Beirut’s pick’n’mix existence

Having been in Beirut for 2 weeks now I felt I should probably get down to the usual cliched first impressions-type post….here it is.

1. When I left the airport at 4am, with Muhammed to find the hostel, my happiness at finally arriving was jarred suddenly by 3 huge armed tanks and lots of soldiers somewhere along the motorway. The naivety most European people, or maybe just the British?, have towards an Armies presence is probably widespread, given that I hardly ever see the British Army anywhere – all i know is they wear khaki….

well I could tell you in great detail what the Lebanese Armed Forces wear because they have checkpoints dotted around the city and are generally placed on guard outside any building vaguely related to the Government of Lebanon. In the first few days that was obviously perturbing given that there blockades over the pavements I needed to walk on, made up of those temporary fences you see in festivals, but about 4 fences-deep, as well as those plastic and concrete road blocks and in some places coils of serrated wire, meaning the only place to go is into the road. I watched others just squeezing through the tiny gap between the fences and the wall, or totally ignoring the soldiers and just walking in the road…it seemed to work so I gave it a try, and lo and behold nothing happened! I didn’t think I’d be the person ignoring an armed soldier when I’m on his patch and he says ‘hello’ to me, but I am, because honestly? When they address me, they’re obviously just bored.
2. Another airport memory of interest was that the whole flight from Berlin to Beirut was populated by large families and networks of families and friends from somewhere in the Arab world – there were about 4 non-Arab people on the whole plane. Half of the plane were veiled women. When we arrived and proceeded through airport security etc, and got to the visa’s section, only a few of those on the flight were Lebanese, less than 10 for sure. I know this because you can waltz straight through if you have a Lebanese passport, and the for the rest of us, we have to fill in a small piece of card. So the hall was full of veiled women and crying babies who’d been woken up, filling out these cards. Yet now that I have arrived, I can count on one hand the number of veiled women I have seen.
3. It is hard to describe the pick’n’mix that is Beirut. It has the glitzy attitude of the Gulf but alongside the less developed ‘quaint’ traits of the rest of the Middle East – it does after all rely on tourists from the Gulf for its survival apparently. There are high-end clubs and hotels along on the waterfront-the most extreme being Sky Bar which is owned by the richest man in Beirut with an entrance fee of $2000 per table, and of course you must fulfill a certain image yourself-alongside the Palestinian refugees apparantly ‘causing trouble’ on the one and only public beach in Beirut, just down the promenade. There are countless bored men just hanging around on the promenade watching those who can afford to be on small man-made James Bond style sunbathing headlands like these:

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4. And this whole glittering facade is maintained by an army of immigrant workers; mostly from India and various countries of Africa. You can be sure they are behind the scenes doing the labour in most situations. Any of the less desirable jobs will be done by non-Lebanese, (except street shoe-shining..) I was even surprised to look through the kitchen window of a hostel I was staying in, which is not a big enterprise, and see all black faces in the kitchen. If you see a green uniform on the street, which indicates one of the many many street cleaners here, they won’t be Lebanese, and if you walk to work around rush hour you’ll see all the African women in their cleaning outfits of pastel colours and cushioned shoes. From what I can see they are ignored in public, and they are used to being ignored. What a strange existence given they are maintaining this glistening life of glass, white walls and palm trees.
5. Construction is BOOMing in Beirut, (particularly outside my flat window early in the morning…), and apparently it doesn’t show any sign of slowing. There are huge squares of empty land either guarded by private security or Lebanese forces waiting to be developed; or else there are screened off squares of land with images of this INCREDIBLE-SUPER-SUAVE-IT-WILL-CHANGE-YOUR-LIFE-DEVELOPMENT; or they are in the process of digging down to form what looks like a chasm, which, my guess would be, is to be able to lay down foundations deep enough to support the straight-up sky-high structures that Beirut is churning out right now. One of the strangest and biggest that i’ve come across so far, is ‘Development //S’, as though it were some new web domain rather than Lebanon’s first ‘green’ development of its kind [the mosque behind is not part of it!]. One of its slogans is “A cosmopolitan future with firm historical roots”, which I love, if it were true.

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It seems that for instance just round the corner in one of the areas of downtown where the original souks always were, there were incredibly beautiful pieces of architecture with the usual connected up souk structure. This was all left to disintegrate and get overgrown during the war, but all the properties and land were then bought up by the then Prime Minister Rafic Harriri to redo all the buildings, for the people of Beirut. What it now is represents something very different, this is clear to outsiders like me, and to most Beirutis whom I’ve met who are not glitterati. The new Beirut souks is a cleaner than clean, hyper expensive development full of designer shops, huge empty restaurants, empty pedestrianised walkways (probably the only ones in the whole of Beirut), only attractive to the mega-rich. And all the other new developments offer the hint of an original window-shape here and there, but ultimately no, do nothing to preserve what probably was a very rich architectural history made up of French and Arab traditions.

The other thing is that when the structures are up, some of the builders/labourers, live inside them, this one is hanging his washing out to dry:

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6. BUT YES now a word on the people! I have never felt this safe as a woman wondering around by myself, not even in Bristol or London which I know better and am basically native too. Its incredible, especially given that I don’t come across many women, that I don’t feel more ill at ease or judged. All the Lebanese I’ve met so far have been wonderfully welcoming, and make good use of the stock phrase “just call me if need anything“. Also, the men pay for everything for the women here, even when they don’t know you very well! And for the cynics around, no it doesn’t feel as though you owe something in return. I have tried my hardest to pay for lots of things, but have always lost the race, so I gave in, though its not something I’ve got used to yet. Today for instance I walked past a shop and the owner came out and started talking to me, he almost immediately invited me in for lunch because he’d just sat down to eat, saying the Lebanese have a phrase (which I can’t remember in Arabic) saying you should never eat alone. So we ate together. And drank lots of Arak (the same as raki or ouzo from Greece), and then smoked sheesha…so the hospitality is pretty unparalleled so far!

7. One last thing: pavements. They are either parked on, non-existent, or in the process of construction or re-construction. Walking to work is like an assault course, and several times I’ve sworn I walked on that bit of pavement in the morning but by the afternoon it had all been pulled up and the stones lay in a heap on the road…

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