two neighbourhoods, the rest of Cairo metastasizes outwards into the dunes, spreading like a fungus across the implacable folds of the desert. Downtown (with Tahrir Square at its southernmost point) is the city’s colonial heart, with its orderly avenues and belle époque apartments, their oriental flourishes (scarab and sphinx detailing, an outbreak of hieroglyphs) afterthoughts against the barrage of neo-baroque medallions and neo-classical domes.
Upriver from here was the original settlement of Fustat, a tent city planted by the Muslim army after their conquest of the country in 641 AD. Now known as “Old Cairo,” the area boasts a handful of majestic old mosques and tombs, and the city’s historic Coptic quarter. The latter is a small complex of churches and monasteries, with a museum dedicated to Coptic history and artistry at its center. The collection reveals the interplay between the polytheist culture of Ancient Greece (a legacy of the Hellenistic period following Alexander the Great’s death, during which time Macedonian kings—the line of Ptolemy—ruled Egypt) and early Christendom: an overlap of deities and design characterized this period of transition, after which Egypt was, for a few short centuries, a majority Christian nation.
A distinctly North African approach is inserted into familiar figures and scenes: a black Christ addresses his disciples; two saints, names inscribed in Arabic, are depicted with dogs’ heads, in what seems an encroachment of Ancient Egyptian imagery on a Christian scene. A sense of synchronism, multiplicity, fluidity prevails: the breaking down of boundaries between these different worlds—Classical Greek, Ancient Egyptian, Orthodox Christian. The Coptic Cemetery nearby offers a litany of names attesting to Cairo’s erstwhile cosmopolitanism: Greek, Russian, Spanish, Armenian, Turkish, Arabic and Italian family names all rub shoulders here, on ornate tombstones boasting Andalusian, Greco, Pharaonic, Baroque, and Brutalist elements.
Northeast from here, Islamic Cairo is, contrary to its name, not a more pious sector than the rest—rather, it represents the center of the medieval walled city: a maze of cramped, atmospheric alleyways, dotted with minarets and caravanserais, ringed by towering gates, and overlooked by the vast citadel of Salah ad-Din (the Kurdish conqueror known more commonly as Saladin). The construction of the city, completed in the mid tenth century for Fatimid Caliph al-Muizz li-Din Allah (then based in Tunisia), was presided over by a Christian slave, General Jawhar al-Siqili—rumoured to be Sicilian, but likely from Dalmatia.
After hot, drawn-out days of fasting, this quarter (like other parts of Cairo) undergoes a transformation as the sun goes down. Ramadan lanterns, strung along narrow streets, shine their fractured light on groups of revellers, as iftar meals are laid out on pavements, in squares, and outside restaurants. Hungry crowds assemble a full hour before the fast will be broken, waiting patiently as a feast of pilaf, bread, pickles, vegetables, meat, and tahini sauce is spread out before them. Streets vendors throng the alleys, hawking a myriad selection of sharbat: sour tamarind, milky coconut, sweet black carob, and doum (the stone-like fruit of the “gingerbread” palm). Sugarcane juice is pressed from fibrous stalks, while crispy green felafel (made with fava rather than chickpea, and called tameyya in Egyptian Arabic) bubble in vats of oil. An enthusiastic, celebratory atmosphere pervades the streets, mingling with perfumed smoke from the burbling shisha pipes that old men gravitate towards after the meal, and the acrid tang of roasting meat. Metallic bunting criss-crosses overhead. Shadows flit busily through the narrow streets.
Up above, in the green oasis of Al-Azhar park (built on a mound that looks like an archaeological tel, but was in fact a rubbish dump), strollers watch the city glow pink as dusk approaches. The call to prayer breaks out haphazardly from the many minarets spiking the city skyline, the distinct voices of different muezzins joining together in a booming chorus.
At the signal, people reclining on the lawn, grouped around picnic rugs, begin to tear off hunks of bread, take great glugs of juice; the shackles of oppressive heat and pious fasting thrown off simultaneously. The sun burns pink-red on the hazy horizon. At this moment, in Maadi, the men selling prickly pears from street carts abandon their wares to break the fast at nearby iftars; at each street corner, a fruit laden wooden cart stands unattended. In other neighbourhoods across the city, the pattern is repeated with infinite variations. Silence descends as eating commences.
