The past is a fogged mirror

wonderful Heritage Day contribution by Tom Eaton to remind us that we may have more strands in our DNA, complex founding myths and reasons to be grateful.

Calling Through The Fog

Susanna family

Susanna sits, flanked by her grandchildren at the edge of the fading family portrait. Her face is vague, the imprecise chemistry of the photograph eroding her features into mere hints of a thin, tight mouth, of wary eyes.

But then you look away, back to the men. It is they who draw the eye in this picture, with their dark whiskers and theatrical, faintly melodramatic, poses: the picture was taken in the early 1920s, but the mood is Victorian. In this tableau, Susanna is easy to pass over; a woman just barely caught on film, slowly being rendered invisible by her age and by the vigour and beauty of the young people around her.

The photograph is a scene of carefully constructed domesticity but also of permanence.

Three generations sit together, their unity claiming not only the past but also the future. This family, the picture seems to declare, has…

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“Jiran” aka Neighbours

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Beirut is a city that is hard to keep up with. It constantly morphs into something new, forever tries to rid itself of any traces of the war, conceal bullet holes and silence the voices from the past, pimps itself, really. Real estate – except social housing – is booming.

The punishing property prices and rents drive many Beirutis to move outside the city and commute. The demolition of landmarks confuse locals considerably and tear at the social fabric of many neighbourhoods-including mine.

In the relatively short period I’ve come to know Beirut – my first visit dates back to 2012 – I have witnessed many buildings torn down, often seen green mesh, the sign of impending demolition, rarely of renovation efforts. Though just stones, the loss of heritage, the depletion and predatory exploitation cause great outrage.

While some years back this outrage was caused by the near systematic tearing down of old palaces, villas and heritage buildings, the 1940s, 50s and 60s are now under attack. These two, three and rarely more than five or six storey high residential blocks built just a few decades ago, are oh so generous to their inhabitants.

They offer balconies, often more than one, with space for people, plants and pets, large bright rooms with high ceilings, and the traditional set up of a private area and a part of the flat for socialising. These buildings reflect a way of living that is getting buried under the new, grim highrise that bring owners and investors much in returns but usually fill to only 40% of the inhabitable space. It is not uncommon to see 3-4 of 12 units filled, 6 months after completion of a project.

Some of the investment comes from the large Lebanese Diaspora. Some might be from abroad, the GCC. I’m not entirely sure, to be frank where all this money fuelling more and more buildings to go up comes from… What is undisputed, however, is that Beirut has been and still is being (re)built by Syrians.

That builders are mostly Syrians, however, engineers, architects and developers Lebanese, is not a recent thing – it has become the norm. Given punishing property prices, Syrian construction workers stay on site. Given the war raging in their home country, they can’t even travel for public holidays or annual leave.

Ironically, during the day, the noise of the machines and the builders screaming across the site, takes over the street. And the nearby flats… Once the working day is over, they turn into very quiet almost shadow-like creatures. It seems that the role they play during the day – construction workers – is the one ascribed to them. Once it’s past 5pm, they assume the role of residents or rather “residents” seeing that they’re merely tolerated as such and while curfews against Syrians have not been issued in Beirut, they seem to know to keep quiet after hours. So they stick to themselves and do not venture far from site.

Earlier this summer, watering the plants on the balcony facing the highrise construction site, one night, I suddenly noticed from the corner of my eyes, someone nearby. Indeed, a few meters across the narrow street, on the bare ledge of what one day might be a lounge, on level with me, lying on a mattress of sorts, was the grey-haired construction worker I’d seen before, I assumed to the site manager, looking at the screen of his phone.

I was startled. And felt like a voyeur, staring into my neighbour’s bedroom like this! Then again, I had for weeks already, walking the flight of stairs to the flat, been seeing the construction workers in their lounge cum bedroom through the gaps in the bricks. I’d stopped to seen how they had built a sort of mezzanine where two to three mattresses were spread out and how they often would watch TV – the news – at night. Cement bags stacked around them. A home of sorts but then not quite…

The older man with the grey hair would often wear a dark grey gown and he’d stand and pace, while there’d always be some construction workers sitting on this side of the street smoking, talking into their phone, maybe for privacy’s sake, maybe for better reception.

