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.

Ten things I’ll never tire of in Lebanon

Lebanese fruit in season

cherries on ice

  1. That huge tree which grows out of the ‘autostrade’ heading out of town, its roots pushing up the tarmac in the slow lane. Yes, the Lebanon has lost a lot of green and quite a few cedars, but this one old tree (a plane I think) is willing to take on the motorway. It’s so big you can actually see it on Google maps satellite view.
  2. How people are so enterprising and imaginative whatever their circumstances. I love that people display their goods on the roof of their car and that the parking attendant uses a plastic water bottle as a lampshade.
  3. Stairs. The narrow stairways linking winding streets, the stairways to nowhere, the outside stairways of three-storey family homes, the stairs that are no longer there.
  4. How people are so down-to-earth. It’s great to hear people say what they think.
  5. That people dress up. Am I being contradictory? I just love that the Lebanese dress up for events – even the down-to-earth ones.
  6. Wondering about the lives of houses which have been rent apart and exposed by rockets, by weeds and neglect, or by modern construction, so that the kitchen tiles now plaster the outside wall and the stairway is just a two-dimensional paint mark climbing the bricks.
  7. Fruits in season – any and all.
  8. The way people go out of their way for you – far, far out of their way.

    Lebanese fruits in season

    watermelon

  9. Being able to spend three quarters of the year outside – on the balcony, on terraces, in the mountains, by the sea, in the valleys…
  10. That people adore children. It still surprises me when 20-year old male waiters coming running over begging to hold my baby, and it’s always a bit weird when they walk off with her to introduce her to the rest of the staff, but it’s wonderful not to feel the weight of frowns all round when you enter a café.

A mezze just for me?

I love having visitors here. It’s a wonderful thing to share Lebanon with them, especially when they are first-time visitors with so many surprises in store. Apart from helping them discover a fantastic new country, I also enjoy the whiff of a former home they bring with them.

It has been over ten years since I left the UK, so although I stick out like a sore thumb here, I don’t feel especially English any more either. When I went to university, got my first full-time job, filed my first tax form, and even spent three months on the dole, it was all abroad.

But the last time visitors came over from England I was struck by just how like them I was. Observing their reactions and habits, I felt like I was looking at a mirror image of myself when I arrived in Lebanon. And one of the main areas where this stood out was at the table.

The Lebanese approach to meals is different in so many subtle ways. It’s not just the ingredients that differ. I was used to that before coming here. But it took longer to get used to eating dinner with a near-empty plate. Faced with a tantalising mezze of different dishes, polite Brit that I am, I served myself a plate with a little of everything and then set about eating what was on my plate. Note the possessive article.

But it gradually seeped into my consciousness that that’s not the way it’s done. For a start a great deal of mouthfuls go straight from dish to mouth, scooped up with bread or a fork for individual pieces like stuffed vine leaves. When it is occasionally put to use, the plate is just a brief pause on the way. Often on the way to someone else’s mouth.

Such communal eating means you don’t really have your own serving. For a long time I worried whether I was taking too much of this dish or that. You just can’t keep track of how much you’ve eaten when it trickles past you in that sneaky way. But that’s the beauty of the mezze. If the fried rikkakat run out you just order more. Instead of that very British concept of fairness and a proprietary view of MY serving, you have an insistence on sharing. Instead of working to finish your plate, people keep an eye on feeding each other, frequently passing dishes and telling their friends: “You’re not eating anything!” Which is rarely true.

This does mean that when your host directs a mountain of batenjane piled high on a fold of bread directly towards your mouth it is hard not to think about whether you might accidentally salivate on his fingers. The strict British rules on eating instruments (fork in the left hand only!) do have something going for them.

Recently I was invited to a new restaurant down by Saint George Marina which has pulled of a combination of the communal mezze and the individualist own dish. It’s called Zabad, meaning ‘foam’, as in white-tipped waves. What was interesting at Zabad was not only the unusual flavour combinations (arak and fennel, martini and cardamom as aperitifs) but the choice of presentation for the opening week. It was like an individual mezze for each diner. At least eight or nine plates were set in front of me in turn, each bearing a tiny but beautiful new course.

It was a novel mix of eastern and western approaches which reminded us of a restaurant we dined at a few years back in Paris, Liza. Only later did I find out that the Lebanese chef behind it opened several restaurants in Paris before Zabad (his first here in Lebanon) and worked at Liza too.

Though I’m still puzzled about the restaurant’s cutlery choices – where did the spork come from?

Disclaimer in case you were wondering: I don’t do “reviews” for Le Gray (but just fyi, Beirut is Back) or Zabad or anyone for that matter. Nothing links me to Zabad in any way.

Beirut in miniature

As I write, half of Beirut is in the supermarket stocking up for the weekend. The experience will be hurried and crowded and reminiscent of this time last year and every big holiday before that, when the same shoppers swore, “Never again.”

But there are a couple of variations on the theme, because there are two types of supermarket in the city. There’s the gleaming new complexes with floors so clean you could eat your purchases off them, the type that I wrote about previously. Then there are the local supermarkets, a bit smaller, somewhat cheaper, and a lot more higgledy piggledy.

If you were to wake up from some deep sleep in one of the glam superstores, it would take you a while to work out you were in Lebanon, surrounded as you are by American cake mixes, Australian mangoes, Marmite and rice vinegar.

But the second kind, as my astute brother-in-law put it, is Beirut in miniature. The aisles weave between generously overladen shelves, and when the shelves run out the goods are stacked on the floor, piles of tins listing gently towards vats of olives, which are double parked alongside the crates of eggs. Shoppers squeeze through narrow gaps only to find themselves up against a wall of flat bread or of toilet rolls in a dead end having to reverse out.

Here and there, with the Bonne Maman conserve and Hershey’s chocolate bars, you happen upon an incongruous touch of the west just like in the city at large. Bystanders – who can only be staff – tap their cigarettes on ashtrays and chat and watch the comings and goings just as the military men on the streets watch and wait and smoke.

And as in town there’s always someone to help out with directions; in the Hikme branch of Charcutier Aoun its a kindly gentleman who greets you as you descend the stairs to the lower level, eager to make your shopping experience more successful by guiding you around the goods. He’ll even help you park your trolley if you need it.

Streets of Beirut XXVIII

If you’ve walked all along the Corniche to this point, after the Manara and Raouché…

Ramlet el Baida - Beirut beach by night

Ramlet el Baida

…then it’s a good time to stop off at the Pâtisserie Ghazi Al Hallab & Fils for some delicious znoud al sitt pastries.

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