Letters From Beirut

George Copeland Ault (1891-1948), Desert Towers, 1937. Courtesy Gerald Peters Gallery.

The Cantina Scene

Returning to America after five years in the Middle East calls for a no-sleep jaunt back to Beirut for drinking, partying, and tying up loose ends.

It was a midsummer night a few weeks after I’d left the Middle East for the American Midwest. My wife, Kelly, and I had spent five years in some of the world’s toughest corners—Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Turkey, and Lebanon—as she covered the news, and now we were at last bringing our four-year-old daughter home. (Whatever that meant.)

The sun set in Illinois. I relaxed with my in-laws and mother around a glass-topped table, beside a man-made lake dotted with ducks and geese. Upstairs, my daughter, Loretta, slept. Kelly was in Cairo, but would be back in Beirut one last time, to pack our things and host a final farewell party. It was going to be epic.

“I’m going to get some ciggies,” my mom said, downing the last of her sake, which had replaced her standby of bourbon. Ever since my dad fell ill, going into surgery when we were in Yemen, then dying soon thereafter, everything had changed. I’d gotten less adventurous, my wife’s job had become more and more dangerous, our daughter had learned to walk and talk, and my mom had moved from Miami to the heartland.

I sipped at a cup of coffee, looking forward to having a desk and some time to think through all of this. I watched my mom grab her purple purse and thought longingly about our life in Lebanon, where I’d left behind a 100-year-old Ottoman house, a crew of foreign correspondent friends, and a seaside town filled with people who lived on the edge of what felt like a dark but exhilarating new history.

Why leave, when Kelly’s career was peaking and Loretta and I were just starting to get the hang of it? I couldn’t explain. My mom, I liked to think, was in a position to help. Born in South America to a family of peripatetic wanderers, she could have moved anywhere when my dad died, yet she’d bought six acres on the edge of the same small town Kelly’s parents called home. It was, in a way, an extremely brave move. To say it another way, my mom knew why a body might get tired and seek a life somewhere a little easier.

“Need anything?” she said, eyes sparkling with mischief.

“You know,” I said, “I’ll take some tonic.”

Several hours later, a bottle of gin empty, the tonic all gone, well past midnight—the time of night when you begin to do things that require courage, or at least abandon—my mom tapped the table.

“Don’t you want to be there for it?” she said.

I found myself typing Beirut and flight and tomorrow into my computer’s web browser.

“See if you can book two,” my mom said.

I put a cigarette behind one ear, placed another in my mouth, and with the power of credit and booze and stupidity, I adjusted my glasses. Both lenses were smeared with lime juice and ash.

“Mom,” I slurred. “Start packing.”


In Amman the next day, I wandered in disbelief through brand-new terminals—ceilings soaring to the sky—where lines of Arabs awaited flights to everywhere. The list included cities I’d alternately loved and loathed—Riyadh, Istanbul, and Beirut—places that already felt like a part of the past. Beside me was my mother, who’d traveled the world, who’d visited us in Saudi Arabia and Turkey and even Lebanon. What could go wrong?

Going back to Beirut on the spur of the moment for one last blowout—with my mother—felt like the most important and good and right decision I could have made.

A day earlier, I’d been feeding my daughter pasta. Outside, the desert stretched for miles. And yet going back to Beirut on the spur of the moment for one last blowout—with my mother—felt somehow, if not like the most normal thing in the world, then perhaps the most important and good and right decision I could have made.

I was relieved when we found a bar where a skinny Arab slowly rubbed a beer glass over and over.

“Can we have two?” I asked, pointing at the tap. The man pulled the handle and a luscious flow filled two mugs.

My mom gestured at the barkeep. “Honey, you look tired,” she said, smiling—wanting, I’m sure, to be polite.

“I’m fasting, ma’am,” he said. “It’s Ramadan.”


Exiting the doors of the Beirut airport, I spotted Hussein, our beloved driver and a man who had outrun Israeli war machines with his massive Mercedes—and then I promptly tipped our luggage cart, sending a bottle of duty-free whiskey smashing to the ground. We watched brown liquid disappear into the cracks.

Outside, the lights of Beirut twinkled and inside, as Hussein hit the gas pedal, all was as ever.

