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.

Free for women and foreigners

Beirut horse racing at hippodrome

conferring before the race

Cranes leer over the shoulder of every derelict beauty in town, threatening a bigger brighter building. All around property development wrapping brags about “sumptuous living spaces” offering “a refined way to live”;  new high-rises are labelled with permanent signs arrogantly announcing that they are “super deluxe” (in case we had a doubt). The blatant wannabe profiling is on overdrive.

So sometimes it’s time to get out of the bling and return to the real Beirut, the gritty, earthy one. When you feel like this, cancel your laser hair removal, guys, and your lip pumping, girls, and postpone your subhiye at Ladurée. Instead take a service to the hippodrome, entering to the right of the Mathaf Watani (National Museum). Read the rest of this entry »

Gold or glitter?

luxury cars Beirut rich poor divide

out on show

After visiting Beirut, a reader wrote to me remarking on the incongruity of price tags and of the predominant luxury vehicles in town. Given that the evidence of a recent conflict lingers on in a whiff of tension, a whir of helicopters, bullet holes and third world utilities, the lavish lifestyle on display does indeed seem out of place.

A number of factors contribute to the striking proximity of prosperity and privation in Lebanon. I will cover the main points – feel free to add those I may have missed out.

First and foremost, Lebanon receives a considerable inflow of money from the huge diaspora (several times larger than the current population) either via  Read the rest of this entry »

Pet-progeny and pooling friends

maybe after my fourth Porsche I'll get an apartment

I’m trying to imagine how the friends I had while in college would have reacted if I turned up some Saturday evening with – horror of horrors – my parents in tow. Here trying to socialise with one’s parents at the same time as one’s peers is by no means the pariah-making choice it is in the Anglo-Saxon world. For a start the middle-aged accord as much importance to a social life as their offspring, so kids tag along with their parents more often than the other way round. The lack of inter-generational intolerance is refreshing.

On the other hand, I sometimes wonder how those born during the war years, who survived bomb blasts, shelters and shortages, can have grown up so lacking in autonomy. Of course I’m talking about a specific demographic but there are enough of them that they cannot be ignored.

A friend of mine says, tongue only slightly in cheek, that in the morning he asks his wife  Read the rest of this entry »

Lebanese idol

first-floor Mary grotto lit by electric bulb

Over the past month of boisterous football frenzy, as Lebanese political flags were, for once, pushed into the background by the colours of other nations, a common refrain has been circling: if only the Lebanese could differ in politics as good-naturedly as they do in sport. Convoys of cars full of flag-waving, face-painted fans choke the streets after every victory, however minor, leaving passers-by deafened but indulgent, telling one other, So long as its not politics.

And yet, such comments are only heard because of similarities in the behaviour of football supporters and party advocates. For a start, the sheer number and the variety of flags in both domains are remarkable, and Lebanon’s fractured political scene could be described as a never-ending round of 16, save for the ever-changing alliances.

Both worlds involve the idea of claiming territory – not only by emblazoning their homes throughout the rivalry but also by overrunning the streets to mark a victory. A win on the pitch is celebrated with fireworks and sometimes celebratory gunfire; a political triumph gets the same reaction with the proportions reversed.

In reality, these two domains not only look alike but actually share a common basis: a deep-seated desire to  Read the rest of this entry »