On Christmas Eve, Exploring Beirut by Day and by Night

Wednesday, December 28, 2005 | Beirut, Lebanon

Some streets in the Lebanese capital were decked with Christmas lights, a welcome sight for me and other homesick travelers.
Last night I snapped up in bed at the sound of a huge explosion, sure that our hotel was being bombed. A moment later, another. Then the raindrops started. I breathed a sigh of relief and sunk back into my bed—it was just thunder. With all the bombings that still go on here in Beirut, I guess I'm just nervous.

This morning Julian and I ignored the rain and decided to explore some different parts of Beirut. We visited the American University, and found the campus quite beautiful even in this weather. We also toured the National Museum, which was full of Roman, Greek, Byzantine and Crusader era statues, coins, pottery, tombs, and other artifacts. The older Phoenician objects often had heiroglyphics, evidence of ancient Egypt's extensive influence on life and trade here in Lebanon in the first several millennia BC.

After the museum, we took a stroll in the warm drizzle along Rue de Damas, which marks Beirut's famous Green Line, the civil war-era division between the city's Muslim west and Christian east. Like many parts of Beirut, today the Green Line is a mix of trendy new architecture and old, bullet-ridden, bombed-out shells of once-glorious buildings. Some are abandoned, but many apartment complexes are still inhabited, yet still sport bullet holes that nobody seems to want to repair.

Heavily armed soldiers in camo gear were everywhere along our walk, and throughout the city. They cluster in groups of two or three outside any building of substantial value, and are stationed on many street corners. Near Martyrs' Square there are even tanks parked in the streets. The military looks very professional here, more so than in Syria or in Congo. (Though they are perhaps just as militarized as Lebanon, in those places the military doesn't exactly give you the sense that they are doing much to protect you.)

* * *

Julian, Emma, and I treated ourselves to a nice Christmas Eve dinner beside the sea at La Posta, a restaurant in one of Beirut's rebuilt downtown areas. Back at the hotel, they headed to bed while I dropped into the lobby to meet some of the other travelers.

Around the holidays, it seems that there are more young married couples rather than students traveling, unlike last summer in Syria. The feel is different, but I certainly met some interesting characters. Most interesting of all on this evening were three Scottish cyclists: one couple who left Scotland after graduating from university eight months ago, during which they've cycled the entire 10,000 kilometers from Scotland to Lebanon (en route to India). The third, Tim, wasn't cycling with the other too but just happened to be here at the same time. He is cycling from the UK all the way to South Africa. Besides them, there are a few French cyclists, and some visiting Belgians, Australians, Englishmen, Koreans, Indians, Singaporeans, and others, plus the Lebanese owners of course.

* * *

For the first time in my life, I miss Christmas. Usually back in the US, the tinsel and fake pine boughs and shopping and holiday jingles get under my skin. But I've found that this year, spending the holiday season in Jordan—a place almost wholly devoid of Christmas cheer—I've grown nostalgic for the festive atmosphere.

So at 11:30, when the French and Belgians and Scots and others all announced that they were heading to the nearby Eglise St. Joseph for a midnight Christmas Eve service, I decided to join them. The service was held in French, and was certainly one of the least energetic church services I've attended in my life. Nonetheless, I was glad to have experienced it. Afterward, as we trudged through Beirut's rainy streets, I felt that my ache for Christmas cheer had ebbed a little.

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