The Independent Archive: 11 September 1989 - Cold beer and truth in the Captain's Cabin

Robert Fisk reflects from a bar in West Beirut where time stands still
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THE BAR has the feel - even the smell - of the late 1960s. There are plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling, and empty whisky bottles line the top of the counter. A sign behind the fridge announces: "Please do not ask for credit today - ask tomorrow."

On good days, Georges Toriz steals electricity through a line from the local supermarket, cranks up the old tape-player and treats his few remaining customers to a diet of dated pop songs. But, at only 35p a bottle, the local Almaza beer comes cold.

Wander into the Captain's Cabin any day of the week - and any time of the day - and the chances are you'll find Adib Afridi by the door, sipping his first, second, third or fourth beer. "What else is there to do?" he asks. "Have a beer - it's on me."

Of course, there are other places to drink in West Beirut. But the Captain's Cabin is special. You only have to see Vera Habib walk in to know that.

Vera says she is 86. She is shabby and wears a grubby skirt. Her lined features hang off her face. In her cracked hand, she holds a bunch of dying carnations. She also speaks impeccable English, with an upper-class accent. "I was rich once," she says. "I was married to a German. He taught me English. But he died 15 years ago. We had a home downtown, but, when the war started, it was destroyed. Now I go at nights to the homes of different friends and I sleep in their houses. I don't have a home any more." She holds out a white carnation. "Will you buy one, dear? The price is as you like."

Selling carnations is Vera's only occupation. She goes to the flower shop in Jeanne d'Arc street every morning before the daily shelling begins. A whisky drinker at the bar, a silver-haired man, says: "Don't you remember? Vera was one of the richest women in Beirut, but she gambled her inheritance away on the horses." Adib Afridi smiles at the tale. "She knows she'll always sell a flower here, because there's always a few of us around. We are waiting for the shelling to get worse before things get better - then maybe we'll be able to go back to work."

Adib is waiting for the airport to re-open, an event which still seems very far away. He is head of technical training for flight crews and maintenance for Middle East Airlines, Lebanon's national airline. The Captain's Cabin used to be an MEA haunt - a pilot's hat hangs above the bar. General Michel Aoun's artillery now shells the airport. There have been no planes since March.

"Every day," says Adib, "my friends say, `There will be heavy shelling one more time and then everything will be solved.' The Lebanese are crazy that way - but it helps to keep them going."

There is a timelessness here. "What can you do with this war?" Kamal Faour asks. He is a small man with an old, bright face, a newspaper distributor whose last foreign newspaper import was dated 12 March. "All my friends come here and we sit here morning, noon and night. This war is like a dream. I have been living in a dream for 15 years." So has Georges Toriz. His Mexican brother-in-law sends money to keep the Captain's Cabin in business. "Why sell it?" he asks. "It just about breaks even. Now I can get some electricity, at least I don't have to throw so much food away."

Beirut is almost depopulated, and the grass is growing from the pavements on the Corniche. Nature is creeping back into what was one of the Middle East's noisiest cities. A few days ago, flocks of big white birds began heading south along the seafront, winter migrants heading south from the cold winds of Anatolia to the Sudan. The Syrian army has declared the Corniche a military zone, so there is no traffic. It was possible to hear the birds calling to each other.

No wonder Adib Afridi spends his time reading as well as drinking. He is well into the Penguin edition of Richard Dawkins' The Blind Watchmaker, a book he claims is teaching him about the "meaning of existence". When time stands still, what is wrong with mixing truth and cold beer on the wrong side of the tracks?

From `Out of Lebanon' on the Foreign News pages of `The Independent', Monday 11 September 1989