Cairo truly contains multitudes. Across the city, day and night, street life unfolds in a series of simultaneous tableaus: women shuck out the inside of baby eggplants, leaving a hollowed-out shell. Watermelon hulls shrivel in the sun. A boy runs in and out of the traffic as iftar approaches, distributing dates to drivers who won’t make it to dinner on time. An old man sits at a street corner, perusing the newspaper with a magnifying glass. Boys bike past balancing wooden racks of fresh bread on their heads. A plump woman emerges from the metro in a shirt printed with Elizabeth Taylor’s Cleopatra, cats-eyes winking at the crowds.
In the tomb-lined alleys behind Ibn Tulun mosque, men grill fish, women sort okra, a man wrestles with an ancient sewing machine. The grey dust of Cairo covers everything like a gentle shroud. An unlikely fish market is underway, the stench of river fish percolating in 40-degree heat. On another day, in another neighbourhood, a small boy sells bushels of mint, filling the hot air with the herb’s cool, sweet aroma.
It is a city of hustle, but not necessarily one filled with cheer. Extreme summer heat and humidity may be part of it, as may the stresses of the fast. But beyond these factors lies a sense of societal depression, whose roots may presumably be found in the country’s recent past. After the genuine euphoria of the 2011 revolution, and the messy military-inspired upheaval of 2013, a taint of aftermath, of disillusionment, lingers. Costly efforts to upend the status quo have, it seems, failed to achieve their goals—and instead aggravated poisonous divisions between various sectors of society.
General Sisi’s administration, despite lofty promises, has increasingly shown a remarkable intolerance for dissent, ramping up a brutal crackdown on freedom of expression and civil society groups. Revolutions take time, and many people who participated in the uprisings told me that Egypt’s revolution was a work in progress, if only in the heads and hearts of the populace. But the general mood of the Cairene metro crowd, as far as I could divine, was not one of defiant hope.
Political disappointment is compounded by economic stress. Unemployment numbers are high, as is the proportion of people living in extreme poverty. The country’s tourism sector, usually a bulwark of the economy, has suffered badly from perceived insecurity and a spate of terrorist attacks. The Giza pyramid complex, usually thronged with international visitors, was populated primarily by well-dressed but somewhat undernourished camels and their minders, when I visited early one sweltering morning.
Echoes bounce disconsolate off the polished marble halls of Zamalek’s swanky hotels: even the oligarchs of the Gulf don’t seem to be coming to Cairo much anymore. The vast, musty Archaeological Museum—its shelves stacked with the wealth of centuries, a many-headed Ozymandias watching over the city—is almost empty, the occasional busload of Chinese tourists a welcome respite. The astounding collection, testimony to the artistic variation, cultural diversity and civilizational complexity of Egypt, quietly gathers dust.
It is for economic reasons, most likely, that Egyptian children increasingly make up such a large proportion of unaccompanied minors being smuggled over the sea into Europe. Many embark from Libyan shores, but boats leave also from the Alexandrian coastline. Bilateral agreements ensure that only those migrants under 18 will be immune from deportation—families might therefore resort to sending a young son, in the hope that he will be able to provide financial support from afar. Copts—tired of engrained discrimination and occasional violent persecution—are also reportedly leaving in increased numbers, echoing a pattern seen across the region: the uprooting of ancient religious minorities, leaving an increasingly homogenous Middle East.
But one doesn’t have to be a religious minority to find life in Egypt a struggle—being a woman is reason enough. Quite aside from hidden and latent aggressions (domestic violence, female genital mutilation, unemployment, unequal pay and illiteracy are all ongoing concerns, among others), overt attacks on women in public are essentially normalized. Street harassment—a catch-all term that can mean anything from a slightly creepy greeting, sexualized verbal abuse, groping, persistent stalking—is a feature of everyday life for over half of the population, with the tacit consent of bystanders. I knew this before I arrived, but the extent of it is hard to grasp until you’ve actually walked Downtown yourself. Despite the hard work of many NGOs, harassment doesn’t seem to be diminishing—some of the people I spoke with said the violence of these interactions may actually be increasing.
