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Part Three: Hamra Street

In 1985, Beirut was divided in two parts, East and West, somehow like Berlin.  A true story, of two young law students, looking for adventure, in time of war.  This is the last part of a short story.  Please read part one and part two, previously posted.  I hope you will enjoy it.

Part Three: Hamra Street

Read here part two:  One day in 1985, in Beirut (part two)

It was only 9:00 a.m.; Nada and I were already exhausted.

We decided that we would not let the emotional rollercoaster we went through, ruin our trip.

The day was just starting and we had so much to discover in the land of the enemy.

The enemy; what a strong word.

It is so hard for me now, to even write this word, knowing what I know.

But this is how it was suppose to be in 1985.  This was how we were supposed to feel towards the residents of West Beirut: The Enemies.  This is what they told us.  This is what we believed.

Nada and I were now in their territories.  It felt almost like violating their sanctuary, where they were hiding from us.  Because we were, in their eyes, the enemies too.

So once we left the military zone, we looked around us, and the scene was like looking in a mirror; a reflection of East Beirut.  Well, of course it was going to be the same: East and West Beirut shared the same land, same sky, same air.  As much as it felt like we were travelling to a different country, the landscape was more than familiar, it felt like home.

As we walked away from the borders, we saw a line of taxis waiting to pick up the people who crossed the passage.

Mathaf passage had a different name on the other end.  It was called Barbir Passage for people who lived in West Beirut.

Our first encounter with a civilian from West Beirut was our taxi driver.  A middle-aged man, with a familiar paternal face.

“Where to?” he said.

“To Hamra?” I replied, answering the question with a question, just like a Jesuite.

He said “ok”, and he started the car.  He must have been waiting for few minutes, if not an hour, since this morning.

He said in a very joyful way: “You are my first clients today.”  Then he hummed an inaudible sentence.  He spoke his sentence with such fervor, which made me guess that he was reciting a verse from the Koran.  He was thanking God for his first clients of the day.

I looked at his rear mirror and I saw a small Koran book hanging from it.  On the side of his window there was pictures of his kids and underneath the pictures someone wrote; “Baba come back home safe, we are waiting for you.”

I felt so uncomfortable and guilty.  Uncomfortable because I was a Christian meeting a Muslim for the first time.  And guilty because he looked like such a good family man, and few minutes earlier I was thinking of him as the enemy.

His driving was familiar too.  He was speeding when he could, and then shouting and waving at other drivers if they didn’t let him go through.  A characteristic shared by so many Lebanese, no matter what place or century they were born in.

The road to Hamra Street was like any road in our neighborhood in East Beirut; full of holes and bumps and extremely jammed.

The people on the street matched in a strange way the people in East Beirut.

West Beirut was exactly like East Beirut.

The more we went further and deeper into the heart of West Beirut, the more our emotions were getting exacerbated.  I felt a strange attraction pulling me toward an entire population whom I thought was the enemy.  Another strange feeling was also burning me from the inside; the anger towards my own people who planted the seeds of animosity towards the people of West Beirut.  I was too young to understand that life was not all about black and white, love and hate.  I was myself drawn to extreme situation in life, and that day I was falling in love with the enemy.

When we arrived to Hamra Street everything looked beautiful, sensational, and exciting.  The street wasn’t as big as it was described to us, but the cafes were there.  The cafes were spread all along the sidewalks, the customers who were in majority men, were sipping coffee and smoking Narjileh.  The bright sun was warming up the people on the streets and the streets were full of busy merchants, hanging in their kiosk tourist attractions and souvenirs from Lebanon.  There was also lot of food sold on the go, and lot of fresh juices pressed in front of thirsty clients.

That day Nada and I spend more time eating than looking for clothes to buy.  We did go inside few shoe shops but didn’t buy anything.  Nada bought accessories and a scarf.

Going to Hamra Street was not anymore about shopping but about celebrating our first adventure, our emancipation from our parents, our independence from our community and from East Beirut.  It felt good.  It was a very powerful feeling, the kind that made us think: “if I’ve done this, I can do anything!”

We were eager to go back home and tell the world: Veni, Vidi, Veci, “I came, I saw, I conquered.”

At 3:00 in the afternoon it was time to go back.  We took a taxi to Barbir Passage, and said goodbye to West Beirut.

Crossing the border through the Barbir passage, on the way back home, was very similar to our experience in the morning.  Except that we were not stopped at the checkpoint because people who were leaving West Beirut were simply not subject to any search.

After crossing the no-man’s land and before reaching the Mathaf Area we came face to face with another checkpoint.  This time it was the Christian militia checkpoint.

Strangely (or stupidly enough), Nada and I haven’t noticed on the way to West Beirut that morning, that East Beirut had its own checkpoint too.  Christian had their militia deployed and ready to intimidate the people crossing from West Beirut.

The bunker was also made of sand and was guarded by a man with a rifle pointing out of the window.  The riffle had a picture of Virgin Mary stuck on it and an oversize cross.

As we approached the gunman of the Christian militia, Nada and I were not tensed at all.  Not only because we became used to military checkpoints but also because we knew that we had nothing to fear, no identity to hide and no religion to be ashamed of.

The guard man at the checkpoint was very nice, and he became nicer after we handed our student cards.  He, right away, guessed our affiliation and let us be.  We were no threat to him nor to the community of East Beirut.

Even though I felt a relief coming back to our side of the city I, somehow, felt trapped.  Being in close touch with the border made me feel as if I was going back to prison.

At 4:00 p.m. Nada and I were back at the University parking lot.  Students were leaving the premises.

As I was driving on my way home I was daydreaming and thinking about what I have done that day.  There was too much information to process, so much mixed feelings that kept me up all night.

I also realized that we didn’t see the seaside and the beach that day.  So I promised myself that, if I would ever go back, I would make the seaside my ultimate destination.  What I didn’t know is that in few months I was going to meet Ali, the Muslim young boy from West Beirut, who was going to give me a special tour in West Beirut, and with whom I was going to watch the sun set on the West Beirut beach also known as the Corniche.

End of Chapter One.

To all my dear friends who have been following this short story, I want to thank you for supporting me when I was writing every part of it.

I want to say to you Jim, Nayla, Alicia, Nada and Randa, and my wonderful sister Patricia, thank you from the bottom of my heart.

I will not post a new story soon, I want to take a break and write about other subjects on my blog.

However, I promise to come back again, in the future, with more autobiographical stories from my life during the Lebanese war.

Thank you all, you are so precious to me.