“Try the other side,” said the beautiful doe-eyed attendant. Max was seated alone in business class, eagle-eyed at a starboard window, eager for a first glimpse of Beirut as the jet descended. He leapt out of his seat, slid over to a port window, and gazed transfixed at the ancient city, sprawled like a cat before a fire, unfolding below him, glowing gold in the setting sun. He lost valuable seconds snapping pictures on his phone. Moments later on final approach the jet passed over squalid shanties and piles of garbage, the stereotypical landmarks of Fodor’s “city of contrasts”, and pulled up at Gate 7. The flight attendant chided Max for unbuckling during descent, but smiled briefly when he said he was honored to visit her city for the International Tango Festival.
Emerging from passport control and baggage claim, Max ran a gauntlet of eager families and drivers waving hand-lettered signs that said “Dr. Zapalnik, Imagine International” or “Mr. Dickens, ShallWeDance.com”. After some hopeful but futile minutes scanning the reception line looking for his name, Max became aware of the cab hustlers moving in. A swarthy young man in greasy jeans and T-shirt approached him.
“The Hotel Gefinor Rotana? Fifty dollars, but for you, my friend, forty-five.” Another man, his cousin once-removed, pushed in and said, “Forty-five, but I’ll take forty.”
A tall dignified fellow in a sharkskin suit intervened. He shot his cuffs, revealing a gold Rolex.
“These men, my friend, are charlatans. I can get you to the Gefinor within half-an-hour for $30.”
Max was tempted, but in an instant swarthy T-shirt and his cousin were loudly remonstrating in rapid angry Arabic, and next thing he knew some of their kin cruising the terminal had vociferously joined in. A cold-eyed policeman appeared, and then two camo-clad soldiers toting AK-47s. Max melted innocently into the background and found a peaceable driver waiting patiently in the simmering heat outside. As they drove past the tattered Shatila Palestinian refugee camp and crossed the old Green Line into West Beirut, the driver said, “Oh yes, Tango is very big in Beirut. We have always been the cross-roads of East and West, and Tango speaks naturally to this meeting of minds.” His radio was playing a wistful Arabic song, and Max asked him to turn it up.
“This is Fairouz,” the driver said. “She sings like a nightingale. Back in the day, her Tangos were to die for…”
The Gefinor Rotana was distinguished by a rooftop swimming pool with an edge that vanished into the Mediterranean. Freighters floated serenely offshore, and off to the right, coastal ranges climbed into the sky. Max sipped a mimosa poolside and conversed with a U.N. cultural anthropologist attending her first global food security conference. The sun finally sank into the wine-dark sea and the crystalline stars of the Levant emerged. The spring equinox was upon them, Haft-Sin observances were underway, and Venus and Mars approached conjunction. As time passed, Roxanne’s enquiries about the International Tango Festival, informed by a modest black one-piece swimsuit, became more consequential. Miguel Calo’s “Al Compas del Corazon” drifted up from a milonga in the third floor ballroom. Max invited her to dance.
Next morning, his head still swimming in memories of the rooftop pool and milonga, Max medicated himself generously at the Gefinor breakfast buffet, and emerged into the bright buzz of Clemenceau Avenue. He decided to skip the Tango seminar on “Women’s Adornos & Flying Legs”, and set off for Zuqaq al-blat, the birthplace of Nouhad Haddad, also known as Fairouz, the nightingale of the Middle East. Following a crude city map in his guidebook, he strode past glass-clad office towers and concrete apartment blocks adjoining secret courtyards and gardens hidden behind high walls and hedges of myrtle. He breathed the city’s redolence of diesel and tobacco and the heady fragrance of roses, pomegranates, jasmine, and wisteria. At noon, he found himself in the shaded garden of the Blue Note Cafe. A bandoneon-player and a violinist accompanied a lone couple circling the tiny dance floor. He lunched on grilled fish and a glass of Pinot Grigio and then asked the waiter to bring him an egg.
