(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

الطيار من طاير

The Levant: Part Five

It is hard to make plans when there’s nothing you really want to do. When I drove into the gas station in Furn al-Shebbak before heading off to Baalbek, I was sick of the traffic and of looking at maps, and I was leaning further and further towards driving to a beach in the south, sticking my head in the sand, and hiring the first shared taxi out of the country in the morning. But more happened at that gas station than I let on about in my last post —it wasn’t so important then — and in the hour and a half I spent parked not buying any petrol, I filled up on ideas and got back into the traveling spirit.

The air force cadet, around my age and dressed in camouflage, did tell me not to go to east towards Baalbek, but he told me not to go south towards Sur (also called Tyre) either. Go tomorrow morning, he told me, and I’ll go with you: fish for lunch, jet skis, the beach. The cadet, his name was Marwan, was from there. “And nargila?” he asked. “Of course.” Huge smiles. This dude was speaking my language.

But if I didn’t go to Baalbek, I really had fuckall to do. I tried to explain that, but I couldn’t quite get it across in Arabic. “Do you know people in Lebanon?” Marwan and the pump manager asked.   No.  “What are you trying to see?”   Nothing. Anything, something different.  “Where are you staying?”   Nowhere.

Their faces grew more and more incredulous with my every hopeless shrug. I truly had no good reasons to do anything at all — no sights to see, no people to meet, and an unfaltering confidence that my rental insurance would cover robberies.

“Meet me outside Melek al-Tawwous at 8:30,” Marwan repeated, unknowingly accepting as his all of my stresses about filling time. I had few wants but I wanted to, I felt I needed to want — but with the air force in charge, I could take the passenger seat and throw my baggage in the back.

And so I asked for directions to Zahle and went to Baalbek, and I came back and crashed in the one pension I knew, and I picked up Marwan outside the breakfast place just as he said. “Let me drive.”

The day started so right. We shortcut through side streets and raced onto the highway, stopping to pick up two pirated CDs of Lebanese Pop from a shack on the road; by the end of the day we’d listen to the good one about 40 times — and the bad one 65. We learned little about each other: he fixed planes for the air force, I wandered around countries. “You have a good heart,” Marwan would say to me. I tried to live up to his assessments, based on my willingness to travel alone or with a very new friend, by trusting in his plans for fun à la libanaise.

We had unbelievable foul (he paid) and pepsi in his town, Ghaziyeh (he wasn’t from Sur), and he ran in to his house (which he never let me see) to change out of his army uniform. “When I come back I will be a real person.” He came back in a sleeveless muscle shirt with his hair gelled. We were going to the beach. “Do you have any cologne?” Tolerance, I told myself.

We stopped for shisha and tea by the water in Saaida and he paid again — it was cheap, but it sent a message nonetheless. I was a guest. “Money comes and goes,” he said. “Friends are the most important.”

Before driving down to Sur, we picked up his girlfriend that was not his girlfriend outside Lebanese International University. (“She loves me but I do not love her.”) In the baffling traffic on the small streets around the university, we circled for ages before finding her, Marwan getting quieter and quieter, me brainstorming an idea for a screenplay based entirely around Lebanese traffic patterns. I began to feel claustrophobic. A girl in a tight white headscarf got into the car. She would never talk to me.

Finally we were there, in the town with three sides to the sea. Broad beaches swept along the Mediterranean — warm sand, cold water, and nearly deserted in the summer preseason. Still Marwan circled. We drove and he spoke quietly to his habiba as we went up and down the same hill, around the same roundabout, past the same ocean. I didn’t understand what she was doing — whether she wanted something that couldn’t be found, whether she had requirements that would contaminate the freeness of my last day in her country. “What are you looking for?” I asked Marwan when my trust faltered. No answer.

For forty minutes we drove the many lengths of Sur’s peninsula, my head burning, my fists clenching and unclenching, grasping at time lost forever. He knew I was furious, and I knew he knew, and she — I still didn’t know what the hell she wanted. I was trapped by their presence: where could I tell anyone to go?

