Sitting in a bar in Mar Mikhael, Bill, a friend visiting from out of town, held a bottle of Almaza in one hand and a fistful of popcorn in the other. The sun was threatening to rise and the bar staff had all but closed up shop for the night. A few locals stood outside unwilling to give up on their nights, chatting with chauffeurs in search of one last fare.
“Why does it say “BOOB” on the wall?” said Bill pointing to a sign, in neon lights, on the back wall, before repeating the question to a barman standing nearby.
“It doesn’t. It says “BODO”,” said the Barman rather cock-surely, before cleaning some empties from the adjacent table. The matter seemed more open to debate but we let it go, settled the tab, and stumbled out of the ambiguously named bar. It had been an eventful and enjoyable night, but minds and limbs were growing weary. Bill’s knee was beginning to hurt, an endurable consequence of several victories picked up in impromptu dance-offs earlier in the night. It was time to call it a day.
Earlier, feeling claustrophobic with the standard nights out on offer in Beirut, me, Bill and a couple of others had decided to head to Jazeera, a club in Antellies, frequented mainly by African and Asian migrant workers, Syrians and Lebanese trying to hit on African and Asian migrant workers, and occasional groups of very drunken, slightly desperate Westerners trying to dance and hit on African and Asian migrant workers.
I’d never been to Jazeera, but the place had garnered a pretty decent reputation amongst some friends as a venue clear of many of the pretensions available at some of Beirut’s more bouji nightspots: an atmosphere more akin to a Karaoke rendition of “Wrecking Ball” than a night at Skybar … more dancing than dressage.
Sadiq, a Sudanese friend I’d spoken to earlier in the week, was decisively not down for going. His recollections of previous forays a few years back were tinged by a certain nostalgia but really, he’d moved on. Sadiq told me to enjoy myself before deciding to question whether I could dance. I told him I’d chill with him the following weekend but really, I was lying. Criticism of dancing ability is tantamount to insulting mothers in my book.
Another friend, and frequent visitor, had simply warned me rather seriously not to hit on someone else’s girlfriend. It seemed like a pretty universal maxim for any night out, with the exception of perhaps an orgy. I took a mental note not to attend said friend’s parties in the future. I would however make sure to inform Sadiq under false pretenses … sweet retribution.
All in all, I was expecting an eclectic mix of people and outfits, dancing to most likely fairly shit music, looking for the sort of release unavailable elsewhere in Beirut – particularly for migrant workers who might lack the funds or the requisite appearance to feel overtly welcome at other venues in Beirut, due to certain questionable door policies and divisive social paradigms at large in Lebanon.
Before heading to Antellies, we’d attempted briefly to think up some sort of theme or framework to get us up for the night, but ended up just feeling confused as to whether that meant we were flirting with racism. It reminded me all too much of my 10-year old self’s sudden realization one Saturday evening watching Gladiators that I seemingly always wanted the black guy to win. We settled for gin and tonics, and for some Godforsaken reason watched “Skins.” I also forced people to listen to some Wu Tang.
We arrived at Jazeera shortly after 1 a.m, failed to persuade the taxi driver to join us, paid a $20 entrance fee + drink and headed to the bar. Drink tokens were exchanged for tall glasses of whisky, filled almost to the brim. The bar itself looked a bit like the set of a 70’s porno filmed in a non-descript ski resort somewhere in the French Alps, fallen on hard times. Tired looking outdated wooden fixtures and a distinctly hot-rocked carpet was heavy on display.
Leaving our coats in the trust of the benevolent patron working the bar (free of charge), we headed to the dance floor. The music jumped unpretentiously from Western and Arabic Pop, to Ethiopian pop: Gangnam Style meets Amr Diab.
Eli, the Lebanese resident DJ, seemed convinced he wouldn’t have a problem finding a job in London on the merit of his portfolio of mixes. He even said we could bring our own mix. Unfortunately he didn’t seem to have any Ginuwine, but people in Jazeera seemed to be having a good time regardless. There was twerking, a pimp in a bucket hat, more Gangnam Style, dance-offs, tequila shots, a smiling toilet that looked like a manatees face, a 75-year old Filipino lady – and that was just some of the mischief Bill was getting up to.
