Travel Memoir Category—Silver Winner: Key to the City

by Catherine Watson

If the key had been pretty, I could have worn it around my neck like jewelry for the last 40 years, but it’s utterly plain — bronze-colored, round-headed, the kind the Yale company stamps out by the millions every year.
I have kept it anyway, not for its looks, but for what it meant. It was the key to my first apartment, and it opened much more than a front door. It opened a whole city to me. It opened my eyes. It opened my life.

This is the address the key belonged to: No. 1, Makdisi Building, Rue Jeanne d’Arc, Beirut, Lebanon.

I lived there in the summer of 1963, when I was 19. Grew up there, is more like it. I fell in love that summer, got — not my first kiss — but the first I wanted, learned to smoke, drank too much Lebanese beer, worked at being sophisticated.

That summer also turned my future upside down. Now I would just say I changed careers, but back then I didn’t have one to change. Back then, I just felt lost. Beirut became my comfort.

I had loved it from the start. When my college group stepped out of the plane on our first evening there and started down the shuddering aluminum ladder to the tarmac, the warm, scented air of the city rose up around my bare legs – ankles, knees, thighs, as if I were wading into bathwater. It was the most sensuous thing I had ever known.

No. 1, Makdisi was the address that got us our mail — a mild flood of flimsy blue envelopes from our families in the Middle West to their exchange-student offspring in the Middle East.

There were 10 of us, five men, five women, all Minnesota undergraduates working on projects we’d proposed the previous year. I remember only three: Jim investigated the politics of student groups; Kirsten focused on the rights of women, and I studied archaeology, something I’d dreamed of since I was old enough to read.

The men lived in a dorm on the pine-shaded, sea-side campus of the American University of Beirut, always referred to simply as the A.U.B. The women rented an apartment nearby, and the men came over all the time to use the phone.

I was assigned to a small A.U.B. dig in the Bekaa, Lebanon’s long central valley, and went down to Beirut whenever I could. As the summer wore on, that was more and more often.

I had arrived in Lebanon believing that archaeology would be what my favorite books had promised me all my life — an endless stream of rich discoveries and richer adventures, Egypt one year, Yucatan the next, and so on and on, all over the globe. But the real thing wasn’t like that. All the days were the same, and there was no treasure.

The archaeologists took long midday siestas, to avoid the worst of the sun. I read a lot and practiced smoking. Soon, the best things in my life were listening to jackals howl around the dig house at night — and planning what I’d do next weekend, back in Beirut.

Beirut always wore summer colors — newer buildings in blazing white, older ones in the warm weathered yellows of provincial France, the country’s former colonial master. Our apartment was on the ground floor of one of the old yellow buildings. It belonged to a woman whose family owned a jam and jelly factory and who was going to Europe for the summer; her son let us have the place cheap.

The apartment had floors of inlaid tile, a dining-room table that could accommodate all of us, a decent kitchen (we learned to enter it slowly and loudly at night, to give the cockroaches a chance to hide) and a living room furnished with comfortable old club chairs and a gray daybed. The other women claimed the bedrooms, and I camped on the daybed when I wasn’t at the dig.

I was helping to excavate the kind of hill that Arabic labels a tell — a flat-topped, man-made hill, as opposed to a jebel — a natural, roundish, God-made hill. Tells look like layer cakes when you slice into them, each layer a mud-brick town: they get older the farther down you dig.

For a few hours each morning and fewer in the afternoon, I stood with the director on top of the tell and watched a line of women — farmers’ wives and daughters dressed, despite the heat, in heavy skirts and long-sleeved sweaters — filing down into a wide pit and filing back out again. They were hauling dirt.

Each carried a black rubber basket made out of an old tire. One by one, at the bottom of the pit, they went up to the local men who were doing the actual digging, held out their baskets and received a shovelful of earth.

Then they hoisted the black baskets onto their heads and swayed up and out of the pit and over to a refuse tip, dumped out the dirt and started back down again. It was stately — classic, even. And very, very slow.

