Read my interview with Medea Azouri Habib in the August | September issue of L’Officiel.
Besides being undoubtedly the youngest looking 61 year-old in the world, Goran Bregovic is also the Balkans’ most prominent purveyor of neo-gypsy beats. But he’s also kind of the embodiment of the Balkans themselves, born in Sarajevo, in what is now Bosnia and Herzegovina, to a Croatian father and Serbian mother.
I don’t know much about him, but from what I’ve read he appears to be a mish-mash of Balkan influences. Which is saying a lot, and probably explains why his work is so layered and universal.
See, the Balkans are very much like Lebanon, more than either of us would like really. On a trip to Zagreb a couple of years ago, I was struck by how similar a lot of the discourse is to our own. Of course, the Croats themselves hate being assimilated to the Balkans, so for the sake of sematics, let’s call the place ex-Yugoslavia.
Most of us grew up with images of bombings and massacres perpetrated in these countries not so long ago. It seemed so surreal, countries at the heart of Europe, deeply beautiful countries, committing atrocities at the end of the 20th century. A lot of the scars of that conflict remain, and it doesn’t take long to sense them. And sense the similarities with Lebanon.
Religion still plays an important role, as does suspicion and fighting for scraps of land and influence. They’re still hunting down their war criminals 15 years after the conflict has ended. Much like Lebanon, history is never far in ex-Yugoslavia for anyone willing to look….
I got a message from a French friend of mine the other day asking if Beirut was a safe place to visit. I’m never quite sure how to answer that question. And it comes up quite a lot. On the one hand, walking the streets at night in Beirut is probably safer than anywhere I can think of. There are no hooded youths on the streets waiting to steal my Blackberry and use it to film me as they go about on a happy slapping rampage. On the other hand, we tend to pepper our existence with Ak-47s and the occasional car bomb. Armed with these two realities, I gave my usual answer, which is “it’s safe until it’s not”.
This particular French friend was planning on visiting as a tourist but was also interested in the ins and outs of life in Beirut, beyond the security situation, because she intends to move here to take up a rather exciting job opportunity. She asked me how easily I thought she’d make friends, because she doesn’t know anyone in town and she’s a bit concerned about that. I chuckled to myself as I told her not to worry, everyone in Lebanon loves foreigners and that she had the added advantage of being both French and Female.
There was a time when the word tourist in Beirut basically meant anyone from the Gulf who couldn’t be bothered to make it all the way to Europe for a long weekend intended to smoke a chicha at Grand Café. And that was about it. I don’t have a problem with that kind of tourism, but it’s the Lebanese equivalent of a lobster-red English tourist in Mallorca in a Newcastle United shirt who thinks he’s mastered the Spanish language because he can say “Oi, Manuel. Dos cervecas por favor. Innit.”
It also meant hordes of returning Lebanese expats, with bulging wallets. But even though the Ministry of Tourism loves counting them in its statistics, they aren’t really tourists at all. They sleep at home with their extended families and basically use the country as a large spa for the duration of their stay. They get medical checkups, see the dentist, get a haircut, load up on zaatar and head back to work….
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…
Anyone who’s ever met me knows I’m pretty obsessive compulsive. I arrange everything in a neat grid system on my desk in what can only be described as a veritable orgy of parallels and perpendiculars. I fluff up the cushions on my couch the second someone gets off it, much to the dismay of my houseguests. I have even been spotted at the supermarket rearranging unkempt aisles of cereal boxes or sloppy magazine displays, making sure the spacing is just right. I basically love the sight of things neatly organized. I guess you could say I’m OCD Light.
One thing I have lovingly organized is the bookmarks in my web browser. Besides the intricate folders and subfolders assorted by theme and region, I have a tab in my bookmark bar simply called “Morning”. It’s the first thing I click when I wake up and it basically opens up the world in 20 convenient websites. Facebook, Twitter, The Guardian, fffffound, Metro UK, Le Monde, Arts & Culture Daily, The Onion, Not Cot and so on. My morning dose of news, design, gossip, culture and escapism.
