Beirut of the Middle East

February 16th, 2010

The Arab Cultural Center in Paris

After the French mandate in Lebanon, Beirut was lovingly described as “The Paris of the Middle East”. This made sense since for in their short time here, the French splashed Lebanon with their architecture, language, education system, and an overall feeling of superiority and class. Since, in Lebanon there have been wars and occupation, destruction and reconstruction, a new global order that adopts global commodities and English; nonetheless, this name sticks! Perhaps the reason is that many Lebanese long for the days passed, when things were more uniform and “world class” – where “made in France” was a faborable identity that indicated first-class quality at home and approval by the others, across the sea. And often it is these “others” who remind the world of this appellation, who have turned many heads toward “The Paris of the Middle East” and sparked intrigue – How can a city in the conservative Middle East resemble the likes of Paris? Well, just like any city that has been occupied, layers of cultural remnants have been left behind. However, just underneath these layers, in its true essence, Beirut does not resemble Paris and, I would venture to say, never really did. So can we all get over it? Can we deal with just being Beirut, no fancy labels attached?

The List

Dog Doo-doo

The French do not like to pick up their dog’s doo-doo. And, neither do the Lebanese! Though I found this to be true (almost, several times, the hard way!) in the three cities I visited in France, my discovery was made in Paris. One would expect more civilized behavior and attention to detail from the same people who design velvet wines, elegant chocolates, the massive Louvre, and the iconic Eiffel Tower. But no, while walking you must keep one eye on the sidewalk for random soft brown piles, whether in form or smeared! Now, you might say, well there you go! A similarity! However, I would like to hypothesize that the reasons underlying this negligence are contrary. While the French, in their laissez-faire way, leave doo-doo on the sidewalk to “take its own course,” the Lebanese just figure Sukleen will pick it up.

Etiquette and Manners


I did not encounter the infamously cranky manners of the French until the very last day. In fact, my exchanges with the French were mostly very pleasant and had absolutely nothing to do with all that I had heard about them, and especially their hatred for Americans. My friend tells me that they’ve changed over the years. But, on my final day, I failed to greet the woman behind the counter of a Charles de Gualle café with Bonjour! “N’avez pas baguettes?” (You see how canned my French is?). “BONJOUR MADAME!” she replied with a deadpan face. I thought, now we’re talking! This is the cranky self-righteous reaction I’ve been waiting for! I had not had enough sleep. I just stared at her with deadly Arab eyes, which said: I don’t have to say BONJOUR! What are you, the greeting-gestapo?! You don’t even pick up your dog’s doo-doo!!!

I imagined the same situation happening in Beirut. Except I would be buying a man’ouche rather than a baguette. I wouldn’t say Marhaba. I would get up on my tip toes to see the face of the man behind the smudged plexiglass case filled with spinach pies, et al. I would just say, “Wahdeh Fajita” (my fave Man’ouche). The man would say “3ala raseh!” (literally, “on my head”; aka, “whatever you want, I’m at your service!”) – even if he felt like saying “BONJOUR MADAME!” Then he would yell to someone to slide one into the kiln. One minute later, I’d walk away with a man’ouche wrapped in greasy paper in a plastic bag.

Displays of Affection


Just like in the movies, in Paris you’ll regularly find a man and woman locked in a warm embrace and kiss, as if that moment in time was designed just for them. In Lebanon, this is a broad daylight no-no. However, at night, under the cover of a pub or club, you can see any two mauling each other, no problem. As far as other displays of affection go, a guy from the Dominican Republic whom I met while asking for directions summed up the French’s conservativeness. Expressing his disdain for the French’s lack of enthusiasm in relation to his hot-blooded brethren, he explained, “In the Dominican, people run and jump on you. They’re excited! Here people…” here he leaned forward and mocked two tight cheek kisses. Then he scowled, “Tres, tres francais.” I think if he visited Lebanon, he might feel more at home, though I don’t know if anyone will actually jump on him; but at least he’ll get one extra kiss and a warm and boisterous welcome. Ya Ahlaaaaa!

