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.