“Everything quiet?” I asked. This was a question I usually asked when we came back, wanting to know if there had been skirmishes. Were the men with guns out tonight? Did I need to stockpile supplies or plan to keep Loretta out of school?

These concerns often made me feel weak or paranoid or at least over-eager, and I don’t doubt Hussein sensed a bit of all that.

Now, here I was, back in Beirut without a child, driving through a city unencumbered by the tiny person who had helped make me who I was. In her place was another, my mom, who’d raised me up and done her best. We’d just had a big drunk, slept very little, driven to Chicago, then flown 15 hours to Beirut. I was so glad she was with me. I had concern for her well being, but she returned the favor. I stifled a yawn. It was 11 p.m. We needed to get our game faces on.

“This is a great thing, this surprise,” Hussein said. “But it is a terrible thing you are doing, leaving.”


At the party, a Belgian reporter saw me first. “Nathan’s here,” he said. Then more loudly, “Oh my god, Nathan’s here!” I put my finger to my lips.

Skulking through the crowd, I moved among men and women, most sipping champagne, a living museum of reporters and human-rights workers, the people we’d come to know so well these last two years, a group who risked everything over and over to tell the story of Syria: There were bureau chiefs from the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and Washington Post; reporters and photographers from the Financial Times, Associated Press, and Reuters; researchers for Human Rights Watch and the Carnegie Endowment; and some of the most important Syrian activists and refugees—people who might, someday, if they could, help put that country back together.

And, there was me. And my mom. And whatever it is we were capable of.

For two years, I’d been trying to figure out who I could or should be, seeing myself and others fighting to remain human despite the horrific backdrop next door in Syria. Some had died. Some vowed never to leave. Some had already split. I had made some nice soup. It felt ghoulish or unfair, this trick I’d pulled, reappearing for a moment, only to disappear again. I’d never felt like a full-fledged member of the crew. And I’d crashed the party. Again.

I stood in front of my wife, who wore her best party dress. When she saw me, she screamed as if someone had jumped off the balcony. Everyone’s heads turned. We ignored it all. I held her as the party fell silent. Kelly and I embraced, rocking back and forth.


The rest of the night was a blur of hugs for returning, apologies for leaving, and pledges to never forget what was happening there and what would go on without us. One woman told me I’d just ruined it for every other husband in the crew. Who else could top this extravagant gesture, this reappearance? I didn’t know the answer.

My mom danced to songs in Arabic, the kitchen floor became a slick of booze and ash, and we all must have smoked about 65,000 cigarettes. At one point, nearing 5 a.m., we leaned against the balcony, the sun beginning to rise over Lebanon, and I felt a kind of contentment.

Everyone was always working and talking and smoking and trying to change the world, and sometimes it felt like the Tatooine cantina in Star Wars.

The next afternoon, my mom still in bed—the lack of sleep and booze catching up to her—I limped painfully around the city, head pounding, canceling our gym memberships and internet service, collecting the final pieces of mail from our post office box, and settling in for a last afternoon at the coffee shop. I thought to call my mom, but just then a text message arrived: “I’m fine, honey—do what you need to do.”

At the cafe, I took my usual seat, with a view of the motley crew who called this place home. I’d come here daily. I’d written trying to make sense of it all. I nursed hangovers, found out about bombings, and cried over lost friends here. I enjoyed the presence of what felt like some of the most enthusiastic young people in any coffee shop I’d ever patronized. Everyone was always working and talking and smoking and trying to change the world, and sometimes it felt like the Tatooine cantina in Star Wars.

When I went to pay my final bill, one of the baristas refused my money. He walked around the counter, gave me a hug, and tried to push me out the door. Standing closer to him than ever before—I had always been seated when I saw him—I realized for the first time how short he was.

“You’ll be back,” he said.


Part of me wanted never to come back; as much wanted never to leave. My mom, Kelly, and I ate a fairly morose—or at least extravagantly hungover—final dinner at our favorite Armenian place, where they served these ridiculous hockey-puck-shaped breads topped with quail eggs and meat. We’d flown all the way back here for what amounted to less than a 24-hour stopover. Kelly would remain another few weeks, and I imagined being back beside that lake, waiting. Under the table, I clutched our plane tickets. Because my mom and I wouldn’t land in Amman until very late, followed by a 10-hour layover, the airline was obliged to offer us a spot in the transit hotel. I allowed myself to imagine this would go smoothly.

