Notes from Beirut Part I: My Journey Begins
June 9, 2015 § Leave a comment
So, my journey to Beirut (for the purpose of doing historical research, ‘natch) has begun. Over the summer, I’ll be using this blog to talk about it. This first entry is the story of the first part of my voyage.
I’ve already seen and experienced quite a bit of interesting stuff. Of course, all of it is filtered through my background knowledge, my life experiences, and my particular weird interests, so please keep in mind that this is a very subjective travelogue, not an authoritative or objective piece of journalism or scholarship. I’m also guessing that a bunch of my readers will have more knowledge and experience about traveling and living in this corner of the world than I do, and even if you don’t, you still have interesting thoughts and experiences of your own to share. I would be really eager to read your corrections and impressions in the comments!
Getting back to the East Coast from Nashville was a miniature odyssey of its own, of course, and I overcame its hazards by blasting the Mad Max: Fury Road soundtrack from my 2003 Honda Accord’s speakers, referring to said Honda Accord as “my War Rig,” and driving with the steadfast determination of somebody fleeing all of the Citadel’s Warboys. But the American portion of my journey ended with a sunny and sedate Sunday morning drive from Wilmington, DE to Dulles Airport outside of Washington. I was groggy from an early wake-up call (my Dad and I started out around 6 AM), but I found myself shaken from sleepiness by the sheer splendor of Eero Saarinen’s TWA terminal building. Saarinen is probably most famous for designing the St. Louis Gateway Arch. This building shows off similar sweeping curves and epic stature. Its interior is luminous, and I found it a beautiful place to check my bags with Emirates.
The cabin of the 777 which carried me on the 14-hour journey from DC to Dubai felt like a microcosm of the whole Indian Ocean basin. Almost all of Emirates’s flights connect through the airline’s main hub in Dubai. The city’s location makes it a natural stop for travelers going from the Americas or Europe to India, Southeast Asia, China, and East Africa. I shared a row with students from Saudi Arabia and Ethiopia, both going back home after spending the year studying in the US. (The Ethiopian guy seemed really happy to be getting back home for the summer after spending the year freezing in South Dakota, while the Saudi guy was kind of annoyed that because of fighting in Yemen, he would need to end his trip with a long drive back to his home in ‘Asir from Riyadh rather than a flight directly there.) In the economy section around me, there were also many people from India, China, and Southeast Asia. Emirates seems pretty sensitive to its passengers’ great variety. Its in-flight meal options included vegetarian dishes from India (a paneer at lunch and chana massala at breakfast). Its in-flight movie menu had Hollywood, Arabic cinema, Bollywood, and regional Indian offerings. And all of the in-flight announcements were in Arabic, English, and Ethiopia’s most prominent language, Amharic (which I got to hear for the first time today.)
In the corner of this image, you might notice a woman wearing a red hat with a white cloth attached to it. That’s part of Emirates’ female flight attendants’ uniform, which look like slightly more modest versions of ’60s-era American stewardesses’ uniforms. (The women working Emirates flights are also uniformly young, pretty, and heavily made-up, which suggests that some of the old sexist norms surrounding airline work persist here.) These attendants have what seems like what must be a remarkably demanding job, though. They all speak English and Arabic, and many have a third language as well. Beyond that, they need to be able to do emergency first aid and rescue work, and, possibly worst of all, manage the needs and grumpiness of people who have just spent 14 hours sitting in cramped seats with access to a certain amount of free booze. The attendants, much like the passengers, were a diverse lot. Most of the flight attendants wore flag pins which showed what countries they were from. I spotted the UK, Ireland, Morocco, Ethiopia, and South Africa.
I felt somewhat cramped during the flight. The seats were quite small and close together, especially for a tall man like me. But even so, the journey felt remarkably comfortable and relaxing. I cocooned myself under a complimentary blanket, and after the overhead lights dimmed, an artificial firmament of LEDs gently twinkled in the ceiling over my head. I slept for a good five or six of the flight’s fourteen hours, waking up as the plane’s great circle route took us over Iceland and Norway, on its way to the airspace above Russia, Iran, and the UAE.
The first phase of my journey ended, as it began, in an architecturally distinctive airport. From the outside, Dubai’s airport is a gleaming piece of the future; from the inside, it looks rather more like the bastard child of a spaceship and the Houston Galleria, full of shops, giant windows, koi ponds, and signs extolling the virtues and achievements of Dubai’s hereditary overlord, H.H. Muhammad ibn Rashid al-Maktoum.
The Dubai airport features a remarkable range of duty-free luxury goods, including tons of tobacco and whiskey (you can get a liter of Johnny Walker Black for $30!) as well as Hermes scarves and Armani sneakers. All of these stores are run by people in fetching teal blazers who mostly look like they’re from the Philippines or some other part of Southeast Asia. Unfortunately, most of the stuff at the airport mall was way out of my price range, so I wound up spending a lot of time watching people. I don’t think I’ve ever seen such sartorial variety in one place. In addition to the expected variety of people in flashy suits, nice dresses, and designer loungewear, there were hipster Sikhs in brightly-colored turbans and skinny jeans, African guys in awesome floor-length robes, women rocking just about every different kind of variation on the hijab you can imagine (including a couple which were shiny and gold!), a Korean guy wearing pants seemingly consisting of nothing but zippers, and a European guy with a giant rip in the seat of his jeans who used one of the airport’s shopping/luggage carts like a skateboard. Even in this diverse crowd, though, there were some activities which just about everyone seemed to enjoy, like sleeping and guarding their carts full of duty-free swag.
Next time, I’ll talk about my first few days in Beirut itself!