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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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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