I’m looking at ‘happy cookies’, imported New Zealand lamb, organic salmon fillets (neatly vacuum packed) and I’m pretty certain I saw at least one person selling cup cakes. There were definitely chocolate brownies.
Souk el Tayeb, the Beirut farmer’s market is an oddity. There’s something a bit wrong about the way that the small-scale agricultural produce of a country that still has a large amount of said small-scale agriculture is being packaged up and sold back to itself (at a hefty premium of course).
We’re in the main Beirut souk, where marble walls glisten; well-groomed Arab men partake of oversized cigars whilst strolling with their families. On display are luxury watches, expensive fashion, and now, labneh balls preserved in oil, bright turnip pickles, and cheery Lebanese women rolling out balls of dough to slap on their dome shaped grills; applying oil and za’atar, pre-sliced white cheese and the occasional dollop of chilli before rolling up their man ‘ouches. As with so many a sandwich glimpsed in the wild, the restraint is what first catches the eye; really no more than a couple of ingredients, the pungent tang of wild oregano providing more than enough flavour to interest.
A gaggle of children are painting plaster casts of Easter bunnies. Over the road stand soldiers, their rifles lazily slung over their shoulders, chatting disinterestedly with some members of the city police*.
This is Beirut. It’s pretty fucking odd.
You can’t go anywhere unless you’re in a taxi, though none of the taxi drivers have the faintest clue where anything is. The constant switching between Arabic, French and English spellings renders street names next to useless. Drivers will stop two to three times to shout questions at passers by for even the shortest of journeys. I’m left baffled as to what anything costs by the need to try and work out parallel exchange rates between Sterling, Lebanese Pounds and Dollars. Change regularly arriving in mixed currency format. A $50 note and 14000LP thank you very much.
Dusk turns pleasant roads derelict and less inviting corners terrifying. Cars careen about with little thought to their own safety. 8 hours in the city and we’d already seen two accidents. It’s as if the collective memory of civil war has rendered the concept of automotive safety null and void. Who needs seatbelts when everyone can remember the acrid smoke of suicide bombs? There’s a Ferrari stopped at the lights on our left, next to it pulls up a battered Honda motorbike. The Greek Orthodox Christians are streaming out of their churches candles held votive before them. Chanting echoes out of the ornate facades, mingling with the amplified wail of the Muezzin call to prayer and the omnipresent chorus of car horns.
Three hours later and midnight has transformed the louche atmosphere of the bars from lazy afternoon drinking to a frenzied Faliraki street sprawl; bad cocktails and bottles of beer, aggressive posing and pounding Euro pop. I argue with a lingering taxi driver over the cost of the return to our hotel. Curse that the bar is closed and go instead to corner shop next door. The owner, smoking at the counter sorts me a quarter bottle of Arak and some ice. I retreat to my room for bed. Exhausted.