Public space and personal questions

Here’s the text of the piece I had broadcast by the BBC back in May. You can also listen to it here.

In a city like Beirut where road intersections are a free-for-all, it is only to be expected that any attempt to regulate public behaviour is regarded by locals with ambivalence. In a country which is used to doing without a government, state intervention is seen as rather incongruous. In fact public space is largely viewed as ‘up for grabs’, ready to be reclaimed for personal interests by the Lebanese spirit of enterprise. The slow lane of the highway, for example, is apparently the ideal place to set up a vegetable stall. Shopkeepers will plant a chair outside their store and fiercely guard the spot for potential clients, in blatant defiance of the nearby parking meter.

Solidere's downtown, Beirut

Solidere's downtown

Likewise, an abandoned plot in Beirut will never stay empty for long. A yawning gap in the street may be the result of 15 years of civil war, but it only takes a man with a plastic chair and a chipboard sign on which to write his price to convert a patch of urban wasteland into a paid ‘car park’. Having found a suitable spot for his new business, he then packs the cars in bumper to bumper and wing to wing, playing a real-life version of the computer game tetris to optimise every inch.

Real public space is hard to come by in Beirut. Even Beirut’s biggest park, the Pine Forest, has been closed to the general public for years, out of professed fears for its “misuse”. Meanwhile, the wide pavements and pedestrianised streets of the rebuilt downtown belong to the developer Solidere, controlled by the family of Saad Hariri, a prominent business tycoon and political leader. The central business district is, in effect, privately owned which is why the usual stalls don’t colonize the niches as they do in the rest of the city.

Leaving my car in one of those improvised parking lots is always something of a tug of war. I want to keep the keys; the tetris player wants custody of them too, to keep the pieces moving. His nylon bomber jacket, with the words ‘Middle East Security’ blazoned on the back, doesn’t inspire confidence, any more than the hairsbreadth spacing of the cars.

Still, he usually wins. I tell him I’ll be a couple of hours, but he is not yet satisfied. “Where are you going now? Home?

a fairly private park, Horsh Beirut, Pine Forest

a fairly private park

When are you going back out? For dinner?” he asks, garnering as much information as possible on my plans, supposedly so he can judge for himself just how inaccessible he should make my car. Naturally, he asks about the size and welfare of my family whom he hasn’t met.

Of course such questions are not considered personal in Lebanon. It is not only the public sphere which is defined differently from the West; the private sphere is also a much more permeable affair. You can expect to be asked: “Have you put on weight? How much did your car cost? Why is your complexion bad this week?” And that’s just the baker’s wife.

While I’m humouring her, a shadow crosses my shoulder. A basket out of the sky. The baker’s wife hands me a package of thyme flatbreads over the counter. “That’s for Madam upstairs,” she says matter-of-factly. I place them in the basket and watch as the long cord whisks it back up to a lady in a dressing gown on the fifth-floor balcony.

Buying from itinerant vegetable sellers and conversing loudly with the neighbours are also choice balcony activities. Popping out for a paper in one’s pyjamas is a regular occurrence. Unlike the Englishman’s castle, the Lebanese home is evidently not a private refuge. Rather it is an open house which draws in an endless flow of unplanned visitors and exhales everyday scenes which the West keeps behind closed doors. Life spills in through the door, out through the windows and onto the streets.

Yet privacy does exist in Lebanon; it is to be found inside the banks. Not at the counter – where other clients will crowd around you and lean across you in the hope of being served first, just like they do at the baker’s – but behind the scenes. Lebanese banking secrecy is more impenetrable than your average tax haven. In fact, banks here are everything that the Lebanese are not: private, prudent and forward planning.

Jumping through the hoops of banking precaution, you might wonder for a moment if you weren’t in Switzerland. That is, until the advisor asks: “So, when are you going to start a family?” In the end, it’s a relief to see the familiar and affable manner of the Lebanese triumph.

Streets of Beirut XXXIV

Like the Phoenicians, the Lebanese are specialists in the import-export business.

Beirut port: import-export

the port

If you want to live in Lebanon but bake with American cake mix, wear Italian sunglasses and drive the latest BMW, it’s all there – at a price.

Streets of Beirut XXIII

This yellow painted store in Mar Mikhael sells nothing but bananas.

Mar Mikhael shops Beirut

passing time at the banana shop

Running a small shop is one of the more fortunate professions when one gets to retirement age but has no pension to speak of. You can still spend your days drinking coffee, sitting out on the pavement, chatting with the neighbours and picking your ears, like all old men should.

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 »

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