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    Entries in Lebanon (24)


    Reading These 5 Writers Will Make You a Better Person 


    Peter Matthiessen

    In Saudi Arabia, I was still trying to make sense of the insane thing I'd done in America. Which was to quit a perfectly good job at Rolling Stone, pack a bag, and walk from New York City to New Orleans. My wife and I had given that Louisiana city a try, staying for a few months in a rambling shotgun house by the race track, drinking and eating and walking around, but in the end it had made sense, I suppose, to move to Riyadh, capital of the world's most Islamic country, itself a custodian of the religion's two holiest sites. 10 thousand miles from anything I knew well, I'd wander the dirt paths of the sprawling compound we called home, dark and windy on the city's western edge, and I felt as disconnected as I ever had been before. I was trying to be a good husband. And an American. And soon enough, I'd be a dad.

    The book that resonated with me most then was Snow Leopard, the late Peter Matthiessen legendary account of trekking through the Himalayas to find the reclusive cat. More than a record of physical hardship, the book is a long mediation on pain and suffering and perseverance. Why do we do hard things? It's not just about the steps he takes through the snow, but about all the moves he's made in his life up to that point -- the choices big and small that found him alone, away from his children and with a dying wife, trekking in search of something that didn't want to be found. The copy I had was a friend's, illegally photocopied in some stall in Nepal. The cover was fraying but the writing inside was gorgeous, subtle, and much better than anything I could do. I still haven't written about that walk to New Orleans. But when I do, a copy of that book will be on my shelf.

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    In Defense of National Airlines

    ROADS & KINGDOMS - 23 APRIL 2014

    Malaysian Airlines Flight 370: How can 239 people just disappear? I fantasize about the plane itself: What it looked like, the color of the seats, the food. Will I ever fly on Malaysian Airlines? Will anyone ever want to again?

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    Once Upon a Time in the Middle East


     There was one day near the end, when I took a taxi up a hill, to see a man. We sliced through canyons, making our way into the mountains north of Beirut, riding a black strip of asphalt upon which no lines were drawn. The span of tar was sometimes wide enough for two cars, sometimes one. We drove fast, nearly hitting someone when the road narrowed, nearly hit by another car ourselves when we bisected a second road—no stop signs, no stoplight—and then I realized: Nowhere at any point had a sign indicated a sharp curve or steep drop-off. We were on our own. When we finally stopped, four black dogs came running. 

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    Bend, don't break

    AEON - 23 NOVEMBER 2012

    Last winter, I moved to Lebanon from Turkey. Before that I was in Saudi Arabia. The Middle East, with all its chaos and calamity, was a fascinating place to be, but it also required a lot of effort to make something like a normal life. Moving to Beirut, a city that some still compared to Paris, I thought things might quieten down at last.

    The city proved me wrong. There was a shoot-out on my street. My journalist friends were losing their minds trying to cover Syria. Colleagues were getting killed. Hoping to find something other than liquor and worry to take my mind off things, I found myself entering a room with mirrored walls. The space was hushed, with soft light from recessed bulbs. Hesitating, I tiptoed to a spot by the wall, unsure — unsure of what? Of everything, really. Then I took off my shoes, laid out my watch, and took a deep breath.

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    Thanksgiving Abroad: A Bittersweet Holiday in Beirut


    In the year 2000, my then-girlfriend Kelly and I took a monthlong trek through Mexico, with the aim of covering that country's historic presidential election but mostly eating tacos and falling in love. She was 30, and I, nine years younger, was basically a boy. Kelly hailed from the Midwest, where family and celebrations were important. My family, on the other hand, tended to forget non-Christmas holidays; remembering them at the last minute, we'd dispatch someone to order Chinese from a mini-mall. In Mexico City that year, we compromised on Thanksgiving Day: we went to a house party.

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    Swimming Upstream: A Memoir in Pools


    Because I loved the water and because I moved all the time—in search of what, I wasn’t yet sure—I found that swimming laps was a good way to get somewhere without booking another ticket. Wherever we were, I’d search out an open lane, and sometimes I’d surprise myself, encountering the person who emerged on the other side. You could learn a lot with your eyes closed.

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    A Hardee's in Beirut


    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.

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    When I finally saw my blood

    SALON - 1 OCTOBER 2012

    I’d lived in Beirut for nearly a year — next to the mess in Syria, where more than 20,000 people had so far been killed; an hour or two from borders my wife crossed to find out why; and where, for a variety of reasons, I still had trouble explaining my own stake in all this — when, in the kitchen the other night, I finally saw my own blood.

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    A Week in Beirut



    I wake up early to make ice cream for an old friend who is visiting from Riyadh. I blow a fuse in the power converter getting the machine to turn fast enough, but I have a spare fuse and all is well. The visiting friend, Matt, flies in on Saudi Arabian Airlines, which is now a member of SkyTeam, so you can use your miles on Delta or Air France. That night, Matt, my wife, and I stay up late drinking beer and wine and telling stories about the life we shared in Riyadh, where my daughter was born and where Matt still spends weekends DJing parties.

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    The Boulevard of Broken Bones


    I live in Beirut but don’t want to forever. I’ve gotten older, less patient, more judgmental about people I think are being judgmental. I was once a big drinker and I thought I was a big editor, but now I guess I’m slowing down. I once walked for five months, all the way from New York to Florida and points beyond, but now I’m a little more rooted, a father, and I dream of bringing my girls home someday. But where on earth—or in America—could that be?