After a few focused minutes, Max balanced the egg momentarily upright on the tabletop, took a picture on his phone, and sent it to Roxanne. Delusionally, he imagined her reflecting on the three-fold significance of the image: Perfect Balance, Improbability, and the Promise of Life. Ergo Tango. Only the music was missing. He resumed his quest and came at last to the cobblestone street called Zuqaq al-blat. Somehow he had expected tranquil rooms with brilliant tiles, Persian rugs, tapestries, and marble fountains. Instead, he found a nut-vendor’s stall, and a boutique selling crudely chiseled wooden chess sets. At the far end of the street, minarets rose above the city clutter, superimposed on distant foothills draped in pastures and olive orchards. In a grimy recessed corner, with synchronicity worthy of Carl Jung, an ancient transistor radio played Fairouz singing the tango “La Boheme”, accompanied by Eduardo Bianco’s band all the way from Argentina, recorded in Beirut in 1951. Max checked his phone; no messages.
Cultural anthropology in the black hourglass shape of Roxanne swam through his thoughts as he consulted again his map of Beirut. The mid-afternoon heat induced soporific quiet in the streets and alleyways around him. He set off for the Pigeon Rocks on the western edge of the city. The sun was riding high and cast few shadows. Squinting into the glare, he tugged down his cap visor and strode on. He was hot and weary when he reached the seafront and leaned into the temperate onshore breeze. At that moment, his phone, poised on high alert since morning but hitherto mute, pinged as a text came in: “Tabouli Café. Roxanne.” All was well with the world, after all. He looked around. A woman cloaked in an all-encompassing black burka, her gold ankle bracelets intermittently flashing as the breeze lifted her hem, gripped the cliff-top railings and gazed at white-spumed waves crashing and roiling explosively against the Pigeon Rocks.
A few yards away, two soldiers in battle fatigues, rifles slung casually over their shoulders, killed time under a palm tree. One, a little younger, smiled shyly at a passing girl; the other, more menacing, watched the street through mirrored sunglasses. Max set the camera zoom and shot them both, silhouetted against the Rocks, the forested coastal ranges and the distant horizon. The older one stiffened, turned, and pointed directly at him. He walked over. The young soldier gestured at the camera and touched his chest, smiling.
His superior took the camera from Max, fixed his mirror shades on him, and demanded his papers and passport. He scrutinized Max’s South Carolina driver’s license and shook his head. Max explained in broken French that his passport was back at the Gefinor Rotana. The officer deftly erased the last image in the camera and then glanced in surprise at Roxanne spinning in a molinete. Taking off his glasses, he studied Max’s shots of the previous night’s milonga. At last he grinned, returned the camera and waved his hand dismissively.
“Tango!” he said. “Enjoy Beirut.”
At the intersection of Rue Iskander and Paris Avenues, Max found the Tabouli Café, a stylish chrome-and-glass patisserie with sidewalk tables well shaded under a cypress green awning. Roxanne, whose beauty and reserve reminded Max of Thutmose’s limestone bust of Nefertiti, greeted him politely. They ordered iced water and coffee, and asked to see the selection of pastries on a filigreed silver tray by the door. Roxanne pointed to a glistening wedge of Persian baklava. They conversed inconsequentially while Max considered the perfect symmetry of her eyes and repressed an urge to caress her face. The baklava, chopped almonds and pistachios spiced with cardamom and rose water-scented syrup, went well with black Lebanese coffee. Roxanne raised an eyebrow, took Max’s hand and stood. She slipped an iPod into his pocket, and gave him one of her ear-buds. Carlos di Sarli’s “Ojoz Negros” enveloped them as they danced among the tables in apparent silence, their minds and their physical immediacy obedient to every musical nuance. Max remembered Ignatio Quiroga once saying: “Slow down; listen carefully; let the Tango tell your story.”