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Watching Beirut die


A great article by Anthony Bourdain, chef of New York’s famed bistro Les Halles and the host of the food/travel television show "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations," on the Travel Channel. He and his crew landed in Beirut to shoot a show about how Beirut has rebuilt itself after civil war, when hostilities began with Israel. His article is wonderful. I highly recommend it. If you don't subscribe to Salon, you'll have to watch a commercial to read it, but highly worth it.
"Everything had begun so beautifully. Our fixer, Lena, was bursting with enthusiasm when she met us at the airport. After months of preproduction, finally we were here! Finally, the American television crew had arrived -- to show the world how beautiful her country was, how lovingly restored, how hip and forward thinking in the years since the bloody civil war. On the first day of filming, we'd had a sensational early lunch of hummus, kibbe, stewed lamb and yogurt at Le Chef, a local, family-style joint in a charming neighborhood. The customers at the tables around us in the tiny, worn-looking dining area chattered away in Arabic, French and English. Stomachs full, my crew and I headed over to Martyr's Square and the Rafik Hariri memorial; a few blocks away, our fixer and friends pointing out old scars and new construction, trying to explain how much Beirut and Lebanon had changed since the man's death in 2005. They spoke effusively of the calm, the peace, the relative tolerance that had followed the galvanizing effects of Hariri's assassination. Each smiled and pointed at the giant photographic mural of the million-person demonstration that had led to Syria's withdrawal from their country; Ali, our unofficial tough-guy escort, pointed at a tiny dot among the hundreds of thousands in the photo and joked, 'That's me!'

They were so proud of how far they'd come, how much they'd survived, how different and sophisticated Beirut was now. They spoke of all the things they had to show us, the people we had to meet. Significantly, the word 'Syria' was still spoken in slightly hushed tones. Speaking too long, too loud or too harshly of their former occupier, it was suggested, could still get you killed. (An outcome not without precedent.) We walked along the road leading to a cordoned-off area by the St. George Hotel, where Bardot, Monroe and Kim Philby had once played -- back when Beirut was called the 'Paris of the Orient' without a hint of irony. The buildings in the area were still in ruins, a roof torn off, the old hotel -- under construction when the targeted blast that killed Hariri occurred -- still empty. The Phoenician, across the street, which had also been destroyed, had recently been completely rebuilt. A modern hotel like any other, but they were proud of that too. Because, like Beirut, it was still there. It was back.

Then, in the blink of an eye, everything went sideways: Relaxed smiles froze and disappeared. Suddenly, there was the sound of automatic weapons firing randomly in the air from a nearby neighborhood. And fireworks. Then cars -- a few of them -- teenage kids, women and adults, some leaning out the windows and waving Hezbollah flags and flashing the 'V' for victory sign, celebrating what we were told, after a few quick cellphone calls, was the grabbing of two Israeli soldiers. Our fixer, a Sunni; Ali, a Shiite; and 'Marwan,' a Christian, who'd just minutes ago been pointing proudly at the mural -- all three looked down in embarrassment, a look of sorrow, shame and then resignation on their faces. Someone muttered 'assholes' bitterly. They knew -- right away -- what was going to happen next."

He ends the article saying:
In the end we are among the lucky ones. The privileged, the fortunate, the relatively untouched. Unlike the Lebanese Americans who make it out, we don't leave homes and loved ones behind, we will get out and return to business as usual. To unbroken homes, intact families, friends and jobs. After a hideously disorganized cluster fuck at the eventual "assembly point" -- a barely under control mob scene of fainting old people, crying babies, desperate families waving pink and white slips of paper, trying to get the attention of a few understaffed, underprepared and seemingly annoyed embassy personnel in baseball caps and casual clothes -- we are put in the charge of the sailors and Marines of the USS Nashville who've hauled ass from Jordan on short notice to undertake a mission for which they are unrehearsed and inexperienced. Yet they perform brilliantly. The moment we pass through the last checkpoint into their control, all are treated with a kindness and humanity we can scarcely believe. Squared away, efficient, organized and caringly sensitive, the Marines break the crowd into sensibly spaced groups, give them shade and water, lead them single file to an open-ended landing craft at the water's edge. They carry babies, children, heat-stroke victims, luggage. They are soft-spoken, casually friendly. They give out treats and fruit and water. They reassure us with their ease and professionalism.

On the flight deck of the USS Nashville they've set up a refugee camp. I wake up on my folding cot and look around. With every group of traumatized evacuees -- with every family, every group of children, there's a Marine or two, chatting, exchanging stories, listening. They open their ship to us. They look so young. All of them. None looks over 17. "Where you from?" one asks me. I say, "New York" -- and he tells me, "I ain't ever been there. I'd like to." His friends agree. They've never seen New York either. The mess serves tuna noodle casserole and mac and cheese and corn dogs. A sailor or Marine in a bright green dragon suit entertains children. We are kept informed. We are reassured. We are spoken to like adults. On the smoking deck, a Marine shows off a Reuter's cover photo -- taken only a few hours earlier -- of himself, nuzzling two babies as he carries them through the surf to the landing craft. His buddies are razzing him, busting his balls for how intolerably big-headed he's going to be -- now that he's "famous." He looks at the picture and says, "You don't know what it felt like, man." His eyes well up.

The last group from the beach is unloaded from the landing craft into the belly of the Nashville, and we're off to Cyprus. Two battleships -- including the USS Cole escorting us. A Lebanon I never got to know, a Beirut I didn't get to show the world disappears slowly over the horizon -- a beautiful dream turned nightmare. It's not what I saw happen in Beirut that I feel like talking about, though that's what I'm doing, isn't it? It's not about what happened to me that remains an unfinished show, a not fully fleshed out story, or even a particularly interesting one. It feels shameful even writing this. It's the story I didn't get to tell. The Beirut I saw for two short days. The possibilities. The hope. Now only a dream.


Watching Beirut die: We went to Beirut to film a TV show about the city's newly vibrant culinary and cultural scene. Then the bombs started falling, and we could only stand on the barricades of our hotel balcony and watch it all disappear -- again | Salon Life
Jacqueline Keeler
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