I let my gym membership lapse, to see the city while pounding the streets instead. Over time, I grew to love it.
I used to hate running in Beirut. I hated the pollution in the air; the way I was breathless from the dust and dirt by the time I got half way up the uphill hairgrip bend in the road at Raouché. I dreaded the waiting to cross roads; the jogging-on-the-spot for limitless streams of cars to pass. Sell your APC-like thing and drive a Corsa, I would say, in my mind, or under my breath, to the drivers.
But over time I grew to like seeing the city this way. The route has varied over time, but places don’t change that much.
First I make for the sea, dodging between valet parking attendants – there is always valet parking in Lebanon – on the best-lit streets I can find. I prefer running on the west side of town, because there is less dog poo than over where I used to live in the east. There, I would find myself running down the middle of the road to avoid the dog dirt. People here, thankfully, seem to prefer cats.
Then along the Corniche. There are people who are too fat; people who are too thin; people with plastic surgery; people with fluffy dogs; people with dogs who are compensating for something else – welcome to the only place canines emerge again in a feline-dominated part of town. People in full tracksuits; people in sparkly trainers and burgundy lipstick. People in love; people in probably-broken relationships, but which they keep together for the toddlers careering across the seafront on hired bikes around their parents. Confident people; bored people, lost people; displaced people.
There are the sad, still faces of the young Syrian men waiting out the war back at home in Lebanon, perhaps to avoid military service. People want to watch the sea, not carry guns.
There are young couples on surreptitious dates alongside the shore; children riding mini soft-tops along the dirty pavement; families with full picnic and argileh set up on benches; sometimes people even balance the water pipes on the rocks furthest beyond the concrete barriers, and smoke as they ponder the waves.
There are dads watching their toddlers take their first wobbly steps in some of the only free public space in Beirut.
People have allowed the city to live, despite the heavy, violent glass blocks and shiny pavements and pseudo-Ottoman development that engulfed the Downtown area. When I run through this empty ghost town, the place feels like an attempt to cover up a war and its memories. The smooth buildings trample on lives, loves and history. It is an empty place, in a city where elsewhere people live crumpled family over family in teetering housing blocks. Money buys hollow space.
Round to Ain al-Mreisseh, where the eternal presence of bait bags and collapsible chairs on the pavement is the proof of a worldwide appeal in fishing that I will never understand. I wonder if they caught anything edible ? Sometimes the men wave a fish slightly too close, and I wriggle a bit.
Finally – a relatively new part of the route – up the steps to Hamra, where someone has scrawled “Abu Abbas” on the wall. And then along Bliss Street, where delivery guys wait outside the fast food shops, waiting to be given their next order. Someone is digging up Jeanne D’Arc Street, so I have to be careful not to trip over the piles of bricks and sand, which wait for the workers’ morning return.
I pass between districts and their sects and political parties, and their variously coloured insignia. Then, which banks and coffee brands and singers have bought advertising space on the billboards along Hamra Street today ? A little pavement-mounted charity collection box bears the photo of a young boy in army fatigues, doing a one-armed salute. Its sight always unnerves me slightly.
At Raouché, there is always a large queue for pastries and juice underneath the even- larger poster bearing the face of a politician. I always mean to stop for melon and pistachio and chocolate ice-cream here, but somehow never do.
As I run, I catch whiffs of Beirut’s smells. Often they are not good: drains and rubbish and petrol. Sometimes they are wonderful: mellifluous shisha smoke, hot bread crumbs from the mana’aeesh oven; cardamom coffee; grilled meat over flame. I only glimpse the smells, but know I will find them on the next circuit.
It isn’t normal to run outside in Beirut. In summer, I run at 10pm, and still return home drenched in sweat. Once, a man who saw me at the end of my route asked – “what are you doing?”, as if my shiny face and dripping T-shirt were personal insults to him. In winter, waves crash over the concrete “beaches” dotted with sun loungers along Beirut’s Mediterranean shore. I almost consider joining the tracksuit wearers, but stick with my unsparkly trainers and Lycra.
If I don’t run, I don’t see the city, at least this way. So I run.