Tag Archives: lebanese

Buns of Meal: A Brief History of the Hamburger in Lebanon.

I’m not normally one for scathing restaurant reviews. Come to think of it, I’m not one for restaurant reviews of any kind. The truth is, contrarily to my approach to most things in life, I’m resolutely unadventurous when it comes to food. I stick to a few choice staples, I usually know what I like on a menu and I rarely stray for my exceedingly boring culinary path. It may come as a surprise to those who’ve seen me lumber around with my 110 kilos, but I’m just not that into food.

One thing I do enjoy, however, is a good hamburger. It’s a food item that is guaranteed to raise your floundering spirits. Such a simple construct yet so deeply satisfying. But I’m afraid my faith in the state of the Hamburger took a beating last week. Before I tell you why, let’s take a walk down memory lane and explore the history of the humble hamburger in Lebanon.

I remember when I first ventured over in the mid 90s as a Harry Potter spectacle-wearing buck-toothed teen, being enamoured by what seemed to me to be, two exotic places: Winners and Juicy Burger. Having come over from London, where I used to spend my pocket money on the soggy and questionable fare offered up by the twin bastions of the evil West, McDonald’s and Burger King, I was in awe of these burgers. They seemed to offer up an authenticity lacking in my post-cinema Big Mac at Whitley’s on Queensway. Their décor was kitsch, but the burgers were made with pride. I only enjoyed them a couple of times though, before these places saw their untimely end. But my friends who grew up in Lebanon think back to their Winners days with swelling hearts, and I’ve appropriated a smidgen of their nostalgia.

Then, one fateful day in 1998, Lebanon changed. Something irreversible happened. McDonald’s came to town. My classmates at the Lycce and I headed to Dora in a convoy of serveeces, with our minds racing through fantasies of Filet-O-Fish and Chicken Nugget 9-packs. We queued for hours, like Muscovites had after the fall of communism outside their first McDonalds, for a taste of the junk food we used to love back in Europe. All thoughts of mloukhie and shish barak were exorcised in the months that followed, as Friday afternoons became the sacred time where we drowned our week’s sorrows in a draft Coca-Cola, under the benevolent eye of a redheaded clown.

But soon McDonalds and Burger King stopped satisfying us…

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Twelve Angry Lebanese.

When I went to watch 12 Angry Lebanese – The Documentary on Sunday, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’d read bits and pieces about the play, a version of the 1950s American play and film 12 Angry Men, and knew it vaguely involved inmates at Lebanon’s notorious Roumieh prison.

The documentary opens with shots of the impossibly depressing prison on the hills above Beirut. I mean no one expects a prison to look cheerful, especially amidst the bleak concrete jungle our country is slowly turning into. But Roumieh is a whole new world of misery. Certainly many who reside amongst its crumbling walls deserve to be there. Rapists, murderers and thieves. But even the evil within our society deserve humane conditions. Roumieh, originally intended to house 1000 convicts is currently buckling under the weight of its 7000.

Now, in Lebanon, we’re not big on rehabilitation. Amnesia is the rule. One day it’s ignoring the plight of the 17000 people who went missing during the civil war. The next it’s turning a blind eye to the tens of thousands who self-medicate their post-traumatic stress with Xanax, vodka and their car horns. That cousin who ended up in jail? Don’t talk about him and he doesn’t exist anymore. Magic.

Sweeping things under the rug is all we do collectively. But the more you sweep, the more uneven the surface of the rug. And that’s what we’re left with. A jagged collective memory with thousands of walking ghosts, all ignoring each other’s presence. It’s the kind of conclusion that can lead to despair. Then I saw this film.

Zeina Dacccache should be celebrated for her genius and madness in equal measure. After studying drama therapy in the US, she took it upon herself to wander into a maximum security prison in one of the most machismo-laden countries in the world to poke around in the psyches of rapists and murderers for 15 months.

The choice of play is poignant. The original 12 Angry Men explores techniques of consensus-building and the difficulties that the process involves, among a group of male jurors whose range of personalities create tension and conflict. Twelve bickering men entrusted with deciding the guilt or innocence of a young man accused of murder. The poster for the 1957 film read: Life is in their hands, Death is on their minds. Nothing could be truer in the context of this prison.