But once in a while I like to supplement this daily routine with something a bit meatier. Something that’s a throwback to my days studying politics and doing internships at the UN. So, a couple of weeks ago, I dug my teeth into an article in the International Journal of Urban and Regional Research. IJURR to its friends.
As with all academic papers, reading the title of the journal took me the better part of a week. Then there’s always the cryptic title of the article to look forward to. When I was studying for a masters in international politics at SOAS, I always used to give my papers unnecessarily complicated names casually sprinkled with words I didn’t understand and semi columns and subtitles. Things like “Pseudo Dualistic Dychotomies in Post-War Glasgow: How Factory Workers Overcame the Unicornification of Labour and Triumphed Over Plethorism”. Obviously, this was mostly to overcompensate for the fact that I’d done very little to no research and the essay itself was unreadable.
I glanced at the title of the IJURR article I had in front of me: Towards a Phenomenology of Civil War: Hobbes Meets Benjamin in Beirut.
Big words: Check. Semi colon: Check. Obscure academic reference: check. “This is going to be fun,” I thought to myself as I settled into my chair.
“Only the unknown frightens men. But once a man has faced the unknown, that terror becomes the known.” – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
So it would seem we’re in for another few months of what foreign media outlets will inevitably euphemistically call turmoil. Last week eleven ministers walked out of the Lebanese government, leading to its collapse. Not that the difference is immediately obvious, given the systemic paralysis the country ritually suffers from. We’ve come to expect very little from our leaders, all the while bestowing them with demi-god status. The result is that most Beirutis are pretty self-reliant, providing themselves with essential utilities the state fails to provide, like water and electricity.
However, it’s still nice to know there’s someone in power somewhere taking care of things, however badly. Saying I’m not particularly fond of Lebanese politics is the understatement of the decade. I wrote a piece in l’Orient Le Jour a couple of months back detailing the extent of my disdain for a system that has forced me to live for decades in lands that weren’t my own. Despite having a father who’s a political analyst and journalist, and having studied the politics of the Middle East for years at university, I have absolutely no interest in the country’s politics.
Politics is a pretty fancy word to describe the Machiavellian machinations a cabal of self-interested ideologues. I find my level of happiness in Lebanon is exactly correlated to how little news I read in a given week. Don’t get me wrong, there are a few good people in the system on all sides, but the overwhelming presence of corruption and pettiness drowns them out, and I’ve stopped caring about them too.
All I want is to be able to go to work in the morning without seeing 15 tanks on the way there. Without the nagging suspicion that someone, somewhere today might grab his finest AK-47 and head out into the street. Knowing for sure that we’re not on the verge of armed conflict in the streets would be nice. You know, the simple things in life and whatnot.
I just want a normal life really…
So, I’m at Beirut airport on a Saturday afternoon waiting for my mother to arrive from Paris. As per my habitual organizational prowess, I’m about 45 minutes early and have plenty of time to look around and take in the sights and sounds. I decided I needed to buy a bottle of juice and a croissant to stock up on energy for the observational foray ahead. I hand the cashier the GDP of a small Caribbean nation, grab my sustenance and head over to the heart of the arrival area.
Compared with the arrival area at Heathrow, this place is supremely exotic. In England, most people have given up on picking up their relatives at the airport, because they’re too busy watching chubby siblings punch each other on X-Factor or ordering a skinny Latte at Costa. The only people who still make it to the arrival terminal are an army of South East Asian minicab drivers armed with signs bearing the misspelt names of customers who’ve probably just landed at another terminal. Or at Gatwick. But I digress, let’s get back to Beirut.
A cursory analysis of the area reveals a few types of people. First of all, we have the village people. And when I say village people, I literally mean the entire population of a medium sized village has showed up to welcome home one of their own. They show up with bouquets of flowers, balloons, musical instruments and sacrificial virgins. I fully expect to see a goat sacrificed on the tiles some day. Then there are the taxi drivers, who poke at their ears with the elongated pinkie nail and ask everyone non-Lebanese if they’re the person whose name they have on their sign. There are the unhappy couples, pot-bellied uni-browed macho-sexuals pawing ineffectually at their mobile phones flanked by women who seem to have fallen through the makeup and wardrobe section of a 1990s Ukrainian strip club.
