What are the Lebanese like?

buildings beirut

spot the whitewash

In the weeks while I was disposing of a year’s supply of clotted cream and croissants, Ahwet el-Ezez closed, the water tanks are finally full, the LA Times covered the issues surrounding Horsh Beirut and no indictment was issued though the government has fallen – yet again.

Staying in my former homes and visiting old haunts with old friends left me feeling geographically disconnected. It didn’t help that I kept having to give different addresses – none my actual abode – depending on who was asking, for post to be redirected and lots more. It seems you have to give out your post code just to buy a newspaper in Europe.

But when our landing back in Beirut was met with enthusiastic applause befitting parents at a baby’s first steps (though I don’t think it was a first for  the pilot), I knew I was back home.

Instead of GPS and colour-coded street signs, the airport taxi driver needs to be told how to get to our place in town and he indicates – with considerable awe – one the country’s very first speed cameras. Lebanon’s leaps into the age of technology sometimes have comic consequences – the government website launched for drivers to check for any tickets they may owe allows any user to look up speeding offences linked to any car plate number – say your teacher’s or even a minister’s.

Data protection of course is not the priority here. In fact, as the guy that runs a video shop in Bourj Hammoud puts it, “Lebanon is the wonderland of piracy,” gleefully promising he can produce any film we can text him the title of within two days.

On my first visit here a teenage girl told me, “The Lebanese think they are very modern, but at heart they are very traditional.” And it is true to the extent that however quick the Lebanese are to pick up on new trends and gadgets (and import them at a profit), society remains inherently traditional in many ways. The downside is displayed in deeply, deeply entrenched racism, the upside reveals itself in the importance of family life, among other things.

It is hard to find community feeling in a capital city in Europe like that we experience in Beirut. Still, these closely involved neighbourhoods show a large dash of go-it-alone DIY sense.

On the other hand, in Europe where individualism rules, any shared responsibilities need to be regulated by reams of small print. Flats are managed (or micromanaged) by a co-ownership organism so that changes to your property are subject to agreement from other owners. Not at all in the spirit of the flat pictured above. This Beiruti family wanted to paint their walls, so they did – as far as they could reach.

While I would love to be able to call up the local council and have them lambaste certain neighbours who like to throw their trash straight out the window, I cannot help but enjoy the heterogeneous mishmash of a Beirut skyline. It is a true reflection of the variety of this city’s people who have had me stumped to answer with any concision the numerous friends who ask curiously – but what are the Lebanese like?

3 Responses to “What are the Lebanese like?”

  1. Chrissy says:

    I’ve found your blog addictive due to curiosity about my Lebanese boyfriend’s hometown, who also gets a kick out of your posts about his country from a Westerner’s perspective. This affiliation also has created a sense of “cheering on” Lebanon and its efforts to retain normalcy in a sea of sociopolitical chaos.

    I have nervously watched the UN tribunal business unfold and I pray that violence doesn’t erupt again, as it seems to do just when Beirut is finally back on its feet. So naturally, your first paragraph caught my eye especially because whenever I read news stories about Lebanon, which are usually very dire and dramatic, and yet I know many diaspora who continually visit even with the looming threat of violence.

    My overriding fear is that the extremists will somehow cause a collapse in the “system” and the country will slowly give way to resembling Saudi Arabia in terms of social freedoms.

  2. Fadi says:

    If it’s any consolation, it’s also very hard for the Lebanese to answer that question. Ever since I’ve come to Sweden I’ve been asked about Lebanon and the Lebanese, and it’s really hard to come up with an answer that sums up the entire heterogeneousness of this tiny country and its people. (I gave it my best shot here if you’re curious http://www.lifewithsubtitles.com/2010/07/beirut-vs-goteborg.html)

    Now as to your comment about community life and your fear of Lebanon collapsing into a KSA-like state, I have to say our sense of community is bent. Sure you people are friendly and help you out if you need anything, but when it comes to people coming together to make a serious difference in the quality of their own lives, we have failed, and still do, disastrously.
    To contrast with Europe, where that sense of local community might not exist, these people have together as a nation and organized themselves in unions, parties, etc.. and made some serious changes that benefit the entire nation. If I had to pick between two kinds of community support, I’d go for the European model, cause while the first one might make you feel good on a day to day basis, it becomes utterly useless when it’s time to lift up your sleeves and get some serious work done.

    That said, and while I have a tendency to believe Lebanon will keep a certain “unusual” character, I have to admit that the possibility it turns into a KSA-like state is not inconceivable. We stick together along very religious lines, and as long as that’s true and we remain religiously territorial in our sense of nationalism, the country is pretty much screwed. We are in fact not a nation, and that right there is something to worry about.

    • Thanks for your comments, Chrissy and Fadi. Lebanon is more resilient than it would seem from the news, Chrissy so there’s hope war is not in fact waiting around the corner. In the meantime, the Lebanese are indeed very good at getting on with life despite the political jitters, and that’s just as well.
      Nice post Fadi. I’m sure Lebanon will always have a character of its own, whatever the future holds.

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