Looks like Beirut

“I can tell you were missing Beirut when you got this place,” said one of our visitors looking out our windows at the view across flat roofs and satellite dishes spreading from the foothills behind to the blue of the sea. When we moved to a flat in a working-class area of this medium-sized Mediterranean town, several people remarked on the resemblance to the view we left behind in Lebanon. Most Brits moving to the Costa del Sol come for a villa with a swimming pool and garden – something unattainable in England. Not us. We’re not in some charming pueblo blanco on the hills or some Driving-over-Lemons style valley, or even one of those gated developments with communal pool and tennis courts that many opt for.

 

We arrived with a two-year old and a baby so a flat in town meant I could take the kids out on errands and visits without hassling with car seats and loading up or unloading a pushchair and a sling at every stop. I didn’t want to end up isolated in some pretty villa sitting under the bougainvillea eating supermarket-sourced figs and wondering what Spain was really like.

 

 

flat roofs and a smudgy eclipsed moon

flat roofs and a smudgy eclipsed moon

 

 

When we visited Spain before moving to Lebanon we found Andalusia beautiful …and the costa less than. But after a few years in Beirut we couldn’t quite face moving away from the Mediterranean with all its highs and lows. It was heart-wrenching to leave Lebanon, but here on the coast we found so many things in common.

Rampant unethical property development along the coast? Yep.

Half-built buildings abandoned? Yep.

Flat roofs bristling with satellite dishes and aerials? Yep.

Beautiful green countryside out of town? Yep.

Flexible, fun-loving people? Yep.

Zero stress about rules? Yep.

Strangers who talk to you in the street? Yep.

An overused cliché about swimming and skiing in the same day? Yep.

The scent of jasmine on an evening? Yep.

Old biddies in plastic chairs watching the world go by? Yep.

A surplus of excellent produce? Yep.

 

picotas, cerezas y... cherrys

picotas, cerezas y… cherrys

 

A fellow Beiruti blogger ran an awareness campaign targeting the misuse of the expression “it looks like Beirut” to refer to scenes of destruction, chaos or bloodshed. It is such an outdated expression because Beirut is glutted with luxury cars and haute couture boutiques. Car bombs are only occasional, and the Lebanese do chaos so well, you can’t really fault them on it.

Save for Marbella, here we have none of the bling and swank, so I can’t really say it looks like Beirut. But there is a little something, and I’m so glad there is.

You want a wire through your wall? We'll put a wire through your wall.

You want a wire through your wall? We’ll put a wire through your wall. I’m pretty sure that’s a Beiruti wire that escaped to Tarshish.

 

 

Condolences

Good news travels fast in Lebanon, announced quite literally from the rooftops with fireworks. But the urgent whisper of bad news travels even faster.

We know we are in the right place because there is a hearse in the road at the foot of the apartment building. We don’t need to ask which entrance. It is marked by a man in stiff black, the driver maybe, who stands guard at the bottom of a flight of steps. He is surrounded by half a dozen cellophane-wrapped bouquets which lean awkwardly against the wall. The flowers are real enough but they are grimly preserved, completely sealed behind a plastic cover. They look out of place, spilt on the grey paved floor, an accident.

We step past the driver and without a word begin to climb the stairs. We do not need to ask which floor; we keep going until we reach a door which is open. Motionless black shapes are perched on settees right, left and centre. Blank faces turn towards the door without expectation. No one moves. Finally a member of the family recognises us and steps forward to ease our awkward entry. We are shown into another room and pressed to sit, like the others there, waiting for nothing.

If this were England we wouldn’t be here, not now. We would have sent a card or flowers, made a phone call, kept our distance. We would have waited until the funeral a few days later to pay our respects in person. We feel like intruders, right there in the home of the deceased less than a day after his passing, before the family have fully realised what has happened, when the wound is raw and undressed. Not like the asepticised ceremonies days later, when the pain has been patched up and the lip restiffened. Surely I’m out of place, a stranger to him, among his closest friends and family here with their tangible grief. It’s wrong to see their pain, unnatural. But then death is unnatural, out of place. Like the plastic-covered flowers downstairs.

Perched on the long couch among the grievers, lined up like a row of blackbirds on a telegraph wire, I am ashamed of my denim skirt, not redeemed by my demure long-sleeved black cardigan. All the solemn figures around me are in top-to-toe black. Their hair accessories, their stockings, their scarves. Not a navy coat or a brown handbag in sight.

