ROADS & KINGDOMS - 2 OCTOBER 2012
Walking through Beirut now, it’s hard to detect any rage. That fragile guy I always see around town—the one who wears all white and is often in a cafe weeping—is walking the streets again after what was perhaps a summer in the mountains. The flavor of the day at the gelato place is coconut. In the fake American diner, where a ceramic man in blackface has open arms, teenagers back from vacation are eating chicken wings with plastic gloves. At the private school, the toddlers wear uniforms and bang tambourines.
My plan is to walk down the hill and eat a burger at Hardee’s during prayer time, because the men at the nearby mosque literally pray on mats that spill out of the mosque, into the street, and sometimes down the sidewalk in front of the restaurant. Two weeks ago, a few hours north of my home in Beirut, mobs sacked both a KFC and a Hardee’s. If anywhere was to be a site of some friction in Beirut, this is probably it.
I feel like I need to walk fast: The city is always changing, under construction, and the towering drills of a site near my house are turning, spinning deep into the rock, and above ground the woman with the big hair at the ATM in front of me takes out $400, the maximum amount. Then she does it again. When she’s gotten out approximately $2,000, by my count, she turns to me to apologize. Are you in a hurry? I tell her I am not in a hurry. With five more swipes, she appears to retrieve another $2,000 and I am beginning to tire of this game but I am also admiring her red polka dotted high heels and wondering what all this money is for. Then her card is declined. Thanks for waiting, she says.
But the Hardee’s doesn’t open until noon, so I remember to take my time through city streets. The busy T-shirt store off Hamra street offers one that says, “I’ll stop drinking when Johnnie stops walking.” Another pleads, “Warning: Please Don’t Let My Wife Spend Any More Money.” A middle-aged guy with a paunch gets out of his car. He looks perplexed, standing there in the middle of the road, staring at his car in disbelief, and as I feel my stomach turn with compassion I conclude his car has died right there.
In the shade sits a gaggle of old guys with keys to their wheezing Mercedes taxis. There’s dog shit all over the sidewalk. Just then, a cargo truck drives by slowly, a teenager in a dirty shirt leaning off the back, hollering that he’s collecting scrap metal. Clean college students in flip-flops push past Filipino maids clutching money to buy milk. A garbage picker collects flowers from the gutter with two pieces of cardboard.
Nearing the Hardee’s, there are diplomatic plates on a Land Cruiser and pretty girls with floppy purses are air kissing. Cars in front are parked two deep. The Hardee’s manager stands on the sidewalk with slicked-back hair and clutches a fat roll of hundreds. I ask him if they’ve had any problems. No, he says, no protests yet, and he absently taps the back seat of one of his delivery scooters, and he looks off to the mountains.
It’s hot, and the weekend is nearly here, and I ask the cops if there’s been any trouble. I know there’s been no trouble; I live here and pass the cops every day, but I want to see what they’ll say. Sami! They yell, trying to find the guy who speaks English. The guy they produce is thin and tall—a real hunk of a guy. I ask Sami if he likes Hardee’s and he rolls his generous green eyes. “Is it safe to eat there?” I ask, and he shoves me gently. “It’s safe,” he says. “Go eat your food.”
What about this mosque? I call a friend, a reporter who until recently lived down the block. I ask him, tongue in cheek, about the possibility the guys who gather here are actually pretty intense dudes. He advises me to ask around. “Don’t get kidnapped,” he jokes.
I think to ask my butcher, just around the block, to see what he thinks. “That mosque is for Sunni people,” he says, hacking away at some meat, referring to followers of one of the two main sects of Islam. “They probably won’t eat at Hardee’s because they don’t like good American quality. They’re all idiots anyway. Come tomorrow and I’ll sharpen your knives.”
