Tag Archives: Hamra

The Adventures of Sven the Backpacker and Other Tales.

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….

Read More

Culture Club

I haven’t written anything in about a week because I’ve been in a particularly visceral “hater” mood. Since most people complain that I’m turning into a grumpy old man, I figured it was probably best not to write anything during this period of pronounced negativity. One friend told me I was slowly turning into a version of Peter Griffin from the “What Grinds my Gears” episode of Family Guy. However I’ve just had one of the most enjoyable weekends I’ve had anywhere in a while, so I think it’s time to write again.

Being the grumpy serial-complainer that I am, one of my favorite pet peeves about Beirut is that there’s very little culture to be savored year-round (besides the obvious summer festivals). However I now realize that I’m very much mistaken in this assumption. The major difference is that whilst culture assails you incessantly in Europe, here in Beirut you have to proactively seek it out.

And on this point, I’m afraid most of us are inexcusably lazy. Anytime I suggest anything remotely cultural to any of my friends I’m met with either a pronounced sense of apathy or a geographical/sectarian disdain for the region where the particular event is taking place.

However this weekend a good friend of mine was over from abroad. He didn’t come from the snowstorms of Paris or London. He didn’t come from the newly-bankrupt sandstorms of Dubai. He drove two and a half hours from Damascus. We’re friends from London, and transcend the confessional, national, blablabla divides that often punctuate friendships in the region. I poke fun at the nasty looks his Syrian number plate must elicit in Beirut and that’s about it.

So imagine my personal shame when this friend was the first to take me on a cultural tour of Beirut in a while. On Friday night we headed to the Madina Theater in Hamra. I’d heard a lot about the play “Sar Lezim Nihke”, a follow up to the wildly successful “Hakke Niswen” itself a Middle Eastern take on the worldwide success of the Vagina Monologues. The whole theater-going experience in Beirut is a bit of a novelty for me.

I have one major handicap when it comes to culture in this city; I dress like a hardcore capitalist/off duty banker. I have a self-imposed uniform of White Shirt, Black blazer, jeans and loafers. This shouldn’t pose a problem in and of itself. However both ends of the stupidity spectrum are equally represented here. The capitalists are caricatures of themselves, as are the hippies. So one party doesn’t accept me because I don’t embrace their apocalyptic perception of the “Dollar rules all”, and the other rejects me because I don’t wear socks with sandals and reject all earthly possessions. It’s a tricky catch 22, but I deal with it. Maybe I should get a t-shirt made: “No One Knows I’m a Hippie”.

So back to our theater. I was delighted to see some new faces, filled with anticipation at this new play. People started congregating in the hall of the theater, itself a self-knowing throwback to the 70s. A few people sipped on wine and vodka as they waited for the tardy start of the play. Everyone respectfully switched their phones off before walking into the auditorium. It was a welcome reminder of what civility looked like.

The play itself was a mixed bag. It was refreshing to see “taboo” subjects treated in colloquial Lebanese meters away from a mosque. Female characters were complaining about their male counterparts’ lack of geographic orientation skills with regard to their G-spot and so on. However for someone with exposure to plays and comedy the world round, some of the jokes sounded tired (read Plagiarized) and some of the dialogue was straight out of Sex and the City. But I guess, placed within the context of the local theatrical scene, this stuff is groundbreaking. And that’s the important part. So that was success number one.

Then on Saturday came two eagerly awaited cultural happenings. The first one took place at the Paper Cup Bookshop in Mar Mikhael. The Lebanese photographer Rhea Karam, who I was supremely chuffed to meet on my last trip to New York, was signing copies of her self-published book detailing the evolution of Beirut’s walls. It’s a seminal work in the analysis of self-expression in the Lebanese capital and I recommend you all grab a copy.

Shortly after getting the book, I headed over to Barometre off Bliss Street for a quick beer and some chicken wings before moving onto the main event on the musical calendar for the week, the Mashrou3 Leila CD launch and concert. These guys had been brought to my attention a few months ago, and I’ve been listening to a handful of their tracks on MySpace and some shaky YouTube handheld camera footage from some of their appearances around town. The concert took place at the Demco Steel Warehouse in Bourj Hammoud. The venue was great, even if it was something of a Health & Safety nightmare. Hundreds of kids hoped up on cheap Vodka and foul beer in a steel factory? What could possibly go wrong?

The band played all hits like Shimm El Yasmine and Batenjein, as well as a few improvised bits here and there. The front man exhibited a fragility and dexterity onstage which was mesmerizing. He skipped about as if he were alone with 6 friends, forgetting that there were hundreds upon hundreds of people there cheering them on. From time to time he and the band would look out over the crowd and say: “fuck there’s a lot of people here tonight” and indulge in a fit of nervous giggles. I’ve been listening to their CD (which they were giving away with the tickets at the door) on loop in the car. It’s a truly solid work, exploring themes we can all identify with. From the overbearing parents to the abrupt and intimidating security forces. They even brought out a male belly dancer at one point, which greatly angered a raging homophobe standing next to me, but I thought was a brave (if slightly pointless) addition to their whole rejection of established Lebanese societal morals. My personal favorite song is Latlateh, mocking gossipy Aunties Who Lunch.

So, overall, I can say I was a very happy camper in Beirut this weekend. I bumped into lots of old friends and made a few new ones. I even discovered this blog has some fans, and that they’re badgering me to keep it going because they’re happy someone is voicing what’s happening in their minds. The constant question, should I be here or should I be somewhere else. Should I be a banker or a writer? Should I go to the theater or to a pompous bar? I say do whatever makes you happy. And do it well. And keep doing it. And when it stops making you happy, move on. Which brings me to my next anecdote.

I really wanted this post to be entirely positive. However, on my way home tonight, I was confronted with the kind of bozo that makes life here just unbearable. Driving down a quiet one way street in Achrafieh, I see a set of oncoming headlights heading towards me at speed (the wrong way down a one-way street, if you’re following closely). So I responded with flashing lights of my own, this being the preferred method of communication along with the horn amongst the cabal of inbred retards that occupy the nation’s asphalt surfaces. The guy persisted in driving up the road, and squeezed in next to me at the entrance of a parking lot (still facing the wrong way, obviously). He rolled down his window, and I had to hear what this fine specimen of a human being had to say so I rolled down mine.

Then came the dumbest sentence of the week, in the world’s most efeminate voice: “ma shifet 3am dawilak w itfilak yaane?”. I responded in an equally camp tone to make the situation even more absurd: “eno mat koun jayye b3aks il sayr 3ayoune”. The effeminate man, who by the way I think I’ve met in London (ironic, I know), the responded with “ma tit3a2ad” which sent me into a protracted bout of existential solipsism. I took a hard look at this pitiful little man sitting atop one of those huge American SUVs, the kind that looks good when it shows up on in a scene on CSI Miami, but makes you look like you’re overcompensating for shortcomings in the size department in real life. Then I responded with a barrage of highly expressive Lebanese expletives (the best in the world in my opinion, I’ll let you imagine what I came up with) and sped off. What I really should have said was “mate you should get laid and go to a concert from time to time. You’ll be happier and be a better driver.”

Read More