Cheap cheeps

loudspeaker running a stall

Souq al-ahad, or the Sunday market, actually open on Saturdays too, is held under an overpass next to Nahr Beirut. It sells a wide range of dodgy and delicious goods, from electronics made in both Germany and China (the fruit of some over-enthusiastic counterfeiters) to fat juicy olives. This is the place where self-respecting Lebanese stock up on the latest dvds, some not even officially released yet. No pretence is made about their source; as we browse the titles, a new shipment of pirated copies arrives and they are duly sorted into cases and matched up with their freshly printed covers. This type of down-to-earth fraud is almost comforting in contrast with the upmarket artifice of the Western-style supermarkets and malls.

Unlike the souqs of Marrakech, this market  Read the rest of this entry »

The naming game

Ministry of Finance

A fortnight after we started working, we returned once again to the Finance Ministry hoping to pick up the completed papers confirming our status as self-employed. We’ve become accustomed to the place and its local circuits, as they send us from bureau to bureau, via the café up the hill with a dilapidated inky photocopier (operated with the backup of a spanner) and the tobacconist down the hill who sells official tax stamps. As we pass the various staff members who have bemusedly guided us through the tax regulations, they greet us, Ahlan, welcome. Have you got what you need? How is London?

The stairwell smells of rose water pastries and a tray of plastic coffee cups sits on a ledge with three or four Turkish coffee pots rimmed with tarry sediment. The girls in one office are in stitches over a cockroach which is advancing up  Read the rest of this entry »

Crossing the Litani

grandstand preparations

Last week, Beirut pulled out the stops to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s death and huge spectator stands were erected for the parades and performances downtown. We decided to escape the crowds and roadblocks, and head south for the weekend. We followed the coast until Sidon, Hariri’s home town, and then turned inland past Nabatiye and across the Litani River. Here I brandish proof of my newborn nationality before a sign announcing that foreign nationals need to obtain permission to cross from the Ministry of the Interior.

We stop in a village within sight of Israel. Chickens peck on the grassy verges and sheep graze on the rocky hillsides. Mount Hermon looms white in the dusk. As we wander down the main street, lined with cream stone buildings and various small stores, we realise this is a special kind of village.   Read the rest of this entry »

El Mukhtar

identity cards waiting to be collected

Halfway down one of the flights of steps which links the streets winding up Achrafieh hill, left along to an open courtyard, is the mukhtar. This local official is an intermediary who can do wonders to speed up formalities one might normally complete by oneself – for a fee. This time we are here to pick up proof of my nascent nationality which we have been told is waiting for us.

Through the wrought iron bars of the open window we glimpse various forms in armchairs: the family. Feeling intrusive, we knock. The door opens immediately and a tiny woman steps forward in a dressing gown and tracksuit bottoms with a double stripe down the side. Red painted toenails jut out of her platform sandals, curving over the front edge of the soles.   Read the rest of this entry »

“How do you do” vs “Ma fi baby?”

kids - a vital accessory

Arriving in Beirut, I realised that a reputation for English reserve had gone ahead of me. The fact is that in the light of my initiation to Lebanese society starting in Paris, I discovered that I was abnormally quiet and apparently quite uncommunicative. You know how the English are. At least when they are not being the Brits abroad, drinking and brawling in the street. But it’s one or the other, no middle ground as far as I can tell. A friend picks me up to go out for the evening and in the proximity of the steamed up vehicle she cautiously asks me how things are. “You don’t have to answer,” she hastens to add. I do though; in England we do that, being unreasonably polite. “So is it too forward if I ask what you did with your day?” she asks tentatively. I almost laugh, but that wouldn’t be very English, would it.   Read the rest of this entry »