Go tell the storm

The first storm of the season had us in darkness. There was some issue with the generator too. In Europe they say power cuts are often followed by a baby boom, the result of a change from the norm, dinner by candlelight, the impossibility of getting on with more mundane chores.

Here in Lebanon it isn’t much of a change from the norm but still an evening power outage in the past would have led to dinner out and long conversations over dessert about the intricacies of Lebanese dining habits or hosting etiquette and likely a couple of posts, maybe even one worth sending off to those nice people at the BBC who have always been quick to air a good piece. Now it just leads to me cooking dinner by candle light, baby in arms, trying not to trip over her “toys” (tupperwares) spread across the floor. And above all trying not to singe her on the matches, gas stove or candles.

But I still love thunder storms, and so does my Beirut baby. The proof is, the lightning-thunder sequence now has a third step. It goes Flash…Boom…”encore!” How to tell my baby that if I could control the weather then I’d also have the lights turn back on…

Famous already

Lebanon language

fridge magnets

One of my lovely readers recently alerted me to the fact that my blog was listed among the top 101 blogs in Lebanon on thewebsite of a couple of funny Norwegians who aim to get famous here in the Leb. I can’t say I blushed with pride. They really scraped the barrel to pull up that many blogs in the first place. But I was happy to learn that I was “already famous”. In fact this rather tickled me as I’m sure all my readers came across this blog by pure chance. Apart from my family, of course, who got press ganged into it.

Still it’s just as well I don’t have to keep climbing that celebrity ladder.  I’m not sure how I’d fit it in. Lately I seem to spend my days passing from room to room at a half trot, bent double to scoop up the blocks, rings, stacking cups and you name it that pretty much carpet the house . This week I threw the first big invitation in a long time. I made a whole batch of chocolate cherry cupcakes with a fridge magnet stuck to the bottom of my foot because I didn’t have time to peel it off.

When people ask what kind of impact the “situation” is having on us, I tend to say not much. Because Lebanon is the queen of life going on. Try throwing a bawling spewing vulnerable little bundle into the house that learns new tricks and new demands every day (and night). Now that’s what you call an impact.

But actually the increasing tension in the region has changed my days a fair bit, as it spurred me to action on two quite major fronts which have eaten up more of my time since the latest assassination. First, we’ve know that while a warzone might be fine for the childless footloose fancy-free types we once were, now we want a plan B for when it blows. A serious family-friendly plan B please. I cannot bear the idea of leaving Lebanon, but the way things are it demands serious consideration.

Second, if there were one thing worse than leaving Lebanon, it would be leaving after several years here having NOT LEARNED THE LANGUAGE. Yes I understand a lot and can hold very basic conversations, yes I can decipher signs so I know where parking is mamnou3 (everywhere and nowhere). But that isn’t the same thing as talking the talk. Will I become like those wonderfully naive Americans I used to cross paths with in Paris who tell you – I understand French, I just don’t speak much… and need help to buy their metro tickets.

So…my Beirut baby’s precious nap-times (now reduced to one short stint a day) are dedicated to these two goals. Any kind of concentration at any other moment of the day is impossible. If you’ve got any tips on learning the lingo on a tight schedule, comments are open.

Bomb damage

Achrafieh Beirut bomb assassination

bomb damage


Shutters still hang from the buildings near the explosion and glazing firms are busy replacing shop windows in surrounding streets.

The flurry of phone calls right after the incident really got me thinking. Since it was the leading story for many European media, I expected the odd call from family abroad, but not so many from locals who know the area well and know we are at least a ten-minute walk from the site. We know several families living closer than us, and we didn’t think to call them. I mean what are the chances that they be affected. Most of all I’d feel embarrassed, as if I was searching for someone with a gory story, wanting to be part of the drama.

But here it is clearly a habit that goes back decades now. Bad news followed by a systematic ring-round of all your acquaintances. Just a quick matter-of-fact call to check and compare stories. Not because the probability is high but just to rule it out…and show you care. I’m sure if I had lived through the conflicts of Lebanese recent history I would do it. It was touching to think that so many people thought of us at all.


