Condolences

Good news travels fast in Lebanon, announced quite literally from the rooftops with fireworks. But the urgent whisper of bad news travels even faster.

We know we are in the right place because there is a hearse in the road at the foot of the apartment building. We don’t need to ask which entrance. It is marked by a man in stiff black, the driver maybe, who stands guard at the bottom of a flight of steps. He is surrounded by half a dozen cellophane-wrapped bouquets which lean awkwardly against the wall. The flowers are real enough but they are grimly preserved, completely sealed behind a plastic cover. They look out of place, spilt on the grey paved floor, an accident.

We step past the driver and without a word begin to climb the stairs. We do not need to ask which floor; we keep going until we reach a door which is open. Motionless black shapes are perched on settees right, left and centre. Blank faces turn towards the door without expectation. No one moves. Finally a member of the family recognises us and steps forward to ease our awkward entry. We are shown into another room and pressed to sit, like the others there, waiting for nothing.

If this were England we wouldn’t be here, not now. We would have sent a card or flowers, made a phone call, kept our distance. We would have waited until the funeral a few days later to pay our respects in person. We feel like intruders, right there in the home of the deceased less than a day after his passing, before the family have fully realised what has happened, when the wound is raw and undressed. Not like the asepticised ceremonies days later, when the pain has been patched up and the lip restiffened. Surely I’m out of place, a stranger to him, among his closest friends and family here with their tangible grief. It’s wrong to see their pain, unnatural. But then death is unnatural, out of place. Like the plastic-covered flowers downstairs.

Perched on the long couch among the grievers, lined up like a row of blackbirds on a telegraph wire, I am ashamed of my denim skirt, not redeemed by my demure long-sleeved black cardigan. All the solemn figures around me are in top-to-toe black. Their hair accessories, their stockings, their scarves. Not a navy coat or a brown handbag in sight.

 I wish I had known where we would end up that day when we left the house. But these things happen quickly here. The body in the bedroom was alive yesterday. This afternoon, after the funeral service, it will be buried. I catch a glimpse from my seat through the open doorway across the hall. He looks mildly uncomfortable, but neat, presentable.

Like his guests, but less gloomy, more composed. But like them, his hands are clasped and he too is waiting… waiting as long as it takes until he is called.

How to bluff in Lebanese

It’s always good to be able to talk the talk if you really want to get to know the lovely people of Lebanon. Here are a few pointers for people planning a trip here which may help you to bluff your way into longer more meaningful conversations.

Ps and Qs

First off a few niceties. To catch a waiter’s attention use ‘pleaze’, but if you need to interrupt someone or ask a favour use ‘sorrry’. Roll the ‘r’ again when expressing thanks – ‘merci’ – or enthusiastic thanks ‘merci kteer’. ‘No’ is ‘La2’, the 2 signifying a glottal stop, or in layman’s terms, that funny half-sound that replaces the ‘t’ when most English say ‘football’. A more expressive way to say ‘no’, is to lift your chin and clack your tongue in a loud tut.

Getting around

Taxis can be confusing as they often offer two types of service. If you want a door-to-door ride it’s actually called a ‘taxi’ and will cost you 10,000 LL within town (pink face tax included; 8,000 if you really talk the talk). But if you want to be squeezed in with up to five other passengers and dropped off somewhere near your destination for a mere ‘elfayn’ (or 2,000) you should specify you want ‘servees’, which means ‘don’t try and con me even if I look foreign’. On a busy night or for a longer trip, the driver may counter with ‘serveesayn’, which is double the fee, and acceptable depending on demand.

Lebanese is beautifully simple in many ways. When you’re waiting on the curb and a honking Mercedes, older than you are, pulls up to offer a ‘servees’ ride, no need for elaborate requests. Just ask ‘Hamra?’ or ‘Adlieh?’ or wherever you want to go. If it’s on his way, or he can reconcile it with his other passengers, he’ll pause just long enough for you to scramble in. If he roars off leaving you in a cloud of exhaust, well, that’s a ‘no’. He may or may not bother to tut, but you get the point.

‘Fo2’ doesn’t just mean the preposition ‘up’ it also means the place ‘up’, whatever it may be, so ‘up the hill’, ‘up in the mountain’, ‘our higher altitude home as opposed to our coastal residence’ or simply ‘upstairs’. The opposite (for all options) is ‘taHt’. When out and about you may be offered something you do not wish to accept (eg coffee, shoe polishing and so on), you can politely decline with ‘mara taani’, literally ‘second time’, that is ‘another time’ and also covering the possibility of ‘not now and probably not ever’.