It had taken ten years of digging to get down to where the Iron Age met the Bronze. The director figured it would take another ten before he got through the last of the villages below.

“Give me a dozen American graduate students,” I muttered patriotically into my journal, “and I could knock this thing off in a couple of summers.”

Occasionally, I was allowed to jump down into the pit and dig too. Somewhere in an A.U.B. storeroom, there is a clay oven in a cardboard box that my hands lifted free from its grave.

And somewhere, I suppose, is the time-fractured pot I was assigned to glue back together, shard by shard. Gradually, its shape emerged, and I realized it was an amphora, a tapered jar that would have stood about four feet tall. All I had managed to reassemble was its rounded shoulder and part of the neck. It had taken me a month.

“I cannot do this,” I finally admitted to my journal. “I cannot spend my life doing this.”

The problem was, I didn’t know what else to spend it on, and I felt bereft and scared. Years would pass before I realized that the summer hadn’t been a failure — before I saw that it had done exactly what it should have, turning me away from archaeology and onto a path that was a better fit.

These were the summer’s real lessons: That no path is permanent. That roads, however chosen, always lead somewhere. That sometimes the hardest lessons stick the best. And that sometimes — if you live — you get a second chance. By the time I understood all that, Beirut would need those lessons too.

When work ended on Friday afternoons, I flagged down one of the old Blue Bird school buses that were Lebanon’s Greyhounds and rode south through the Bekaa, up over the coastal mountains and down into Beirut.

If I got a seat on the left side of the bus, there was always a moment when the road curved around a last shoulder, and I could see the hazy city, with the blue Mediterranean beyond, flowing out into the distance like a land of dreams.

The bus took me to the Bourj, the heart of downtown. Trams, buses, taxis, people — everything in the city started or ended there. The streets were a permanent State Fair, and the busiest were the awning-shaded souks, Beirut’s equivalent of Istanbul’s Grand Bazaar.

You could get anything in the souks, from baklava to brassieres. I was drawn to the Arabian Nights stuff: Daggers, curved and jeweled and harmlessly dull. Gaudy, gilded sandals, glittering with rhinestones. Hammered brass trays and thimble-sized coffee cups. Tables and chairs inlaid with mother-of-pearl. And Lebanon’s trademark silverware, its black handles carved in the shape of resting nightingales.

The crowds were just as varied. On any afternoon, I’d encounter peasant women in jet-black robes that left only their hands and faces bare; old farmers with long moustaches and baggy Ottoman-style breeches; impeccable businessmen in French-cut suits, striding between office buildings, and city women as elegantly dressed and coifed as any on the Champs-Elysees.

There were other differences, of course — dangerous ones that didn’t meet the eye. More than a dozen religions were afoot in those crowds, and the tensions between them had already triggered conflicts. But on summer afternoons in the human whirlpool of the Bourj, real war seemed unimaginable.

From downtown, I caught the little tram that ran west along Rue Bliss — named for a person, not my state of mind — to the Moorish arch of A.U.B.’s main gate. Then I walked a few blocks along Jeanne d’Arc to a candy store called Chantilly, ducked around it into a dead-end alley, stepped into our tiny front garden, put the key in the lock and let myself in. It always felt like coming home.

As archaeology faded, my summer took on an end-of-the-world recklessness, something Beirut knew how to cater to. What I liked best were the evenings at our apartment — long salon-like evenings when it seemed as if every person we’d met in Lebanon would drop by for beer and Chantilly chocolate, cigarettes and conversation.

We attracted American expatriates and teachers from the international schools, A.U.B. medical students, people we’d interviewed and a lot of young Lebanese guys irresistibly drawn to this nest of Minnesota girls.

We were only college kids in wash-and-wear dresses, but those evenings made me feel glamorous and sought-after. They allowed me to think I knew Beirut, and that Beirut had nothing better to do that summer than shine its spotlight right on us.

All this sounds silly now: Beirut was a big city, more than a million even then, and we knew only a tiny corner of it. But that corner felt open and free and safe. It was my first real taste of adult life. I felt intensely alive, and something different happened every day.

