Final rite of passage

We’ve completed the final rite of Lebanese passage: we’ve left Lebanon. It is, after all, a country of goodbyes, of ping pong expats, of exiles longing to return and of people trying to leave. You could even say we’ve now joined the majority of Lebanese people in that we no longer live in Lebanon.

So we squeezed our life into a couple of suitcases and said goodbye to what didn’t fit. So long, pink shoes which would still have been trendy next year. So long, good friends we will remember a lifetime.

But where to go? Moving nearer family is one thing, but they are spread across Europe anyway so there are still a few different options. Britain, where I grew up, seems pretty foreign after nearly 12 years away. France, where I studied and worked and married would be a more obvious choice. I’m much more used to the euro than the pound, the sécu than the NHS. I kind of know how things work there, which is more than I can say about my “home country”.

But Paris, our “home” before Beirut, isn’t a great option for a growing family, with its tiny flats and creaky parquet. So we’ve been scouting out a pleasant corner of southern Spain before heading back to France for the birth. It’s not Beirut, but the avenues are lined with the gentle purple blossoms of the jacaranda trees I grew to love in Lebanon, and the parks are full of the giant leaves fallen from rubber trees that my Beirut baby grew up playing ba’oussé behind. Somehow these touches make it feel more like home.

Is nostalgia when you miss even the bad?

When I saw this advert for blinds, the first thing that struck me – your typical pasty northerner whose aspirin whiteness of wintertime sours into a shade of blanc cassé in summer – was the idea that anyone not be friends with the sun.

sun climate weather in Lebanon

Haven't we met before?

When sun-starved Brits travel to warmer climes, locals are often amused to see them strip off for the merest ray of light. That’s what happens when you grow up with summers of waiting for the clouds to part.

It doesn’t always rain in the UK, and like the bad food jokes it’s a tired cliché that too many people who’ve never been there use. But Britain has had a poor excuse for a summer so far. Or as a good friend of mine put it “rain…rain, a threat of sunshine, followed by rain”.  Oh to have so much sun that you just can’t take any more. That’s what I hear in the voices of family back in And that’s how I used to feel – you just can’t have too much of a good thing. But lately I think maybe we need a little time apart, a bit of space. When I come back I’m sure I’ll appreciate it more.

The small talk of war

Lebanon has long been featured on government lists of countries not to visit, even tasting a dubious notoriety as the No1 fascinating country that Uncle Sam doesn’t want you to visit, in a recent ranking. Peace is not a realistic term around here, and periods of calm are as reliable as good weather is in England. The proverbial clouds of war keep gathering in the Lebanon, as they are apt to do. Unlike in Tunis and Cairo, this is not an unusual occurrence. The will-they-won’t-they debate of armed combat is the small talk of the Lebanese like weather chit chat in old Blighty. Rain again? Looks like it.

That their homeland is constantly described as on the brink of war hasn’t stopped Lebanese expatriates returning year after year and their attachment to it is unbelievably, irrationally and touchingly deep. This is especially the case for those who were forced to flee during the war. Some came back after the 15-year long conflict, but others had become settled abroad and for them Lebanon became the land of the olden days, land of their rose-tinted childhood.

Still, when you ask them if they have plans to move back, most say no. When they return to visit the Lebanon of today, they know they could no longer live here. They find being on a constant knife-edge too much strain, or they have become too accustomed to stability, to proper roads, to water, electricity and internet on demand.

How do you adapt to a country which is persistently billed as on the brink of disaster? Well, I’ve registered with the British Embassy; I’ve read the WikiHow on what to do if taken hostage; I read the news every day. But there is a lot to be said for the Lebanese knack of getting more excited over the latest social event than the apparently ever-looming disaster.

Those who have stayed through the bitter war years, the assassinations and the government paralysis, do not pin their stress levels on the endless ebb and flow of political tension. They go about business as usual until the last minute, then placidly shut up shop and go to the mountain for a day or two until it all blows over.

Funnily enough the Lebanese complain more about poor utilities than living with the risk of war on their doorstep. I suppose they feel something really could be done about the failings of the infrastructure but don’t hold out the same hope for the ongoing soap opera of regional politics.

Resignation is valid form of psychological defence when you live in a tinderbox full of armed militia. The Lebanese have also learnt relativity. Civil war is a big deal (until you get used to it), random gunfights within earshot are a minor matter. The possibility of conflict is a trivial fact of life.

However, the Lebanese are not, as some portray them, a nation of daredevils and risk-takers. When things hot up, most locals go very quiet. Everyone has a strong political opinion, usually a family heirloom, polished regularly in public. And some are ready to enter the power struggle with arms. But many would prefer to continue having as little to do with the government as it has to do with them.

They have no desire to check out the action, to taste the excitement. They play safe, avoiding all contact with potential conflict areas. To the point that I think they are not  just prudently staying away from conflict but actually avoiding any reminders of their country’s instability.

Expecting nothing from the shifting powers that be, they try to build a sense of security on an individual level. Here people have their own tanks, their huge 4x4s with tinted windows. The rich build their own fortresses, taking refuge on the urban hill of Achrafieh or climbing to safety in the foothills. They buy a second home in the mountains as a ski-base-cum-bunker. The not so rich get on with their lives.

After over a year here, I understand the value of burying one’s head in the sand. It is a key survival technique in a country where calamity is said to be on the horizon every day of the year.  Come July, when I have someone else to worry about, I may feel differently, but for now I’m throwing my lot in with this tenacious bunch whose lives and loves are here. And having watched the political weathercock dance like a headless chicken in buffeting winds, it seems like the clouds may blow over, as they have so many times before.

There is bread and salt between us

Récits et Recettes by Walid Mouzannar

Récits et Recettes by Walid Mouzannar

Even a cookbook can tell you a great deal about Lebanese society. This weekend I was at my father-in-law’s maternal cousin’s husband’s book signing in Sursock. (That sentence of course would just slip off the tongue in Arabic.) The book comprises two main parts, the first half being personal anecdotes, traditions and family tales and the second being recipes.

What I didn’t expect to find was an index at the end dedicated solely to names of people mentioned in the book. On a double-page spread all the surnames which appear in the book are listed alphabetically next to the relevant page (or pages for a happy few).

Now most people aspire to some kind of fame, especially in a small community where fame is easier to achieve and always seems to be almost within reach.

I remember a writer from the local gazette of the small town I grew up in pointing out that for every local person mentioned in the paper because they caught a large fish, won a dog show, or broke  Read the rest of this entry »

Open house

Ghabi Beirut Streetlife

at home in the street

Have you noticed how when you call a plumber, an electrician or some other repair service, the chap always tells you he’ll come by, takes directions, and then hangs up? There’s me with my pencil poised and diary open, scanning my limited availabilities, and he just says he’ll come by and that’s it.

As if I have nothing else to do but wait in for him, I think, annoyed. Still, had he given me a time slot he would have felt it his duty to miss it by a mile anyway. This way he can’t be wrong but he’ll not turn up for a week and then when I call back he’ll put the blame on me being out. Preposterous.

But in his defence, we don’t have the same view of home. Home for the Lebanese is not just a bed and a roof, somewhere to store a change of clothes and park the car until both are re-employed and off out again. It’s a centre of life not just a rushed recharge point. You pop in and out, never straying too far or too long, and  Read the rest of this entry »