Nation Blanding: Hedonism and the Underselling of Beirut

There’s a video currently making the rounds, featuring an over-excited Richard Quest extolling the virtues of Lebanon’s hedonism and joie de vivre, while he prances around its handful of rooftop clubs dressed like that weird uncle in your family no one talks to, who hits on 16 year olds at weddings. And wears white loafers. When I first stumbled on the video, I wasn’t sure whether I should feel a mild sense of pride or a profound sense of shame. I have opted very firmly for the latter, for a number of reasons.

I mean the show is called Future Cities, and is supposed to be about how cities are positioning themselves for the future (the name kind of gives it away) through development and sustainability. Quite how cramming thousands of people into sweaty clubs ensures Lebanon’s sustainability, is quite beyond me.

However much I enjoy positive portrayals of Lebanon in the media, I’m not sure that showing its three most inaccessible venues is really the way to go. I mean, when they cover Mykonos or Ibiza, I’m pretty sure there isn’t a slum where people live on less that USD 2 a day within walking distance. Before I’m accused of hypocrisy, sure I go to these places. But I don’t think they’re our greatest achievement in thousands of years of history. Not by a longshot.

Plus the video features Ke$sha. Why would I listen to Ke$ha’s opinion on anything? For starters, she has a dollar sign in her name, and anyone with monetary symbols in their monicker loses points on the Credibility-meter. So, I’m pretty sure her musings about how Lebanon’s energy mirrors the energy she puts in her shows, can be safely ignored.

And what’s all this nonsense about joie de vivre anyway? I’m sorry but I have yet to see a genuine example of someone loving life when I go out in Lebanon. We go to clubs with 3000 people, but hang out with the 20 we already know. We all look inward at our table. People stare into their Blackberries and iPhones trying to figure out if something more exciting is happening elsewhere, because they’re under the impression that they are in no way contributing to the complete lack of an atmosphere here, and it’s everyone else’s fault. If they can tear themselves away from their apparati, it’s to give someone across the club a death stare. Then maybe bbm somebody about it.

And before anyone says it’s just the rooftops, I have to disagree. Go out anywhere, and it’s the same. Batroun, Sour, Gemmayze, Jounieh. Maybe Hamra’s bar scene is a tiny bit different. I have yet to see anyone actually dancing outside the sweaty confines of a salsa night. And no, guys, slicing the air with the palm of one hand and shaking your vodka tonic around in the other, while you bob your head to the newest Taebo Cruise, or whatever his face is, track does not constitute dancing.

I’m sick of people confusing self-medicated post-traumatic stress with a love of life. Drinking yourself silly is not an affirmation of life. It can be a lot of fun, sure, but don’t call it joie de vivre. People not caring about tomorrow isn’t a smart thing. Shocking, I know. Many people at these clubs didn’t live the Civil War, they have every reason to plan for tomorrow. They’re young and educated and living in a period of relative, if tenuous and tense, stability. But they don’t, because they’re inheriting their parent’s misplaced insouciance.

This has wide-ranging consequences. The Lebanese spend a disproportionate amount of their disposable income on going out. I’ll be the first to admit, I was immensely guilty of this in the past. In my days as a banker in London, I spent embarrassing amounts of money on going to the “best” clubs, because that’s kind of what was happening around me. But when I moved to Lebanon, I wanted to change that. I wanted to grow up, essentially.  How many people here say to themselves, “You know, I’ll go out less, but I’ll rent my own place.” Not a lot I’m supposing.

Sometimes I wonder if the Lebanese don’t actively enjoy being ripped off. I mean there’s that old joke about the two women who are comparing dresses and one of them says victoriously “But I bought mine at full price, yours was on sale”. But the joke is turning into a harsh reality, and our spending habits are kind of causing it. If we’re willing to pay, then retailers, restaurateurs and club owners are sure as hell happy to increase prices. Lebanon now ranks 75th in the world in terms of cost of living. That’s ahead of LA and Munich. Yeah, you read that right.

Inflation is getting so high it’s giving Keith Richards a run for his money. Yet we don’t really complain. It’s seen as a sign of weakness to be Lebanese and complain that something is out of your price range. Sure, we’ll get in a serveece and nod along as he complains about the cost of gas and whatnot. But will you talk the same way with your friends? Will you ever tell them you’re struggling to make ends meet between inflation, your Rockefeller lifestyle and your salary that barely covers the basics.

