I wasn’t supposed to be in Beirut in December 1993. I certainly wasn’t supposed to be in a hotel cafe, drinking thick coffee while a dust storm raged outside. I should have been setting up a stall at the Medical Expo in Riyadh for my new employer, Invictus Pharmaceuticals. They wanted to expand beyond the UK and, keen to impress, I had pitched the Middle East as an emerging market. My flight from London had been diverted en route as the storm over Riyadh worsened. We’d landed in Beirut at 1am and after a few hours waiting in the terminal, the airline had finally arranged to put the passengers up in a hotel until our flight could resume.
Exhausted, I slept till 2 in the afternoon, waking in a panic that I’d missed being called back to the airport. I rushed downstairs, but the concierge told me not to worry, the other passengers were all still there. The storm had moved overnight, and was now covering Lebanon and the surrounding countries. Beirut airport was closed to arrivals and departures. All we could do was wait for it to clear. If I was stuck here more than a couple of days, the whole trip would be an expensive waste and one that was my idea. I was starting to regret overstating all the new deals that would be coming in. Truth was, everything I knew about the expo had come from a guy I’d met a few weeks earlier at a seminar on antidepressants. He’d visited the previous year and told me how great it had been. He hadn’t mentioned any sandstorms.
The hotel lobby was grand, but shabby and covered in dust. Every time someone came in a cloud of dirt came in with them. The cafe was next to the lobby, and by the time I’d woken up they’d sold out of everything except coffee. I sat there anyway, waiting for word from the airline, and making notes on my competitors’ marketing brochures. Eventually the dust and terrible coffee had driven the other customers back to their rooms. That’s where I was headed next when the American walked in.
He was covered in dust and had a red and white check scarf tied around his face, like a bank robber. Once he’d pushed the doors shut behind him, he beat the dust out of his clothes revealing a blue denim jacket and white jeans. Then he bent over and started to rub his shaggy hair to get the dirt out of that too, changing it from white to blonde. Finally he took off his mask and loudly snorted out of his nose before walking over to the cafe counter to help himself to some water from the jug.
“Can you believe this dust storm?” he said.
I assumed he was talking to the man behind the counter, but when there was no response, I looked up and saw he’d been talking to me. He was tall, and had a thick moustache that looked like it was meant for an older face. He was maybe 30, just a few years older than me.
“Excuse me?” I said.
“Can you believe this storm? They say it’s going to last a few days.” He took another drink of water.
“Really? I hope not,” I said. “I’m flying out as soon as it clears.”
“Yeah, that happens. That happens,” he said and walked away to talk to the concierge at the check in desk. I drank some more coffee while I studied my brochures. When I heard a buzzing noise, I looked up and saw him sticking his moccasins under the brush of the automatic shoeshine machine by the elevators. I went back to my work, but after a few minutes he came over.
“Hey, I’m supposed to be meeting someone. You mind if I wait with you?” He sat at my table, and signalled to the counter that he wanted a coffee. “Everyone’s always late, it’s like island time you know? You here on business?”
“No, I’m not even supposed to be here. I got diverted last night. I’m heading to Riyadh.”
“Riyadh? You’re better off here! At least here you can get a drink.”
“You can drink here?” I said.
“Hell, yeah! Paris of the Med before the war. Big party town.”
“I didn’t know Muslims drank.”
“Sure, they’re liberal as hell here. Anyway, the harbor’s full of those super yachts. Sailors like their liquor, you know?”
His coffee arrived and he started telling me about Beirut. I knew very little about the place, but he seemed to know everything. He told me about the deal that had ended the war a few years earlier, about how Iranian money was pouring into new building projects, and where you could get a decent steak.
“Are there any restaurants near here?” I asked. “All I’ve had today is airline peanuts.”
“Well, nothing near, but you’d want a taxi in this storm anyhow. I guess you could try…” and then he was listing off streets and neighborhoods that meant nothing to me. I started trying to make notes. “You know what,” he said checking his watch, “looks like this guy I’m waiting for has bailed, and there’s this bar I’ve been meaning to try. You want to see the town?”
“Well, that’s kind of you, but is it safe out there?”
“Yeah, just wear a scarf. You don’t know what’s mixed in with this dust.”
“No, I mean, aren’t there car bombs and… stuff?”
“What? No, no, there hasn’t been any of that stuff since, like, last year!”
