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?