Archive | November, 2009

Rose and Othman

As I was discussing relationships in Lebanon with some friends yesterday, the issue of inter-religious marriage came up, along with the whole debate surrounding civil marriage. While I don’t really want to go into that discussion here, it reminded me of an article published in An Nahar last year. As I’m useless at reading Arabic and decipher it like an 8-year old child, I read it in French in the Courrier International. Below is my own translation from French (you can read the Courrier version here), and I hope it doesn’t vary too much from the original Arabic editorial by Samir Atallah, who happens to be my father and my own personal source of tolerance and inclusion.

Rose and Othman: An Eternal Story by Samir Atallah (An-Nahar)

About 60 years ago, Rose Nasr asked for her mother’s blessing to marry Othman al-Zein. She got her mother’s blessing, on one condition, that she leave the neighbourhood for a while. Rose’s exile lasted barely a week, as she succumbed to the desire to see her mother. When she showed up with her husband, her mother held her and chastised her, saying: « Didn’t I tell you to disappear for a while? We have to seem as though we aren’t on speaking terms for a couple of weeks, for the benefit of our neighbours! ». This couple constituted of a Christian woman and a Sunni Muslim man was amongst the first mixed couples at that time.

Rose was a beautiful Beiruti and Othman had the elegance of an Ottoman aristocrat, with an elaborate moustache as was quite common in Saida at the time. Rose was my cousin, and her wedding had brought Sunnis into my family. I could even claim, jokingly, that I now had Shiite cousins, since Othman had some on his side of the family.

In Lebanon’s golden age, at the eve of its independence, it was possible for a family to have the good sense to counter the futile prejudice brought on by confessionalism. The country’s leaders at the time, Bechara El-Khoury and Riyad Al-Solh, were both patriots opposed to sectarianism. Nonetheless, in the context of our extended family, a few muffled voices still questioned the wisdom of such a union, and ultimately its possible longevity. During the civil war of 1958, Rose stood by my aunt, siding with Camille Chamoun, whereas Othman enthusiastically and unreservedly supported the opposition and the Nasserite revolution.

But the conflict took place in the street, and never crossed the threshold into their conjugal home. As the years passed, so did any doubts as to the viability of the couple. People stopped wondering how Rose would be treated by a Muslim man and the Nasserites had no doubt about the Christian woman’s dedication to the Arab face of her country. All that was left was a picture of happiness, tied together by the presence of a gentle and beautiful wife and mother. As time went by, I had to leave the country and I rarely had updates. But I continued to see in this couple a model for Lebanon, and I saw in it a constant hope. One day, I learnt through Shiite cousins in London, that Othman had been bedridden and sick and that Rose remained at his side to accompany him till the end.

Rose grew up in Beirut, in the Zkak El-Blat neighbourhood. This corner of the city in the 1940s looked like a ferry boat that had gathered passengers from all over. You could find a French family, side-by-side with a Beiruti merchant and his three veiled wives, their generous make-up barely visible through their blue silk scarves. And there was Abou Afif’s house, the first Shiite in the neighbourhood, driven to Beirut by the exodus from the countryside. There was also the Haddad residence, whose daughter would one day become the iconic voice of Lebanon. One day she decided to cross the street and go into the offices of the radio station, and ask if they needed a choir member.

It was a strange place, this quarter of old Beirut where the rural, the urban and the foreign lived together. It welcomed Sunnis and Shiites in a neighbourhood where half the population was Christian. Thanks to these scenes of harmony, thanks to my aunt, I grew up with the idea that the limitations of religion and identity were slowly disappearing. But as I grew older, my optimism and my self-delusion disappeared.

Then, last week, as I was at Madrid airport waiting for a flight to Tangiers, my telephone rang. It was Bassel, Rose and Othman’s son, announcing the passing of his mother. I offered my condolences, and hung up. I was submerged in a wave of sadness, but also struck by a question that had been in the back of my mind for sixty years. I had always wondered, but never broached this now inevitable question. Where would the funeral take place? I called Bassel back to find out. He sounded almost irritated I felt the need to ask: « At the Saint-Elie church, obviously! What else would you expect from my family? »

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The Running Horse

The Running Horse Contemporary Art Space gallery is located in Medawar district of Beirut, better known to those of us unfamiliar with local zoning laws as the area near B018. It is the brain-child of Lea Sednaoui, a graduate of London’s Central Saint Martin’s, and a very welcome addition to the city’s long-neglected art scene. Sednaoui has curated exhibits by foreign as well as local artists, which is just as well because in my opinion art’s primary concern should be intercultural dialogue. You can catch interviews with Lea in Bespoke, NowLebanon and on the fashion website Dia Diwan. I’ll make sure to pass by the gallery this week and collect some of her musings for this blog.

The gallery has featured photography by Balthasar Burkhard and there is currently a showing of paintings by Benoit Debbane. I’d love to give you the address to the place, but as always in Lebanon its a haphazard array of “next to the big tree” and “second left after the man on the plastic chair”. So I’ll let you guys visit the Space’s website and download the very helpful map.

