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.

Mundane luxuries

And here’s the text of the piece the BBC aired in September, or you can listen here.

There is an old saying here in the Middle East that a woman’s grave remains open for forty days after childbirth; so I guess now is a good time to reflect on my recent experience of the maternity ward of a large hospital here in Beirut.

That’s far from the only adage I’ve heard over the last nine months. Folk wisdom is held in higher esteem than white coats and I was warned against a great many evils, from ketchup to crossing my legs. My local well-wishers spurned modern ultrasound and confidently told me the baby’s gender, basing their conclusions on what I ate and whether I looked more or less attractive than pre-pregnancy. Admittedly, their gender predictions were only wrong half the time. The few who were not categorical invariably told me, “Inshallah it’s a boy, God willing.”

Given this traditional social backdrop, I wasn’t sure what to expect during my brief hospital stay for the delivery, so I dropped by for a tour of the facilities. The façade was shiny and modern, though the effect was somewhat undermined by signs warning visitors that: “Firearms are strictly forbidden in the hospital”. In the delivery suite I innocently asked the doctor whether there would be a mirror on the day to see the crowning as in some European hospitals. “No,” he told me, deadpan, “that’s what you get for giving birth in the third world.”

The irony became apparent when the midwife showed me round the accommodation options, which have clearly been borrowed from a hotel brochure. “There’s first class, second class, junior suite and VIP,” she said. “The top-end rooms boast a separate sitting room, a fridge, a PC, Wi-Fi and a webcam.” I looked at the plaque on the door of the sitting room marking it as the exclusive reserve of the patient’s guests. “That must help keep all those visitors out of your way,” I suggested, and she made a face.

“What’s the no-frills option like?” I asked. She showed me rooms shared by two beds with an en suite loo and the shower down the corridor. Not exactly hardship. Still, what would people think? In death, perhaps, all are equal, but for the Lebanese, social distinction is just as important in sickness as in health.

The fact that a hospital does better business by reducing its patient capacity in order to provide hotel-style creature comforts is rather telling. In this tiny country, where first world meets third, luxury has become almost mundane. Extravagance is not just for the rich, the lower middle classes are getting their dose too.

domestic worker Beirut Lebanon

domestic worker takes a brief break

Domestic help epitomises this trend. Here, live-in maids are more common than dishwashers. Unlike the latest Whirlpool appliance, they still work during the daily power cuts and they’ve got a lot more functions. And just like those one-time luxury machines in the West, immigrant workers are now cheap enough in Lebanon for families on a very average income, costing about $200/£150 a month.

But cheap labour is not the only factor behind this generalisation of luxury. Society here feels an overriding need to be seen living the high life. The civil war shook up the fortunes of many and new money has been decisive to the way that people have tried to redefine their sense of identity. When dozens of friends and family turn up the day after you’ve given birth – because they will – it now matters that you have a VIP lounge with your name on it and a fridge to store the delicacies they bring. Once home, having hired staff open the door to your guests in a frilly apron is just another way to keep up with the neighbours.

In fact, 24/7 home help is so run-of-the-mill in Beirut that new distinctions are needed to establish one’s social standing, giving free rein to racial prejudice. A Filipina with pale skin and good English may be favoured over a Bangladeshi, while a Malagasy import tops the charts for many who want their children to grow up speaking French.
As I leave the hospital, I give the parking guy my pink ticket – because valet parking isn’t just for posh restaurants and hotels, it’s for anything from corner shops to fast food chains. He expects a decent tip, of course. After all, aren’t all Westerners rich? I wonder what he would think if he knew that back home we park our own cars when we’re not on the bus, and that most people giving birth share a ward with another three to five women.

Thinking back, as my grave prepares to close again, I reckon there are harder places to dodge death for forty days.