Then there are the children, who seem to belong to no one. They run around untamed, bumping into the sparsely disseminated furniture and seem to defy Darwinian logic. But my favourite are the men who seem to be there for no reason whatsoever. They stroll aimlessly, their hands interlocked behind their backs. They cultivate a very particular look which I would describe as Albanian-human-trafficker-chic, replete with thick black leather jacket, wife beater vest, gold chain, hairy knuckles and a look that tells you they’ve stuffed a few people into the trunk of their car over the years.
As I was engaging in this afternoon anthropology, and admiring the various costumes people choose to wear when they head to their airport, I remembered that I had a Halloween party to go to on Sunday. Now, I have a dubious relationship with Halloween. As a child in London, I was the annoying kid who kept reminding everyone that it was an American holiday and that it had only reached our shores due to rampant commercialism and whatnot. I know what you’re thinking, I must have been a bundle of fun as a 10 year old. Sadly, or happily, I still cling to my hatred of Halloween and dressing up. Even though I must admit that, as I grew older, I enjoyed the fact that women usually took “Tonight is Halloween” to mean “Tonight I feel compelled to wear as little as is legally permissible in public”.
I hate the effort that goes into dressing up. Where do people find the time and the energy? And are they dressing up to hide who they are or show who they are? Is that guy in the sequin dress actually telling everyone that he wishes he could be Liza Minnelli all year round? Is that girl in the leather catsuit telling us she actually wishes she was a dominatrix rather than a junior auditor?
As for me, I’m usually the annoying guy who shows up without a costume and gets told off by everyone throughout the night. I might steal a wig or a pitchfork to blend in, but the result is usually quite pitiful. I also sometimes say things like: “I’ve come as a disgruntled unemployed banker” or “I’ve come as an existential void”. But this year, I’ve decided I’m going to give it a shot. I’ve decided that I could stick a black shoebox on my back and go as a fridge magnet. I might carry a coin in one hand and a hammer in the other and go as a quarter pounder. Maybe I’ll put a ball on my head and go as a lowercase “i”.
I have two friends in London who went to a party dressed as traumatised Chilean miners on Friday, which I thought was hilarious. But copying them would be derivative. My favourite idea so far is to go as a pile of dirty laundry. If you have any suggestions I can put together by tonight, your help is greatly appreciated. I don’t want to be booed this year.
The folks over at Time Out Beirut have launched a new student publication, aptly named Trashed. They asked me to write an article to motivate young Lebanese kids to stay in the country. Click on the photo to read it, but be warned, most of my argument revolves around my chest hair/beard.
Every office around the world shares a certain set of dynamics. For example, walk into any neon-lit place of corporate endeavor at 11am and you will find an army of morose humanoids stirring their second cup of coffee of the morning, staring blankly into the hypnotic swirls created at the surface of the mug by the unwashed teaspoon. Jump thousands of miles away to another office, in Sao Paolo lets say, and you’ll find two disgruntled employees arguing over whose turn it is to load the A4 paper into the printer. Oh, and while they’re at it, someone should take care of that paper jam. Now hop over to London, and you’ll find an IT technician crouched behind someone’s desk, staring at the rotting carcass of a Jurassic machine, asking if anyone’s tried rebooting it.
What I’m trying to say is that there are constants in office life around the world. There’s something about being shepherded into the same building everyday at the same time with the same people that brings out certain characteristics in people. A sort of protracted cabin fever, that brings to the forefront a series of basic human responses. Fantasizing about your next holiday the instant you get back to the office from your latest one, staring defeated at your inbox. 500 unread emails. Ouch. Alternatively, shove three people by a watercooler, and they’ll invariably discuss either last night’s sports event or that girl from accounts’ shapely behind.