In Loving Memory, Paintings by Benoit Debbane runs until November 29.

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The Fast, The Slow and The Furious

“Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?” – George Carlin

Living in Beirut is a daily struggle. A struggle against power cuts, a struggle against nosy neighbours sticking their heads out of their windows as you stumble home at 5am, a struggle against red-tape and chain-smoking civil servants. But by far the most challenging daily battle is navigating the city’s streets in a motorized vehicle.

Driving in Beirut is the first thing any of my European friends talk about when they get to the city. They just can’t wrap their heads around how the system works. People drive the wrong way down one-way streets, and they do this at speed as if to cancel the illegality of their move by amplifying it. Boy racers zigzag in and out of traffic on battered scooters, pony tails flapping in the wind. Traffic cops urge you to ignore red lights, “Yella! Arrib, mfakar hallak bi Fransa?”. Angry Aunties wrap their wrinkled hands around the horns of their Honda Accords and honk the day away, it’s cheaper than paying for therapy to complain about their unsatisfying husbands. Decaying cab drivers dangle their arms out of their battered relics, and wave them about for no apparent reason, pausing only to reach for a toxic Marlboro resting in a paper pack in their breast pocket. Zouzous in souped-up Japanese coupes with horrendous bodykits plastered with stickers for “Serround Bass” stare at you menacingly through a crack in their tinted windows, with the faint whine of a George Wassouf track in the background.

And the traffic. My lord the traffic! In a city that’s about the size of a Wal-Mart parking lot, it takes hours to get from one place to the next. Cars move along at a snail’s pace, bumper to bumper. Motorists let their heads sink into their hands in despair. Newspapers are read, children do their homework. A fight breaks out every now and again. Men try to flirt and women try to avoid them. All civility starts to slowly evaporate. People start running red lights, because they feel they’re entitled to after having endured an hour of immobility. Two-lane streets suddenly become four-lane highways, with sidewalks miraculously accommodating anyone with a Four Wheel Drive vehicle.

In one sense, I’m lucky I learnt how to drive in Beirut. Even though I was taught by an off duty soldier and bought my license without ever taking a test, I feel like I could drive anywhere from Zimbabwe to Eastern Siberia and not be shocked by anything the world has to throw at me. I once took a blind corner in Hamra, and rammed into a speeding scooter coming the wrong way down a one way street, at speed (see above). I immediately rushed out to see if the guy was ok. He was apparently more than ok, since his first reaction was to chastise me, the law-abiding one, for not expecting him to come down the street. To add insult to injury, he decided to give me a little shove before he got back on his bike and rode off into the sunset. This episode, and many like it, made no sense at the time and still doesn’t. But then again, I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s probably not supposed to, like everything else in our fair city.

There is hope though. I notice that people now stop at traffic lights. This really shouldn’t be considered a victory on the eve of the second decade of the 21st century, but it is when you remember what things were like a few years ago. As a friend of mine put it, there is a thirst for civility. And I think he’s right. I was in a cab to the airport the other day, and the driver started telling me how happy he was that there are traffic lights everywhere now. “Who says we don’t want order and civilization, things are easier when there’s a law to follow!”. It’s just a shame he said that as he reached for a crumpled Marlboro in his breast pocket and took a short-cut the wrong way down a one way street. Some things never change.

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Beirut Art Center – December 2009

Check out the schedule for goings-on at the Beirut Art Center next month. Born in Flames looks like a must-see to me.

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Duet For Cello

Duet for Cello is a new Lebanese feature film being directed by Wafa’a Halawi, who I met a few days ago with a friend. She’s got all the funding in place and its almost done, and by looks of things its going to be quite something. According to the director, it’s an exploration of relationships […]

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Our Man in Beirut

As 2009 slowly comes to an end, Beirut is full of expectation at the upcoming arrival of the hordes of expats for Eid and Christmas. As is usual during the holidays, our sprawling and chaotic capital will double in size. Expect traffic jams as far as the eye can see, lots of gesticulating drivers, queues in restaurants and inflated prices all around.

Up until last August, I used to be one of these returning exiles. I’d sit in the offices of the bank I worked for, a soulless concrete and glass block in London, staring out at the perpetual drizzle and gray skies and think of Beirut. Then, suddenly, I decided it was time to quit and move back to Beirut. The use of the term “move back” was even surprising to me, as I’d only ever lived in Beirut for about 6 years during high school and university. The rest of my years have been spent in the aforementioned drizzle. But I’d always had this longing, even before I’d ever set foot in Lebanon in the 90s, to one day inhabit the country whose faded Ministry of Tourism posters I had plastered around my childhood bedroom on Queen’s Gate.

