There are a few constants to eating out in Lebanon. Fantastic flavours, getting full beyond belief, and – at the end – the big fight over who gets to pay the bill. Treating others is considered an honour and an obligation. It becomes part of the ritual. After the mezze, the meat, the fruit and the cardamom coffee, there is the moment where everyone tries surreptitiously to pull their wallet out and grab the waiter all without the others noticing. And the scuffle commences.
It’s universal…with one exception. Ask the Lebanese around you who pays when they dine out with their parents. No matter that they are pushing forty, have an office job in the city and often treat their pals out. Parents find it as natural to pay for their adult offspring as they did when they were mere schoolchildren.
In the West, kids are expected to start coughing up once they’ve found work, often in their late teens. Indeed, it is a confirmation of their independence, nurtured by parents and prized by young ones. Both generations take pleasure in this reversal of roles which marks an initiation to adulthood.
Not so the Lebanese. Parents continue to support their offspring financially whenever they are able. An 85-year old I know treats her son for a mid-morning coffee on a regular basis. The mere idea of one’s grown children footing the bill is an affront to the dignity of parents, a challenge to their role as providers, even once their children become providers for their own families.
Financial support is not the type of care which matters most though. A Beiruti taxi driver told me recently, “You spend the first half of your life being looked after by your parents, and the last half looking after them.” This vision of family explains a lot about the Middle Eastern balance of dependence and responsibility. The care the Lebanese give to parents in the latter half of life is often as extensive as the care they received as children.
Westerners expect a decent run of no-strings life, when they are neither being looked after nor looking after others. They want to be independent, but not too responsible. The focus is on the future, or making the most of the moment, and letting go of the past.
However, during this time, their autonomously earned revenue is siphoned off to provide healthcare and pensions for older generations. Not that there’s any gratitude from those on the receiving end; no more than there is any satisfaction for those paying out. The give and take is there, but the presence of a faceless intermediary, some state body, to distribute the funds removes any spirit of generosity or recognition. It’s a question of paying dues and receiving dues, preferably more of the latter than the former. What’s more, these dues include little practical and no emotional support.
For the Lebanese, the two periods – those of dependency and responsibility – are at equilibrium, following each other without a break, even overlapping. They may be indulged well into adulthood but in exchange they take care of their parents long before the onset of the ‘second childhood’ makes it a practical necessity and usually continue until the bitter end, rarely resorting to retirement homes.
Unlike the West, Middle Eastern society does not relegate older generations to a low-impact position, they are not has-beens. They are relevant to the present and the future.
At a time when European societies are angrily debating over what constitutes a practicable pension system, it is interesting to consider how cultural particularities weigh in on such issues, bringing an entirely different conception of family bonds.