At the outset, the group looks hopeless. Sitting around haphazardly, they don’t let each other finish their sentences. Their anger is palpable. The anger of 7000 inmates in a country of angry people. Tempers flare and you can’t quite imagine how this ramshackle group would stand in a straight line, let alone put on a play in front of an audience.

However, as the film progresses, a gradual cohesion surfaces. The men start caring about each other. They start caring about the success of their performances. They talk about Zeina with a sense of awe, and without the slightest indication of objectification, something many men on the outside would undoubtedly be guilty of.

Among the inmates turned actors are some foreigners. A Nigerian, a Bangladeshi, an Egyptian, serving sentences far away from home yet proud of their involvement in an ambitious undertaking. A multi-confessional and multi-racial group of men working under the leadership of a strong woman? It’s an inspiring sight, rendered melancholic by the nagging thought that it would probably never happen outside the walls of this prison in our largely bigoted and sexist Lebanon.

The play itself is a resounding success, presented to an audience of ministers and security forces as well as family. It’s a surreal sight. Criminals in suits acting unhindered by restraints or barriers, to an audience. I challenge you not to shed a tear at some point during this documentary. The result is so powerful, we learn, that after the play action was taken by the authorities to implement laws on early release for good behaviour.

The film, in the most unlikely of places, finds qualities that are sadly missing in our everyday lives as Lebanese. Determination, will and positivity in the pursuit of catharsis and rehabilitation. It is both beautiful and profoundly moving to watch. You find yourself empathizing with people who have committed unspeakable crimes. Rooting for them. Hoping they don’t falter. You see their human side. You are happy to see that even though they are locked up, they have experienced a freedom. A freedom of thought and achievement. Some are shy and introverted, others breakdown whilst they speak of the things they’ve done. But none of them wants to be seen as a victim, they acknowledge their wrongdoing. They want to understand the circumstances that lead them to do the things they did. They want to enjoy the freedom that working on something worthwhile has given them. They want to make their families proud now, through their dedication and work. In a deeply wounded country busy frenetically erasing its past with bulldozers and cement; few things could be more inspiring.

Twelve Angry Lebanese is playing at Metropolis Cinema – Sofil until September 14th. Watch it.

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The End of Belonging

Over the last few days I’ve been engaging mainly in two major activities. The first is ingesting as much food and drink as humanly possible at every available opportunity. The second has been explaining to all my visiting expatriate friends whether or not I’m enjoying Beirut. Both activities have their positives and negatives. The former is causing a tightening of my jeans around my waist and an arduous struggle against ever-present hangovers, whilst the former is sending me into deep meditations on the nature of my identity.

I’m not quite sure what to tell people when they ask if I’m enjoying Beirut. My automatic response is to say no, but I’m not convinced it’s the honest answer. It’s usually an answer that is elicited in the wake of a particularly annoying day on the roads or the ludicrously tardy arrival of a plumber. The truth is I don’t really know yet because I’ve only been here a short time. I haven’t really settled into a routine, a proper job and so on. And I’m not prepared to judge the place until I have that sense of normalcy. This brings me onto another point. Beirut is somewhere I have to get used to. I didn’t grow up here, and the only years I lived here (between the ages of 15 and 20) were just enough to give me a solid group of friends and a list of favorite places, but not really enough to give me a sense of belonging. I have always viewed Beirut with certain romanticism, and the time I spent here during those years gives me the same attachment to the city that a New York native would have for Michigan if he happened to go to college there.

Which brings me to a far wider ranging question with almost existential properties. Will I ever really be Lebanese or Beiruti? I have lived in the UK for far longer than I ever expect to live in Beirut, but have never really considered myself entirely British. I had Lebanese flags and posters of Baalbek on my walls as a kid before I even remember setting foot in Lebanon at the age of 11, yet I’ve never really considered myself entirely Lebanese. The struggle to find a definition of who I am has, ironically, become the best approximation of that definition. Then I realized, through my friends in London that this is a pretty widespread phenomenon amongst people in my generation. I had Russian friends in London who grew up in Prague but went to American schools. What would that make them? I had Mexican friends who grew up in Switzerland but now live in France. What would that make them? And I slowly began to realize that everyone I got along with pretty much anywhere in the world had the same deep-rooted crisis towards their identity.

