“Paris of the Middle East”—fiction by MK Harb

1 April, 2024
As a city drains, tempers flare, and friends say goodbye with things signifying home: tarot cards and a recipe for pickled turnips. A new short story from Beirut.


MK Harb


We waited for Kareema at the veranda of Cantina Sociale under a rusted fan that carried within it more noise than a breeze. I took off my sandals, placing my feet on the faded terrazzo tiles, wishing for a coolness to go through my spine. I turned to the waiter and said, “You might as well switch this fan off. Is it an antique from Basta?” He smirked and walked away placing an ibrik, a traditional water jug, filled with mint lemonade on the table of the lady on our left. She wore these professorial circular glasses and on her turquoise vest, which furthered the heat of August, was a golden swan brooch pinned to the right side of her chest. She was consumed by a book for what seemed to be hours — I interrupted her and asked: “What are you reading?” Sari nudged me with his right elbow to remind me not to talk to strangers. The woman mumbled something in French and all I could make out were the words “étrange” and “Beyrouth.” I nodded in fake knowing and looked back to Sari. 

“I know we’re in Sassine, but replying to me in French?” I said. 

“Let her live her fantasy. It’s Sunday,” Sari said in a contained politeness. 

A short while later Kareema arrived with a breeze. Somehow despite all the aging that has passed around us in Beirut, she still was the same, with dove-like hazel eyes, a posture elongated with years of Pilates at a studio in Hamra, and hair fresher than the lemonade in the ibrik. She placed her tote bag on the table, gave us a drenched hug, took her Ray-Ban sunglasses off and said: “Wow, it’s more humid than Dubai this August.”

“Exactly, but without the money. How cruel is that?” I said.

“So cruel,” she said, proceeding to kiss me on my right cheek. She waived at the waiter to get her usual, shanklish dip, rosemary chips and a glass of Merweh wine. She sat next to Sari, squeezing his right hand and said, “Soooo, Paris? How exciting!” — Sari had just left his job teaching anthropology at the American University of Beirut, securing a “talent passport” and a ticket out of Lebanon. He was to become a performance artist in Paris.

“Soon he’ll be at all these chichi parties playing Habibi funk music,” I said, with the bitterness of knowing that this is the third friend I’ve lost to a talent passport.

“I’m not a cold brew hipster,” Sari said.

Kareema opened her iPhone, which had a quote by Rumi on its screen. Yesterday I was clever so I wanted to change the world; Today I am wise, so I am changing myself. “Well, I have the party for you,” she said, proceeding to show us a video of these pretty little things dancing and drinking under bright green trees. “This is the Rosa Bonheur gathering in Buttes Chaumont park, in Paris, in Belleville; so many artists and cool people go there. You have to go the Saturday after you arrive, Sari,” she said.

“I am not sure I’ll have the energy for bears and otters upon arrival …” Sari said, “but it’s definitely on my list now.”

The waiter came with the Merweh wine, yellow with an orange tinge, and Kareema sipped it with a euphoric, “Hmmm.” She asked me to try it, which I did.

“Fruity and a bit nutty,” I said.

“Yes, you know Merweh is an indigenous plant to Lebanon,” she replied.

“The only thing indigenous to Lebanon is immigration,” I said, ruffling Sari’s hair.

Kareema laughed and said, “I was reading about it’s history. Turns out it was grown all over Mount Lebanon, but during French colonialism it was replaced with olive and mulberry trees which were more lucrative. But this guy from Batroun has found them in four villages, which he’s keeping secret. It’s so good that it won an award last year for best Mediterranean wine!”

“Bravo!” I said, turning my gaze to Saleem, arriving in time for his afternoon shift. He wore a tight white shirt, round collar with three beige buttons, accentuated with a bronze honed with Sunday visits to Sporting beach. We had this unspoken romance for a year now, and somehow both of us could not muster the courage to talk beyond his obsession with Turkish pop. He walked towards us, my flustering increasing with his footsteps, and stood over the table like a little demigod. “Shu Sari, I heard you’re moving to France like the rest of them?” he said.

“Yes, I left Ras Beirut and came to Achrafieh for the day to prepare myself mentally,” Sari replied.

Saleem smiled at me and asked: “Another round, Aşkım?”

“Yes, get us that indigenous grape,” I said.

“Bitch,” Kareema whispered.

Kareema opened her tote bag and took out all these whimsical items for Sari. “A care package for France,” she said.

