Playing house

No-one can say that people here don’t recycle.

park beirut

park hut

Clearly the park guardian didn’t feel his little sentry hut was spacious enough. So he built himself a new hang-out with couches and coffee. Reminds me of a Wendy house we kids would erect to play in when we were very little. Anyone else remember those? Ours was rather wobbly and second-hand, a bit like this one.

Organising chaos

Beirutis like to apply the term “organised chaos” to their city. Just “chaos” works too.

Beirut rooftops

organising chaos

But it’s wonderful to see this lovely lady doing her bit to tidy up the mishmash of Beirut’s rooftops. No mean feat, especially at 30 degrees Celsius.

Ten things I’ll never tire of in Lebanon

Lebanese fruit in season

cherries on ice

  1. That huge tree which grows out of the ‘autostrade’ heading out of town, its roots pushing up the tarmac in the slow lane. Yes, the Lebanon has lost a lot of green and quite a few cedars, but this one old tree (a plane I think) is willing to take on the motorway. It’s so big you can actually see it on Google maps satellite view.
  2. How people are so enterprising and imaginative whatever their circumstances. I love that people display their goods on the roof of their car and that the parking attendant uses a plastic water bottle as a lampshade.
  3. Stairs. The narrow stairways linking winding streets, the stairways to nowhere, the outside stairways of three-storey family homes, the stairs that are no longer there.
  4. How people are so down-to-earth. It’s great to hear people say what they think.
  5. That people dress up. Am I being contradictory? I just love that the Lebanese dress up for events – even the down-to-earth ones.
  6. Wondering about the lives of houses which have been rent apart and exposed by rockets, by weeds and neglect, or by modern construction, so that the kitchen tiles now plaster the outside wall and the stairway is just a two-dimensional paint mark climbing the bricks.
  7. Fruits in season – any and all.
  8. The way people go out of their way for you – far, far out of their way.

    Lebanese fruits in season


  9. Being able to spend three quarters of the year outside – on the balcony, on terraces, in the mountains, by the sea, in the valleys…
  10. That people adore children. It still surprises me when 20-year old male waiters coming running over begging to hold my baby, and it’s always a bit weird when they walk off with her to introduce her to the rest of the staff, but it’s wonderful not to feel the weight of frowns all round when you enter a café.

The instincts of a slave

I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that for someone growing up in Lebanon who has never travelled abroad, it’s hard NOT to be “racist” to a degree. Don’t shoot me just yet. By “racist” here I mean to make prejudiced assumptions about how much money a customer has to spend or what job a person holds based on their skin colour.

Socio-racial apartheid is a fact in Lebanon. Almost all Sri Lankans, Filipinos and Africans one might see in Lebanon are domestic workers, doormen or garbage men. That means they come to Lebanon on a specific working visa and have few rights and low wages. It’s easy to form stereotypes. In fact I’ve spoken to tourists who have been mistaken for domestic help because of their ethnic origin.

maid texting downtown beirut

In uniform or not, always a maid in Lebanon

I am tempted to say this is racism based on classism: Maybe a store owner will bend over backwards if he thinks you are a rich tourist, whatever your ethnic origin, but if he assumes you cannot possibly be a rich tourist (informed by his pitifully limited experience) then he won’t pay you much attention.

After all, pretty much any black person the shopkeeper has ever seen is earning a pittance doing menial chores. Even in the West we accept non-racial classism as a fact of life, albeit an unpleasant one.

But it’s one thing to assume another can’t afford your services and another thing altogether to refuse them on the basis of race.

A Lebanese friend took her Sri Lankan friend to the hairdresser the other day (pause for the Lebanese readers to get their heads round that one). Not a big posh chain, just one of those small corner places. In fact she took her to five salons, and one after another refused to cut her hair because she’s Sri Lankan.

One said he’d lose all his customers if they saw him. Clearly he felt that not one of those customers would be concerned that he turn a paying customer away on socio-racial grounds.

But many Lebanese have tasted life abroad in countries where such behaviour is not only socially unacceptable, but criminal. Ignorance still breeds there too though, and many Lebanese have faced a share of prejudice and conceit in the States or in England, where people assume that Lebanon is a dusty, dirty desert where women are whipped for flashing an ankle.

But perhaps the worst of it is that many of these return with their own prejudices intact. They may pride themselves on their studies abroad, on their foreign passports, and (oh the irony) on having a higher level of “civilisation” than their compatriots. But poor un-travelled Lebanese aren’t more racist. If anything they are more human.

Of course some good hearts with a strong sense of justice are sickened to return to their homeland and find it stuck in the sixties with regard to interracial relations.

As for the others, after struggling in the US with misconceptions of their beautiful country being a terrorist-infested hole with camels as currency, they are relieved to return to a life where they have a guaranteed three layers of social strata beneath them. And they’re not going to let go of that in a hurry.

Because part of the reason foreign workers are so common in families and businesses is that people need to feel important. More important than the neighbours, more important than the workers, more important in the eyes of Western friends.

In the UK or the US it is no longer possible to guess a person’s job from their skin colour. But it’s not something to congratulate ourselves on. It took decades of anti-discrimination law. Attitudes changed very slowly. Were the law not enforced the west would slip backwards. Here in Lebanon, legislation is not even on the side of minorities. With foreign workers viewed more or less as property in the eyes of the law, attitudes in society have a long way to go. Don’t even get me started on law enforcement.

Seeing some battle with their own complexes reminds me of what I recently read about Antonius Felix, once governor of a Roman province here in the Near East. A former slave, he used his connections to climb the ladder of influence. As procurator, he earned such a reputation for cruelty and self-indulgence, it was said he “wielded the power of king with all the instincts of a slave”. In the Western world they so admire, the Lebanese know they may face disdain from some; but back home they are king.