Beirut

Interlude Two: Kismet

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From the moment I first arrived in Beirut, everything went right. Well okay, maybe not quite everything.

The driver who brought me from Damascus ended up abandoning me miles from where I’d paid him to leave me.

I’d heard Beirut was very expensive and that budget hotels were almost impossible to find. People in Damascus suggested the best bet was to try a neighbourhood called Hamra, in the western part of the city. There were apparently places there that rented rooms for $40 or $50 a night, which was apparently about as budget as Beirut got in the late 90s. 

All I knew about Hamra was that it was by the sea and that in the 1960’s, it had been the swinging heart of the Middle East, home to the main drag in a city somewhat unimaginatively dubbed the ‘Paris of the Middle East’. Because this was to be my first time in Beirut, and so I had no idea where anything was, I paid the taxi driver a little extra to drop me off in Hamra. I thought that once I was in the neighbourhood, I could ask around for suggestions. 

One by one, the other passengers got out. It was late on a Sunday and we were driving through an especially desolate part of Beirut, which I later realised was a neighbourhood called Tayouneh. Located along one of the lines that divided Beirut into sectarian enclaves during the war, Tayouneh was especially desolate in 1998, an expanse of pancaked, ruined buildings, rusting, twisted railings and palm trees with their tops blown off, fist-sized holes shot through their trunks.

As we passed a large roundabout, the driver, who was probably still annoyed that he’d been forced to wait for me at the border, abruptly stopped and told me to get out. We were on a deserted stretch of road next to what looked like it might once have been a large park. The wind had picked up and it was beginning to rain again, and there were no lights or other signs of life anywhere. I had no idea where this was but it certainly didn’t look like it could be some former Levantine Champs-Élysées, and as there were no other cars on the road, how I would get to Hamra from here, wherever here was, wasn’t immediately obvious. I refused.

We argued back and forth. The driver insisted that this desolate, bullet-pocked wasteland, possibly twinned with Hell, was in fact the neighbourhood I paid him to take me to. I insisted that as I couldn’t see the sea, I wasn’t in Hamra, so we hadn’t arrived yet.

The driver was no sap. Realising he had an intractable backpacker on his hands and visibly fighting his irritation, pulled over, got out and without a word, removed my backpack from the trunk and threw it unceremoniously a couple of metres down the road. 

 He tapped on the window and pointed towards my backpack, which had landed in a large puddle.

“Bag water,” he said, packing more contempt into two words that were not profane than seemed possible. 

When I didn’t move, he got back in, started the engine and prepared to drive off. Faced with the choice of loosing my luggage or getting out and wandering lost in a strange city in the rain with the night fast coming on, I got out. I’d barely exited the cab when he roared off down the broad but completely empty road. Then the skies opened and it began to pour.

A few minutes later a local cab drew up beside me. In flawless English, the driver asked where I was going.

I waved him off irritably. I had no way of paying. The only cash I had on me was a few Syrian Pounds, the rest of my money was in Traveller’s Cheques. I’d tried to change a couple of them at one of the money changers in Shtoura, when we’d stopped for that incredibly expensive cup of coffee, but the man behind the counter wouldn’t accept them and told me that in Lebanon, only banks would. As it was Sunday and as Lebanon followed the Western weekend, those banks were all closed. 

I trudged onwards.

“Hey, where are you going?” 

“Hamra. Walking. No money,” I replied, rubbing my fingers together and shrugging my shoulders.

“Get in. I’ll take you”

“No money,” I replied. “No Lebanese money.”

“Get in,” he repeated.  “I’ll take you. No problem.”

Figuring this for a ruse and feeling more than a little miserable thanks the rain, which had already soaked me to the bone, I stopped and rather rudely told him to leave me alone. 

With a shrug, he drove off and then seemed to change his mind and stopped ten metres or so away, waiting. I crossed the road and began walking back towards the roundabout. It was cold and by now, dark as well. So far, we’d driven by checkpoints and heavily armed soldiers, and now I had been abandoned by my perfidious driver and was walking at night, in the rain, through a neighbourhood riddled with bullet holes. Understandably, I was feeling a bit paranoid. I assumed the cabbie was up to no good and reasoned that it would be better to walk on the other side, just in case. 

“Hey,” he shouted “where you going? That’s the wrong way! Hamra’s this way. Come, I’ll take you. No money.”

I ignored him and kept walking.

By now, the street was marginally busier. Abruptly, the cabbie swung across the road, oblivious to the oncoming traffic and screeched to halt in front of me. 

I must have looked startled because when he got, he was holding his hands out in front of him, much in the same way as you would walk towards a frightened dog backed into a corner.

