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.