Matthew Parris

What you learn standing on a street corner in Beirut

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

16 March 2019

9:00 AM

A pale sun had emerged from wintry clouds and the hillsides were topped snowy white. But all around me was the workaday bustle of Beirut streets still wet from overnight winter rain. This was the Armenian quarter, near the docks, at morning coffee time.

I was standing on the Rue Qobaiyat, opposite a downtown petrol station and outside a corner barber’s shop, Salon Anto. My partner and his mother wanted to go to a museum and I’m not a great one for museums, and needed a haircut. ‘There’s a barber just around the corner,’ said the helpful owner of the little Baffa House lodge where we were staying. ‘A bit … old-fashioned. Nothing “cool”, you know.’

‘Just my place,’ I said; and soon found it. The lights were on, a TV was on, and someone was bustling around inside the tiny salon — opening up, I supposed. I needed money first, so walked on to find a cash machine.

Returning, I lingered at the window of a dingy little toolshop and was all but dragged in by the elderly Armenian proprietor. ‘-Twenty per cent off everything,’ he said — then, as if to explain: ‘I have to go to Virginia on Monday.’ So I bought a Mole wrench and a set of 24 screwdriver heads for 24 obscurely shaped spindles — such as can unlock hotel windows or blanked sockets at airports. Always useful. And carried on to Salon Anto.

Now it was locked, though the lights and TV were on. A car drew up, parked anyhow (half across the pavement, as they do in Beirut), and its driver, an elderly man with glossy dyed black hair — another would-be customer — started yabbering at me in Arabic, then French. Surely the barber’s arrival was imminent.

So I waited. More customers arrived, then gave up and departed, and eventually I was alone again. But the street scene had begun to grip me. Nothing was happening and there was nothing to see, but that’s what gripped me. Did you watch director Michael Haneke’s disturbing film Caché? The camera is mostly static as though simply switched on and abandoned on its stand; the ambient sounds are incidental (a dog barks, somebody out of shot laughs); cars pass and random people move into and out of the framed scene, meaninglessly, it seems, according to no evident narrative. Addictive. Like life, really. That is how it was for me on the Rue Qobaiyat: a fixed camera with no story to record, for more than an hour.

Hopes of his imminent return had long faded, but as they faded my feet became almost glued to the spot. My attention, fixed on nothing and on everything, at the same time vacant and obsessive, never faltered.

The first thing I noticed was that strangers glance sharply at each other in Beirut. I remember watching, yards from the couple, the Queen and Prince Philip walking down the aisle at Margaret Thatcher’s funeral at St Paul’s. He stared glassily ahead. But the Queen’s eyes darted, birdlike and alert, to left and right, taking things in. So do the Lebanese.

Just past the petrol station was a gun shop with a range of weaponry in the plate-glass window. Next to that was a lighting shop, a cavernous showroom filled with preposterous fixtures. Beirut is the world capital of piss-elegant chandeliers. You can buy a gun and overdecorate your lounge all within the space of 30 metres, on the Rue Qobaiyat. Over the road in a yard, two small, thin boys had climbed right into a big rubbish bin and were rifling through it.

I cupped my eyes to the window and peered into Salon Anto. In the window itself was a jumble of antique appliances: manual clippers, fire-throwers to singe your beard, pump sprays with pink liquid, colognes, cut-throat razors and murderous scissors. Within, under bare fluorescent tube lighting, was a single, ancient, shabby barber’s chair, its PVC upholstery yellowed and torn. Over it was thrown a full-length, thick, caramel-brown leather barber’s apron. The wash-basin had seen better days, the pedestal was as grubby as the floor tiles, and a range of tarnished electrical cutters dangled on the ends of a horrific tangle of wires.

Two Arab youths passed the shop, their heads shaved up to ear-top level, and above that their waxed jet-black hair standing rigidly on end as mustard-and-cress does in a tray. This style is all the rage in Lebanon at present. This barber’s would not have been for these youths.

I studied each passer-by. In Beirut they look as different from each other as pedestrians do in London. It was the beginning of Lent and I noticed how many of the Lebanese — Maronite Christians I suppose — had their foreheads charcoaled or inked with a Lenten cross. Some have church bells as their smartphone ringtone. I suppose it’s a way of asserting your religious identity. Perhaps keen Leavers and Remainers in Britain should ink our foreheads with an L or R.

A baker’s tricycle scooter-van put-putted past carrying what looked like a clothes rack, and on it dozens of sesame loaves shaped and baked to be hung like little suitcases, each with a handle-hole at the top. An itinerant shoe cleaner walked by, and tried to persuade me my shoes needed shining. Next came a chewing-gum seller, who crossed the road to a group of middle-aged men and — astonishingly — made a sale.

And now, across the road outside a corner store, two men had emerged screaming and shouting at each other. Two friends held them back to stop a fight. Both assailants had completely lost it. This was so sudden, this morning eruption of violence.

‘Just when you think you’ve hit bottom,’ wrote our former ambassador to the Lebanon Tom Fletcher, in a passionate, showy but unforgettable love letter of a valedictory blog, ‘you hear a faint knocking sound from below.’

The barber never came back. I stared around. Buildings were a sometimes bullet-pocked hodgepodge of colonial French and 20th-century concrete. Everywhere the concrete was gashed with black mould. But that’s how concrete does stain, in the rain. Visitors to Beirut must learn to love the stains.

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