Home of the ships of Tarshish

The northern harbour of Tyre. Not as illustrious as when the island city was conquered by Nebuchadnezzar and later Alexander the Great, but a charming place to spend a day…

boat building in Tyre/Sour harbour

boat building in Tyre

…stepping over Roman pillars in the sand, strewn with tile fragments old and new, and imagining the once-famous ships of Tarshish.

The patriarch and the pecking order

Lebanese family time

family time

Beyond the obvious differences in the traditional roles of men and women, living in a society where basic rights depend on gender holds the occasional eyeopener. I have become accustomed to people assuming I don’t work, don’t drive, and do 100% of the cooking. I wasn’t overly surprised to be receive consoling comments about expecting a girl. But although many Lebanese women do work and drive, these stereotypes are not on their way to oblivion.

There has been recent coverage in local media of the fact that women are not able to open bank accounts for their children. The father must be present at the bank to carry out the required formalities. It is also true that a domestic worker cannot open a bank account for herself alone. She needs permission from her employer.

I wonder if permission of the mistress of the house is enough or whether she needs the patriarch’s signature. This could mean a married Lebanese woman has more authority over her maid than her own children, while the domestic worker is actually taking a maternal role with the kids. Its a particularly confusing pecking order especially if the kids start ordering the maid around as of age six.

On a visit to a new gynaecologist I was buzzed in and stood for a moment or two waiting to see if I would be registered first or if I should take a seat on the leather couches. After a moment the receptionist looked up. Her first words were: “What is your husband’s name?” The main identifier for my pregnancy health record. I noted also that the nursery on the maternity ward at one hospital, full of tiny babies in tiny beds, bore a notice restricting access to “mothers and husbands only”.

I knew that a family head could claim a daughter as a dependant until marriage, regardless of her age, and after marriage should she become a widow, while boys cease to be declarable after 18 or after their education ends. But I only recently discovered that while a man can claim a tax rebate for his non-working wife and any children, a working woman with an unemployed husband can claim neither for him, nor for any children. Not much consolation in the fact that her wages would be lower than a man’s anyway so she would not be taxed so much.

It’s not exactly a thriving stay-at-home dad culture. Having said that, since my husband and I work from home anyway, people seem to think we are both going to be stay-at-home parents, which is not quite the same thing. But never mind, we can always hire a foreigner to be our 24-hour nanny, cook and cleaner at rates so low as to make it nearly look like a good option to have a stranger sharing our flat and bringing up our kids. But not quite.

My new-found paranoia

construction workers beirut

carefree construction

Each stage in life provides a very different window on the world. I am sure as a child I would have found Beirut to be a fantastic playground – all those empty properties to explore, the crumbling stairways to nowhere, the tightrope impressions to be had from the occasional remaining beam in a first floor. When I moved here, Beirut was for me the object of study, and I the student and observer, examining and dissecting the culture and language.

Recently, however, Lebanon became an altogether more scary place, a place of danger. No, I’m not taking about the wave of Arab revolutions which have rocked the world or the protests for a secular state. I’m not talking about the AK-47s on every corner or the nagging threat of conflict looking for an opportunity to burst out from the darker corners.

I’m talking about my new-found fear of oily slippy roads, the absence of pavements, the gaping construction craters which cleave the street under your feet overnight without warning or barriers.

Basically, being pregnant has made me suddenly aware of everyday risk -  and for someone who grew up with safety regulations there is a fair amount around if one chooses to see it.

I no longer laud the reactivity of Lebanese drivers as they dodge potholes – instead I curse them as they swerve towards my vehicle, all the while chatting on the phone and waving a cigarette. I no longer see ingenuity in their pavement parking, I frown disapprovingly as I skirt around them with my heavy shopping bags.

Those overflowing flower pots perched precariously on the rail of a fifth floor balcony are waiting to fall and the battle-scarred street cats that watch from all corners are trying to send me their toxoplasmosis parasites by telepathy.

In the service taxis I fume over the lack of safety belts and clutch my bag across my belly as the driver accelerates the wrong way up a one-way hill reckoning that if he goes fast enough, the chances of someone coming round that blind bend and smashing us all to pieces are really quite small.

Instead of camaraderie in the two bus drivers who drive tandem along the motorway to chat through their open windows with barely a glance at the road, I now see laziness and disregard for the human race. Then I think of the fact that most driving licences are bought not earned and I fulminate some more.

I worry that the builders scaling that huge new tower will pay as much attention to building regulations as they do to their own safety – no hard hats, no harnesses, they clamber like monkeys across the structure.

In the downpours I worry about the massive tangles of wires that festoon the buildings and the street lamp that leans drunkenly across the road, waiting for the angle of the wind to be just right to bring down a maximum of cables in one go.

You might say I’ve become just a tiny bit paranoid.

And then I remember the playground. My kids won’t live in the shadow of the faulty infrastructure. They’ll learn to skip around those construction craters and dodge those manic drivers on the way to school. They wont brandish the hand gel and a frown as arms against the outside world. They’ll welcome interaction with it and grow up talking to strangers in the street without a second thought. They’ll learn trust in others from the warm shopkeepers who never short-change you and chatty passers-by who go the extra mile to make sure you arrive exactly where you want to be.

taxis beirut

the more the merrier

They will learn to assess safety for themselves rather than being reined in by regulations, secure but bored. They won’t have their initiative stifled by a morass of restrictions. They’ll grow up fast when it comes to personal responsibility, but not too fast when it comes to some of the more perverse ways of the world.

They will learn to expect the unexpected and to show hospitality at short notice. There won’t be long years when they don’t know how to have a conversation with an adult. They will learn priceless values which have become scarce in the over-sanitised West, safe from armed conflict but entrenched in cynicism.

Driving home from Tyre this weekend I ended up behind a typical 1970s Mercedes taxi packed full with a large family. I counted eleven heads including the driver and a baby in a frilly hat. The exuberance of the many children was evident as they bobbed around the tight space inside and hung out of the windows.

Maybe I can have the best of both worlds. I’ll get a car seat for my little one but I’ll never teach it not to talk to strangers.