Retail therapy for all

maid in mall

Stepping inside one of the spotless modern malls is all it takes to forget the bullet-riddled façades and abandoned shells which still stand witness to the civil war. Beirut has imported this US concept whole and wholeheartedly, right down to the western prices. It is the perfect antidote to realism, the great escape from petty power politics for the world weary. The gleaming shop windows, pristine marble floors and vigorous air conditioning smooth away the discomfort of the grime, the dust, the poverty and the heat outside. Here the high-street stores of London, Paris and Rome ply their western wares to well-off locals and Saudi tourists until late in the evening seven days a week.

Behind each family in the bright shining mall trails a Filipina or a Sri Lankan, or maybe an African girl. She carries the designer brand purchases or pushes the pram, wipes chocolate from chubby grubby fingers, mops the noses of snotty  Read the rest of this entry »

Kings of commerce

business as usual

Fittingly, on Hamra Street, the walk-of-fame style stars in the paving stones are actually signs for businesses, the real heroes of the Lebanese economy. With no major conflict since May 2008, when Hizbollah militia occupied parts of West Beirut, business is booming again and the IMF projected that economic growth in Lebanon would hit 7% in 2009. Fortunately, the Lebanese do not expect much from the government, which staggers on under crippling political dilemmas often sinking into stalemate, such as the six months without a president beginning in November 2007, or the six months without a government following the election of Saad Hariri as Prime Minister in June 2009. In stark contrast with the state, the people of Lebanon are impressively autonomous, flexible and dynamic. They have an inner drive for business, a throwback to Phoenecian times, ready to fill every niche market and jump on any rising trend. Known as a nation of bankers, the Lebanese are true marketers, whatever their line of work. Even the local church advertises upcoming funerals by SMS.

Underneath the bridge

militia camping out in downtown Beirut

In May 2008, Hizbollah militia occupied the west of central Beirut, demanding that the airport head of security – dismissed for alleged links to the resistance party – be restored to his post.  They had been camping out around Place des Martyrs and, when matters escalated, they blocked the route to the airport. In addition to the usual daily three-hour power cuts, the tap water slowed to a trickle and stopped. For my mother-in-law, who fled Lebanon in 1976, a second civil war has already begun. She distributes our ration of two bottles of water for washing and teeth-brushing from her emergency stock in the laundry room. Forgetting that for once the power is working fine, I carefully wash my hands in the dark with the precious water. For several days, gun battles raged in downtown Beirut, Aley and Tripoli, until Hizbollah’s demands were met and they magnanimously handed control back to the Lebanese Army. Meanwhile   Read the rest of this entry »