Postcard from Beirut – IX

The sea along the Corniche cuts a bit of freshness into the air. The shoals coarse but do not seethe with the tide. Men and boys climb over the rocks, some slabbed out for the sun, others fishing with mammoth rods on which they reel in comically small fish. A man in full diving gear flippers down to the sea floor, collecting his treasures in a basket floating on an inner tube. The old man sharing my bench, clacking his prayer beads, teaches me to say hello in Arabic. He wants to know why I’m working on my computer. This, or some version of it, is a common inquiry, although where the conversation goes from there is wildly unpredictable. (Did you know the first Arab man to build a Formula race car was Lebanese?) My friend today has lots of questions. In America, do we get paid once a week or once a month? How often do we have to pay rent? How much does rent cost? How much does a factory worker make? Which is better, America or Lebanon? (The Beirutis who talk to me are not exactly bullish on Lebanon.) He greets my answers with closed eyes, pursed lips, and a knowing nod; he punctuates much of what he says by looking out at the Mediterranean and saying, “I don’t know, man. I don’t know.” He is from Lebanon but at the outbreak of the civil war he moved to Australia, where he worked in a bakery for almost 40 years, returning only recently. The pre-war Lebanon of this man’s memory had uninterrupted electricity, potable water, and much less garbage. Australia, on the other hand, was, apparently, a paradise so rich that the people were (possible language barrier here) too happy. Now as a retiree on a fixed income, he’s returned with his savings to Lebanon to live out the remainder of his days. He’s managed to see something of the world and he shows me pictures of himself in Sydney, Hong Kong, Singapore, and Denmark. Denmark is a country without peer, apparently—like all the places he admires the most impressive thing is how clean it is. Having shared our skewed views of the world, we part ways warmly. I ask how one says goodbye. He thinks a moment and then says, “So long. See you later. Bye bye.” Everyone’s a comedian.