Now you see it…

Over the past year I have often gazed at a lone house on the slopes of Achrafieh. It is only a lone house by a matter of a few meters, but the tufts of green undergrowth separate it out from the background of concrete colour blocks of flats which flank it. And while bright laundry decorates the balconies of the flats, this house stands quiet and pensive, the door ajar, the window panes gone. Still, it is a perfect foursquare house just waiting for someone to clear out any winged squatters and smarten it up.

Some weeks ago I noticed some roof tiles had come away, exposing the rafters. I checked it anxiously after a stormy night, but nothing had changed. Then, a few sunny days later, there was a gaping hole in the roof. The hole spread a little down the façade day by day. On Tuesday I noticed some men inside through the glass-less windows. As I watched, some bricks were pushed off the first floor and tumbled down the hill. They must be checking out the damage, I thought, or perhaps trying to make it safe so nothing big falls on the neighbours.

On Wednesday they were there again. I could see them clearly because the holes in the façade were bigger. Only this time I watched for a while. They moved from room to room, hitting at the battered window frames and outer wall. With a pole one worked to dislodge large stones in the wall on the ground floor. With the support weakened he was then able to knock down more of the first floor wall.

By now it looked like so many of the property ruins hit by mortar shells or rockets during the war. Except it wasn’t. Every day since they have been back to accelerate the erosion of the house.

When a beautiful property in my neighbourhood was bulldozed and replaced by a strip of black tarmac (aka a carpark), I asked the neighbours about it. The storekeeper next door assured me it would be replaced by a new building but that the planning permission would take around five years. What about knocking the place down? I wanted to know. Did anyone get permission for that? The storekeeper was shocked. Of course the developer had had to get permission. One couldn’t get away with such a thing in town. Still, I’ve heard of such things happening.

So now I am wondering why these two men turn up every day, haphazardly knocking the support out from under this roof, then disappear, leaving gravity and the elements to make a difference overnight. Bulldozer access might be difficult, not to mention expensive. But even if the plan was to demolish the building by manpower rather than machines, surely they would come with some tools – a sledgehammer for example. Is the owner really just trying to save money? If you can’t fit machinery up the passageway for the demolition, how will they bring in the machinery necessary to build on the land when the rubble is cleared?

Perhaps someone out there knows this place in Mar Mikhael and has an answer.

Social graces in Lebanon

dogs in Lebanon

eat nicely, kids

As a newcomer in a foreign culture, the last thing you want is to make some major gaffe that shocks the social sensibilities of your host country.

In France I soon learnt to keep my hands on the table rather than my lap at dinner and to wait for the hostess to start for each course before tucking in. However, it’s not unheard of to rest one’s elbows on the table with good friends in a French brasserie, something which would have some English hosts raising eyebrows.

Social etiquette and class distinctions differ from one place to another, sometimes in obvious ways, sometimes in subtle ways which sneak up on you and pull the rug out from under your feet just when you thought you had perfected the book-on-your-head walk or local equivalent. I mean, who knew that one was always supposed to put an uneven number of cheeses on the cheeseboard?

So what are the rules for the gentlefolk of Lebanon? And what are considered indications of true class? They’re quite different from anywhere I’ve lived before, it seems, since eating with your fingers out of communal dishes is a perfectly normal custom, and talking about the digestive process with company is not unusual – or is that just the company I keep?

Such things are hard to define, the very essence of a class system being exclusive by nature. Otherwise it would be too easy to play the game. And it is getting even harder to define as certain pleasures and privileges become accessible to new groups of society.

In Britain, ever since plumbers began earning more than professors, the deeply entrenched class system has taken some serious knocks. Still it has refused a graceful decline, and any Brit worth his salt can find a million minor reasons why someone living in the same row as theirs might have the same income level, but not the same social standing.

In France, so much social protocol is associated to food and eating. If one has an education, one does not drink Coke at mealtimes – or any other carbonated drinks for that matter, save Perrier. French guests wait to be seated or served, and never think of mopping up sauce with bread, using their fork with the right hand or raising knife to mouth.

In Britain, however, judgements will fly over the way one speaks, especially the accent, and the way one greets others. As a result, the French find the English uncouth because they have fewer table manners, while the English find the French rude because waiters, shop assistants and basically the entire service sector fails to reach British standards of civility.

Here in Lebanon I have also heard many remarks about “backcountry” accents – because in a country half the size of Wales there’s still room for regional accents. Of course there’s the added complexity of multiple languages to play with too, and this can certainly be a snob factor – proficiency in the intricacies of literary Arabic for Muslims and impeccable French for Christians. Even the Achrafiens catch themselves from time to time with a self-deprecatory chuckle, remembering that “in Paris, even the dustbin men speak French.”

So perhaps for the Lebanese class is judged more by how people talk than how they eat. But hospitality and gifting are also etiquette minefields. So far the only golden standard I have found is: always exceed expectations. It is a difficult rule to apply and one that seems more linked to income bracket than to traditional class distinctions. The Lebanese speak of a proliferation of nouveaux riches, as the customary Levantine lavishness climbs to new heights.

So is it still important to avoid appearing brash, a trait which would mean the undoing of any social-climber in the French perception of refinement? Or does that not matter so long as you serve up three types of meat and five side dishes, sandwiched between soup and dessert, and insist your guests stay at least two hours longer than you wanted them to?

How do the Lebanese really view class? What are the perceived offences of the lower classes? Are they happy to dismiss such old-fashioned elitist concepts in favour of a more American meritocratic ideal? Or is that a joke in a country of corruption and wasta?

In the meantime, what terrible faux-pas am I making as a foreigner here? What is making my hosts wince and my guests squirm? I don’t yet know. They are too polite to tell me. I no doubt have plenty of cringing to do when I find out.

Streets of Beirut XXXIV

Like the Phoenicians, the Lebanese are specialists in the import-export business.

Beirut port: import-export

the port

If you want to live in Lebanon but bake with American cake mix, wear Italian sunglasses and drive the latest BMW, it’s all there – at a price.