In any other country they would have met on the train. But there are no trains between Tripoli and Beirut. There is the road and there are cars, buses and taxis. The Lebanese community starts with being a strong individual first.
Samir and Heba met on the long stretch after the Casino du Liban, where the traffic to Beirut jams on every late Sunday afternoon. Samir was on his way home from a weekend trip to the mountains above Jbeil. Heba was driving to Beirut for a job interview on Monday morning. She planned to stay at her sister's apartment for the night.
Samir was a photographer in his forties. He made his living with shooting pictures for advertisement campaigns. The billboard with the half naked woman posing for lingerie that Heba had just passed: that was Samir. He had noticed the billboard as well. The photo shot had been nice; the woman was exciting; the night had been a rollercoaster. But Samir wanted more. He aspired to be an artist. One day, Samir dreamed, I will publish my photographs in Lens Culture. One day, I can photograph what I want.
Heba grew up in Tripoli. She had left her native city for Europe towards the end of the civil war. She was still young then, but the war had made her an adult early. She married, she had children, she divorced. While her children were studying in Europe, Heba had returned to Tripoli a few years ago to help her ailing parents with their business.
But the economic situation had become dire in Lebanon's north. When business is slow in Beirut, it is dead in Tripoli. Torn between a fixation of Lebanese economical life on Beirut and a war in Syria, Tripoli was reeling in the ropes like a worn out boxer in the ninth round.
Maybe I should never have come back to Tripoli, Heba thought. Maybe my life took a wrong turn from the start. I never had the chance to be successful, a chance to be me. My childhood was a victim of the war; my adult life was sacrificed for my husband, my children, my parents: ruminating what could have been and what has not, Heba didn't pay much attention to the traffic around her.
Neither did Samir. And that's how Samir and Heba met.
The next weekend, Samir doesn't stop his car in Jbeil. He drives past Batroun, past Chekka and its cement factory to visit Heba. Samir notices the pictures of slain Lebanese politicians and Syrian singers left and right to the highway. The dent in his car doesn't bother anybody in this part of the country.
"Where the hell am I going?"
Samir hadn't been to Tripoli in a long time. Why should he? Seen from Beirut, Tripoli was not Lebanon anymore. Samir knew the reputation that Tripoli had given Lebanon. The clashes, the snipers, the bearded men and the veiled women. Samir hated Tripoli for that. But now there was Heba. Tripoli finally had a face for Samir.
“Don't worry”, Heba had told Samir, “everybody in Tripoli knows Hallab. You will easily find it.” Heba is nervous. Samir sounded charming when they had spoken on the phone. But dates are different. The third time already, Heba goes to the bathroom to check her lip stick and her carefully trimmed eye lashes. She tries her best smile again.
“Is this working?”
There was some time since Heba had been eye to eye with a man. There was some time since a man had taken an interest in Heba. A man from Beirut! Coming to Tripoli to see me.
Heba feels old and tired. She feels that her nose is too big.
After her trip to Beirut, Heba was confused. Beirut is a cosmopolitan city, with plenty of restaurants and bars, a Disneyland compared to Tripoli. Beirut is full of fantasies. It smells like fumes and adrenaline, it was pouring sweat and crying stress. Tripoli was laid back, going at a relaxed pace. Heba was overwhelmed. The best thing in Beirut was the Connex bus that took her back to Tripoli. There was no job for Heba in Beirut. There was no life for her in Beirut.
“There he is!”
Samir is even more handsome than I remember him, Heba thinks. He stumbles slightly on the stairs that lead up to the restaurant on the first floor. They sit down, awkwardly checking each other out. Samir goes first.
“How are you”?
“How is Tripoli these days?” Samir waits for a few seconds, but Heba doesn't answer.
“This place is beautiful. I am surprised.”
“Well, Tripoli is more than Kandahar, more than what you get to see in the news. Tripoli has a lot of potential.”
Heba feels like a sales representative at an investors' conference.
The lunch at Hallab is excellent. And the deserts are delicious. The home-made ice cream, the luscious gateaux. The famous hlewet l jeben.
“Sahten!”. Heba likes what she sees. Samir licks the last traces of ashta ice cream off his spoon.
Heba is eager to leave. She wants to tour Tripoli with Samir, to show him her home town. Samir never leaves home without his camera. He is glad that he has the camera with him today. Already his mind is running away. This day may be the start of something new: a new hope, a new life, a new career. I deserve another chance, Samir thinks. And maybe Tripoli deserves another chance too.
On their way out, Samir orders a green box of sweets to take home; then they leave.
“Let me drive! I know the city.” Heba doesn't know where her energy comes from.
“If you like”. Samir hands Heba the keys. Samir is too surprised to even say no.
Traffic is heavy in Tripoli, but not as hopelessly congested as in Beirut. Heba drives the short distance from Hallab to the International Fair.
“Did you know that Oscar Niemeyer, the famous Brazilian architect, also built in Tripoli?”
Samir didn't know.
“The project started in 1962, but stopped in 1975, with the outbreak of the civil war.”
Samir's uncle was killed in the war. At a checkpoint.
“Today, the Fairground has the feeling of a deserted space station.” Heba sounds like a tour guide. “In his work, Niemeyer was all about structure. And structure is all that remains from Niemeyer's work in Tripoli today.”
Samir's uncle was only 23. He had bought a ticket for Canada one day before his death.
Heba is proud to show him the Fairground. At the same time she looks sad.
“The Fair is like me. The war stopped us from fully developing. I feel that something inside of me is lost. Forever”. Heba wonders what makes her confide in an almost stranger.
International Fair, Tripoli
Samir has never been married. He has no children. He likes women and women like him. Being from Beirut, he is impatient. Wired. He is great small talker. But he is lost in the superficiality of a glamour world. Samir has seen his friends settling down, driving their children to school on their first day. He has 892 friends on Facebook, but he doesn't know who they are.