Marwan had accepted his role as entertainer, and he fell silent when he had no plan and no answers. Even though I couldn’t have been happier with the sun and sea as we found it, hair gelled, he wouldn’t believe me. There was no nargila, no umbrellas by the water, no crowds. “This is awesome.” I would say. But it didn’t get through. I was torn by two needs: the first to preserve the new friendship — I still believed believed in my marrow that this innocent mechanic was a good dude as honest as people are made, but lacking some appreciation for simplicity; the second to open the pressure valve in my brain and scream at him, to scream until the car stopped moving, to roar until he understood I needed nothing but nothing and wanted only to relax, relax, RELAX!

We stopped by the first beach, years older in spirit, and only I moved. I unbuckled my seatbelt and lifted my book — “Perfect.”

“We’ll wait in the car,” Marwan said.

I blinked.

He was so convinced that I would be disappointed with this actionless beach (in part, surely, because he was) that he could not grasp how much it was all I needed, how I was hardly kidding when I said Americans spent years looking for beaches with no one on them, how I didn’t need hair gel or cologne or a beach chair or the jet ski I thought he owned or little mint lemonades with the umbrellas in them to feel like we’d accomplished our mission for the day. He certainly was unaware that to sit waiting, baking in a hot car, while I somehow enjoyed myself — as he had promised I would — violently undermined what little tranquility we had found.

“We have some things to talk about,” he said, trying to tell me it was okay. But I wasn’t going to have them sit like chauffeurs while I baked on the sand — I knew they didn’t understand that a person could sit on an empty beach for hours. Now that they were with me, I needed their happiness to find my own, and it was not (I tried to chide myself) because I cared directly; I knew that the awareness of their stress and impatience would claw at me until they were sated. “Really, we’re fine,” Marwan said.

“No.” You’re going to enjoy this fucking beach.

I raced ahead of them to a spot on the sand where I opened my book and promptly fell asleep. They stood holding each other far, far away, in a blur of headscarf and hear gel. And when I woke up some number of minutes or hours later, they were gone.

Sunstruck, I tromped back to the street. The car, with my everything in it, was gone. I had jumped from the car so quickly that I had left everything but my book and sunglasses — my phone and passport and shoes and contacts were all lost inside, the keys I’d left with Marwan. He was my friend that I was furious at for our mutual lack of cultural understanding and our total inability to deal with it, but he was not a thief. I needed to trust him to be this angry, and even barefoot on the road I was convinced he felt the same. I had time to play out in my mind every possible scenario and my options (nothing) before I saw the car parked, slightly farther away than I had remembered it, with Marwan and the girl sitting in the front seat. He waved through the windshield.

We said almost nothing and began to drive north, back the way we came, for no reasons of mine. The not-girlfriend needed to get back by the afternoon, as Marwan had never told me, and in the car I’d rented and with the time I’d borrowed, I was stuck once again. Marwan hated to tell me things he knew I wouldn’t want to hear, and would never answer when I asked if she had anything she needed to do. And with the way she had chosen to coldly coexist with me, I balked at the thought of asking her directly.

As soon as she had left the car, I felt one weight had been lifted. “You’ve gotta just tell me,” I scolded him. “I don’t care what it is we do, just tell me why we’re doing it.” It was true. I had given up on following Marwan on the perfect beach adventure; today was about survival. He spent parts of the next several hours saying he didn’t want me to be angry and asking me if I was happy, asking me where I wanted to go. “I’ve never been here ever.” (And in my head: I thought you were from here. He was such a good person, I knew it. But he was driving me crazy.

We doublebacked south again and stopped at a beach covered with trash. Plastic bottles and cartons stuck out of the sand, and receding waves uncovered buried car tires by the waterfront. But it was beautiful, and we ran into the water together to repair Lebanese-American relations and to rekindle our bromance. I opened a book. “What do you want to do?” he said.