Cairo—vast, dusty, inhospitably hot, occasionally outright rebarbative, complex, enthralling, frustrating, overwhelming—also, counter-intuitively, offers the simplest of pleasures. I quickly fell in love with the cooling rayeb, a cultured dairy drink, since Egypt, unlike many of its neighbours, is not overly enamoured of yoghurt. A comforting dish of foul (fava beans, stewed with various ingredients) is hard to beat, while Egyptian felafel (rendered light and moist by the fava beans, crunchy with encrusted sesame seeds and coriander) is arguably the best in the world. We slide inexorably, fortuitously into mango season during my stay, markets bursting with assorted varieties: long green-red teardrops with sour-sweet flesh, little yellow morsels dripping with tooth-achingly sweet juice, rounded pale green fruit with buttery orange insides and a cloudy tang.
At the end of my stay, I take a train, packed with Eid crowds, to Alexandria. A journey that should take three hours ends up taking five, and I squeeze into a booth (four people to two seats) with a Coptic family on their first visit to the coast. It is wonderful, after a month in Cairo, to smell the sea—to feel a salt breeze and watch clouds scud busily overhead. The newly built Library of Alexandria—constructed in homage to its Wonder-of-the-Ancient-World predecessor—presides over the bay. Groups of teenagers wander the promenade while fisherman cast their rods into the depths. A horse canters past, racing along a main street lined with colonial facades and the odd Greek ruin. On my way back to the train station, I pass by a bustling produce market. Spices, dates, watermelons, cured fish and fresh fish, tomatoes and cucumbers and bundles of molokhia tumble from stalls. One section, entirely devoted to mangoes, seems to emit a kind of joyful yellow light.
Days later, when I get on a plane bound for Beirut, there is an Egyptian mango safely nestled in my carry-on.
It’s a late flight, and the next morning is a Sunday. I wake to the sound of church bells; Geitawi, in East Beirut, is a historically Christian neighbourhood, on a hospital-dotted hill overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. The slanting streets and brightly painted steps of the area, with the azure glint of water at their base, remind me of certain Istanbul streetscapes, minus the incessant minarets. Down below, at almost-sea-level, the hipster vibes of Mar Mikhael (taco truck included) concentrate around Armenia Street, which flows effortlessly into bar-heavy, happy-hour-optimized Gemmayze, en route to Downtown. When I pass through, early on Sunday, the evening crowds have long since dispersed. Photogenic plaster and stone facades lean together conspiratorially over empty streets.
“Here we go again / Until a New President is Elected / Up To ? % Off” reads one cheerful shop window. Graffiti on a side street bemoans, “If you repeat a lie often enough, it becomes Truth Politics.” Up ahead, a yellow stone mosque with sky-blue dome looms, across the highway obstacle course that was once Beirut’s Green Line—the no-man’s-land between rival factions of the country’s devastating civil war. Martyr’s Square—more a desolate concrete patch between highways than a “square” in the traditional sense—attests to the fierceness of the combat. In its centre, on a stone plinth, a bronze boy stands next to a bronze woman, who thrusts a torch into the sky. At their feet, two bronze men lie in attitudes of fear, despair, pain. Each of the figures is riddled with myriad bullet holes; sharp shreds of bronze pulled out of place by the velocity of the ordinance.
The blue-topped mosque, a major feature of the new Beirut’s skyline, is dedicated to Rafic Hariri—a businessman and Lebanon’s erstwhile Prime Minister (assassinated in 2005), who more than anyone else determined what that skyline would look like. Hariri masterminded Solidere, the project designed to rejuvenate the Downtown area after the decimation of the war. The result is an ostentatious profusion of cream-colored stone: a conglomeration of high-end, international boutiques and characterless restaurants. Whether you appreciate Hariri’s efforts depends a lot on what kind of city you want. I, personally, appreciate a city with people in it—and at that level, Solidere has failed. On that first morning, I see two friars in brown habits, one wearing sneakers, the other in sandals. I also see numerous members of the Lebanese armed forces—in fatigues, carrying assault rifles, and looking bored—stationed at street corners or in little camo huts.
