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Living Beirut? No, I prefer to be a summer tourist

IMG_5907I’ve survived a good four months in Beirut, but have gotten to the point (well, I arrived at this stage a few weeks ago to be honest) where my nerves are on edge and my love for some of the luxuries of the U.S. (a sense of security that a civil war won’t break out tomorrow, no construction on Sunday, good Mexican food etc.) are at an all time high.

I love the idea of this multi faceted country, rather than its present state, and I am starting to understand why 12 million Lebanese live outside the country and only 3.6 million inside its borders.

Before coming to Lebanon, I had a conversation about the general instability of the world based on a mostly financial US-based perspective. I profoundly recall how my friend replied that financial instability is nothing compared to lack of safety and security found in the Middle East and other volatile regions, “economic and security crisis are incomparable: one is paid in stocks and bonds while the other is paid in blood.”  Now I understand his point.

Security

Lack of security, where advised to stay indoors, is quite disconcerting (referring to the clashes in the south of Lebanon due to Sheikh Assir ). While Lebanese are used to upheaval, a humvee barreling down the street just makes this girl cringe and hide her head under the covers. I cannot tell you how many times I have asked myself why go through this when I don’t have to? But then the sun rises upon a new day and Lebanese begin their shopping, club-hopping ways. Delusional? Or just a coping mechanism? I would say, delusional because they, or better said ‘we’,  need a coping mechanism to remain sane and survive with the least damage.

Empty Beirut

Borded up shops in eerie downtown

Borded up shops in eerie downtown

Due to the lack of political stability (and the general boycott of Lebanon by gulf countries), Beirut’s posh downtown area is empty. Storefronts remain, but house no merchandise. The only way a few restaurants have survived is thanks to Saudi ownership. I cannot tell you how many times I have been the only guest in restaurants which were buzzing just a year ago.

Insane pricing

Prices are skyrocket high; everyone is trying to milk whatever money is left in the country while people continue to ‘live big’ all on debt. That is, if you can still find banks or people to lend you money.

Food

Besides the greater problems affecting the country, homesickness has trickled in. It has come in many forms and as a result of many happenings (as mentioned above). Surprisingly,  Lebanese food, which I have always adored, has even become dull and even gag worthy to my taste buds. I can’t tell you how much I miss Californian cuisine. I even found myself describing one of my favorite dishes to my friends (avocado slices on bread drizzled with thick Italian balsamic vinegar and sea salt).

Good News!

The view from my apartment

The view from my apartment

Some exciting news is that I have moved apartments to a great place over-looking the sea. Most importantly, it is QUIET! I have been able to sleep more than I ever did in the past four months spent in my extremely noisy apartment where my Sunday wake-up was a forced 7.30am due to sawing. So, I am much happier and at peace.

More later…and NYU in the fall.

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Neophyte in Beirut Ep. 2

It has been a long time since I have written and I don’t have much of an excuse other than starting my internship, getting used to every day living and barking down serveeces (group taxis) on the side of the street.

Saturday night stroll. I guess, the shoes show my Leba-morphosis

Saturday night stroll. I guess, the shoes show my Leba-morphosis

Although I have already been here two months, I still make small snafus and have not assimilated as I had hoped (except for the amount of times I order take-out delivery per week). Even though I understand a lot of Arabic, my Lebanese is still sketchy; I get by in rolling my r’s and extending my s’s in a Leban-ized accent while speaking English.Even though it is extremely frustrating not being able to speak a language fluently (not to brag, but I usually pick up languages in a synch) I have come to terms with the fact that I may just not get this one.  In Lebanon, I’m not forced to speak Arabic and so have gotten, one could say, lazy with the language. Here, if one doesn’t speak English, usually they speak French, which is no problem to me as I switch into French Lebanese: ‘merci’ with a strong rolling r sound. So, I live with little barrier of language.

Well, that is most of the time. While ordering food on the phone there are still a few mishaps. First, the tricky part is describing where I live! Here, there are no strict house addresses, so when I order delivery I have to explain my location perfectly in reference to land marks: across from the government building, up the street from the Thai restaurant and next to that one gas station. I cannot tell you how many times the delivery boys have gotten lost. When I am too tired of describing, I call one of the places that saves your telephone number so my address is already in their delivery system.