Just sitting wasn’t going to be possible. We played Palettes, a game no different than Israel’s beloved Matkot, but still I felt his guilt and compounded it with my own for making him feel it. But I had to be direct — his nurtured assumptions of what would be fun, and what couldn’t be, were not mine. If I wanted to like where our time was going, I could not let him fill it anymore.

“Let’s go to the border.”
“Let’s go to the end of Lebanon.”

That would be cool, I thought — the contested border with Israel — and it wouldn’t require a peaceful state of mind. He was afraid and confused — it’s just a border. He was also convinced that it was at least four hours away, when in fact it was no more than 20 km from our first frustrating stopping point, half an hour south. But I felt alive, looking for physical symbols of geopolitics instead of grasping with clenched fists at peace. “I’ll drive.”

We passed white United Nations tanks. A gunman leaned out of the manhole, yawning. A soldier waved us through a checkpoint. Before Naqoura, the asphalt stopped and became white rocks as big as grapefruits, packed into a smooth, wavy surface. A convoy of dozens of threatening covered trucks pushed past, and I fought our way through openings. But before we got much closer, another checkpoint, this one more serious. A guard ordered me out of the car and asked for our papers. Only Lebanese were allowed further, all foreigners needed a permit from the authorities in Saaida. If it weren’t for Marwan and his army ID, I would have found myself in serious trouble: a lone male, foreign with the Jewishest of last names, headed for war-torn territory. Still, I pressed: “So with just that permit, you can keep driving?” The burly commanding officer handed me back my passport. “With a permit you can drive to China.”

The last checkpoint, 10 miles from Israel.

Marwan slid into the driver’s seat, relieved to be heading in the other direction. And as soon as I came to terms with our botched attempt, we started to find fun again. We drove up to a church on a mountaintop overlooking the whole of the south and ran up the hundreds of steps of a nearby tower. But when I climbed up the final ladder to the roof, I saw again his reluctance: “They’ll see us!” And when I moved towards the entrance of church he said he thought we shouldn’t, that it wasn’t open. It was quite open.

Just as confusingly, this same soldier bought beers and chips from a shop on the hill to have in the car. He popped off the caps with his seatbelt and took swigs as he cruised down to the town below, shouting out at his friends that apparently lived all over the place. I took pictures out the window at the sunset through wires and old buildings.

And then he wanted to find a hotel. I was run down by all of the day’s arguments, and agreed, though it was only minutes after dark. We turned down a $120 per night boutique hotel in the center of town — I was traveling on the cheap, and this was the Middle East, and I wanted to leave at dawn anyway to catch a bus to Syria. So we kept moving, towards a place another friend on the street had mentioned, away from the city, away from the lights, away from anything.

When we found it we had left everything behind. The Mina Beach Hotel was rundown, collosal, and pink. Every window was dark, and the facade scowled at would-be guests like every creepy motel in your nightmares. Marwan ran in and back out: it was eighty dollars. No way.

Dirty is no problem, and scary can be fun, but both for five times what I could pay for a bed in the city I wanted nothing more than to get back to and get out of — that was too much. I saw Marwan had picked up my 100,000 lira ($70) in the console, and stopped him before he went back into the hotel. “Don’t pay him.”

He came out of the dingy entrance a second time: “Come on, get your stuff.” My insides collapsed on each other. I was too confused and dispirited to yell yet. He had taken money from me and spent it, which was bad, but worst of all he had chosen to spend it on a soulless hellhole that, I found out later, was home to the world’s most viciously thirsty mosquitoes. He lived mere kilometers away. We had long since grown painfully tired of each other’s company — why do you want to do this?

I took nothing to the room — I couldn’t accept it — and when we jiggled the door undone, it made even less sense. The beds were bare but for one thin sheet; a strange and unnecessary “kitchen” flaunted its one metal countertop and a fridge fringed by mildew and rust; the ceiling dripped gently onto the floor.

