September 18, 2005

“We Don’t Have Camels Here”

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The romance of Araby is famously, powerfully, intoxicating. T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) is the most well-known Westerner who fell under the spell of the Arabs, and there are a host of others: Gertrude Bell, Alfred Thesiger, and Freya Stark to name just a few. I’ve spent just barely enough time in the Middle East and North Africa that I get it. Partly it’s the siren call of the exotic. Partly it’s the Arabs’ code of hospitality that makes them, truly, the most pleasant people in the world to travel amongst. Most of all, for me anyway, it’s a great big undefinable X Factor that simply must be experienced to be understood. It will either wash over you or it won’t, and if it won’t then that’s that.

Even so, I do not intend to “go native” when I move to Beirut. I recently read Robert Kaplan’s The Arabists which is, I think, a pretty good inoculation against that sort of thing. Many of our Middle East diplomats end up being more like, say, the Saudi Ambassador to the United States than the United States Ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

I am an American, and I will remain an American in both identity and outlook. However, I’ve spent enough time in Arab countries to know they deserve something of a defense in the West. I didn’t realize quite how true that really is until I started telling everyone I’m moving to Beirut.

First of all, let me say this. I know exactly what Beirut means in the popular American imagination and I fully understand why. Watching the 1975-1990 civil war on the news made a powerful impression on me when I was growing up. In some parts of my mind Beirut is permanently wired together with images of blood and fire. It doesn’t help that car bombs still occasionally explode in that city today.

I was there for a month in April. Whenever I returned to the city from a tour of the countryside and I saw road signs that said “Beirut,” my stomach twisted up into knots. I was based in Beirut and I knew it wasn’t anything like a scene of constant carnage. No bombs exploded while I stayed in the city. Beirut feels (almost) perfectly safe when you’re in it. From a distance it looks far darker and more dangerous than it actually is.

More people were murdered in Portland this year than were killed in Beirut. Yet I don’t fear for my safety at all in this city. I don’t worry that I might be shot when I go downtown. No one who lives here does. I certainly wouldn’t leave Portland to get away from our murder rate. Ours, low as it is, is still higher than Beirut’s.

The war in Lebanon has been over for fifteen years. The Syrians are out, and it is more or less a free country. Hezbollah is still there, but they only control small pieces of it. Beirut is a good time now. Monot Street, along the formerly war-shattered Green Line dividing the east side from the west, is now the hottest and most fun nightlife street in the entire Middle East.

Back in the day Beirut was called the Paris of the Middle East, and it’s being called that once again. Actually it’s more like the Amsterdam of the Middle East. It’s the one place in the region where damn near everything is legal and hardly anything is taboo. If you’re looking for booze, gambling, and hookers on your next holiday, you can do a lot worse than go to Beirut, believe me.

Anyway, here’s the thing. When I tell people I’m moving there almost everyone I know is shocked and appalled. Some don’t believe me and I have to repeat myself. “Yes, I really am moving to Beirut.” Their idea of the place is frozen in 1982. “Paris of the Middle East” is not what comes to their minds.

Around one-third of those I’ve talked to ask me if women wear burkhas in Lebanon. No, they do not wear burkhas. No one ever wears a burkha in Lebanon. The overwhelming majority of women, Christian and Muslim alike, wear modern clothes without a veil or a hijab. I did not see a single veiled woman in a month, not even in the conservative Muslim villages. Only half the women in even the ultra-conservative Hezbollah-controlled areas bother with the scarf over their hair. The rest look and dress like Italians.

One guy I know actually asked me if they have electricity in Beirut. He figured they probably have it, but he wasn’t sure. I hardly knew how to tell him that Beirut is vastly more modern, cosmopolitan, and sophisticated than his hometown of Boise, Idaho.

Most people are shocked that it’s possible to get a drink in Beirut, and they flat-out don’t believe me when I tell them the nightclubs and bars are better than most of ours in the United States.

Here’s a conversation I had over and over again with different people in Lebanon:

Local Person: Welcome to Lebanon! Are you enjoying your stay?

Me: Yes, thank you, Lebanon is a wonderful.

Local Person: You know we don’t have camels here, right?

Me: (Laughs.) Yes, I know. No camels in Lebanon.

Local Person: Everyone thinks we have camels. This is a modern country.

I’m going to write a great deal about the bad things in the Middle East, including the bad things in Lebanon: Hezbollah, squalid Palestinian refugee camps, Baathists, Islamists, “honor” killings, terrorism, secret police, knee-jerk conspiracy theorists, and all the rest of it. But I’m going to write about the good things, as well, the things that make the Middle East a pleasant place to visit and even (in some places) to live. I want to write about all of it, at least as close to all of it as one person can manage. I feel I owe it to the people whom I’ll be living and traveling amongst. They deserve fair and honest representation, and they certainly won’t get it from AP and Reuters reporters who write about little except bombs and explosions. But I owe it to myself as well. If, in the future, fewer people over-react to my travel plans as though I have a crazed death wish, that would be nice.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at September 18, 2005 3:03 PM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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