Archive | January, 2010

A Tale of Two Cities

Right off the bat I’d like to apologize, I’ve been absent for a couple of weeks, which is inexcusable in the world of blogging. However, I haven’t been particularly inspired for a whole host of reasons, and I would rather not write than unleash a load of piffle unto the world. However, I finally have something to say again, so you can revel in my superficial insights and nagging tirades once again.

The worst cliché amongst the plethora of bad clichés available to mankind is the one that states your abhorrence of clichés, promptly followed by the use of one. So here goes. Absence really does make the heart grow fonder.

I recently spent a week in Qatar, experiencing the Gulf beyond Dubai. As one might expect from a bourgeoning oil-rich Gulf economy on the shores of the Arabian Gulf, it is replete with shimmering skyscrapers of all shapes and sizes, man-made islands, gargantuan shopping malls, white Land Cruisers, sun burnt expats and south-east Asian labor. It’s not a place particularly fussed about tourists or visitors beyond the transiting passengers of the wildly successful Qatar Airways. It’s practically impossible to hail a cab anywhere in the city, there’s essentially one museum, a souk and not much else. The city is infested with construction cranes and vacant buildings. Towers rise out of the desert and stand empty, corroding away in the gentle caress of the sands. But all in all, it’s a great place to make a living and it doesn’t have any of the gaudy excess of its shinier neighbor (you know, the one with all the “Biggest” and “Tallest” in front of everything).

The Lebanese friends I saw are making the most of it, settling into healthy routines and giving themselves completely to their work. They do so almost joylessly though; talk of a dreamed return to Beirut always creeping in early on in any conversation. I would try to comfort them, saying half-heartedly that Lebanon wasn’t all it was cracked up to be, and that they were romanticizing the place due to their position as voluntary exiles. Until one of these friends asked me if I’d ever watched Beyrouth Derniere. I’d heard about the show (a one-off spin off of Paris Derniere broadcast by French cable channel Paris Premiere) but I’d never found it anywhere. So we sat down in from of his laptop and watched it.

Before I explain what the show’s about, allow me to indulge in a little rant. Contrarily to most of my beloved friends, I tend to be mostly irritated by foreign (and local) coverage of Lebanon and its supposed attractions. I cringe anytime I read about calls to prayer overlapping with the ringing of church bells as the sun gently sets across a shimmering Mediterranean. I shudder when I read about a veiled woman crossing paths with a mini-skirt wearing blonde along the Corniche. I’m left with a sour aftertaste anytime I read about the sense of impeding danger hanging in the air even as people party away at rooftop bars. Although I can’t deny that these things occur, I’m infuriated by the constant lacing of commentary on Lebanon with a touch of exoticism, post-colonial guilt and the conflict-porn of bored Europeans.

It seems we are relegated to being an amalgamation of clichés, some of them of our own making. For example, in 1968 Abdallah Farah published a series of postcards of Beirut. We’re all familiar with them, they’re the weathered and battered clichés of Beirut in the 1960s that are still sold in some bookshops that time has forgotten. In the early 1990s they were the only postcards you could find anywhere. So here we were, perpetuating an image petrified in time. A Beirut from the Golden Age, as if the war had never happened, and it was of little importance that half the places represented on these postcards didn’t even exist anymore. If anyone were to receive one them in the post, it would be a postcard from another era, let alone another country. Basically, I had always been waiting for an accurate portrayal of what Beirut was to me.

So, it is in the context of these various imaginings of the same geographic place that I return to the television show I watched in Doha last week. The concept of the show is that the host (who you never see) has a handheld camcorder, and goes around town interviewing people. He usually does this at various venues around Paris. The resulting feel of the show is very intimate and realistic, as you’re basically looking at the world through the host’s eyes (technically your vantage point is that of peeking over his shoulder). His escapades in Beirut are varied. He’s shown around town by renowned architect Bernard Khoury, musician Zeid Hamdane, he wanders around Sabra and Chatila with actress Beatrice Dalle (a favorite of mine because we both have gapped teeth). It basically feels like you’re showing a friend around town, the good the bad and the ugly. He even ends up at some sort of drug-fuelled sex party in the hills above town, which might shock some, but it does happen and is an integral part of our city. So here was Beirut, laid out on video, in its excess and its decorum. In its superficial intellectualism, and its deep superficiality.

But watching this show was almost like a revelation. Amongst the highly ascepticized skyscrapers of Qatar, I suddenly remembered I lived in a real city. It isn’t a city made up of artificial islands and towering temples to all that is shiny and new, built in the hope that people will flock to inhabit them. It is an organic city, sprawling and disorganized, and all the more attractive for it. A city that contracts and expands in tandem with the demographic and societal demands of its population and not some oasis-like dream. I have to say, my friend and I sat there in front of the screen in a nostalgia-induced numbness, mine tempered by the fact that I would be coming home the following day.

Being Lebanese and Mediterranean, our actions are often laced with a heavy dose of passion. We wave our hands about comically in order to convey our points in conversations; we greet people with “a thousand welcomes of welcomes”. Everything is superlative, from the size of our Hummers to the depths of our hospitality. So it’s quite natural that our relationship with our country is also one of passion. It’s a relationship between lovers. But like all romantic endeavors, after an initial phase of unbridled admiration and steamy romps, we settle into a facile habituation.

