Good walls make good neighbours

hamra, beirut

the writing on the wall?

Friends and colleagues gasped when I said I was going to spend a year in Lebanon and asked if I’d be obliged to cover my head. Travel forums abound with queries asking time and again – Is it safe? Is it possible to take children? Is it ok to travel alone? These same anxious travellers will soon be wandering down rue Monot being greeted warmly in three languages, or milling among the stilettos, baseball caps, burqas and leopard print of Hamra, or pub hopping along the throbbing Gemmayze strip while pop blasts from the bumper to bumper birthday-gift rag tops.

Lebanon revels in its unique take on straddling the fence between east and west. So open to western influence is it that some scholars are raising concerns over the country’s youth not learning to speak Arabic   Read the rest of this entry »

Didn’t your mother ever teach you…

I have touched on the maze of Middle Eastern protocol previously. From a European standpoint, perhaps the most striking difference in social graces is the Lebanese propensity for staring. Yes, the English stare from time to time and for sure the French do. But when you catch them at it, well, they look as if they’ve been caught at it. The evidence being that they look away. They actually stop staring at least until you are looking in the other direction. Not the Lebanese. They stop in their path, swivel their head with the ease of an owl, and quite literally gape. In Europe you can shame a gawker by meeting their gaze. Not here. Facing up to the unabashed stare only means locking eyes with someone until one of you  Read the rest of this entry »

Les masses à la messe

La Pâques est finie. Pendant cinq jours, les chants réligieux ont remplit les supermarchés alors que la clientèle – que ce soit en robe de prêtre, en habit de bonne soeur ou en hijab – chargeaient tous leurs caddies en anticipation d’un week-end marathon. Les feux d’artifice venant de l’église retentissant de l’aube au petit matin,  Read the rest of this entry »

Masses at mass

rainbow chicks

Easter is officially over. For five days, religious chants filled the supermarkets while shoppers – in priestly frocks, nuns’ habits and hijabs – stacked their trolleys high for a marathon long weekend. Fireworks went off at churches in irregular spurts from early morning through to the wee hours. I wondered if they were lit in return for donations, just like candles but more showy. The accountant sent a text message saying Qam el Messih haqan (in truth Christ has risen) and crowds streamed to and from mass constantly, carrying with them whiffs of incense.

But now the Pepsi stalls which sprang up outside cemeteries are gone and the white shrouds on the large crosses pinned to lampposts  Read the rest of this entry »

Evolving etiquette and revolving mores

a rare case of recycling

Reading Ben Curtis’ post on Notes from Spain entitled Accustomed vs Resigned got me thinking about all the cultural quirks that have been steadily seeping through my perceptive membrane, past conscious irritation, puzzlement or even outright shock, to become part of what I view as normal life. Certain customs and habits have gone from being oppressive or downright unethical to being unremarkable, worthy only of a private chuckle over supper.

For example, my hackles no longer rise if people wish to communicate in front of me in a loud stage whisper. I have accepted that I am not supposed to hear, even if I physically can, and this is not intended to be a base insult.

I am now accustomed to never knowing how many extra people may turn up to my dinner party or when they’ll arrive until they’ve all gone home. I welcome my guests’ guests – their many best friends, distant relatives, people in line to do them a favour and other randoms they bumped into on the way. They are my future new friends.

I am resigned to the fact that I won’t be able to recycle all the household trash. At least I don’t chuck it straight out the window like some do.

I smile politely when people ask me about my kidneys over dinner.

I have accepted that acquaintances will make many attempts to engineer my life and part of the fun is learning to convert the loaded suggestions, personal probings and unsolicited opinions into water off a duck’s back.

I publicly concur that the close Mediterranean family model is, on the whole, very sweet though I draw the line at men who never move out (among other things).

I have accepted that when I give a gift the recipient will open it immediately before my eyes and I will have to cover my cringes and witness their instant uncomposed reaction and I will probably be able to tell if they don’t like it.

I have become accustomed to people I have just met telling me, We miss you! We love you! though I still haven’t worked out the right answer.

I sometimes cooperate with cars behind me who want to squeeze past and run the red light.

I have accepted that if I blush I will suddenly become the centre of attention while all around me discuss the particular shade of red, the depth of the hue and the extent of its spread towards my hairline and ears.

I am accustomed to the fact that when I parallel park a number of men will appear from nowhere to gesture meaninglessly to me because it improves their quality of life to feel indispensable.

I’m relieved that if someone does not know what on earth my gift is meant to be, they will say outright instead of prevaricating. I blush less that way.

I accept – more or less – that from time to time, a devastating breach of privacy will occur and that life goes on.

And I am glad that living in another cultural sphere forces on you a most valuable flexibility of mores. I now know the joy of nipping down a one-way street the wrong way and sometimes I even get in first with the We miss you! onslaught. It’s the best form of defence.

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