George, the duty officer, had booked me into a small hotel less than two hundred yards down the street from the American embassy. Like its neighbors, the hotel had sustained damage during the civil war clashes last year. But nothing could compare to the ravaged Holiday Inn at the other end. The American chain hotel appeared beyond repair.
<Feature 1976 photo of Beirut Holiday Inn Hotel by beirutmabitmoot.wordpress.com
George said the small hotel’s owner had been making repairs for several months and had reopened the first floor a couple weeks ago.
The Lebanese owner was a nervous, talkative guy. I suspected that I was his only customer tonight. He brought two glasses of beer and handed me one instead of proceeding to check-in formalities.
He introduced himself as Joseph. I thought he must be a Christian, but I didn’t ask him any questions. I listened to him explain the war of the Christians vs Muslims.
“I spent several weeks on this floor praying the madness would end during the dark days of the past two years,” he concluded. “The Americans locked up the embassy and left. My friends left. Me? I stayed on. I guess I’m a little crazy, huh?”
I said the first thing that came to mind, “We all have tough choices to make.”
“Yes, that’s true,” he said in a reverent tone of voice.
I know this sounds heartless, but I had to suppress a chuckle… It’s just that less than two years ago if someone told me I would be checking into a hotel in downtown Beirut while a civil war ravaged the country I’d say they were crazy.
Joseph’s accent and word choice told me he had either been to the United States or had spent a good deal of time around Americans. I didn’t ask about it.
He stated his position proudly, not looking for sympathy. Joseph told me his story, how his hotel had thrived before the war began over two years ago, the steady decline into ruin. A Christian, one of his brothers and several relatives had perished during the war. His wife and daughter were still living in a village outside of Beirut. He showed me pictures of them. I congratulated him on having such a nice family.
“A young man in your prime,” he said to me. “You would have loved the old Beirut. The most beautiful city in the Mediterranean… in the world.”
His gaze, at first a smile, slowly melted into sadness, like a candle subjected to too much heat.
From then until now.
When Ryan walked through the door I had to admit that I was somewhat relieved. I had begun to feel guilty and wasn’t exactly sure why.
Ryan waved off Joseph when the good-natured fellow offered him a beer. “Joe, we’ve got to get going. I’ve lined up dinner with a couple of Lebanese beauties.”
“Ah, Ryan,” Joe said, like a father hearing of his son’s date with the prom queen.
“I’ll drop him off late,” Ryan added, with a wink and a nod.
I rose up.
The wounds of the war suddenly opened for Joe. He glanced at me and said to Ryan, “Be careful out there.”
“You know me Joe.”
Ryan handed Joe a sack filled with something.
“Thank you, Ryan.”
On our way to the car I asked Ryan what was in the sack. “Bread and deli stuff. Times are tough out here on the economy. It’ll take time for Joe to get back on his feet.”
In that moment Ryan reminded me of Humphrey Bogart’s character, Rick, in Casablanca. The war weary American expat always made time for someone in need …
The Explosive Beirut Restaurant
The restaurant was on the fourth floor of a building that like many others had sustained damage during the Lebanese civil war. It opened to a large veranda above the street below. The interior reminded me of the French restaurants that CEO-R Ed F. had introduced me to during the Secretary of State Cyrus Vance detail in Paris.
“The food is quite good here,” Ryan said to me, before he handed another brown paper bag to one of the waiters.
Ryan gazed around the room before he leaned into my ear and whispered, “The bakeries are back on line but for some reason there’s a shortage of butter. Somebody’s not watching the cows.”
I held back my laughter, because I wasn’t sure if he was being serious or not.
We were seated out on the veranda. The evening was quiet, perhaps too quiet. I wished that Ryan actually had lined up a pair of Lebanese beauties. He was keen on me trying an Lebanese/Arabic meal called a meze. (He parodied the great comedian, Groucho Marx: “Don’t mess with my meze”).
While we waited for the meze meal we sipped on glasses of white wine (grown locally). Ryan said that he, George and a security guy had eaten here right after they arrived in February.
“We were sitting right over there.”
He pointed to an empty table.
“A night just like tonight; a little chilly. I remember George was telling some B.S. story about an Indonesian village chief trying to marry his daughter off to George back in the late ’50’s. He offered George a ten-mile long island as a wedding present. I swear George had this look in his eye like he had actually considered it…”
“And then, BAAM! A bomb went off down the street. The shock wave swiped the wine glasses out of our hands. Speaking of George…”
Our cohort sat down and said to Ryan, “Sorry I’m late. There was more traffic to sort than usual.”
George said it like the amount of telegraphic traffic was a metric of the current political climate of Beirut.
Ryan nodded and said, “I was telling the Cowboy about that bomb they set off down the street the first time we ate here.”
“Bon Appetite,” George said, his eyes raised. “That lamb they served later was fantastic, though. I mean… I’d risk my life for that lamb.”
Ryan gave me that “George-being-George,” glance.
The Amazing Meze
They served the Meze in several small dishes along with a pile of grilled flat bread called pita. We shared the dips and salads as was the custom. Each time I dipped my fork George would rattle off the name and basic ingredient of each dish.
“Hummus is mashed up chickpeas, Baba Ghannouj consists of grilled eggplant, Fattoush salad—”
“Jesus, George,” Ryan said, “let the guy eat.”
The meze was a great treat for me. Probably, the closest thing I had experienced to this was the huge selection of dishes at “Woody’s Smorgasbord” on Western Avenue at the edge of Torrance, California, unless you count mom’s Mexican buffets where she served everything in small dishes (the reader is probably thinking that Ryan’s dark humor has rubbed off on me).
The meze had succulent black olives and the sweetest, most luscious tomatoes I had ever tasted. Only George sampled the brains, giving it a thumbs-up while I cringed and Ryan cackled. The platter of mixed meats, some on a kebob, were sumptuous. I was beginning to find a real taste bud for lamb. George didn’t have to tell me how delicious it was.
After that incredible meal George looked at his watch and said, “Duty calls.”
Ryan glanced at me and said to George, “You need some help?”
I imagined Ryan’s reply as a kind of code that meant that the indians might be planning an attack on Fort Apache tonight.
“No, I’ll take care of it.”
I had to remind myself that I was in the middle of what was a war zone just a few months ago and a spark could cause an explosion. George and Ryan were perhaps great actors. They had convinced me that they had it all—the best food, an exotic locale, tough, humorous cynical repartee, and most of all a heroic commitment to a cause (I was recalling a college English class: the elements of a great adventure novel, the name of which doesn’t come to mind).
George returned to the embassy to prepare for the midnight traffic (the two FSO’s traded off on the responsibility). They hadn’t said anything, but I suspected they also took turns sleeping on the cot up in the CPU.
Ryan ordered coffee and cognac. It was a perfect way to end the meal and (I would soon discover) only the beginning of my Beirut mentor’s night out on the town…