Privacy. How to grant these neighbours privacy if they sleep under the stars 5m from the plants we’re watering? Maybe the foreman has been wondering a few times-how come you didn’t clean the litter boxes 5m from my bed, yesterday?

I’ve come to see the barren site, that the men – I’d guess 10 of them – have been using as their home base. I have seen them use the first floor as the building progressed, hanging up laundry on the ground floor where they have a bathroom of sort, a toilet and built a room at the back. For now, as the temperatures are still quite hot, everything resolves around the mezzanine.

I often wonder, what it will be like in winter. Where they are from. Where their families are? What they make of the cats? Have they seen us sneaking out of the bathroom wrapped in towels? Going out all dressed up?

I also wonder, what some people mean when they say “they are used to living like this”…

*the image purposefully does not depict any of my neighbours.

Listen to Fairuz’ Nehna Wel Amar Wel Jiran (We and the moon we’re neighbours) click here

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Walking on Water

 

It was love at first sight.

Simple as that.

I took one look at the saffron coloured piers stretching across a panoramic lake I’d never heard of before, in Northern Italy, and I was love-struck.

Love-struck, obsessed and thousands of kilometres away.

I was obsessed with the idea of what it would feel like to be there, on the piers, on the water.

Would it feel as magic as it appeared from distant and rarely serene, never pristine Beirut?

As I urged a friend flying to Milan to absolutely go, telling him: “If you go, it’s almost as if I were there,” us both laughing at my stubborn incitement, I started to question myself about this fantasy.

And I started looking at flights to Milan, probing friends residing there about vacant sofas.

The colour of the fabric, which looks like a blend between hues – what we’d get mixing tumeric, apricot and saffron – is a fragnant, warm and stimulating colour. Closer to yellow than orange with the shades of azure and teal of the deep mountain Lago d’Iseo, it effectively represents the Tibetan holy colours: yellow and blue.

Whether or not Christo and Jeanne-Claude were aware of that or whether Johannes Itten would approve, I believe no other two colours would have had quite the same effect.

More than anything though, it was the fact that as in most of their projects, Christo and Jeanne-Claude created something somewhat impossible, created something solid but ephemeral. And herein lies the magic of it: it is not architecture, it is not engineering (though I’m sure there are some part of the team) – it is art. And as such, it proves the beauty of an edifice, a valley, a waterfall, a set of islands – the beauty of our planet – by adding something equally beautiful but changing our perceptions entirely, our relationship to the wrapped or draped or surrounded entity, which once the intervention is over, returns to its initial state, but is no longer the same. Nor are we.

 

I have followed Christo and Jeanne-Claude (who passed away in 2009) for many years. The Running Fence and the Umbrellas are among my favourites. That said, I regret not getting to see the Wrapped Reichstag but I did get to see the Wrapped Trees, which once snow fell on the Japanese mesh, took on poetic beauty.

 

Cycling from Iseo to Sulzano from where one gained access to the piers, I could see the installation from afar and how it blended into the landscape. I could not see the incredible queues I’d have to join before eventually stepping on the water…

After much waiting and frequent showers courtesy of the local fire brigade, I finally walked on the fabric, laid out in small streets of Sulzano near the water.

The initial crowd management, demanding of everyone stepping on to get a move on, instead of taking pictures or admiring the views and the FEELING, spoilt the first impressions but regardless of the masses of people – it was possible, given the sheer size of the piers, to have a personal experience. Also due to the fact that once on the piers, everyone was free to stay for however long they wanted.

Though ferries have been re-routed, there were frequently motorboats and also the boats patrolling for the Floating Piers project, causing small waves to move the piers, gently though. While I felt like a sailor back on land in Sulzano, I felt safe – a deeply happy – at all times.

It is that feeling of safety, of insouciance, that made me inevitably think of others who attempt to cross the waters, maybe at the same time as I was taking my shoes off and placing my bare feet on the piers.