Working ‘barra’, or ‘outside’ does not mean farmwork or roofing, it means working abroad. Bear in mind there are more Lebanese ‘outside’ than there are still living in the country so this is an ever present concept. It can also be a matter of status, as diplomas obtained ‘outside’, or products which have been imported have a perceived edge over their local equivalents.

Being a good guest

Dinner conversation is also useful, as eating is a delightful, frequent and lengthy pastime in Lebanon. ‘SaHtein’ means ‘bon appetit’ or literally ‘two healths’. You should reply ‘Aa-elbak’ (or ‘Aa-elbik to a girl) to wish good health back on their heart for thinking of your belly, but if you forget how, ‘merci’ will do. You will necessarily want to compliment the hostess and tell her that ‘kill shi tayyeb’, everything is delicious, because it always will be. You may wish to use ‘selim dayetik’ to bless her hands for their hard work.

By the time the starter is done, you may be asked various questions which translate literally as ‘Have you put on weight?’ ‘When will you start trying for a baby?’ and ‘Do you digest beans well?’ Don’t be scared. The meaning is, well, literal, but if you wish to take some liberty with the responses feel free. It does make first encounters more fun.

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.

Weighing in on weight

A fellow mummy blogger recently raised the prickly question of whether being told you’ve put on weight is a good or a bad thing in Lebanon. In my decidedly bump-shaped past 12 months I’ve certainly had my fair share of comments about weight gain, weight loss and a surprising number of stages in between. Yet with all people have to say about it, it is not easy to detect the general attitude towards weight, as Beautiful Feet says.

Clearly, a more ample figure is the norm here. By that I don’t mean that the Lebanese are bigger in general than, say the English or the Americans. But what is held up to be acceptable is bigger. Whatever the average weight of your woman-on-the-street in the UK, models on billboards or in magazines are invariably thin. Adverts in Lebanon usually show an altogether more realistic kind of weight – though I won’t comment on the realism of specific features since by all accounts and visible evidence plastic surgery is far more common here than in Europe.

On the one hand I have been chided for not being fatter, as if I was letting myself waste away, which I assure you is pretty nigh impossible given the scrumptious Lebanese cuisine and my love of food in general.

On the other hand, I’ve heard people being told in no uncertain terms that they are fatter than they used to be and ought to lose weight. A Lebanese friend got me in her kitchen and lined me up next to her daughter-in-law to quiz us on our height and weight and pointed out – in the sweetest, most genuine manner you can imagine – that said daughter-in-law ought to return to the size she was on her wedding day. Fortunately they have one of those Ruth and Naomi kind of in-law relationships or there could have been sparks.

Once I began gaining pregnancy weight, people seemed happier about my figure. It was nice to put people at ease – I must be normal now I was procreating and fleshing out. They made many a gesture to map the changes in my face and body to demonstrate exactly what it was they saw an improvement in. They even congratulated me for piling on the pounds at times when the scales showed no difference, as if they wanted to find something nice to say even if there was no real change.

Yet a gynaecologist I visited patted me on the bulging stomach and congratulated my husband on not marrying a “grosse patate”. It all seems quite random. And that made me think of what a wise Lebanese friend told me regarding relationships this weekend. She said, “We say a lot but it doesn’t mean a great deal; you say just a word and it really matters. In the end, it boils down to the same thing.”

And she’s right. People here comment on your weight like they comment on the weather or the likelihood of war – both small talk topics. It’s no big deal. Tomorrow they might have changed their mind. In any case they don’t expect you to take it to heart.

Beautiful Feet asks if people would really comment on weight gain to your face if they thought it was a bad thing. And I think that’s the difference – if we notice a “bad thing” about a person it means we expect them to do something about it. Telling people that we think something about them is “bad” would mean insulting them. It’s not our business – ever. But that isn’t the case in the Levant. It’s like the English complaining about the rain. We don’t actually expect it to have an effect on the weather; we accept that the clouds will do as they please, just like people tend to.

While in the West we nurture a growing number of new social taboos, the Lebanese maintain the traditional ones but are free with their opinions on everything else. All it really means is that they have opinions (don’t we all?) and that they cared enough to notice.

One thing is sure – you don’t need to go around worrying about what people are thinking here. They come right out and tell you. It takes some getting used to, but saves the nervous energy spent on all that guesswork.

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