Spin me a yarn, but make it good

Mercedes taxi beirut

Mercedes taxi

Yesterday I had the pleasure of recording a new piece for the BBC programme From Our Own Correspondent. It was already just after 12pm and the sun was directly overhead. It was going to be a sticky 25-minute walk and I didn’t feel like turning up panting so I took a taxi to the BBC studios near the Serail. The driver clearly decided I was fair game for a story or two. “I want to welcome you to this country and ask you to pray for me,” he began. I sighed. I’d thought using my few words of Arabic would spare me being taken for a witless foreigner. “My wife has just given birth,” he went on undeterred. So far nothing new. “She’s had quadruplets!” I must look more stupid than I thought. “Mabrook,” I told him, “Lucky you.” We had arrived. I paid making sure to get my full change before tipping him. It reminded me of a funny piece by BBC correspondent Owen Bennett-Jones for FOOC, Taken for a ride in a Cairo taxi, except his yarn-spinner was a good deal shrewder than mine. I wish I could find the audio version as I remember it being particularly lively, but it makes a great read too.

Reverse culture shock?

Yesterday, as I was driving along the autostrade, I was hemmed in by a concrete mixing truck on one side, a Porsche Cayenne on the other and a tank in front.

Anyone who has driven on Lebanese roads knows that they are blissfully free of such restrictive concepts as indicating, fixed lanes and safe stopping distances; as such you end up intimately close to the other vehicles even when you’d rather not.

EDL protests electricity Lebanon

Police calm rock-lobbing protesters outside EDL

As I was watching the beret-clad soldiers swinging their assault rifles scarcely three metres from my windscreen, I thought about how you somehow get used to Lebanon’s eclecticism over time.

Yesterday we barely looked up from our work to watch a UN helicopter land on the helipad of a local hospital. The day before I watched from the window as crowds lobbed rocks at the Electricité du Liban building and riot police poured out of trucks to quell the protest.

a peaceful coast

a peaceful coast

How am I going to cope with days of waking to the deep-throated call of a wood pigeon, miles of rolling green hills dotted with pasturing sheep and the rhythmic splash of waves on a beach (not being drowned out by club music)?

the Devonshire tank

the Devonshire tank

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.

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.

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 »