During this phase we take our partner for granted, and start complaining about the futilities of life. The way she squeezes the toothpaste tube from the middle rather than from the end. The way she places pot pourri in a bowl near the television. We start taking each other for granted and become infuriated at the slightest hint of one of our pet peeves. However, should you spend a week or a month away from your better half, you’ll quickly remember what it is you love about them, and you’ll find yourself in anticipation on the road home. You look forward to the passionate embrace, to the inevitable tryst. And so, on my trip back, I realized I was lucky to be coming back to this city I love and hate in equal measure. Source of all my frustrations and all of my ambitions. It’s good to be home.

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Treks and the City

Of all the pleasures one misses when moving to a new country, the most taxing are often also the simplest. I, for example, miss a certain sense of anonymity which comes with living in a sprawling metropolis. This same anonymity which allows you to head to the supermarket unshowered and in your Superman pajamas free from the anxiety of a possible encounter with a distant relative, colleague or classmate. There are plenty of these little things I miss, but by far the thing I miss most is walking.

Walking in the Middle East as a whole seems to be an activity that is frowned upon. Indeed it is a region where the car is ubiquitous and often gargantuan and gas-guzzling. It is a region where walking from one end of a mall to the other is considered physically strenuous, as evidenced by a recent Economist study which shows the region to have the highest obesity rate in the world (with Lebanon way at the top at number 1. Woohoo, world champs!). I can understand the aversion to walking outdoors in Arab countries in Saharan Africa or in the Gulf, where the climate isn’t adapted to the pursuit of casual wandering, but we in Lebanon have no excuse.

Overall, the climate is typically Mediterranean and temperate, set aside a couple of scorching months in the summer and a month of torrential downpour in the winter. Granted, the city is quite uneven topographically (which could exert a wheeze from the less fit, such as myself) and the sidewalks are an afterthought in the city’s urban planning, if one can speak of such a thing. Indeed, sidewalks seem to be built without really taking into account that anyone may be adventurous enough to walk along them. They are about 30 centimeters in width, and most of that is taken up by illegally parked cars. If you do find a spot unencumbered by an immobile (sometimes even mobile) vehicle, you have to spend your time playing dodge with a plethora of nonsensical, ignored and improbably placed traffic signs. But, nevertheless, if you decided to park your car and trek across town, you could do it with relative ease.

I have to admit, I never really bothered walking around Beirut before. Although I was addicted to walking everywhere in London and on weekend trips around Europe, I got sucked into the prevailing ease with which one goes through life here. People drive their cars from their home to their given destination where they proceed to valet the vehicle. If no valet is available, they go into a prolonged panic even though the street is littered with spaces and parking lots. However, over the indescribably busy holiday period, I came upon a novel idea. Drive close enough to where you’re going, park your car, and proceed to walk around form meeting to meeting for the rest of the day. Journeys started to take ten pleasant minutes instead of a stressful half-hour. I noticed buildings I’d driven past hundreds of times but never bothered to look at.

Cities everywhere are successions of comfort-zones we create for ourselves. Our living rooms, our office cubicles, our favorite cafes and bars. Wherever you live, you fall into a routine that involves roaming around from one of these areas to the next. The capitals of the world like London and New York start to become manageable when you settle into this pattern of habituation. However, the moments where you interact with these cities come from pounding their pavements and engaging with their hive-like public transports networks. That is where you overhear conversations, come up against interesting characters, catch fleeting glimpses of would-be lovers, sneak peeks over people’s shoulders to read to check the progress of their crossword puzzles. Sadly in Beirut, we don’t have access to this hive. Our cars become an additional comfort zone, where we fail to interact with our surroundings, beyond the occasional fender bender and flipped finger from a rolled-down window.

Let’s not forget, that much like any city, Beirut is has a treasure trove of alleyways, architecture and people to discover once you stand upright and put one foot in front of the other. There are streets in Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael which you can only access by ascending uneven steps into pedestrian alleyways. A whole network of decrepit traditional colonial houses, replete with interesting characters awaits you. Having ventured into this labyrinth I’ve been met with the vicious gnarls of barely chained guard dogs as well as the warm smiles of ancient veiled widows tending to their colonies of feline companions. Elsewhere, wandering around the structured chaos of Hamra’s main thoroughfare and side streets is really the only way to discover the wealth of cafes, holes in the wall and jazz bars that litter the area. Aimlessly sauntering through its newly cobbled streets you’ll see blonde, blue eyed expats retracing the steps of their Missionary forefathers, although they’re probably more interested in the eponymous sexual position than the religious mission these days.

Once you abandon your car and walk around, you glide through traffic jams and drown out the sounds you hate. Much like swimming underwater on a sunny day, the sounds from the outside world become a dull and soothing thud, that leave you alone with your thoughts. Walking has long been viewed as the only true way to commune with a place or even to engage in creative thought. In his Confessions Jean-Jacques Rousseau says “I can only meditate when I am walking. When I stop, I cease to think, my mind only works on my legs”. Even in ancient Greece, the Peripatetic Philosophers, of which Aristotle was a member, owed their name to their inclination for walking whilst conjuring up great ideas. Maybe we owe some of our lackadaisical cultural pursuits in this town to our lack of curiosity to discovering it on foot. Next time you’re driving down the road for a kilometer journey, think of your health, the environment and your brain, park your car and hit our tiny and hazardous pavements.

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