One day it was simply a cloud in the sky — an event so rare in a Beirut summer that one of our new friends came over to make sure we didn’t miss it.

Another day it was the U.S. Navy’s entire Sixth Fleet, stopping by on a training mission. The embassy sent out messages to all the young American women in town, encouraging us to date sailors and help keep them out of trouble.

There were so many uniforms ashore that the streets near the port looked like rivers of white. We dated them in groups. By the end of fleet week, one of my roommates had been out with 23 sailors; I’d been out with 18. But — in the classic phrase of the time — nothing happened. It was 1963, after all, and the sexual revolution hadn’t arrived. None of us slept with anybody.

My most intimate moment, in fact, came when one sailor showed me the last letter he’d gotten from his girlfriend. I had not known until then that nations are defended — and torn apart — by armies of homesick boys. I learned it earlier in Beirut than I would have at home: The Six-Day War would not happen for another four years; Vietnam was lurking in the future, and Beirut’s long self-destruction would not begin until the Vietnam War was over.

The guy I fell in love with that summer with wasn’t among the sailors. Bob was a student from Northwestern, making up a chemistry class at A.U.B. He had black hair and hazel eyes so light that they shone like gold when the sun hit them.

He had grown up in Saudi Arabia, in the sheltered enclaves of Aramco, the Arab-American Oil Company — exactly the kind of ex-pat upbringing I envied. Every time I saw him, my heart turned over. I never knew if his did, but Bob took to dropping by the apartment too, and I spent my weekends trying to be fascinating.

My journal devotes an embarrassing amount of space to the details of this romance — going to downtown discos together, sharing hamburgers at an A.U.B. hangout called Uncle Sam’s, our failed attempt to smuggle Marlboros out of the free port, sunbathing on the stony campus beach. One night we skipped through the marble halls of the grand Phoenicia Hotel, holding hands. And once, by our apartment’s front door, he kissed me goodnight.

Bob left Beirut before I did, and I went down to the airport with a farewell bottle of champagne and talked a Middle East Airlines flight attendant into taking it to him on board. Just before the passenger door closed for take-off, Bob leaned out and waved goodbye; I never saw him again.

When the rest of us scattered for home, I took my Beirut house-key with me, more as talisman than souvenir. Someday, I promised myself, someday when I had my life figured out, I’d go back, find my old apartment, unlock the door as if I still lived there, hand the key to the startled residents and say thanks.

For years afterward, when the Minnesota winter finally broke and real spring warmed the air at home, there would be a night when I stepped outside and felt the soft, sweet air of Beirut swirl around me again, and I would grieve for the city, missing it, unable to find a way back.

By the time I’d finished a degree in journalism, gotten a job at a newspaper and could afford to return, Lebanon was in the middle of its civil war. When the fighting finally stopped, 15 years later, the heart of the city had been devastated, and it seemed too late.

Then, early in 2003, some of my old student group got serious about an anniversary reunion in Lebanon. It still seemed dangerous, but we were running out of time. “The way I see it,” one man said, making the clinching argument, “it’s never going to be safe.”

We went back that June. As I’d always intended, I retrieved the apartment key from my jewel box and took it with me.

Amazingly, our old neighborhood hadn’t changed much, and the ruined downtown was being resurrected. The old souks were gone, but many of the beautiful yellow buildings had been restored, the sidewalk cafes were back and booming, the crowds were as cosmopolitan as I remembered, and I was just as happy.

Being in the city again gave me such intense deja-vu that I kept forgetting my real age. I remembered it fast enough when I went looking for my apartment: I couldn’t find anyone old enough to ask.

I looked for it anyway, but I’d never known more than a few words of Arabic, and while neighborhood residents tried to help, I got nowhere. The next time I tried, I asked an A.U.B. staffer to come along and translate.

Khaled and I walked down Jeanne d’Arc to a cross street called Makdisi, and he pointed to a tall, white building on the corner, its facade a mix of shop signs and modern balconies. He thought it must be that one.

