Sun streams into my hotel room as I am woken by the sounds of a city waking up. The muffled chatter of street vendors, café owners and steady stream of cars combined with the crashing waves of the Mediterranean Sea hitting the rugged coastline. The city is calling me, begging for me to discover its secrets, meet its people and fall in love with its beauty. A city once toted as the Paris of the Middle East, before war and military occupation became commonplace. My fixer and security would not arrive until the following day, I had purposely set aside a day to explore the city, making arrangements to meet a fellow humanitarian for coffee that morning. Cindy was a woman approximately my age, three children and a husband. A midwife by trade she spent the majority of her year working in an undocumented camp near the border of Turkey, providing medical care to the many refugees who had escaped the horrors of war in their homeland. Chatting briefly about our backgrounds, work and family I felt an instant connection, an understanding that we both felt called to our positions in life, that our passion to make a difference would drive us to succeed, to make a difference.
Chatting about our adventures, making our way down the maze of streets in Beirut with the assistance of Google maps, I imagine we both looked terribly out of place and right at home at the same time. Google maps wove us in and out of different districts, each one different, each one begging for photographic documentation. Two men on the corner tending to the fruit and vegetable stand, sitting in green plastic chairs. A group of Lebanese military crowded around the street vendor dishing up piles of shwarma on large pieces of flatbread, more interested in lunch than the presence of two foreign women. We passed pastry shops with long marble counters filled with Middle Eastern desserts of filo dough, nuts and honey and cafes with men sipping sweetened hot tea and smoking shisha. Upon arrival at the small local café we were ushered to a large patio covered in a camouflaged netting to shield patrons from the heat of the mid day sun. Starving we ordered hummus, tabouleh, fried potatoes and cheese pastries deep-fried to a golden brown. Brined olives in varying shades of brown and green and warm pita bread accompanied our orders. Both of us content with our surroundings quietly dove into the food before us. Once my belly had been given a proper mediteranean meal, I looked up and quietly observed the people around us. A group of women, hijabs tightly concealing their hair tucked in one corner. A man and his wife sitting to the right of me, her head down while he leaned back in his chair smoking shisha, a group of young men chattering loudly while attempting to take selfies of their gathering. The assembly of patrons was a combination of both traditional Muslim ideals and the more modern western view of a younger generation. Our leisurely lunch came to an end and we headed down the streets of Beirut once again. This time more confident in our sense of direction and armed with the knowledge that the coastline would guide us to our hotel, we set aside our phones. The Raouche’ district is bordered by the Mediterranean Sea, its beautiful and rugged coastline dotted with large rock formations and sandy beaches. Small rock stairways allow locals to maneuver closer to the water. Many had set up plastic chairs and leisurely sat in the sun eating and socializing with friends and family. In the distance a man and woman were perched on a collection of rock formations embracing in the glow of the late day sun. As we approached the base of the cliffs I was greeted by the melodic sounds of an Arabic song. Enchanted I turn and smiled at the man, he gestured to share his tea. I happily obliged, encouraged him to continue his song and contently sipped my tea as the sky turned vivid shades of orange, pink and bright blue. Lost in a world that seemed so foreign to me the evening before, it now would be hard to leave.