A recipe for pickled turnips for when it gets too cold or too lonely. Things that are good for the heart are bitter.
A year’s worth of vitamin D from Mazen Pharmacy. “He needs another kind of vitamin D. Last time he got laid the dollar was still at 1500 lira,” I said, opening the boxes and taking one for me.
Half a kilo of Turkish coffee from Bin Tafesh.
A piece of pine from the Chouf Mountains. 

“He’s only moving four hours away from here, not taking a steamboat to 19th century Brazil!” I said. “Plus, there are more Lebanese grocers in Paris than there are in Beirut now. Apparently, they even have Bouzet Bachir and over there they think its gourmet ice cream!” 

Sari shushed me and said, “Thank you, Kareema these are beyond thoughtful. Malek is just spiraling because he’s going to miss me.” It was true I was going to miss him.

“Well, it’s time for tarot cards. I got a deck so we can see what’s in the works for you by the time you get there. Especially since you’re arriving with a wolf moon,” said Kareema. 

“I’m going to let you guys enjoy that,” I said, turning over to the people around me. On my right a girl nervously typed on her laptop which had a sticker in black and white: psychoanalysis and communism. I figured she must be a film student at ALBA. Behind her was a daddy wearing Vilebrequin trunks with dolphins swimming across his torso. He caught my glance and smiled in that naughty, “this is summer in Beirut” sort of way. I waved my right arm across my face and said: “Uff shu shob” — so hot!

At the foot of the stairs lay Kalamanteen, the Cantina’s resident Rottweiler, his eyes droopy and relaxed. A man outside on the street sent a very loud voice note — Khalas eh she can pay the down payment through a chèque bancaire. Someone had sprayed “woman life freedom” on the road block behind him, but I doubt he noticed it. On the other side of the road, three men in dreadfully colorful glasses, guava, maroon, and yellow, were having some quiche and coffee at Des Choux Et Des Idées. A munching sound entered my ears and returning to the veranda, it was the professor snacking on carrots dipped in lemon water and cumin. She finished reading her book and a slight shimmering light danced on the swan pinned to her. She looked over and waved at a tall man in a light blue chemise open to its middle. His chest wore a rosy sunburn. He approached her and asked: “Jeanette?”

“Ah yes Jason, welcome,” she replied, inviting him to her table. Saleem approached them and recommended the Turkish menemen eggs and some Ksarra wine. Jason uttered a hungry, “Sounds amazing.” Jeanette took out a cigarette and began speaking in a more spirited manner while Jason held a nervous corporate smile. At first, I thought she might be attracted to him, but then I realized she was in love with her own voice, and the stories she carried within her. Now was one of those rare chances to bring them out of the archive.

“So, tell me more about this article you’re writing,” she said.

“Well, I’ve always heard about the promise of this city and a friend of mine told me things are supposed to be shaping up after the economic crisis. So, I pitched an article to the New York Times called ‘The Eternal Magic of Beirut’ and I’m here to sniff out some of that magic,” he said.

“Yes, indeed it’s an enchanted city,” Jeanette affirmed, “and if you look around things are back to some degree of normal.”

Hearing this delusion, I was about to stand up and yell, “What normal? A man on a motorcycle shot his gun at the attendants of the gas station I was at yesterday. “This is for being too slow,” he hollered as he fired. But I stayed calm for the sake of Sari.

At some point Jason took out a black moleskin notebook, scribbling and nodding while Jeanette waxed poetically about the contemporary art scene in Beirut. “Did you know there is an original Gérôme painting at the Saint Georges cathedral in Centre Ville?” Jeanette said, “It’s not open for public view, but the priest there likes me, so we can go sometime to see it.”

“So many muses tucked in the corners of this city,” Jason said. “So tell me, what does Beirut mean to you?”

“Beyrouth is the air I breathe, the skin I live in. It has been destroyed seven times and it still rises like the phoenix,” she said.

“Not the fucking phoenix,” I mumbled.

“Did you say something?” Sari asked.

“No habibi, go back to the cards,” I said.

Kareema’s smile was wide and her eyes hypnotic and between her fingers a blue goddess received a revelation from a pearly white moon. “This card invites you to regard your life with compassion,” she said to Sari and I turned back to Jason and Jeanette’s rendezvous.

“On a more political note, we’re surrounded by a youthful energy — even in this café you’d think you’re at a startup incubator,” Jason said. “What about them? Isn’t their government failing them?” — this was no startup incubator; they were here because Cantina Sociale is the only café with 24/7 electricity and wi-fi. But Jeanette hid that little knickknack of reality.

“All these kids here are like my students, even if they are not, and I wish nothing but the best for them. You see, we Lebanese have the same values like westerners and we expect the same high standards like social welfare, education, big museums, public beaches. But the problem is our government is a Third World country,” said Jeanette, eating the last of the carrot. My feet were about to cause an earthquake in the ground below us, but again for the sake of Sari, I kept my cool.