“Listen, you’re going to get lost if you continue. I know you don’t have any money. Don’t worry. I’m going to Hamra anyway. Come on, it’s raining. Let me take you there, at least.”

I made as if to cross the road again.

“Seriously. I’m going home. I’ll take you for free.” 

“I can’t pay you anything if you take me,” I said again, defensively. “I’m not trying to bargain. I have no money.”

He sighed. 

“Just get in, will you?” he said. “I don’t want your money.

I looked around. I really didn’t have a clue where I was and the brief flow of cars had dried up again. I was soaked to the bone. I followed the driver to the cab and got in. My erstwhile saviour introduced himself as Samir and then asked me where I was from.

“England,” I said. “Not far from London.”

“London? I have an uncle in Wimbledon. You know it?”

I said I did.

“I’ve visited a couple of times,” Samir continued, “mostly on my way to the US. I lived in Chicago for almost ten years but after the war ended, I came back here. I missed my country. What are you doing here?”

“I’m a tourist,” I said. “I’m here to see the sights.”

Samir laughed. 

“How’s that working out for you so far?”

I smiled, relaxing.

“Are you of Lebanese origin? We don’t get many foreign tourists here these days. Where are you staying?”

 Uncharitably, I immediately suspected if I told Samir I didn’t have a hotel yet, he might suddenly develop a ‘brother’ who did, but who was I kidding? It was Sunday night, I had no cash and I needed help finding a hotel, anyway.

“I don’t have anywhere yet,” I replied. “Do you known anywhere cheap.”

Samir laughed again.

“This city doesn’t do cheap,” he said, catching my dismayed expression. “But I know a couple of places that aren’t too expensive. Let’s see what we can find for you.”

And so Samir drove me to Hamra, which looked nothing like the Champs-Élysées but at least was more of a thriving neighbourhood than the one I’d been dumped in by the Syrian cabbie. We then drove around for an hour, Samir hopping out of the cab at places he thought might fit the bill, until he found me a room that I could afford and which he thought was suitable. 

“Too dirty,” he said, coming out of one place. “Too expensive,” he said, coming out of another. “That one smelled bad,” he said, condemning a third.

Eventually, Samir found me a room in a student hostel. It was basic -  bare bulbs and thin cotton blankets - but it was clean, warm and best of all, the owner was prepared to wait until the morning to be paid, if I left a couple of travellers cheques as collateral.

Somehow, a thank you didn’t seem sufficient but I didn’t know how what else I could do. Without cash, I couldn’t even take him for a coffee.

‘Listen,” he said, as he was about to drive away, “just one more thing.”

Much to my abiding shame, my immediate and extremely uncharitable thought was that the generosity had been a sham and Samir was going to ask for some money, after all.

“You can’t spend your first night in Beirut alone in your room. I just called my wife and told her about you. She told me that I have to bring you over for dinner. Something simple, you know, but you must be hungry. You like Lebanese food?”

To be honest, at that point I didn’t really know, but I was cashless and I was starving, so as I got back into Samir’s cab, I hoped he wouldn’t notice the flush of embarrassment that swept across my face.

Chapter Two: A Wake-up Call

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In the dying days of 2015, I was abruptly wrenched out of life as usual.

Somewhat perversely for someone who had made his life in the eastern Mediterranean, both my partner and I love the cold and the snow, so we’d decided that Iceland would be an excellent place to unwind, get a proper winter fix, and usher in the New Year. 

Arriving on the 24th of December to heavy snow and temperatures of -20C, we thought we’d stumbled into Paradise. Reykjavik was aglow, its narrow streets decorated for Christmas. Renting a car, we set about exploring the country, which for the most part, lay under a thick, white mantle. Shutterbugs both, we spent our days hopping in and out of the car, trudging along frozen shores and up icy hills, breath freezing in the air, cheeks burning, taking photos until our camera batteries seized up from the cold. Every day felt like a genuine discovery, as each bend in the road and every hill we crested seemed to reveal some new and breath-taking panorama. 

I had been checking my email intermittently since landing, but one afternoon in the wilds of eastern Iceland, my phone pinged. It was an email from my nephew telling me that my family had been trying to get hold of me for days. Because I’d been using a local SIM card and wanting to get away, hadn’t given anyone my temporary number, they’d been unable to reach me and so finally had resorted to email. It seemed my mother had fallen ill and had been hospitalised.

We hadn’t spoken for almost ten years. My mother and I had always had a very difficult relationship and finally, in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences, it had fallen apart in the raw, bruised months after the 2006 War. Still, this sounded serious, so I phoned my nephew to find out what had happened. We were driving through an area where the signal was spotty, but after a few dropped calls, I managed to get through. He didn’t have details, but he told me where my mother was being treated and gave me a number. This turned out to be for the hospital switchboard. After another series of dropped calls, running out of credit as I was finally being transferred and an equally fraught online recharge, by the time I got through to the ward where she was being treated, I was told that my mother had just been sedated. I had also missed her doctor, but he would be back later that afternoon. Could I call again in a couple of hours? 

