GQ - 25 OCTOBER 2012
Because I call Beirut home, and because an American TV show called Homeland won a bunch of awards and is apparently depicting my town, and moreover, because this depiction focuses on Hamra street, which I cross a dozen times a day en route to my butcher, baker, gym, my child's school, and the cafe where I write, and because this depiction is apparently ham-handed enough to have enraged the minister of tourism here, who is spending millions attempting to lure tourists back to a beautiful and tragic city—and added to all that, because the show was originally an Israeli TV pilot, an agony and irony for a people still technically at war with that neighboring country and, further, because the Beirut scenery was reportedly shot on location in the Israeli towns of Tel Aviv and Haifa—I want to tell you about a day on Hamra street, last Friday, when a bomb exploded just a few blocks from where I had lunch.
Normally, I walk my three year old to school, but she woke with fever for the third day this week, so I am instead taking her to the doctor. I call for a ride from our friend Hussein, who arrives in a lightly armored Mercedes. Loretta's pissed she's not going to class, so she squirms, and begins to kick my seat, and I beg her to look outside.
We pass the Saudi embassy, where 200 people sit baking in the sun, waiting for their visas, which they need in order to complete Hajj, the annual pilgrimage of walking and praying that all Muslims must complete at least once, if they are able. To prevent corruption, the Saudis annually give each country a number of Hajj visas proportional to each nation's Muslim population. So pretty much anyone standing in line on a sizzling October in Friday had won a spot in the lottery, and given the equality of the system, offering spots on a random basis, the people in line are a motley mix, rather than my neighborhood's typical crust of college kids, sad old men, rich businessmen, and their trophy wives. In line, I see hardcore Bedouin guys in dirty robes and checkered headdresses, alongside packs of wide women wearing abayas. The line is pulsing against metal barriers, and soldiers with guns are trying to keep the peace, standing as they are beside an armored personnel carrier, near a series of giant iron ties shaped like asterisks, set on the road to prevent anyone from parking close enough to detonate a booby-trapped car.
We arrive at the hospital, which is affiliated with Johns Hopkins. The doctor frowns, telling me Loretta's been sick so long we need blood work and a urine culture. At the lab, I hold my daughter in my arms and she shudders. "Daddy, it hurts," she says, and I apply pressure to the needle's entry point. A deep rumble from across the street is just construction debris, tumbling down a chute until it hits the metal dumpster.
The babysitter arrives. Loretta naps, and I throw on a light cotton shirt for the walk downtown, where I'll meet a friend for lunch. The path takes me the entire length of Hamra. I pass the shuttered Applebee's, which will reopen elsewhere; my liquor store, which recently started stocking Maker's Mark; the post office, where I'm sad not to discover the book I need to review but happy enough to find the last two issues of The New Yorker; and the local headquarters of the pro-Syrian regime political group, the SSNP.
In an alley I spot a tough guy with a watery-looking series of snakes and barbed wire tattooed to his arms and neck. He's making coffee on a machine set into the back of a busted minivan up on blocks. He glares at me, and I see in his eyes a guy who would happily beat me to death. Posters of what I assume are martyrs have been pasted to surrounding walls, and the swastika-looking flag of the SSNP is sagging from poles bolted to the walls of surrounding buildings.
Downtown, which had been rubble until being recast recently as a luxury mall, is where Mike and I share a lunch of Lebanese salads and a tureen of hummus, and as usual, talk soon veers to killing. Actually, first we compare birth plans. My daughter was born in Riyadh, and my wife and I fought to have a natural birth. Mike's son is due here at the end of the month, and they've tried to meet every member of the hospital staff, imploring them not to give the pregnant lady any drugs. Reviewing the plan, Mike's wife asked him: "Are you sure you can watch me writhe in pain?" Mike admits he's not sure.
We begin talking about all the people we know who died last winter and spring, how it began with the death of our friend John. I tell Mike I thought about not coming back this summer, staying in America forever, and I take a bite of hummus and say there is something basically dark and unnatural about volunteering to live next to Syria, where people perish in such numbers, where more disappear every day. Places at war with themselves.
I realize that back in America, Beirut must seem equally as dark, equally as unnatural. And that some of that is rooted in reality, in the persistent echo of years-old news stories. In a taxi on the way back to Hamra, I pass the site of the massive car bomb that killed the Prime Minister in 2005. We take a shortcut and I see the Hilton hotel tower, owned by Kuwaiti royalty, ruined in another calamity, trees growing from suites on the upper floors. But driving down most of the streets around here, if you squinted, you might think you were in Queens.