Then there was the time I ordered chicken. I wanted grilled chicken skewers (‘taouk’ as they call it here) and the call center woman asked me if I wanted it ‘fresh’. Of course, I want my chicken fresh! What type of a question is that. The end result was a pack of chicken pieces that were raw. I should have known she meant uncooked by using the word fresh. I definitely learned a lesson there. Next time, I’m told, I must specify that I want the chicken ‘ready.’

Other than a few mini delivery disasters, I have settled in without much of a fuss. For any of you worried about my sleep patterns, I am happy to announce that I have now moved apartments and so am not woken up by the bulldozers on Saturdays.

We have had odd weather here, including rain in May, and so I still haven’t gotten to the beach. Soon, hopefully, because someone is craving summer.

On assignment for my job at a Lebanese cooking class

On assignment for my job at a Lebanese cooking class (I’m back center)

Neophyte of Beirut Ep. 1

Living on ones own for the first time is an experience in itself, wherever that place may be! And, Beirut has in store some interesting twists for this newbie.

Let’s start with my first shower. I turned on the tap and to my joy the water ran warm! I breathed a sigh of relief. I remember too well having to heat water on the stove to wash when I lived in Italy. But, when done, I opened the curtain to find my bathroom flooded! I had put the shower curtain inside the rim of the shower boundaries, like I was instructed, but I guess that was not enough! Now, every time I shower I expect the puddle and the fact it won’t dry for a few hours even with the floor drains.

IMG_0623

The construction outside my window, under my deck!

Then, the morning of my first day I was surprised to find myself awake at seven am.  “Why?” I asked myself drowsily after I had glanced at my cell phone watch.  The answer would lie in front of me when I opened my curtains. My studio was right on top of a major construction site. And, unlike in the States where time regulations are generally obeyed (noise production can’t commence until after nine am), this certainly was not the case here! And to my shock, construction continued on Saturday morning too! Sunday seems to be the only day of rest, at least in this part of town.

Another snafu occurred, this time under the category “my bad,” when after showering I found the bathroom undulating with at least two inches of water. But, not just any water, dirty water!  I thought it was due to my hair stuck in the drain but, upon returning later in the evening, I was greeted with reprimands: NO TOILET PAPER down the toilet! There is a wastebasket right on the side for all paper materials!” (This is, of course, all in a mix of French and Arabic).  I must have turned bright red from embarrassment, “I really didn’t know! In America we flush paper down the toilet no problem. Nobody told me you didn’t here!” Today, I was again scolded; this time by the once-weekly maid who explicitly told me what, and I mean EVERYTHING, that came up through the drains due to my flushing of paper.  Even though I spent the past summer here in Beirut, I never came to learn of this rule, which must be second nature for Lebanese.

Up next: Decoding the MANY different types of marriages in Islam

Living Beirut Off-Season

So, after a stint in San Francisco, where I worked as the Social Media Intern for the co-working space HUB, I am back in Beirut, Lebanon.
LIVING.

As I compare my first impressions from June and my new insights, I see how these two experiences may have nothing in common except for country.
This past summer, spent studying Modern Standard Arabic at the American University of Beirut (AUB), I passed all my time studying (and clubbing once in a while!). Here again, I foresee a more laid back Mediterranean approach to Beirut including journalistic internships, many political and social discussions and evenings spent by the sea.
On my first trip to Beirut, I lived in the AUB dorms and hence, similar to American colleges, I lived in ‘the campus bubble.’ However, this time around, I am living in my own studio! And to make it even more of a pivotal experience, this is the first time I live alone! No roommate or family!

Contrasting my then and now, I must take note of the ease I feel in just being. The anxiety I felt during the first weeks of the summer here are nowhere in sight. Even though I didn’t really know the lay of neighborhood I am living in, my first day here I explored and climbed comfortably in contrast to my first weeks in Hamra when I was at AUB. Before, I felt like a passer by, now, I feel this is my home. I have explored more in a few days than I did in all my two months of intensive Arabic study!
One may ask, why the shift? It is possibly because I now understand much more Lebanese language than I did when I came during the summer time? or maybe because I know more of the etiquette, the do’s and don’ts? I would like to think that it is both of those, plus the amount of personal growth experienced during the past six months out of conventional college.

