The first thing I noticed as we drove through the dusty no-mans land between the Syrian and Lebanese border was an assortment of armed milita, Syrian, Lebanese, and United Nations. The second thing I spotted was the golden arches of McDonalds. Lebanon, it seemed, would be an interesting place to visit for a couple days.
A few hours later, I was enjoying the bright afternoon, walking along the Corniche. The sea front was filled with old men playing backgammon, rustic fishermen and a few hubbly bubbly smokers. As well as the traditional pleasures, Beirut offers Irish pubs, Mexican restaurants and yes, even a McDonalds. If it wasn't that several high rise buildings are gutted shells and still riddled with bullet holes, you could easily forget that the city had been torn apart by civil war only a few years ago.
The following morning, I hailed a taxi into the town centre. The driver gabbled away happily in French. This was something of a problem, since I'd wasted five years of French education staring out of windows, and wondering how a table could be considered female.
"Mon francais cest merde," I explained in stuttering Franglais. "Ah, you English," the taxi driver replied. "English and Lebanon, um," words failed him. He took his hands off the steering wheel long enough to push his index fingers together. "Close. Good friends," he explained. I was glad to hear it. Maybe it meant he wouldn't fleece me on my fare. I tried to think of some other mutual ground, as we passed a slender brunette in a mini-skirt. "La femme Beirut," I explained hesitantly, "cest bonne..." The taxi driver thumped the steering wheel and roared with laughter, shaking my hand, as the car swerved slightly across the road. "Ah, oui, la femme cest tres bonne!" he approved.
It's true though, the girls here are really quite stunning. Maybe its the lack of traditional Muslim dress code. In western Beirut, the hejab is replaced by mid-riffs and short skirts. Or perhaps itís the local American University of Beirut which attracts the cream of the Middle Eastern female population. One thing is for certain, Mark would have done well to have joined me. If he could find a wife anywhere in the Middle East, he could have done a lot worst than found one here. I could even have acquired a potential date or two for him, or at least an encounter of a less reputable nature.
I while away an hour or so exploring the National Museum of Beirut. It felt smart and modern but it was a miracle that anything had survived the civil war. Fortunately, the museum staff had the foresight to seal the treasures in concrete, draped plastic over the mosaics and nailed the windows shut, entombing the place for the duration of the war. Years later, they'd returned to discover the building flooded and riddled with bullet holes, but its prized artefacts remained largely intact. Today, the museum has been utterly restored, although the bulldozers continued to work outside and the bullet holes remained as a telling reminder of the religious conflict.
An afternoon was passed mooching about the cobbled streets of the Place d'Etoile, a Romanesque shopping parade, eating a houmus shwarma, the cheapest thing I could find on the menu. I could have been in any European city, but the militia in camo gear with blue berets and automatic rifles struck a sombre note. Although there has been peace in the Lebanon for the past ten years, there is still tension in the air. Earlier, a taxi driver had indicated the gun in his glove compartment and pointed reassuringly to the crucifix hanging from the mirror. "In Beirut," he explained, "everything is the same. The earth has not changed. Or the sun. There are still problems between the Phalange Christians and Muslims." He handed me his business car, advising me not to trust a Muslim driver.