On his last birthday, he had 137 best wishes posted on his timeline. Still, he felt empty and lonely when he drank his glass of champagne. There must be more to life than showing off on Facebook, Samir thought that day. But where can I find it? How can I stop dancing on the volcano?
“The population of Tripoli has grown immensely in the last decade.” Heba explains this obvious fact when they pass the Damm wal Farz area. “And on this road, many restaurants have opened up only in recent years.”
“Ten Burger here”, Heba goes on, “Ten Burger probably serves the best burgers in all of Lebanon. With French Fries and all. You like American food, do you?”
“Fast food in a slow place?”, Samir murmurs. “I like that.”
They reach Tall, Tripoli's main square. The buildings around the square have either been restored or are awaiting their final judgment. The beauty of the renovated houses is striking. The buildings are witnesses of an era when the future was still a possibility for Tripoli.
Samir grabs his camera. Many buildings have festering wounds, he thinks, like a shot soldier who was not able to reach the field hospital in time. These houses have given up, and Samir smells their foul breath, their bodies wrenching in agony.
“Was this the civil war, or are these the new clashes?”
“Does it matter?”
“Why do they fight?”
“They have forgotten.”
“Are you sure that Tripoli is not a dangerous place?”
“Today it's not”, Heba says.
Samir smiles at her, very short, very shy, but it is a smile. It feels good not being in the driver's seat for once, Samir thinks. The warm Mediterranean light and the smog free air will make for good photos.
“We should stop and get out of the car to feel the wind blowing”.
“Wait until we are in al-Mina”, Heba says. “We will walk along the Corniche. We don't need to hurry. There is always wind in Tripoli.”
The street down to al-Mina, passing Hallab again, is long, with dense traffic. Samir doesn't mind to go slow. He likes how smoothly Heba drives. He likes her seriousness when she talks about life. Samir hadn't known how attractive a little conservatism could be.
The street is lined with cell phones shops. There is also an Apple store, just before McDonald's, near the Mounla hospital. Samir wonders if they know about this shop in Cupertino.
“That's where I was born”. Heba points to the right. “In this hospital. Nobody knew about Steve Jobs then.”
Young people are smoking narguilehs in the garden restaurants.
When they reach the Salam mosque, Samir is shocked when he sees the degree of devastation. In August, a car bomb went off just in front of the mosque, killing dozens and injuring many more people. Samir had seen scenes from the attack site on television, but seeing it now, live, makes a much bigger impression on him.
Opposite the mosque, the huge billboard with Ashraf Rifi on a horse is still standing. He looks like Caesar on an off day. Three teenagers on one motorbike pass their car on the right hand side. One of them is talking on the phone.
Maybe Samir could bring some zest into my life. For the first time. Maybe he could wake me up from the inertia that has beset me, Heba thinks. I have slept for too long. But with his job, I'm sure that he knows many women that are much more exciting than me.
“Do you smoke?”
“I know it's not healthy”, Samir answers.
“Just open the window, please.”
The Corniche is busy with pedestrians, joggers and parents pushing strollers when Heba stops the car. Many more cars are parked on the right side, and from some of them loud Arabic music is blasting out of oversized speakers. Samir has an idea.
“Let's rent a boat. Let's drive out to the islands.”
“I think it is too late for this. The sun will set soon.”
“I have time”, says Samir, and he is astonished to hear him say this.
“Maybe next time?”
Samir looks out to the sea.
They walk along the Corniche. Samir is tempted to hold Heba's hand. Not on the first date, Samir thinks, not in Tripoli. The wind is blowing in from the sea. It feels good to breath. “They should invest in wind mills here”, Samir says. Heba sighs.
“The money for this is in Beirut. And they keep it there.”
They reach the end of the Corniche. They turn around. Heba feels comfortable. Thirty minutes until we will be back at the car, she thinks. Thirty minutes until decision time. Hopefully Samir likes this afternoon as much as I do. Men don't talk much about their emotions. And certainly not Lebanese men. There is much competition out here, and feelings are seen as a sign of weakness. Why should Samir be different? Why should he be less dominant?
They are walking in silence. Samir takes his last pictures. Hopefully Heba likes this afternoon as much as I do, Samir thinks. Lebanese women expect to be the center of attention. They want men taking care of them. Have I given Heba the attention she needs? Does she think that I could take care of her? Samir stares at the boats bouncing on the waves. With one eye he glances at Heba and tries to read her thoughts. But he can't see behind her sunglasses.
Their minds go back and forth.
“How lost must he be? Coming to Tripoli on a Sunday afternoon, walking with me.”
“What is really lost inside of here? Everything she says makes sense.”
“Will I be ready if he asks me to see me again?”
“Will she say yes when I ask her to see me again?”
They reach the car. Samir breaks the silence.
“Thank you for the great afternoon.”
“I felt good.”
“Would you like...?”
“Yes! In Beirut, next Sunday?”
“I prefer to come to Tripoli again.”
Heba smiles. A boat pulls into the harbor. Next to them, a mother yells at her child. Samir looks to the ground.
“Isn't it funny? They say that Tripoli is a lost city, but only here, this afternoon, I realized how lost I am myself.”
“Aren't we all? Lost.” Heba's voice sounds very warm.
“Let me give you a lift home”.
“I will take a taxi.”
“I will call you”, Samir says. “Please do”, Heba says, “and drive carefully. Not another accident. Not this time.” “Don't worry. I will be back in Tripoli.”
Samir gives Heba a long last look. She has taken her sunglasses off. Is that a little tear in her left eye?
She looks straight at him.
“Now the wind is really strong.”