Have Sheesha, Will Smoke
Emirates flight EK 726 from Dar es Salaam to Dubai is almost full. The crew (most of them) look like human beings now, unlike recently, when they donned the awful-looking COVID protective gear as if some unconvincing aliens from another world. The flight takes off and lands on time with Emirates efficiency. Dubai airport still has a vacant look, lots of cool air but nowhere near the crowds of yore. I was here a month ago and did not have to take a COVID test but now I have to. Wish they’d make up their minds. This is my second one in three days. The procedure is super-fast and efficient, however, and takes less than five minutes.
Emirates provides me a free hotel stay at the Marriott across from the airport since the layover is more than 12 hours; the transfer from the airport to the hotel is swift. The air outside the airport is warm and super-moist; I break out into a sweat instantly. Sheesh! The hotel, a supposed 5-star property, is modern and luxurious but ailing in service, and packed. There are so many scantily dressed women in obviously dubious roles that it’s a challenge keeping my eyes cast down or away; they are everywhere. Very little on their bodies, heavily kajoled, bright red-lipped, with a permanent ghastly spout. I feel safe after I tuck myself in bed.
I fly into Beirut the next day after a surreal breakfast. The Marriott restaurant is chocka-blocked, and I am made to sit on a high chair next to a noisy kitchen by a haughty waiter who sneers at my shorts and t-shirt attire. The buffet menu items could easily feed the entire population of Afghanistan now and people shove food in their mouths as if tomorrow is the Day of Judgement. I down a hurried breakfast and scoot away.
I have heard horror stories about Lebanon recently, with food and fuel shortages and the country and Lebanese people in a deep abyss of pain and suffering. This is evident on the short drive from the airport to the dingy hotel my hosts have booked for me. Lines of vehicles, some a mile or more await their turn at the filling pump for very scarce gas; it’s a sorry sight.
I’m in Lebanon to try and alleviate the plight of Syrian orphans living as refugees here. CAI donors will shortly set up a school/orphanage for about fifty orphans and provide them a quality life insha’Allah; I am here to complete the due diligence. So, I drive to Nabatiyeh in the south the next morning. Joining me are Sayyedna Mohammed Mussawi and Abdulkareem Laljee, both of WABIL since they will oversee the project. The driver, Hussein, is a wiry, jittery man high on caffeine. He wants to drive and smoke and take sips from a cup of coffee that looks like road goo. I vehemently object to the smoking and it takes rapid-fire negotiations in Arabic between the three of them to reach a compromise; Hussein will stop the vehicle every quarter-hour to poison his lungs.
The weather is balmy in Nabatiyeh, a picturesque small town of about thirty thousand people with a rich history. I visit the rundown place that will house the orphans that CAI will renovate, meet with the local authorities who will permit the running of the facility, and take care of other nitty-gritty compliance details that are a pain but necessary. With the above-average CAI standards in quality and compliance hammered out and agreed upon, we return to Beirut for dinner.
People in Lebanon are passionate about their food and sheesha. The hotel I stay in was once grand but now looks worn and bruised. But not the restaurant – it is vibrant and the food a treat in gastronomic delight. I’ve had fattoush everywhere but not like the fattoush here. I’ve had hummus before, but not as the hummus served here. I’ve had shawarma before, but not like the treat here. The food is amazing, fresh, and mostly organic; I eat to my fill and am ready for more first thing in the morning.
And almost all are zealous about poisoning themselves, others, and the environment. I feel like I’ve hit a brick wall when I enter the restaurant; it reeks of the nauseating smell of fruity smoke which is everywhere, like a heavy, dense fog on a winter Amsterdam morning. Tragically, I see families regard it as an enjoyable outing, some with kids as young as twelve, partake in the poison as the sheesha is passed around the table. An old lady is a part of a family of six seated next to our table. She is oblivious to the array of food in front of her, but when it is her turn to puff, she splurges on the sheesha, sucking on the pipe with shrunken cheeks working overtime, eyes shut in obvious ecstasy. She opens her eyes and mouth, letting out white smoke, like from a mini chimney. She senses me staring at her, probably with my mouth open. I’m a stranger here, the only non-Lebanese, and stick out like a sore thumb. I guess she feels the need to welcome me because she flashes me a toothless smile that reveals darkened gums from which dribble out saliva. Someone at the table is not amused as he looks my way with ire and rebukes the old lady who turns away and awaits her turn for the next round.
I have one more day here while I wait for my COVID-19 test to come through. This is my fourth test in so many days and I swear my nose is getting accustomed to the abuse now; the swab does not bother me at all. The cost does, however. I go for a long walk, my destination is the Mediterranean Sea, some three miles away. Beirut, on my last visit some ten years ago, was a scenic, clean, quaint modern city. Now, the piling rotting trash on street corners and litter everywhere is appalling. I am following Google Maps and it guides me through some eerie-looking streets. I pass a filling station that looks like a fish market. Crowds of irate drivers elbow and jostle for a place in line to bring the next vehicle in for fueling, women included. I make a wide detour but not before a fistfight erupts between two groups in the line. It’s a nasty scene that makes my heartbeats behave erratically. I hurriedly abandon my walk and haste back to the hotel.
I reverse my journey the next day and land in Dar via Dubai with Mheshimiwa Samia Hassan, the President of Tanzania flying first class with an entourage on the same Emirates flight from Dubai. The command is to get her and her entourage off the flight before us. This takes time and I become fidgety. The security detail is so tight, I can’t even peek into the first-class cabin without a stern rebuke from Shabnum, the pretty flight pursuer, who flashes exasperated eyes my way.
It’s the president, Mr. Yusufali, she says in whispered reproach, the president. You wouldn’t want me peeping on you if you were a president, would you? Patience, I promise I’ll let you off first after the first class deplanes.
The views and opinions expressed in this Blog are entirely mine and do not necessarily reflect those of CAI or her Trustees.