Lufthansa's Till Heene flies through the city by foot

Lebanon Traveler - - CONTENTS -

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.

Live Le­banese.

Pho­tos cour­tesy of Till Heene

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