Anonymous Anonymous.

I’m writing this whilst sitting on the sun-soaked terrace of a Parisian café. What a f**king cliché, right? But I’m not inclined to mind, despite my deep-seeded hatred of the cliché. It feels great to be sitting here, playing the role of someone with weighty concerns on his mind, furiously jotting down ideas in a battered Moleskine notebook.

I wont lie to you, and you’ve probably noticed form some of the stuff I’ve written recently, Beirut and I have hit a bit of a rough patch over the last couple of months. I’ve been experiencing a sense of cabin fever. The constant maelstrom of political posturing, or to give it its Latin name Bullshittus Politicus, is getting exhausting to watch and is downright unavoidable. However much I want to live in my apolitical, semi-hipster bubble, there will always be a TV screen, a serveece driver or a neighbour, eager to dump upon me the minutiae of the day’s political meandering.

Then there’s the ubiquitous car horn. I really hope someone, some day writes a PhD thesis about the use of the car horn in Lebanese daily life. I’m sure there are a plethora of psychosexual explanations for its permanent use. Freud might have something to say about it. Maybe serveece drivers weren’t hugged enough by their mothers.

But what has been most difficult in recent months, has been seeing the same people day in, day out. Before all my friends unfriend me on Facebook, what I mean by that is I can’t take seeing the same strangers everyday. I’m lucky to have amazing friends, and I never tire of them (although their feelings towards me might not be as enthusiastic). But, even though Beirut is a teeming metropolis of around 2 million people, it feels like a Mediterranean village. Every face looks vaguely familiar. Everyone looks kind of the same. You’re bound to know everyone you come across through a friend of a friend.  Man, for my first year in Lebanon everyone seemed to turn out to be a cousin (Note: the Lebanese definition of cousin is quite broad. It could include someone who invited your great uncle for coffee once in 1946).

Looking at any street scene in Beirut, you can make an educated guess about 80% of those around you. “Hmm, that guy looks like he studied Business at AUB, then went to some French business school and he now runs the family cement factory in Zimbabwe, but comes home every other weekend to see his fiancé and his mistress”. Even the expats are predictable “Hmm, I’m guess he works for some obscure UN agency with an acronym that the country manager is still trying to figure out the meaning of. He’s grown a beard to feel “authentic” and only eats at Le Chef in Gemmayze and drinks at Captain’s Cabin in Hamra”.

But as I sit here, being scoffed at by a Parisian waiter, I have absolutely no idea about anyone around me’s life. Everyone walking by is a true stranger. I have no idea who anyone is. And it’s beautiful.

And it’s not because I know nothing of Paris, I come here often enough to consider myself a semi-local. Which means I can draw broad strokes. For example, that kid reclining nonchalantly on a wall by the Metro station, he looks half-emo half-hipster. I’m guessing he’s actually from a well-off family and lives in the 8th arrondissement, Daddy’s probably a manager at Bouyges Telecom or something. The kid just enjoys looking poor and hanging around on pavements, and he probably attends one of the universities in the area. There are clichés everywhere, that’s why they are clichés.

But there is enough diversity here to leave you bewildered. Throngs of people walk past. They are oblivious to the frayed collar on my shirt, to the couple of kilos I’ve put on recently. They couldn’t care less about me. And it feels great.

Is it fair to compare Paris to Beirut? Absolutely not. Is it inevitable whilst I sit here? Probably. It’s great to blend into a puddle of grudging anonymity. It’s healthy. As Samia Serageldin writes in the opening lines to her novel The Cairo House, there’s a beautiful moment of transition from thinking you’re a hometown hotshot to knowing you’re a small fish in a big city pond.

Small towns, with their familiarity and close-knit connections, sometimes give us delusions of grandeur. Everyone in Beirut thinks they’re someone. A city of 2 million superstars.

It’s a great feeling to know you’re nothing. To get elbowed out of the way on the metro. To wait in line for everything, everywhere. It’s a feeling I’ve missed.

But you know what the best thing about swanning around Europe for two weeks is? I get to miss Beirut. I get to miss the familiarity, the friends and the Sunday lunches. I get to miss everything I take for granted.

I’m off to my native London tomorrow, which was my home for 23 years. And I look forward to more anonymous queuing and shoving on the Tube.  But I go there in the knowledge, for the first time, that I am lucky to now have two hometowns.  Two cities that are a complete contradiction of one another, but that are complementary. I am very lucky indeed.


15 Responses to “Anonymous Anonymous.”

  1. Danielle
    April 6, 2011 at 2:49 pm #

    effin’ brilliant.

  2. Zozoped
    April 6, 2011 at 2:57 pm #

    Actually, Paris and Beirut do have about the same number of people leaving in it. Living here myself, everyday I seem to meet someone I know at every corner of the streets, or in the Franprix when buying my daily pasta.

    I guess the difference is that people move from one district to the other in Paris while in Beirut there are some lines you rarely cross…

  3. Omar Labz
    April 6, 2011 at 11:28 pm #

    Great post mate. Enjoy blighty and holler when ur back!

