Chickpeabelt Chronicles: tales of snow-walking, recycling in the face of adversity and hair spray

*talesh. my first Arabic word: snow

While I often work during what is generally referred to as “after-hours”, I readily admit, I greatly rejoice being able to take a morning, afternoon or if possible, day off, when everyone else is at work. Last week Tuesday, my new Beiruti friend Tamara (another puppeteer) invited me to come “faire randonnée à raquettes à neige” (snow-shoeing) in Faraya, one of Lebanon’s top ski resorts. On the way up, we stopped to rent the snow shoes – including the boots for me – and, of course, for brunch. I’ve learnt fast not to have my usual oats breakfast when heading out with puppeteers and other Lebanese folks – come 10, 11am the latest, we stop at a spot they know, sit down and eat a savoury breakfast, usually a local speciality.

Due to road closures (too much snow), we went towards Faqra and parked the car near some houses, tied the show shoes to our boots, grabbed the snow sticks, I happily put the anorak Tamara brought along for me on and headed off. In the beginning, we both huffed and puffed a little – our bodies, used to sea level (and smog), had to get used to the altitude. We were at around 1700m.

It was a brilliant day – we had a valley below us, with terraces and pine groves, and a river at the bottom. This must be so pretty a picnic spot in spring… On the other side we could see the slopes and ski lifts of Faqra. After an hour of walking, our bodies had gotten warm by then, I spotted some stone columns ahead of us. Given the all white landscape and the altitude, I somehow didn’t think it could be what it looked like and turned out to be: Roman ruins. We walked right towards them and if my camera didn’t refuse to release them to my laptop, I could share them with you!

*Plays don’t come with subtitles…

That same night, I joined Tamara to my first theatre performance in Beirut. What can I say about Medea. In Arabic. Very good light and visuals. Very strong actress and well staged. “Ana Medea.” I am Medea. I got that. Out of a 60 minute play. Oh, and the Lilli Marleen song.

*General Insecurity

Last Friday, I went to General Security. This is where artists, for example, playwrights or filmmakers, or even puppeteers, drop off their plays and scripts, intended for public performances or films. Once the relevant department has read and approved it and you paid $50, production may go ahead. Or may need to be modified according to their directives. Once it’s done, in case of a film, you drop the final edit off, pay $100, they watch and approve it, insh’allah, you screen it.

It is also the place where yours truly, as the holder of a French passport, can extend a one month visa to three months. Mahmoud was right, they love the French, tant mieux. I entered with a knot in my tummy and shaking knees and visions of Home Affairs. But also because it might deserve the name “General Insecurity”! Men in grey and black camouflage pants and red berets outside eying you, holding some mean big automatic weapons. At the gate, an x-ray machine. And a dozen of the guys in the entrance, which is small, so one has to squeeze past them to get a ticket, then use the ticket to drop your phone off. Then show the ticket to two guys blocking the stairway one needs to take to reach the second floor. I sure don’t want to try the elevator! A guy eyes you at the door of the room on the first floor. And then another one awaits at the second floor, my final destination. Fierce but friendly. I waited 15 minutes, changing queues, depending on how forthcoming the person at the counter seems. I end up with a guy who says to me: “Nathalie!” “ouiiiiii” (descending voice). “C’est le nom de ma fille!” (It’s my daughter’s name). Nathalie exhales. And is happy to hear that this is visa is free for French nationals. I am told to come back in a week’s time, leave my passport and quickly walk out with a green paper.

*When an ancient sarcophagus needs another sarcophagus

Although General Security went smoothly, it always does freak me out to see weapons and it did make me think of Home Affairs and my legal limbo… To get over my bureaucratic blues, I crossed the road and visited the National Museum. Though small in size it provides great insight into Lebanon’s phenomenal archeological and cultural heritage. I lingered for a good two hours and discovered some magic items, such as “The Jealousy Mosaic” on which this was enscribed:

“Envy is a great evil, however, it has some beauty for it consumes the eyes and the heart of the jealous.” Beirut, Byzantine Period, 395-635AD (L’envie est un grand mal, elle possède cependant quelque beauté car elle ronge les yeux et le coeur des jaloux.)

And the “Sarcophagus of the Drunken Cupids” made of marble, found in the South in Sour (pronounced Suuur in Arabic) (Tyre), dating back to 2nd century AD.

A clay statuette of a breast-feeding woman from Sour in the South, made in the Iron Age II (IX-VII BC)

The marvelous fact that the region now known as Lebanon has had relations with Egypt since the 4th Millennium. What did the Gauls do back then again?

The Phoenician civilisation. In Lebanon the Iron Age coincides with the climax of the Phoenician civilisation, which culminated in its maritime expansion and the transmission of the alphabet which was attributed by one Greek legend to the Tyrian Cadmos.

The word Phoenician is a Greek designation on meaning red or purple which referred to the purple of the Levantine coast during that period. Sour mastered the production of purple dye and her fame, wealth and power were immortalised by the prophet Ezekiel. In 64BC, Phoenicia became part of the Roman world. The pax romana favoured trade exchange and local crafts like silversmith, glass, textile and ceramics industry developed. Famous philosophers, geographers and jurists were natives of Sour, Saida (Sidon) and Jbeil (Byblos), yet the intellectual elite continued to speak Greek.

