On loving Beirut...

“I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing the saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes. After that I liked jazz music. Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way. - Donald Miller, Blue Like Jazz

Miller is a favorite of mine. Perhaps it is the commonality of Portland, that we lived in adjacent neighborhoods in Southeast and that the places he writes of -Powell’s, Stumptown, Laurelhurst Park, and Central Oregon- are those dear to my heart. I’ve heard him speak once (dynamic), read all but one of his books, given many of said books as gifts, and laughed upon hearing Brooke Fraser, a New Zealand songwriter, confess while playing a show at the Doug Fir to having a crush on him. But I think more so he is a favorite because he’s real, honest, poignant, through simple prose that parse the day to day and leave the reader wondering why she hadn’t ever reached such a seemingly simple conclusion herself.

There is a long staircase that cuts down from JFK to Van Dyck, just before the Orient Queen. It’s a bit dirty, coated with graffiti, and interspersed with errant foliage and cats. Some prefer to hang out on the steps, whether friends sharing story and joke or couples finding an out of the way spot, while others use it as a thoroughfare between the varied-leveled neighborhood of Ain El Mreisse. I had passed by it often, so much so that it was simply a part of the scenery, the backdrop, relegated to the part of consciousness that most things seemingly ordinary and inconsequential are placed.

On my way to meet friends last spring, the cursory glance down the stairs registered a seated individual, the norm. In the same instant my mind began to dismiss what was being seen and move on, saxophone notes, with their tinny richness, threw a wrench in the split second mental processes occurring. In fact the individual wasn’t merely sitting but had decided the stairs were the best place in that moment to coax a jazz riff, deep and soulful, from his instrument. And I found myself experiencing my own version of Miller’s Bagdad theater jazz conversion, though my shift had nothing to do with the music itself (in truth good jazz is a favorite and has been for some time) but rather with Beirut.

“Sometimes you have to watch someone love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.” My epiphany that May night, and cause for reflection (but as it would seem a tea kettle can prompt my reflection wheels to spin, this might not be saying too much…), and deep gratitude. My first year in Beirut was rough. Sure, sweet moments existed but by October I was wondering if it was wise to go home for Christmas, and fully appreciating why some have made that holiday trip and not gotten back on the plane to return. It felt as though too many evenings were being spent in frustration and questioning, that I couldn’t find a rhythm for the life of me, that I couldn’t live the life I wanted, that I valued, here. In short, it took until mid-April before the city began to grow on me, began to feel manageable, like a place I even marginally wanted to be. Some of that was visceral, raw process and adjustment, letting time take its course (cliche but true). Some though was watching others “love” this place, and in doing so coming to appreciate (not quite sure if I’m to love as of yet) it for myself.

Sarah in all of her hopes and “what ifs” and tenacious embrace of the language, people, culture, giving of her time to an array of people despite her short stay… Jad & Dena’s hospitality, humor, insight into all things Lebanese and sharing of their own process of living between the US and here… Wafa’s Arabic instruction, and love of the music… Nick’s walks, lectures, and questions… Buffy’s honesty… Wade’s enthusiasm to find every possible, and some impossible, Roman ruin on Lebanese soil, and Megan’s indulgence of said goal… Marie & Riad’s observations and conversations, hiking invites, and admonishment to eat manouche… the Dar El Alwad crew who give selflessly day in and day out… colleagues, both Lebanese and expat, who took the time to answer many, many questions, shared their experiences, reminded me to call if I needed anything, and genuinely meant it… those who share a love of the outdoors and have provided insights, and sometimes the means, to find it here…

I came back to Beirut a little over two weeks ago from an amazing summer, one that near it’s end found me ready, even anticipatory, to return here. I also moved to the Air El Mreisse neighborhood and now pass the stairs nearly every day. My gratitude extends to the lone musician as well; the stairs are no long backdrop but rather a reminder.