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.
Never has this been more apparent to me than during the summer of 2009. By about May, I had decided I would be moving to Lebanon after a rather pleasant 21 years spent in London. I knew this would be tough, given that I’d be confronting an army of surgically enhanced bimbos and cranially-challenged men on my arrival. It’s the predicament of any returning exile. You have to reconcile the comforts you’ve come to enjoy abroad with the comforts you are moving to Lebanon to take advantage of.
So I can no longer enjoy having lunch alone with a good book, for fear of being labelled an intellectual loner, but I get 8 months of summer a year. Fair trade-off, I guess. But there are other, deeper rooted problems that I can’t help but be annoyed by. For example, I’m much chuffed, in my own selectively patriotic way, about Lebanon showing up on a bunch of “Must Visit” lists last year. However, I’m more than a bit disheartened that this inclusion often comes attached with the dubious title of “Party Capital of the Middle East”. You’ll hear locals go on for hours about how some roof top bar is by far the best club in the universe.
This poses a problem on many levels. On the one hand, most people extolling this precept tend to not be well travelled enough to claim this. Most haven’t even been to their neighbouring town. But this isn’t the main bone I have to pick with these guys. It’s why should we be proud of our clubbing? I mean, I enjoy a good party as much as the next guy, and have probably overindulged on occasion, much to the chagrin of past employers, who’s headquarters I would grace with my presence with a very Mediterrenean tardiness. But judging our whole culture by our ability to place a lot of furniture in a given space and pour drinks into glasses provided by large alcohol companies? This hardly seems fair to a country steeped in history and achievement. A country that has withstood the wrath of warring kingdoms, empires and even of Mother Nature. Are we really reduced to judging our fair land by a bearded bartender’s ability to pour a vodka-redbull? Or a DJ’s ability to select an iTunes playlist?
On the plus side, this publicity did mean we had an unusually high number of fair skinned, blue eyed, clueless tourists to admire throughout the summer. But then I’d overhear friends and acquaintances refer to these gracious visitors as “Ajaneb” (Strangers) rather than “Souweh” (tourists). What might seem like a mere haphazard linguistic occurrence is actually very revelatory about local Lebanese perceptions. A stranger is someone whose motives on your land are unclear and vague. A tourist is someone you engage with, and welcome (beyond just accepting their money at your gift shop or restaurant). A tourist is also someone you learn from, it’s a two way relationship.
Sadly, from the anecdotal evidence in front of me, most of these exchanges went along the lines of: “ah, you arrre sweedish? Very bootiful womans!” or the age-old “you know in libanon you can ski and swim in ze same day”. What happened to our great nation when this is all we have to say for ourselves? What about the layers of history Beirut is built upon? What about the sites? The obvious, like Baalbek, and the less obvious like artist studios and picturesque villages scattered around the countryside. What about our rivers? What about our writers, poets, artists, singers, criminals and scavengers? The people that make a place worth seeing. Believe me; all these tourists have bartenders perfectly capable of pouring them a vodka-redbull back home, let’s make sure we show them we have something better.