INGULFED

(Notes for the Abu Dhabi Bar Mitzvah)

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Pop a Cap — الاطلاق

The Levant: Part Six

The closest I came to gunfire was just after we crossed the border into Syria. They told me it was dangerous, but I thought it would come from the cities, from the police, from around the crowds, and not on the road that cut up from Beirut through the mountains and back down again toward Damascus, Ash-Sham.

Leaving Lebanon at Masn‘aa, we would first reach Haloua, the town whose name means “sweet”. I had passed through each country’s checkpoint without an issue, accepted into Syria without knowing my destination, with nothing but my visa and tempered American smiles.

I sat in the back of the taxi. Just me, and the driver’s fat friend in the passenger seat. They had gained interest in me with the altitude, but lost it quickly when I told them that I wasn’t at all ethnically Lebanese. We entered into Syria and the fat friend lent me his phone, or rather rented it, fidgeting angrily when I had spent too long trying to make out my friend’s directions to a meeting point. Tension mounted as he demanded eight thousand lira, almost six dollars, for a five minute call. The scruffy driver took his friend’s side. Pressure.

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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.

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