Whether or not Christo and Jeanne-Claude intended to make a statement for unity and solidarity or not –probably not as the project had been in the planning years before the exodus across the Eastern Mediterranean, a wave of sadness washed over me. Here I hop borders barely ever asked to prove and provide 100 things to be let in. Here I safely walk on water, while others die crossing the Mediterranean.

All around me, thousands of people were as evidently happy as I was. But they probably thought other thoughts…

Christo and Jeanne-Claude are not Ai Wei Wei. Their art is transformative but has not often been political. Their War of Oil Barrels – The Iron Curtain set up in Rue Visconti in Paris  10 months after the Berlin Wall was erected, is a notable exception. I therefore decided that a heavy heart and a happy eye can live of art and aesthetics. A bit like The Two Fridas…

 

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grief

we never met.

still i am grieving your loss.

i am in mourning even though until you left, i had no idea how blessed we were having you in our midst.

the reality – certainly in beirut – is that rather than degrees of separation there are most often circles that are if not intertwined, then very close to each other. and so i saw yesterday that friends of mine on social media were mourning the loss of a dancer. a syrian palestinian dancer who danced and then leapt off the seventh floor of a building.

being the daughter, granddaughter, great niece, great cousin, etc. of men and women who in different times in history, under different circumstances took the decision to end their lives, i feel deep pain and empathy for you.

i am haunted by the thought of what went through your mind, what you felt in your heart, the morning of your last day, the moment you stepped onto the stage for the last time. the moment you decided to do this most counterintuitive act. the lack of alternative exit routes.

your suicide also highlights that the glass is as full as it is empty… there are indeed many laudable initiatives, some quite recent, that have enriched the art scene and created new opportunities  in beirut. still, it’s not enough and many talented artists struggle to just about make ends meet, in a city with exorbitant rents and living costs, with no government subsidies or programmes to foster the arts and private and foreign patronage that reaches some but not enough.

those who at present want to dare a new start in a new country, are faced with near insurmountable borders. Hassan, being syrian palestinian, was quasi stateless. how can anybody living on a planet as vast as ours, be stateless? and how can such a “stateless” individual not have a guardian angel, a good friend?

and then today i met S. we started talking and after some time, she confided in me and told me she was mourning someone. i immediately knew it was you.

she told me how outstanding a dancer you were. how international dance companies had seen you dance on beiruti stages and thought you ought to go abroad.

instead, your friends are trying to send your remains back to Damascus. to your mother. your two younger sisters; the youngest was so fond of you.

suicide is one of life’s biggest mysteries, a religious man told my mother, after my father had died, suggesting that empathy was most important and to steer away from blame or shame.

it is nonetheless hard, for those left behind, to state the cause of death. to accept the irreversible choice made. to avoid questioning whether or not this could have been prevented. more often than not, there are no answers.

what we do know is that we are all interconnected. after all, i never met you but we had friends in common. we could, if not you on stage and me in the audience, have met at a dinner.

we all have choices. to care or to retreat. to ask or to remain silent. to encourage or to walk away. to step out of a comfort zone or stay in the bubble.

suicide – also referred to as Freitod (free death) in German – is often connected to mental illness. the correlation sadly applies to many suicides. but certainly not all.

the disease that i believe struck Hassan was bureaucratic violence. for someone with wings made to soar to have his wings mutilated must have felt like being stoned alive. to stump out the pain he had to pay the ultimate price.

*my thoughts go out to all those mourning Hassan, especially to his mother and sisters

 

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Inside Time

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Time makes noises. Every 60 seconds, a small buzzing sound emanates from four plastic boxes that are mounted at the four cardinal points and below four round windows inside the Abdulhamid Clocktower in Tripoli. Between cracks that looks like parched earth behind the windows once evenly covered with paint or a plastic layer dried out by the sun, I can see the large clock hands of the Ottoman Clocktower move. A little bit. By 1 minute.