Well, I’m sorry to say it, but I feel pretty stupid paying 8,000LL for a man’ouche at Zaatar w Zeit.  And can someone explain to me why even these places are so expensive? The staff are paid peanuts, they don’t get benefits, the businesses barely pay taxes, and yet the prices are the same as in North America or Europe for a lot of products now.

And by the way, the rampant inflation also keeps tourists away. Superior purchasing power doesn’t mean unlimited purchasing power. Many are balking at the prices in Beirut. And I can understand them. When you consider they pay 1000 USD to get here from Europe, then 200-300 a night to stay here, you can imagine they’re pretty skint by the time Skybar comes around. Compare that to 60 Euro tickets from most European capitals to Spain or Greece, and you can understand why this tourist season has, by all accounts, been absolutely disastrous.

Lebanon is not a Mediterranean party town. Places like Monaco, Ibiza, Mykonos pop up for a few months a year on the party map, much like rock festivals take place in deserted fields in England or Poland. Because life can go back to normal once that seasonality disappears. Reducing a city of 2 million people, a pulsating city, to being a handful of rooftop clubs is patronizing in the extreme.

And just to come back to that damn video for a minute. If you think you’re promoting Lebanon proudly by reposting videos of an annoying meth head prancing around what we, in our navel-gazing, have come to consider the best places in the world, you are very sorely mistaken. The type of tourist who comes to Beirut isn’t the type of tourist who goes to Ibiza. Anyone who comes here is looking for something more. Otherwise, they would just go to Ibiza. I hate to break it to you, but there’s vodka and boobies all over the world. There are things we have that we should be celebrating.

Of course they want to have a good time and have a few drinks and stumble around town. But believe it or not, people who come here also want to see Bourj Hammoud for example, the same way they want to see Chinatown in New York. They want to see the old Green Line, the way I wanted to see the Berlin Wall. They want to see the abandoned train station in Mar Mikhael or the Oscar Niemeyer architecture in Tripoli. They want to meet real people and artisans. They want to experience all the things that have disappeared from their societies.

Don’t believe me? Well, Lebanon ranks 190th out of 200 in a recent index of Nation Brand perception, so we obviously haven’t been doing it right. I think it’s time to move past the “party capital of the Middle East” spiel, and onto something real and engaging. “Hedonism” or “Joie de Vivre” are not brands for a country like Lebanon. They are both irresponsible and grotesque for a place steeped in so much history and circumstance.

Not caring about tomorrow isn’t something to be proud of. Leave that to alienated emo teenagers listening to Slipknot in their dilapidated suburban houses in Maryland. That’s not how mature adults who have ambitions think about life. You know what my most hated expression in Lebanon is? When you say to someone “Let’s meet next Thursday” and they scoff at you and say “Tan 3ish la wa2ta” (Let’s live till then first). Even if it’s just a lexical overhang from a time of war, it is insidious. It doesn’t communicate joie de vivre, or fun, or hedonism. It says you’ve given up. It says you don’t care. I’m sorry, but I don’t want that to be the brand my country brandishes to the world.

133 Responses to “Nation Blanding: Hedonism and the Underselling of Beirut”

  1. Nasri Atallah
    September 26, 2011 at 9:13 am #

    Sal – Thanks :)

  2. Nasri Atallah
    September 26, 2011 at 9:17 am #

    Maristoni – I’m torn between saying “thanks for proving my point” and “I’m really sad you had that experience”. I’m going to go for the latter though. It really breaks my heart when people are disappointed by their trip to Lebanon.

  3. Nasri Atallah
    September 26, 2011 at 9:18 am #

    Mo-ha-med – Thank you. And I agree, fixers can often be a problem, especially when the journalist being “fixed” is lazy and lacks basic curiosity to go beyond the obvious.