“Well, I’m supposed to wait here,” I said. Going out with a western guide did seem more appealing than being stuck in the hotel.
“Seriously, you’re not flying anywhere today,” he said, pointing at the apocalyptic scene through the window. “Anyway, when are you going to be in Beirut again?”
He put his scarf back on as we left the hotel, and I pulled my shirt up over my nose, covering my eyes with the other hand. The wind stung as it hit us, and was cold enough that I regretted not bringing a jacket on the trip. It was winter, and I’d been wrong to think it was always hot in the Middle East. There was a taxi waiting just outside and we jumped in. The driver didn’t care that he couldn’t see more than a few feet in any direction. It seemed like he was using the brake lights in front of him as his guide. He had to drive fast enough to be able to see them all the time, hooting his horn if the car in front slowed down. The sky was orange, and you could only make out silhouettes. At one junction two tanks were parked in the middle of the street, everyone driving round them.
“Is that the army?” I asked.
“Syrians,” he said.
We got out of the cab next to a house, surrounded by high rises. The nearest one was covered in bullet marks at ground level, and instead of windows there were blown out holes on every floor. The other buildings looked the same, but then I realized about half of them had open floors because they were under construction. It was hard to tell the destroyed buildings from the new ones in the gloom. He banged on the door of the house, and when it was opened we went into a small bar, full of people.
“I didn’t think it would be so busy!” I said. It was a young crowd, and they were playing pop that I almost recognized, but with the words in Arabic.
“Yeah, it’s a good night to be out. The secret police can’t follow you in a dust storm you know? You can’t see them, they can’t see you.”
“They do that?”
“Yeah, fuck, everyone’s following everyone around here. The police, Hezbollah, the CIA. You know Mossad? They’ve trained birds to follow people. Fucking birds! Can you believe that?”
We got seats at the bar next to a couple of girls in short skirts, who turned their backs on us as we sat down. We ordered tapas and some watery, local beer that took the taste of sand out of my mouth. The American told me about the Syrian tanks on the streets, and the bombed out buildings. The different religions and factions that shared and divided the city. At one point the power cut out, and the only light was from the candles on the tables. Conversations stopped with a groan, but after a few seconds the music and lights came back on. People cheered and raised their glasses.
“The electric company is broke because everyone steals their power, but people have to steal the power because the company charges too much. It’s all corrupt, everyone’s on the take. It’s nice being able to talk English to someone who doesn’t live here. All the other westerners are constantly trying to figure out if they’re all bribing the same people, or if you know someone better to pay off. It’s exhausting!”
“So how did you end up out here?” I asked.
“I was a ski bum a few years back. I’d travel around, work in countries I wanted to visit, earn some money and then move on. Anyway, I met these Lebanese guys when I was in France and they told me about the ski resorts here. It sounded so nuts I had to see it for myself.”
“I had no idea people skied here,” I said. I didn’t even know that it snowed.
“Yeah, the resorts are pretty decent, about an hour from Beirut. I think the Saudis own them now.”
“So wait, you were working in ski resorts during the war?”
“Ha! Well, no. I hadn’t done my research. There were no jobs when I turned up so I just ended up skiing and partying and then moved on, but I kept coming back after that. And the war, well, it was a civil war. If you weren’t involved it just sort of happened around you. The trick was not getting involved.”
“It wasn’t dangerous?”
“Well, danger’s kind of a rush, and anyway, it’s all managed risk. Like, one of the jobs I used to love at the resorts was avalanche control. You go out looking for snow that’s starting to build up, and if it is getting to be a problem you drop a few sticks of dynamite and boom!” He smacked his hand on the bar. “That way you set off a tiny avalanche when there’s no-one around, rather than a wall of snow hitting your hotel during lunch.”
“That’s a job? That’s crazy,” I said
“It sounds crazy, but it’s just about knowing what you’re doing. About how much risk you’re willing to take. It’s all about control in the end, like, you sell drugs right?”
“Pharmaceuticals,” I said.
“Yeah, so when you develop a drug you do tests on it right? Because you don’t want it to work too well. If you cure someone you only get paid once. Better to control someone’s symptoms with a drug they have to take for the rest of their life. That’s just business.”
“That’s really not what we do,” I said, bristling at the suggestion I sold snake oil.
