Friends and colleagues gasped when I said I was going to spend a year in Lebanon and asked if I’d be obliged to cover my head. Travel forums abound with queries asking time and again – Is it safe? Is it possible to take children? Is it ok to travel alone? These same anxious travellers will soon be wandering down rue Monot being greeted warmly in three languages, or milling among the stilettos, baseball caps, burqas and leopard print of Hamra, or pub hopping along the throbbing Gemmayze strip while pop blasts from the bumper to bumper birthday-gift rag tops.
Lebanon revels in its unique take on straddling the fence between east and west. So open to western influence is it that some scholars are raising concerns over the country’s youth not learning to speak Arabic correctly, as increasing numbers are put through school with French or English as a main language from kindergarten up.
In Beirut, it would seem, anything goes. It has its cake and it’s eating it with relish. First impressions, though, can be deceiving. While the locals may appear to be living out their every latest whim, accountable to no-one, scratch the surface and you’ll discover that their personal choice exerts itself largely within the bounds of the community in which they were born. In a country where several coexisting communities remain so distinct that one’s name, neighbourhood, schools and wedding ceremony can be each individually sufficient to indicate belonging to one or another of them, the spectre of sectarian conflict lies in a shallow grave.
The BBC’s home editor cites social scientist Robert Putnam, who distinguishes two forms of social capital, or community cohesion: bonding within social groups and bridging between social groups. According to Putman, “A society that has only bonding social capital and no bridging social capital looks like Beirut or Belfast or Bosnia.”
Recently Beirut is looking good, very good. Appearances are its strong point, and the eastern hospitality mixed with a western entertainment scene is evidence of a genuine openness to the world. However, many issues at home are simply not up for debate. Even the most minor lifestyle choices are deeply dependent on the socio-politico-religious tribe-community one is born into. In addition, many Lebanese are infected with a feverish desire to maintain these distinctions and a neurotic dread that their clan membership not be instantly recognised. As if it wasn’t enough to be called Elie versus Ali and to speak French to one’s kids rather than Arabic or even English, homes, cars and shops are all decked with religious icons, political posters and party emblems which put them on one side or the other of the pro-west/anti-west divide.
There is a constant effort to hammer home one’s own cultural identity in opposition to others’. This pigeon-holing of self and others creates a deep social imbalance. That disparate communities live side by side disdainfully ignoring each other is a certain improvement on shooting at each other. The walls of the city attest that the gap between the two is not so great. The pock-marks and inscriptions on the war-torn reborn façades of Beirut have inspired a photography book called Breathing Walls by Rhea Karam. The inscription in this Hamra backstreet, ‘good walls make good neighbours,’ is a reminder that sitting on the fence is not always comfortable and, to mix metaphors, it can result in a nasty fall between two stools.