Beirut feels different even to Lebanese. While my comfort is a positive, many Lebanese feel true stagnancy in the city’s core. Beirut itself is empty, and not just in comparison to the summer months! Due to khaliji (Gulf states) boycott of a certain Lebanese organization, many restaurants and hotels are worrisomely empty. Even Petit Café, a famously packed buzzing spot over looking Raoche, the notable Lebanese rock formation, had more open seats than not and while having desert at Moevanpick, a luxery hotel over looking the coast, I found myself “owning” the terrace. I was the only one out there!

It is so odd to experience the city of such pumping energy beating at a calmer rate.

But, in the slower tempo, I feel I am truly living the city.

At Petit Cafe

At Petit Cafe

Salon, Diet & Plastic

Lebanon is one of the most beautiful countries I have been to and, naturally, it has some of the most beautiful people (most importantly on the inside BUT also on the outside). The obsession with beauty and perfection in some circles is so extreme that even the woman doing my nails admitted: “it’s too much!” However, this was after she refused to paint my toenails and finger nails different colors, “That will look stupid and people will laugh at you!” Of course, I would not want that!

Cherry Salon in Hamra

Cherry Salon in Hamra

Here, the beauty salon is an essential part of many women’s weekly schedule. And what a scene it can be! Although in the U.S. people might go to the salon to get “beautified” here it seems that the salon, while being a place to get even MORE beautiful, is where you go to be seen and talked about. I have now been twice to get my nails done and I saw some of the same women there the second time on a completely different day. I have seen and heard many things at the salon, from meltdowns from diamond studded hijabi women to conversations about the upcoming nuptials of a 17 year old girl. While getting my hair done for the first time  (no, I haven’t done it again) I (unintentionally) even created a little drama. As soon as I sat down  the male hairdresser took a piece of my hair and say: “Shou haida? Shou haida?” I was confused because it was a normal piece of hair and I didn’t know what was wrong with it. Then he said “Moda Adeeema.” He waved his hands gesturing to the past. He was commenting on the fact I have layers and layers were in fashion here years ago. I kept repeating: In the U.S. layers are still in fashion. He just shook his head. Oy Vey. Only a few weeks in and I am already on the Lebanese fashion blacklist. Beirut, and Lebanon as a whole, is not a cheap city but some things, ex. Salons are quite inexpensive! Nails start at $4 or so and a hair blow-out at around $7 and I am not talking about bad hair or nails. I have never had such a

Too-much make-up for my birthday

Too-much make-up for my birthday

good manicure/pedicure in my life! The manicurist deals with each nail with finesse and I am constantly being asked if I want Nescafe or a water by one of the Philippina helpers. Such an odd sensation for me. Beauty is a big industry and is highly regarded. Here, dieticians can get paid as much as “real” doctors as the diet fads shift from No-Carb diets to absurd regiments where you are not allowed to look at different objects each week (for example, for the first week of my friend’s diet she could not look at plants and went as far as having to duck her head every time she saw a tree out of the car window!). Insane! Plastic surgery is also rampant here and I cannot walk down the street without seeing at least a few fake lips, unmoving faces and plastic Pamela Anderson breasts. The Lebanese nose is also something that all women get rid of as high school graduation presents. Even my American roommate, who is of Lebanese descent, thanks God that she did not get her Grandfather’s, allah yarhumhu, dreaded prominent nose. It is a bit sad to see all these girls change themselves to look the same!

 

——— As a side note, one thing that I would never have believed in the states is the ease at which people switch between dollar currency and lira. If I give someone 50,000 lira I will most likely get back change in $10 or $20 bills. And if I pay for something with a $20 I will get change back in lira. When I get cash out from the bank they will always ask if I want it in Lira or Dollar as big amounts of cash are often kept in dollars because the exchange rate is 1500 to every dollar. So, when you come to Beirut do not worry if you initially only have dollars!

