A Bit of Blighty in Beirut

As some of you know, I spent the best part of 22 years living in London. This means that I’m possessed with a sort of permanent wistful melancholy, a penchant for a mug of PG tips and the occasional violent outburst at a football match. You can imagine that the cultural baggage one accumulates in the UK is kind of hard to share with someone who doesn’t understand the culture. The English sense of humour is famously puzzling to anyone who hasn’t spent time on the British Isles.

True, it’s hardly as obscure as say being from Botswana, but when I want to reminisce about watching Newsround and Bananaman, I’ve always felt fellow Brits were few and far between in Beirut. Any Beirutis who grew up in the US have it easy, American culture being so ubiquitous that I’m sure even Massai tribesmen in Kenya are aware that Ross and Rachel were on a break. Anyone who grew up in France is also spoilt for choice when it comes to popular culture. Lebanon is a francophone country, and prides itself, sometimes misguidedly, on its links to our ex-colonizers, something of a prolonged Stockholm syndrome. You even get the full bouquet of French terrestrial and satellite TV stations from your neighborhood pirate cable provider. My provider comes in the form of a diminutive Armenian man who seems to have inherited very little from his ancestors beyond one tooth, a stutter, a sweaty disposition and no understanding of what the BBC is.

I can’t complain too much though, because things are much easier than the last time I moved to Beirut in 1997. Back then I had to rely on memory for any attachment to my native London. I had to dig out old VHS tapes of Have I Got News For You, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. Oh, by the by, VHS tapes were those big boxy things we used before DVDs, for you kids out there.

Now I download the latest episodes of QI and Mock The Week on YouTube. I download podcasts from BBC Four, and enjoy the surreal prospect of listening to Germaine Greer discuss post-feminism whilst I’m stuck in traffic behind a pimped-out yellow Honda Civic with two of Lebanon’s finest soldiers whistling at everything in a skirt.

And more recently, I’ve actually been meeting Brits, of the proper kind and the Lebanese kind, like myself. And as they say, once it rains it pours. I went from not knowing a single Brit for years to suddenly being surrounded by people from all corners of the UK. I’m overcome with a very un-English sense of joy when I speak to someone who has a proper English accent, never mind if it’s from Godalming, Somerset or Manchester.  So in the last few weeks I’ve been remincing about a childhood spent watching Superted, Neighbours and The Bill. I’ve been recounting tales of meeting Jet, Hunter and John Fashinu at a taping of Big Break’s Christmas special with John Virgo and Jim Davidson. This probably means nothing to most people, but it means the world to me.

I’ve been away from Beirut for a couple of weeks now. I spent a few days in London last week, and it was refreshing to walk around aimlessly on pavements under a gentle drizzle. It was nice to wander into Waterstone’s and ask knowledgeable staff for book recommendations. It was nice to walk past my old school, my old university and my old flat. It was nice to walk into a pub with carpets rendered pungent from years of spilt lager. It was nice to have a conversation with a cabbie “bout all these fecking foreigners”, with a delightful sense of irony and self-awareness.

One particularly chilly day I headed to Canary Wharf for an interview. I boarded the Jubilee Line armed with a well-stocked iPod and a copy of the Financial Times. As the train trundled along, I caught a reflection of myself in the window. I was far paler than I was a week ago, especially in the unforgiving neon light. I looked like a caged corporate slave again, my Windsor knot choking any ambitions of creativity I have been harboring for the past year. My lips were chapped. I looked down at my hands clutching the FT, dried and cracked from the subzero temperatures outside. When I got to my interview, I gave it my all. I was even invited back for a second round, which I’ve politely declined.

I’m afraid London isn’t home anymore. I’m afraid there are ambitions I have for myself in Beirut, I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes a difference. I have role to play in Beirut that surpasses my role as a faceless zombie on the Jubilee Line. Plus its warm in Beirut. And most important of all, I miss it.

13 Responses to “A Bit of Blighty in Beirut”

  1. Omar
    March 12, 2010 at 6:28 pm #

    One of my fav’s geeza!

  2. Dania
    March 12, 2010 at 6:36 pm #

    Excellent piece!

  3. tinkeyeh
    March 12, 2010 at 6:55 pm #

    YEY!

    Love the last paragraph. I’m always happy when I see ex-expats reconverting to the Lebanese way :)
    Ahla wou sahla fik, you said it beautifully :)
    Yalla spread the love around.

  4. Caline Malek
    March 12, 2010 at 7:12 pm #

    Aaah Nasri….I told you you’d be back. When will you ever listen? :) Yet again, love it. Now come back please, will be waiting for you in the sunshine 😉 x

  5. Nasri Atallah
    March 12, 2010 at 8:00 pm #

    Omar and Dania – Thanks guys :)

    tineyeh – haha, you feel like you ‘ve got an extra member on the team?

    caline – i know, i should really listen to women more often. you lot know what you’re on about.

  6. Caline Malek
    March 13, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    Agreed 😀

  7. Kav
    March 15, 2010 at 9:13 am #

    Ahhh Nasri-fab post-really enjoyed it and happy to know that you have opted not to stay in London-we need you here xxx k

  8. Neyla
    March 15, 2010 at 1:27 pm #

    J’AIIIIMEEEE!!!!!!!!:)))

  9. Nasri Atallah
    March 15, 2010 at 1:42 pm #

    Kav – aww bless your heart :)

    Neyla – Merci cocotte!

  10. Juana Khandjian
    March 15, 2010 at 1:45 pm #

    Nasri… this is so true to my own feelings and sentiments it’s like i’m hearing my own voice in this. Brilliant… so let us londoner, ex lycee, soasians join for a banter over a cocktail in a carpetless bar in gemayze and enjoy the warmth while bitching about beirutis and reminiscing about a london that somehow can never be the home we once knew yet will still always provide that touchstone for us “feking foreigners”!! 😉

  11. Nasri Atallah
    March 15, 2010 at 8:32 pm #

    Juana – Deal! Enough with the parallel lives lol

  12. Lara
    June 30, 2010 at 12:57 pm #

    Very nicely written. I share the Canary Wharf experience after a successful interview at a drug agency there. I stayed a couple of days to observe and live that part of London a bit to see what I am getting myself into this time. The artificially set up area is empty at daylight, I even missed the birds. Then just a bit after 5 pm swarms of smartly dressed men and women (you can’t tell them apart, appears they all wear the same suits) swarm out to get their obligatory work out at the glass gym to then head to the sushi bar or to the supermarket (in their suits again) hunting for dinner on their own to be in the corporate world again the next morning. It is then where I thought, I don’t want to end up in Futurama.
    The morning I left I got a coffee to go from a Krispey Kr… stand smiling at the young dark boy who handed it out to me and who sincerely thanked me for the small talk (after 9am) telling me I am the first in months to give him some of my time. That got me a free Doughnut :) which was by far the sweetest one I had so far. After that I declined the offer in London and finally took the decision to wrap things up and head back to the East.
    Thank you for blogging !

  13. Nasri Atallah
    July 8, 2010 at 4:07 pm #

    Thanks for all the comments Lara. Glad you escaped Canary Wharf safe and sound :)

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