Our Man in Beirut

As 2009 slowly comes to an end, Beirut is full of expectation at the upcoming arrival of the hordes of expats for Eid and Christmas. As is usual during the holidays, our sprawling and chaotic capital will double in size. Expect traffic jams as far as the eye can see, lots of gesticulating drivers, queues in restaurants and inflated prices all around.

Up until last August, I used to be one of these returning exiles. I’d sit in the offices of the bank I worked for, a soulless concrete and glass block in London, staring out at the perpetual drizzle and gray skies and think of Beirut. Then, suddenly, I decided it was time to quit and move back to Beirut. The use of the term “move back” was even surprising to me, as I’d only ever lived in Beirut for about 6 years during high school and university. The rest of my years have been spent in the aforementioned drizzle. But I’d always had this longing, even before I’d ever set foot in Lebanon in the 90s, to one day inhabit the country whose faded Ministry of Tourism posters I had plastered around my childhood bedroom on Queen’s Gate.

In the months since I’ve moved here, I’ve dealt with the daily frustrations every Beiruti endures. I’ve spent hours baking in the August sun in the Beirut Port waiting for my furniture, books, DVDs and albums. I think importing a container full of RPGs would have been less cumbersome. It appears books (of which I had 34 boxes) are far more threatening to the powers that be. I’ve endured the traffic jams, the aggressive drivers, the frustrated traffic cops, the bored telephone receptionists, the over-zealous security guards, the gossipy housewives, the faux-hippies, the faux-jetsetters. I’ve gotten used to the fact that people can smoke in restaurants, clubs, hospitals, airports, offices. I’ve tried not to stare at the botched nose jobs and garish dress sense.  I’ve accepted that my internet connection slowly evaporates as the rain starts to trickle and then pour down through flooded streets. I’ve accepted that on the sunniest of days, my internet connection is still only about a 20th of the speed of the one I just left behind in the West.

Then one day, I flipped. I refused to believe I lived here. I’d tell people vaguely that I lived between Beirut and Paris. I promptly packed my bags and went to Paris for over a month. Since I quit a soul-destroying career in finance, I’ve decided I would take up my one and only passion, writing, and make a career out of it. I’m currently working on a book about Saudi Arabia’s regional wars,  as well as a first novel. While I was in Paris, I was also working on an online magazine I’d been developing for a few months. Since most of my intellectual fodder comes from Manhattan-based publications, I wanted to launch an online arts & culture magazine in the same vain. I could basically live anywhere I wanted and work from my laptop.

Then, a week ago, I returned from Paris. I found the same insistent cab drivers at the airport, the same cops shouting vague threats at incorrectly parked motorists outside the arrivals terminal. My heart sank immediately. I was back. A few days of moderate depression ensued, with daydreams of my next flight out of here. Then one morning, I decided to head to my father’s ancestral village. One of the last places where I can escape to without the burden of car horns and wireless internet.  I had always admired how my father has travelled to the four corners of the earth, but still only finds true peace amongst the pine trees of his native village. Sitting on a sundrenched terrace, staring down a sunlit and green valley all the way to the sea, I realized my place was in Beirut. I finally accepted that I now live here.

As I drove back to home, thoughts were racing through my mind. As soon as I got back into the 21st century, and found my wireless connection, I purchased this domain to the page you’re now reading. I have now scrapped my initial ideas for an online magazine, and will now direct my online efforts towards this blog. The daily musings of a returning expat, with all the frustrations and joys that this implies. As Beirutis and Lebanese, we’re quite good at complaining about our plight, but we’re not really proactive about it.

Over the years I’ve posted a few thoughts on Lebanon and the Lebanese on my personal blog and on various forms of social media (you can read a couple that I’ve reposted on this blog to get a taste of what’s to come). Some have been plagiarized; others quoted on blogs and in books. The last note I posted on my Facebook profile drew 80 responses, so it’s pretty obvious a lot of people share my frustrations and hopes, and more importantly they want to discuss them.

So, on Monday night, this blog was born. The title “Our Man in Beirut” is a reference to the byline attached to foreign journalists and the segways made by news anchors to war correspondents. I thought it was appropriate as I often feel like a stranger in my own city. You’ll find my own musings as well as links to videos and articles of interest, with some form of snooty commentary from yours truly.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

11 Responses to “Our Man in Beirut”

  1. Caline Malek
    November 26, 2009 at 1:11 pm #

    Love the way you write! and can really relate to this. Keep it up :)

  2. Nasri Atallah
    November 26, 2009 at 1:39 pm #

    Thanks Caline :) Was just reading your article in the Kuwait Times, so right back at you!

  3. Dalia
    December 2, 2009 at 10:48 am #

    love it nas.

    i have been trying to access your blog for 3 days now. every attempt has been infuriatingly thwarted by the ineptitude of my Jordanian manual dial-up connection. It refuses to let me finish an article let alone comment. i think my perseverance (and the miracle of this comment) should be applauded.

    i love how u casually slip in that you own 34 boxes of books. any indication on size of the boxes? regardless, 34 boxes screams for an oprah-esque book club in beirut. u could have weekly meetings. serve coffee (with skimmed milk) and low fat biscuits. complain about the traffic then have lengthy debates over the chosen book. you could be a pioneer.

    anyway this is great – its an acceptable substitute for ur sarky emails and you have (vaguely) inspired me 😉 come visit me in dubai!

  4. Nasri Atallah
    December 2, 2009 at 2:21 pm #

    Hey D.
    Your perseverance in the face of technological ineptitude (not yours, obviously) is indeed laudable, and I thank you warmly for it.

    As for the 34 boxes, well they were there ok! I have to admit that the vast majority (read 99.9%) of those books are my fathers, and I’ve mostly used them to prop up wobbly tables. As for a book club in Beirut, I’m sure most people would settle on reading the Spark notes and send someone in their place to discuss the books, and everyone would end up having vodka-redbull and disappearing into the night pretty early on! And I don’t think I’m Oprah-esque enough (aside the wildly variable weight), I’d need a serious dose of crazy.

    Ah, yes those snarky emails sent from the confines of our grey cubicles in London. Good times.

  5. Lamis Zaibak
    December 14, 2009 at 12:02 pm #

    Welcome back as a peace correspondent I hope :)

  6. Nasri Atallah
    December 14, 2009 at 7:25 pm #

    I hope so too Lamis :)

  7. Yasmina Hatem
    December 17, 2009 at 7:41 pm #

    I think it’s great that you’ve let go of the soul-destroying career in finance, and focus on writing.
    I actually have the same dream (to quit the job that turns out to be so much more boring than I ever thought possible) and to be free to live where I want and just write. But I guess it scares me in a way…
    I admire your guts and hope you keep it up!

  8. algerienne
    December 30, 2009 at 6:28 pm #

    I want to write this response to thank you all on this topic

  9. Margrett Northum
    September 5, 2010 at 1:40 am #

    Oprah would make a decent politician. One of few these days

  10. sabine
    January 17, 2011 at 8:02 pm #

    Thank you for writing, for expressing yourself and allow us to get a taste of your experience – a very lovely and vivid taste.
    I was however left with a missing – the whole reason for you finally accepting your mother land – what town is your dad from that had you transform in the moment?
    Looking forward to more…
    I toy with the idea of moving back home – i left Beirut at the age of 10…and 27 years later in Canada, i still feel like i need to go home – and that i am a visitor here.


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