Bring on the stories

Story telling Beirut Library

Story time

I read somewhere there were only three municipal libraries in all Beirut. If so, I’ve been very fortunate to live where I do. Not only is there a little park within walking distance, but within the park itself is a tiny gem of a library. It’s a great discovery for my Beirut baby who appreciates the books more than the slide and the swings right now.

Last Saturday we finally got to attend the storytelling (thanks to a tip from my friend M.). Adapting to her audience, which grew to at least a dozen kids over the course of the readings, the librarian began with a picture book in French, and then, apologetically, two stories in Lebanese.

She felt bad speaking her mother tongue, and that of all of the kids present, because it was a language my little one wouldn’t understand, as if she ought to speak a European language, as if it was somehow better.

You come across this a lot in Beirut, and it can make it harder to learn Lebanese in two ways. Firstly people assume they ought to speak French or English with you. Their ease with switching languages has helped me out in many a confused situation, and I particularly appreciated understanding and knowing I was understood in hospital when giving birth. But in everyday life I’d much rather people spoke Lebanese to me and am happy when they do.

Secondly, when you ask people a word in Lebanese, they have a habit of telling you a word they never use. Instead of the everyday word, they tell you the classical Arabic. This has happened to me frequently ever since I arrived in Lebanon. Sometimes they tell you the Lebanese but also the Arabic and you end up confused. They’ll say X, then they’ll correct themselves, “but the real/right word is Y.”

 Now I would love to know both languages and I do believe that you need a certain amount of modern standard Arabic if you want to really understand the Lebanese. Of course, it’s vital for reading or listening to the news. But it’s interesting to see how people are reluctant to offer only Lebanese, to tell you the words they really say, the ones they’ve used in everyday life all their life. When people know I’m learning Lebanese they even greet me with Kayfa halouki. That may be what the books say, but I’d rather people greet me in the same way as they do all the other people in the room. I want to learn to talk like them, not some imaginary character in a book.

I didn’t have a name for this phenomenon until I came across this article on linguistic prestige. I just drank it up, because a lot of it applies to exactly the situations I encounter in Lebanon.

The cross-reference to diglossia actually notes that those who are “proficient in the high prestige dialect will commonly try to avoid using the vernacular dialect with foreigners and may even deny its existence, even though the vernacular is the only socially appropriate one for them themselves to use when speaking to their relatives and friends.” You can find more on this in my earlier post But how do YOU say it, together with a link to a fascinating essay on so-called ‘high’ and ‘low’ dialects.

However, the Lebanese are a contradictory bunch, and the opposite is always true for someone. Interestingly, there exists a kind of ‘covert prestige’ in not speaking classical Arabic well for some Christians who favour learning French  – not just as well as Arabic but instead of it.

Although story-telling sessions are common in libraries around the world as a way to entice children into the world of books, I’m especially happy to have found this little group. Not only do we love it but I can only imagine how unappealing reading would be for Lebanese kids when they first try to read a book to find it’s all written in another dialect (or language, by my standards). Even the most basic vocabulary such as pseiné (cat) changes to qatt, not to mention prepositions, plurals and the syntax. Reading clearly isn’t as favoured a pastime as in other countries, and I figure these kids can use a helping hand.

Jeitaoui Library story-telling is at 11am on Saturdays. You can borrow Arabic, English and French books for just 10,000LL for life. Feel free to post where your favourite libraries are.

Lawless land

Out of space?

Out of space?

Just push 'em off the cliff

Just push ‘em off the cliff

Life without rules leads to all sorts of ingenuity and audacity.

Time to go

above Beirut

above Beirut

That’s it. The decision is made. In just over a month we’ll be leaving Lebanon on a one-way ticket. The flights are booked. It seems incredibly sudden and yet we’ve been debating this decision for a year now. The fact that it took us so long to come to a conclusion is some indication of how hard a decision it was.

I would have loved to bring up my kids in a country where melons and green almonds are sold off the back of pick-up trucks, where old men sit on the pavement playing backgammon for hours, where you can tell the season by the stalls outside the grocer’s.

I would have loved for them to learn a language I can’t teach them, a language I can attest is difficult to learn late in life, and particularly hard to learn outside the country.

18 months ago we were still thinking of finding a family home out of town, choosing schools, settling for the long-term. We bought a new car, one which could take the battering of the potholes and poor drainage that had us swishing through water a foot deep on the so-called autostrade.

Back then, I remember reading about a westerner living in Lebanon who chose to stay throughout the July 2006 onslaught. Her loyalty was touching. And a lot of what she said made sense to me. Lebanon has come through a lot worse after all, and signs of trouble are permanent fixtures. Conflict is the small talk of Lebanon like the weather is the small talk of the Brits. Living here you realise that gunfights in the street here or there rarely impact your life. And above all, you invest in Lebanon. Easy to do, in such a warm, spontaneous country. Emotionally, your life is here and you belong here more than anywhere else. If July 2006 had happened in 2010, perhaps we would have stayed.

Post-motherhood, that has all changed. Not so much because of the pressure that has been building outside Lebanon’s borders for two years and is now seeping through. But because of a wriggly little being that has a personality and determination all of her own, and is soon to find her dominion of all things knee-high challenged by a sibling.

Back in September, I did a piece for BBC Radio 4 on how to know when it was time to go. We’ve now reached that time.

With small children, you cannot live as permanent tourists. You can’t be ready to up and leave at a moment’s notice. Because we would, leave that is.

Of course lots of people lived through the war with their kids, some by choice, many by necessity. But the difference is they have family here. The people they are closest to will be here for them throughout and to leave Lebanon would be to abandon them.

Not so in our case. If we stay in Lebanon through thick and thin, we won’t be there for our family when they need us and they won’t be there for us. I want my kids to learn three languages and live multicultural lives; to gorge themselves on swollen kaki and bleeding cherries; to have summers so long they welcome the downpour that soaks to the skin in seconds. But more than that I want them to grow up knowing their cousins, to spend time with their grandparents, to build a life and not have it stolen by some cause that could have been foreseen.

Lebanon is still more home than anywhere else right now. But we belong elsewhere, somewhere nearer family. I’m just not sure where.