Ahwet Abou Moussa, a “chaabi” cafe near Tripoli’s Bab el Ramel-Mharam cemetery, a few minutes walk from Taynal Mosque is fairly quiet during the rest of the year but gets very busy during Ramadan. Until the early morning hours. Tea (with cinnamon or cumin) and coffee are served all night, shishas are fired up, sweet smoke teasing the night sky, mostly men but also women, children and even toddlers sit around plastic tables and chairs, chatting, eating warm kaak (sesame bread) with white melted cheese inside, Ramadan soaps playing on TV screens installed above some sitting areas. Scooters squeeze threw, a boy on roller blades goes round up and down the street, never seems to tire.

The most charismatic of all is O*. He jokes, he oozes street cred, he speaks in the thickets Troboulsi I’ve heard so far. Proudly so. He sings an Oum Khoulthoum song for us. Whips up his phone to prove that he was singing Oum Khoulthoum and not too badly so. He tells of his upbringing in post war Lebanon (he was born in 1997, the war ended in 1990 but the Syrian occupation only ended in 2005). Time spent in an orphanage. Never knew his father. His mother died shortly after giving birth to him. His grandmother then tried her best to raise him. His “teita” (grandmother) not receiving a state pension (like most Lebanese), O had not much choice but to start working. From the age of 6.

Where we are sitting, O’s story is not unique. This part of Tripoli is very poor. These are some of the poorest neighbourhoods in the country, and the region. Child labour is common. So are the posters of young martyrs that have been mounted onto walls that previously – and still – are mostly dominated by the local big men. Rich big men. Very rich big men.

That O has the lovely spirit he has and that he spoke to us as an equal and with confidence impressed me. That his grandmother managed to give him direction in life and that he has managed on his own, is remarkable. Still, I wonder what options does O have? Wouldn’t he be good at the reception of a hotel or guest house? Would he pass psychology and set up practise? Could he, with better schooling, have qualified to become an engineer? Ambassador? Or is he maybe apt at music? A dormant master plumber?

Without money or a family pooling together, O’s future could only be bleak. There is no social welfare, no social housing, no social grants, no social policies to equal things out.

O insisted to come with us to make sure we’d take the right direction to reach Tal by the time we left the cafe. around 3am. On our way, we passed the famous Ottoman Clocktower. It was lit up. “It’s like Big Ben,” N, a Tripolitan, shrieked with delight. “Look, it’s so nice, lit up.” I had to agree that indeed, it looked nice against the backdrop of a Ramadan near full-moon sky. “Have you been inside?” I egged her on? “No? Oh you should!”

And that is how, a few hours later we found ourselves in the Clocktower office on the  ground floor of the Clocktower. While usually some letter of permission from the Municipality needs to be obtained, we managed to get up, based on the agreement that we were going at our own risk. And we had to close all windows and doors we’d open.

We passed the clerk, opened the door behind his desk and stepped onto the first metal step of a narrow stairway leading to the first level of the Clocktower. From here already, the perspective onto the area known as Tal, changes. Facades that one would not really notice, become apparent. The park below is luscious and its neat design become visible from above. As do the people sitting on the benches, passing by. We could see ‘them’ all but they seemed to not be aware of us. Gawking. Posing on balconies. Sprinkles like the railings and stairs inside, with bird shit.

Tal is similar in its make up to the old Martyr’s Square in Beirut. The square that was pulsating with life, that was the heart of the city. It was the main transport node from where buses and taxis would leave to any destination in the city or beyond. It was lined with buildings that housed cafes and stores. And cinemas. Iconic cinemas. The Opera, the Rivoli (blasted after the war). The Police headquarter. The red light district. A country and its institutions should be decentralised. A metropolis should not be – it needs a centre, that holds the rest together. A square that is accessible to all and public in order to equalise social inequalities.

The Garden beneath the Clocktower belonged once to the Nawfal Palace. Next to it, is the (closed) cinema Opera, the sign in an Art Deco font. On the other end of the garden is the municipality. Closer, towards ABC and Hotel Palace is what remains of the theatre that burnt down. There also used to be a casino. On the other side were Cinema Empire and the Dunia, which screened Arabic titles and burnt at some point. The facade has been painted by a local Henri Rousseau fan it seems… On the square below is often an army jeep, in front are fruit sellers and Mercedes Benz coil around the square.