Spare activities were accessible to all people with theaters, hippodromes and gymnasiums, nymphea (public fountains) and thermea (public baths, later hammams). Sounds lovely! I do, however, wonder if “all people” included women, foreigners and slaves…

What really shook me, were images shown in a film on the re-opening of the National Museum in 1999. Artifacts that had been preserved for thousands of years, came under threat during the war. To save some of the heritage, mosaics were covered in cement at the outbreak of the civil war in 1975, and ironically, statues and sarcophagi, were encased in cement, which were blasted open in the 1990s.

During the war, the Museum was right on the demarcation line, known as the infamous Green Line: “The Museum was not only a witness but also a victim of the raging war and the main road next to it came to be ironically called the “Museum Passage” because it was the main communication route between both parts of Beirut during the war.”

The last exhibit upstairs were objects damaged during the Lebanese war 1975 to 1991: “the terrible condition of these objects as well as the fusion of metal, ivory, glass and stone are the result of high temperatures reached during a fire caused by the shelling of a storage area.”

*Monsieur Robert et ses meilleures amies

Last Sunday, I went to another small but spectacular museum. The carvings, the wood work, the marbled floors, the wood insets and walls with infinitely intricate details, which overwhelmed the senses made me bend low and lift my neck to admire the ceilings – and get very annoyed at Monsieur Mouawad for not allowing me to take pictures of his treasures. The old, worn out carpets on the walls made me phantasize about the shoes and people who walked, ran, danced, dragged and paraded over them… The Robert Mouawad Private Museum, which exhibits jewelry, ceramics, pottery, antique books, narguilehs, and is basically an Ottoman interior decoractor’s wet dream, is: “fast dying out. Most of the landlords are dismantling their old historical structures and building utilitarian sky scrapers in their place,” states a notice. Then again, Monsieur Mouawad is the grandson of David Mouawad who founded one of the world’s greatest jewelry dynasties. Besides stunning ceramics and glassware, the Museum also hosts a collection of Belle Epoque, Art Nouveau and 1960s jewelry AND another thing Monsieur Robert is also famous for: the “very sexy fantasy bra”, which is valued at $11m and with a Christmas theme – red rubies and green gemstones for the holly. So, if diamonds, a year-round Christmas themed lingerie and a jingle belle are your thing and money is not an issue, Monsieur Robert is your guy… But apparently, the only woman who’s been enjoying his very sexy girl’s best friends was Heidi Klum. And me, smiling at the display last Sunday.

*Recycling in the face of adversity.

It’s about 150km from Beirut to Homs, Syria and given the legacy of Syrian occupation of Lebanon, which only ended in 2005 and the proximity, I pick up stories of Syrians looking for shelter, places to stay, work, bringing tales of terror with them…

Monday night, I went for a long jog along the Corniche (the promenade), which is a 10 to 15 minute walk from home, depending whether I walk or wander. As you got close to the Corniche, there is the Théâtre de Beyrouth (how tragic, it closed down recently), a mosque and a statue dedicated to former Egyptian president and Arab Nationalist, Gamal Nasser. I heard music and thought how fab, the mosque is playing music. It turned out to be a pro-Assad demonstration. A few fools making a lot of noise and a LOT of General Security who all stared at me because I started a recycling project for the flat and twice a week when I go jog, I take a big bag and drop it off at the bins on the Corniche. I recycle wherever I go! And even with a pounding heart, suspiciously eyed by men in camouflage. Once the recyclables were in the containers (from the sounds of cans, plastic bottles and glass dropping in there, I am the only person feeding them…), I summarily pursued to do some warm-ups and then pounded the tarmac, going a long way on adrenaline.

*Never been home

Adrenaline also featured in my day on Tuesday. I went with Mahmoud to the second Palestinian camp so far, Burj el Barajneh. Now Mahmoud has a wonderful sense of humour and is hugely respectful and gentle and keeps his cool at all times. Except behind the wheel. Oh the things he said! Consistently followed by “Sorry, Nathalie”. Never rude but oh SO angry.While I mostly stared, in a frequent state of disbelief, I also threw in the odd less angry but quite vulgar, French or German expletive. “When I arrived in Beirut, Nathalie, I drove like in the US and the UK. I followed the rules. I had an accident! The man who drove into me, he denied it. I insisted the police come. And they could see from the position of my wheels that it was not my fault. Then the other man, he tried to bribe the officer!” Mahmoud, who told me he was a taxi driver in New York once (he lasted 2 weeks), was kisht when we returned the car he’d borrowed from a friend and delighted to be able to use his two legs.

