Beirut in miniature

As I write, half of Beirut is in the supermarket stocking up for the weekend. The experience will be hurried and crowded and reminiscent of this time last year and every big holiday before that, when the same shoppers swore, “Never again.”

But there are a couple of variations on the theme, because there are two types of supermarket in the city. There’s the gleaming new complexes with floors so clean you could eat your purchases off them, the type that I wrote about previously. Then there are the local supermarkets, a bit smaller, somewhat cheaper, and a lot more higgledy piggledy.

If you were to wake up from some deep sleep in one of the glam superstores, it would take you a while to work out you were in Lebanon, surrounded as you are by American cake mixes, Australian mangoes, Marmite and rice vinegar.

But the second kind, as my astute brother-in-law put it, is Beirut in miniature. The aisles weave between generously overladen shelves, and when the shelves run out the goods are stacked on the floor, piles of tins listing gently towards vats of olives, which are double parked alongside the crates of eggs. Shoppers squeeze through narrow gaps only to find themselves up against a wall of flat bread or of toilet rolls in a dead end having to reverse out.

Here and there, with the Bonne Maman conserve and Hershey’s chocolate bars, you happen upon an incongruous touch of the west just like in the city at large. Bystanders – who can only be staff – tap their cigarettes on ashtrays and chat and watch the comings and goings just as the military men on the streets watch and wait and smoke.

And as in town there’s always someone to help out with directions; in the Hikme branch of Charcutier Aoun its a kindly gentleman who greets you as you descend the stairs to the lower level, eager to make your shopping experience more successful by guiding you around the goods. He’ll even help you park your trolley if you need it.

By the sea

The cold bright weather has been fantastic for walks – like this wonderful coastal promenade near Solidere that my in-laws introduced us to.

beirut downtown promenade

a small boy against a big backdrop

Just head north of the Beirut Souks across a bit of wasteland and some heaps of gravel, past the little guard hut with the guard feeding a cat, until you get to a stick man reaching for the sky. In the middle of nowhere, but in the centre of town.

stick man downtown beirut

stick man

Weighing in on weight

A fellow mummy blogger recently raised the prickly question of whether being told you’ve put on weight is a good or a bad thing in Lebanon. In my decidedly bump-shaped past 12 months I’ve certainly had my fair share of comments about weight gain, weight loss and a surprising number of stages in between. Yet with all people have to say about it, it is not easy to detect the general attitude towards weight, as Beautiful Feet says.

Clearly, a more ample figure is the norm here. By that I don’t mean that the Lebanese are bigger in general than, say the English or the Americans. But what is held up to be acceptable is bigger. Whatever the average weight of your woman-on-the-street in the UK, models on billboards or in magazines are invariably thin. Adverts in Lebanon usually show an altogether more realistic kind of weight – though I won’t comment on the realism of specific features since by all accounts and visible evidence plastic surgery is far more common here than in Europe.

On the one hand I have been chided for not being fatter, as if I was letting myself waste away, which I assure you is pretty nigh impossible given the scrumptious Lebanese cuisine and my love of food in general.

On the other hand, I’ve heard people being told in no uncertain terms that they are fatter than they used to be and ought to lose weight. A Lebanese friend got me in her kitchen and lined me up next to her daughter-in-law to quiz us on our height and weight and pointed out – in the sweetest, most genuine manner you can imagine – that said daughter-in-law ought to return to the size she was on her wedding day. Fortunately they have one of those Ruth and Naomi kind of in-law relationships or there could have been sparks.

Once I began gaining pregnancy weight, people seemed happier about my figure. It was nice to put people at ease – I must be normal now I was procreating and fleshing out. They made many a gesture to map the changes in my face and body to demonstrate exactly what it was they saw an improvement in. They even congratulated me for piling on the pounds at times when the scales showed no difference, as if they wanted to find something nice to say even if there was no real change.

Yet a gynaecologist I visited patted me on the bulging stomach and congratulated my husband on not marrying a “grosse patate”. It all seems quite random. And that made me think of what a wise Lebanese friend told me regarding relationships this weekend. She said, “We say a lot but it doesn’t mean a great deal; you say just a word and it really matters. In the end, it boils down to the same thing.”

And she’s right. People here comment on your weight like they comment on the weather or the likelihood of war – both small talk topics. It’s no big deal. Tomorrow they might have changed their mind. In any case they don’t expect you to take it to heart.

Beautiful Feet asks if people would really comment on weight gain to your face if they thought it was a bad thing. And I think that’s the difference – if we notice a “bad thing” about a person it means we expect them to do something about it. Telling people that we think something about them is “bad” would mean insulting them. It’s not our business – ever. But that isn’t the case in the Levant. It’s like the English complaining about the rain. We don’t actually expect it to have an effect on the weather; we accept that the clouds will do as they please, just like people tend to.

While in the West we nurture a growing number of new social taboos, the Lebanese maintain the traditional ones but are free with their opinions on everything else. All it really means is that they have opinions (don’t we all?) and that they cared enough to notice.

One thing is sure – you don’t need to go around worrying about what people are thinking here. They come right out and tell you. It takes some getting used to, but saves the nervous energy spent on all that guesswork.

Nationwide Firewall?

I just witnessed some funny behaviour on my Ogero Internet connection. Any website I hit would return a message saying that access was denied due to “policy” and invites me to contact Ogero for assistance. I called Ogero and they immediately acknowledged the problem and said they were working on fixing it.

Fair enough. But I can’t help but think they’re installing some kind of nationwide firewall filtering what web sites we may or may not visit. There has been much talk about the “Great Firewall of China”. Is Lebanon following in China’s footsteps? Once they sort out their configuration so that the established policy rules don’t block all sites indiscriminately, I wonder what sites will remain censored.

Has anyone else out there faced similar problems with their Internet connection?