November 19, 2009

The Torino Express

Beirut

Downtown Beirut was swanky. Saifi Village was strange. I had to duck into a hair salon and get my hair cut by a gay man in Ashrafieh to avoid the guy following me on his scooter, and the other guy trying to sell me drugs. All I wanted was a steak. Walking around Beirut, glamorous, fashionable Beirut, the party capital of the gay Middle East, where everyone, straight, gay, and in-between, was artsy or beautiful or a bit of both, was mind-bending. Here was a United Nations tank, soldiers armed with rifles. Here was a pockmarked building, riddled with gunshot wounds, the architectural reflection of Beirut’s own wounded but eternal soul. In the fashionably frumpy quarter of Gemmayze, I joined the artsy young Beirut set for a night. Saturday nights in Gemmayze’s many hole-in-wall bars and clubs felt right; in early 2009, this was where Beirut’s heartbeat was to be found. Every couple of years, that changes, according to my friend Dana. Like many Lebanese, she left the country as a teenager because of the war. Never quite settling elsewhere, she joined the permanent Lebanese diaspora in Montreal and then in Dubai. I cannot imagine what it’s like to call such a beautiful, vulnerable strip of land “home”; it must be hard to juggle so many identities. “The New York Times Travel page just ran a story about how ‘Beirut is back’. Bars, clubs, it’s so hip now, yada yada,” I said. “Oh, please. Every five years or so the New York Times “rediscovers” that “Beirut is so different from the Middle East” and “and how we’re a party town,” she scoffed. “It’s a surprise only to them. Every five years or so somethings blows up, the shit hits the fan. Then we’re okay, and we make the New York Times again. And again.” Meanwhile, a gorgeous gay Lebanese man held hands under the table with his strikingly handsome French partner, while Dana ordered us more beer and whisky and expounded at length about how weird it is that Middle Eastern culture places so much importance on what’s been between her legs. I remembered what a foreign correspondent once said about this city being every old-school foreign correspondent’s dream: you could interview the Hezbollah at lunchtime and count on foie gras, wine and beautiful people showing at your parties after, on the other side of town. I love this place.

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