 I wish I had known where we would end up that day when we left the house. But these things happen quickly here. The body in the bedroom was alive yesterday. This afternoon, after the funeral service, it will be buried. I catch a glimpse from my seat through the open doorway across the hall. He looks mildly uncomfortable, but neat, presentable.

Like his guests, but less gloomy, more composed. But like them, his hands are clasped and he too is waiting… waiting as long as it takes until he is called.

Imminent implosion keeps low profile – I get back to buying mana’iche

So here we are back for another year. For a moment there I thought we might not come back. You know how Lebanon looks from the outside. If you watch international news you become convinced that Lebanon is a perpetual fireball of self-destruction. And let’s face it, a dozen kidnappings here, a dozen deaths in street battles there. I mean Air France even diverted a flight to Syria rather than land in Beirut. Things must have been bad. I was glad I lugged my PC to Europe after all. Maybe we’d stay. Maybe we’d not return to Beirut for years to come like so many families during the civil war. The food would rot in the fridge with no-one to keep flicking the tripswitch on. My clothes would disintegrate in the wardrobe, or at the very least go out of fashion. The man’ouché seller would miss us terribly.

But here we are. And to be honest, it looks a lot like when we left. Under the surface it may be quite different. But tuning into the tension won’t actually tell us when the explosion will come. So in the meantime, perhaps it’s not a bad thing not to know exactly what’s simmering away under the rug.

men in truck

the nap before the storm?

Weighing in on weight

A fellow mummy blogger recently raised the prickly question of whether being told you’ve put on weight is a good or a bad thing in Lebanon. In my decidedly bump-shaped past 12 months I’ve certainly had my fair share of comments about weight gain, weight loss and a surprising number of stages in between. Yet with all people have to say about it, it is not easy to detect the general attitude towards weight, as Beautiful Feet says.

Clearly, a more ample figure is the norm here. By that I don’t mean that the Lebanese are bigger in general than, say the English or the Americans. But what is held up to be acceptable is bigger. Whatever the average weight of your woman-on-the-street in the UK, models on billboards or in magazines are invariably thin. Adverts in Lebanon usually show an altogether more realistic kind of weight – though I won’t comment on the realism of specific features since by all accounts and visible evidence plastic surgery is far more common here than in Europe.

On the one hand I have been chided for not being fatter, as if I was letting myself waste away, which I assure you is pretty nigh impossible given the scrumptious Lebanese cuisine and my love of food in general.

On the other hand, I’ve heard people being told in no uncertain terms that they are fatter than they used to be and ought to lose weight. A Lebanese friend got me in her kitchen and lined me up next to her daughter-in-law to quiz us on our height and weight and pointed out – in the sweetest, most genuine manner you can imagine – that said daughter-in-law ought to return to the size she was on her wedding day. Fortunately they have one of those Ruth and Naomi kind of in-law relationships or there could have been sparks.

Once I began gaining pregnancy weight, people seemed happier about my figure. It was nice to put people at ease – I must be normal now I was procreating and fleshing out. They made many a gesture to map the changes in my face and body to demonstrate exactly what it was they saw an improvement in. They even congratulated me for piling on the pounds at times when the scales showed no difference, as if they wanted to find something nice to say even if there was no real change.

Yet a gynaecologist I visited patted me on the bulging stomach and congratulated my husband on not marrying a “grosse patate”. It all seems quite random. And that made me think of what a wise Lebanese friend told me regarding relationships this weekend. She said, “We say a lot but it doesn’t mean a great deal; you say just a word and it really matters. In the end, it boils down to the same thing.”

And she’s right. People here comment on your weight like they comment on the weather or the likelihood of war – both small talk topics. It’s no big deal. Tomorrow they might have changed their mind. In any case they don’t expect you to take it to heart.

Beautiful Feet asks if people would really comment on weight gain to your face if they thought it was a bad thing. And I think that’s the difference – if we notice a “bad thing” about a person it means we expect them to do something about it. Telling people that we think something about them is “bad” would mean insulting them. It’s not our business – ever. But that isn’t the case in the Levant. It’s like the English complaining about the rain. We don’t actually expect it to have an effect on the weather; we accept that the clouds will do as they please, just like people tend to.

While in the West we nurture a growing number of new social taboos, the Lebanese maintain the traditional ones but are free with their opinions on everything else. All it really means is that they have opinions (don’t we all?) and that they cared enough to notice.

One thing is sure – you don’t need to go around worrying about what people are thinking here. They come right out and tell you. It takes some getting used to, but saves the nervous energy spent on all that guesswork.