Michael Totten

“Bring a Flak Jacket”

I’m having a great time showing my visiting mother and brother around Lebanon.
When I asked my brother if this place is what he expected he said “After listening to you talk about it and reading you write about it, it is exactly what I expected.”
My mom, though, is in a constant state of amazement.
Their first night out we went to Brooke’s restaurant in Gemmayze, a classy bohemian joint run by a British expat friend from the English countryside. The floor is wall-to-wall hardwood. Each chair is handsomely carved and stained dark like mahogany. A candle burns in a glass in the center of every table. I introduced mom and my brother to the bartender Elie and asked him to bring us a bottle of Bordeaux. The DJ played cool contemporary rock music over the sound system. The ambience, somehow, is pitch perfect. Brooke’s, like so many haunts in Beirut, has an X Factor.
“This is surreal,” mom said. “What a great place!” We hadn’t even ordered yet. “I know you told me there are great restaurants in Beirut, but I never expected anything like this.”
Hardly anyone ever does. Beirut always seems to take first-time visitors by surprise. “Beirut,” for those who don’t follow the Middle East, conjures up images of bombs, burkhas, and camels. Much of the real Beirut, though, is light, clean, hip, modern, classy, and glamorous.
My brother said half his co-workers told him to bring a flak jacket before he came out here to visit. He knew he wouldn’t need any such a thing, but the idea is all the more hilarious when you’re actually in Beirut instead of just thinking about it from the other side of the world.
“I feel completely at ease,” mom told me today after we went for a road trip to the Beiteddine Palace in the Chouf mountains. “My friends couldn’t understand why I would come here to visit. ‘Why don’t you meet him in Spain?’ they wanted to know. I can hardly believe I’m actually here, but I’m glad I came.”
I’m glad she came, too. Of course, it’s nice to see my mother. But I’m glad for other reasons, too. The West’s idea of Lebanon is terribly skewed by the civil war, even though it ended 15 years ago. It doesn’t help that Beirut is in the news again because Syrian intelligence agents keep planting car bombs. But it has been months since a bomb exploded anywhere in this country. In any case, bombs have nothing to do with what Beirut is really about.
Someday — hopefully soon — Iraq can trade its current problems for Lebanon’s problems. There are worse things, certainly, than having an undeserved bad reputation in other countries. Someday — hopefully soon — I’ll go to Iraq and say “hey, it’s a nice place and you should visit.” Hardly anyone will believe me, even years after the violence calms down — whenever that finally happens. But my mom might believe me now that she has seen this place for herself.
Travel is a far better teacher than the nightly news. “If it bleeds, it leads,” does not apply.