Lufthansa's Till Heene flies through the city by foot
Till Heene, general manager of Lufthansa German Airlines in Lebanon, takes us on his reflective daily walk to work, through the backstreets of Beirut
The dashboard computer of my car speaks the neutral, objective language of a doctor. During my stay of almost two years in Lebanon, I have driven 10,764km with an average speed of 17km/h. That is, I have spent 616 hours and 46 minutes and some uncounted seconds in the car and in traffic. What could I have done instead with this temps perdu?
These days, weather permitting, I leave the car at home and walk to the office, from Sioufi to Hamra, 5km and back. During my daily walk it seems to me like I am traveling into the history of Beirut. It is a travel back in time, and through my own history.
“Beirut,” started the serious voice of a German newspeaker in the ‘80s, the news on my favorite teenage radio station, interrupting Michael Jackson or Genesis or finishing the commercials. “Bei einem Anschlag...,“it continued.
Beirut: “During an attack...”
News from a country in a civil war, broadcast in a country where the cold war was warming and finally led to the reunification and to the appointment of chancellor Angela Merkel.
Walking to the office, I see and smell the old cars. I could stop them, negotiate, take them as a taxi, and drive into my own past in a Peugeot 505, Mercedes 300E or a Honda Accord.
Walking to the office, I see old shops: their names speak the language of a glamorous past when Beirut was called the “Paris of the Orient.” The Salon Champs Elysées is in a backyard in Fassouh. I continue my walk to Geitawi and Gemmayzeh. I cross the former “Green Line,” hit the souks, cross Bab Idriss and arrive in Hamra. I soak in everything I see and everyone I cross.
Sometimes, the calls from home reach me when I’m walking. Friends and family: both concerned about the situation in the region, the civil war in Syria, incidents in Tripoli. What should I say on the phone? I calm down the worries and I defend Lebanon. The country is more than the fugitive content of a news headline watched thousands of kilometers away on CNN. The country is more than virtual worries.
Or, should I tell them that in August in certain neighborhoods where there is still some greenery left, you can sense the shy smell of fig trees? Beirut is a permanent training in sharpening your senses and your imagination. Discover the side streets and the hidden steps of Gemmayzeh and Geitawi. Remember: there used to be … and there is not anymore. A city in transition.
Beirut is like the over-ground cables that you can see everywhere: an incredibly creative mess. Any chaos theoretician would tell you that by all means of mathematical probability calculation, the traffic congestion at an intersection cannot be solved. Yalla! In this other medium called reality, that Lebanese seem to have invented, there is always at least one solution. Just don’t ask how. This is my favorite: somehow, it works. Don’t ask how.
Despair and hope, I think while walking: they are not following one another, but they happen simultaneously in time and space.
Fear and laughter, war and happiness: they come together as uneven twins.
You have to decide which one you believe in. From hour to hour, minute to minute, second to second.
Photos courtesy of Till Heene