The Last Mile

It has happened, and my head is still spinning. My last weeks in Beirut, a proverbial blur, left no room to think or plan or feel — senses heightened, yes, but nothing sinking in; a cartoon dog of emotions–“no take, only throw”–onwards, forwards, one thing to the next, and here we are now entertain us.

You don’t put off the get-togethers when you’re about to leave, so you find yourself more energetic and affirmative than ever before.

“Yes,” I will go to your BBQ.

“Yes,” I will join you for drinks afterwards.

“Yes,” I’ll have another beer.

I wrote those words a few months ago. I have not stopped saying “yes.” My head has not stopped spinning.

The universe lined up some interesting doors for me, on my way out. Behind door number one, a swirl of expats orbiting a central star I’d met some years ago, while working a gig as a press coordinator.

I’d been invited a few times into her gravitational pull, where seemingly every journalist, NGO worker and otherwise interesting person in Beirut eventually ends up. It felt like her BBQ-on-the-balcony would be a great way to say goodbye to her and to that city as a whole.

What surprised me most on my way out was how much more we’d had in common on that humid evening in June than I came to expect. Several of us were on our way out of Lebanon as well; two couples even said: “we have no plans.”

All of us, in the wind, together. This was not a feeling I have felt very often, not in Beirut.

I was struck by how heavy the city seemed to be weighing down on these objectively well-adjusted and successful young professionals. There was the usual moaning about ‘the situation’ here and there, which is to be expected when you put a bunch of wonks and do-goodniks together. But they complained of actual health problems; hair falling in clumps, food now indigestible, and — this ailment much more difficult to define — things that once mattered, now mattering far less.

What does a place do? What happens with time?

This was not the first time that I’ve left. Seven summers ago, I did the same thing that I’m doing now. I put it this way, then:

Beirut, city of contrasts? It can be. DJ Spooky one night, Ramadan party with Ahmad Doughan and a whirling dervish the next.

Lebanon, mosaic of believers? That too; looking down the Sacred Valley of Qadisha then looking back up from the bottom makes a pious man out of any; even the tomatoes in the tabboulé at the restaurant below threw me into a fit of (secular) awe with the universe.

I didn’t expect to reinvigorate my sense of belonging just before I leave, but then again, that’s exactly how that works: it’s only a prison when there’s no way out.

Six months later, I hit upon an insight that I still carry with me:

Everywhere is just as bad as everywhere else. Of course, there will be different frustrations in different places, but in terms of settling down and building a home somewhere — i.e. constructing a life after mere (student) residence; sustaining a pause in the endless cycles of mobility and exploration — my generation (the middle-class, lost one) is coming to terms with the fact that, to put it in sophisticated terms, everywhere sucks. “Sorry! The lifestyle you ordered is currently out of stock.”

This isn’t a lamentation; it’s good to remember that places are made “better,” more attractive to live in, etc., and that can easily be un-made. I am now “making” my peace with Beirut, with all its problems (aka opportunities for improvement) and stresses (aka motivations for action). . .

What happened in those few months? What does one place do to another? Everything, but also, not a whole lot. Things just look different with more than one journeying…

We had some good conversations while she was here about what ‘being here’ feels like.

Did we miss it?

Would be want to come back ‘for good’?

I still don’t know.

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