Good brunch – but not quite to die for

Earlier today in Beirut as I made my way to Sassine for brunch with my 15-month old we passed yet another high-rise construction site called Embassy II. The floor plans show the usual cluster of vast living rooms, en suite bathrooms and tiny maid’s rooms. They’re accompanied by the tag-line “Your passport to luxury city living.”

An hour after leaving Sassine, I was back home, thinking about Lebanese business concepts which have filled a real gap in the market, like Beirut.com and Zawarib. You can’t think about business or any kind of investment in Beirut without pondering the instability of investments in a country which one pundit or another invariably puts on the brink of war. Ironic then that my thoughts are interrupted by a huge blast followed by the wail of ambulances. Soon the land line, the mobiles, and Skype were alive with friends and family checking for our vital signs. A couple of hours later, Naharnet, the source which seems to get news out the fastest, put the toll at 8 dead and 78 wounded in a car bomb just off Sassine.  Then their website got too overloaded to load. I’m glad I abandoned the idea of staying at Sassine to shop after kneife because my Beirut baby was so sleepy.

Yesterday I was sent this article in The Spectator on why one Lebanese has had enough of the frailty of life in Beirut. Unlike him, I haven’t lived through three wars. I was only on holiday here in May 2008 when gun fights sprang up like leaks in a plastic bag and Hizbollah took control of West Beirut. I don’t get war jitters like some who have lived through it. In fact that was my only trip here before deciding to move here and it didn’t put me off in the slightest. I didn’t even learn the Arabic for bomb until today – a good sign to be sure. But I’m no longer seized by the desire to head straight back up to Sassine to check the situation out. I have Beirut baby to think about. Frankly, worrying about her tripping as she toddles about on her little legs so soon after her first steps is as much as I want to handle.

The news now is that the head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Internal Security Forces was the target of the car bomb. The BBC says its the deadliest attack since May 2008. Still, on a purely selfish level it’s almost a relief to know that it was, as always in Lebanon, an attack with a specific target, a typical assassination. Doesn’t that make it less likely for innocent bystanders and their babies to get caught up in the violence than in countries where terrorism is more random? It’s not a relief for Lebanon though.

Some may be willing to put a million dollars into the Embassy II development, and maybe it will prove to be their passport to luxurious city living. But it might just as well give them a better view than they ever wanted over a brand new conflict on their doorstep. As Michael Karam points out in his very personal article, the third world affords certain luxuries which are hard to come by in the West, such as live-in home help at laughably low rates. But I think a lot of dual-citizen Lebanese out there are wondering whether they should be using their back-up nationality, their non-Lebanese passport, to get themselves a normal life elsewhere, instead of the sometimes luxurious but unstable life they lead in Lebanon. Others may be gritting their teeth as they knuckle down to a difficult period from which they have no escape.

City edges

rugs at Borj Hamoud slum

better than a 'welcome' doormat

These were taken where Borj Hamoud meets the coastal highway just as you leave Beirut heading north. It’s a Christian area. A trail of battered Persian rugs makes for some kind of entrance to the cluster of low buildings, small enough to walk around in a few minutes.







unanswered questions

unanswered questions


Most are partly destroyed houses, with walls and roofs replaced by aluminium sheets or tarpaulin. Red question marks are painted on the walls. Elsewhere there are black crosses. I don’t know the history of this slum and why or how these people ended up here.






at home

at home


The washing lines are full of kids clothes and there’s a large paddling pool in a clearing which looks like a communal area.







Mayella's geraniums?

Mayella's geraniums?


A splash of colour in all the concrete.








summertime partitions

summertime partitions


The living space of these homes will be drastically reduced when the rains come. Pegged up sheets won’t cut it and few of the roofs look even remotely watertight.







one man's junk is another man's livelihood

one man's junk is another man's livelihood


This looks like the main bartering yard for the neighbourhood. In an alley a man and a women were carefully sorting through a plastic bowl of lighters and other small finds from the dump. Necessity is the mother of recycling.