It’s been a long time since I’ve been on a first date.
The uncertainty, the hope pinned on first impressions, the current of tension running beneath the surface.
Despite having been married eleven years (and counting), it feels like a first date again. But this time, it’s with a city.
You see, my family and I just moved to Beirut, Lebanon.
Once famed as the Paris (or the Switzerland) of the Middle East. Later notorious for the civil war which raged from 1975 until finally fizzling out around 1989, or 90, or 91, depending on which local is telling you their story. A place where there was a thirty-three day war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006, and where unrest is simmering around the edges right now, a spill-over from its neighbor Syria into northern Lebanon. (Talk about a current of tension under the surface.)
You can imagine why I was a little nervous to meet her two and a half weeks ago.
As with any city, there is much more to Beirut than the broad strokes. But perhaps you are like I was—unfamiliar with this exotic-sounding metropolis. She is a city by the sea, home to a booming port that lies shoulder to shoulder with pedestrian waterfront walkways. She is a concrete jungle, her skyline a mess of skyscrapers and building cranes.
A concrete jungle where flowers sprout in the cracks.
When we arrived to our hotel, worn out from a twenty-hour journey to reach Lebanon, we were greeted with a heady scent of flowers: there were several gardenia blossoms floating in a bowl at the hotel reception. Our taxi the next day had gardenias tucked into the air-conditioning vents, sending their perfume along with cool air. Street peddlers hawked gardenia necklaces at stoplights. They were everywhere.
Gardenias appeared even in my bedtime reading: Beirut Blues, a novel by Hanan al-Shaykh, one of Lebanon’s most prominent female writers, about Lebanon during the civil war. Protagonist Asmahan returns to Beirut after time in the mountains.
“Jawad draws my attention to the white gardenias everywhere; even the chewing gum vendors have them, and the beggars hovering around a little table in the middle of the sidewalk where men sit playing backgammon… Drivers have them stuck behind their mirrors and they quiver with each blast of the horn. Street traders’ barrows are decked out with them…”
Even amidst the ravages of war, the city’s inhabitants carried gardenias, reminders of the beauty in the world.
We all know that each flower represents something: red roses – love; yellow roses – friendship; daisies – innocence. I looked up the meaning of gardenias. According to the website “Flowers by Marilyn”, gardenias represent hospitality, grace, and secret love.
I’ve just met Beirut, and she has offered up flowers. Gardenias no less — a tangible emblem of the hospitality the city and its people. A hospitality that I am already experiencing. The first two weeks are indeed like a first date, in that it’s too early to tell what the city holds in store for us. But perhaps one day, as the gardenia alludes, we will love each other. It looks promising so far.