The dead of August

Nothing says a French city in the summer like the sound of suitcases being wheeled out of doors, bumped down steps and along pavements in the early hours. The town empties with remarkable efficiency. Half the shops close for the month of July, the other half close for the month of August. The half that do open, open halfheartedly, getting little done and closing early. In winter, it’s a lively provincial town with competition for custom. In summer it’s a sleepy village. When nothing useful can be done in town, it doesn’t matter. A château together with its gardens, lakes and geese happens to lie directly alongside the main shopping street. We drift over the cobblestones from one empty film set to the other, from the deserted village to the fairytale castle. We feed the fish with yesterday’s baguette, spot herons and watch the lime tree seeds twirl through the lazy hazy afternoon. If you really know France well you’ll have me on a map by now. In any case, it’s good respite from the extra paperwork generated by moving here and there. Not that form-filling and photocopying can really be classed as action. Not like what’s happening where we’ve come from. And frankly the action taking place in the Levant right now… let’s just say I’m glad to be out of the loop. I’m glad that the kicking, squirming baby inside me isn’t kept company by the squirm of fear in my gut. I glimpse lengthening rows of dead, far away on the other side of a screen. I lose count of the number of euphemisms for war, hear the cascade of poised, planned outcry, and go back to watching the lime tree seeds on their gentle descent through the air. The suitcase wheels are coming back, a little slower than when they left, but they are all coming back. It’s a new year in a French city.

 

 

Time to go

above Beirut

above Beirut

That’s it. The decision is made. In just over a month we’ll be leaving Lebanon on a one-way ticket. The flights are booked. It seems incredibly sudden and yet we’ve been debating this decision for a year now. The fact that it took us so long to come to a conclusion is some indication of how hard a decision it was.

I would have loved to bring up my kids in a country where melons and green almonds are sold off the back of pick-up trucks, where old men sit on the pavement playing backgammon for hours, where you can tell the season by the stalls outside the grocer’s.

I would have loved for them to learn a language I can’t teach them, a language I can attest is difficult to learn late in life, and particularly hard to learn outside the country.

18 months ago we were still thinking of finding a family home out of town, choosing schools, settling for the long-term. We bought a new car, one which could take the battering of the potholes and poor drainage that had us swishing through water a foot deep on the so-called autostrade.

Back then, I remember reading about a westerner living in Lebanon who chose to stay throughout the July 2006 onslaught. Her loyalty was touching. And a lot of what she said made sense to me. Lebanon has come through a lot worse after all, and signs of trouble are permanent fixtures. Conflict is the small talk of Lebanon like the weather is the small talk of the Brits. Living here you realise that gunfights in the street here or there rarely impact your life. And above all, you invest in Lebanon. Easy to do, in such a warm, spontaneous country. Emotionally, your life is here and you belong here more than anywhere else. If July 2006 had happened in 2010, perhaps we would have stayed.

Post-motherhood, that has all changed. Not so much because of the pressure that has been building outside Lebanon’s borders for two years and is now seeping through. But because of a wriggly little being that has a personality and determination all of her own, and is soon to find her dominion of all things knee-high challenged by a sibling.

Back in September, I did a piece for BBC Radio 4 on how to know when it was time to go. We’ve now reached that time.

With small children, you cannot live as permanent tourists. You can’t be ready to up and leave at a moment’s notice. Because we would, leave that is.

Of course lots of people lived through the war with their kids, some by choice, many by necessity. But the difference is they have family here. The people they are closest to will be here for them throughout and to leave Lebanon would be to abandon them.

Not so in our case. If we stay in Lebanon through thick and thin, we won’t be there for our family when they need us and they won’t be there for us. I want my kids to learn three languages and live multicultural lives; to gorge themselves on swollen kaki and bleeding cherries; to have summers so long they welcome the downpour that soaks to the skin in seconds. But more than that I want them to grow up knowing their cousins, to spend time with their grandparents, to build a life and not have it stolen by some cause that could have been foreseen.

Lebanon is still more home than anywhere else right now. But we belong elsewhere, somewhere nearer family. I’m just not sure where.

Bomb damage

Achrafieh Beirut bomb assassination

bomb damage

 

Shutters still hang from the buildings near the explosion and glazing firms are busy replacing shop windows in surrounding streets.

The flurry of phone calls right after the incident really got me thinking. Since it was the leading story for many European media, I expected the odd call from family abroad, but not so many from locals who know the area well and know we are at least a ten-minute walk from the site. We know several families living closer than us, and we didn’t think to call them. I mean what are the chances that they be affected. Most of all I’d feel embarrassed, as if I was searching for someone with a gory story, wanting to be part of the drama.

But here it is clearly a habit that goes back decades now. Bad news followed by a systematic ring-round of all your acquaintances. Just a quick matter-of-fact call to check and compare stories. Not because the probability is high but just to rule it out…and show you care. I’m sure if I had lived through the conflicts of Lebanese recent history I would do it. It was touching to think that so many people thought of us at all.

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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.

New Radio 4 piece

Just to let you know my latest piece for the BBC programme From our Own Correspondent will go on air today at 11:30am UK time or 1:30pm Beirut time. You can listen to it online here. This time the topic is going about normal life while the prospect of a spillover from Syria looms closer.

Update: The text appears in the BBC Magazine here. Spoiler alert – I don’t answer the question in the title given it by the BBC. Let me know what you think here on Ginger Beirut.

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