The Beirut Diaries: “Becoming a Beiruti”
You know you are becoming a local when you send messages to friends on a Sunday afternoon letting them know the state of the traffic back into town after a weekend at the beach, in the mountains or somewhere near the Cedars.
You know you are becoming a local when you go to Spinneys supermarket in Achrafieh on a Monday night to buy melons, tiny pears and tubs of thick, local yoghurt called Labne, which can be called upon every time someone drops into your home at a moment’s notice (The Lebanese addiction to Labne resembles the English adulation of ketchup, a must-have with any meal at any time of the day). Since you then need to jump into a service taxi to get down the steep hill to your neighbourhood, Gemmayze, you know you are blending well when you manage to pay the local LL2000 price instead of the ‘foreigner’s special’..
You know you are becoming a local when friends walk up the stairs that line your street (St Nicholas staircase is in fact the longest staircase in the Arab world, did you know?) and call up to the balcony so you can greet them and their parents on their way to a night-time Gibran recital. You get them to throw you a pomegranate which is falling off the tree as summer draws to an end.
When you nod your wholehearted approval at their theory that schools have been ordered to resume three weeks earlier than scheduled because the government suspects there may be political trouble ahead, you know your slippers are on the rug.
You are definitely becoming absorbed in the Arab world when you spend at least eight minutes at the start of every conversation, even with a perfect stranger, asking after the health of every single family member.
You know you are becoming Lebanese when you “missed call” (or “MC” to be entirely accurate) friends, colleagues or even strangers to let them know you are waiting somewhere where they need to meet you or call you back– anything to save precious phone credits which disappear faster than the electricity here.
You know you are becoming a local when the daily three hour power cut is absorbed into your schedule of when to avoid being at home (which I now have, thanks be to God – common expression to be added to any sentence whatsoever). If at all possible, when the attack on your air-conditioning strikes, you will have gone to the beach. You are definitely acclimatised when you understand that going to the beach in Beirut means sitting by a pool on a beach lounger for which you will have paid $22. There will, of course, be no possibility of swimming in the sea which, immediately off the Corniche, is ridden with untreated sewage and cigarette stubs.
You are no less embedded when you stop wondering how it can be normal to chain-smoke an entire packet of cigarettes in someone else’s face in less than the time is takes to drink a bottle of Almaza beer.
If the power cut cannot be avoided, you will definitely need a light source. Empty wine bottles of Chateau Ksara’s Blanc de Blancs will lie scattered around the flat proclaiming melted, white Church candles. There may additionally be a fat candle glowing at the entrance to your apartment building, hairdresser or all purpose shop which lights up the Virgin Mary so that you can be sure of the religious affiliation of the owners, residents or employees, literally lighting up your path. Equally, the backlight on your mobile phone is vital for ensuring that you don’t trip up on staircases which randomly miss steps, pavements which disappear into the void and dog shit which is never cleaned up by the owners, Indeed, if someone deemed it appropriate to poop-scoop, they would be likely declared insane.
When you no longer blink an eye at Philipino women dressed up as girls in frilly maids’ outfits as they walk their mistress’ poodle, that is several steps onto the local track too far. When you manage to ignore an entire section of your community who are bundled into refugee camps and have been given permission to work legally only last month after decades in this country, that is many miles too far. When others cannot see what is beyond their nose because they are walking around with two bruised eyes and plasters across their face from the recent nose job, it is a relief that you have not been fully absorbed yet. When you realise your body is less perfect than the beautiful bronzed ones at the beach clubs, you can break into a comfortable smile.
You know you are becoming a Beiruti when you wake up to the sound of honking horns in the morning, pick up L’Orient le Jour for a snippet of the day’s news, breathe in the comforting smell of zaatar and don’t plan for even a moment what you might do past lunchtime. Something will always happen. In Beirut, y3ani, something always does.
6th September 2010, Beirut.