So much for momentum – it’s taken me almost a month to get this next post together because I’ve been busy getting a new job and a new nephew, both very good things that are worth putting off a blog for.
I’ve obviously blogged about everything that happened in Beirut already, but regardless I’m going to start with a bit of a summary for anyone who didn’t read it previously or recap for anyone who has. It is probably a shame that it will not contain the same live hysteria that inspired such a warm fuzzy feeling of schadenfreude amongst my original readership, but I will try to recall it as much as possible. Being far removed from it will however enable me to talk more candidly about certain things without fear of repercussion, specifically my first job at a local magazine in Beirut which really deserves its moment in the sun on account of the experience being extraordinarily mental. To give you an idea of what I mean, not long after I escaped, the company dissolved but not before some armed gunmen came to the office demanding money and on another occasion an actual physical fight broke out and a knife got waved about. I’ll probably crowd-source some anecdotes from other staff members to try to assemble a montage of all of our worst moments; we are forever bonded by having survived it.
Back in 2013 I was living and working in London where I grew up, and was fishing around for some sort of adventure. I began banging on about moving to New York, as so many Londoners do, and then realised were loads of places I could go and easily work, and in fact live visa-free. (As I was to experience, it was possible to evade discovery in Lebanon by by visiting somewhere in the region every three months and then having shifty renewals with the military at immigration where you’d hope they wouldn’t ask you why you had so many Lebanese stamps in your passport and occasionally fielding the odd suspicious phone call. This was aided by the fact that nobody gave a shit anyway.) And so I took my wacky hipster self to Beirut, arriving with big curly hair, long noodly limbs, and a suitcase stuffed full of ostentatious knitwear wholly unsuited to the climate.
I can remember spending my first few days in Beirut absolutely exhausted, which I think was down to sensory overload. But as it turned out, the Lebanese way of life was easy to assimilate into: delicious food, warm weather, beautiful beaches, and a work-to-live lifestyle; at once slow and sleepy city during the day but with a well-known party culture by night, including a reasonably decent gay scene packed to the rafters with outrageously fit Lebanese men. The majority of the population is bilingual or trilingual (Arabic, English, and French) meaning the language barrier wasn’t an issue, and the culture is so hospitable that you would find yourself fending off abnormally generous offers from total strangers, such as the taxi driver who, when half the city was without running water, insisted I come to his house and use his shower. He made me take his number so I could arrange it, I obviously didn’t because it was weird but still, sweet man).
I had close friends there already who put me up for the first few weeks – Oliver, who I had spent a year getting stoned with as neighbours in university halls, and his girlfriend Pip. Oli was now working for Reuters as a foreign correspondent and spent his time getting smuggled to Syria inside a barrel. I slept behind a plastic curtain on a camp bed in their kitchen, stored my belongings below their dried herbs, and lined up my toiletries on a narrow window ledge.
A special mention must go to Pip and Oli’s then-dog Lenny, who is firmly associated with the beginning of this journey. While quite an elegant-looking dog – a black labrador and whippet cross – she had a fixed look of wild-eyed insanity due a tragic backstory that made her anxious and prone to freakish behaviour. She also used to climb into my bed while I was work then later on I was forced to sleep among hundreds of her coarse, pungent black hairs. Lenny now lives in Scotland and spends her time running through mountains and rivers, which I think is a nice heartwarming ending for an emotionally traumatised Lebanese street dog; I on the other hand left my camp bed favela and spent a month living in a house owned by a mad old crone called Sonia, who was permanently smoking in a pink velour dressing gown, and whose son was a Rastafarian who lived on a mezzanine above the kitchen.
After I left Beirut and I began to romanticise it, although my friends were quick to remind me that by the end, I was hating on the city quite a lot – the rubbish infrastructure, the power cuts, even, for my sins, the hummus. I sometimes wondered why I was willing to jump ship from a life that was so fantastically uncomplicated so quickly, but I had been subject to a few unpleasant work situations – unfortunately not uncommon in Lebanon – that contributed to my general feeling of being a bit fed up. While after I left a lot of my friends coupled up, settled down, and probably became a bit more grown-up, aged 25 and living abroad for the first time we were definitely much more low maintenance, living a life that was at once deliciously idyllic and a bit grubby.
Some of my happiest memories are doing yoga on Pip and Oli’s roof at sunset while the neighbour’s flock of doves soared above us and the city below, while the occasional stench of Lenny’s turds wafted around us, which wouldn’t disappear no matter how hard Pip tried to scrub the decaying tarmac with bleach. Good times.