Yesterday at Chicken Company, a man said I was a cross between Mr. Magoo and Pat Morita, of The Karate Kid fame. If I’m not compared to a freshly perforated corpse, I’m complimented. Chowing out with his hijabed wife and mewing toddler, dude was perfectly groomed, with each black hair impossibly sculpted.
What can I tell you, I love fried chicken, so Chicken Company is the best restaurant in the world. “EAT CHICKEN CO AS IF YOU WERE TO DIE TOMORROW,” blares an English diktat on its wall. Don’t be fooled by its formica, fast-food harshness, or the polyester outfits of its associates, this is fine dining, sez moi.
Eating cheap fried chicken on a bridge under a slight drizzle in New Orleans has to be one of my most satisfying memories. Travel worn, I was a mess.
Granted, Chicken Company’s rice, roll and french fries are rather blasé, but, doggone it, perfection must always be tempered, tinted or farted upon by at least a smear of crap, to remind us we’re still on earth.
Draped along the Mediterranean, Beirut is a legendary city with Roman, Crusader and Ottoman ruins, French colonial buildings and dozens of bars with history, thus character, so I should be elated, but I’m in a serious funk, man, because this elegant place is so sadistically degraded. The last time I felt this way was in Kiev in 2016, because Ukraine, too, was going through war and economic collapse.
There are too many beggars here. Men, women, old, young, some trailing kids or lugging a baby, they are all neatly dressed, thus still dignified. Most know only one English phrase, “one thousand,” meaning 66 cents at the official rate, but just 15 cents in purchasing value. The cheapest sandwich costs 4,000.
After I had already given a woman several thousands, she hounded me for two more blocks, tugging my arm at times, until I gave a bit more. Today’s Beirut reminds me of Saigon two decades ago.
Wandering around, boys under ten try to sell stems of flowers. Teenaged boys offer shoeshines with a soft-spoken “please” in English. Old men and women push facial tissues to cars at intersections. Near the bus and van terminal, I walked by a little girl sitting by herself, on cardboard. On a leafy median strip facing a hospital, I encountered a black African mother, with two kids, relaxing on stacked mattresses, their home.
Even the well-heeled are being squeezed. With capital controls, only so much can be withdrawn each week. Since this causes all sorts of problems, some have vented their rage on banks. Earlier this year, dozens in Beirut, Sidon and Tripoli were torched, so now, many banks are boarded up, with just a door slot, or even steel plated. These flat surfaces only invite more angry graffiti, and look at this smashed ATM, with red paint splattered on it. The handsome central bank is defaced with black curses, some quite high up, which means the vandal had to climb on its steel grills, perhaps. Its two surveillance cameras failed to deter.
Armed with assault rifles, soldiers guard government buildings, embassies and even some banks, mosques and churches. They man roadblocks. Armored vehicles are casually parked at certain corners. After a while, you hardly notice the concrete barriers, concrete sentry boxes, concrete pill boxes, anti-tank barriers, boom barriers and razor barb wire, for they’re just part of this urbanscape, along with the trendy cafes and hipster bars. Steel, concrete or plastic barriers are arrayed in front of buildings or stores to shoo away car bombs.
At the Al-Omari Grand Mosque, I stared at a pushed-in window, with its aluminum frame concave, its glasses broken, and several of its wooden panels, with their cool, modernist slits, simply blown away. Before it was converted into a mosque in 1291, this was a church built by Crusaders in the 11th century.
The port explosion four months ago damaged thousands of homes and businesses, including 165 hotels, with most still not reopened. At the five-star Le Gray, there’s a large banner, “STANDING STRONG / TOGETHER WE SHALL RISE AGAIN / SEE YOU SOON.” Most nearby luxury shops are shuttered. Entire streets are barricaded by razor wire-topped concrete slabs, to keep out looters. The misleadingly-named Beirut Souks shopping center is a ghost town. The poorest can’t even replace their blasted doors.