However, the most universal obsession shared by office employees the world over remains that of sustenance. As soon as the clock hits 11:30am, the stomachs start grumbling and the mind pondering the options that lie ahead. When I was in London, the options weren’t immense. At my first job, in Holborn, the usual course of action was to head down to the nearest Sainsbury’s local, buy some godawful microwavable meal and a Muller Light yogurt. Collect some Nectar points, and then let the despair and decay of Western civilization wash over you. Trundle back to the vacant conference room, glance politely at a colleague munching away at an avocado, and pick up a battered copy of the Guardian. On Fridays we’d go absolutely nuts, and maybe two or three of us would head over to Nandos in Soho. If we were feeling like rockstars, we’d throw some peri peri sauce on our chips and get two refills of Diet Coke.
In my second job, in Mayfair, the options weren’t any more plentiful, but at least the walk was pleasant. The people were prettier, and the odd smattering of bemused and lost American tourists was always satisfying. Seeing as I was a banker, and that part of the job description was to chain yourself to your desk, I’d usually venture to the Crussh branch in my own damn building, and grab whatever seemed edible. Which wasn’t much. I’d throw in a soup in the depths of winter; deluding myself into thinking it might provide some respite from the ambient germs and drizzly misery.
When I had 3 minutes to spare, I’d walk over to Berkeley Square to the twin temples of British Shite Food: Pret-A-Manager and Eat. I would already know what Eat’s soup of the day was, because I would get emails at 11am from a friend who checked their website religiously in her mission to plan out the lunch hour. Inbox: Butternut Squash at Eat today! Yay! When we wanted to treat ourselves, we’d head down the regally named Sandwich Alley, and get a little box of supposedly Thai food. The real treat came when we’d gather four or five people to go to a Lebanese restaurant down the street and feast on some falafel and hummus. The closer I got to resigning, the more Arak got involved in the meal.
Now in Beirut, the culinary landscape open to the employee is altogether different. I’ve been reintroduced to the concept of the Tupperware, the overwhelming majority of my colleagues coming to work armed with box upon box, ready to be heated in the over-exploited microwave. The paraphernalia is really quite fascinating, with boxes of different shapes and sizes, and Thermos bags to ensure the freshness of the produce. The dishes themselves run a wide gamut from the humble thyme manoucheh to the most elaborate of concoctions, recipes passed down through the generations. For those of us who don’t have large Mediterranean families residing in Lebanon, or matronly great aunts, and can’t cook to save our lives, there’s always the city’s army of delivery boys. I have colleagues who have indexed every delivery menu known to man in folders like chapters in the holy book of the hungry.
Battalions of sweaty deliverymen show up around 1pm, bearing everything from pizzas to vine leaves to fruit cocktails, their trusty scooters littering the pavement outside the building. I’m also lucky enough to have a European-style supermarket nearby, the local equivalent of a Waitrose or M&S but twice as poncy. I often feel underdressed heading down to buy a 4pm snack, and that’s saying a lot considering I’m usually decked out like I’m expecting a visit from the Queen. Every fashionista in downtown Beirut and her best friend stroll through the shiny surroundings as if strutting their stuff down a Milan catwalk looking for gluten-free, wheat-free, sugar-free, taste-free edibles of every sort in the sort of spectacle that makes you lose your appetite.
Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s my turn to load the A4 paper and buy everyone Diet Coke’s and crisps.
Yesterday morning I was confronted with the kind of task that is daunting in even the most organized of countries: a visit to an administrative building to take care of some paperwork. The interminable succession of stamping, and waiting, and stamping, and waiting, and paying, and waiting, and arguing, and waiting is the same the world over. It’s obviously a bit more chaotic here in Lebanon, given that the concepts of courtesy and orderly lines are as alien to the terrain as polar bears and Texan line dancers.
You’re probably not even remotely interested, but I was renewing my Lebanese passport. The one I currently hold dates back to 1994. Not only is it ancient, it features a picture of me as a fresh-faced 11 year old with Harry Potter glasses and an arabfro. The only reason the nice lady at the consulate in London agreed to renew it last year was because I gave her a sob story about how I’d lost it eons ago, and it turned up magically as I moved out of my London flat and shipped my worldly possessions to Beirut, and that it was a sign that I was reclaiming my Lebaneseness. Oh, and she was positively giddy when she glanced at the passport and noticed we were both Scorpios. Citing an alignment of Jupiter and Uranus, she promptly renewed it for a year.
