Have you ever been truly overwhelmed? A combination of sensory overload, tiredness and discomfort show you what it means to be out of your element. I’ve felt it once, after I landed in Beirut.
A good friend of mine, grew up in Lebanon and has always told me amazing stories about his home. He described the people, the food, the port explosion, the beautiful nature, and the worsening economic crisis; all I could do was listen in awe. The clashes of culture, revenge stories as old as time and religious diversity fascinated me. His friends would come to visit Berlin from Lebanon and pull me even deeper.
One day this Spring I got the call I had been waiting for since I heard about the country. Without any thought, I asked what day we were leaving. It was the tail end of what had been the long Corona Winter in Berlin. Beirut promised sunshine, chaos, great food and some parties; and I needed them all.
The night before I took off I wrote this; “This is going to be a cultural experience like no other, I’ve really only spent time in the sanitized Western version of the world. Never in a place with hyper inflation, hunger and corruption.” I had no idea what I was getting myself into, and found the only solution to be to gain context from Lebanese history. The more I read, the clearer it became that I was going to a place that was completely foreign to me.
The next morning I narrowly made my flight to Istanbul. In Istanbul I saw a Popeye’s and Sbarro… What? I thought I was traveling to the middle east. I guess this is going to be easier than I thought.
After the days flights, I landed in Beirut. I could barely keep my eyes open after spending the full day up and stressed. When the plane doors were opened, I was greeted with a putrid smell. It could only come from the burning trash piles next to the airport. It woke me up to say the least, what a friendly welcome.
I was one of the last people in the line for customs and border control. Smiling, I handed my passport to the officer expecting to be waved through without much questioning. Instead, I was questioned; “Why are you here?” “To visit my friends.”, “How do you know your them?” “We live in Berlin”, “Where are you going?” “I don’t know.” My German honesty came out and it didn’t help me.
If there is one thing I learned it is that when it comes to speaking with officials, the only wrong answer is “I don’t know.” It was as if this answer set off alarm bells with the agent, and his eyes screamed, “We’ve got one.” They thought that after years of training, they had finally found a super spy. The goofy kid with the hat, who looked like he hadn’t eaten all day was the threat they were looking for. He called over one of his coworkers, who he had thorough discussions with. I was questioned about everything under the sun. My fate might have come down the this officer wanting to go home, or my general cluelessness. After about 30 minutes of mental gymnastics, I was let through.
At this point it was about 1 am, and I had just made it through another security check, where they sent my bag through the scanner twice. I could finally go find my friends. Such a small task has never been so daunting. I had walked into a new environment; soldiers walked around with massive rifles dragging on the ground, the smell was even more pungent, people were yelling and my buddies were nowhere to be found. In my mind every worst case scenario came up. What if they’re not here? What the fuck am I going to do? When are the next flights back? Why are my friends doing this to me? Who am I to think that I can just come to a new country? This was an awful idea.
My tired mind could no longer function and then I heard the familiar; “na du, did you pack freedom and democracy?” My friend sticks his head out of a crowd and gives me a hug. A hug from a friend can sometimes mean so much more. It meant that I wasn’t going to have to think and that the madness I was experiencing was coming to an end. We got into the car and I began to soak in the beautiful warm air. That morning in Berlin it had snowed, and now it was 20 degrees with a slight breeze. It still reeked of burning trash, but by now I was beginning to feel more comfortable
We got on the highway and began chatting. I’m telling them about how wild it’s already been and they just look at me and smile at my innocence. Suddenly, we hear this really loud rumbling, and wonder if there is a racetrack nearby. The boys tell me that it’s just the motor cycles. But are. We’ve gotten into Beirut and are driving through the center as the rumbling continues. All of a sudden I see lights and a motorcycle drives passed us at about 100 km/h. He is doing a wheelie and looks like he’s out of control. Ok, sounds crazy until you see that neither the driver nor the guy on the back of the bike are wearing a helmet. Then like 10 more bikes show up doing the same. I’m the only one that thinks this is strange.
Shawarma & Normalcy
Finally after our ride, we get to our first destination a shawarma stand. We feast. It’s the most satisfying meal I had eaten in a long time. Probably the best sandwiches I’ve ever had with. That sandwich meant that I had arrived, I was with my friends and my hunger was under control. The main source of my discomfort was finally taken care of.
About 30 minutes later we are home and have a few drinks with some of Kevin’s friends who come by.
I arrived in Lebanon May 8th. On May 10th, 2021 the conflict in Palestine began. For the first time in my life, I was near a real conflict. Fortunately, Lebanon was not involved I was able to feel the tension that occurs when war is around the corner. Everyone is a bit stressed and it’s a constant theme of conversation. No one believes that they are safe, and everyone refuses to admit it. The stress level is high, and no one cares to look twice.
The conversations that I heard in those few weeks were some of the most important I’ve been a part of. It seemed like everyone was concerned with their own safety, but refused to show it. A lot of the conversations I had were short sighted in nature, which made me realize that if it wasn’t going to help people today it almost wasn’t worth it. Having a long term outlook is a luxury that people can really only afford when their short term needs are completely met. Maybe that’s obvious to you, but I never felt that until I went to Beirut.
What I learned
My trip to Beirut was one of the most important experiences of my life so far. Over the last few years it’s become easier and easier to relegate the rest of the world to some other version of myself. Even though I was still in a bubble of a few well off families, I definitely noticed a lot of differences between the world I was used to living in and the world I was in.
No matter who I was with, the way we interacted was quite different. Not as much goofing around, but more laughing. More breaking bread, but more arguments. Tension among people existed that I hadn’t previously experienced.
At the end of the day I’m not really sure what I got out of the trip. Some great food and great experiences for sure. Hopefully some perspective. Whatever it was it stuck.