A few months ago, when talking about travelling between the UK and Lebanon, a British friend and I laughed about the shared observation that Beirut begins at the departure gate of Heathrow Airport. There always seems to be a lot of noise, a lot of luggage, a lot of glamour and no sign of a queue. You almost expect to look up at the screen and read ‘Welcome to Lebanon-are you ready?’
Having made the journey back several times I was full prepared for this phenomenon on my return flight a couple of week ago. But when I got to the gate, laden down with bags, buggy and baby, it was all quiet. Nearly all the passengers were Lebanese but there was a subdued air, heavy with winter coats, as though snow had fallen (which actually it hasn’t yet in Lebanon- almost unheard of for this time of year).
I was disconcerted. Had everything really changed so much in the few weeks I’d been away?
But I needn’t have worried. Because within the space of a few hours three things happened which prepared me for my ‘re-entry’.
On the bus from the gate to the plane a woman gestured to my baby in the sling, and in broken English made me understand that she thought she must be cold. I reassured her, with gestures and broken Arabic, that she wasn’t- if anything she was overheating from being pressed against my front on the crowded airport bus- but she looked unconvinced.
On the plane itself, the woman next to me, a perfectly manicured mother of four (who weren’t travelling with her) exclaimed ‘oh, it’s a girl!’ when halfway through the flight I changed my daughter from her NAVY flowery trousers into her PINK striped pyjamas.
Then finally at Beirut Airport, I was waved to the front of the immigration queue and my explanation that ‘my residency permit had expired and would be renewed shortly, so I needed a tourist visa for now’ was accepted without so much as a shrug. When I told our taxi driver friend about it on the way home he laughed and said:
You have wasta! (wonderful word for all kinds of connections)
No I have a baby! I laugh back, thinking how in Beirut it is the next best thing, if not the better thing.
So by the time we finally arrived at our apartment, six hours after departure, I felt truly welcomed back to the Lebanon I know, and mostly love. And I was ready.
But in the days that followed I realised that some things had changed while I was away.
To be continued…