  4. MelodyPond
    October 4, 2011 at 12:59 am #

    This blog entry and some comments made me tear up, i know i’m overreacting but they did. And when that passed i was just in rage.
    I’ll just stick to elaborating on my own attempts to try to change this image of Beirut, because i can’t say anything about how dire the situation is better than Nasri and some people here did.
    I hate that Lebanon’s older than 10 thousand years old heritage is so tragically eclipsed by this image that it’s the fun capital of the world. “You have not lived if you have not been to Lebanon”, get over yourself everybody! We’re not the only country where women are gorgeous and rich arab men drop a hundred dollar bill and don’t bother picking it up (this has happened, i was having dinner with some people from work and they had invited this Saudi Sheikh, just before we got up to leave he took out a stack of hundred USD and threw it at our feet. Do i really have to say what happened next?)

    Stuff like this really hurt and embarrass me, Lebanon ha far more than Sky bar and Hamra to offer, they’d go last on my list of attractions if i was running visit Lebanon campaign.
    Which bring me to what i originally wanted to way: in the hope of on day actually running a visit Lebanon campaign i graduated high school and went straight that i thought would lead me to a place like where i could do that (ministry of tourism of culture). What i decided to do was to become an archeologist thinking it would help me restore the image i have of Lebanon and send it out into the world instead of the cringe worthy one media keeps shoving down our throats. Out of all the universities ONLY ONE has an archeology major option! ONE! IN LEBANON! WHERE ARCHEOLOGICAL EVIDENCE GOING BACK TO PREHISTORIC TIMES IN MORE THAN ABUNDANT!! I don’t blame the uni people, it’s not their fault, it’s people who either don’t care or are unaware of the treasures we have. After recovering from that shock I started uni ready to receive an even worse shock: THERE ARE ONLY FIVE OTHER STUDENTS! and had the most students out of the three undergraduate years, i honestly thought i’d walk in and find people wanting to make a change, i was heartbroken. I started regretting my decision instantly, not having any support from my family or anyone didn’t help at all (“you’re wasting your time, you’re too smart for this, you’ll never find a job”) I don’t even know who’s fault that is, why doesn’t anyone care? I thought archeology might launch me on a path leading straight into a place where i would be able to rescue my lebanon. But obviously no one cares. Working on a archeological field in Beirut was the hardest blow, everyone was working to rescue the site because a skyscraper was going to be built there in less than a year, half of the site was already under construction while on the other archeologist rushed to salvage whatever they could. I quit in less than two weeks, for that and other reasons. I’m only continuing archeology for myself, if no one cares why should i? I’m planning on doing my graduate studies abroad and probably work there and i can’t wait. I don’t regret this at all though, i started a “patriotic rescue mission” but now i’m living on the prospect of leaving.
    i really hope i’m got my point across. And i’m terribly sorry if that was depressing, that’s just how it is. I may have given up too soon but i can’t see how that can change.

  5. MelodyPond
    October 4, 2011 at 1:02 am #

    sorry about all the errors and missing letters in my comment, it’s 2:00 AM.

  6. Nasri Atallah
    October 4, 2011 at 9:27 am #

    MelodyPond – Thanks for your comment. Will read through it carefully and answer a bit later. And don’t worry about typos at 2am :)

  7. Jimmy Franchise
    October 10, 2011 at 11:55 am #

    Write on.

  8. Nasri Atallah
    October 12, 2011 at 2:00 am #

    Thanks jimmy.

  9. rami kremesti
    October 12, 2011 at 12:38 pm #

    You forgot to mention that a couple hundred meters away from Sky Bar in Beirut the raw sewage is pouring into the mediterranean, another couple hundred meters away PM Hariri was assassinated and his murderers are in government in Lebanon…

  10. Sarah
    October 19, 2011 at 6:56 pm #

    New video circulating about Beirut being the best party city on TNT

    http://www.tntmagazine.com/tnt-today/archive/2011/10/17/world-s-best-party-towns-five-of-the-best.aspx

    I am expecting to read another rant from you soon!

  11. Rana Martin
    November 29, 2011 at 8:59 pm #

    This type of video which seems to be everywhere also says: Look they’re arabs but they drink and party like us!

  12. Max Milligan
    December 1, 2011 at 6:12 pm #

    Richard Quest should be boiled in olive oil – he has a sub-tabloid mind and the most irritating voice since Miss Piggy. The man is patently an idiot.