A whole section of central Downtown has been cordoned off entirely. The rubbish bins along a main road have been bordered up—presumably as a precaution against explosives. Just across from a police blockade, a graffito opines, “When injustice becomes law / rebellion becomes duty.” A Guy Fawkes smirk and the head of a screaming man are daubed in black and white on wooden barricades, next to the words, “Lebanon is not your corner store” / “You stink but you don’t do shit.” That last is a reference to Lebanon’s protracted garbage crisis, which last year thrust the country into an ongoing sanitation and olfactory disaster. Despite the heavy security, it’s a relief and a surprise to see impertinent missives—directed overtly at the state—left to shout their message to all and sundry. Lebanon’s semi-permanent state of political deadlock means a weak, often inefficient government. On the bright side, this makes censorship almost impossible to enforce.
Walk further into the city and you begin to notice the not-yet-renovated buildings peppered with bullet marks, whole sections of walls blasted in, open to the elements; these marred facades are the acne-ravaged faces of unfortunate teenagers in a family photograph otherwise peopled by preternaturally beautiful and surgically enhanced relatives. They are wounded ghosts among the bloodless vampires of Solidere.
Slip down, past the Chanel store, the luxury hotel, the sports club, and you’ll reach Beirut’s waterfront. Bronzed, shirtless men stretch self-consciously; groups of joggers shuffle past, in shorts and singlets. A mother in hijab is watching her child learn to use training wheels. A pair of women in full burqa and sneakers power-walk past. Men stand patiently beside their fishing rods. Later on, as the sun drops lazily down over the long afternoon, boys will leap off rough-hewn rocks into the waves.
On the hills above the Corniche, Hamra Street forms the city’s beating heart: a commercial and entertainment hub, demographically mixed in a way the rest of the city is not, and dotted, in these last few years, with new arrivals—hopeful, hustling Syrian refugees, hawking tissues or roses to harried passers-by. Meanwhile, on the streets of Geitawi, French and Arabic mingle interchangeably. Polyglot and urbane, Beirut is the capital of a country that has long been mixed.
Lebanon is a creature of the Med, its ancient people seafaring Phoenicians whose boats fostered ties to elsewhere. In the city’s slick museum (its collection painstakingly preserved in cement during the war), artefacts eloquently demonstrate the influence of Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome, Byzantium and various Arab caliphates on the decentralized native Phoenician culture of this narrow strip of land wedged between the mountains and the sea.
Diversity is, of course, a mixed blessing. The current demographic make-up of Lebanon is not even known—the last census was conducted in 1932, and its findings have determined political representation since 1943 (with power distributed to each sect according to its relative population, although Christian domination was ameliorated slightly post-war). Sectarian issues are seen to be so explosive, that no official count has since been carried out—although the country is clearly composed primarily of Christians and Muslims of various sects: Sunni and Shia, Maronite and Greek Orthodox (with smallor numbers of Alawites, Druze, Armenians, Assyrians, Copts and Melkites).
Beirut, even now, decades after the end of the war, is a divided city, with mostly Christians in the East, Muslims in the West, and Hezbollah-dominated, Shia-majority southern suburbs. In each neighborhood, different heroes glower (or twinkle) down from posters and billboards and murals: mullahs and Hezbollah commandants in some sectors, alongside Ali and Hussein; Christian politicians or Sunni leaders in others.
Despite its political deadlock and inherent instability, Lebanon is a place of refuge to many. Just across the river from Geitawi, Bourj Hammond, with its narrow alleyways and haphazard electrical wiring, began life as an Armenian refugee camp, absorbing those fleeing from the Ottoman empire’s genocidal reach. Now, these ramshackle streets pulse with life, lined with fruit and nut stores, produce markets and cheap clothing stores. The main street is dedicated to the Armenians’ famed jewellery stores—gold glinting in the windows.