In all of Lebanon, there was just one Vietnamese restaurant, Le Hanoi, so I called, just to make sure it was still open, but all I heard was recorded piano music.
Days later, I found myself walking in that direction, so why not, I kept going, even under a slackening hailstorm. Drenched, I was finally at that address, but Le Hanoi was still awol, so I called again. Presto, a man answered!
“Are you open today, brother?” I said in Vietnamese.
“Yes, we are.”
Wonderful! I beamed. “I’m standing right at the corner, but I don’t see your restaurant.”
Oddly, he said nothing for several seconds. When I heard a man’s voice again, I repeated, “I’m at the corner, brother, but I don’t see your restaurant.”
“Wrong number,” this second man said in English.
“Oh, I’m sorry!”
So eager to inhale a bowl of pho, I had mistaken spoken Arabic for Vietnamese! I’m seriously losing it. After my phone mishap, I did manage to find what’s left of Le Hanoi. Empty, stripped, darkened and unlocked, it’s dead.
Le Hanoi was on the edge of Gemmayzeh, a trendy, cosmopolitan and Christian neighborhood just east of Martyrs’ Square and the former Green Line. Walking down Gouraud, you’ll pass Swiss Butter, Mitsu-ya, Sandwiched, The Plub and Electric Bing Sutt, etc., all reopened and lively in the evening. Sacré Coeur College and St Anthony Catholic Church bookend this commercial strip.
In Lebanon, most neighborhoods or villages are primarily Sunni, Shiite, Druze, Maronite, Greek Orthodox or Greek Catholic, etc., because it’s only natural for folks to be close to their place of worship, and among their own kind. In Beirut, the Shiites are mostly in the south, so that’s where you’ll see Hezbollah billboards and banners, and portraits of Nasrallah, al-Musawi and the young martyrs, who died defending Lebanon against Jews.
Jutting into the sky, minarets or church spires identify a village, but even if you don’t see them, you clearly know where you are by the religious icons, or their absence, in front of private homes. A dramatic depiction of Husayn being pierced by so many arrows nearly 14 centuries ago is also a giveaway. To Shiites, it happened yesterday. Entering tiny Lebaa, I was flabbergasted by a meek, arm folded Mother Teresa being paired with an actual artillery piece, complete with a sculpted mound of cannonballs. MOMA or the Tate Modern should snatch this up, before it’s pulverized in the next war.
On the ground floor, there’s a pleasant pub, Duke of Wellington, where I’ve sat to write most of this piece, while downing cheap Almaza Beer. For lack of business, the sunset bar on the roof, above the 7th floor, is not open, or I’d sit there.
Though listed on the menu, neither roast beef sandwich nor shepherd’s pie are available. Nearby, Little Bangkok, Asia Express and Roadster American Diner are all KOed. Sinking into austerity, we’ll revert to our grandpas’ diet, if that. Peak foodism is past.
The American University is in Hamra. With its symbolism and history of kidnapped administrators, it’s robustly walled and guarded, so I can’t see jackshit, prowling its perimeter. Its main gate is like a mini Crusader castle, but with Islamic windows and entrance. On its wall, someone has sprayed a brief editorial, “Your education is nonsense, fuckers.”
A quaint feature of many small towns, in Europe as well as America, is a tiny, rarely visited museum that features almost nothing but household items, such as cabinets, sofas, tools, toys and bedside lamps, etc. With the removal of, say, just half a century, everything is striking, if not strikingly beautiful. Visiting any strange city, then, you’re feasted with a gigantic museum of stupendous ordinariness, so it’s more than enough, almost too much, to just walk around, for a week, month or even the rest of your life.
Driving me to Beirut, protective Ali has warned me to avoid Sabra specifically. “They’ll take your money, your camera,” he chuckled. Populated mostly by Palestinians, it’s a neighborhood of decayed tenements, entangled electrical wires dangling overhead, and narrow, winding alleys.