It can’t be, I said. It’s too new. Too big. It didn’t look like that. And it wasn’t on a corner.

Khaled asked a shopkeeper. “He says that’s the Makdisi building,” Khaled said. No, I insisted, it isn’t.

We walked up a narrow lane beside it. Midblock, tucked behind the modern building so it was invisible from Jeanne d’Arc, there was a lower building, worn yellow stucco with old green shutters.

Ours was like THAT, I told Khaled. But it wasn’t this far back, and it faced the other way. If you took this building and turned it around. . . .

A balding, middle-aged man in a navy turtleneck had come out onto a little terrace on the ground floor and was standing quietly, watching me pantomime turning his building around in the air. He asked in Arabic what I was up to. Khaled told him.

And then the man did something that the Lebanese always used to do: He simply opened the terrace gate and, with a huge smile, welcomed us into his home.

“Come in,” he said in English, and we stepped into his living room. It was very plain, with an old tile floor (the pattern looked familiar), divans along two sides, a treadle sewing machine serving as an end table, a few kitchen chairs scattered around and a large TV mounted high on the wall.

Our host, along with his younger sister, her husband, their 4-year-old son and a frail elderly lady — “my auntie,” our host said — had been watching an Arabic news report about the war in Iraq. He turned it down a little so we could talk.

No, he said, he didn’t remember any building like the one I described. Neither did his auntie, who had moved over to sit beside me.

She had been a teacher, she confided, in a delicate blend of French and English. As the evening went on, more and more words came back to her. She practiced them, moving her lips silently, before she shyly whispered them to me. It was like listening to lace.

Another wraith-like old auntie drifted in and perched on one of the divans. She said she didn’t know about the apartment either and drifted back out.

“My mother will know,” our host assured us: She ran a dressmaking shop around the corner and knew everyone in the neighborhood.

By the time his mother appeared, we’d learned how to pronounce each other’s names; I’d told everyone about our study group and its reunion trip; we’d all agreed that the Iraq war was a bad thing; they’d offered coffee and tea, Khaled and I had accepted, and the English-speaking auntie had gone into the kitchen and fetched a plate of homemade stuffed grape leaves.

“Eat,” she commanded. Plump with lamb and rice, they were the best I’d ever tasted.

Eventually the mother came in, a woman with dyed-black hair, wearing a kerchief and a loose flowered housecoat. She didn’t look much older than her son.

But he was right: She knew. And she knew instantly.

Before he’d said anything, she froze, stared hard at my face and rattled off something in fast, excited Arabic. “My mother say she know you directly!” the son translated, and lots of talk broke out.

Khaled translated more precisely. This is what the mother had said about me: “She rented the apartment behind our house 40 years ago!”

I was so shocked that my skin tingled. I’m still shocked. I think she was actually remembering one of the other women, but I didn’t mind. The important thing was, she remembered US. And she remembered the apartment.

Which wasn’t there any more. She said the owners — yes, the very same ones who’d owned a jam factory — had torn it down in 1975, just before the civil war started, and put that big white building in its place. The dead-end alley beside our old building had been made into a lane, which was how the replacement ended up on a corner.

I’d been afraid of something like this, but the family’s unexpected hospitality took the sting out of the loss. At least it hadn’t been war damage.

I dug the old apartment key out of my purse and held it up for them to see. “I was going to open the door and walk in and give it back,” I said, and Khaled translated.

Everyone collapsed in laughter. “Now I guess I can keep it,” I said. More laughter.

The elderly auntie worked out another of her gossamer English sentences and offered it to me. “You found the key,” she said gently, “and you lost the house.”

I slipped the key back in my purse and zipped it shut. Yes, I said, and smiled at her. Yes, the house is gone.

But by then it didn’t matter. The key had done its old familiar work, as surely as if I’d turned it again in the front door of No. 1, Makdisi Building, all these years later.

It had let me back into a city I loved and permitted me, in that Lebanese family’s plain, friendly living room, once again to feel at home.

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