In the months since I’ve moved here, I’ve dealt with the daily frustrations every Beiruti endures. I’ve spent hours baking in the August sun in the Beirut Port waiting for my furniture, books, DVDs and albums. I think importing a container full of RPGs would have been less cumbersome. It appears books (of which I had 34 boxes) are far more threatening to the powers that be. I’ve endured the traffic jams, the aggressive drivers, the frustrated traffic cops, the bored telephone receptionists, the over-zealous security guards, the gossipy housewives, the faux-hippies, the faux-jetsetters. I’ve gotten used to the fact that people can smoke in restaurants, clubs, hospitals, airports, offices. I’ve tried not to stare at the botched nose jobs and garish dress sense. I’ve accepted that my internet connection slowly evaporates as the rain starts to trickle and then pour down through flooded streets. I’ve accepted that on the sunniest of days, my internet connection is still only about a 20th of the speed of the one I just left behind in the West.

Then one day, I flipped. I refused to believe I lived here. I’d tell people vaguely that I lived between Beirut and Paris. I promptly packed my bags and went to Paris for over a month. Since I quit a soul-destroying career in finance, I’ve decided I would take up my one and only passion, writing, and make a career out of it. I’m currently working on a book about Saudi Arabia’s regional wars, as well as a first novel. While I was in Paris, I was also working on an online magazine I’d been developing for a few months. Since most of my intellectual fodder comes from Manhattan-based publications, I wanted to launch an online arts & culture magazine in the same vain. I could basically live anywhere I wanted and work from my laptop.

Then, a week ago, I returned from Paris. I found the same insistent cab drivers at the airport, the same cops shouting vague threats at incorrectly parked motorists outside the arrivals terminal. My heart sank immediately. I was back. A few days of moderate depression ensued, with daydreams of my next flight out of here. Then one morning, I decided to head to my father’s ancestral village. One of the last places where I can escape to without the burden of car horns and wireless internet. I had always admired how my father has travelled to the four corners of the earth, but still only finds true peace amongst the pine trees of his native village. Sitting on a sundrenched terrace, staring down a sunlit and green valley all the way to the sea, I realized my place was in Beirut. I finally accepted that I now live here.

As I drove back to home, thoughts were racing through my mind. As soon as I got back into the 21st century, and found my wireless connection, I purchased this domain to the page you’re now reading. I have now scrapped my initial ideas for an online magazine, and will now direct my online efforts towards this blog. The daily musings of a returning expat, with all the frustrations and joys that this implies. As Beirutis and Lebanese, we’re quite good at complaining about our plight, but we’re not really proactive about it.

Over the years I’ve posted a few thoughts on Lebanon and the Lebanese on my personal blog and on various forms of social media (you can read a couple that I’ve reposted on this blog get a taste of what’s to come). Some have been plagiarized; others quoted on blogs and in books. The last note I posted on my Facebook profile drew 80 responses, so it’s pretty obvious a lot of people share my frustrations and hopes, and more importantly they want to discuss them.

So, on Monday night, this blog was born. The title “Our Man in Beirut” is a reference to the byline attached to foreign journalists and the segways made by news anchors to war correspondents. I thought it was appropriate as I often feel like a stranger in my own city. You’ll find my own musings as well as links to videos and articles of interest, with some form of snooty commentary from yours truly.

Enjoy, and thanks for reading.

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The Lebanon I Dream Of

The Lebanon I Dream Of is probably my favorite Lebanon-related video making the rounds at the moment. It’s produced and directed by Pierre Dawalibi and features interviews with an interesting cross-section of people, from cartoon artists to folk singers. It makes alot of sense throughout and is very moving in parts. A must see for […]

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Flying Kebab – Episode 5

Flying Kebab is a narrative web series that follows the adventures of a Brazilian photographer, Nando, played by Fernando Borges, as he tries to make sense of his heritage and his inheritence on the streets of Beirut. The series kicks off as Nando is informed of a mysterious inheritance left to him thousands of miles […]

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Dubai is Booming!

Here’s a hilarious video of a few of my friends killing some time in a cafe in Beirut during the wave of car bombs that took place a couple of years back. Enjoy.

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You Know in Libanon You Can Ski and Swim in Ze Same Day?

This post was first published on November 4th 2009 on my personal blog. It has since been forwarded as an email, on Facebook and ,again, plagiarized by the unimaginative.

A few years back I wrote a piece called “Becoming Lebanese: A Step-by-Step Guide”. After I posted the thing on my blog, it went viral on a couple of social networks and gained a new life as an internet forward, which still puts a smile on my face when I receive them from the oddest of sources. A few unscrupulous souls even claimed the piece as their own and printed it in various places. But who cares, the point is, we Lebbos love making fun of ourselves from the time to time. Or so I thought.

It’s interesting to see how people read a satirical piece of that kind. I’ve bumped into friends who’ve read and it and said “ya man, zat’s so true. There’s lots of Lebanese zouzous man”, completely oblivious to the fact they are the butt of this particular joke. Herein lies our major problem as a nation: we are convinced we have no flaws, and if we admit some flaws they’re a cute by-product of our awesomeness.

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