The main reason I went to Beirut earlier this month was so I could see “The Dark Knight Rises” four more times at 35,000 feet. Four of the six flights I was on offered the movie as an entertainment option, and I figured if I watched the ending four times, I could finally decide once and for all whether Alfred the butler’s vision at the end is real or imagined. (See how careful I was not to spoil the ending for the seven people left who haven’t seen the film?)
This was my second visit to Beirut this year, and it has to be one of the most interesting cities I’ve ever seen. My impressions are founded on less than two weeks there over two visits, but I was telling my good friend, Khatchig Mouradian – who grew up there during the cataclysmic Lebanese Civil War and now lives in Watertown, Massachusetts, where he edits “The Armenian Weekly” – that I think of three things when I recall the city: A hotel, a cat, and the scariest shoes Christian Louboutin ever designed. On some level, in my psyche if not in reality, they are related.
First, the hotel. Actually, it is the shell-cratered husk of a hotel. In 1975, Holiday Inn opened a towering skyscraper a block from the Mediterranean Sea with an elegant, revolving restaurant at the top. Within months of the start of the Civil War, rival militias fought for the high ground and the hotel was about as high as you could get in that corner of the city. Although much of Beirut has been rebuilt, the Holiday Inn remains as it was in the worst of the fighting: Thirty stories of empty concrete that are dotted with blackened shell holes. I saw the Holiday Inn a lot on my recent visit, because it’s next-door to the Phoenicia, the five-star hotel where I was staying. Nearly forty years after the first mortar carved the first cavity and took the first life in the building, it remains a striking reminder of the violence we as people can inflict on one another. It is among the most powerful anti-war monuments I have ever seen.
And then there is the cat. She was a tortoise-shell the size of a poodle and I would have guessed she tipped the scales at 15 pounds. The feline was on the campus of the American University of Beirut, one of the 150 or so cats that the school’s Animal Welfare Club feeds and neuters. A student who was giving me a tour pointed her out to me and said, laughing, “They have all the benefits of AUB, but none of the mid-terms. They’re so spoiled, they can’t make it outside the confines of the university more than a few hours.” I asked what happened to the cats during the Civil War. He wasn’t sure, but said, “We were the only university to remain open throughout the fighting. And they’ve always been a part of the campus culture.”
Finally, there are the shoes. Not far from my hotel, I came across a Christian Louboutin shoe store. Louboutin is a French designer who either hates or loves women’s feet. I have no idea. I just know that the heels of his shoes look like weapons and cost as much as the monthly rent on a lot of apartments. I picked up one pair, wondering if my 19-year-old daughter might like them, and saw they cost nearly $2,000. (I bought her a hat instead.) Most women in Lebanon don’t have the money to buy shoes that pricey, but high heels matter more in Beirut than in Boston, New York, or Los Angeles. They matter a lot more. Is this a fashion hedonism that’s also linked to the nation’s horrific Civil War – the idea that today we will wear Louboutin because tomorrow we may die? Maybe. Maybe not.
According to the Beirut newspapers, roughly 130,000 refugees so far have streamed into the nation from Syria, escaping the nightmarish war that has engulfed that neighbor. I asked many of the Lebanese I met whether the violence there is going to spread into Lebanon. Some said yes, some said no.
My favorite answer, however, came from a driver who brought me back one night to the Phoenicia. “I don’t think the war will come here,” he said, pointing up at the nearby Holiday Inn. “I hope we’ve learned what can happen.”
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on December 16, 2012. Chris’s new novel, “The Light in the Ruins,” goes on sale on July 16, 2013.)