Mundane luxuries

And here’s the text of the piece the BBC aired in September, or you can listen here.

There is an old saying here in the Middle East that a woman’s grave remains open for forty days after childbirth; so I guess now is a good time to reflect on my recent experience of the maternity ward of a large hospital here in Beirut.

That’s far from the only adage I’ve heard over the last nine months. Folk wisdom is held in higher esteem than white coats and I was warned against a great many evils, from ketchup to crossing my legs. My local well-wishers spurned modern ultrasound and confidently told me the baby’s gender, basing their conclusions on what I ate and whether I looked more or less attractive than pre-pregnancy. Admittedly, their gender predictions were only wrong half the time. The few who were not categorical invariably told me, “Inshallah it’s a boy, God willing.”

Given this traditional social backdrop, I wasn’t sure what to expect during my brief hospital stay for the delivery, so I dropped by for a tour of the facilities. The façade was shiny and modern, though the effect was somewhat undermined by signs warning visitors that: “Firearms are strictly forbidden in the hospital”. In the delivery suite I innocently asked the doctor whether there would be a mirror on the day to see the crowning as in some European hospitals. “No,” he told me, deadpan, “that’s what you get for giving birth in the third world.”

The irony became apparent when the midwife showed me round the accommodation options, which have clearly been borrowed from a hotel brochure. “There’s first class, second class, junior suite and VIP,” she said. “The top-end rooms boast a separate sitting room, a fridge, a PC, Wi-Fi and a webcam.” I looked at the plaque on the door of the sitting room marking it as the exclusive reserve of the patient’s guests. “That must help keep all those visitors out of your way,” I suggested, and she made a face.

“What’s the no-frills option like?” I asked. She showed me rooms shared by two beds with an en suite loo and the shower down the corridor. Not exactly hardship. Still, what would people think? In death, perhaps, all are equal, but for the Lebanese, social distinction is just as important in sickness as in health.

The fact that a hospital does better business by reducing its patient capacity in order to provide hotel-style creature comforts is rather telling. In this tiny country, where first world meets third, luxury has become almost mundane. Extravagance is not just for the rich, the lower middle classes are getting their dose too.

domestic worker Beirut Lebanon

domestic worker takes a brief break

Domestic help epitomises this trend. Here, live-in maids are more common than dishwashers. Unlike the latest Whirlpool appliance, they still work during the daily power cuts and they’ve got a lot more functions. And just like those one-time luxury machines in the West, immigrant workers are now cheap enough in Lebanon for families on a very average income, costing about $200/£150 a month.

But cheap labour is not the only factor behind this generalisation of luxury. Society here feels an overriding need to be seen living the high life. The civil war shook up the fortunes of many and new money has been decisive to the way that people have tried to redefine their sense of identity. When dozens of friends and family turn up the day after you’ve given birth – because they will – it now matters that you have a VIP lounge with your name on it and a fridge to store the delicacies they bring. Once home, having hired staff open the door to your guests in a frilly apron is just another way to keep up with the neighbours.

In fact, 24/7 home help is so run-of-the-mill in Beirut that new distinctions are needed to establish one’s social standing, giving free rein to racial prejudice. A Filipina with pale skin and good English may be favoured over a Bangladeshi, while a Malagasy import tops the charts for many who want their children to grow up speaking French.
As I leave the hospital, I give the parking guy my pink ticket – because valet parking isn’t just for posh restaurants and hotels, it’s for anything from corner shops to fast food chains. He expects a decent tip, of course. After all, aren’t all Westerners rich? I wonder what he would think if he knew that back home we park our own cars when we’re not on the bus, and that most people giving birth share a ward with another three to five women.

Thinking back, as my grave prepares to close again, I reckon there are harder places to dodge death for forty days.

Public space and personal questions

Here’s the text of the piece I had broadcast by the BBC back in May. You can also listen to it here.

In a city like Beirut where road intersections are a free-for-all, it is only to be expected that any attempt to regulate public behaviour is regarded by locals with ambivalence. In a country which is used to doing without a government, state intervention is seen as rather incongruous. In fact public space is largely viewed as ‘up for grabs’, ready to be reclaimed for personal interests by the Lebanese spirit of enterprise. The slow lane of the highway, for example, is apparently the ideal place to set up a vegetable stall. Shopkeepers will plant a chair outside their store and fiercely guard the spot for potential clients, in blatant defiance of the nearby parking meter.

Solidere's downtown, Beirut

Solidere's downtown

Likewise, an abandoned plot in Beirut will never stay empty for long. A yawning gap in the street may be the result of 15 years of civil war, but it only takes a man with a plastic chair and a chipboard sign on which to write his price to convert a patch of urban wasteland into a paid ‘car park’. Having found a suitable spot for his new business, he then packs the cars in bumper to bumper and wing to wing, playing a real-life version of the computer game tetris to optimise every inch.

Real public space is hard to come by in Beirut. Even Beirut’s biggest park, the Pine Forest, has been closed to the general public for years, out of professed fears for its “misuse”. Meanwhile, the wide pavements and pedestrianised streets of the rebuilt downtown belong to the developer Solidere, controlled by the family of Saad Hariri, a prominent business tycoon and political leader. The central business district is, in effect, privately owned which is why the usual stalls don’t colonize the niches as they do in the rest of the city.

Leaving my car in one of those improvised parking lots is always something of a tug of war. I want to keep the keys; the tetris player wants custody of them too, to keep the pieces moving. His nylon bomber jacket, with the words ‘Middle East Security’ blazoned on the back, doesn’t inspire confidence, any more than the hairsbreadth spacing of the cars.

Still, he usually wins. I tell him I’ll be a couple of hours, but he is not yet satisfied. “Where are you going now? Home?

a fairly private park, Horsh Beirut, Pine Forest

a fairly private park

When are you going back out? For dinner?” he asks, garnering as much information as possible on my plans, supposedly so he can judge for himself just how inaccessible he should make my car. Naturally, he asks about the size and welfare of my family whom he hasn’t met.

Of course such questions are not considered personal in Lebanon. It is not only the public sphere which is defined differently from the West; the private sphere is also a much more permeable affair. You can expect to be asked: “Have you put on weight? How much did your car cost? Why is your complexion bad this week?” And that’s just the baker’s wife.

While I’m humouring her, a shadow crosses my shoulder. A basket out of the sky. The baker’s wife hands me a package of thyme flatbreads over the counter. “That’s for Madam upstairs,” she says matter-of-factly. I place them in the basket and watch as the long cord whisks it back up to a lady in a dressing gown on the fifth-floor balcony.

Buying from itinerant vegetable sellers and conversing loudly with the neighbours are also choice balcony activities. Popping out for a paper in one’s pyjamas is a regular occurrence. Unlike the Englishman’s castle, the Lebanese home is evidently not a private refuge. Rather it is an open house which draws in an endless flow of unplanned visitors and exhales everyday scenes which the West keeps behind closed doors. Life spills in through the door, out through the windows and onto the streets.

Yet privacy does exist in Lebanon; it is to be found inside the banks. Not at the counter – where other clients will crowd around you and lean across you in the hope of being served first, just like they do at the baker’s – but behind the scenes. Lebanese banking secrecy is more impenetrable than your average tax haven. In fact, banks here are everything that the Lebanese are not: private, prudent and forward planning.

Jumping through the hoops of banking precaution, you might wonder for a moment if you weren’t in Switzerland. That is, until the advisor asks: “So, when are you going to start a family?” In the end, it’s a relief to see the familiar and affable manner of the Lebanese triumph.