2 weeks, 1 Maserati and many more chickpeas

This past Saturday, I headed towards central Beirut. The area known as downtown was near completely destroyed during the war. A slick shopping mall called Beirut Souk has sprung up, there are still plenty of new developments mushrooming out of the once heavily contested ground, offering great living in the inner city. It’s modern and soulless and mostly frequented by locals who feel the urge to be seen there and rich folks from the Gulf.

Walking through the Beirut Souk, felt like paging a pricey glossy – one chic boutique after the other insanely expensive brand. Kids were having fun on the open air Beirut Ice-Skating ring. Next to the mall, an old, bombed out building, as a surreal reminder of how the olden Beirut looked, that the ground on which we stand, was heavily contested a few years back, every square meter, drenched in blood.

Around the Place de l’Etoile (every major Lebanese city seems to have one), hordes of kids on their bicycles, with balloons and soap bubbles, their Bangladeshi, Ethiopian and Filipina nannies trying to keep them in check. The movie The Help applies to Lebanon too, I hear…

The statue on Martyr’s Square, riddled with bullet holes, looks like a sieve. It is one of the most eerie traces left of the war, I have yet seen. And it has been patched up, Nadine, my flatmate, told me.

One of the things I (already) truly love about Beirut is having the freedom to explore, to follow my nose, so to speak, not to worry about taking a wrong turn, finding myself in a dodgy alley, tricky situation. I wandered up and down Gemmayze, a hip and charming neighbourhood, climbing up stairs, peeking into little stores and through shop windows, bars and cafes. I yet have to experience Rue Gouraud, the neighbourhood’s party mile at night, when apparently, “die Post abgeht” or in other words, the place goes mad, the street packs up with party dwellers, various venues pump out loud music into the night, much to the chagrin of the residents living upstairs…

I found a bike shop in Gemmayze which offered me an old school stallion for $250. It’s also up for rental. I plan to go back when this silly cold is gone, to rent it out and test ride it. I brought my helmet along, which I reckon is a most reasonable measure. I have so far nearly been taken out by a scooter, a taxi (sedan) and a Maserati. That in itself sums Beirut’s traffic up, actually. In one (Satur)day, I saw 3 Maserati. I didn’t bother counting other luxury cars. Armadas of scooters snake their way through traffic, which to a large extent consists of “service” and “taxi”. “Service” are sedans that offer cheap taxi services, “taxi” are meter taxis. Without metres, of course! Although the street grid is often hellishly narrow, there are buses the service and taxi available, and all basic amenities in each neighbourhood are always in walking distance, Lebanese insist on using their cars. It’s a huge status symbol. I’ve seen a convertible driven by a young woman, with 4 other women inside, 3 sitting on top of the back bench, squealing as if Lebanon had just won the World Cup, 2 little girls part of the party, one at the back, one of the lap of the woman on the passenger seat.

What makes up for the chaos in the streets is the readiness of all Lebanese to go out of their way to make you feel welcoming. Looking for the bus stop from where to take the bus north, to Jbeil (Byblos) on Saturday, I asked a shopkeeper for directions. He dropped everything and – albeit the fact that he had a severe walking disability – walked outside with me and showed me. Two days ago, I got lost in Ashrafiyeh and asked a woman for help. Turned out Rana was a tourist guide and she took it upon herself to walk me all the way and wouldn’t take any money for the service she now would have to take to be on time.

After cold and rainy days last week, we were blessed with mild winter weather on the weekend. I had planned to go to Jbeil on Sunday and was blessed with fantastic weather. The bus trip, which took about an hour (40km), wound along the coast on the highway, past a jungle of advertisement boards (made me think of some parts of France, sigh) and a very built up coast line. Near Jounieh, I spotted Caligula Super Night Club and also the Casino du Liban with a rather full parking lot… Also spotted the Al-Inaya Bakery, which put a big smile on my face. The bus was small but the Arabic tunes were big. Yay!

Jbeil is spectacular! 7000 years of uninterrupted habitation, a vast Roman excavation site, a Crusader castle, picturesque harbour, a little beach, a renovated souk area, plenty of alleys, corners and sights of interest to explore. Which is what I did for the whole day.

“In existence before the great civilisations of the Middle East were even thought of, Byblos – known as Gebal in the Bible and, less romantically, as Giblet by the Crusaders – lays claim to being one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited towns. It’s also known as the birthplace of the modern alphabet. Its ancient name is thought to derive from the Greek bublos, meaning papyrus, since the town was once a Phoenician stopping-off place for papyrus shipments en route to Egypt.” (source: some Lonely Planet)

Instead of the “p’it verre de vin” I was offered at Adona – Le Petit Libanais where I had lunch, I ordered my first Almaza, which turned out to be a very drinkable local beer. (Do you copy, Guy Hubbard??)