Without intending to, my body somehow steered me directly to Sabra one morning, and it’s not like it’s even close to The Mayflower. You can bet each soul has its compass. Plus, I’m an alley junkie. They just suck me in.
Its overwhelming poverty and shabbiness were the first clues, then all doubts were erased when I started seeing portraits of Yasser Arafat and a painted Palestinian flag on the smudgy wall of a green grocer. Among garbage, ragged, dirty sheep greedily ate. There was plenty of commercial activities, however, so folks were getting by, selling everything, even in the most makeshift stores. Walking home from school, kids were neatly dressed.
My worst misadventure that day was stepping through a broken grate, so that one leg was sunk into the road up to nearly my knee. The pain wasn’t too bad, but I was fearful of any laceration, since it’s definitely not cool to hobble around bleeding. Luckily, there was not even a bruise.
As for Sabra, I was met with indifference, and even some love. Spotting me, a young man shouted from afar, “What is your name? Where are you from? I love you!”
It was his sweet way of welcoming me to the neighborhood. Among long-suffering victims of Jew-sucking Uncle Sam, I wasn’t suicidal enough to shout, “America!” so I trumpeted, “Vietnam!” which was also true. Waving, I beamed back a bright smile. Ashamed of their country’s absurdly long crime tally, how many white Americans have claimed they’re Canadian? During a candid moment, Ali calmly said to me, “I hate America.”
Merging into Sabra is the Chatila refugee camp. In 1982, Jewish-backed Christian militias massacred over three thousand Palestinians here. For a definitive account of this, read chapter 11 of Robert Fisk’s Pity The Nation: Lebanon at War. For exposing such Jewish criminality, Fisk is already being slandered by hired hacks, just a month after his death.
After seeing so many grotesquely violated men, women, children and babies, Fisk finally returned to his Beirut home, “I felt ill, sick because of the smell of my clothes, and I showered for more than an hour but could not shake off the stench. Four hours after I had gone to bed, I woke up sweating and nauseated, convinced that the corpses of Chatila were piled on the sheets and blankets round me, that I was actually lying between the bodies, that they were all in the room, even old Mr Nouri. I could smell them still, in my own home. In the morning, my cleaning lady Ayesha refused to wash my clothes. ‘Please burn them, Mr Robert. They are not good.’”
One evening, I strolled three blocks to Captain’s Cabin. Open since 1964, it’s one of Beirut’s oldest bars. This family also had a burger joint across the street, one of the city’s first. With its small, unlit sign, and no plate glass window to showcase itself, Captain Cabin’s hardly inviting. Opening its old door, I was met with more gloom. Six men were at the bar, with four chatting at the far end. All its nicotine-stained walls were animated with scribbles, mostly in English. Its many tables were empty. On my left was a blank pool table. Fleetwood Mac was wailing.
How many dives like this have I tucked into, in places like Chicago, Columbus, Youngstown, Pittsburgh, Allentown, Scranton, Trenton and, of course, Philadelphia? Before it became even more trust funded, tight jeaned and woke, Manhattan had a bunch like this, though there are still some left in Washington Heights, and, of course, across the river in Jersey City. If it’s still open, you must head to the Golden Cicada. It’s a gem.
Done and seen plenty, perhaps too much, Taxi is tired of direct experiences, so she’s traveling inward. Me, I find nothing too trivial or idiotic to notice, for each moment is a revelation, and a modification of everything one has ever seen, heard and felt.
Taxi suggested I meet some Lebanese intellectuals, but I told her I prefer morons, for they anchor and enlighten me. Of course, I might be a world class moron myself, but since each man is his own idol, I would be the last to know. Protean stupidity is the bedrock of any civilization.
Having to endure so many mind-numbing conversations, bartenders are well-versed on this topic. Within earshot at Captain’s Cabin, a young man switched back and forth between Arabic and English. Confiding to Andre, the bartender and owner, he said, “Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, yeah, but Queen, I even don’t like.”
