Last night I ventured out beyond my neighborhood for the first time in two weeks. Admittedly I’ve been a bit obsessed with preparing for worsening siege conditions and the prospect of renewed internal, sectarian tensions across the country. Don’t forget that aside from the relentless Israeli shelling we’re also dealing with a million people made homeless, i.e. a quarter of the country’s population on the move, and an all-out blockade from land, air and sea. Add to this suspended reality, reports of minor clashes between pro-Hezbollah refugees and their neutral or anti-Hezbollah hosts, and you can see why I’ve been just a little edgy.
Basically I spend my days stocking up on dry foods, gasoline, water, etc. as well as taking a few security precautions around the house; fixing old locks and having an ironsmith put up bars on a couple of our street side windows. But my friends are insanely oblivious. They have been haggling me for days now, literally begging me to shake off this hermit-like existence and re-enter the blur of the Beirut nightlife scene which we once enjoyed regularly, often on a daily basis. I know they are nuts—I mean there are F16 fighter jets in the skies dropping the occasional bunker buster bomb, an earth shattering experience if you’ve ever felt one dive into a residential building nearby. But with cabin fever beginning to set in, at one point you may think to yourself, ‘what the hell am I doing?’
Around 11:30 PM yesterday I did just that. It was day 17 of Israel’s rampage on Lebanon (a.k.a. Friday night) as I ascended to Broumanna, a pine forest mountain retreat where a nascent café and pub scene has supposedly been revived, despite the carnage being wrought on the city below. I live on a hillside just outside Beirut about 500 meters below fabled Bromanna, which with the reconstruction of the capital over the last decade, has steadily faded from its post war glory days—not this war that is, the previous one which ended 14 years ago. Speeding up the winding mountain road, I am not sure what to expect. The street lights are out and I pass only about 3 cars throughout the entire course of the 20 minute drive. Then, out of the black, it’s as if I’ve entered a time warp. There is a massive traffic jam, young revelers spilling onto the streets, restaurant terraces overflowing with patrons and obscene techno beats crashing out of bars onto the town’s narrow main road. I hear a rock band playing cover songs in the distance. Welcome to Broumanna 1992, I think.
After central Beirut was reduced to Swiss cheese in the 1970s and 1980s, this town and other Christian cities on the Northern coast of Jounieh became the country’s defacto entertainment capitals. With absolutely no place to park my car, I begrudgingly hand the keys over to a couple of valet attendants who claim to be members of the Lebanese Forces, a Christian militia that was disbanded after that war. I meet some friends at a patio bar where the scene is arrestingly bizarre. At least 200 young jet setters squeeze past each other, dressed in designer jeans and tight fitting tops—both guys and girls that is. Visibly overwhelmed, waiters and waitress struggle to take orders and carry trays stacked with bottles of orange juice, vodka and whiskey. Smiles and laughter radiate through the crowd, hair done, faces painted, necks and hands shimmer with sparkling jewelry or “bling.” The clamor of small talk glides through the air.
Suddenly, a halting popping sound, almost like a gun shot. The crowd goes silent for a moment turning around only to glimpse a giggling waiter holding a bottle of champagne. A half hour later, some of our friends head back down to Beirut, while the rest of us decide to hit up a few more clubs. We walk into "Cheers," a Western themed bar with cowboy hats hanging on the wall. Immediately we are struck by the site of three young women gyrating madly on top of the bar to Freddie Mercury’s classic tune, “I want to break free.” Two girls rub up against one another provocatively, while a television set hanging from the ceiling plays images of death and destruction in the background. The scene is similar next door at a place called “Safe bar”. Camouflage military mesh hangs from the ceiling. The smell of humidity is suffocating but no one seems to care. A muscular young man wearing a superman T shirt plays with a strobe light, pointing in every direction. A girl standing on the other end of the bar whips her head back and forth to reggae beats sending her curly afro bouncing while twirling her mini skirt furiously. She mouths the lyrics and then pinches her fingers together at the corner of her mouth, imitating the smoking of a marijuana cigarette.
The song is sung by popular Jamaican artist, Sean Paul, who was scheduled to perform in Lebanon as part of one of many music festivals planned for this summer. But the show happened to coincide with day 2 of Israel’s military campaign and the country has since been ravaged-- economically, infrastructurally, and psychologically. Also scheduled to visit Lebanon this summer were hip hop artists Snoop Dogg and Jay Z. Only a few weeks before all this madness started, I found myself at a press conference in a luxury hotel asking the international rap superstar, 50 Cent what he thought of Lebanon. That night he would play to a crowd of around 10,000 cheering fans, many of them between the ages of 8 and 15. “It’s a beautiful country,” he said, adding with a smirk: “Beautiful women.”
Its 2:00AM and we head for a fourth bar, this one called “Cheyenne.” I wonder how many of these hole-in-the-walls opened over the last few days to capitalize on the devastating situation. None compare to the fantastic multimillion dollar establishments in downtown Beirut, designer roof top clubs that rival anything I’ve ever experienced in London, Miami or New York. For now though, much of their clientele have fled to the perceived safety of Broumanna and other remote mountain areas, hoping for an eventual return to their up scale watering holes. I can’t believe there is a line outside Cheyenne, a run down joint that has about as much class as a whorehouse. Behind the bouncer, the doors rattle with the beats and debauchery coming from within. “Can the four of us get in,” my friend asks. “Sorry, we don’t even have room for one,” he says, as if caught by surprise. Later that night with much hesitation I would head back down the mountainside to drop off a friend in Beirut. The streets and highways are chillingly empty for a Friday night. Usually there would be a gaggle of bakeries and restaurants still open, even at 2:30 AM.
Later, when I walk out onto the dark parking lot of my friend’s apartment building, I hear the relentless humming of propellers in the air, an unmanned drone, I imagine. I wonder if my vehicle, the only one on the road at that time, looks suspicious from the sky. Should I speed up or slow down? The next morning, a neighbor tells me about an Israeli strike on a car traveling very close to the roads we took through the city that night. Was I paranoid or was the drone really out there? Later in the afternoon I head to the neighborhood gas station on word that the gasoline crisis we have been anticipating is finally upon us. I ask the gas station owner, a short friendly man who always seems to be smiling, about the amount left in his reserves. He assures me that he has ample supplies. “For a week,” I ask. “Less,” he says, his face turning more serious. “About three days.”
In the evening, I get a call from one of my drinking buddies. He urges me to come to a bar in Beirut. “Everybody’s going,” he pleads. “Do you know that we might not have gasoline in three days?,” I ask. “Why would you be driving around during a gas crisis?” He sighs. “Crisis? Whatever man.”