FOOC take 2

Just heard from the BBC that my piece on the rapport the Lebanese have with luxury will be aired today, Thursday, at 11am (UK time) on Radio 4 as part of the programme From our Own Correspondent. It will also go out on the World Service several times. I’ll update with a direct link after the broadcast.

UPDATE: You can listen online here.

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.

Word of mouth

How did you hear about our services? A frequent multi-choice question used by companies on surveys to evaluate their marketing efficiency. Please tick: Friend or family, website, advertising… In Lebanon, there’s rarely need to read all the options; the first box wins hands down.

After a long stint of traditional B2C advertising, word of mouth is making a grand return in the west, carried on the crest of the wave that is new media and user generated content. You can now “like” your favourite supermarket chain online, retweet an airline promotion or buzz about the restaurant you just tried.

In Lebanon, there is no need for a comeback; the grapevine rules supreme. Billboards and TV spots are small-time players in comparison to popular endorsement. What better way to know where to get insurance, a posh meal, spare parts, a job, cheap groceries… than to ask around.

In western countries, there is little need to ask anyone anything. From checking out a cinema location via Google street view to emailing for a restaurant reservation to dissecting films in forums, people can consume to their heart’s delight in virtual isolation. Or should that be in virtual company and in actual isolation.

Reliance on real people has been replaced by anonymous avatars or computer generated responses. Online, all our questions find an answer complete with a telephone and fax number, longitude and latitude, a photo of the shop front, precise opening hours and a printed itinerary together with the speed cameras you’ll pass en route.

Not for the Lebanese. Never a fixed appointment, no website, no map, no bus stops, no address, always on the phone, rolling the window down, calling out to a shopkeeper, a traffic cop, anybody. At the mercy of other people’s memory, opinion and good mood.

Arriving in Beirut, if you are new to the city, the language or the culture, you could feel vaguely stunted. Finding one’s bearings requires an in-depth conversion to that long-lost art of verbal communication.

It is true that some of the answers you get will undoubtedly contradict each other. Most certainly they will contradict anything written down. This reflects the way reality is changeable and subjective, since roads, opening times and reputations are not fixed. Nothing is written in stone – it isn’t written at all.

People are often your only recourse to find a good grocers, the nearest laundrette, free wifi, a decent plumber. Trial and error work too, but how many times do you want to flood your flat? Want to transfer funds between your bank accounts or find out why your card has been cancelled on you? You’ll have to physically present yourself at the branch and speak to someone face to face.

Want to get from A to B? You can ask at every single crossroads which road to take next, and no-one would think it strange. In fact that is often part of the instructions. Left after the gas station, up the hill, then at the bakery ask again. Think of it as some kind of treasure trove. They are just giving you a few broad hints so don’t precipitate things expecting to get all the way to your destination on one miserly clue. That’s no fun.

Maybe you’d like to email a hotel for a booking because you are out of the country and would be reassured by some written confirmation of your booking. Forget it. Even if you find an email address, chances of a reply are slim to skinny.

The fact is that while the west has become increasingly suspicious of anything that isn’t printed in black and white, the Lebanese trust the spoken word far more than any other means of communication.

Western trivia often involves such questions as, What was the real name of the singer known as Bob Dylan? What is the Latin name for the foxglove? There is always the conception that whatever we say in day-to-day life is inferior to the official, written terms. The real names and facts are those you have to look up. Common parlance, verbal communication, even, means little compared to paper reports, encyclopaedias and the small print on contracts.

But in Lebanon, the reality is not inscribed in dusty reference books or on maps no-one uses. It belongs to living, breathing language, to human contact. And when you give your word it is worth more than any contract. Moving east is about learning to put your life into the hands of other people again. It might be confusing and unpredictable, but it feels good.

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 »

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