Although his English accent was perfect, the misplaced “even” was a clue Amir, let’s just call him that, was no native speaker. After downing some clear liquor, he went on, “Jimi Hendrix, yes, definitely, but Guns and Roses, I even don’t like.”
As the bartender served other customers, Amir stared into darkness, then he continued, “I had a dog for 17 years, Andre. I took him everywhere, to all these countries, and not in some carton. I bought a separate seat for him on the airplane.” Amir paused to let Andre absorb this fact. “It was expensive, Andre, but I just wanted my dog next to me. I had him for 17 years, but he just got old and sick, and one day, you know, he just fell down.”
Devastated anew, Amir said nothing for half a minute, then, “I will never have another dog, Andre. Never.”
Presently, we were all distracted by a black and white TV sequence, shown twice, of a woman being hit by an SUV, which finally stopped after it had rolled over the victim. She was now just a white form lying on the road. In silence, we stared.
“She just walked right in front of it!” I piped up. “It’s not the driver’s fault.”
Wearily, Andre said, “She was on the cellphone, and so was the driver.”
“So will he go to jail?”
“No, but he’ll have to pay damage to her family.”
With a bankrupt and broken government, traffic lights and street lamps are often turned off. Arriving in Lebanon six weeks ago, I immediately noticed how dark the country was. At night, busy city streets are lit only by cars, houses and shops. Inevitably, accidents increase.
Anywhere here, the lights will suddenly go off, and that’s normal, so you just keep gobbling your fried chicken, say, until your dark world is illuminated again, soon after, or maybe never, but we haven’t reached that point yet.
Having unmuted myself, I chattered a bit with both Amir and Andre. Though Lebanese, Amir was born in Abu Dhabi, where his immigrant father is a very successful businessman. His old man also owns supermarkets in Monaco and Canada.
“It’s interesting you came back here,” I said.
“I love Lebanon.”
“It’s a shame this country is in such bad shape.”
“Our government is so corrupt.”
The more unstable a country, the more corruption. The less confidence people have that their business or investment will survive in ten or twenty years, that an honest effort is rewarded, the more likely they’ll just escape, or loot, for it’s no crime to remove some furniture from a sinking ship, they reason. You will see this played out in America, too, most nakedly.
“I don’t think Lebanon can be normal again until Israel is gone,” I said.
“Ah, don’t say that! I don’t have a problem with anybody. I don’t care if you’re Christian, Jewish or Buddhist. We should all live in peace!”
“But look at how many wars the Jews have caused around here. Just look at Syria and Iraq, and how they’re always threatening Iran. The Jews have messed with so many Arab countries. Just look at Libya…”
“You can’t talk like that, man. We should all live in peace. We must have peace.”
Smiling, Andre nodded towards me, “You’re right.”
“I want peace, too,” I continued, “but sometimes, you must fight back. What will you do the next time Israel attacks Lebanon?”
“I’ll fly to Canada! I don’t want to shoot anybody.”
“You said you loved Lebanon,” I smiled.
“Yeah, but I don’t want to shoot anybody.”
Soon, Amir had to call it a night. “You’ve had a few vodkas,” Andre grinned.
“They do make me angry. I’m going to fuck up the first guy who looks at me funny!” Not very likely, I thought.
Getting off his stool, Amir gave me that slight, Lebanese bow, with his arm briefly crossing his chest, “It was a pleasure talking to you, Sir.”
“That was fun. We’ll meet again, I hope.”
With Amir gone, Andre told me that yes, Lebanon can only be revived with Israel gone, and that day will come soon enough, for life here can’t go on like this. Further, Hezbollah will lead the charge.
On his phone, Andre then showed me a video of a motorbike riding for minutes inside reasonably wide, well-lit tunnels.
“Hezbollah, inside Israel!”
Fifty-seven-years-old, Andre has spent all but two years of his life here, and he’s more than sick of seeing his country degraded.
Of the 2005 assassination of Rafik Hariri, Andre remembered, “Before I could hear the explosion, my bar door opened,” he chuckled, “from the pressure.”
