Unlocking Beirut

Travel Stories: When Catherine Watson left Lebanon's capital city in the 1960s, she carried home the key to her former apartment. Forty years later, she returned with her prized souvenir and found it could still open doors.

Amazingly, our old neighborhood hadn’t changed much, and the ruined downtown was being resurrected. The old souks were gone, but many of the beautiful yellow buildings had been restored, the sidewalk cafes were back and booming, the crowds were as cosmopolitan as I remembered, and I was just as happy.

Being in the city again gave me such intense deja-vu that I kept forgetting my real age. I remembered it fast enough when I went looking for my apartment: I couldn’t find anyone old enough to ask.

I looked for it anyway, but I’d never known more than a few words of Arabic, and while neighborhood residents tried to help, I got nowhere. The next time I tried, I asked an A.U.B. staffer to come along and translate.

Khaled and I walked down Jeanne d’Arc to a cross street called Makdisi, and he pointed to a tall, white building on the corner, its facade a mix of shop signs and modern balconies. He thought it must be that one.

It can’t be, I said. It’s too new. Too big. It didn’t look like that. And it wasn’t on a corner.

Khaled asked a shopkeeper. “He says that’s the Makdisi building,” Khaled said. No, I insisted, it isn’t.

We walked up a narrow lane beside it. Midblock, tucked behind the modern building so it was invisible from Jeanne d’Arc, there was a lower building, worn yellow stucco with old green shutters.

Ours was like that, I told Khaled. But it wasn’t this far back, and it faced the other way. If you took this building and turned it around.

A balding, middle-aged man in a navy turtleneck had come out onto a little terrace on the ground floor and was standing quietly, watching me pantomime turning his building around in the air. He asked in Arabic what I was up to. Khaled told him.

And then the man did something that the Lebanese always used to do: He simply opened the terrace gate and, with a huge smile, welcomed us into his home.

“Come in,” he said in English, and we stepped into his living room. It was very plain, with an old tile floor (the pattern looked familiar), divans along two sides, a treadle sewing machine serving as an end table, a few kitchen chairs scattered around and a large TV mounted high on the wall.

Our host, along with his younger sister, her husband, their 4-year-old son and a frail elderly lady—“my auntie,” our host said—had been watching an Arabic news report about the war in Iraq. He turned it down a little so we could talk.

No, he said, he didn’t remember any building like the one I described. Neither did his auntie, who had moved over to sit beside me.

She had been a teacher, she confided, in a delicate blend of French and English. As the evening went on, more and more words came back to her. She practiced them, moving her lips silently, before she shyly whispered them to me. It was like listening to lace.

Another wraith-like old auntie drifted in and perched on one of the divans. She said she didn’t know about the apartment either and drifted back out.

“My mother will know,” our host assured us: She ran a dressmaking shop around the corner and knew everyone in the neighborhood.

By the time his mother appeared, we’d learned how to pronounce each other’s names. I’d told everyone about our study group and its reunion trip, and we’d all agreed that the Iraq war was a bad thing. They’d offered coffee and tea, Khaled and I had accepted, and the English-speaking auntie had gone into the kitchen and fetched a plate of homemade stuffed grape leaves.

“Eat,” she said. Plump with lamb and rice, they were the best I’d ever tasted.

Eventually the mother came in, a woman with dyed-black hair, wearing a kerchief and a loose flowered housecoat. She didn’t look any older than her son.

But he was right: She knew. And she knew instantly.

Before he’d said anything, she froze, stared hard at my face and rattled off something in fast, excited Arabic. “My mother say she know you directly!” the son translated, and lots of talk broke out.

Khaled translated more precisely. This is what the mother had said about me: “She rented the apartment behind our house 40 years ago!”

I was so shocked that my skin tingled. I’m still shocked. I think she was actually remembering one of the other women, but I didn’t mind. The important thing was, she remembered us. And she remembered the apartment.

Which wasn’t there any more. She said the owners—yes, the very same ones who’d owned a jam factory—had torn it down in 1975, just before the civil war started, and put that big white building in its place. The dead-end alley beside our old building had been made into a lane, which was how the replacement ended up on a corner.

I’d been afraid of something like this, but the family’s unexpected hospitality took the sting out of the loss. At least it hadn’t been war damage.

I dug the old apartment key out of my purse and held it up for them to see. “I was going to open the door and walk in and give it back,” I said, and Khaled translated.

Everyone collapsed in laughter. “Now I guess I can keep it,” I said. More laughter.

The elderly auntie worked out another of her gossamer English sentences and offered it to me. “You found the key,” she said gently, “and you lost the house.”

I slipped the key back in my purse and zipped it shut. Yes, I said, and smiled at her. Yes, the house is gone.

But by then it didn’t matter. The key had done its old familiar work, as surely as if I’d turned it again in the front door of No. 1, Makdisi Building, all these years later.

It had let me back into a city I loved and permitted me, in that Lebanese family’s plain, friendly living room, once again to feel at home.

Catherine Watson is the former travel editor of the Minneapolis Star Tribune, a winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel Journalist of the Year and the author of two collections of travel essays. This story was a notable selection for the "Best American Travel Writing 2007" anthology.

2 Comments for Unlocking Beirut

Didi 12.21.08 | 4:36 PM ET

Beautiful article!

Jillian 12.02.09 | 2:26 PM ET

What a beautiful piece.  I’m about to make my first trip to Beirut this weekend and have been eating up as much travel writing about the city as I can…but this is by far the most beautiful and personal piece I’ve found.  Thank you for writing it.

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