Monday, 30 June 2014

Landing in Lebanon

Landing in Lebanon

'Your nearest exit might be located behind you.'

Middle East Airlines, flight instructions 

I read this on the plane from London to Beirut this weekend and thought it was quite an apt description of one-way flights. It certainly struck a chord when I saw the last fragments of Europe disappear beneath me, the Greek islands, looking mountainous and secretive hidden away in their turquoise Aegean Sea. 

The electronic map of the route in front of me told me I was travelling from continental greenery into continental parched yellow. When I arrived in Beirut, depending on which way I was looking, I would have my back to either the blue of Mediterranean Europe or the dry mountains of the Middle East. One direction, out to sea, looked home to Geneva and England, the other directions looked north, south, and east to areas of conflict, Syria, Israel, and now, due to the recent movements of terrorist group, ISIS, Iraq.  

But sat here on my balcony in noisy, smelly, charming Achrafieh, Beirut, all I can see are aged, crumbling streets, and green leaves swelling against walls painted orange. Underfoot, yellow petals of fallen winter jasmine fill the air with an incredible perfume. On every street corner there are crooked smiles from shopkeepers, and hungry scowls from those who began the Muslim fast of Ramadan on Saturday. Despite the Lebanese government shutting off the water, which isn't clean enough to drink anyway, and a few dubious bursts of gunfire somewhere across the city, the greatest trouble facing my Lebanese flatmates today was how Kiki, the flat's cat, managed to open the fridge-freezer and eat four of our chickens.

Sneaky Kiki 

It takes a while to land anywhere, and I think I'm probably still landing. It always surprises me, though, how sometimes the most alien things can bring peace to those silent throes of doubt and tinges of homesickness. A lulling call to prayer at dawn, as the heat of a forty degree day starts to settle in, for example. A three-hour Arabic lesson in which I learnt more than I did in a whole semester in Geneva, for example. Or the best example of all, a free pot of soil from a florist when I told him, in terrible Arabic, that I wanted to grow my first lemon tree from seed in Lebanon. 

When I had recovered from my delayed flight yesterday, my flatmates took me down to Sour, otherwise known as Tyre (heads up, Shakespeare fans - Tyre of Pericles of Tyre!), in southern Lebanon to swim off the beach there. Looking south towards Israel, I asked what the beautiful town jutting out into the sea was called, and my flatmates said it was called a Palestinian refugee camp. I could not believe my eyes or ears. It had been built over sixty years on land that was allocated to Palestinians seeking asylum after the 1947 Arab-Israeli War. The closer I swam, the more it looked like an ordinary seaside town, with pretty golden minarets and fishing boats. 

Lebanon seems, after two days, to be functioning as a reluctant center of diaspora with relative stability. But let's see, I think I'm in for quite an education. As a Lebanese friend said yesterday, Lebanon is a country in constant chaos mode, coping with a crisis, but never quite sure of a way forward. 

Thanks for reading.

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