In 1999 I went back to live in Lebanon after sixteen years abroad. I missed my family, I missed hummus, and I missed the mild winters and cool springs. Plus, I’d already been married a few years and had started thinking of starting a family, which was an impossible feat in my 40 sq.m. apartment in central London and Milton Keynes was out of the question.
In Lebanon you feel something is off the moment you land. Maybe it’s the grey soldiers in grey suits and grey berets. Maybe they’re grey because they chain-smoke. Maybe it’s because of the pollution, or maybe grey is the colour of giving up. Whatever it is, they are somehow the first things you notice at Beirut airport. But, you persist. You persist because this is home and you miss your family and you miss hummus and you miss the weather.
Driving through the city, the second thing you notice is the contrast. These are so striking and so widespread that they are too long to enumerate, be they language, dress sense, radio stations, whole neighbourhoods even. At some point in my neighbourhood there were donkeys chained to lampposts and chicken on the roads. If, at the time, you’d wanted to research why the chicken crossed the road, Lebanon was your best bet. It felt as if different species were occupying the same space and driving through the city was not too dissimilar to Luke Skywalker and Obi-Wan Kenobi walking through the cantina in Mos Eisley, as they did in Star Wars. Yet you persist, because this is home and you miss your family and you miss hummus and you miss the weather.
A few weeks, or maybe months, after arriving—who remembers that long ago after all the trauma we’ve been through—my container with my car arrived and I had the pleasure of dealing with the people at the Port R.I.P. There were two kinds of people at the port R.I.P.: those who wanted to help you and those who wanted to fleece you. They co-existed thanks to Prime Minister Hariri Sr.’s then brilliant plan of keeping the old guard while bringing in his own team of technocrats. He had to get going and there were people in the way. If you can’t beat them, keep paying them and sweep them under the carpet. But there were no carpets at the Port R.I.P. at the time and everyone just mingled, a situation that, I imagine, persisted. At the time I did not know who was whom but I could guess, mostly by the colour, some were grey and some were not. I refused to pay up. I was young and stupid and mostly poor and it took me two painful weeks to separate my car from its container.
Like I said, you feel something is off the moment you land in Lebanon. The longer you stay, the more it stinks. But you persist. You persist because, because. It was during my adventure at the Port R.I.P. that I came up with the idea of a weekly column entitled Trials and Tribulations of an Honest Citizen. I was suffering and I wanted the world to suffer with me. But this was the early 2000s still. Euphemisms still ruled. A spade was still being called an implement to dig the earth with. The title of my column was deemed too politically incorrect and unpublishable. Surely, I couldn’t claim to be honest while accusing the government of theft and larceny, corruption, craftiness and deviousness.
Well, guess what?
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