November 15, 2005

Street People

While hanging out at a sidewalk café in downtown Beirut, a Lebanese-American friend of mine shocked me when he abruptly and forcefully dismissed a woman who walked up and said something to him in Arabic. Whoa, I thought. There was a side to his personality that I hadn’t seen yet.

I understand now what he did and why he did it. There was nothing at all rude about it.

If you’re on the street in Beirut (eating at a sidewalk café counts as being on the street) and a stranger comes up to you for any reason other than to ask for directions, watch out. You have an instant problem and it could easily turn into a big one.

If strangers talk to you at a bar, at a café, at a party, at a club, in a hotel lobby, in the countryside, or in a village, they almost certainly are normal people who are just being friendly. On the street in the city, though, chances are they want something from you. Maybe they just want directions. And that’s fine. Twice people have asked me for directions. I guess I look like I know where I’m going. But if someone doesn’t instantly tell you exactly, precisely, what they want, get away from them immediately.

“Americans have to learn this the hard way,” my friend told me. He’s right. I know he is. I had already half learned my lesson. I tried half measures yesterday and it wasn’t enough.

I sat alone at an Italian restaurant downtown at a table outside on the sidewalk. A 50 year-old fat woman walked up to me and said something in French.

“Je ne pas parle francais,” I said, hoping that would be the end of it.

She smiled broadly and said “I speak English,” as though that was supposed to make me happy. It didn’t. She had marked me, and I knew I was in for it. And I was in the middle of lunch at an expensive restaurant while contentedly reading a book.

“Are you British?” she said.

“No, American,” I said.

“I have many questions about America,” she said.

It was not socially acceptable for her to do that to me while I was sitting at a restaurant minding my own business and trying to eat. I should have told her to get the hell away from me at once. But I didn’t want to be a jerk about it, so I tried to get rid of her politely.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “I don’t have time to talk right now. After I finish eating I have to meet a friend.”

“Where are you meeting your friend?” she said. That meant she wanted to come with me. I had been down that road with other street people before.

“Somewhere else,” I said.

It wasn’t true. After I finished eating I wanted to order an espresso and read another chapter in my book.

“Please,” she said. “I have many questions.”

I should have said Leave me alone. But I didn’t. Like my friend said, Americans have to learn this the hard way.

“Look,” I said. “I’m eating right now. Why don’t you wait for me at the clock tower. After I finish eating, I will meet you for a minute and answer your question.”

I had no intention of meeting her at the clock tower. I just needed to get her away from me. I was 99 percent certain one of her questions would be “Will you give me some money?” And when Lebanese street people ask for money, they don’t want your spare change. They want your “spare” dollars.

But I was wrong. She didn’t want money. She wanted a lot more than that.

“I will wait for you here,” she said and put her hand on the back of the chair on the opposite side of my table.

“No,” I said. “Wait for me at the clock tower.”

“I will wait for you here,” she said and pulled out the chair as though she was going to join me for lunch.

“No,” I said. “Wait for me at the clock tower.”

She half took the hint, not that it was much of a hint. So she pulled up a chair at the next table instead.

I sighed. A waitress came over to her table and the two of them had a long talk in Arabic.

Please, I thought. Tell this lady to go away if she’s not going to order anything. Don’t let her ruin my afternoon. But the lady did order something. She ordered a coffee.

I finished eating and asked for the check. After I paid the bill I finally turned toward her and asked her “What is your question?” I was hoping I could keep this conversation under two minutes, but alas that wasn’t possible.

“Come over here,” she said and beckoned me to her table.

“What is your question?” I said.

“Come over here,” she said, feigning pain, as though I were being rude. The waitress saw this exchange and looked at me with obvious sympathy. I knew I was being a sucker, but I caved in and moved myself to her table. I felt defeat wash over me.

“I want to leave Lebanon,” she said. “And I can’t get a visa. Do you know any single American men?”

“No,” I said. “I don’t know any single men. I’m sorry.”

“Do you know any single British men? French? German? Canadian? Australian?”

“No,” I said. “I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“What’s wrong?” she said. “Why don’t you have any friends?”

“Of course I have friends,” I said. “But all my single friends are Lebanese. All my Western friends are married.”

She didn’t believe me. But what was I supposed to say?

“You are married?” she said.

“Yes,” I said and showed her my wedding ring.

“Do you know any single American men in America?” she said.

“Of course,” I said.

“Good,” she said. “I will give you my phone number and you can have them call me.”

“I can’t do that,” I said.

“Yes, you can,” she said. “You can tell them I am a doctor.”

