Arriving in Beirut, I realised that a reputation for English reserve had gone ahead of me. The fact is that in the light of my initiation to Lebanese society starting in Paris, I discovered that I was abnormally quiet and apparently quite uncommunicative. You know how the English are. At least when they are not being the Brits abroad, drinking and brawling in the street. But it’s one or the other, no middle ground as far as I can tell. A friend picks me up to go out for the evening and in the proximity of the steamed up vehicle she cautiously asks me how things are. “You don’t have to answer,” she hastens to add. I do though; in England we do that, being unreasonably polite. “So is it too forward if I ask what you did with your day?” she asks tentatively. I almost laugh, but that wouldn’t be very English, would it.
Of course there are particularities which differ in manners between the Levantine Mediterranean and frosty Northern Europe. Rules on hospitality, doing business and staring are all rewritten and the divide between public and private life is not only shifted, there are large holes in it. An all-time favourite Lebanese question for a first meeting, just after exchanging names, is: Don’t you have any children? Not exactly rude in Britain, though I imagine the formulation in English chit chat would be a little less interrogative; but in Lebanon, the probing goes beyond the simple niceties of polite conversation. Failing to ask this crucial question would show an aberrant lack of interest in the continuation of the human species and indeed in your general health. What is more, the answer will define your place in society, an issue to be resolved at the outset of any relationship.
If the answer is yes, but they are nowhere in sight even though its the weekend, then you must have a live-in maid and among Achrafians you qualify to compare notes on the best nationality to have change their nappies and the best preschools to send the tots to as well as your preferred choice of profession (it’s multiple choice: engineer, doctor or lawyer). For non-Achrafians, who have actually changed nappies themselves, this is an opportunity to pile on the advice since you are in such dire straits you have to rely on foreign labour.
A negative response, on the other hand, will unite all Lebanese, breaking the many socio-religio-geographic divides as no other topic has ever done, in a consistently querying concerned drawn-out Ohh? Now their interaction skills bloom as they extract the information bit by bit. You must be married, right, because you clearly aren’t 20 any more and well, we did see you buying clothes somewhere other than H&M. The relief of ascertaining the existence of a husband provides only momentary respite until they inevitably elicit from you how long you’ve been married. Any more than two years is the wrong answer. And still no baby. Must be serious. After all, funding shopping sprees is only the secondary role of the husband. The first is to impregnate. I am evidently incomplete and worst of all unaware of the terribleness of my childless existence. It’s as if I had forgotten to put a top on and gone to the grocers without thinking anything of it. Personally, I have not yet had any offers to accompany me to a good gynaecologist, but I am assured by experienced locals that this pleasure awaits me if I put off conception any longer. Perhaps the Lebanese would consider that too pushy for a first meeting. I am preparing my stiff upper lip to face the affront.