But that year has ended, and here I was running like a headless chicken, weaving in and out of idle soldiers, customs officers, and charlatans to renew my passport. After I’d signed and paid an inordinately huge fee, I took in my surroundings. The old Serail in Baabda is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful buildings in Lebanon. On the one hand, it’s a crime that a place of such palatial beauty should be reduced to a vehicle for the machinations of incompetent bureaucracy. On the other hand, it’s endearing that it still has an organic life to it rather than the polished feel of a museum or, godforbid, a hotel slash Lebanese restaurant.
I’ve been increasingly concerned over the last few months about the mind-boggling destruction of Lebanon’s architectural heritage. Over the short year since I’ve been here, countless “listed” buildings have been torn down to make way for gargantuan monstrosities. Dystopian fences promise rows of identikit skyscrapers, as if we should be thankful that these Ottoman eyesores have been razed to the ground. Voices of indignation creep out from bourgeois hangouts. Yet the buildings keep coming down. Achingly beautiful Levantine houses, reduced to rubble in a matter of hours. From time to time the indignation will result in a building being saved. Temporarily. They might as well put a sign up reading “Demolition delayed pending more adequate bribe”.
Social media is helping organize a bit of a backlash, which is comforting. Thousands of people have joined various Facebook pages cataloguing the perpetrators of this senseless erasing of our pasts. But many are passive activists, happy to like a photo of a crumbling abode on a Facebook page and write an angry comment, yet unwilling to chain themselves to a house about to be bulldozed. I’m probably guilty of this too, although I sense I might buy some padlocks soon. I don’t want my city to look like Dubai. Even Dubai doesn’t want to look like Dubai. And even though I love Miami, I don’t want to drive through the Beirut harbour and feel that I’ve magically been transported to Brickell.
Sometimes even these comparisons seem generous. Most of the new construction goes up with no regard for esthetic whatsoever. Developers maximizing every square centimeter of an apartment to squeeze every dollar out of it. Obviously some do a good job here and there, imbibing their projects with a concept and a vision. But they’re few and far between.
I have no problem with towers and modernity. Anyone will tell you I’m no tree-hugging communist hippy. But I have a conscience, and a love for my country and my city. Whatever happened to urban planning? Fine, we had a war that ended 20 years ago, and another that ended 4 years ago; we can’t keep using them as excuses to scar our landscape. You don’t destroy to build. I don’t care if everyone wants to live in the 2 square kilometers considered prestigious, towers should be on the outskirts of town.
What does it say about us as a nation when there is no general moral outcry. I’ll gladly admit people have more pressing things to worry about, from sporadic electricity to political and economic instability. But what is a country without its history? What is Paris without Haussmanian boulevards? What is London without Victorian terraces?
So what are we left with? Bourgeois bohemian enclaves like Saifi that look like Disneyland versions of an imagined classical Beirut. Like papier mache film sets, ready to crumble at the first gust of wind. But at least there, someone has tried to recreate a sort of Levantine esthetic. Mostly, we are left with towering, soulless eyesores, insufferably homogenized and characterless. How happy can one truly be living in these monstrosities?
On a recent trip to the crusader castle in Byblos, I asked a guide what the story was behind the lone traditional Lebanese house standing at the far edge of the site. She explained that when French archeologists got there at the turn of the 20th century, they tore down every building in the area in order to excavate the thousands of years of history that lay around this site. They left one house standing, which at the time was a contemporary structure, to serve the memory of the area. These people were justified in destroying an entire area, because they were uncovering invaluable layers of our history that have helped us better understand who we are and where we’ve come from. How long can we justify destroying entire areas today in our incessant drive to forget who we are and where we’re supposed to be going?
Check out one of the pages aiming to help preserve our heritage here: http://bit.ly/cVx8IQ
And make sure you attend the Candlelight walk in Gemmayze on September 25th to protest the closure of the iconic Glass Cafe (Ahwet el Azez)