Metal Rods, Checkpoints & Handshakes

Update: Class didn’t remain “dry” for very long thanks to the enthusiasm of our wonderful teachers! hamdullah!

Time is flying and I don’t like it! I am having the time of my life here in Lebanon and am savoring every second (well, maybe not my 7 hours of dry non-stop Arabic classes and 4+ hours of homework a night but, c’est la vie, and a pretty good one at that so it is fine!).

I still feel extremely unprepared to speak to people in the street but yesterday I started ordering my food in Arabic and asking for directions so, that is a first little step. I am also learning how to text in Arabic dialect which is exciting for me! One thing that is fascinating about Lebanon is the fact that it is truly a trilingual country and you will hear French and English intermixed constantly with Arabic! “shukran” often becomes “merci” and “min fudlik” becomes “please.”

I am having to get used to the electricity being intermittent. For example, the lights will go off at least 3 times during class or while shopping for yummy fresh fruit at the market, all of a sudden the grocery store will become pitch black until the hum of the generators begin. It makes me laugh to think about how excited I would get when the electricity is down during a big storm in the States and thus we would get to use candles! Here, outages are not that romantic 😉

Anyway, to continue in the same vein as my last post, on things distinctly different from what I know, here you go:

Check Points

I was honestly really surprised that there are checkpoints in Lebanon. For some reason I had always associated checkpoints with Lebanon’s neighbor Palestine but alas, they too exist here while on a much smaller scale.

The other night my male friend was sitting in the front seat of a taxi when, all of a sudden he got out and yelled to us that a girl must sit in the front instead of him. While I didn’t understand at the time,  he later explained that the Syrian taxi driver did not have papers and would be questioned if another man was sitting next to him. If a girl is sitting in the passenger seat the car is usually whisked by.

Humvees and Metal Rods

The other day I saw my first tank on the side of the road. While it did not make me at all nervous it was initially surprising, as I had only seen tanks in movies or in newspapers. Once again, I was brought back to thinking how removed the U.S. is from the reality on the ground in countries so far away. Tanks and such ARE real and I just wish that the people who remotely engage missiles etc. would comprehend that no, the people in the Middle East are not characters in a video game.

Another security object that I had not seen before was the “metal rod.” At all entrances of malls and public places there are men with metal rods. A friend of mine asked me: “See those metal rods? Do you know what they are?” No I did not. She went on to explain that they are bomb detectors. Interesting.

Hand Shaking

The American University of Beirut is the most prestigious university in the Arab world and only the most intelligent and successful students are given entrance. Wrongly, I often associate education with a degree of secularism or at least the questioning of authority. On my second night in Beirut, while watching the Euro Cup, I met two male students and conversed about the final game and poetry (yes, I know it was an odd mix). Anyway, when it was time to leave (male students are not allowed to stay in the female dorms after 12, and visa versa) one of the guys shook my hand excitedly, “So nice to meet you,” and so I put my hand out to shake the hand of the second student. Alas, I was met with the air. The second student touched his hand to his heart and looked down and muttered “sorry” under his breath. While I know he would have done the same to all other girls, it was such a bizarre feeling to be so directly refused because I am a woman. Since I pride myself on accepting the differences of all, I was very taken aback by my own personal shock at the encounter. I never thought I would react so strongly to this gesture.

For some reason, I thought that (some) Muslim men do not shake women’s hands in more conservative countries like Afghanistan or Yemen—not in the metropolis of Beirut! But, alas I was wrong and definitely learned a lesson: ALWAYS WAIT FOR THE MAN TO REACH OUT HIS HAND FIRST. It is all just SO humbling and I have realized just how much I do NOT know. Onward…

NOTE: This unique experience of conservative undertone has NOT been wide spread.

P.S.

The nightlifehere is amazing! People here just live more fully than in any other place I have been. I LOVE IT!!! As a matter of fact, tonight I am going to an Enrique Iglesias concert on the waterfront (I missed the Pitbull concert)!

Top 7 MOST surprising things about Lebanon

So, I have been here five days so far and have picked up on many cultural curiosities. Here are just a few in no particular order!

