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 XVI

nuts streets of beirut

heaps of nuts like untopped balusters

This scene highlights two qualities always shown in food here: the profusion and the visual display. The minimalism of western restaurants hasn’t caught on here, fortunately. Frequently at the vegetable shop the beefy grocer behind his old-style scales raises his eyebrows at my huge bush-like bunch of coriander and says “Only one?” My few limes he throws in for a song – they hardly register against his large weights. Then he gets back to making pretty colour-coded piles of peppers and lining the cucumbers up in geometric formation. For the purists, this shot is from Baouchriye, not Beirut.

Gold or glitter?

luxury cars Beirut rich poor divide

out on show

After visiting Beirut, a reader wrote to me remarking on the incongruity of price tags and of the predominant luxury vehicles in town. Given that the evidence of a recent conflict lingers on in a whiff of tension, a whir of helicopters, bullet holes and third world utilities, the lavish lifestyle on display does indeed seem out of place.

A number of factors contribute to the striking proximity of prosperity and privation in Lebanon. I will cover the main points – feel free to add those I may have missed out.

First and foremost, Lebanon receives a considerable inflow of money from the huge diaspora (several times larger than the current population) either via  Read the rest of this entry »

Left at the insecticide, right at the choco spread

check the labels before tasting

In Mentally Mapping Networks, I discussed the similarities between the way the Lebanese find their way around town and the way they perceive interpersonal relationships. I was therefore amused to see that the spatial perception deployed in a supermarket is similar to the directions you get here.

Instead of a linear layout with specific categories in each aisle, the Aoun chain of flashy orange supermarkets opts for something more of a patchwork layout. Though the shelving units are the same, the goods are grouped in corners, stacks and patches without the usual linear logic, the passages narrowing at points to make physical contact with other shoppers inevitable. Instead of lining the extremities of the rectangle,  Read the rest of this entry »