Letters to Beirut from a young expatriate.

Li Beirut,

It seems only natural that my first letter be addressed to you. After all, you were there at the beginning of my story and I suspect you will be one of the few left at its end. The irony is not lost on me. I am young and have a whole life to live, but you have seen many lives come and go.

To you, lady, I must pay my respects.

Beirut, I love you. Beirut, I hate you. Somehow, both statements are true. You always were a HOME of paradoxes.

Your narrow streets are overrun with incessant traffic. The intoxicating smell of car fumes and cigarette smoke mingles with that of ladies’ perfume and freshly ground coffee. I can picture the bullet-marked walls of your old buildings, the shiny new facades of your skyscrapers, even the posters along your alleyways announcing upcoming concerts and plays, showcasing faces of former militia leaders. I always loved your glitzy rooftop clubs and charming hole-in-the-wall pubs. Yet, I still hate that there are children selling roses and Chiclets in their shadows. I hate the sound of the cars honking at 2 am. I love the sound of church bells at midnight and the call to sala at dusk. I love the kaak sellers along your corniche. I miss your coffee shops and the artists, musicians, intellectuals and businessmen who congregate there. I hate how heavy the air gets in July, when it’s so hot it’s hard to breathe. I love the way a soft breeze can tease the folds of a young girl’s dress; a miniskirt or a hijab. I love the difference in reactions that it triggers, whether a libertine relish or an averted gaze. Beirut, I love how volatile you are. I hate how two-faced you are I wish you’d make up your mind about who you want to be.

I wish I could make up my own mind.I love you, but I always seem to be leaving. In fact, I feel like I love you more when I am far away. Distance makes me nostalgic. I start to love you like a longed-for mistress whose scent lingers on the sheets. I love the small pieces of you that I unexpectedly recover in myself. These half-forgotten details walk softly behind me each day, unseen but keenly felt. They are the honey in my tea. The zaatar in my salad. The wared in my closet. They are the accent which enriches my speech. The truth is that I could never hide from you because we are one and the same. You have irrevocably shaped me and for that, Beirut, I am surprisingly grateful.

I am grateful for every charming alleyway, every flight of steps, every pair of pastel-painted shutters, every souk,every view of the sea, every steaming cup of sahlab, and every bouza 3a ashta cornet. For every zaffe and every unmarked grave, and every bullet shot in between. For every pair of high heels and military boots that ever walked your streets. For not being fooled, lured or changed by either. For aging with dignity, for putting up a fight, for giving me something to dream about, be a part of, come HOME to.