    Btw, I want to know how much Our Man in Beirut will pay me not to publish the photo of him slicing the air at B018 with a vodka and tonic?

  13. Gemma
    December 3, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    I’m an exchange student from Spain and I’ve been here in Lebanon for 3 months now, and in my humble opinion it is amazing how you excellently describe your country (which btw I love) and your critics just hit the nail on the head.
    I can’t stop reading you, I learn so much.
    Thank you.

  14. rossa
    December 6, 2011 at 7:55 pm #

    Not all Lebanese are like that. Actually a very small portion of our society is like that. They’re the privileged ones with lots of money to throw away who indulge in such behavior and patterns.
    very few people have the luxury to not care about the future. You’re a smart guy, you seem to know all about Lebanese people vices. How about you dig a little deeper than the society you mingle with.

  15. Nasri Atallah
    December 6, 2011 at 8:17 pm #

    Rossa – I agree. Most Lebanese are not like that, and I try to highlight that sometimes. I try to dig a little deeper, but sometimes trying to go into sections of society that you’re not from can have condescending overtones. As in “Hi, I’m here to see how you guys live on a daily basis”. I’m not an investigative journalist, I describe what I see around me. But I appreciate what you’re saying, that’s a very big problem in general in Lebanon. People from different backgrounds don’t have spaces (mass public transit systems, parks, etc) where they interact regularly.

  16. Nasri Atallah
    December 6, 2011 at 8:21 pm #

    Gemma – Thank you, I’m glad you’re finding it useful. I find it similar to Southern Spain in some respects. Would you agree?

  17. Hani Ghraizi
    December 7, 2011 at 5:17 pm #

    Fantastic!

    I couldnt have painted a better picture of this erroneous perception people have for Lebanon.

  18. rossa
    December 8, 2011 at 12:01 pm #

    Nasri, put together your questions, and my friends and I will take you out for a coffee.Your blog has some exposure, and to strangers, your writings seems like they express Lebanese Society even though we both know it doesn’t fully. That kinda bothers me a bit deep down. You have sharp wit, maybe you’ve only encountered people who are too scared or tongue-tied and awe inspired by your advanced English to dare disagree with you :)

  19. Melissa Stockman
    December 11, 2011 at 9:35 pm #

    “But believe it or not, people who come here also want to see Bourj Hammoud for example, the same way they want to see Chinatown in New York.”

    hahahhah or not!!!!

  20. Dee Lavin
    January 4, 2012 at 11:39 am #

    In reply to Nasri’s comment about Beirut/Lebanon being similar t Southern Spain I agree to a certain extent but then not entirely either. I previously lived in Cadiz for one year and have been living in Beirut for almost 9 months now and while there are many similarities, for the most part I found the mentality of the real southern Spanish to be so much more close minded and sexist than the Lebanese and although I would probably hang out in the Skybar/White circles I do have lots of Lebanese friends from very different walks of life so I have got to experience and witness all sides. (Bear in mind that I say this as a blonde haired green eyed Irish girl). I love your style of writing Nasri and you have a great ‘foreign’ yet inside perspective on the Lebanese people.

  21. Joey Ayoub
    January 15, 2012 at 11:28 pm #

    Nasri, My thoughts exactly. I’m 20 years old and I’ve been extremely worried about these “business revolutions” and obsessions with making Lebanon some kind of party palace with no history. I seriously don’t yet know what the solution may be. Great post my friend, hope we’ll meet someday

  22. Amira
    January 17, 2012 at 4:24 am #

    Hey Nasri,
    I wanted to leave you a message but didn’t know where..so I decided here would be fine on a post that makes so much sense to me…I think Lebanese people are blinded by the real concept of ”joie de vivre” they dont really know what they have..and so would rather spend their time ”frimer” (showing off) at a night or a pub. I am currently abroad and recently saw a documentary called The Lebanon I dream of, I dont know if you’ve seen it its really good..you start off feeling super proud that we are born in such a beautiful country and then they unravel all the problems that exist which just makes you cringe…I, Lebanese myself, have never lived in Beirut and just like you, I plan on moving there for a couple of years in the summer after my senior year of uni… I guess what im trying to say is thanks for painting a realistic picture for me altought I still believe there is magic somewhere to be found in Beirut..