Changing our plans, we headed back to Reykjavik, and as soon as I arrived, I called the hospital. The charge nurse was reluctant to tell me anything over the phone, as my mother hadn’t listed anyone as her next of kin. It was only when I explained that I was her only child, that I was not in the UK and that my parents were divorced that she relented. She explained that my mother was being treated for stomach cancer and that she was now awake but still sedated and so she wasn’t always coherent. With that, the nurse put my mother on the phone. 

The conversation that followed was disjointed and surreal. Often, my mother would get confused and forget who I was. Soon we were both crying and apologising, me for my stubbornness, she for hers, both of us for being too proud to make amends earlier. I told her it didn’t matter, that the past was the past. I promised I would get on the next flight and be with her as soon as possible. She said she was tired and in a great deal of pain. understandably, she sounded terrified. I told her to get some rest and regain her strength and that we could talk more comfortably once I got to the hospital. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last conversation of any length we would have.

Getting to England was easier said than done. I spent the next hour trying to change my return flight but it was December 30th and with New Year approaching, the airline had no seats in any class until the 7thof January. Once again, I decided to buy a new ticket, instead.

But flights out of Reykjavik were chock full. Everyone wanted to leave at the same time. I managed to find a ticket on a flight leaving on the 2nd that would have bounced me from Iceland to New York to Paris to London and then finally to Birmingham, but it was a 48-hour odyssey that would have landed me in Birmingham 2 hours before another direct flight on the 4th. So I waited. Better to arrive fresh.

When I got to the hospital in Birmingham that morning, the doctor was blunt. My mother was in the final stages. She wasn’t going home again. In fact, he thought she might well be dead by the end of the day.

“If you have anything you’d like her to know, now would be the time to tell her,” he explained, as gently as he could. “And it would be better it you try to prepare relatives and friends, as well.”

By now, Mum wasn’t speaking much. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she could manage a few words at a time, but the effort was visibly exhausting. The first thing we both did was to cry and apologise again and I spent the rest of the day at her bedside, listening to her breathing becoming more and more laboured, and her gaze unfocussed.

She didn’t die that night. In fact, she would hold on for almost four days. Pouring all her remaining energy into staying alive, she became increasingly unable to speak. I sat squeezing her hand, talking to her, without knowing if she could hear me or understand what I was saying.

If her silence was unsettling, so were Mum’s infrequent bouts of conversation, chiefly for their drugged incoherence. The bustling, lively woman I knew as an adult lay motionless, so thoroughly immobilised by pain and drugs that most of the time, she wasn’t even able to turn her head. Watching her disappear, our endless fights and disagreements, so real and so hurtful at the time, were now revealed for what they had been, empty and meaningless. How had we allowed words to tear us apart? We had both wasted so much time. 

Over the course of those last few days together, I think we managed to reach peace. Any grudges I still held had vanished the day I called from Reykjavik, and judging by the way my mother cried when I walked into her hospital room, hers had too.

There were other people who needed to make their own peace with Dorothy Mabel Eileen Singh, for in the course of our decade of estrangement, my proud, stubborn mother had managed to alienate everyone. None of her relatives or friends, with the exception of one dogged acquaintance in Birmingham and my nephew in Calcutta, were still talking to her. One by one, I called got those I could on the phone and holding the receiver to her ear, encouraged them make peace with a woman who was less able to respond with every passing hour. 

Just after 2am on January 8th, my mother died. Ironically, she had always hated the number 8, saying that it was her unlucky number. Once, she had even refused to move into a house my father had found in Carlisle because it was the 18th on the street. My first thought, though, indeed the one thought that had kept running through my mind over the course of those last four days with her, was that I needed to get moving. Metaphorically and literally.  

My life had been going nowhere for a long time. I’d known for years that I was locked in a holding pattern but I’d allowed my fear to hold me back. As I watched my mother fade, her restless, wandering spirit betrayed, trapped by a body that refused to play along, all I could think was that I needed to get up and go. I had to walk, to run, to move, to dance, to do anything, in fact, that affirmed my incredible good fortune to be both able and alive. 

And so once the necessary phone calls were made, family informed and the post-mortem procedures initiated, my first conscious act was to log onto the website of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association. 

Five minutes later, I was signed up for their month-long spring walkthrough along Lebanon’s first national hiking trail, the Darb al Jabal al Libnaniyye.