Swiveling on my stool, I looked at the solid wooden door. From its latch hung a grimy windchime that’s topped by a tiny fan with “GOOD LUCK” and a cartoon cat on it. Next to the door was a poster for a Johnny Cash impersonator, performing in Mabou, Nova Scotia.
Andre, “It was definitely not a truck bomb. I know a mechanic who actually saw the prime minister’s car. If it was an explosion, it would have blown the car away, but only its roof was pushed down. There was even a survivor. They pulled him out and put a blanket on him, but when they took the blanket away, he started burning again! He lived for six more months in the hospital.”
I shook my head.
Andre, “You know how much that investigation cost Lebanon? A billion dollars!”
“And it solved nothing!”
“Nothing. It was some new, special weapon. There was something in the air. Going by there, I felt sick, so I avoided that area.”
For an expert analysis of this crime, you must read Thierry Meyssan’s “Revelations on Rafik Hariri’s assassination.” Meyssan dismantles every assertion of the official account, and below, in brief, are his refutations that it was merely a truck bomb:
Looking at the crime scene, anyone can easily observe the very large and deep crater that a surface explosion could not have dug out […] When looking at the photos and videos taken immediately after the attack, the first most striking feature is the blaze. Car parts and various types of objects are burning all around. Then, the bodies of the victims: they are charred on one side and intact on the other. An astonishing phenomenon which bears no resemblance to what is normally caused by conventional explosives […] from the photos showing Rafik Hariri’s corpse one can observe that his solid gold wristwatch has melted, whereas the collar of his luxury shirt still hugs his neck in pristine condition […] The explosion generated a blast of an exceptionally intense heat and exceptionally brief duration. Thus, the flesh exposed to the blast was instantly carbonized, while the body underneath was not burnt […] videos show that a number of limbs were severed by the explosion. Oddly, the cuts are clean, as if made on clay statues. There is no sign of shattered or jutting bones, nor of any torn flesh. The reason is that the explosion sucked up all the oxygen and dehydrated the bodies, rendering them friable. In the hours that followed, several on-the-spot witnesses complained of breathing ailments.
A German weapon was likely used, Meyssan contends. If this is true, one shouldn’t be surprised the UN Investigation Commission, as led by two Germans, Detlev Mehlis and Gerhard Lehmann, pointed elsewhere entirely. It was a truck bomb planted by Hezbollah, they insisted.
Technically speaking, the weapon is shaped like a small missile, a few tens of centimeters long. It must be fired from a drone. Actually, several witnesses assured they had heard an aircraft flying over the scene of the crime. The investigators asked the United States and Israel, whose surveillance satellites are permanently switched on, to provide them with the pertinent images. On the day of the attack, the United States had deployed AWACS aircraft over Lebanon. The live feeds could help to establish the presence of a drone and even to determine its flight path. But Washington and Tel Aviv—which indefatigably urge all parties to cooperate with the STL—turned down the request.
Adding to Lebanon’s humiliation, four of its top generals were falsely accused of this crime and jailed for four years, then released without even an apology. This can’t go on.
Beirutshima has also not been investigated properly, and, again, the US and Israel have refused to provide satellite photos, so what are they hiding? Butchering, they often blame their victims.
With a long history of unleashing weapons of mass destruction on defenseless civilians, these satanic rogue regimes must be decapitated.
Wandering around Beirut, sometimes I chance upon a serene, timeless tableau, as at some spartan and strifeworn cafe, where old men play cards at well-nicked tables. Others sit alone, puffing fancy-looking shisha pipes, or just lost in thought. Some faces are still ruddy and fleshy, while others are weatherworn, desiccated and practically mummified. From a more dignified era, they’re still spruce in their rumpled suits.
Just after dawn, men, some quite old, thus misshapen, still dive into the frigid ocean from the pitted and cratered rocks of Corniche El Manara. Toweling themselves afterwards, they greet each other.
Behind them, the silver sea meets a brightening sky.