Not one produced before the 1990s, I’d say. Classic, gas guzzling, squeaky (fake) leather seats, 80s models dominate. Covered in German stickers of cargo companies or the “Ein Herz für Kinder” (A heart for children) campaign, “ADAC” (German Automobile Club) and accessories – often horses stuck on the grille. Quite apt given that these cars are strong as a horse…

One could describe Tripoli by talking about its armada of old Benz. How they just seem to last and last. And not get replaced by any newer model, made by Mercedes or not. And the Benz procession. Coming from Koura Square behind Tal, the taxis who join up, park behind the last car. And switch their engines off. To move their cars, the drivers get out of their seats and push their taxis forward. It happens very slowly. And silently. Only once the first car in front is full of passengers – sometimes two in front – is the engine turned on, can the distinctive rattling sound these old cars make be heard. And exhausts emanate grey smoke like factories during the Industrial Revolution.

Tripoli is different. It also has to be. Albeit its fair share of very wealthy inhabitants, it is a poor city. Necessity, as they say, is the mother of invention. Or survival…

Inside the Clocktower, time stood still for me. What irony, I thought. Me, scolded (and cursed) many times, for being late. Mad rushes to make it. With scraping bums. For missing a [fill in various modes of transport]. For misreading time tables. Confusing starting times of events. For not being German in the way Germans tend to be, apparently: punctual. Always. (Also beer loving and more often than not, not supportive of the Palestinian cause. To name a few standard German traits).

So here I am. Inside time! I saw it pass. Literally. I saw it move. In front of my eyes. I’m surrounded by a square that has only somewhat changed – it does indeed look like a wonderful collection of old postcards I have seen. By and large it has remained the same, still accessible to all people who live in Tripoli, shaping public life in this city even though some dream of massive parkades in lieu of current laissez faire and a make-over could be nice…

And what about the Ottoman times? I’m in this Ottoman time capsule and indeed, Tripoli’s Ottoman heritage is omnipresent. Incidentally, the ties to Turkey remain strong. Much stronger than to Beirut. I often see large sign boards advertising Turkish universities in the North that I’ve never seen south of Batroun.

Present-day Lebanon was under – often oppressive – Ottoman rule from the very early 16th century until the early 20th century! In that time, Tripoli got connected to the Orient Express before the railway lines reached Beirut. Long-lasting demographic changes, due to a famine instigated by the Empire led to great suffering and a wave of emigration. Still, Tripolitans are starved, though in different ways, and leave their city, some have even tried the sea route…

Rich in history, architecture, full of characters, gentle souls, where is Tripoli going? Tripoli could go anywhere… as it is, it’s going at a gentler pace than the capital but sadly it also fails to take care of its citizens or offer them a vision leaving a handful of spirited individuals to step in and create bubbles of possibility…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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çay on the house

Views during the orchid walk around Hisarköy, Northern Cyprus.

Views during the orchid walk around Hisarköy, Northern Cyprus.

Just a few days ago, I told a friend how I missed reading, how I used to be an avid reader, devouring books by Steinbeck, Hemingway, Hesse and Gordimer and many others from the age of 14 and that especially since university, I’d lost that ability to sink into a story. I’ve been conditioned to gist read, so I fly through words, paragraphs and pages in search of the relevant sections and don’t pause to appreciate the style or the plot much…
A book I ‘imposed’ myself to read, as I gathered it would go well with an article I have to write on Lebanese director and producer Philippe Aractingi’s new feature film “Héritages” (“Mirath” in Arabic), has been with me from the moment I bought it. “Héritages” is a moving and important film that looks at the “Anatomy of Restlessness” that prevails in Lebanon and translates into virtually every family having some more or less close relative/s in (an)other country/countries. Aractingi and his family unpack questions of belonging, and identity, touch on allegiances and fears, address silences and hopes, discuss the future and the past, and in the process, shed a lot of baggage..