After the Armenians came the Palestinians, in successive waves. Again, temporary camps turned into makeshift neighbourhoods, breezeblock dwellings creeping upwards, wiring and plumbing becoming more complex. Unlike the Armenians, the Palestinians never received Lebanese citizenship, and conditions in Shatila and Sabra—Beirut’s two main Palestinian settlements—are tough. In 1982, during the civil war, both (majority Shia) neighbourhoods experienced indiscriminate slaughter at the hands of brutal Christian militias. In recent years, the population of each has been swelled beyond capacity by the arrival of Syrian asylum-seekers. But Shatila is thronged with small businesses and local NGOs, women’s workshops and medical clinics. On the day I visit, the most energetic and abundant produce market I’ve yet to see in Beirut is in full swing, in Shatila’s widest street.
The Syrians who make it here, I can’t help thinking, after meeting two adorable girls from Aleppo, are comparatively lucky. Lebanon, overwhelmed by this most recent refugee crisis—around one in five people in the country is a Syrian refugee—has generally enforced a policy that quarantines these desperate arrivals in rural areas. With no official camps, and very little governmental support, the refugees earn pittance in agriculture or manufacturing, leaving women and children vulnerable to exploitation. In general, attitudes towards the Syrians, as towards the Palestinians, are not favourable. I accompanied a group of young Lebanese on an anti-racism march intended to protest these ingrained attitudes; the intentions of the assembled were admirable, but the crowd was small, and the police were eager to move us along. Simply being allowed to assemble and voice discontent seemed, to me, remarkable.
Lebanon is not a large country, and it’s possible, from Beirut’s various thronging transit hubs, to peruse the country on a series of hot minibus rides. The historic settlements along the coast—Trablus (Tripoli), Saida (Sidon) and Sur (Tyre)—offer the glimpse of a kind of Lebanese life that has been squeezed out of Beirut’s banally beautified Downtown: maze-like sooks and beautiful ruins, streets crowded with people buying or selling or strolling.
In Saida, the fairy-tale-esque sea castle, fortified with the toppled pillars of ancient Greek temples, unfurls out, into the bay. Nearby, in the shaded souk, pastry shops ooze cheese and drip syrup, multicolored glass vials glint from perfume apothecaries, flayed sheep carcasses hang grimly outside butcheries. A sweet-seller rests by his wooden cart, which bears a pink cloudy slab of loqum, next to the stone façade of an 8th century church. Hairdressers nestle next to historic schools, hidden courtyards, pyramids of cucumbers, all infused with the heady scent of cardamom coffee, or the pungent whiff of dried thyme.
At the souk’s entrance, in view of the castle, a felafel place does a roaring trade in the biggest sandwiches in the world: dark, crumbling chickpea fritters headily spiced with cinnamon and coriander, smashed into soft flatbreads alongside lashings of tarator, a dash of chilli, tomato, fresh herbs, brined cucumbers and the neon-pink vinegar-hit of pickled turnip. As patrons devour the mammoth wraps, Syrian children morosely approach, palms upturned in a silent appeal. A lone harassed waitress briskly ushers them away.
Further south, along the banana palm-pelted, sweltering coastline, Sur is firmly situated in Hezbollah territory. Posters of Iran’s black-browed Ayatollah Khomeini line the incoming stretch of the coastal road. The overgrown ancient bones of the city—home to the notorious Jezebel, princess of Tyre—jut out majestically over the Med, next to a modern graveyard. At the other end of the country, high up near the Syrian border, Trablus is presided over by a medieval castle built by a Frenchman—relic of the years when Crusaders controlled the Lebanese coast.
Inland, the thick sea air quickly drops away as the gradient increases. In Chouf, a mountainous region south-east of Beirut, men in traditional Druze garments stroll along the lanes of small hill towns. I had planned to see Beiteddine Palace, but the elaborate complex—completed in the 19th century by an Ottoman-appointed governor, and since converted into a museum housing a collection of Byzantine mosaics—was closed. Instead, I spent a leisurely afternoon wandering the neighbouring area, scavenging for figs, plums, pears and blackberries, and investigating the ruins dotting the hillside.
