Yesterday, organising a last minute dinner party, our efforts were somewhat hampered by a sudden inability to contact people by phone. After checking our credit, trying two mobiles and the land line and still failing to get a ringing tone, we looked at each other and said simultaneously: check the news. It’s at times like this I remember that I very irresponsibly still haven’t gotten round to registering my presence here with the British Embassy.
These moments also remind me of my first visit to Lebanon, when gun battles broke out and Hizbollah militia occupied the western part of central Beirut and closed the airport. We were just getting accustomed to the dry patter of AK47s in the distance when, during dinner at friends, we were startled by a significantly closer string of explosions. Rushing to the window we were confronted, ironically, with fireworks.
The Lebanese don’t let much spoil their party mood. And locals can tell fireworks from gun battles and gun battles from mere celebratory gunfire (ie, the only casualties will be from stray bullets) in less time than it takes to jump up and check Naharnet or Google news. But we weren’t the only ones who stirred from the sofa. Every lit window in sight framed a silhouetted figure who emerged from the warm light to scour the dark neighbourhood for few moments before drifting away.
Risk is something the Lebanese have become as accustomed to as the sound of traffic, a background annoyance which waxes and wanes over time and is usually kept at a subconscious level. Living in Lebanon means living with a quiet undertone in your head making calculations about the time it would take to get you to the airport, which direction to head in if the airport is closed and many other unanswerable questions. The inner voice rarely gets insistent, but when it does, such as when the airport is already closed, fireworks may also make you jump.
This time round the sudden collapse of the mobile networks coincided with the death of the Grand Ayatollah Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, Lebanon’s leading Shi’ite cleric. The wildfire spread of this news may have caused the mobile blackout, unless it was just another infrastructure failure. However, the passing of this major public figure unlike that of others, provoked no violence, only grief.
By the time our guests were in the neighbourhood searching for our flat, mobile communications were back to normal and large amounts of fatayer bi-sbanikh and samboussek soon smothered any half-conceived notions we might have had about going anywhere fast.
Pitting daily preoccupations such as food and celebrations against the bigger picture of political instability is a tried and tested survival method for the Lebanese, fortifying their customary sang-froid and keeping them sane enough to react quickly when the ever-threatened dangers actually do materialise.