It was as if my blood had been drained from my heart. Had my body not made enough strength to yell, demanding answers for my confusion, I might have died in surrender. I said everything I’ve written here (plus questions about why he had pocketed 20 of 30 dollars I’d given to pay for gas), louder and even less well-worded, seeking a panacea for the day’s ills in the form of some enlightening explanation. I let forth a deluge of English when my Arabic burst under the pressure, firing sentences I knew he couldn’t understand fully. “I know.” Marwan said to everything — to why he spent all the money I had left, to why he was content to sleep in the Lebanese Bates Motel. He was sitting slumped on the blanketless bed. “I thought you needed the rest.”

I drifted outside to the balcony, staring at nothing, lending my flesh to the night’s first mosquitos. The sea was too dark to make out now, still too dark when I left in the morning, so I looked down at the enormous empty pit of a pool below (Marwan said they filled and emptied it every day.) But if I could stop asking why, I’d only be down $70.

I turned back inside. “I’m sorry, man.” For a moment, I was at peace. “You know, if any Lebanese yelled like that… I’d kick you.” He paused. “But you’re my friend, and I hate to see my friends unhappy.”

I was the asshole. For whatever reason, he had used my money because he thought deep down that was what I wanted. He told me nothing about his lady friend because he wanted to create the perfect environment. He drove in circles until he found answers that worked for everyone. This was a man pure of heart and magnanimous in his intentions — I just didn’t understand. He didn’t understand how to relax doing nothing on a beach, and I couldn’t convince myself that time spent getting to know someone good and different is more dear than anything else.

I couldn’t convince myself because if I knew I didn’t understand so much about why he made the choices he did, then I didn’t really know anything. Maybe I was just the subject of his strange manipulations — a guy with a car, an American to hang out with (how exotic!), an open wallet. Maybe I wasn’t the asshole after all. Then again, maybe I was.

But for a moment, we both seemed at ease with each other’s foreign existence. I wandered into the open room next door to take a shower, bags of chips and tobacco strewn on the floor and countertops by those who had escaped in the morning. When I came back, Marwan was dressed and gelled.

“We need to go,” he said. “Right now.”

The police chief had called him personally. Some police had seen him in the car with me, and they wanted to see me in the station for taking pictures (of the sunset) in town.

I felt like I was being arrested. If it were just me, I’d never be subject to the whims of police officers miles and miles away, or to the obedience of a once-friendly soldier. Marwan told me to take all of my things.

He stared straight ahead at the road; I hid memory cards in pockets. “I’m not going to erase everything just because some police called you,” I told him, realizing that I had no need to even follow him into the station. When we got closer, I learned that was never his intention either. “Go to Beirut, go to Syria,” he said, pulling up short of what might have been a police station. And with that, he hopped out of the car forever.

I sat in the passenger seat for a few minutes, blocking one lane onto a bridge if there was anyone else out driving. And then I slid over to the steering wheel and headed back slowly to face my fears at the Mina Beach Hotel, because it was there, and to unwittingly donate most of my blood to the hotel’s insect population. I tried everything to stop them, mummifying every inch of my head and body in a keffiyeh and the one fleece blanket I swore I wouldn’t touch. By 4 a.m. the mosquitos had me beaten and broken in the room haunted by Marwan’s disappointment, and I left for Beirut to sleep in the car by the bus station.

I still don’t believe the police even called. Marwan had found himself trapped with nothing left to give, and with a clever but decidedly diplomatic move he took his leave. He had seen our star-crossed friendship through to its only end: we both held to the belief that the other was fundamentally decent, even goodhearted, but admitted that we simply were never going to understand one another. He saw this, I think, and said goodbye to me for good.

It was the first thing he did I ever understood.


  Sarah wrote @

You sure have a different life. Great post

  Old Lady by-the-sea wrote @

Such tension and suspense! very perceptive analysis about what’s going on between them. Unique.G/L

  vladimir Vazhninkovsky wrote @

Quite a story, really rather moving to read. It helps knowing in advance that nothing truly terrible happened, but it’s a bit harrowing nonetheless. Subtle reflections about relationships across cultural lines.

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