She wasn’t a doctor. Her clothes, her hair, her makeup, her composure, everything about her said “poor and unemployed.”

“I don’t know any single men who are looking to meet foreign women,” I said.

“Do you know why I want single American men?” she said.

“I think so,” I said. Wasn’t it obvious?

“Why?” she said.

“So you can get married and get a green card,” I said.

“Yes!” she said as if that made me some kind of a genius.

“I will marry him only as long as it takes to get a green card. Then, if I don’t like him, ciao.”

“I can’t help you with that,” I said. “I'm really sorry.” I did feel bad for the lady. I know it's hard to get a resident visa for the United States. Some Lebanese people have told me they can't get tourist visas to visit their families, which embarrasses me every time. Is it really necessary for the U.S. government to make it such a pain in the ass for some Lebanese guy to visit his sister for Christmas?

“Are you racist?” she said.

What?”

“I think you don’t like Arabic people.”

“Of course I like Arabic people. I live in Beirut. But I don’t know any single men who are looking to marry a Lebanese woman right now.”

“You can tell your friend that you met me!” she said. “Tell him you met a beautiful doctor who wants to meet a nice man. Then he can come here to Lebanon.”

“I can’t do that,” she said.

“Are you Shakespeare?” she said.

“Am I Shakespeare?” I said. “You mean Hamlet? Hamlet who can’t act?”

“Yes,” she said. “I think you are Hamlet.”

“I’m not Hamlet,” I said. “I just can’t set you up with any of my friends. They live very far away.”

“But your friend can come here.”

We argued about this for an hour. Why I put up with it, I have no idea. I had far better things I could have done in that hour. I knew instantly something like this was going to happen. It always does when total strangers walk up to me on the sidewalk downtown.

Imagine if I had actually done what she told me to do. I’d call one of my American friends: Hey, buddy. I have a solution to your girlfriend problem. I met a fifty year-old fat unemployed lady in Beirut. She lies and says she’s a doctor. She’s looking to use a man, any man, just to get a green card. She doesn’t care who he is or what he looks like. Then she’ll dump him. Interested? Get on a plane.

“Come with me to the embassy,” she said. “You can tell the ambassador that you know me and he will give me a green card.”

“It doesn’t work like that,” I said.

“But you are American,” she said.

“The ambassador doesn’t know me,” I said. “I have no wasta with the American government. And if I did, it wouldn’t matter. The American government doesn’t work like the Lebanese government.” In Lebanon if you have enough wasta, or high up connections, you can make anything happen.

“Then give my phone number to your friends in America,” she said.

“No!” I said, finally fed up. I was no longer willing to say I could not help her. “I will not help you,” I said. I no longer cared if she thought I was rude. How rude is it to bother a total stranger during his lunch and harangue him for an hour, a full hour, about something like this?

“I am leaving now,” I said and picked up my things.

This doesn’t happen very often in Beirut. It only happens to me once every few weeks or so, rarely enough that when it does happen my guard is totally down. The overwhelming majority of people I’ve met and talked to are genuinely friendly and don’t want anything from me except conversation. No one has ever cornered me like that in the countryside. Strangers on the street in a village are likely to invite me into their home for coffee or dinner. They don’t bill me for it, and they don’t ask for a green card.

But it does happen in Beirut. I argued with one guy downtown for an hour about whether or not I was going to give him 10,000 Lebanese lira. (That’s six dollars plus change.) I told him I didn’t have any cash on me, that all I had was a credit card, which was true. “No problem,” he said. “I will go with you to the bank.” No doubt if I said yes he would have bumped it up to 20,000 by the time we got there.

I guess I’m going to have to do what my Lebanese-American friend does and abruptly dismiss people who walk up to me cold on the street. It feels like the wrong thing to do, especially in a friendly city like this one. I would hate to be mistakenly rude to a stranger who isn’t trying to extract something from me. But my own sense of privacy and time preservation requires it.

If you come to Beirut, talk to people in bars. Talk to people in coffeeshops. Talk to the bartender, the barista, the taxi driver, and the waiter at your hotel. Talk to people in villages, on busses, and in line at the grocery store if you want. You can talk to people at political events. Almost all of them are friendly. Almost all of them are a joy to meet – especially in the villages. Just watch out for the strangers who come up to you on the street. Odds are high they saw you as a mark from far away and honed in on you. Unless they want directions (and that happens, too) if you give them one second they’ll take an hour.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at November 15, 2005 7:11 AM
Winner, The 2007 Weblog Awards, Best Middle East or Africa Blog

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