Mentally mapping networks

Streets of Beirut

Upon arrival in Beirut, the most natural thing for us to do was to pick up a map book. In those first hectic weeks, Zawarib Beirut became, if not a trusted guide at least a first resort. True it was published a decade ago so some major junctions are missing, but it was a good start to making sense of the hodge podge of poorly signed potholed streets which remain permanently under construction. When people asked how we were getting on finding our way round, we credited Zawarib Beirut.

“A plan of Beirut?” they exclaim astounded. “Does that even exist?” Sometimes we even have to show them. They leaf through fascinated, as if it were a map of some fictional place. They are baffled by this strange flat cold calm representation of their overheated, writhing, shifting streets and amazed that one would   Read the rest of this entry »

Barbarism and decadence

dusting the traffic lights

Oscar Wilde once quipped that America was the only country to go from barbarism to decadence without civilization in between. Lebanon, it could be said, has swung from civilisation to civilisation with barbarism and decadence at every turn, from the Phoenecians who are claimed to have invented the alphabet down to today’s technophile bling-addicts.

Every day the population faces a black out of three to six hours, but the Virgin Megastore in the rebuilt downtown is open til midnight. Adverts for four-door refrigerators line the highway, where, in equally disproportionate measure, beat up old bangers with bits dropping off rub shoulders with Jaguars, Maseratis, Porsches, Ferraris. The political situation is unpredictable, sometimes balancing on a knife-edge above the abyss of civil conflict, but consumerism triumphs over all as the Lebanese focus on long-term issues such as nose jobs and  Read the rest of this entry »

Curb-crawling competition

private public transport

While France fights tooth and nail to maintain its state-run monopolies, begrudgingly shuffling into line with EU directives on free markets with a decade’s delay, the Lebanese, where possible, take matters into their own hands when it comes to creating healthy competition. The transport system, if it can be called such, is a prime example. The small number of buses run by the main operator are kept on the ball by a bigger number of vehicles run by any old chap who buys a minivan and sticks a number on his windscreen and runs the same routes – but more frequently – for the same flat fee, 1,000 LL per trip whatever the distance. So the locals have created private public transport. That is to say, you still get the crowded grubby experience, but it actually works. The minibus drivers crawl the curbs with the door open, honking and slowing just enough to lip-read  Read the rest of this entry »

Ginger bears are still bears

Inside the small beauty salon about six employees are painting each others’ toenails. They look like they were playing nurses and doctors about five years ago, but now their uniforms are pink and the plastic stethoscope has been replaced by an orange stick. The biggest of the girls actually notices my arrival and comes to check my appointment, then designates one of her underlings in pink to deal with me.

The girl is not pleased at having her pedicure interrupted. She manages not to roll her eyes and hauls herself from the customer’s armchair, gesturing lazily to a tiny cubicle directly off the main room. Getting waxed is not the most entertaining way to spend a half hour as it is. I slip off my sandals and swing my legs onto the narrow bed, hiking up my long denim skirt. I apologise about my dusty feet which jut awkwardly out at the end of the bed. She looks at them in wonderment.
How did they get like that?
I’ve been walking, I say.
Oh, she says uncomprehendingly.
Outside the mall, I feel it is necessary to add, you know, in the street.
Oh, she repeats, none the wiser. Then moves her attention to my legs.
But why are you here? she objects. You have no hair.   Read the rest of this entry »