So buying “Origines” by Aractingi’s compatriot, Amin Maalouf, the first Lebanese to be admitted to the Académie Française, seemed obvious. And, Maalouf’s worked  his magic on me, again! This is the third of his books I read and he proves to be one of the writers who can draw me in with ease, barely 3 pages into an oeuvre.

Aractingi’s film and what it lays bare, challenges and the mirror it holds up in front of each one of us, the “genetic memory” he suggests we all are subjected to and Maalouf’s book have made me think also about my own family.

Looking around me, I couldn’t help but being surprised how many non-locals there were, in this lost quarter of the Mediterranean, on Cyprus. I crossed over to the Northern part, which is Turkish since 1974. At the first hotel I sought out in Girne/Kyrenia and where I’d hoped to be staying, for the name, really, the Nostalgia Hotel, I was greeted by a man who sounded very Bollywood. He gave me all the information I needed and then I went on to take a look at a possible alternative option nearby, shown around by a young Nigerian. Given that this one proved a non-option, I went back to Bollywood (and Hussein, it turned out), booked in and got a breakfast discount.

Tonight, upon coming back from my orchid hike, I saw a little boy – I guessed he must be between 2 and 3 – in the corridor. I tried to give him high fives but he didn’t seem to know that game yet. His mom looked on and smiled, gently. I took my key, waved goodbye and went to my room. Then, remembered I should tell Hussein that I had decided to stay an extra night. As I got to the dining room, he was clearing up. We got to chat, he made me a green tea. “Can I ask you a question but please don’t get upset”, I opened. “Are you Turkish or are you from India?” He looks and me and smiles a tiny smile: “I’m from Pakistan.” If he was upset about my misplacing him with an enemy country, he didn’t show it and we spoke about how difficult and dangerous life was there, how he’d been in Cyprus for 3 years, studying, and now raising a family. (Turned out Wardan, his cute son, was 14 months old)

At the orchid festival in Hisarköy, about 30km inlands from Girne, I met an Iraqi student (“I’m from Erbil, I’m Kurdish”) who was on a full scholarship at the Girne American University. There are also many Syrians who currently receive such scholarships.

third type of orchid

One of the orchids we saw outside Hisarköy.

At the table next to mine, at some small kebab place in Girne tonight, I overheard two male voices nearby speaking in English. From the accent, I figured they’d be West African. Shamelessly, I eaves-dropped on their conversation. The one was telling the other about a woman back home – Nigeria, it turns out – who had sent him something. Whatever it was, it must have been steamy, because he didn’t read it out, he handed his friend the phone. I had thus far not lifted my head once from the book I was presently staring at…

As I asked for the bill, I was told “çay on the house”. I’d had two of them.

Pakistan, Syria, Nigeria, and Lebanon (Fifi, the woman who booked me out at the Delphi Hotel in Nicosia yesterday, excitedly told me she was from Jounieh, 20min from Beirut but everybody had left, she had family in all sorts of places but no longer in Lebanon…)

We’re all somewhat hybrids, these days. Like Hussein managing a Northern Cypriot hotel, while studying…. and me being half French, half German, residing in Beirut, talking English with a South African accent.

Traditional Cypriot dance troupe getting ready

Young girls getting ready before performing a traditional Cypriot dance on Hisarköy’s village square.

As Hussein told me of his fears of the drones and other dangers in his home country, I couldn’t help but marvel at the fact that right now, for most Europeans, there is no sense of insecurity that they need to have, or would have or would know of, really. For over 50 years, Europe – with some horrific exceptions – has known peace. And prosperity, to a large extent. But for the rest of the world, this security and prosperity remains elusive. I was heartened when reading about a march in Hamburg this weekend, where 4000 people expressed their solidarity with the “Lampedusa refugees” and demanded they stay. The tighter Europe will close itself off, the more desperate the attempts to penetrate fortress Europe will be… Lebanon, with it’s 4 odd million, currently hosts (some would put it “hosts”) over 1 million Syrians. Germany with it’s over 80 million and it’s strong economy, has allowed some 7000 Syrians in. Enough said.

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dry & explosive – the new year so far

I divide my time between Beirut and Bejje. The two – though a mere 50 something km away from each other – are poles apart and it does sometimes take me a day or so to adjust.