Preservation and Architecture


In Lebanon these days, if you leave for a few months, you’ll come back to a new café that has replaced a leather goods store that has been in business for the past 40 years; perhaps a parking lot in place of the oldest garden in Beirut (as was threatened with the Sanayeh Garden); or an enormous MedBank banner plastered in front of a landmark bookstore (Khayat) just across from the American University of Beirut. Beirut is growing and everything “old” is being knocked out of the way and replaced with bigger, faster, and more lucrative. Amongst much else, the French architecture that paints our landscape may one day be no longer. And the days of “Paris of the Middle East” will be without a trace.

In Paris, the Louvre blew my mind away. When I was poking my students last semester to articulate why they were unnerved by the consistent demolition of their history, though they were sure it was important, they found it difficult to answer why it mattered to have a physical memory of their country’s history. I believe that if they stood in the square of the Louvre, they may have found the words, as they would be transported into another time and place that can only be felt with the physical brick and mortar surrounding them.

Language


As I was born and raised in the U.S. with my Arabic-speaking parents, I was lucky to become bilingual. As the world opened up, this became more and more of an advantage for Americans. My third language, which I studied in high school and college was French. I chose French because I knew my Lebanese counterparts were also speaking French, and perhaps way back then I knew I would be in Lebanon for a while. However, my counterparts are far ahead of me in that many are fluent in all three languages – Arabic, French, and English. Which means that they can write, study, work, and speak in any of these languages – and navigate many different places fluidly. Meanwhile, I stuttered my way through Paris with canned French. And though the French people of my generation often spoke English, most people spoke only French. We communicated somehow, and I was happy to finally practice using this language that I had stored away for so long. But I thought, I don’t know how long I could last in a place where I couldn’t express myself properly – and in Beirut, I have three languages to use to that end…

Champs Elysees and Hamra


In his final research paper on Hamra’s change in identity, one of my students said that Hamra was once like the Champs Elysees, and lamented how today this is not the case. Now, when a student makes such a claim, I assume that someone told him this, as he wasn’t alive during the “Paris of the Middle East” days. This comparison, to say the least, is hyperbolic and based on simple hearsay. And if one were to explain this comparison as simply “symbolic,” why then the Champs Elysees and not Michigan Avenue or Park Avenue or some other famous street with cafes and shopping and framed by famous architectural sites? Because the Lebanese are obsessed with being identified with the French! In case someone mistaken us for Arabs!

Racism and Irony

Here in Lebanon, we have a problem with racism. Haha, this is funny – because it’s an understatement! A gross one! We actually have a form of slavery taking place in these parts (conversely, is this a hyperbole? I don’t think so). Where domestic maids, mostly African, Southeast Asian, and Indian, regularly commit suicide due to abuse they receive from their “Madame” or “Sir.” If they are not being obviously physically, mentally, or sexually abused, they trail their employers with bags and children while Madame and Sir swing their hips to and fro, their soft manicured hands at their sides. And if they’re not being obviously abused or used as a portable coat hanger, they have very difficult working hours – often from waking to sleeping, they are “serving.” And if all of these things do not exist in the life of a maid in Lebanon, they at the very least have no passport because it’s taken away upon entry so she doesn’t flee; she is paid very little in comparison to the amount of work she does; and her bedroom is rarely bigger than an extra closet space. And certainly, in society (including the wider Middle East), she is looked at as just a maid, and very rarely a human. I am just stating the facts. Yes, of course there are the few who are treated decently or who prefer this life to the former. But that’s not saying much. You can see it in their faces. If you are African or Indian or Asian in Lebanon, you are assumed to be a domestic worker. And that’s it.