1)    Everyone wears Jeans!!!

Always classy!
notice the awesome heels

Even though it may be 100 degrees Fahrenheit and humid everyone seems to wear jeans!* Lebanese wear jeans for many reasons.1) They are considered modest and a good option for Muslim women 2) They give less chances for men to be crass. One of my friends said: “I won’t wear shorts in a service (group taxi) since you never know who you will be seated next to 3) they are a fashion statement, of course!

You can almost single handedly pick out foreigners from the crowd by just looking to see if they are wearing jeans.  When packing for my trip I only packed dresses, shorts and skirts in response to the high temperatures I foresaw. So, third day in Beirut I was off to buy jeans at the Beirut Souks. The Beirut Souk used to be the old market place before the war  and so developers have built a beautiful outside mall with old Arab influences in the architecture. You can find anything from H&M to Dolce Gabbana here and it seems like a good place for people watching—as is every other place in Lebanon as plastic surgery is rampant!

*I have not yet been to the beach and am sure that jeans are NOT worn there.

2)    Great Water Pressure!

There is better water pressure in my dorm showers than in my dorm in California!!! I think this is most likely because I am staying at the American University of Beirut but, even though Lebanese say the country is a third world country, it really feels much more like a second world country! Electricity goes out often so I guess it needs some time to become “first world.”

3)    Lebanese Love American Food!

There are American restaurants everywhere!!! From pinkberry, dunkin’ donuts, McDonald’s and burger king to Applebee’s! The supermarkets have all the newest American hair products and house goods. And the thing is that Lebanese love all this stuff! McDonalds does not have the reputation it has in the states as being for those that cannot afford better—it is a fun “cool” place here.  A Lebanese owned American diner-style restaurant called “Roadster” has also opened up and there are lines out the door at their many locations!

4)   Lebanese LOVE sushi!

Out with friends eating Sushi!

Other than American food, Lebanese LOVE sushi! There are sushi restaurants everywhere! Last night I ate at a wonderful conveyor belt sushi place with a dear friend! So delicious! Ps. For dessert at a different restaurant I drank an avocado mango drink! Delicious!

5)    There is no civil marriage.

One thing that I found quite curious was the fact that there is no civil marriage in Lebanon. On your ID it says your religion (passed down from your father) and two people are obligated to marry in the specific church or mosque. A couple then lives “under” that sect’s law in regards to testimonies, divorce laws etc. For example, Marionite Christians have very strict divorce laws which can take up to 10 years to resolve and some wills will be passed down only to the primogeniture.

So, I asked the question what if people from two different religions want to get married? The answer: Either, one of them converts OR they fly to Cyprus and have a civil marriage.

Since weddings show the status of a family—the more people you invite and the grander the ceremony, fireworks etc. the better the reputation—weddings cost LOTS of money. Some families are ok with having their children elope as it won’t cost them as much BUT, the wedding is still a highly engrained tradition which if not done “right” could create a bit of a scandal.

6)    The country is so small!

I never realized just how small the country of Lebanon is! If there was no traffic it would take about two hours to drive around the gorgeous land. People talk about different towns as if they were far a way, or as if a neighborhood was THAT difficult to get to but honestly I could walk around Beirut’s entirety in a few hours! That, to me, is awesome!

7)    Lebanese are the friendliest people EVER!

They are the most warm and hospitable people I have ever met! While some of my classmates get annoyed that the shopkeepers won’t talk to them in Arabic (Lebanese are generally tri-lingual: Arabic, French and English)  a friend of mine told me the true reason: They just want to make it EASIER for you! They want you to feel more comfortable.

I was graciously invited to a wonderful evening dinner party on the first night I arrived in the country. My host, his family and all his friends could not have made me laugh more, smile more or feel more at home! Subsequently, I have been taken out to see the city by the people I met that night and I am always being checked up on. Everyone wants to make sure I am having a good time! And don’t worry: I LOVE IT here!

Note: Dear lebanese readers: if you think I may be wrong in any of my points please correct me! Merci!

Right off the plane I was whisked away to an amazing Lebanese feast in Amioun, a small town north of Beirut

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