Beirut, Spring 2006 - The sky is ultrablue. The city swelters. Arabic prayers sound through the narrow streets of cobblestones and asphalt in Beirut's Hamra district, calling the faithful to face east.
Neighbouring gelato cafés amplify the American top-40 radio station. The streets wind from Place d'Etoile, the heart of downtown Beirut, where shops sport haute couture for the nouveau riche in their display windows.
Prayers echo. Allah o akbar. La Allah illa Allah. Cigarette smoke, magazine vendors, pigeons dancing, office towers. Maronites. Druze. Orthodox. Sunni. Shoeshiners on their knees, jewelled narghiles (water pipes) in shop windows. Saudi Arabian cloaks displayed next to Armani suits. Majestic postcards: Byblos, Rachaya, Tyre, Baalbeck, Jounieh, Chekka.
My guidebook to Lebanon says I should dress modestly and at least wear pants. Despite the ferocity of the Middle Eastern heat, all around me are jeans and slacks. Christian women wear tank tops and tight-fitting clothing, but I've yet to see an exposed calf or thigh.
Muslim women walk covered in intricately embroidered black abbayas whose hems stop short of their ankles to reveal sexy, open-toed stilettos rivalling Paris Hilton's. At the Al Sa'a Café in the heart of Place d'Etoile, the servers stare at my bare legs as they adjust the chairs on the outdoor patio.
I order all the dishes my sitto (Arabic for grandmother) makes me back home in Montreal. I shove three fingers into the garlic hummus and put them in my mouth. I nibble on some chewy black olives and finish off the vegetarian kibbeh, the hollowed baby vegetable marrow, or kousa, pregnant with rice and minced meat stewed in tomatoes, and an authentic falafel sandwich - spicy ground chickpeas fried with sesame seeds and wrapped in warm Syrian bread with pickled red beets, parsley and mint leaves.
The cars zoom in complete chaos. The traffic lights don't work and are hardly obeyed when they do.
Soldiers in camouflage guard gilded palaces and 12th-century mosques, their AK-47s at their thighs. People throw their empties at ancient Gallo-Roman columns that are barely standing. Photos and banners of assassinated former prime minister Rafik Hariri adorn every window.
In Martyrs Square, the soaring iron monument to revolutionary heroes is, ironically, bullet-ridden. The Holiday Inn erected before the civil war still stands, but it's riddled with so many bullet holes, I wonder if it's structurally sound. Snipers sabotaged it. No windows, no paint - only concrete, rubble and millions of tiny wounds. It stands completely hollowed out, behind the Intercontinental Phoenician. I stare at it long enough to begin to feel the war-zone effect. Penetrated. Punctured. Wounded.
One hundred five years ago, my great-grandmother sailed away from these shores to find herself. One hundred five years later, her great-granddaughter returns to these shores for exactly the same reason.
As night falls, I return to the now packed Place d'Etoile, where men in Turkish hats display their gilt narghile sets. A man with his daughter hoisted on his shoulders kicks around a huge beach ball with his toddler son. Another little boy blows bubbles that rise slowly toward the sky, while two little girls in pigtails zoom in circles on their pink training-wheeled bicycles. Families laugh as they slurp sugar plum and mango ice cream.
I think about the 15-year war that ravaged Beirut, how the streets ran red and the city crumbled. When peace finally came, I can only imagine the collective sigh of relief people heaved as they swept up the rubble and let their children open their eyes.
The monsters under the bed died.
But in a few months, in July 2006, explosions will once again raise the sand all night and, were I here, I'd be unable to find these places I have run through. I will search CNN footage for the faces of those I've met, for those who embraced me, but to no avail.
Collapsing under rubble once more, my great-grandmother's Beirut will be swallowed by the python.