It’s 5 am in Beirut, Lebanon. The birds outside sound like slide whistles while my jetlagging mind is racing.
After 40 hours of planes and airports, of which I probably spent 6 hours sleeping between the hard carpet of Washington D.C. airport and upright in a stiff seat intermittently interrupted by Germans pouring red wine, I arrived in Lebanon, ready to extinguish all kinds of stigmas my narrow United States of American upbringing has given me. I know by now expectations are always illusory but also that one never knows which unexpectations to expect.
Just a few weeks ago Clowns Without Borders contacted me out of the blue asking if I was available to drop my life and travel halfway across the globe to a war torn country to work for free donning a red nose and huge pants in order to be laughed at in a different language just a bird’s view away from active heavy conflict. Of course I jumped at the chance.
Jan Damm and I shared a flight from Frankfurt to Beirut. He is pronounced Yon Dom and that’s pretty much his real name. It’s more his real name than his name actually as he has changed his last name back to the name of his great great grandfathers. He’s the only other clown in this mission of four I had previously met, and then only barely. He’s a hardworking professional circus entertainer carving out a real living by balancing on buckets stacked on boards stacked on rolling cardboard tubes while tossing oddly shaped pieces of plastic in the air using a string between 2 sticks. He’s a left-brained clown-hearted young diligent in a tiny-tied suit and a poof of hair who executes skills with robotic precision. Pretty much my opposite as a clown-brained left-hearted old laid back.
At Frankfurt airport, the flights to the middle east depart from a crowded coughing and baby-crying basement. The passengers first board a bus for a ten minute drive to a tiny plane on the open tarmac. Our three hour flight was a far cry from the on-demand movies and hot face-towels of our transatlantic. Somehow we landed at night even though we let Germany in the early afternoon. Time gets destroyed traveling east. Half naps, time zones, and coffee jumble it up like dice in a cup. We rolled out through customs with barley a question about the pig toy that sequels when you squeeze it in my bag. We waited by the baggage carousel with a sign reading Samantha or bust. I played music in a clown nose for the very bored duty free workers of Beirut. Samantha arrived from London just 30 minutes after us.
A spunky golden-haired brit right off the bat, Sam is driven, currently jumping through hoops to open a UK chapter of Clowns Without Borders. Her little girl clown character eats bubbles in stripped socks. Immediately lovable, She always has a bit of wit to spit from her Brittishness.
We find our taxi drivers, one with a sign for Samantha and the other with a sign that reads, “Claw Litson and Vandamm.” (my name is Clay by the way; Hi) The taxi driver with Claw’s name was grouchy so we hopped in Sam’s and somehow ended up paying $30 to the taxi driver who didn’t drive us and $23 to the one who did. It had something to do with parking.
For those of you who, like me, don’t even know how to spell Beirut. Here’s a Cliff’s Notes version of Wikipedia in my own ignorant probably making most of it up style. Hopefully you’ll be inspired to learn more yourself to poke holes in this history lesson. Basically, Lebanon has been very active for a long time. Since the dawn of dawn this land, due to it’s central location and beachfront property, has been a hot commodity. It’s been invaded, raided, and conquered by all the most popular empires and even some of the lesser known guys. It finally gained independence from France in 1943ish depending on who you ask. From then until the 70’s things were going relatively awesome for Lebanon, aside from some horrible conflicts, bombings and deaths associated with that whole Israeli-Palestine thing in the 40s. Beirut began to thrive and become one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the middle east. Then some people decided it would be a good idea to fight about religion for 20 years in a civil war. Turns out it was a bad idea. In a country smaller than Connecticut, 20 years of bombing itself destroyed the economy, reputation, and many awesome bridges. In the 90’s someone had a really good idea to stop fighting and just like that they did. Pretty much. Neither of the sides were able to wipe out the other one’s religion permanently, of course, so the war ended with no winners as many often do.
So knowing these few things I knew of Lebanon I expected to be blown away, er I mean surprised, by my own misunderstanding of what the culture would be like. Our in initial cab ride did the trick quickly as we drove down the crowded Hamran street to our hotel past Starbucks, American Eagle Outfitters, even H and M. High end American mall stores were stacked upon each other, complete with Christmas decorations and silver mannequins staring at us from store windows. Huge electric billboards with adds in English for Jim Beam or Prada. I thought I’d beable to escape a month of the same old Christmas carols in Lebanon but I was wrong. We saw no car bombings, beheadings, and were unstabbed in the back by curvey knives.
At our hotel, aptly named the Mayflower, we met up with our local clown in the field Sabine. What a strong spontaneous lover of life she is. Recently married to a charming American foreign correspondent in the field, Ben, she wasn’t the least concerned that we had never met or had no show to speak of. The first thing she told us is not to drink the water. “One sip and you die.” I thought, ” Just like New Orleans.” We went to eat some of the most delicious food in the world at a little Lebanese cafe filled with local hipsters, hippies, yuppies, and a puppy. People smoked and ate inside to the music of a live band. We discussed our mission.
Working side by side with the Lebanese army and an international organization called Mag, we are charged with creating a program to to educate audiences of up to 200 children at schools across the country about the dangers of landmines and unexploded ordinances through clowning. Lebanon is littered with landmines, tank mines, trip wires, and cluster bombs of all shapes and sizes.Looking at a map of known minefields in Lebanon is like looking at a rash of red that is infecting the country from below. In the U.S., children learn not to eat candy with razor blades sticking out of it, to swish with fluoride, and to turn off the water while we brush our teeth. In Lebanon, children must learn not to play in shattered buildings, or that if they see someone who has been ripped open by a landmine not to approach, not to call an ambulance, but to call the army to clear a path for an ambulance. They must also learn that if they find themselves in a possible field of landmines they must wait there calmly, unmoving, until help arrives. Our mission is to present this serious information in a silly enough light that children will pay close attention and remember forever. But also to demolish our western expectations of the middle east, share cultures, and administer the war’s only antidote: compassionate joy. Clowns Without Borders.