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November 5, 1958

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Trouble in Beirut? Not Before Dinner



The Hotel St. Georges in Beirut makes the Plaza seem like the railroad YMCA in Youngstown, Ohio. Not from the standpoint of creature compforts, although there sure a hell are those too, but in the intangible qualities of slightly decadent traditional regal condescension. The moment I walked up to the desk clerk in the lobby and he had looked clearly through me, examining my breeding and bank balance on the way, I knew that I was home free. I had felt this same gimlet, the non-committal stare, plenty of places before, and all of a sudden the mysterious East was no longer quite as inscrutable as it had been. He spoke to me in a clear clean voice which sported a peculiar liquid accent that would have been worth a fortune in class B spy movies. As a matter of fact, all the Middle East is loaded with types both male and female that would cause any middle-bracket Wm. Morris agent to break out in acne just to look at them. The women particularly. They are worth at least nine more columns, so it will have to suffice here to note that they are and that there is a mother lode of talent of all types that is as yet largely untapped. Small Change Five minutes after the Late Empire desk clerk had waved a bellboy toward my measly KLM bag and he had turned his back eloquently on me, I was in my room. The bellboy also operated the elevator, which worked about the same as those in the seedier show-biz-type buildings in the midtown Broadway area. From the time he grabbed my bag until he pocketed the tip, he never took his nose from the Arabic comic book he was reading. The tip, incidentally was in piastress, which is the local small change. Folding money comes in pounds. There are about three of these to the buck, so at first glance every bill you shell out for looks astronomical. Actually, prices are not all that bad by Western standards. In Lebanese terms St. Georges is about as accessible as the Waldorf is to a Bowery bum. As soon as the boy had left, a maid opened the French doors of my room, put a folded terry-cloth robe on the bed for me, and left the room walking backwards as she went out bowing. My doors opened onto a balcony overlooking the Mediterranean. The water was directly below. Water skiers buzzed back and forth in the blinding sun, fat Greek shipping magnates surrounded by slim dark brown girls wearing pink bikinis lounged on the terrace below. They had the look that comes from spending years in the sun being attended hourly by waiters bearing silver trays and iced bottles. As though they had been born wearing glittering German Zeiss sunglasses. Beirut is the Riviera of the entire Middle East and is where oil-rich Arab princes come to relax and to get away from the old grind, back at the harem. Rolls Royces and Mercedes 300-M's are as common as Plymouths in Allentown, Pa. Yachts jostle cheek by jowl in the harbor, and over it all hangs the lovely aroma of well-aged good wine. Two U.S. destroyers stood just off the quay and looked about as out of place as a dinosaur would in an East Side pet shop specializing in toy poodles. They were the one note of reality in the entire scene. But then , on the other hand, is the dinosaur more real than the poodle? I had been in Beirut not more than three hours and already the slow beat of the place was getting me. From the balcony the view is such that there is some feeling that Heaven would look like this from a well-situated high-rent-district cloud. This is the same place the tabloids back home were describing as little short of the back porch of Hell. From where I sat I could see a couple of the poor GI's sitting under a golden beach umbrella sipping Dutch beer while ogling a bush-league Bridget Bardot slithering on the rocks 15 feet away. I rushed into my swim trunks and rang for the elevator. On the way down to the lobby I asked the bellboy what he thought of the trouble in Beirut. He said: "You mean the war, sir." I nodded. He went on: "Oh, that doesn't start until 8 p.m., sir, every night. At dinnertime sir." He stuck his nose back into the pages of his comic book. I went out to the terrace felling like a bit player in a Sidney Greenstreet movie. ------------------------ Jean Shepherd recently returned from working on a movie in Beirut, Lebanon. He was there during the crisis.


Copyright: 1958, The Village Voice

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