After traipsing through the excavation site for a while, I decided to head back to the harbour, towards the end of the day. And I HAD to put my feet in the Mediterranean. I reckon a good 2 degrees warmer than the Atlantic in Cape Town. An old man was playing the oud and singing beautifully melancholic tunes on the Corniche. Behind him, cars, bumper to bumper, trying to get as close to the water as possible. Ah, Lebanese and their need to show off their cars again… In front of him, people fishing, kids running around, lovers parading, a fair amount of women dressed to the nines, in high heels, hanging onto their men, as they barely managed to balance and get across this wobbly quay turned catwalk.

And then I had a South African moment, standing on the highway, waiting for a bus to Beirut… A bus stopped, I asked if it was headed for Beirut and was told, yes. Then two other male heads next to the driver turned in my direction. Ah. Three men on the front bench. Instinctively, I leaned forward to take a look inside the bus: empty. I’ll take the next one, thank you, bye. The guys were angry. Can’t blame them. But just couldn’t hop onto that bus.

The next one came shortly afterwards, pretty full and the driver greeted me with a stretched out hand. Back to Lubnan…

On the way back to Beirut, I got to enjoy the plenitude of banana plantations along the lower coastal road this bus took, more people fishing (must be a legacy of the French mandate, the French will throw a rod into any muddy hole to satisfy their love for angling), many beach resorts (access to the Mediterranean is mostly private and a lucrative enterprise) and sadly, a lot of rubbish too.

I had no idea where this bus would stop, in Beirut. But I didn’t really care and I certainly didn’t panic, even though it was dark. I knew that wherever it would be, a service or taxi would hoot at me within minutes of my taking position on the pavement. And so it was.

Two days ago, I hit the road again with Les Amis des Marionnettes. To get to our meeting point, I took one of the city buses for the first time. From my window, I saw an old man hanging a birdcage up a lamp pole. It’s only two streets from my flat – I want to check if he does it every day, if the bird spends the day inhaling the traffic fumes and chirps along the hooters.

Getting pretty good at mounting and dismounting their puppet theatre. This time, we went to Saida (Sidon), where the 3 puppeteers performed in front of 250 excited primary school kids. Having seen the play twice and no to be in the way of the Italian camera crew that was to film the show, I positioned myself behind the performers. Absolutely amazing to see them switch from one puppet to another, handle the soundtrack, the props, swop from hand puppets to shadow puppets, how the three managed the restricted space and the body language that, unseen to the audience, went with the performance.

Afterwards, handing out books to the kids, one boy walked up to me and with a slight look of panic in his eyes, asked me: “What’s your name?” He dashed away before I could ask him “And what is yours?” Fadia, one of the puppeteers, called him back. “Jaad”, he replied, smiled and ran off.

Read more about trip to Saida, its amazing SOUK and the Soap Museum in blog post 5.

It’s two weeks day, Beirut/Lebanon and me. I have a few basic words in Arabic and seem to have a knack to guess the content of conversations, to the surprise of those around me, he he. Not yet very good at handling the replies I get from my developmental stage Arabic though… My fruit & veggie traders recognise me and smile. Also learnt the Arabic numbers up to 10, in writing, not yet the words. As if the alphabet wasn’t enough, even the numbers are different to the Latin. Eish!

Electricity and ablutions still pose the odd challenge. I’ll spare you the details…

I have started to work on stories… on Lebanese women filmmakers. In fact, met one by chance, sitting opposite me at Dar, the cafe I worked from, yesterday. Meeting Carol Mansour, an established filmmaker on Monday. She will give me some of her films to watch so that I can interview her. Excited!

Oh, and did I tell you I saw snow? Not quite falling onto cedars but snow it was! And the ruins of Baalbak, north of the Bekaa Valley (can’t sing its praises-was covered in fog) in the heartland of hashish and Hizbollah.

My iphoto has some issue with that little camera some clever Indian salesclerk made me buy at 5.30am as I sleepwalked through Dubai airport, scared that I might fall asleep for 2 days and miss my connecting flight to Beirut. So visuals will follow when I get a chance to beg Nadine again to download them onto her laptop, then transfer onto my external, etc.

more soon, hoping the internet at home will be reconnected today, insh’allah.

love from Lubnan,

Nathalie

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About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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