But this was the Middle East in 2014, in Jordan, a country swollen with refugees from Syria. After we landed in Amman, there was a long delay to be processed for the hotel. We panted and sweated and waited in an echoing hallway, alongside several dozen families, the oldest man of each family holding an identical plastic tote bag, the logo of which didn’t register until I noticed one of the oldest—his hair slicked back and a polo shirt tucked into worn but neatly pressed pants—approach the desk. Reaching inside the man’s bag, an official palmed a pack of gum, removed four sticks, and gave each to colleagues arrayed behind the counter. The old man’s eyes narrowed, and then he removed a wallet, fanning out a stack of bills, as if to say, “Here, take what you will.” Raising an eyebrow, the official nodded to the man, peeled off a few notes, thought better of it, took more, and disappeared behind a door with the rest. I wondered what he might want from us.

The plastic tote bags, I realized then, were all emblazoned with the letters IOM, which stood for International Office for Migration. I could guess where the families had come from: About half were almost certainly Syrians fleeing the war. The rest were likely Iraqi Christians quitting the country after another wave of targeted religious killings. They were here and so were we, all of us equal only to the extent we were waiting for a place to stay. The man behind the counter would take nothing from me.

With this act of public charity, my mom had unwittingly implied to everyone here that this family had failed, that they couldn’t provide enough warmth for their boy.

My mom shifted from foot to foot. She wanted a drink, and I’m sure that I did, too. The airport became more and more deserted. Even the cleaners went home for the night. I went to the bathroom, where some of the refugees were furtively smoking—and I splashed water on my face and saw my reflection, ridiculous in a Panama hat and salmon-colored shirt.

Back out in the waiting area, an official addressed the crowd. “I’m very sorry for the delay,” he said, not meeting any of our eyes.

In a pack, we finally moved through the security cordon. My mom and I went first, followed by shuffling families carrying exhausted kids, hard-won passports, and various sacks and bags. An old lady in a headscarf froze, and I wondered if she’d ever been to an airport. A gold cross swung from her neck.

Outside, another young official told us to wait. With the sun down, the desert air was quite cold, and I couldn’t stop shivering. Twenty feet away, what I think was an Iraqi family was attempting to make a bed on their suitcases for their young son, who was like a sack of vegetables. They pushed together the bags, and I regarded the sleeping boy, who looked about my daughter’s age.

Seeing the commotion, my mom smiled and took from her purse a fleece blanket she’d finished sewing for my daughter on the flight over. Before I could think to stop her, she walked to the family and placed the blanket over the boy, who in his sleep drew it around his shoulders. In America, you could imagine a family appreciating my mom’s gesture. But in Jordan, with this act of public charity, my mom had unwittingly implied to everyone here that this family—dressed in their finest clothing, hair coifed, the women immaculately made up—had failed, that they couldn’t provide enough warmth for their boy.

A bus arrived, and once we were all seated the father stood up, cleared his throat, and made a big show of handing my mom the blanket, which his wife had expertly folded.

Upstairs, in our room, I tried to explain. My mom lit a cigarette, trying not to cry. Soon I cried, too, and in a cloud of cigarette smoke my mother and I stared at the ceiling.

I thought about Illinois and America and our apartment in New York, which we’d sold, and the fact we were likely moving to Los Angeles. I thought about ships loaded with missiles, idling in the Mediterranean, about how Syrian President Bashar al Assad had been an optometrist in a previous decade. I thought about how weak I’d felt and how tired I was. I thought about my mom, and my own daughter. Then I thought about how confidently Kelly carried herself in Beirut, how the fact of our leaving was its own kind of shame.

At the airport the next morning, disgorged from another bus into the harsh light of day, I found it puzzling after such an intense night to see travelers streaming all round us as if nothing were out of the ordinary. Some carried Louis Vuitton, others toted the backpacks of college adventurers, and still more arrived by limousine or luxury SUV, hurrying off to important meetings in European capitals.

