“Are you looking for employees?” the young man asked. He was sitting across from us on a low couch with blue cushions next to someone I took to be his girlfriend. Two of his friends, evidently not well versed in English or not interested in talking, sat mutely opposite him on a similar blue couch.
It was the terrace of an outdoor cafe/restaurant, slightly elevated on a raised marble foundation, modeled after any of thousands of cafes just like it that you might run across in a “cosmopolitan” or pseudo-”cosmopolitan” corner of Europe, Canada, North America. Definitely western. This particular young man had helped us communicate our order to the non-English speaking waiter, and had struck up a conversation with us afterwards. “You are here on business?” “We have an office.” “What kind of employees do you need? I can work for you. I can translate for you. Drive you around.” And then the fatal words: “You know, here in Beirut you need someone you can trust.”
It had evidently not occurred to him that there is something implicitly untrustworthy about someone who’s telling you to trust them. He continued.
“You see those cigarettes there? Some people will try to charge you too much for them. They charge you five dollars, six dollars. But I know they should only cost you two.” I nodded appreciatively. “Here is my card.” He handed us a glossy business card with a bright blue logo. “What do you do there?” we asked. “I don’t work there any more. I just have this card.” We nod. “I was a pilot. I flew all over Africa, every day. Before that I flew into Baghdad.” His girlfriend and friends are looking bored, distracted. “But I don’t do that anymore. Now I am here. I want to start a business.” “What kind of business?” “Any kind of business. You know? Anyway. You call me if you need anything, OK?” He smiles. We thank him and he turns again to his friends.
It seems to be like that here. There are an awful lot of people looking for something else to do. Looking for something to do, or some way to make it, grabbing at whatever comes in front of them in the way of possible opportunity. This city, this country, these people have been through an awful lot; decades of civil war, assassinations, periodic unrest, Israeli bombings, and endless factional bickering if not all-out war tend to take their toll after a while, and the bullet holes in a lot of the older buildings show it. Now, in a period of relative calm, it seems like most of the people here just want to finally get on with it. Get on with living, with having a life worth living; somehow grabbing hold of a little bit of the perceived “good life” that had been so long denied them, even if it arrived only in the rather tawdry form of Pizza Hut, Starbucks, and KFC.
Americanisms, westernisms are everywhere. “Americana” brand cookies. “American” cafe. “Prague” restaurant (French-themed, as it happens). And half of everything else in English: “Plush” Salon; “Underground” bar. Of course there’s plenty of Arabic named/themed places as well, but it still seems odd that in a region of the world perceived to be pretty justifiably pissed at the US, there are so many people so eager to adopt aspects of the culture and style (to use terms very loosely). People here clearly aren’t in love with American politics, foreign policy, or military; they don’t seem enormously enamored of American business, apart from the ability to procure certain consumer products (and possibly get a job). But the do seem to like the idea of “the good life,” or at least a better life, and in the absence of much of the real thing, American symbolism will do.