As to the camp… it is incredibly dense, water and electricty supplies are ensured by ingenious pipe labyrinths and spaghetti wires. Established first around 1948, when Palestinians fled their home land and sough refuge in all countries of the world including Lebanon, the settlements were made of tents. People left with the keys to their homes, convinced they’d soon be able to return. Sixty-four years later. The tents have made way to make-shift locations, often poorly conceived and built, trying to go around the plethora of restrictions that apply to everything and everybody Palestinian anyways. Flags everywhere, big banners, with the current president or more often Yasser Arafat, old and also fly, with dark shades in the days of the “olive branch and freedom fighter’s gun“…

In 1974, when the UN General Assembly invited Yasser Arafat to address the body, he was the first representative of a non-governmental organization to appear before a plenary session of the General Assembly, and also the first speech to the UN by the head of a terrorist organization, responsible by his own admission for death and destruction across the Middle East. Arafat gave his speech on November 13, 1974 in his revolutionary garb with a holster attached to his hip (although he left the gun outside the hall). In the speech he bitterly denounced Israel as imperialist, colonialist, and reactionary. Arafat closed his speech with a threat to Israel, saying:

“Today I have come bearing an olive branch and a freedom fighter’s gun. Do not let the olive branch fall from my hand. I repeat: do not let the olive branch fall from my hand.”

It’s 2012. But time stands still in Burj el Barajneh, which during the civil war, was under siege:

The war of the camps

The struggle arose gradually, a consequence, to begin with, of one of those innumerable ‘side-wars’ that the Hobbesian chaos threw up. A particularly serious one, however, it pitted Amal (Lebanese Resistance Detachments, Sh’ia) against the Palestinians in the Beirut refugee camps of Sabra, Shatila and Bourj al-Brajneh. For both Amal and its Syrian patron the greatest threat to their grip on Muslim West Beirut was the comeback that Arafat was staging there. By 1985, several hundred of his guerillas had re-infiltrated the camps. His purpose was much less to fight Israel than it was to re-establish himself as a political force in the domestic Lebanese arena. Amal sought to subjugate the camps, even remove them, once and for all. It thought this would be a walk-over, but it turned into a grim, two-year struggle, replete with Lebanon’s familiar brutalities. Amal used its Syrian-supplied T-54 tanks to fire at almost point-blank range into the densely packed dwellings. In a third and final, five-month siege, it brought the inhabitants to the brink of famine, amid rumours of a resort to cannibalism in Bourj al-Brajneh.” (p.234 David Hirst: Beware of Small States)

It’s 1948, the maps on the walls are different to those printed in atlases around the world: Palestine is one, is home. “Here is my home town, Yaffa,” says a woman at the kindergarten and health centre we visit, pointing with her finger on the map. She’s probably my age and she’s certainly never in her life, been home.

*And finally, the hair spray…

I had a hair cut today. It was over due and it was like a scene out of an Almodovar movie but with cheesy French tunes sung by Lebanese crooners.

Close to mid-day, I head to the Pavillion Centre, up the stairs I turn left and go to the first hair salon, which is kept by 2 elderly gentlemen. Non, Paul est à coté. Huuh, I am relieved. My granddad never cut my hair…

Next door, where loud music is playing, a young guy, wearing a beanie and sweeping the floor, welcomes me in an empty salon my flatmate Nadine recommended. He is Paul and has a bit of a Gabriel Garcia Bernal in Y Tu Mama Tambien vibe going… I drop my bag and crawl under the sink (either the chair is too low or me too tall) so that he can wash my hair. Three minutes into it…
the power goes off….

I burst into hysterics!
I just couldn’t stop laughing. A happy laugh.

Paul said (in French): You are very kind.
And he means it and makes the power come back.

My hair is washed. We now wait for the hair dresser. Maggie.
But she ain’t coming. Although I had booked a day in advanced and they don’t seem to have many customers.
Gabriel, I mean Paul, starts massaging my head. Lovely. Then shoulders. Much needed. Thank you, don’t stop. My back. Also tight. But… I’m ticklish in some places. And he got to some places. I laugh. Again, very heartily. He jumps back and is embarrased and apologises. I can’t be mad at Gabriel now, can I?

Eventually enters Maggie. Grumpy, as I could/should be after such a long wait. But I am not, after this massage. I tell her that I need a cut but am growing my hair and that my hair dresser (Adrienne, I miss you!) told me she could read from my hair how to proceed. Like Braille for blind people. She cuts away. Then blow dries forevaaa. I play with my mobile and go through my notes, take new notes. To my left, the Tour Eiffel, a small silver statuette, amidst hair products. To my right, an ashtray and Lorys Garlic (‘hair cream strengthens and invigorates weak hair and roots’).

And I look up (was writing stuff to do) my hair is like high up and Gabriel (whose real name is Paul) approaches with
a can of hair spray!!!!

Not since the 1980s!

You use hair spray?

Noh! Wax!

Ah but it’s wax… spray.

Tayeb, guys, this is Lebanon, gimme Lebanese treatment then!

So I still smell of hair spray but thanks goodness the hair has dropped and I am back from the 1980s and look normal again. “See you in six weeks. Or earlier…”, I said to Gabriel aka Paul when I walked out, smiling.

“chickpeace” and love,

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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