My new-found paranoia

construction workers beirut

carefree construction

Each stage in life provides a very different window on the world. I am sure as a child I would have found Beirut to be a fantastic playground – all those empty properties to explore, the crumbling stairways to nowhere, the tightrope impressions to be had from the occasional remaining beam in a first floor. When I moved here, Beirut was for me the object of study, and I the student and observer, examining and dissecting the culture and language.

Recently, however, Lebanon became an altogether more scary place, a place of danger. No, I’m not taking about the wave of Arab revolutions which have rocked the world or the protests for a secular state. I’m not talking about the AK-47s on every corner or the nagging threat of conflict looking for an opportunity to burst out from the darker corners.

I’m talking about my new-found fear of oily slippy roads, the absence of pavements, the gaping construction craters which cleave the street under your feet overnight without warning or barriers.

Basically, being pregnant has made me suddenly aware of everyday risk -  and for someone who grew up with safety regulations there is a fair amount around if one chooses to see it.

I no longer laud the reactivity of Lebanese drivers as they dodge potholes – instead I curse them as they swerve towards my vehicle, all the while chatting on the phone and waving a cigarette. I no longer see ingenuity in their pavement parking, I frown disapprovingly as I skirt around them with my heavy shopping bags.

Those overflowing flower pots perched precariously on the rail of a fifth floor balcony are waiting to fall and the battle-scarred street cats that watch from all corners are trying to send me their toxoplasmosis parasites by telepathy.

In the service taxis I fume over the lack of safety belts and clutch my bag across my belly as the driver accelerates the wrong way up a one-way hill reckoning that if he goes fast enough, the chances of someone coming round that blind bend and smashing us all to pieces are really quite small.

Instead of camaraderie in the two bus drivers who drive tandem along the motorway to chat through their open windows with barely a glance at the road, I now see laziness and disregard for the human race. Then I think of the fact that most driving licences are bought not earned and I fulminate some more.

I worry that the builders scaling that huge new tower will pay as much attention to building regulations as they do to their own safety – no hard hats, no harnesses, they clamber like monkeys across the structure.

In the downpours I worry about the massive tangles of wires that festoon the buildings and the street lamp that leans drunkenly across the road, waiting for the angle of the wind to be just right to bring down a maximum of cables in one go.

You might say I’ve become just a tiny bit paranoid.

And then I remember the playground. My kids won’t live in the shadow of the faulty infrastructure. They’ll learn to skip around those construction craters and dodge those manic drivers on the way to school. They wont brandish the hand gel and a frown as arms against the outside world. They’ll welcome interaction with it and grow up talking to strangers in the street without a second thought. They’ll learn trust in others from the warm shopkeepers who never short-change you and chatty passers-by who go the extra mile to make sure you arrive exactly where you want to be.

taxis beirut

the more the merrier

They will learn to assess safety for themselves rather than being reined in by regulations, secure but bored. They won’t have their initiative stifled by a morass of restrictions. They’ll grow up fast when it comes to personal responsibility, but not too fast when it comes to some of the more perverse ways of the world.

They will learn to expect the unexpected and to show hospitality at short notice. There won’t be long years when they don’t know how to have a conversation with an adult. They will learn priceless values which have become scarce in the over-sanitised West, safe from armed conflict but entrenched in cynicism.

Driving home from Tyre this weekend I ended up behind a typical 1970s Mercedes taxi packed full with a large family. I counted eleven heads including the driver and a baby in a frilly hat. The exuberance of the many children was evident as they bobbed around the tight space inside and hung out of the windows.

Maybe I can have the best of both worlds. I’ll get a car seat for my little one but I’ll never teach it not to talk to strangers.

12 Responses to “My new-found paranoia”

  1. nicolette says:

    You said it so much better than I ever could – but I feel exactly the same way! It’s amazing how different and “scary” the world looks when you are responsible for another life, isn’t it?

  2. Nick says:

    Ya! I’m hoping my son will have a much clearer understanding of what is and what is not important in life. So hard to learn cocooned in nice safe Canada. Maybe when he comes back, choosing a black truck or a blue one won’t be the most important decision he makes in his young life.

  3. mary ann says:

    I loved reading this. I wish I could have the best of both worlds, to give only the up-side of both worlds to my kids. But I can’t, no one can. And since that’s the case, I’ve decided to simply give them all of both worlds or as much of both as I can.

  4. Jimmy says:

    I just love your humanism and insight you smart woman !
    Remember to clean carefully vegetables , cook your meat enough or freeze it a few days then unfreeze it before cooking and don’t touch cats poop (Toxoplasmosis). Don’t get too close to children under 2 years old (Measles) and do controle your serology every month if negative ;-)
    As a lebanese I should say Mabrouk for your pregnancy !

  5. Sami O says:

    I am currently back on a one-week visit to Lebanon and getting all the possible reverse culture shock symptoms. At the same time I’m considering to move back here from Montreal with my European wife.
    So after reading the beginning of the post, you got me real frustrated by listing one by one my daily perceptions of Beirut. But after reading the whole thing, I want to thank you for the great and positive insight that you bring to it. I guess I will need much more positivity in order to make the the switch back here. THANK YOU!

  6. ian alexander says:

    good post ginger, the sanity of a life more whole.

  7. Benjamin R. Greene says:

    I would just like to say I really enjoy reading your website. You have inspired me to visit Lebanon one day.

  8. Yeah its amazing how things change or rather your opinions change when you either grow up or have children. I remember all those times my mom would stress being careful and I would zone out. Now being a parent I see where she was coming from. They seem to do a lot of multi-tasking while driving there!

  9. That was a really awesome read, from start to finish. Congrats on the pregnancy by the way :)

  10. Danielle says:

    Congrats on your pregnancy! Yes, suddenly the word seems a different place when you have a baby along the way..

  11. mj says:

    Yes, that’s what children do to you…my three kids grew up roll-skating on the Corniche…when the iron rail that was supposed to keep them from falling over the big rocks down the sea was no higher than half a meter.
    You won’t have to be worrying about that one, since its has been replaced by a nice, and much higher, one. Be careful, though, when crossing the road with your child on skates. I learned to stand tall in the middle of the way with the palms of my both hands facing the coming traffic, until making sure that everybody would actually notice me and eventually be able to stop.
    Having read your insightful post, I’m sure you will develop plenty of new skills to keep you and your child safe while enjoying the wonderful mess.

  12. Sherry Ott says:

    This was a super piece. Having just been there I can easily imagine it all. I think any time you live as an expat in a renegade country you experience these things and you too become a renegade of sorts. I do love your point about learning to assess safety for yourself instead of being reigned in. I lived in Vietnam for a year and I thought about that all the time. Saigon drove me crazy with their lack of rules and insane motorbike driving, but at the same time I appreciated the ability to make my own decisions. It has made me a much more tolerant person in general. And every time I come back to the US it gets harder and harder to deal with the excessive regulations and safety concerns.
    Enjoy your unique view of the world…but be smart and stay as safe as you’d like to!

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