Stories from Beirut

I lived in Beirut for 4.5 years. Beirut was where I met my wife, where one career ended and another began, where I made lifelong friends, earned scars, and developed recurring nightmares.

It's a city of so much complexity that it's a cliche to discuss it's complexities. I left three years ago, and in a lot of ways I'm happy to say 'good riddance.' But as a story teller, I feel I have a lot of untold stories from my time there.

I want to use this space of my personal website to tell some of these stories. Some of them will be (slightly) fictionalized. They are mostly based on truths that happened to me, because I'm not sure I'm imaginative enough to make a lot of this up.

I also won't be writing this for a foreign audience. There will be certain intricacies that you can only understand by visiting Beirut or Lebanon. And there will be depictions of Beirut and Lebanon that many Lebanese will disagree with. To that I say, I don't give a fuck. These are my stories and this is my perspective.

Taxi driver

The worst part about spending a day out in the field reporting is finding a way home. As fun as militiamen, jihadist-sympathizers, sheikhs, and slick-haired politicians are, I prefer my pre-arranged evening plans.

A gecko crawled into my room the other day and when the power goes out this is the most accessible form of entertainment. I’m coming gecko.

There are usually two options on the way home. 

The first is the slow route. The cost is about 6 thou (LL) and you get on one of those big buses that seats around 50 or more people. If you’re lucky, it won’t get too crowded and a window seat will be available. The trip takes about 2 hours or more, depending on traffic.

Of course, if you feel your time is more valuable, there’s the mini van. These seat about 9 people comfortably - which is why the driver packs it with around 16 people. They proceed to then race their comrades back to Beirut, sometimes making a 1.45 hour drive in like 80 minutes. I’ve literally been in these when all four wheels leave the ground. Man was not meant to fly. At least not like this.

Today, I took the fast route. I’m not religious, but I prayed the whole way. The guy on my left was fast asleep, as the guy on my right chain smoked the entire ride. I’m not sure if I’m shaking from the nicotine or the nerves.

Now, I’m in Dora roundabout trying to find a taxi service back to my part of town. The distance means I often have to pay servicein or take one to the east part of Beirut before jumping in another. When time’s on my side I don’t mind this. Taxi drivers in Beirut are colorful characters and sometimes I look forward to our interactions.

A few taxis drive by. Some drive away as soon as I said “2antari” (my neighborhood), while others try to haggle me into paying a full fare. After a bit, a blue Mercedes (with red plates of course) pulls up. I wait for him to stop and peek in his empty car.


He says nothing but motions me in with a wave of his hand. I sit in front.

As we drive I looked out the window. I like talking to taxi drivers, but today has been a long day. My clothes are covered in sweat and I am just enjoying the simple pleasure of the summer breeze. After a minute, he asks me - “where are you from?”

He asked in English, which of course isn’t common.

I have multiple answers to this question. Sometimes Lebanese ask me because they want to know my religion, so they can either avoid saying the wrong thing or trash an entire group of worshippers. One time I was in a taxi and as we passed a Shia mosque, I asked the driver what was going on? “Their praying,” he seethed, teeth clenched. “One rocket,” he said. “That’s all that neighborhood needs.” 

In this case, the fact that he used English is telling. The context goes beyond Beirut.

“Beirut but I grew up in the US,” I say. 

He smirks. “I knew it.”

“Is it obvious?”

“No, but I have a sense about these things.”

I nod and look back out the window.

“You know, I used to live in Texas and Mexico.”

Most Lebanese come back because they are homesick. The weather is better in Lebanon. The food is better, the women or men are prettier, the Americans don’t know how to live - there are a million reasons why one always finds their own culture superior. But this guy says something I hadn’t heard yet.

“I hate it here,” he says. “Fuck this shit country.”

I laugh out loud. I am so used to Lebanese supremacy spouted at every opportunity. Whereas many Lebanese in the diaspora see themselves as lucky to have escaped war, economic hardship, and eternal political deadlock, many in Lebanon paint the departees as unfortunate to have missed out on their privileged lives. This is new to me.

“Why did you leave then?”

