Beirut, After Osama

by Nathan Deuel

The other day I ventured out into the sun-drenched city of Beirut, where I saw cafes and restaurants packed with young people spending money. At a stainless steel table, buff men ate olives. Nearby, two young women in gold shirts talked over a stack of books. One title: Elite Management Training. Down the block, a gleaming red Ferrari rolled by and a transvestite teetered on heels. Osama bin Laden had just been killed.

On a quiet side street, I ducked into a grocery and asked a woman in head scarf where to buy wine. With a hateful roll of her eyes, she clicked her tongue, seeming to say: I have no advice for you on the subject of wine, can’t you see there is something more important right now? In the corner, a TV showed bin Laden riding a horse.

Back in the harsh sunlight, I walked down the road, red-faced with my error, and I saw buildings that bore bullet holes. Not far from the grocery, I found a dimly lit bar, where a gray-haired bartender smoked. He gestured at a chair. “Have a seat, friend.”

I took a breath, explaining that I probably needed a whole bottle of wine — maybe there was a store nearby? He smiled, maybe he understood what kind of day this was, but then he said all the stores were closed.

“Are you sure?” I said.

After a deep sigh, he eased off his stool and stepped into the afternoon. A sea breeze ruffled palms and bougainvillea. Squinting, the man surveyed a line of dusty shops. At last, he spoke. “That one may be open,” he said.

I thought about home, where people had gathered outside the president’s house to celebrate. It was hard not to feel a bit queasy — death and drinking — but alcohol seemed as pure a reaction as any other.

Inside that store, a fan creaked and sagging wooden shelves reached to a blue-painted, flaking ceiling. A hunched old woman napped on a crate, dyed hair slicked back, head resting against a refrigerator. She opened an eye. I gestured at one in a row of dusty bottles.

“Is this good?”

“By my heart,” she said, sleepily. “It is perfect for you today.”

Her husband stirred from behind the cash register. He smiled, mustache quivering, satisfaction in a sale like any other.

Running my fingers through thick hair, I asked if they knew a barber. Her face lit up, and she grabbed my hand. We walked into the warm day, and she led me around the corner, where a tall man in a dress shirt snipped at the thinning hair of a man as old as he.

She rapped on the glass. The barber nodded. Thanking her, I took a seat, admiring the red and white tile, the faint discoloration on lead mirrors, the worn edges of the white enamel barber’s chairs.

The palms rustled. As the men chatted, I heard the words I was looking for: Osama, CIA, Revolution. I closed my eyes, content. Then the barber cleared his throat. “America?” he asked, frowning slightly. I nodded, and he summoned me to the chair. As he clipped and trimmed — a knife held above my throat — the whole world seemed alive and we were all thinking one thing: He’s finally dead.

* * *

There was a moment, after the invasion of Iraq, after Abu Ghraib, when bin Laden truly spoke to the Arab world, a place where people had felt humiliated for decades. Those who would never admit they supported the killing of innocent people still saw in him a man seeking justice, someone who had not only spoken against suffering but had, with that monstrous act of 9/11, actually done something about it.

Then, a few months ago, a young man in Tunisia set himself ablaze, killing himself and igniting a much larger fire in the Arab world than bin Laden’s bombers ever had. With this one act — a death but not really a killing — people in Tunis took to the streets, and instead of spilling bad blood, they marched until their corrupt leaders left. The fire spread to Egypt, where weeks of protest crashed down another walled castle, and now it smolders in Libya, Bahrain, Yemen, Syria.

In the days since we killed bin Laden, my hangover from that night has subsided, but the American mind is still drunk on Osama. Why, Arabs ask — seeing U.S. news coverage locked on the story — is America so obsessed? It’s tempting, I’ve found, to try to explain. But people here have too much going on, honestly, to care.

Previously: Leaving Egypt, With Regrets: The Evacuated Students of Cairo

Nathan Deuel is a writer who lives in Turkey and in Iraq. When he quit his last real media job — at Rolling Stone — he packed a bag and walked from New York to New Orleans. His other writing can be found here.

Photo from Flickr by marviikad.