A new official escorted us to passport control, keeping close count, making sure no one stayed behind


On the flight back to America, we sat behind a woman named Kato, who was tall and blonde and beautiful and who loudly told her seatmates that she was a “pop star.” (Later, with some strenuous web searching, I confirmed her last name and a measure of minor fame.) Kato said she’d just been in Israel doing a video shoot. Beside her sat a family of Arab girls who, compared to Kato, looked like specimens of a smaller, rounder species.

Two hunks sat across the aisle. Once we were in the air, I overhead them say to Kato that they were from Tel Aviv, and that yes, they would love to hear some of the pop star’s music. They weren’t too alarmed that her headphones were too short, and, yes, they wouldn’t mind at all if she sat in their laps. I looked to see if my mom was getting any of this, but she was happily watching a movie and chewing gum.

The Arab girls’ harried mom was torn between wanting her girls to enjoy the flight and her growing alarm at the fact that the pop star was now stroking the face of one of the Israeli hunks.

My mom fell asleep and I stared at the onscreen map. All these countries were so close—Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia—and yet they were all different enough that they might as well have been the North and South Poles. In some alternate universe, all the people on this plane and in this region could get along, eat the same foods, and we could all live in the Middle East forever. Instead, this flight was a petri dish of alliances and hatreds, of mass executions and military maneuvers. I couldn’t wait to forget everything I’d learned. But I couldn’t cue up the amnesia fast enough. And I still had to get home first.

Paths taken alone all feel the same: lonely.

Hours later, I realized the pop star had quietly moved from her own seat back across the aisle to her spot on the laps of the hunks. This residence seemed more permanent. They pulled a blanket over themselves. Limbs began to work under the fabric, and I heard a sigh.

“What are they doing, Mom?” one of the little girls asked, pointing at the writhing mass.

“Watch your movie,” her mother said.

A flight attendant plucked off the blanket, revealing more than anyone was prepared for. With a lot of throat-clearing, the hunks put on sunglasses, and once more the pop star repackaged herself, returned to her seat, and closed her eyes. I finally slept.

“Is it hard to pack when you are a pop star?” one of the girls asked over breakfast, an hour or two before landing on American soil.

“You need tons of clothes,” the star said, twirling a lock of blonde hair, speaking with complete seriousness. “You need tons of shoes. Lots of makeup. Tons of pills—you know how it is.”

The girls nodded. They knew how it was. In our way, we all—everyone on that plane—had figured out the same puzzle for ourselves, however incomplete or unfulfilling the conclusion.

The video systems flashed on. On the map there was an ocean between where we had been and where we were going. But we’d always be whoever we were. As easy as it was to book a last-minute flight, a short trip never took us far enough. On the eve of our new life in America, I had a feeling that everything I’d struggled with the last five years—worrying, death, guilt—would dog me no matter what country we lived in. My mom had left Miami, fleeing the absence of my father. But in central Illinois, surrounded by corn and new friends, she was still a woman without a husband, having to make decisions by herself, and facing the fact that paths taken alone all feel the same: lonely.

The crew arrived to clear the breakfast dishes. The engines whined and my eyes felt heavy. I stared at the glowing red dot of Chicago, our destination, and the minutes ticked by like hours.


Some people clapped when the plane landed, and I clapped with them.

In the baggage terminal, I watched the carousel disgorge bag after bag, and it seemed there was more from this flight than I’d ever seen—suitcases piled on top of each other, duffels overflowed the belt, briefcases and overnight bags lunging at anyone standing too close or not paying attention, including myself.

A brown hard case nearly shattered my knee, and I thought about not packing for a while. I thought about not flying again for a whole year. I thought about a new life in California, and I yearned for my wife to return as soon as possible, knowing or at least imagining how hard it would be for her to feel good about our decision.

We submitted papers to customs and border patrol. With a nod from the man in black, I tucked my passport deep into my shoulder bag, hoping not to see it again for a long time. With my mom beside me, I walked down a long, echoing corridor.

I spotted my in-laws at a bar drinking beer. They’d been good to us and there’d be more to come. Loretta was perched on a stool, head in her hands. She looked just like Kelly. When the little girl saw me, she slid off, ran my way, and leapt into my arms. We hugged for a long time.

“You’re here, Daddy,” she said. “Aren’t you excited?”