(Originally published in An-Nahar on December 10, 2018)
During the Civil War entertainment options were limited. There was no ABC mall, no Bikfaya peach festival, no Marina, no Achrafieh 2020 carless roads, no organic market in Beirut Souks … no Beirut Souks, period. No Sky Bar or Music Hall or Rodge. As teenagers, Espace 2000 was probably the epitome of our existence. It had an “accent aigu” — É — in those days, but it went away as the Anglo culture displaced the French one in Lebanon, and Espace is so close to E-Space, which is a great way to rebrand in the digital era. We might go to FM near there and play bingo, an activity for senior citizens in other countries. We liked it because of the “mam7oun” way the announcer pronounced the numbers. Or play “flipper” (pinball) or the Kamikaze video game, where you fired lasers and killed aliens. Beaches were another option. Most were free in those days, “Saint Balesh.” The Bourgeoisie (and imitators) might have gone to Rimal or Summerland, depending on which side you lived. I remember discussing the nomenclature with my childhood friend, George, who said, “In Lebanon, you could name it ‘Himar’ but as long as you pronounced it with a French accent, it works.”
As kids, we also played “stones.” Basically separating into two teams of twenty kids and hiding in abandoned buildings and throwing stones at each other. The game ended when someone got a black eye or a swollen face from a direct hit.
We used to go to juice cocktail places. In those days, Kozeili or Bliss House were considered the best in the country. George used to describe the guy working at Kozeili as a surgeon — the way he would meticulously cut the fruit and have this raised eyebrow and arrogant look in his eye, focused on his patients, the banana, strawberry, and avocado.
You went to a cinema at your own peril. Espace 2000 was the most modern back then, with multiple theaters instead of only one like Piccadilly or Saroulla. In the old days, the cinema was literally a theatre. An elaborate lace curtain, that looked like a Victoria’s Secret design, would seductively open to expose the screen. There would be a break in the middle, kicked off with the curtain action again, to buy a drink and mingle. They even had one in Bikfaya and Brummana, believe it or not. I took my girlfriend to the Bikfaya one once. There was just us, so the guy said, “We can’t play it just for you two; go get another couple” but I wasn’t about to splurge, another 6 Lira, so we left.
You didn’t proudly tell people you were going to Zaitouneh, because that was the red light district before the war. Downtown was a jungle of mines, skeletons, and green shrubbery growing out of unexpected places. In those days, you didn’t go out to a bar for a drink. A bar was a brothel with literally a red light hanging above the door, and maybe an Egyptian woman, with excessive amounts of blue and red makeup, standing at the door, beckoning you inside, in Hamra or Jounieh or Mkalless. It was disgusting, scary, and exciting all at the same time. The country was closed off from each other with barricades and armed gods deciding your fate if you ventured into their universe. If you lived in “Shar’iyeh” (The East Side) you were basically confined to 8% of the country, even though it seemed huge to its inhabitants back then. Most people are surprised by this. My chief editor even questioned it. I told him I got it from a speech by a charismatic leader from that era, but that wasn’t enough for him — a quote of a quote — so I looked up the area of Metn and Keserwen (264 and 337 square kilometers) divided by the total area of Lebanon (10,452), you get 5.8%, then add East Beirut, and presto, that was the Shar’iyeh Canton, 8%. After repeated internal strife, it would get carved out further, and people would be confined to 2% (or 0.00001% if you’re stuck in an underground bomb shelter). The Gharbieh (West Side) was way larger, but its nightlife shut down much earlier, with streets deserted after sunset.
Waiters wore suits with black ties and the “Maître” even had a business card. There were no female waitresses or bartenders. Sons would be sent overseas to study or immigrate, if their parents were the lucky few with funds to finance this expedition, perhaps raised through the sale of an inherited piece of land. No such luck for the daughters. We just didn’t send them alone overseas, to protect them from losing their virginity. Many of the sons ended up marrying foreigners, which created an epidemic demographic gender imbalance for that generation.
Whenever there was a pause in hostilities, one of my favorite activities at twelve or thirteen — we grew up fast —was to steal my dad’s car and just drive around aimlessly. He had a Mercedes 230, with horizontally-shaped lights, not like the ubiquitous Mercedes taxis with vertically-shaped lights. In those days, all taxis were Mercedes 180 or 190 or 200, with the manual gear on the right of the steering wheel. We didn’t drive that pansy automatic $hit back then. In fact, we didn’t give a damn if he had the red number plate, or medallion, that identified him as a taxi — if he drove a Mercedes 190 or 200, he was a taxi. “Service” — shared ride — one Lira pretty much anywhere.
Sometimes, we would borrow the car legitimately, in return for washing it. We would turn on the “flasher” — hazard lights — and drive around town, with those yellow lights blinking, sometimes a convoy of three or four cars. In those days, most cars had no air conditioning, unless you were a big shot, so people drove with the window rolled down, beads of sweat forming on their forehead and neck, during summer traffic jams. Most cars had no power windows and you had to turn the “manivelle” (crank) manually. In typical Lebanese show-off manner, we would sometimes roll the window up, to mislead people outside that we had AC. I remember someone defining a Lebanese as “someone who buys stuff he doesn’t need, with money he doesn’t have, to show off to someone he doesn’t know.” That was us, alright.
One day I came back home, and my dad read the speedometer and noticed that I had driven 200 kilometers. Who notices the reading of the speedometer? My dad who’s slightly OCD, unlike me, calm and Zen.
“Where the hell did you go driving 200 kilometers? Lebanon from its northern to its southern tip doesn’t measure that!”
“I was just driving around.”
“Thanks for contributing to the destruction of the Lebanese economy.”
Back then, I missed the point of his bahdaleh. Today, after an education and career in economics and banking, I understand what he was saying. I was basically using energy, which requires the importing of oil, from outside the country with dollars, and I was producing nothing. I was contributing to the trade deficit.
A lesson I learned decades after that dressing down.
I hope it’s not too late for me to say, “I’m sorry, Dad.”