The trip along the (mostly ugly due to concrete monstrosities) coastal highway, which I cover either by bus (can be mellow, can be harrowing), fast vans (the one hour journey may at times feel like that brief moment on the runway when a plane is about to take off. We’ve never taken off, alhumdullilah and I hope we never will…) or with my boyfriend (never ceases to be dismayed at how bad most Lebanese do drive).
Beirut is very noisy, cars and motorbikes like to rev their engines and show off their sound systems especially at 2am, when speeding through concrete valleys in residential areas. Possibly the same drivers also like to talk loudly to make sure their interlocutor and everyone else in the area can hear them. Stress levels are generally high, tolerance low so a small disagreement may quickly turn to a row, fuelled by indignation,  testosterone and a general sense of frustration.
Winter in Beirut is just like a good Cape Town winter: wet. My first winter here that I started in late January 2012 was indeed very cold and wet and everyone kept pointing out that it was a particularly long, cold and wet winter. This being my “second and half” winter I know very well that his winter is abnormal, in fact, it doesn’t deserve the label winter.
There was some snowfall in December, which I was hoping would allow me to go cross country skiing again, something I did as a child in the Black Forest with my dad. The snow that I could see on the Mount Lebanon chain visible from our balcony has long ago melted. And there has barely been any rain. The situation is so bad that I am guaranteed to see water trucks in our neighbourhood nearly every day or I hear them at night, pumping up water into residential blocks’ reservoirs engines running.

Yesterday, the water in our building ran out. Just like that. Every flat had been asked to pay LL20,000 ($13, 9.5 Euro or R150) towards a water truckload of water. Which is of such lousy quality that we can’t drink it, by the way. But we shower with it, do the dishes, run the washing machine. And wash our hands. Suddenly, none of that was possible anymore. The ritual gestures that we make many times a day, like opening the taps to wash our hands, pulling the flush of the toilet lead to… barely a trickle and a gulp in my throat.
Now water cuts are not unusual in Beirut or Lebanon but they occur in the hot, humid summer months. For water cuts to occur in February is wild and worrisome, very worrisome, especially when you think of food security…. refugees…hygiene…

To top it all off, the power also went off for a while. I found out about the latter as I got back from running some errands and bought a large “jarra” (gallon/container) of water and had to lug it up 5 floors. At least I had no pending deadline to meet, which would have meant packing my bag and heading to the nearest cafe with internet.
It may be done through some unreliable computer programme but I often have this Alice in EDLandesque vision in my head of the person in charge of turning off electricity. S/he has a giant hourglass on his/her desk and when the sand’s trickled through, hauls a giant lever down. Except he/she gets distracted a lot. From smoking a lot and having lively discussions with colleagues, often centered around food, a prime concern for most Lebanese. Distraction also happens due to making and drinking too many coffees every day. From filing her nails and clipping his nose hair. From playing “tawlet sawfar” (backgammon) and chatting on WhatsApp. A lot. Some of the folks at Electricité du Liban (EDL) also like to go on strike.

In any event, here in Beirut, unless you have a “moteur” (generator), you will be subjected to daily, roaming  power cuts lasting 3 hours. For example tomorrow, the cut ought to be from 6am to 9am. Monday it will be 3pm to 6pm – the last half hour we’ll be using candles. Then again, the cut in Beirut (in Akkar, the poor north, cuts run up to 12, 14 hours) is not always 3 hours, though. Because of the above mentioned reasons. And because power’s everything and denying it leads to all sorts of inconveniences and additional expenses and disruptions for businesses and private individuals and that keeps an entire nation on its toes and powerless. And that, really is a rather accurate mirror or Lebanon and its people that are handled like puppets, strings pulled at random. The puppet masters are old men with political power and terrible historical baggage, much money, and “wasta” (connection, basically) and no intentions to create a state with functioning institutions, let alone represent the people and its interests.
The power cuts, I’ve been told, have been part of daily life for many years, decades. During the Civil War it became normal, before 1975, however, it wasn’t like this. A woman my age I interviewed told me that often when the power came back during the war, they’d switch absolutely every electric device and appliance on, just for the fun of it and throw parties that often would be interrupted …. by a power cut or attack…
The 2006 war Israel waged against Lebanon was intended to turn the clocks back by 20 years, as an Israeli general has been quoted. Theirs were surgical strikes, targeting key infrastructure, dismantling the grid, heavily damaging the motherboard. And electricity became a rare commodity. I wonder though to what extent this situation does not also serve to mute us and ensure that we upkeep anti-Zionist/Israeli sentiments….

