It's taken me forever to start writing about our trip to Lebanon in August. Not only did I take a ridiculous number of photos that took forever to sort and label, but the fact that I lived in Lebanon for a while made the writing harder to get flowing... Is it that before I can set my hands to the keyboard I loose myself in memories? Or that I feel I won't make it justice when it offered me so much? For sure, writing about it evokes not just feelings from our August encounter, but from my intense relationship with the Levant over 8 years ago... This was unlike most trips I've ever made...
I'm afraid the complexity of images, experiences and feelings has forced me to take the boringly conventional road of chronological writing, so I apologize in advance, and let me tell you how our four first days there were like...
Being back in Beirut was the strangest of things. We picked up our car at the airport and, what fears I had about driving a manual car in Beirut's crazy streets after all these years soon vanished while memories lodged well in the back of my mind took hold and guided me to take the right exits, to drive aggressively yet defensively, and to make me feel like I had left just yesterday and was heading back home from a trip abroad. Us not being able to find our hotel after driving around for an hour by small nameless streets, and me having to ask for directions in a mix of Lebanese, French, English and German (yes, German!), just made the situation more home-like.
My only explanation was that, even though we barely lived for two years and a half in the country of cedars, those were some life-changing years. How could I otherwise have such a strong sensation of being back home?
THE OLD, THE NEW
The first few days, while my husband rehearsed for his performance (the main and practically only reason for our trip), I did some exploring of my own. The very first thing I did? You see, our stay in Lebanon was the first time we lived together and, a year after moving in, I had a couple of rings designed to commemorate our anniversary. Unfortunately, years later, my husband would loose that ring in a trip. So, taking advantage of his busying himself with rehearsals, I dashed off to Achrafiyeh, a part of town we used to live in, found the jewelry shop where I had the rings made some 10 years ago, gave mine as a model, and commissioned a new one for him! With additional engraving, so the rings would have our meeting date, our moving in together date, and our marriage date. How awesome is that? Finding the same place, and having them made with the same person? I really had to make some effort to hide my excitement and keep this a secret, because I wanted to surprise my husband when the rings were ready a week later.
Anyhow, my wanderings took me to the building we used to live in. Probably one of the places we've been the happiest, where we've hosted the most friends, where we've got the most air and sun (from a terrace going all around). True, the lift was as trustworthy as a stray cat (no offense to stray cats), and the place was too old and had no AC (we sweat for a whole year before we caved in to opening a hole in the bedroom wall to install an AC unit). I also once found a gecko in my backpack, a tarantula in the kitchen, and the cutest of cats that had climbed to the top of the main door. And when electricity failed, I had to walk 8 floors down to the street to turn our generator's switch on. But it was an apartment we enjoyed greatly (like our Sunday lunches sitting by a window with a view of the sea) and it held a very dear place in our hearts.
My wanderings took me to Place des Martyrs (Martyrs' Square, or ساحة الشهداء; for some reason, most of us used to refer to a number of places by their French names instead of their Arabic or English ones)... A place where we had seen Lebanese people of all ages and religions join forces and protest the Syrian presence in Lebanon. Where they stood firm against security forces and even gave them roses. Where our close friends stood proud swinging an enormous Lebanese flag. It was strange remembering a place of such upheaval while seeing it calm and green and even pretty.
My wanderings took me to Hariri's Mosque (well, that's how we all called it, it's officially called the Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque, جامع محمد الأمين). The mosque that was unfinished when we left. The mosque that was being erected by former Primer Minister Rafik Hariri when he was murdered with a bomb that killed numerous civilians and shook the whole city and our lives. A bomb that led to a chain of events that ended with the Syrian armed forces finally leaving Lebanon. A beautiful mosque (we were stunned by the interior, incredibly intricate and beautiful), and a strange feeling of seeing something beautiful that, back then, for me symbolized trauma, violence and struggle.
My wanderings took me to too many corners that embodied the country so well, piling ancient Greek and Roman ruins by old churches and mosques in front of shiny ultra expensive new hotels... I so missed all of that!
SALUT HABIBI! HOW HAVE YOU BEEN! MNIH?
Being back in Beirut also meant enjoying another time-honoured custom: socializing! Which entails food. Lots of food. Always. And food in Lebanon is always delicious. Or so it's unfailingly seemed to me. Add to that the perfect hosts our friends were. And so an incredible part of our stay consisted of schmoozing, eating, and drinking, and schmoozing again. On and on. It was too good. It was so overly good, in fact, that mid trip we were skipping breakfast and any non-social meals because we just couldn't handle that much social eating! Even the simplest of things, falafel during rehearsals, was exactly like I needed:
Plus, being in Lebanon, I was elated at being back at multilingual chit-chat! Some French, some English, some Lebanese, some Spanish... that's how things are, not everybody's supposed to understand everything, and that's fine. C'est normal w bas, got it?
In one of the world's oldest still functioning streets (Gemmayzé) we came across that very modern (though rooted in ancient practices no doubt) kind of art: graffiti! I don't remember seeing graffiti my first time around in Lebanon. But this one place, by the Montée Berberi (the Berberi Steps, or طلعة ألبرباري), had a gorgeous Fairouz one (Fairouz, one of Lebanon's most renowned singers).
That was going to be the beginning of a discovery of numerous interesting graffiti all around town, some more rather artistic, some rather political (and some uncomfortably so). But it was very cool that this very first one was about a woman that is such a symbol of the country.
I had mentioned before that the main (and practically only) reason for the trip was my husband's Butoh performance in Beirut. Or, more accurately, his Butoh performance at the opening of a friend's art exhibition. But that's simplifying too much. It was the encounter of three artists: a good friend of ours, a wonderful plastic artist that's created some very moving "Buddha children" and the artist behind the exhibition; a viola virtuoso, who was going to play live during the opening; and my husband, whose stage performance explorations have landed him in the world of Butoh.
Seeing them work together, create together, as well as watching each separately, each immersed in their own artistic world, was captivating, and even made me a bit jealous for being a plain, simple unartistic observer. There was poetry on the walls, poetry in movement, poetry in sound. And little by little they wove their poetry together...
On the opening night, they simply left everybody dumbfounded. Like one of the assistants said, the silence after the first part of the opening (it was a multi-part performance), where my husband did his Butoh performance in full hijab, was probably the sound of the spectators' brains after all their neurons went BOOM. I absolutely need to devote a whole post to the rehearsals, the opening, the exhibition, and an interview and photo-shoot that followed. But I can tell you that this was one beautiful, inspiring opening, a true work of love.
We finished the night surrounded by artists, and friends, and the amazing people that love and support them, by the Mediterranean Sea, with the moon setting in the waters, enjoying the best Lebanese food and ice cream in the whole world (for food is smell, and colour, and sound, and friendship, and sea, and stars).