In Hamra, with the latte leftists and all the Westerners who might be spies. I'm Amriki, maybe better classified as gringo. I don't speak Arabic, so I stay quiet; I don't speak French, so I thank and ask in mumbles. My friends point out the Syrians who've fled the war. Someone tells a story of being beaten by thugs. My friend is almost beaten on the highway south of Beirut when she flips off another driver. He stopped his car and tried to tear F.'s door open, calling her whore and then smashing her mirror as she hit the lock. His family was in his car. I didn't know what to do. Two guys get out of his car with their palms up, looking to him like, what the hell? "Khalas," F.'s cousin told me later, after we arrived at the wedding. "We have a saying: 'The evil is broken.' " A brass band led the bride and groom down to the dance floor and we danced until we sweat. The evil did not break but faded a little. The family is Shi'a. I'm the only man not wearing a suit.
I decide to sleep on the balcony even though there's an extra bed. The Mediterranean coats the West and I'm woken by the muezzin. It's Ramadan. We feast at night. We meet with cousins who feed us what they grow: figs, dates, grapes. We meet their children. I grin and speak a little; I will friend on Facebook a little. I listen to them tease each other and remain gringo. S. calls me gringo after I teach her the word and she grows mint whose sprigs she puts in the tea. F.'s mother lives downstairs. She used to be Fatah and once trained to shoot a Kalashnikov. She teaches French now and her husband is an airport bureaucrat. When they were young, he threatened to kill himself unless she married him. She married him. I wondered if the driver on the highway had a gun. We gorge on bread.
I'm reading Bolaño's Savage Detectives, which I'd forgotten to finish years ago. From the balcony we can see the airport where F's dad works. The day after I arrived, a local clan donned balaclavas and began kidnapping Syrians opposing Bashar. They blocked the highway to the airport and held a press conference about their demands. One of the clanmen made his own balaclava and the eyeholes looked a little stupid. The Beirutis make jokes on Twitter about the kidnappers. Everybody jokes about the kidnappers except the Syrians. The airport was bombed by the Israelis in '06. We drive to the southernmost beach in Lebanon, where there's smoke rising over the local village and you can see the watch towers in Israel. My friends correct me and call it Palestine. We have beers at the edge of the beach and they dare me to swim out to the rope that separates the swimmers from the sea. They tease me and then I do. I am often always a little afraid and then I do things anyway. They are beautiful. I am far from home. The Hezbollah banners flap and glow in the sun. “We raise our eyebrows at people who say they’re vacationing in the South,” the customs guy will tell me later when I'm back in Boston, asking me about the trip.
I know why.
"Do not write anything bad about the Resistance," F. warns when I think about what I would say about all this, but I can’t make those kinds of promises. I sing songs by Frank Ocean and they make fun of my vocabulary. Shukran. Ehhhh. EHH! EH! I say yes to everything. I want to see the border with Syria. We cancel a trip to Tripoli when streetfighting breaks out. A local headline says TRIPOLI DESCENDS INTO SYRIAN ABYSS. Someone says a 20-year-old woman died when she fell down an elevator shaft while running from the fighting. Does everyone have rifles and RPGs? I email my mother to tell her it's safe. I think about Syria, often. We walk by Hariri's grave, which is shrouded in flowers and next to a Virgin Superstore and a Dunkin' Donuts. We have snobby conversations when we thing something is boring and then we sit in silence. Sporadic violence is tolerable even though it makes me tense. F. notices I am tense and it makes her tense. I think about Cuba and every form of oppression. We meet a witty moviemaker and he jokes that I am a spy. He shows us his short movie on YouTube; it's a kind of cinematic pun on media, masturbation and 9/11. In Cairo they'd murmur spy as I tried to interview demonstrators about the Situation. I am always a sort of spy. I am at minimum a tourist in other people's lives, both at home and abroad. My pulse lifts at every army checkpoint.
I'm a lonesome type but not lonely and worry that I always inconvenience others. I make my friends take me to a Palestinian refugee camp. It's a slum like most slums are slums everywhere and children swirl down the alleys, where wires droop low. I visit an acupuncturist's black-market clinic. It's busy and hot. The needles are past their expiration date. He cannot work legally, and after he was done working, we took him to -- I don't know where he was going. We dropped him off on the street. Too much is happening to everyone. A friend is mugged by a motorcyclist and she breaks her elbow when he yanks her to the ground. She pukes as a kid wearing a shirt that says POLICE runs around with intense helplessness. At 3 a.m., in Beirut’s saddest, drabbest police station, the officer in charge wanders in wearing gym shorts and a t-shirt, watches TV as he asks questions. A bee flies around the room and floats under his desk. “There’s a bee,” F. says. “Ah,” the officer replies. “Maybe he will make us some honey.” The university emergency room seems nice and our friend is in misery. She had lied to her parents in Cairo about going out. They are conservative and watch her closely. It is a Situation.
We are all in a Situation. I will remember this summer: We drive out into the Bekaa Valley and stay at a campsite not far from the Syrian border. It is beautiful and welcoming and at night the sky opened up into a billion stars as you could hear Syrian artillery explosions or maybe just the wind in the distance. "It's scary," F. whispers to me as we and the others lay together on the roof. She makes fun of me for being nervous after we wake the next morning. F. is happy but wonders what is wrong with the men she meets. I adore her family. They took me to the Resistance museum and we watched a Hezbollah propaganda video and I was disturbed. We visit their village and drink tea and talk politics carefully to each other late into the night. I spent so long in school reading about the Holocaust.
Violence always leaves me disturbed. We go see the latest Batman and I think about all the vigilantes that run this country; there will be a carbombing and an assassination outside the theater after I return to America. I ask F. if anything about the movie reminded her of Lebanon. “Batman would fight for the side with the most money, so he would become Shi'a and fight for Hezbollah," she says. "Superman wears blue, so I guess he would fight for the Future movement. And Catwoman would start a bar in Beirut where all the Western journalists would come in their Jesus sandals to cover the fighting in Tripoli from Hamra.” We drink more lattes and I remember Cairo. I worry I don't remember enough. S. worries that we have been cursed. I worry about my upcoming flight. On my final night in Lebanon, S. lights an urn, some kind of Moroccan voodoo that we stand over so the smoke floats up our pants. I then flew away safe and will always remember S.'s smoke and waking in a flophouse somewhere in a Shi'a neighorhood in Beirut, on a mattress on the floor in a room with huge ceilings, and emerging to see F. with her best friend, H., reading Palestinian poetry to each other on the couch. H. is wearing her shirt inside out and backwards and listens as a Gitanes cigarette dangles out of her mouth as they face each other. I can only understand the sounds. When the camp smiles, the big cities frown.
I think of this moment as I try to think about good in the world, and then the world pulls me in again. I think about all the masked men in Beirut and all the ones back home. I sometimes seek the evil. I worry I can't change anything. I need other people. We all need other people. We all have evil waiting to be broken.