My butcher never gets my knives particularly sharp, but he remembers my name and if you set your expectations too high you’ll probably be disappointed. Class must have just gotten out, because the sidewalk outside is thronged with happy youngsters. Three girls with curly hair feed a caged parrot from a plastic bottle. A disheveled man with blond hair who is probably a teacher stumbles into the sunlight. A handsome student in thick black glasses wears a t-shirt that says, “I Love Hate.”
By now I’m hungry. I open the door to Hardee’s and am blasted by air-conditioning and pop music. I take a seat by students with folders bearing the logo of one of the nearby universities. A thick textbook has one word on the cover: Management.
“She ordered the steak,” a pretty girl says, pointing to her even prettier friend “She didn’t like it.”
“I still don’t know what I want to major in,” a feminine boy says. “Something in the arts?”
I can barely hear them over the blaring of the call to prayer. I ask Rola Owaishi, the assistant manager, about the loudspeaker. She asks me what I want to order. I tell her, then steer the conversation back.
“So this prayer? You can really hear it in here. Is that a problem?”
“No, it’s no problem,” she says, then asks if I want to increase the size of my burger.
“Those mats all over the street next door,” I say, pointing at the prayer rugs. “Do they sometimes place them in front of your restaurant?”
“Yeah, it’s no problem,” she says, and then she asks me if I’d like to add a side of dipping sauce to my order.
“Does it reduce business?”
“Why would it?” she says, and hands me my change.
The students leave, and the staff swoops in to clean, people in red Hardee’s T-shirts working in tandem, even crew chief Rola, who is sweeping up onion rings and bits of burger and then she takes care to brush off the table a faint dusting of salt, which you wouldn’t even notice unless you were looking.
My burger arrives. The tomato is pale, almost green. The fries are strangely fluorescent, brighter than I’m used to. Still, the taste is just about right, and I eat it with pleasure. Outside, the delivery boys are smoking. A metal plate bolted to the wall says the company who manages the property is called Americana. There’s a number to call with complaints. I get more soda.
Prayer call is still ringing out and men continue to arrive, some of them limping, some smoking, some smiling, most grim-faced, some dirty, some impeccable, all of them striding toward mats laid in the street. They don’t look like they have complaints about Hardee’s. The cash register bleeps and the ice machine settles and if you wanted to, you could buy a big cookie or an apple pie.
I have all these plans to ask questions of fellow clientele. But I am the only one here. Perhaps prayer does, in fact, affect business. I go outside.
Two big Suburbans roar up, and heavy dudes in suits emerge, striding over to a place on the mat. The trucks, I see, have these expensive jamming devices bolted to the roof, to block cell phone reception one could use to blow them up. Men in walkie talkies lurk around, securing the perimeter.
Rola says it’s all for the ex-prime minster who has made an appearance. Then I notice a delivery boy can’t park; the big trucks are in the way. He’s pleading with one of the soldiers, but the guy doesn’t even move his eyes. The manager is making calls. A busboy knocks over the salt. The soldier spits on the ground.
You could say people who attack consulates and fast food restaurants in newly reconfigured or long struggling countries like Libya and Lebanon are trying to assert new identities while at the same time lacking most of the tools that allow meaningful expression. There isn’t much of an infrastructure in place, nor is anyone made to feel like they might get results, except perhaps with guns or fire. Governments are barely functioning; Lebanese lawmakers are notorious for procrastination, unless a bill concerned something like a raise for themselves, in which case then they acted with shattering speed.
Meanwhile, in Beirut, the American embassy was fine and it had been a lovely weekend to go to the beach. Sitting there at the Hardee’s, I remember I need photos, so I scramble outside, where I am eyed warily by scowling security personnel. Down the block is the mosque, and beyond that is the police station. No matter how nice the life can be, in places like this, it’s never entirely clear which has more sway. The photos I get are terrible. The burger is decent, but expensive. It’s easier to buy a hamburger than it is to burn a hamburger place down. Both will cost you. Prayer is over and everybody goes home.
This piece was published by Roads & Kingdoms. Read the original here.