Go tell the storm

The first storm of the season had us in darkness. There was some issue with the generator too. In Europe they say power cuts are often followed by a baby boom, the result of a change from the norm, dinner by candlelight, the impossibility of getting on with more mundane chores.

Here in Lebanon it isn’t much of a change from the norm but still an evening power outage in the past would have led to dinner out and long conversations over dessert about the intricacies of Lebanese dining habits or hosting etiquette and likely a couple of posts, maybe even one worth sending off to those nice people at the BBC who have always been quick to air a good piece. Now it just leads to me cooking dinner by candle light, baby in arms, trying not to trip over her “toys” (tupperwares) spread across the floor. And above all trying not to singe her on the matches, gas stove or candles.

But I still love thunder storms, and so does my Beirut baby. The proof is, the lightning-thunder sequence now has a third step. It goes Flash…Boom…”encore!” How to tell my baby that if I could control the weather then I’d also have the lights turn back on…

Good brunch – but not quite to die for

Earlier today in Beirut as I made my way to Sassine for brunch with my 15-month old we passed yet another high-rise construction site called Embassy II. The floor plans show the usual cluster of vast living rooms, en suite bathrooms and tiny maid’s rooms. They’re accompanied by the tag-line “Your passport to luxury city living.”

An hour after leaving Sassine, I was back home, thinking about Lebanese business concepts which have filled a real gap in the market, like Beirut.com and Zawarib. You can’t think about business or any kind of investment in Beirut without pondering the instability of investments in a country which one pundit or another invariably puts on the brink of war. Ironic then that my thoughts are interrupted by a huge blast followed by the wail of ambulances. Soon the land line, the mobiles, and Skype were alive with friends and family checking for our vital signs. A couple of hours later, Naharnet, the source which seems to get news out the fastest, put the toll at 8 dead and 78 wounded in a car bomb just off Sassine.  Then their website got too overloaded to load. I’m glad I abandoned the idea of staying at Sassine to shop after kneife because my Beirut baby was so sleepy.

Yesterday I was sent this article in The Spectator on why one Lebanese has had enough of the frailty of life in Beirut. Unlike him, I haven’t lived through three wars. I was only on holiday here in May 2008 when gun fights sprang up like leaks in a plastic bag and Hizbollah took control of West Beirut. I don’t get war jitters like some who have lived through it. In fact that was my only trip here before deciding to move here and it didn’t put me off in the slightest. I didn’t even learn the Arabic for bomb until today – a good sign to be sure. But I’m no longer seized by the desire to head straight back up to Sassine to check the situation out. I have Beirut baby to think about. Frankly, worrying about her tripping as she toddles about on her little legs so soon after her first steps is as much as I want to handle.

The news now is that the head of the Intelligence Bureau of the Internal Security Forces was the target of the car bomb. The BBC says its the deadliest attack since May 2008. Still, on a purely selfish level it’s almost a relief to know that it was, as always in Lebanon, an attack with a specific target, a typical assassination. Doesn’t that make it less likely for innocent bystanders and their babies to get caught up in the violence than in countries where terrorism is more random? It’s not a relief for Lebanon though.

Some may be willing to put a million dollars into the Embassy II development, and maybe it will prove to be their passport to luxurious city living. But it might just as well give them a better view than they ever wanted over a brand new conflict on their doorstep. As Michael Karam points out in his very personal article, the third world affords certain luxuries which are hard to come by in the West, such as live-in home help at laughably low rates. But I think a lot of dual-citizen Lebanese out there are wondering whether they should be using their back-up nationality, their non-Lebanese passport, to get themselves a normal life elsewhere, instead of the sometimes luxurious but unstable life they lead in Lebanon. Others may be gritting their teeth as they knuckle down to a difficult period from which they have no escape.

Organising chaos

Beirutis like to apply the term “organised chaos” to their city. Just “chaos” works too.

Beirut rooftops

organising chaos

But it’s wonderful to see this lovely lady doing her bit to tidy up the mishmash of Beirut’s rooftops. No mean feat, especially at 30 degrees Celsius.

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.

What’s new in Zawarib Beirut

driving in Beirut

it's a cultural thing

In this tiny country, forever caught in a cycle of construction, destruction and reconstruction, the landscape changes fast, and Zawarib Beirut is determined to keep up. Only five years old, the first edition of this road map of Greater Beirut had already been left behind by developments in the infrastructure. This brave venture by Bahi Ghubril, who undertook the gargantuan task of mapping out the city as a personal project, has now been propelled to the next stage.

You may have noticed that, in general, the Lebanese don’t do maps any more than they do addresses. This is a country where your takeaway receipt comes with a paragraph-long description of where you live for the delivery boy. Even City Mall did without a store plan until last summer. One can only hope that an architect’s plan existed prior to construction.

But what makes Zawarib a chef d’oeuvre is  Read the rest of this entry »