Meanwhile the rest of us were outside taking a break in the semi-palatial courtyard replete with fountain and argilehs a plenty. The relaxed atmosphere was temporarily broken when an attempt to balance an imaginary spirit level for a photograph lead to a pose that looked disturbingly like a quinnell, but thankfully things got back on track.
Inside Bill was raising the bar in the dancing stakes, whipping out a rather audacious Stanky Leg, surrounded by a group of Filipino ladies. Soon I was facing my own dance-off, having inadvertently stumbled into the middle of a cypher and more precisely, an Ethiopian guy rocking a basketball jersey and a blurry medallion.
“Go on mate. You’ve got this,” said Bill as the gauntlet was passed. Bill seemed to think that I’d won a dance off at Art Lounge last time he’d been in town. On that occasion, I’d apparently finished my opponent with a particularly bold Hangman’s Jig. This time things were over much more quickly. I fell over in under a second, over-extending whilst trying to get low. I thought about ad-libbing like it was all part of the routine, but it just wasn’t. Nil point. I cursed Sadiq’s oracular veracity. Now I’d definitely send him to that orgy.
Meanwhile, in the aftermath of my epic choke, my conqueror had the audacity to give me a hug before proceeding to flaunt his moves in front of me like some sort of very nice talented person who you just wish would fuck off. His medallion was becoming increasingly more blurry. I tried to lean on Bill for support, but he had embarked on some sort of George Wassouf driven-frenzy. I found myself staring at a Blake Griffin jersey to maintain focus, saw my reflection in a mirror that ran along the back wall and suddenly realized that the club was half the size I had originally thought.
“Good use of light and space to create an optical illusion,” stated entry #14 on my voice recorder. I was becoming scientifically drunk.
I decided to head back outside to the courtyard for a breather. It was getting into the wee hours and a few drunken clientele were being escorted by bouncers to some red plastic chairs by the entrance. The twerkers and the pimp in the bucket hat seemed to have departed.
“Smoke?” enquired a voice from stage-left.
“Name’s Rasta,” said a Sudanese guy rocking a Bob Marley t-shirt, a beanie embellished with an image of Che Guevara, and an all denim jeans-jacket combo. I’d noticed him inside a few minutes earlier. He had a quizzical smile on his face. He’d probably witnessed my epic failure, I thought self-consciously.
After some small talk, Rasta explained that like many other Sudanese, he had left his war-torn homeland in his late teens in search of work opportunities and a better life. He’d ended up in Lebanon and was quite happy with his lot. Rasta had been working around Beirut and the Metn as a cleaner for the best part of a decade, and said that during this time he’d experienced little animosity from locals. Rasta did however yearn for peace in Sudan. It had been five years since he’d been back, he’d lost family and childhood friends to conflict, and continued to send a portion of his wages back home.
“Everything is good,” said Rasta after a lull in conversation, smiling self-composedly. He hadn’t been to Jazeera in a while but appeared to be having a pretty good time. He was, however, more excited about a BBQ taking place in Jounieh the following day.
“You want to come?” he enquired matter-of-factly, “you are welcome.”
Bill, recently exorcized from his George Wassouf trance, was also invited. Contact details were exchanged and Rasta selected an emoticon of a smiling face wearing a hat to accompany his details. I couldn’t help thinking he could do with a more original nickname.
“One Love,” said Bill as Rasta departed suddenly, flanked by a girl on each arm. Rasta reciprocated with a fist pump.
After some fruitful conversations about nothing in particular, a couple more tequilas and some friendly cajoling from the bouncers, we hopped in a taxi back to Beirut.
Recording #18, the last of the night, taken in the taxi, relays a conversation between me and Bill speaking in indecipherable languages that no one else in the taxi seems capable or interested in participating in. Soon, it was time for a quick nightcap at BOOB before bed.
The following afternoon me and Bill woke up in a spasm of excitement ready to head to Jounieh. But the enthusiasm was short lived. We were still drunk. Within the hour, we were both passed out on the sofa. Come evening, having somewhat re-gathered my senses, I remembered to text Rasta to apologize for not coming through.
“No worries,” came the response. “P.S. nice dance moves…”