January 2013

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Photo by David Lansing.

More confusion: Three Muslim women, their heads and arms covered, stand in front of Hatab, a Lebanese lingerie store near Nijmeh Square, admiring the provocatively-dressed manikins in the window. One, wearing French thigh-highs and garters, is posed provocatively with a hand on her hip, as if she were waiting for a customer in Amsterdam’s red light district. Her sister, wearing La Perla, kneels while looking away from the sheer coffee slip that has been pulled off her right shoulder to expose her nude-colored bra. The final manikin, in a cheap Lindsay Lohan wig, bends at the waist to expose a stockinged leg beneath a silk dressing gown and a scarlet bra.

The three middle-aged Muslim women chatter in front of the window display, drawing each other’s attention to a draped red corset, the garter belts. After a few minutes of chatting and giggling, they enter the store to do a little shopping. Something exciting to take home to the Mr.

Photo by David Lansing.

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Do you buy wine in the souk?

I find Beirut so confusing. Just when you think it is one thing you realize it is something else. Yesterday afternoon I asked the concierge at the Le Gray if there was someplace nearby where I could buy some fresh fruit and maybe a bottle of wine. He told me there was a market in the souk not more than a block away.

A market in the souk….

What I was thinking was a sort of New York-style Middle Eastern deli with dusty shelves of olives and nuts and, behind the cash register, a few bottles of booze. What I got was TSC (The Sultan Center) which reminded me more of a mini version of the famously huge KaDeWe department store in Berlin.

Divided into well-designed sections, TSC carries a jaw-dropping array of fresh and prepared foods from around the globe: cheeses from France, chiles from Mexico, breads from Italy, as well as local goodies like Aleppo pepper, spicy sumack, and seasonal green almonds. There was sushi and Middle Eastern flatbreads, pizza baked to order, a fresh juice bar, and an array of pork products (Lebanon is one of the few places in the Middle East where pork can be sold) including Spanish Ibérico and German Black Forest hams.

I was absolutely gobsmacked.

So I grabbed a still-warm Lebanese flatbread, fresh olives, some cheese, and an inexpensive bottle of Lebanese wine. But here’s where it gets curious: When I went to pay, the clerk, a young man maybe 19 or 20 years old, could hardly stand to look me in the face. He was obviously upset. He rang up everything but my wine, which he stared at for several minutes before finally lifting it with two fingers and scanning it. As he rang it up, he muttered something in Arabic under his breath.

“Is something the matter?” I asked him. His face was flush and taut.

“This!” he said stabbing a finger at the bottle of Lebanese wine. “And you!”

He put everything in a green plastic bag except the wine. “May I have a bag for the wine?” I said.

“You are afraid to carry it in the streets?”

I told him I wasn’t afraid. It would just be easier to carry with a bag. Disgusted, he slipped it into a green bag and thrust it at me. I could feel his eyes watching me as I left the store.

So, I am a bad man. At a store in Beirut that sells chorizo and very good Italian prosciutto, I bought a bottle of local wine. From a clerk who, no doubt, hopes that a thousand disapproving stares will follow me and my wine as I walk back to my hotel.

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A call to prayers

The view from my balcony at the Le Gray hotel in Beirut. Photo by David Lansing.

All day long I walk the streets of Beirut, getting lost down crammed side streets full of old and new clothing stores, bookstores, record shops. I stop in a tiny old bakery and order a man’ouche, the doughy Lebanese flatbread smeared with olive oil and zaatar—a spice mix of sumac, thyme, and sesame seeds—served hot from the oven. It is comfort food.

Why does this city make me feel so sad? Why do my senses focus on the sound of an unseen baby crying in the dark apartment across the street, the compulsive honking of cars, the melancholy call of the muezzin’s call to prayers from the mosque nearby.

As it turns out, my new hotel, Le Gray, is next door to the white tents where former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri is buried. I go up to my room just before sunset and stand on the balcony which faces the Mohammed al-Amin Mosque. The sky bruises as the muezzin begins the call to prayers. It is the saddest thing I’ve ever heard, breaking my heart as I look out over the shadowy city. I take a long, hot shower, crawl in to bed, having decided to skip dinner, and close my eyes, though I know sleep will be a difficult thing tonight.

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It began around 3am last night. Fists pounding on the door of my next door neighbors at the hotel. A male voice coming from the hallway, shouting, demanding, threatening. A woman behind the door crying, imploring. I don’t know what either one was saying since it was in Arabic but it did not sound good. In fact, it sounded scary. I feared the man would pound down the door. I feared the woman would be harmed.

What’s the etiquette here when you’re in a foreign country, a country where people do a lot more yelling and screaming at each other than you’re used to? A country where women are almost always at a disadvantage when it comes to arguments with their husbands or boyfriends? I laid in bed, in the darkness, listening to the man screaming threats and pounding the door; I listened to a woman, obviously in fear, hiding somewhere in the room, crying, begging the man to go away. And what am I supposed to do in this situation? What is my role?

I called the front desk. I told them there was a fight going on in the room next to me, that the man seemed to be trying to break down the door. The male voice on the other end hesitated for a moment before saying, “I’m sorry if they have disturbed your sleep, Mr. Lansing.”

It’s not my sleep I’m worried about here, I told him. It’s the woman’s life.

“Would you like us to call security?”

“I think that would be most appropriate.”

A few minutes later, two hotel security officers showed up. They talked in low voices to the man in the hallway. He yelled at them and continued to pound on the door. The woman continued to cry. I opened my door a crack and stuck my head out, which was a mistake. The man pointed a finger at me and yelled threats. The security officers tried to calm him down but did nothing. After a few minutes, they left.

Around 5, I cracked open the door again. The man was now sitting in a chair propped up against the locked door. He glared at me and mumbled something under his breath. The woman behind the door was still crying.

Around 6, I packed my things and quickly departed from my room, not daring a glance back at the belligerent man next door. He screamed at me in Arabic as I walked down the long hallway towards the lobby as fast as I could. Heart racing, I checked out of the hotel and asked them to call me a taxi, all the time stealing nervous glances over my shoulder towards the hallway. The man had gone back to yelling and pounding on the door. I couldn’t hear the woman crying anymore. But I knew she was there. And I felt bad that I was leaving her. That she’d have to sort this out on her own. But what else could I do? This was Beirut, not New York.

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The Lebanese Princess

“Daddy’s Princess” illustration by Maya Fidawi.

Here’s another selection from Life is Like That: Your guide to the Lebanese, this one titled “Daddy’s Princess.”

“Daddy’s princess loves cappuccino with extra chocolate on the top. Leena is certain she will marry a prince because her father says she will. She is 25. But a lot of her friends tell her she acts much younger. She is not sure if that is a compliment. She is dating Kareem. She loves him but her father says his prospects are not good enough and his parents are not like them. She spends her days pretending to do an MA (but complains that reading gives her bags under her eyes). She suffers from anxiety attacks and calms down by eating chocolate fudge cake. In the summer she lives at the beach where her family has a cabin and spends her day drinking diet Pepsis and eating chef’s salads. She will take over her father’s company. The most important people in her life are mummy and sister and dog, Sasha, a Pekinese. Kareem lectures her about having to have goals in life. She teases him by threatening to go out with Michael who is “sooo lovely, and sooo rich,” but she would never marry Michael. He is such a playboy. Still, he does drive the most delicious Mercedes, the one with the cute headlights, designed by Hermes. If Mike behaves, she might reconsider but he would have to show her he is serious by buying her the latest Vertu mobile phone. Now that would be a start. In the meantime, she will wait for the prince that daddy says will come along…one day.”

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