BEIRUT, Lebanon – I thought the bombings here in recent weeks would put me on a treadmill.
But when I asked security experts here about going out for a run, they immediately said, No problem. Go to the Corniche.
The Corniche, a seaside promenade built during the French Mandate period of present-day Syria and Lebanon following World War I, hugs the coastline for about five kilometers. It is lined with palm trees that are pock-marked by bullet holes from the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted from 1975 to 1990.
Today, Beirut is experiencing no shootouts (Tripoli, in the north, is another matter), but there are bombings, including one that went off in south Beirut about three hours before landing here. I learned of it when I switched on my Blackberry as I walked toward Immigration. As my driver would say, “Welcome to Lebanon.”
The Syrian conflict is spilling into Lebanon in multiple ways, including more than 1 million refugees fleeing across the border (a quarter of the population now here is Syrian); air strikes along the border line; rebel fighters going back and forth; and bombings and assassinations carried out in Beirut – tied, of course, to actions taken in the war next door.
People are resilient in Beirut. People famously go out to bars and nightclubs soon after an attack. But the feeling in Beirut today is tinged with fear. After only a few days here, it is clear that many are shaken by the frequency of the bombings, and the unpredictability of them. My driver, for instance, whose apartment is near the most recent bombings, has two girls – a fifth and first grader – and the first thing he tells me in the mornings is an update about talks with a relative in Dubai. He is making plans to send his girls there. “You are here one day, five days, 10 days,” he said to me one morning. “But my daughters are here every day. I can’t risk it.”
So why run here?
Each morning, over the span over a few hours, hundreds of people walk, run, and bike along the Corniche. Teams play aggressive badminton with wooden paddles, the sharp sounds echoing above the traffic. Old men share small cups of espresso. Middle-aged moms speed walk, their white little dogs struggling to keep up. Fishermen lean over the railings with 20-foot-long poles and long for a bite. Polar-bear swimmers take brave strokes in the frigid ocean; some yelled in Arabic to the heavens after their plunge.
Alhamdulillah! Praise to God.
It’s a place of life and exhilaration. And it’s a place where many others weighed the risks of running or walking and decided to go.
I’m traveling with my daughter, Paige, who came to work on a project involving Syrian artists in exile. She is a much faster runner than I am – she’s in the midst of training for her college track team – and we decided to venture out together. The safety factor evened the scales in my favor. She would slow down so that we could run together.
We just finished our fifth and last day of runs along the Corniche, sticking to the same route each day. The air was not the best; the cars passed close. The pace was good, mine. At dawn, the view was memorable – pink streaks over the Mediterranean to the west, and snow-capped Mount Lebanon to the east. We dodged groups of walkers, who are bundled up in the 50-degree mornings, wearing hats, gloves, sweatpants, and sweatshirts, chatting so much they don’t notice us. They were often five and six across, linked arm in arm, comrades perhaps.
After each run, we returned feeling physically great, blood circulating, muscles stretched out. Yet we also returned with some wariness. On the Corniche, I was not only looking for beauty or a moment that said something about the place. My eyes also searched for anything amiss that signaled danger; I stiffened once when a group of young men walked toward us from the street. I knew there was a risk, even if miniscule.
It was great to be out in Beirut, not a place like most to explore by running, but rather a run that explored a sliver of a place. Still, I gladly accept my blessings. We were given a few here.