Atalwin Pilon is currently on a trip around the world. This is his latest dispatch. To read more about Atalwin’s travels, check out his archive.
It is amazing what a good meal can do. I find myself in Tawlet Restaurant, owned by Kamal Mouzawak. Friend and connoisseur of the Arabian cuisine Merijn Tol introduced him to me. It’s the second time I’m here and the first time by myself (Kamal is traveling). The food was so good it almost made me cry.
I truly feel that our planet is teaching me about the relationship between the earth and what I put in my mouth. What I ate here wasn’t some über culinary experience but it is feels very, very honest. It is authentic and integer. I don’t now how to describe it. This is what comes up: there is no ego in the food. But it has dignity instead. What I had on my plate resembles my ideas of spirituality: honest, simple, good.
It gives me the courage to share what I want to share. And for once I ask you not to forward this post mindlessly, please don’t.
My arrival in Lebanon was not so easy. As I told you in the previous post: people who have visited Israel (who have an Israeli stamp in their passport) are not welcome here. This was made very clear to me at the Jordanian airport. But I believed I had the whole situation under control: I would swap passports in the plane and on arrival just blend in with the passengers from flight from the EU. Nobody at immigration would be able to guess that I came from Amman.
The flight would take 35 minutes. When 5 minutes in the air the attendants started handing out immigration forms. On this form I had to mention what my port of departure was. Now I knew I had a problem. If I would say “Amman” the immigration officer could see there was no Jordanian visa in my passport. I start praying for a EU flight that would arrive together with mine. Meanwhile I’m getting pretty nervous. I decide to wait with filling out the form until I am on the airport. The idea is to sneakily get the information I need from the passengers that I hope to find on the airport.
The plane lands. Casually I look out of the window to check how busy it is. My heart skips a beat. The airport is totally abandoned. Then my heart jumps up because I seemed to have looked the wrong way. Then it sinks again: the airport is truly empty. The passengers of my half filled plane enter the completely empty arrival hall. It looks like there hasn’t been a plane from the EU in weeks. There goes my plan.
I send out two text messages: if you haven’t heard from me within 3 hours I am in trouble. I really don’t see how to pass customs without getting caught. When they realize I come from Amman without Jordanian stamps and will start questioning me I really don’t know what to say. Worst-case (and likely) scenario is that they will find out about the hidden passport with the hated stamps and make me spend some time in a local cell, which, I assume is less pleasurable than its Dutch equivalent (which is not a party either). I realize that I still have to fill out the immigration form. I get out my laptop to find the address of Kamal, secretly hoping he is some kind of famous or something. The form says clearly to write in clear handwriting but I write as unclear as possible. When I fill out the form my hands are trembling so this is not a problem. As port of departure I choose Amsterdam, written in a way it looks a bit like Amman. All the other passengers are long gone. I am the only one in the hall.
Ok, here we go. I have to pick an immigration officer. I choose the most attractive female officer, hoping my blue eyes will somehow serve me. She flicks through all the pages of my passport, stops twice for studying the visa for India and Iraq. She starts asking me questions about the purpose of my stay, my place of stay and even writes down Kamal’s phone number. When she asks about my profession I tell her that I’m a life coach and a writer. I say writer not because I like to jump into premature conclusions about my not yet written book but because it sounds more clear and simple than life coach (I mean who the hell knows what life coach means outside of countries with too many luxury problems). She nods, types everything down. I tremble and my voice sounded squeaky, I figure that she can hit some button any second because I am acting textbook suspicious. Then she stamps my passport. Either she didn’t notice of more people fly from Amsterdam to Beirut with a transit in Jordan (the only ‘logical’ explanation).
Relieved but still trembling I walk in my most casual way to the baggage belt where my lonely backpack is circling around. When I’m arranging my luggage an immigration officer comes running towards me. “Ok, now I’m fucked. They noticed” goes through my head. He asks: “My colleague says you are writer, yes?” I nod. “You write political things?” Pheww.. big relief. “Noooo sir, of course not. I write about the heart” and I show him the deck of Zen tarot cards which I hope to look very innocent, unpolitical and spiritual. He is satisfied. I can go. My heart beats at 180 bpm.
Once I covered the 25 meters to the door I am literally the only left-over prey of about 25 cab drivers. They are fighting, shouting and pushing and shoving over me. I have experienced aggressive cabdrivers but here it was taken to a new level. Welcome to Lebanon. From super polite, humble and innocent mode I shift into combat mode.
The cab brings me to the restaurant. While I try to recover and catch a breath I send out text messages that I made it safely. Then I get into a text message argument with one of my friends. You gotta be kidding? Meanwhile Kamal arrived and he is being the perfect host, immediately introducing me to all the people who might be interesting to me, who, for some reason, all seem to be present in his restaurant. 60 minutes after fearing to spend some time in a jail cell and brawling on the airport I am on the phone with a documentary maker Zeina Daccache and talking about spiritual awakening with Joe Habis, head instructor and founder of Dojo – School of Martial Arts in Beirut. According to his knowledge there are no zen practitioners in Lebanon and I’m invited to introduce zazen to his students. As one of Kamal’s friends puts it: “Welcome to the jungle”.
I get a quick update on life in Lebanon. I hear how much Israel is resented. I hear how much pain there is in the society. I feel the self-doubt entering my system. What in God’s name was I thinking when I took on this journey? Israel was tough, Palestine was raw, this was rawer and I still have to go to Iraq and work there. Who am I to think I can offer something? I feel that this is too big for me. But when I think it I realize that Ilana said the same thing, how she is forced to grow because her project is bigger than her.
When I walk around here in Beirut I can feel the fear and the guardedness in the people. I felt afraid myself because I am carrying a secret: I visited their enemy. I was not sure if I had the courage to write about this. In some sense I jeopardize my safety. But not writing what is most true for me would be an act of cowardice. It was the food that gave me the courage. There was love in the food and I loved the food back. I trust that when I am served such beautiful, honest food I will not be hated. It felt like the land embraced me.
PS: I noticed something beautiful. People don’t smile here. So I experimented with what would happen if I smiled first. Everybody responded, even the tough looking men. Slightly uneasy, a bit timid and sometimes somewhat reluctantly they lowered their guards and responded with a slight smile, to their own surprise. After their unexpected smile came the relief, the eyes showing friendliness.
Originally appeared at Basic Goodness.