As I was discussing all these elements with a friend of mine the other day, he brought up the subject of Third Culture Kids (TCK). I have to admit I’d never heard of the concept and it sounded a bit like an 80s pop group to me. However, being a serial-Googler, I headed home and started looking for information. What I found was comforting beyond anything I could have imagined. According to my extensive research (i.e. a leisurely perusal of the corresponding Wikipedia page), a TCK “refers to someone who, as a child, has spent a significant period of time in one or more culture(s) other than his or her own, thus integrating elements of those cultures and their own birth culture, into a third culture”. Then, going through the piles of research on my desk (scrolling down), I was relieved to learn that TCKs tend to have more in common with one another, regardless of nationality, than they do with non-TCKs from their own country.

It’s so nice to read that someone has the same problem as you, if indeed it’s a problem at all. It’s kind of like discovering you’re not the only person who likes watching reruns of Home Improvement on Sunday nights. You feel part of a community. Because ever since I’ve been back in Lebanon I’ve been having trouble really identifying where I fit in. But maybe that’s the point; maybe I’m not supposed to fit in anywhere. I’ve come to realize that for me the real division in Lebanon isn’t religious, social or economic. The main barrier between people is that between those who’ve lived abroad (by choice or by necessity) and those who never have (by choice or by necessity). And I’m not convinced it’s a surmountable barrier. Whether you’ve lived in Europe, Africa, Asia or the North Pole, you bring back characteristics with you, both positive and negative, which are irreconcilable with the prevailing order of things.

There has been a lot of research conducted recently in the field of existential migration, studying people who migrate for the purpose of self-fulfillment rather than refuge or financial necessity. In the context of the free-flow of people and resources that has accompanied globalization and the opening up of borders; this is a particularly interesting field. People can choose to move about far more freely. They have choices they wouldn’t have had a few decades ago. This excess of choice makes things harder in a sense, because we’re bound to take a few wrong turns along the way. A new book on the subject is entitled “The End of Belonging”, which I think is a poetic title in itself. As well as the new concept of existential migration, the research proposes a new definition of home as interaction; that the ‘feeling of home’ arises from specific interactions with our surroundings that could potentially occur anywhere, at any time. This is almost antithetical to the usual definition of home as a fixed geographical place.

I’ll never be fully Lebanese because I love Fawlty Towers too much. I love the feeling of a cold drizzle in South Kensington. I love dunking a Chocolate Bourbon into a mug of PG tips. I love complaining about the weather. I love queuing. I love living in a city where there are people from the four corners of the Earth, and plenty of ‘em. And I never lived through the Lebanese civil war, which I feel guilty for and will never allow me to fully participate in the nation’s collective consciousness. But then again I’ll never be fully British. I love the sun too much. I love waving my hands around and raising my voice when I’m trying to make a point. I love Kibbeh Nayyeh. I love the gentle breeze in the shadow of a pine tree. I love smiling old men selling Chiclets on street corners. Oh, and I’ve got a hairy face and a funny name.

So I’m neither here nor there. I’m somewhere in between and that’s where I have to really settle in. And I think I can make my peace with that. Ubi bene, ibi patria!*

*Where I am at ease, that shall be my homeland.

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Becoming Lebanese: A Step-by-Step Guide

This post was first published on May 12th 2006 on my personal blog. It has since been re-posted on other blogs, forwarded as an email and plagiarized by the unimaginative.

Ladies and gentlemen, following this exclusive online guide is a sure-fire way to be mistaken for a Leb.

Driving

The driver’s seat must be in an uncomfortable and impractical reclined position at all times. No more than one hand shall be on the wheel at any time. The other hand should be on the window frame. Alternatively it may be located on the gear-shift or your girlfriend’s leg. Profuse use of horn is encouraged. Religious symbols are to be attached to dashboard at will. Shiny rims and tinted windows, accompanied by thinly veiled threats to fellow motorists on your back window are commonplace.

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