And Bejje? It’s up from an area known as “jenneh” (paradise), my love tells me. A windy road up from the Moncef turn-off and the Mediterranean, takes you to 500m, with grand views of Jaj and the Cedars (around 2000m). Along the way, I pass a few villages, lovely olive groves, carob trees, some old traditional Lebanese stone houses that I like a lot, “calvaires”, and also rubbish, a lot of rubbish on the side of the road, Syrian laborers on their Chinese motorbikes, once in a while a truck blocks the way, which requires the driver’s full attention – the tar is pothole-marked.
Once in Bejje, the pace of my heart slows down, I even have vivid dreams. I think it’s partly due to the absence of all the noise and less pollution. And of being together again.
There have, however, been incidents that have proven to me that you can’t be enjoying peace and quiet and nature, even in paradise.
Like when the neighbour salutes migratory bird season with gun shots at 5am. Or the wind carries the poisonous smoke from the rubbish dump, where all the waste generated by Byblos and Amchit gets burnt over to us in the middle of the night and we – and probably a range of neighbouring villages too but nobody speaks out… – have to close all windows before going back to sleep, heavy-hearted and angry too.
Still, the place is good for my soul. I’ve seen many sunsets in shades of pink, orange and crimson over the Med and early morning light over the front porch with the overhanging vine and can’t get tired of it. I love looking down at the village of Ain Kfaa, perched on a hill top, some stone houses blend in harmoniously into the landscape, reminding me of Gordes in the south of France. I love the smell of sage and other wild plants. I understand why some prisons have gardening activities for their inmates-it literally grounds you, to work with the earth, to weed, to plant, to water what you planted and to watch it grow. It’s life, and it’s a miracle. Just like seeing an earthworm was to me, after 2 years of living in the concrete jungle that is Beirut, where nature boils down to some ficus trees, dog poo (lots of it in my affluent area) and balcony pot plants. There are virtually no parks. I repeat, there are basically no parks.
I grew up in a small European village before moving to Cape Town where I lived for 15 years. Cape Town is what I call an “eye-candy-type-city”. It’s a love at first sight place. Beirut, in fact just like Johannesburg, is not. But it has groove, it is dynamic, it’s a gut connection. What Beirut taught me is to pay attention to detail. And to marvel at that. As a result, I always carry a camera with me or some image-taking device. Because most of Beirut appears so ugly, it’s a quest that is about finding that one nice detail, that one precious view, that one special scene, something ironic or iconic, weird or wonderful, to elevate and celebrate it.
About 3 weeks ago I discovered a very nice spot in Sioufi, 10 minutes walk from my place, called Onomatopoeia. It’s a “music hub”, a music school and live music venue, a cafe during the day, offering light meals, good coffee and solid internet, and there are regular talks on music held there too. An oasis! Filled with retro furniture, an old teal-coloured French telephone like my grandparents had that still works and startled me twice when it rang, and funky upcycled furniture such as a dentist’s lamp as a table lamp, glass-top covered doors as tables. I worked outside with earphones to block out the sound of cars, until the sun was too nice and bright and made it impossible for me to see my screen, even with sunglasses. Inside, I got to hear Billie Holiday and Chet Baker, fused with a string of music students, including drum kit, vocals and violin. A perfect place. For me.
Oh, I forgot to mention that the water came back last night. The pressure is weak but it runs and the truck’s supposed to come tomorrow. Insh’allah…

I’ll explain the “explosive” bit in my next post….
ImageNew Year’s Sunset. Bejje, Lebanon

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