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.”
“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.”
“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.