Triptych image: Antonio Adriano Puleo, "Untitled (47c)" 2013
NOBODY DIED. But Beirut is engulfed in flames, cars are mangled, glass is under foot, dozens are bleeding, and a faction of rebels claims responsibility. Shopkeepers roll gates; kids are yanked out of school. A day later, however, traffic is so thick and life so normal that it can take an hour to get across town.
It's Monday, and I am barreling on foot through the thick funk of morning commuter traffic, crossing the spine of Hamra. My wife is a foreign correspondent, and I was at one point an editor in New York, but then we moved to Riyadh and had a little girl. To keep the family together, we stayed together — first in Saudi Arabia, then shuttling between bases in Istanbul and Baghdad and Erbil, and finally this vision of semi-normality in Lebanon. But last spring there was a shootout on our street and then a rather significant bomb-assassination across town, and this latest Monday the car bomb. I did my part to remain, through a winter and another spring but then everything was heating up — gunfights and snipers and radical clerics to the north and south and then the darkness from Syria spilling across the border to the east, and then, one week, the beginning of a new season of explosions downtown. Another hot, crazy summer — but as the rockets go back and forth overhead and the snipers grease their guns and everyone waits for what happens next, I have to admit: I still care about my teeth. I still arrange a trip to the dentist.
At the clinic, I wipe sweat from my brow; the lady at the front desk has been poured into her mini-skirt and blouse. It is somewhat painful to watch her walk, because the basic necessities of human mobility require bones to scissor and tendons to stretch, that hips swivel and a stomach accepts air. I am waiting for her green uniform to explode, to be blinded by an eyeful of whiplashing teal fabric.
I take a seat in the throne. Around us are plate glass windows and a stunning view of another way Beirut is being demolished. The thud of shovel-loads of Ottoman-era bricks slam into a dumpster. One day, sooner or later, even the strongest walls come tumbling down. In a town in which nothing was ever higher than the old lighthouse, there are steel towers, and no longer parking for anything but luxury cars.
"You'll want to wear these," the dentist says, handing me goggles thick enough for welding. "There's probably a lot to do."
The assistant hovers to my right, sluicing water and whatever else from a mouth I open as widely as possible. In the mountains, they're firing guns in the air to celebrate the dead. There's still talk of chemical weapons. John Kerry, back from vacation, has issued a statement. John McCain still has some opinions about kilotons. At a certain point, focusing for an alarming amount of time on a rear right molar, I expect the exasperated dentist to break out a pickaxe. How complicated could it be? A worrying flood of liquid sloshes around back there, and I begin to lose feeling. I imagine a family of eels has taken root in some hole, that they are striking back — affronted by the pick and whirr of tools and strategy — all but ready to claim harassment or eminent domain, to complain or ask for more, something different.
It's crazy, really, what we're willing to endure. How we submit to such treatment. The pain, the length of it, the arbitrary cruelty (or not) of a stranger who is in theory working with your best interests in mind. Sitting in a chair, you want a good and thorough job to be done. What good, after all, would half an effort be? You want the job done right, whatever that job is. But tell me you haven't at least contemplated how satisfying it might be to take a bite.
There are people out there who wait, or give up. Because it is a kind of torture — this feeling of half-drowning and the drill. You wouldn't wish it on anyone, and yet we do it to ourselves, and worse, we watch bad jobs done to others. (In dungeons all around us men and women open wide.) Why not let it all decay?
Outside, the construction continues. I think about the set of teeth I encountered at a museum on the campus of the American University of Beirut. "This had been a very large man," the placard said. In a skull sawed in half, six bottom front teeth were held together by an intricate lace of thin gold wire. Thousands of years ago, this large man had commanded the kind of power to help invent or at least advance a whole new way of thinking about what we can or should do in order to keep going. Not enough probably for steak, but certainly for some nice bread. Today, we can feed a man through his nose.
Then the woman removes my bib. Into a yawning drain I spit blood. I pay my $100. I walk out into a fearsome heat. It's Beirut in the summer of 2013, and a BMW SUV is double-parked beside a backhoe, which is having trouble swiveling its enormous bucket, blocked as it is by the other machine. It’s a beautiful car. Below they are digging a deeper hole into old rock, from which another skyscraper will rise, to be filled by people no more important than anyone who's ever lived.