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    The writing life: From Beirut and Cambodia to New York, Florida, and parts unknown


    Because summer in Beirut was so brutally hot and because the grandparents missed their granddaughter and because the dream was still alive and I had signed up this winter for a low-residency creative writing MFA program in Tampa, which required me to travel from Lebanon to the Florida campus for 10 days in June, I began to sketch out an entire summer in America, anchored by that MFA residency and then two weeks at a writing conference four hours north of New York City.

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    In praise of nightmares


    GROWING UP, MY SISTER and I spent Tuesday nights at an art studio across town. The air conditioner sputtered, and we learned how to draw a wine bottle, flowers, our hands. Was it my mother’s idea, or had we wanted to go? She can't remember, and neither can we. Soon my sister lost interest, preferring to volunteer at a veterinary clinic, but I stayed with it, graduating to pen and ink, watercolor, and then oil paint. Hard as I tried, however, what I did on the page never seemed to match up to the things I saw at night, when I'd stare at my curtains, and see, in the darkened folds, the outline of a face or a bird or a ship. I still remember that ache, the mounting feeling that tomorrow would be the day I'd put pen to paper and recreate those lines and curves, and the dread that again I wouldn’t.

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    Jonestown, Naipaul, and me


    The other day in Beirut, I took a meeting with a woman of Lebanese origin who was recruiting writers for a new journal. In an email, she said she liked the stuff I’d sent—at least enough to have coffee. 

    We sat in silence for a moment, sipping drinks at the outdoor cafe, when a street urchin approached our table. The boy, who appeared to be about 10, looked into my eyes and implored me in a murmuring voice for “money, money, money.” I glanced quickly at the boy, then at the woman, seeking her lead, not wanting to make the wrong move. She pursed her lips, shook her head, and made no eye contact with the boy or me. Confused and already regretful—it seemed like no good would come from any of this—I stared again into his eyes. Just then, he raised an arm and began to stroke my face with a dirty hand. I felt his skin on mine, and my heart beat fast. Here I was, in Beirut, seated at a table, a warm hand on my face. Then the lady began to yell, and the boy scrambled off. We sat again in silence. Where could we go from here?

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    This spring, I visited Faraya, the Lebanese mountain a few hours from what was starting to look like a war in Syria. We tried parking beside a BMW, which was disgorging taut specimens in wintry pleasure gear, but another car beat us to the spot. After three wars in as many decades, there were still bullet holes all over Beirut but also a ton of money. When people could, they liked to party.

    I squirmed in my seat, an American in the Middle East, needing very badly to pee. I was already shaking from cold, and—reaching for my gloves—I realized how badly I’d prepared. Can you get hurt trying to sled without gloves?  

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    I didn’t see you there


    The other night in Beirut, notebook in hand, I slowed to watch an old man part his curtains. Inside a building scarred by bullet holes, he worried his hands, standing beside yellow walls and a water-stained desk. I fumbled in my bag, trying to find a pen. A dog barked. The afternoon light was dying, and I couldn’t find the damn pen.

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    Innocent and Abroad: Mark Twain and the Art of Travel Writing

    THE MILLIONS - 16 MARCH 2012

    Not long ago, I lived in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, where I wrote stories about, among other topics, a meet-up of Twitter users, a dire sandstorm that befell a mixed-gender rock show, a tour of one of Riyadh’s oldest hotels, and what happens when the most Islamic country in the world attempts to hold a festival to “celebrate culture.”

    I was young and proud and eager to share my work. So every month or so, I’d send out an email to friends and associates with a link to my latest. Not too many complained. Some, apparently, even enjoyed what I sent.

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    Tensions run through it


    The other day, a Beirut river ran red. Stunned officials said it might be blood. Or a deadly chemical. People could be hurt. The color certainly wasn’t part of some celebration. Everyone was stumped—even scientists at the university—and then, suddenly, the river ran clear.

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    Citizen of somewhere


    Before the memorial for the fallen journalist, I stumbled down the hill toward the church, hungover and hungry.

    Consider the falafel sandwich. At under $2, it was my obvious move. But I was sick and sad, and the kids behind the stove looked like 12-year-olds who should have been in school. An alarming percentage of children here work instead. The last time I bought a falafel sandwich, the guy ahead of me had a growth on his face. It was so big I worried he might tip over, face-first, into the grease. 

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    Good knives


    I leave the house with a bag of knives.

    My daughter, Loretta, holds my wife’s hand, and the three of us wait to cross a busy street. There’s something unpleasant ahead.

    “That's poop!” Loretta squeals. “On the sidewalk!” I tell her someone will clean it up. But I’m not sure, really—not sure of much these days.   

    It’s a sunny day in Beirut, Lebanon.

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    Since the last war


    The reporter is wearing an eye patch.

    “And who do you work for?” she says, clearing her throat.

    “I’m retired,” I say.

    A grizzled tribe of Middle East correspondents has gathered at the Mayflower Hotel’s wood-paneled bar in Beirut. Wine is poured, mugs of beers are guzzled, and cigarette smoke hangs in blue clouds. I don’t really belong. I’m here by marriage.  

    After being apart so long, it’s still pretty raw, this life my wife and I are making together. There are the shared meals and a morning at the American University park and a Saturday run to the farmer’s market downtown. But Kelly’s leaving again soon, this time for Yemen.

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