“Hey, look, I’m not criticizing. You think your drugs work? Good for you. Makes you a better salesman. Point is, most drugs are just avalanche control. You fix the problem today, and wait for it to come back.”
I wanted to tell him that was a load of bullshit, but I also didn’t want to fall out with him when I wasn’t sure how I’d get home on my own. Maybe he was only messing with me.
“So do you go back to America much?” I said, changing the subject.
“No, I don’t go back to the States. Once you’re on the outside you start to see how it all works. All the rules, all the corporations. Everything’s so managed there, the place is like a theme park. You know they put fluoride in the rain there now? In the fucking rain!”
I laughed, but he didn’t join in.
“I’m serious, it’s in the chemtrails. You see them everywhere now. And then they come over here and start building dams everywhere, you know. Like, they say they’re coming here to build hydroelectric dams – the Middle fucking East! Largest oil producing countries in the world? Don’t tell me it’s hydroelectrics, it’s a goddamn weather system. They can make it rain anywhere they want, anytime they want, and they can put any shit in the rain they want.”
We were several beers in at this point, and I wasn’t sure how serious he was. “We have fluoride in the water in England,” I said. “It makes everyone’s teeth stronger.”
He laughed at that. “Right, like British people care so much about their teeth. It’s for population control. It’s the same everywhere! It’s all part of the same plan. You’ve got to keep all the different races equal so they keep fighting each other. And the Middle East is a pressure cooker for that shit. You got the Shias and the Sunnis and Israelis and Iranians and you keep building the pressure, and building the pressure and then, bang! Whole fucking place is going to explode!”
“So why stay here?”
“Because this is the only place they can’t control, man, the eye of the storm! When everything else breaks apart, this is where they’ll rebuild from. Listen, you want some coke?”
“No, I’m… I’m good thanks. I should get back. The airline might be looking for me.” I wondered what the penalty was for taking drugs over here. Did they cut your hands off or was that somewhere else?
“Okay, yeah, we can head back soon. I just need to ‘see someone’,” and he tapped his nose. I thought he’d head for the bathrooms at the back, but instead he went out the front door that we’d come in.
“Is there a phone I can use?” I asked the barman.
He told me there was one out the back so I squeezed my way through the crowd to a corridor behind the bar where some women were waiting for the toilet. I had a number for the airline I could call to get an update on flights, but it was a payphone and I didn’t have any local coins. I shouldn’t be here I thought. I’d drunk too much and eaten too little, and now I was out with a madman in a city with tanks on the streets. There was an emergency exit next to the phone, so I pushed it and walked out onto the street, wanting to get some fresh air and forgetting that there was a storm outside. The wind slammed the door shut behind me, and there was no handle to open it.
As I started to walk back around the building to the front door, I saw the American leaning into the open window of a black Mercedes, only his white jeans visible. Was that who he was getting his drugs from? He’d talked so much about the secret police I wondered if that was them. Was he setting me up? Jesus, now I was sounding paranoid. I backed away and walked along the street in the other direction, shielding my eyes from the wind. I had no idea where I was going, but maybe I’d be able to find a cab. I looked back to see if they were coming after me, but I could barely see beyond my own arm. At least they can’t see me either, I thought, as I headed for the car horns sounding in the distance.
Click here to read James Burke on the origin of the story.
Image: “bar/Torino/Beirut” by Karam Al-Ghossein, licensed under CC 2.0.
The Diversion was inspired by various trips of mine that have gone awry. Flights delayed by fog, missed connections at border crossings. I’ve often ended up stuck somewhere I hadn’t intended to be, and when that happens you find yourself relying on the advice of other travelers you bump into along the way. You’ll be staying at the same hostel, or be thumbing through the same phrasebook in a bus station. You always have something in common, because at the very least you’re in the same place. If they’ve been there longer than you then maybe they’ll know a good place to get some food. Maybe you’ll both go out for dinner, because nobody likes eating alone. You compare notes on where you’ve been and where they’re going next. You share opinions about what’s been good or disappointing. Eventually you part ways and your journey resumes, but all the stories from that night go with you. You meet other travelers and you tell them, “I heard such and such a town isn’t as good as the guidebooks say” and they pass on what they’ve picked up. Some of it you can verify as you go, but the rest you just collect and recycle as you meet new people, forgetting who you heard it from in the first place. Their opinions become yours. The American in my story has been traveling for a long time.