It wasn’t this way in Casablanca. From New York to Morocco, every thirty minutes, a woman shrieked, convinced that the plane was about to fall from the sky. When we touched down, there was scattered applause, but the polite ovation spoke more to our sense of relief than any deeply felt joy. Now, in Beirut, the plane lands, and the ululations begin. Cities thrive on hyperbole, but at this moment, Beirut begins to convince me that to arrive in this place is to arrive in a city unlike any other.
Every time I have flown to Beirut, it has been this way. The passenger cabin is alive with barely suppressed song and dance. There is an electric expectation, an almost overwhelming euphoria. When I lived here, these feelings got to be so familiar that I stopped feeling them, overwhelmed by the frustration of being locked into such a small place, everyone restricted in their movements. Flying from Cairo or Istanbul, it was easy to imagine myself as banished to a life of toil in the provinces of the empire; yet, even then, the excitement would creep back in. I’m going home, I would think. I’m going home, and home is Beirut.
This proprietary impulse used to upset me. When I lived here, I had an expat friend that would refer to himself and his relationship to Lebanon in the collective, and the possessive. Explaining the rolling blackouts that plague the country, he said, “We used to have five power plants, but the Israelis destroyed one during the July War.” Commenting on spent shell casings littering the mountains north of the city, he said, “We have a lot of people who like to hunt.” Describing the fractious political dynamics of the Lebanese confessional system, he said, “We have a real problem forming a government.” For the first months I lived in Beirut, these statements seemed almost ridiculously affected, but by month three, I found myself claiming similar allegiances. As American tourism began to pick up after the New York Times travel section declared Beirut the destination for 2009, I once told a friend, “We really need to do something about all these foreigners.” As a joke, we would hold out hope for a car bomb or an assassination, something that would scare away all but the true believers.
It has been almost two years since the last significant violence, and that sense of fatalism has largely faded. Even the rumors about a possible Israeli invasion do not seem to have had much of an effect. I walked the Corniche yesterday, and the boys were out in force, diving from the sea wall, smoking argileh on the rocks in the shallows. One of the larger beach clubs, just west of AUB Beach, was positively bumping, blasting an infective mélange of Arab synth-pop and Chicago-style house that turned the street into a runway, compelling us to a faster step, a more pronounced strut. Outside the makeshift walls of the club, women in hijab stood ankle-deep in the sea, tending to small children, while, nearby, barrel-chested men smoked state-subsidized cigarettes.
It’s now nine in the morning and the power has just gone out. It will come back at noon. I wouldn’t have noticed, except that I heard the neighbors’ generator start up, its bass drone complementing the rhythmic beat of the construction workers’ hammers as they remodel the store below.