Likewise, if you give it a quick glance, you'd probably conclude Homeland is a pretty sophisticated portrait of the war on terror, whatever that is. But it's still a portrait. The first season followed the return of two American POWs and the American intelligence community's attempt to save the day, and it was hard not to notice how much sex everyone was having, or wanted to have. The second season brought the action to Beirut, where CIA agents were made to grapple with a neighborhood that was hilariously, to people who lived here, crawling with snipers and warlords. Most everyone on the show is still attractive.
On those same blocks, in real life, I stop at Cafe Younes, in the center of the Hamra I know, where most afternoons I crack open my laptop and for a few hours nurse a French press. The syrupy voice of Lebanese singer Faruz bleeds from speakers and every table is packed by students and reporters and silver-haired amateur philosophers and Syrian activists and grizzled NGO workers. Next door is an art gallery and hanging from a pole in front is an arty jumble of rebar, bits of concrete sticking to the metal, the whole thing lit up by fairy lights. A fan above spins lazily. At 3pm, the power goes out and no one notices, outages you can literally set your watch by.
It's easy to assume Homeland didn't bother to send any scouts to Beirut. The tickets are expensive. It's just as easy to poke fun at their solution—send a bunch of actors to Israel. But don't we accept this of fiction? Haven't we always? You make choices, you build a space, you choose your details—and whatever you build, whether on the page or on the screen, it's never complete. "That's not Beirut," you say. But whether it was filmed in Israel or not, Homeland portrayed a real place that had at least something in common with the place on TV. (In reality, it was the FBI—not CIA—which was reportedly flying to Beirut to help investigate the bombing. There are probably enough spooks here already.)
The power flickers back on, and as my Twitter feed loads, I feel punched in the face: A car bomb has just exploded across town. My phone won't dial out. I knock my coffee over and the spill is hot on my foot. The explosion wasn't far from where I had lunch, and I flash to Mike, his wife, their unborn child. I watch a girl sip a strawberry smoothie, a boy bite into a sandwich, and an old man struggle to plug in a new iPhone. A sexy lady is smoking Gitanes by the window, and her boyfriend lights a Marlboro. I am scrambling to load websites on an internet that barely functions, trying to figure out what is going on, and the cafe owner's daughter is leaning on a car, smoothing her curly hair.
Emails are flying around. Can you get through by car? Phones not working. A photo. Looks small? No injuries? Then another photo. Lots of damage. One dead. Use Blackberry messenger to get through. It's two dead. A dozen wounded. Security sources are confirming. No, it's definitely many more dead. More than 100 wounded? A giant crater?
The waiter brings more coffee, a scooter squirts by, roaring up Hamra, making its little burping noises. A man and woman embrace on a couch. That girl I've seen around, probably a freshman at the local design school, is wearing a blue feather in her hair and there are pink caps on the tips of her little leather oxfords. She's upset about something and takes a chair and begins to scribble in a notebook, holding back tears.
I make the error of looking at a series of photos. At this point I still have not heard from Mike. Cars are mangled and several firefighters stand in the smoking wreck that was once someone's apartment. The death toll is eight in some reports, three in others. In one shot a woman is fainting, covered in blood, and in another it looks like you can see the brains of a girl who in my panic appears not much older than my own, though I later learn she is 10. An alert comes in on my phone, a reminder that Loretta's swim lesson is tomorrow at 4:30 pm.
Heading home from the café, I stop for a handle of whiskey and then I pass a young boy with dirty fingernails looking at a gun catalog. Tofu is back in stock at the health store and the phones work again; Mike calls to say they're OK. There's an American tourist in Wrangler jeans, looking up, guidebook in her hand, and I get a good look at her long white throat. A man in front of his clothing boutique is arguing about the cut of a shelf in his remodeled front window.
Back at home, trying to remain calm, we invite our friend Richard and his daughter to come by, because his wife is on assignment in Libya and none of us wants to be alone. I offer to stir up a round of Manhattans, which Richard, who is from Wales, says he's never had. I mix and we stare at our phones, seeking more information about our lives, and as it comes, our little girls run around, cutting things with scissors. It turns out one of country's top intelligence chiefs is among those who were killed. We brace ourselves for the additional ugliness that is sure to come, and into each drink, I carefully spoon a bright red cherry, swimming in its juice.
I hand Richard his Manhattan, and he says he feels like a character in Mad Man, and I feel the sting of being compared to a Hollywood concoction, and then he takes a sip, and I am waiting to see what he thinks, and I notice him trying to smile.
"You Americans like everything so sweet," he says.
Later, I walk outside, toward Hamra street, an American in Beirut, heading to an ATM for some extra money, just to be safe. The streets are eerily quiet, like some moment from a TV show. Then, in the faint light of a streetlamp, I see a family of three, walking toward me, and they're all licking ice cream cones.
This piece was published by GQ. Read the original here.