On another day, a series of minibuses takes me deep into the Beqaa Valley (an agricultural hub, known for its excellent marijuana), to the gates of Baalbek. This settlement, said to have been founded initially by Assyrian or Egyptian priests, once linked the great city of Palmyra with the port of Tyre: a crucial stop in one important strand of the ancient silk road; a necessary link in a chain stretching from the desert to the sea.
The sheer size of Baalbek’s extant monuments—temples, entrance gates, forums and reception halls—is astounding; the complex decorative work and fascinating mix of aesthetics (Greek mythology combines with native Phoenician lore; a mihrab adds a Muslim touch to a temple; the Romans, the Arabs, the Byzantines, the Crusaders and the Mongols have all left their mark) makes it perhaps the most compelling archaeological site I’ve ever seen—its honey-colored stone seeming to emerge organically from the bleached blonde fields.
If Baalbek is superlative in its field—an ancient ruin that makes other ancient ruins, even rather lovely ones, look like piles of old rock—Lebanese food, too, is a shining star in the dazzling firmament of Mediterranean cuisines: a firmament built on the metaphorical backs of tomatoes and cucumbers, olive oil and fresh herbs, cheeses and just-baked bread. Lebanon has all those things in spades (although fish is conspicuously absent). Bakeries churn out fresh mana’eesh (a flatbread sometimes styled as “Lebanese pizza”), slathered with cheese, or dressed lightly with olive oil and za’atar. The latter, a mix of dried thyme, sumac, toasted sesame seeds and salt, is a seasoning for every occasion: I smother salads with it; or give goats’ cheese a good dusting then drown them both in olive oil, to be scooped up with bread.
Labneh, a soft creamy white cheese, made by straining yoghurt down to its thick, soured curds, is sold in 1L tubs. Figs, peaches, nectarines, cherries, all spill from small grocery stores, along with delicate baby bananas grown domestically. Lebanon even produces its own mangoes, some of which rival the Egyptian crops—which also show up here, in supermarkets and street carts. Small organic markets pop up on different days, in different nooks of the city; vendors sell knobbly, green- and yellow-streaked “mountain tomatoes” (I am advised to slice them, insert garlic, and chill overnight before eating), assorted cookies and cakes, shiny green avocadoes, and big jars of makdous (baby eggplants stuffed with walnuts, garlic and red pepper, preserved in olive oil).
It’s possible to find almost anything you need in Beirut, with its Western stores and restaurants, its gourmet supermarkets and organic stores, its thriving bar scene. Journalists and aid agencies have long had a presence in the country, of course, but the ex-pat community (teachers, students, writers, NGOs, businessmen) has swelled in recent years, with the collapse of Syria and Iraq. The upmarket enclave of Achrafieh and the Brooklyn-adjacent cocktail bars and boutiques of Mar Mikhael are worlds away from the manic milieu of Hamra, or the impoverished quarters to the south. After dark in Geitawi, loud explosions often rend the thick night air, sometimes accompanied by bright flashes of light visible from my balcony: fireworks, marking the many nuptials celebrated over the summer months. But in a country riven by internal tensions, surrounded by hostile or failed states, and ghosted by the violence of the recent past, the thunderclaps don’t sound so benign.
The beautiful facade of Lebanon can only momentarily obscure the deep-rooted tensions simmering palpably beneath the surface. But—as with a gorgeous but somewhat unstable woman—that doesn’t make the country any less seductive. I spend my last night in Jbeil, ancient Byblos, from whence papyrus was produced and distributed for use by scribes across the known world. Jbeil now is a charming tangle of souk, a picturesque castle overlooking the sea, and a small historic port, filled with fishing boats. We strolled the souk, climbed the fort, perused the port, before drinking crisp Lebanese wine alongside tangy za’atar-dusted labneh, as the sun set in yet another smudgy Mediterranean blaze—water and air fusing into the soft pastel light of this part of the world, pink smears slowly fading from the sky.