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.

Streets of Beirut XXIX

This is the ideal type of property for a growing Lebanese family.

Lebanese family property

keeping close quarters

A floor per generation and a shared terrace for fresh air and hanging out the laundry. Everyone within shouting distance, free childcare from the older generations downstairs, help around the home from the two upper flats, and entertainment from the youngest additions.

Of course some of these small blocks of flats are occupied by unrelated owners. But even in the most modern buildings in town, you will find generations stacked on top of each other. Proximity and practicality take a natural precedence over privacy.

Names related

rival baptismal sites where John the Baptist is said to have preached: Israel (left) and Jordan (right)

Many of the distinctions between Anglo-Saxon culture and that of the Middle East come down to individualism on one side and communal living on the other. This is typified in the most basic prop of social interaction and key element of first impressions, the names we give during introductions.

The British – and even more so the Americans – work hard to find an individual name for their children. This name will, they feel, express the child’s uniqueness and help it to be viewed by others as an individual.

So they can’t call it Joe – there’s already an Uncle Joe. They can’t call it Emma – there will be three Emma’s in its class at school. They can’t call it Jonathan because people will shorten it to Jon and there are so many Johns. They can’t call it a whole range of wonderful names simply because they are just too common. Common is the worst insult for a name. They want their kid to be special. But not too special. Not strange.

It’s a hard balance to strike. It is surely easier to have a regional shortlist of top names, all of which – within the given community – are beyond criticism, true classics. Names like  Read the rest of this entry »

Lebanese idol

first-floor Mary grotto lit by electric bulb

Over the past month of boisterous football frenzy, as Lebanese political flags were, for once, pushed into the background by the colours of other nations, a common refrain has been circling: if only the Lebanese could differ in politics as good-naturedly as they do in sport. Convoys of cars full of flag-waving, face-painted fans choke the streets after every victory, however minor, leaving passers-by deafened but indulgent, telling one other, So long as its not politics.

And yet, such comments are only heard because of similarities in the behaviour of football supporters and party advocates. For a start, the sheer number and the variety of flags in both domains are remarkable, and Lebanon’s fractured political scene could be described as a never-ending round of 16, save for the ever-changing alliances.

Both worlds involve the idea of claiming territory – not only by emblazoning their homes throughout the rivalry but also by overrunning the streets to mark a victory. A win on the pitch is celebrated with fireworks and sometimes celebratory gunfire; a political triumph gets the same reaction with the proportions reversed.

In reality, these two domains not only look alike but actually share a common basis: a deep-seated desire to  Read the rest of this entry »

How Lebanon wins the world cup

local resident appropriates public square to support Germany

So 32 nations are preparing for a blast, but what do you do when your team won’t be playing? Lebanon didn’t qualify to enter the World Cup this year. In fact, it never has. But since April, an exuberant fervour has been surging steadily towards a crescendo. This scrap of a country is not going to be done out of a chance to jump on a bandwagon, wave flags, chant in the street and act like its all a matter of life and death – when, for once in Lebanon, it isn’t.

Of course, if your own colours aren’t out there then you have to go for second best. I still remember the 1998 final when Brixton, London, watched fairly unmoved as France beat Brazil in its only win to date. The house of the Malagasy family next-door nearly left the ground and the next day their little shop was closed, and on the window was scrawled the simple explanation, “We won”.

So Madagascar, which has also never qualified, will be routing for France again as a former colony, and you might think Lebanon would have similar sympathies with its former protectorate power. But in reality you see relatively little support for France, when you consider that the national flag used to be the tricolore plus a cedar.  Read the rest of this entry »