Smart Lebanese supermarkets, like the mall, offer middle-class locals a few dust-free hours of relative serenity and indulgence, in the Lebanon that would exist if its various incarnations could only stop bickering amongst themselves and find unity in materialism and good food. It’s a day-trip to the West, complete with Marmite, peanut butter, American cake mix, organic chocolate and croissants at the bakery counter. It is a highly convincing effort, but a small detail gives the game away. Just like a European store, it has an abundance of choice, special offers at every turn, staff in unflattering uniforms and it is clean. Too clean, in fact. The impeccable surfaces betray the cheap labour of the third world. A handful of staff spend the entire day propelling wide mops down the aisles and back. Where else would you see the crisp reflection of the well-stacked shelves mirrored in an immaculate, glossy black stone supermarket floor.
And from time to time reality inevitably strikes back when all the lights go off and hundreds of shoppers freeze in the darkness, clasping their carefully picked melon or their jar of tapenade, in the place of Liberty’s torch and tablet, like children playing statues, but backwards. Then the generator begins to roar and we flicker back into motion, free to continue our pretence.
When obliged to stock up at a ‘real’ supermarket, part of the fun is avoiding French and other foreign brands, expensive imports with a hefty mark-up, selling on their image alone or to fill a gap in the local market, such as ham. However, I’m afraid no Lebanese manufacturers make Earl Grey tea, and with a touch of shame I add the Twinings box to the basket. It is identical to the one we would get in Europe, though I am mollified by the Arabic transcription on one face of the box. In the cupboard I keep it Arabic-face up.