“I have to say despite it all, the magnetic pull of this city is undeniable. I’m thinking of moving here and taking a stab at a career,” Jason said. “What about the neighborhoods? Can you talk to me about your favorite architectural features?” he asked.

“Well instead of talking, let’s get the bill and I will walk you around and show you some of my favorite buildings and corners. You know Beirut used to be called ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ and in some aspects, it still is,” Jeanette said.

“I’d love a walk,” Jason replied and I wondered which Haussmann buildings are they seeing that I am not?

Saleem got them the bill, Jeanette said “merci,” and I was going to let them enjoy their Parisian flânerie, but a voice in my head compelled me to talk.

“You know Beirut is many things. Maybe the Norfolk of the Middle East, but not the Paris of the Middle East for sure,” I said.

Jeanette turned back, gave me a confounded gaze and said, “Pardon, monsieur.” Jason stood awkwardly in that I’m an American in Beirut stillness. Sari and Kareema returned from whatever third dimension they were in with a worry. Sari spoke with a solemn voice, please Malek, not now.

“Jason, do you know that Beirut has a river?” I asked.

“Oh, that’s a revelation,” he said.

“Yes, but it’s not like the Seine. It’s dried up and in between its ravaged Sahara aridness there are pockets of sewage,” I said, “does that seem magical?”

“Well, Paris has some pollution issues too,” he said, attempting to control the situation.

Jeanette smirked and said, “Please ignore him, Jason. Some people just can’t look on the bright side.”

“Jeanette, I want to correct a fact. Beirut turned over eight times. The last time being on August 4th and, no, we have not risen like the phoenix since that day. Would such ‘Third-World’ impunity be allowed in Paris?” I said, slamming the table and when my hands hit the cracked wood, I realized I was spinning out faster than the fan above me. I heard Kareema say, “Is he intermittent fasting? He gets like this when his blood sugar drops,” and in that moment I realized that these friends who notice and accept my varied temperaments are leaving. To Paris, to Dubai, to London, the quiet suburb and the other city, and I might be left here walking like a zombie through the streets of Beirut telling people that there once was a river. I stood up, apologized to Jeanette and Jason, “It’s the heat, I should have gotten some of that mint lemonade instead of a wine,” I said. Sari packed his care package back into the bag, signaling at me and Kareema to head out. We walked by Jason and Jeanette, who were still lost for words and I said, “Pardon, madame.”

We crossed over the “women life freedom” road block and stood outside Des Choux Et Des Idées. Sari’s green eyes revealed red accusatory veins in their middle and as he rolled a cigarette on the sidewalk table, wrapping the Papier de Damas around the tobacco, turned back and said: “Khalas. Couldn’t you just let this woman be? Who the fuck cares if she’s speaking French? Half our conversations are in English, aren’t they?”

“Then why are you going to France?” I said.

“Well, it’s the only place that gave me a work visa,” he replied.

“So, what’s next — Kareema moves to Peru to become a shaman and I’m left to teach the next generation at AUB, waiting for some journalist to come interview me?”

Kareema moved between us and said, “We won’t end Sari’s last day like this. Who wants an éclair?”

Sari and I nod and we walk in, sit amongst another crowd, and stay quiet for a bit. A young man in a blue apron approaches us and takes our order of rose éclairs and double chocolate sablé. “Extra sugar for this hysteric queen,” says Sari. I laugh and apologize again, happy that the silence is broken. “I’m going to miss these outbursts,” he says. My phone buzzes and I open it to find a message from Saleem. “That was quite the scene you made back there. Catherine Deneuve is still on the veranda telling people can you believe how that guy talked to me. Drinks tomorrow night?”

I smile and reply with, “Oui.”


Mohamad Khalil (MK) Harb is a writer in Beirut. He received his graduate degree in Middle Eastern Studies from Harvard University in 2018 where he wrote an award-winning thesis on escapism in Beirut. MK currently serves as Editor-at-Large for Lebanon at Asymptote Journal, commissioning and writing pieces relating to Arab literature in translation. His fiction and nonfiction work has been published in The White Review, The Bombay Review, BOMB Magazine, The Times Literary Supplement, Hyperallergic, Art Review Asia, Asymptote, Scroope Journal and Jadaliyya. He is currently working on a collection of short stories pertaining to the Arabian Peninsula.

Beirutbrain drainemigrationHabibi funkParisParis of the Middle Eastpickled turnipstalent draintarot

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