  4. Fran6
    April 7, 2011 at 9:33 am #

    Great post , keep on the good work 😉

  5. Liliane
    April 7, 2011 at 9:40 am #

    A city of 2 million superstars. <– I loved this among many other expressions you said.

    I agree with you on the Paris part, that is why probably I fell in love with Paris I guess and I am guessing I would feel the same way about any other similar city. The fact that no one knows you, and you don't know anyone, takes you from being a "superstar" to someone with so much power that is born from simple "anonymity"


  6. Mustapha
    April 7, 2011 at 1:21 pm #

    Man you seriously need to write more often..

  7. Life with Subtitles
    April 7, 2011 at 5:36 pm #

    Really cool post ! That part about the car horn reminded me of something I wrote after moving to Göteborg:
    “When in Lebanon, you honk your horn. It’s part of the culture, it’s pretty much our second official language”

    It’s my first time here, and I’m looking forward to read more. Listen to Mustapha, he’s on to something..

    Cheers !

  8. T.A.I.
    April 8, 2011 at 7:50 pm #

    While reading this post, I was thinking “he has a point, but…constant anonymity, and the individual lifestyle of the west can become just as oppressive over time”. However, you redeemed yourself from what at first seemed like a one sided view of things, with the brilliant conclusion that I’m sure all Lebanese living or having lived abroad can relate to.

  9. Nick
    April 9, 2011 at 12:10 am #

    There’s a great song performed by a Canadian by the name of Holly Cole called “Get out of town” ….always a good thing to do now and then.

    Cool blog

  10. Posh
    April 9, 2011 at 12:28 am #

    Other than agreeing with everyone about how awesome you write, I have to second the previous commenter. Having lived in Europe for the most part of the last 6 years, I know what you mean about the annoying little things about Beirut and how London (for me) can be such a breath of fresh air – the anonymity and all the rest. I always say that in London I love how I get lost in the crowd. I become just another number. It is sometimes a privilege that is overlooked.

    But, you come to a brilliant conclusion that I very much relate to and that is: as a Lebanese, it only takes a couple of weeks before I begin missing the familiarity and the warmth of being in Beirut – not to forget missing (yes, I admit) all the chaos in Lebanon. It’s this chaos that drives me to want to take a break from it (off to Europe or Africa) but it is this very same chaos that has me coming back to Lebanon.

    When I left London last week, the weather was brilliant. Hope you enjoy it :-)

  11. Gass
    April 9, 2011 at 12:33 pm #

    I know London very well and consider still overcrowded as well and dull. I love small cities with strangers faces but not unfamiliar, vibrant activities without chaos, energetic without air or sound pollution, a city with a human dimension! Beirut could be the best city in the world if not for its people and their ways of messing up with it every day.

  12. Reina
    April 10, 2011 at 4:08 pm #

    A city of 2 million superstars… Love it!! Amman’s no different! You had me smiling from the first word of this post to the last, and I started off in a pretty frustrated, overwhelmed and overworked mood!

  13. Nasri Atallah
    April 11, 2011 at 1:47 pm #

    Danielle – Cheers ☺

    Zozoped – I agree, you do bump into some of the same people in Europe too. I mean I was just in London where I lived for decades, and I recognized some passers-by, but still, the overwhelming majority of people are absolute strangers.

    Labz – Cheers mate. See you in a week.

    Fran6 – Thank you ☺

    Liliane – Glad you like the 2 million superstars bit. I always feel everyone in Beirut permanently feel like they’re starring a movie about their life.

    Mustapha – You’re always there for an ego boost. I appreciate the sentiment, and I think you’ll find that I will be.

    Life with Subtitles – lol that’s excellent. It’s true that honking is almost linguistic. There are different honks for different occasions. From the double beep under someone’s building to let them know you’ve arrived to pick them up, to the long honk in traffic that just means “I hate my life today!”

    TAI – I like to do that. Build up in one direction, and conclude in another.

    Posh – London was indeed brilliant and the weather was uncharacteristically gorgeous. Much Pimms was consumed!

Gass – I agree, small cities have their charm. But every small city I’ve been to, the locals have the same frustrations we do (off the top of my head, I’m thinking of my Czech friends in Prague and Croatians in Zagreb). They love their cities, but they feel strangled by them after a while.

  14. Ronman
    April 11, 2011 at 4:00 pm #

    Sorry for the plagiarism Danielle, but Effing Brilliant Indeed…

  15. farah
    April 19, 2011 at 3:21 am #

    I don’t agree that that spotting strangers around u is “beautiful” as a matter of fact it is scary and worrying and destrxctive
    I moved to new york 3 months ago. Cuz I’m pursing my MFA in film and I have 2 years to spend them away from beirut

    Beirut is unique because of this famiilrity r critiszin
    And even though u miss it u shouldnot feel the wy u felt in the start of the article
    This is my opinion and I loved the piece in terms of story telling and good luck in london :)

Leave a Reply