I had traveled a lot in the Middle East, but never before to Beirut, the “Paris of the Orient.” I went just before Christmas last year, to interview a famous, beautiful woman, and I had a half-day to see the sights.
Out on the Corniche, beyond the ruined art deco beachfront high-rises — lodging rats now, not VIPs — you can rent a bike. No one seemed to have a map, but the mid-December sun was warm and it seemed a shame not to pedal along the seashore on my free afternoon.
Seeking the bike shop, I encountered two boys on a bench by the sea. One was smoking, holding his cigarette between flesh stumps where his hands had been cut or burned off at the wrists. Judging by the hair on his lip, he looked a very small 14. A smaller boy next to him pointed at, but did not open, a plastic bag on his lap. He was not a high-pressure salesman, but when I seemed receptive, he pulled out a plastic and cloth toy, a Chinese-made quacking duck hand puppet.
He was asking 1,500 Lebanese pounds, the equivalent of about a dollar. I went across the street to a little shop to get some change and bought a bag of chips and some Pepsi. I gave the boys the treats and bought one duck.
Eventually I found the bike shop, behind a McDonald’s beside a mosque. I pedaled into the stream of cars on the Corniche. There were no bike lanes, but by following the toxic fumes of the mopeds slaloming among the stopped cars and dodging piles of rubble from recent bombings, I made quick progress. I pedaled in the shadows of corrugated metal walls set up to prevent people from falling into holes where buildings had once stood, holes with great big cranes replacing war ruins with new ugly boxes. The Paris of the Orient is a city of hundreds of small ground zeros, apparently.
A sign in French, “Quartiere de caractere originale,” marked the edge of Achrafieh, a wealthy Christian neighborhood. The hideous concrete box high-rises briefly gave way to a few leafy streets, a last remnant of Ottoman glory. I found “downtown” Beirut: a little outdoor mall of sleek cafes, luxury stores, tourist shops, Christmas shoppers and the Ministry of Finance, all encircled by massive concrete blocks to repel car bombs. I bought a map, and I stopped for an Italian coffee and looked around. Soldiers everywhere. A massive yellow mosque hovered nearby, beside an equally massive Maronite Christian Church. Armed men between them guarded a white-tented memorial to assassinated politician Rafik Hariri, whose slaying has been linked to both Syrians and Hezbollah, but remain s unsolved.
By the time I finished my coffee, the winter sky had darkened early. The prospect of nighttime traffic was alarming. I plunged into the traffic and pedaled in what I thought was the direction back, stopping to ask for help at least six times, getting six different sets of directions.
I wished I had bothered to refresh my memory on the Arabic for “right,” “left” and “straight” before I set off. People kept directing me onto one of the highways that linked the quarters, and as the sun set, a soaring highway bridge seemed the only route back to the seashore. Walking my bike along its wee footpath, four lanes of cars whizzing by, I encountered a few other pedestrians, African laborers mostly, souls equally lost. Beneath us, the twilight call to prayer coincided with the silvery sound of Christian vespers from the big church beside it, a reminder of the religious c o-existence for which Beirut has been wrecked again and again.
Back at my hotel, I opened my purse and spilled the haul of the day: a few cheap pretty rings for friends, the street map of Beirut; at the bottom the duck puppet I’d forgotten all about.
I examined it. The cheap orange cloth was printed with random English words: “baby” and “three” and “happy” and “love. The duck’s eyes were plastic, glued unevenly into a pelt of fake gray fur. The plastic quacker in its throat was already falling out.
The goofy little assemblage suddenly suggested a chain of global sorrow, from the Chinese laborer on the plastic quacker assembly line, to the one who sewed and glued it, to the boys on the Corniche selling it, to Beirut babies yet to be born that might someday play with one. What had happened to that boy’s hands? Land mine? Bomb? Islamic law? Kitchen accident? I should have asked. And w hy hadn’t I bought his entire bag of ducks, which would have set me back no more than 20 bucks?
Later I realized that I could probably go back out onto the Corniche in the morning and find those two boys. But I didn’t. I got my interview and went home. For a long time, I tried to write about those boys and the duck but I couldn’t get it right. Why did they and that particular bit of toy flotsam move me so? Because it was Christmastime and I was lonely and far from home?
I see people every day in New York who need help. They seek warmth in subway trains; sometimes they offer the equivalent of duck puppets, but more often they just hold out their hands. If coins are handy sometimes I give. More often I turn away. One gray-headed old guy was standing on the 1 train with his pants falling to his knees the other day, eyes shut, oblivious to the riders smirking at his naked thighs and none of us offering aid.
This Christmas, the handless Beirut boy’s duck puppet hangs on my tree in New York, joining the pink lacy globe that belonged to Grandma, the red strawberry that was Dad’s favorite — another bauble of memory.
Nina Burleigh wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.