He sighs deeply for dramatic affect. “I killed a man,” he says it with a steady rhythm. It has more weight than a normal utterance but not quite the power such a statement should. To be honest, it’s hard to take him completely seriously. But this is Beirut and I’m not sure if this is universal, but I don’t hold reality to the same standard.

“Oh yea?” I know I should be careful but I allow my inflection a bit of arrogance.

He shakes his head. “He was a police officer,” he says, almost sorrowfully.

“Did he deserve it?” I ask. By now, I’m thoroughly invested in the man’s story.

“He never liked me. He wanted to marry my wife. But I told him, we Arab men, we are crazy. Don’t FUCK with us!

One day, we had a party for my wife. He danced with her and then he tried to kiss her. So I go to him, I stick my hand in his chest, and I pull out HIS HEART!”

This is not an Indiana Jones movie. But I’m pretty sure that’s where he got this story from. After his story of murder by ancient appropriated ritual, I sit a bit quiet. He’s on a roll now though, speaking about his disdain for women, his lack of guilt over his crime, and, kind of off topic, how he likes to take care of his Mercedes’ interior.

I pay him the usual two thou fair and wave good bye. I’m relieved to be home, a befuddled by the story I’ve just heard, frustrated that the power is out on my street, and glad to still have my heart in my chest.

This is a story I’ll tell a few times over drinks. We all experience reality differently, but in Beirut I feel it is even more pronounced. The reaction to my recounting of the taxi driver’s story always reminds me of how fractured the layers of Beirut are.

My friends in the States think I’m lying. My friends who grew up outside Lebanon believe that a taxi driver told me this, but don’t believe he actually killed anyone. And my Lebanese friends don’t really see the point of the story.

Not your normal (Lebanese?)

I live in the oldest building on my block. It’s yellow paint is chipping, giving way to a whitish-grayish base, and sometimes while I’m half asleep in the morning I feel like the building is every so slightly swaying.

A few buildings have collapsed around the city in recent years, and every time I feel the swaying this comes to mind. Instead of getting up however, I lay in bed with my eyes closed. Anxiety dances around on my chest, but sleep holds down my shoulders. 

When I wake up, I’ll try for a shower. Sometimes, if fortune smiles on me, there will be water. Often, there will be none. This is not where the struggle ends. This is just the start when you live the way I live in Beirut.

It’s hard to say what is a normal existence here. The socioeconomic and cultural bubbles leave everyone to believe they live the authentic experience of what it truly means to be Lebanese. In fact, the only thing I’m sure of is that I am not the typical Lebanese.

Here is a list of reasons why I am not a typical Lebanese person.

1 - I was not born here
2 - I didn’t grow up here
3 - I do not hold the passport
4 - I am not fluent in Lebanese Arabic and only learned it as an adult
5 - I am a young unmarried man and I live alone (well with other young unmarried men for roommates).

That's all my cards on the table. My claim to this country is that my dad grew up here. But even he doesn’t claim to be from here. In that sense I’ve always felt outside the inner circle. And to some people, because I don't meet their criteria I will never really be Lebanese. And honestly, I'm cool with that. But what I don't like is the question.

If you're reading this, you've likely asked or been asked this question: Why did you come here?

The thing is, this is a rhetorical question. And there are only two possible answers:

a - you’re crazy
b - you’re a spy

I’ll just respond to that by saying I am definitely not a spy. The real response is a mix of reasons. I was bored, I didn’t feel at home in the US, I wanted to learn a bit more about my convoluted identity, stories romanticized it, etc etc.

So I came here. At first, I really liked it. And when I realized I wanted to stay I found one of the few jobs English-only speakers can do in Lebanon, which is journalism.

Now, I explore a society and culture that is sort of my own but always feels slightly out of grasp. It’s an adventure for me, but one which carries heavy ambivalence for me. I’ve never been or felt fully American, so my work is a way to not only tell stories but examine myself.

This is not something most people deal with. Have you ever 'othered' yourself? I try to discern what an individual is, what impact society has on a person, and what prevails when one leaves said society. I often find myself orientalizing my own lineage.

In a sense I feel this culture is my own, but at the same time I’m a fraud, associating myself with something only slightly familiar to me. Who gets to define it, do I get a say if I can be Lebanese or not, and, in all honesty, is it worth the bother?