  23. CafeBeirut
    January 26, 2012 at 11:04 pm #

    Nasri I’ve been in Living in Lebanon for 5 months now, but I used to visit every single summer…
    I CANNOT agree with you MORE. It boggles my mind to see people actually enjoying the nightlife here…granted, some of them are convinced that it’s this, or nothing. But others actually ENJOY it!!!!

    “We go to clubs with 3000 people, but hang out with the 20 we already know. We all look inward at our table. People stare into their Blackberries and iPhones trying to figure out if something more exciting is happening elsewhere”

    The 20 that I know, I can chill with them anytime I want. I don’t need to spend 70 bucks to do so, I’ll have a house party instead.

    I think it’s also the setup of the venues that makes it nearly impossible for people to socialize and interact with others “outside” these so-called “groups.” I remember there was a club that was shut down because the idea of a “dancefloor” didn’t really work in Lebanon.

    I mean when I go clubbing, I expect to mix and mingle. To dance my ass off, and meet people. If a decent guy tries talking to me, I will respond and even dance with him if I feel like it.
    THIS IS CLUBBING.

    in Canada, you can spontaneously decide to go clubbing/partying/dancing. Whether you’re 2 girls or a group of 7 guys & girls. Everyone’s on the dancefloor ripping it up..the only time people get a “table” is when they’re celebrating some kind of occasion!!

    I once was “spontaneously” dragged to go clubbing after drinks in Gemmayzeh…without reservations, phone calls to “wasta” bla bla We ended up at two places, gave in the car for valet,didn’t get in, waited to get the car back, n left.

    The clubbing scene is a reflection of the society in Lebanon. Point blank. It cannot be changed, unless people change and It should NOT be considered a joie de vivre.

  24. Cathy
    February 5, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

    I live in Montreal, and as I agree with a lot of things in your blog, I disagree with saying that we shouldn’t be proud of being put on the map even if it’s through partying. The truth is, most foreigners, in my case canadians, quebecois, think of Lebanon a desert where people ride on camels, women have to be veiled or are extremely oppressed (in the afghan sense) and while we still as a country have a long way to go in terms of women rights, anti-discrimination laws, etc. we are not that image that MANY westerners have of us being an arab country. Are we perfect? ABOSLUTLEY NOT. do we take everything to the extreme, like partying, plastic surgery? WITHOUT A DOUBT. I think we should be proud of this partying reputation while working on bringing awareness to the other 1001 beautiful things about Lebanon. I also read this blog written about the same thing you did and talking about how women in Lebanon think they are free but they dont have a career and are just waiting for a husband. The truth is, everywhere in the world, in every country, there are a lot of women who do not wish to have a career and choose it over family, they hope to find a good husband, if rich even better, and raise a family and fulfill the mother role and there is NOTHING wrong with that. In fact, its very admirable in a world where other developped nations are paying the price for a lot of career women who have no time to raise a family, thus deliquency, depression, suicides, drugs, etc. emerge. DONT GET ME WRONG, if a woman decides she wants to be WHATEVER she wants, she SHOULD be able to do it and be congratulated for it, and if she manages to balance both that and a family (if she wants a family of course) then kudos to her but the truth is, as a mother who loves her career and adores her children, I can tell you balancing is extremely hard and often leaves us feeling guilty of not spending enough time with our kids and wishing we can stop working for those few years they are growing up, and then pick up where we left off when they are older. my point is that every society has its faults and yes Lebanon has many, including and probably their worst vice is having this absurd need to show off, again not all lebanese are like that but a lot are. But at the same token, we should celebrate our beautiful values (which are unfortunatley disappearing, another tragedy)i.e. family values, hospitality,etc.

    when you live in a country like i do where your co-workers tell you tthey haven’t seen their parent in 6 months when they live in the same city or someone says she HAS to go see her mother cos she’s dying of cancer, in a country where old people are left to rott in homes and NONE of their family members care to come and visit them and loneliness eats away at their broken heart, you have to know that you should appreciate Lebanon even with all its faults.

  25. Ronman
    July 11, 2012 at 3:37 pm #

    been a while, but as always Nasri great delivery to a truth that is just spot on…

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