In Paris, there is no apparent difference in social level between black and white people. And it is common to see interracial couples (something still rare in the U.S. and practically nonexistent here). Further, nobody has maids except for the very rich. In fact, the racism in France is directed toward the Arabs. The influx of North African immigrants has sparked tension between the French and North African Arabs on economic and social fronts, and mostly, due to an intense fear of “Islamization.” If you are Arab in France, you are looked at as a threat of a new cultural order to come – one in which the Arabs will be the majority in Mediterranean Europe. However, Lebanese are largely not considered “Arab” in France – reflective of the never-ending identity conundrum: are Lebanese Arabs? Aaaaakkkkhhhhh. Still, the Lebanese are not free of criticism in France, namely their apparent racism toward blacks as well as another issue that I never would have expected – food! My Jordanian-Lebanese-American friend who currently lives with his wife in Paris asked me if we microwave everything in Lebanon. I was incredulous. What???? Our food??? The one thing nobody complains about?! “In Paris, every time I go to a Lebanese restaurant, the food is microwaved.” Well, that’s in Paris, buddy. That’s another reason we’re different!

Graffiti


Fashion


Paris, being one of the fashion capitals of the world, holds true to its name with sleek lines, intricately designed simplicity and rich fabrics. A ruffle here, dainty buttons there, a zipper on the back of a shirt. Small poignant details that accent and flair, not cover or splash. Has anyone heard of strass? This is the French word for rhinestones, which is a Lebanese obsession. They can be found adorning accessories, jewelry, shoes, and clothes in countless Beirut window fronts! You’ll also find them in a bride’s hair or her wedding invitation. The more strass – bling – the better!

Parisians love black – from head to toe! Here, if I wear all black, I get countless inquiries during the day about who died? In Beirut you’ll find a  daring attitude in dress. You might walk by a woman in a red blouse over red skin tight capris and a big belt holding it together, all balanced atop a pair of skinny heels. Or a woman wearing a sherwal with big chunky brass jewelry. While in Paris, people’s apparel attracts one to come closer to touch and notice the smooth fabrics and flaring accents, which say I know my limits, in Beirut, one is completely exposed to the bold statements made, mostly indicating I’m ready.

Joie de Vivre

In Paris as in Beirut, the joie de vivre is palpable. In Paris you see it in its exquisite pastries and spend it in two hour lunch breaks every day. You see it in the countless cafes filled with tete-a-tete’s. You taste it in aged cheeses and rich artery-clogging cuisine. The patience in detail around you expands time. While Parisians drink life like a fine wine, slowly and with attention to the detail that produces it, Lebanese drink life like a homemade glass of Arak, with a gusto for the fierce and potent and that which feels very close to home and the earth. You hear it in the cacophony of 10-20 voices speaking at once at a family gathering. It is inspired by strong white-capped mountains that jut out above and beyond the expansive sea. You taste it in a stuffed grape leaf rolled by a pair of the many hands of the great cooks in your life. You dance with it all the way down Gemmayze street and through Hamra. You tell your family and friends back home all about it.

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8 Responses to “Beirut of the Middle East”

  1. Angie McQ says:

    I enjoyed every little bit of this.

  2. George says:

    Beautiful piece. Really enjoyed the pictures and the flow of your comparison. I have also heard Lebanon being labeled “the Switzerland of the East”. Perhaps you can plan a futuer trip to Switzerland, and write another piece with as many pictures. Just a thought :).

  3. Theresa says:

    OK, now I’m convinced: I am coming to visit you!! AND I’m up for a jaunt to Switzerland for comparison!

    I LOVE your site. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to read it — I’m addicted! Great writing; a true inspiration.

    Great job Reemer!!

  4. Paula says:

    Love your comparison! Very nice.

  5. Rima says:

    I’m waiting for you Theresa. And you’re too generous about the writing… but listen, I’m waiting to hear yours :)

    Kisses and hugs!!!!! (Come in September!)

  6. christine says:

    REeemer! ur awesome! this is better than “Days of our Lives”…..i love reading ur articles…you think of things in a way i never would…hahaha but thats not saying much hahaha..i love you and keep writing!

    Christine

  7. Meagan says:

    Awesome site!!

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