jueves, 21 de abril de 2011

The Lebanese Gandalla

As my fellow blogger Ginger Beirut very accurately pointed in out: when you are in a new culture, it is very hard to understand the whole etiquette/politeness thing.

Something that might be surprising to some, who picture us Mexicans as this free souls, fiesta goers, is that we are actually sort of uptight in all matters of politeness.

This might be a matter of class actually, or just part of our historical heritage. Us Mexicans we always want to be appropriate, polite, or "bien educado".
But the interesting part is that we are also totally inconsiderate in other ways: after raising eyebrows at someone else's faux pas in private, it is not uncommon to see a Mexican turn into this "gandalla" this absolutely inconsiderate creature.

A "gandalla" is very Mexican, someone who will cut you in line, or in traffic, the person who gets all the cheese on top of the lasagna, the guy who stuffs his face at the party he crashed.

To the proper Mexican a "gandalla" is shameful, especially if s/he is related to you. Ugh, you'd rather die before being associated with one. So you say "no thank you" to the last piece of pizza in the box, you say "go ahead" to the old lady behind you in the bathroom line (and hate her for taking hours), and you wait until the host has started eating even if you are starving.

But the reality is that to be Mexican is to be gandalla. Especially coming from Mexico City (come on, amidst 25 million people, if you snooze, you loose): we'd rather die before letting someone pass, we shout about people's mothers and penis' sizes (small) when they cut in front of our car and if someone takes a parking spot you were waiting for, a fist fight is totally justified (yup, I've done it).

So this Mexican walks the world like Dr. Jekill and Mr. Hide, with this polite/gandalla condition, misunderstood, uptight, fearful and rebellious...

Until I got to Lebanon. Man, Lebanon has some of the most beautiful specimens of gandallas. The road gives you everyday examples of how gandalla people can be here. The ladies in the big SUVs are the best ones. They don't even look at you. They just jam on the pedal and "tough shit" if you are in front of them. Sometimes I just laugh. It is shameless, no, it is defiant.

Girls in the bathroom are quite gandalla too. You can be waiting in a restaurant in line for 10 minutes, wondering what the hell they are doing in there. When you see them emerge, done up, perfumed and powdered, they might glance at you with an "in your face" attitude, to see if you dare say something.

I think the best was when my husband and I were driving on a one way street and we came face to face with a lady who was coming on the other (wrong) way. When we asked her to back up, she gave us the finger, turned off her car and started BBMing her friend. It took 4 other cars behind us and all the neighbors to move her. I didn't know if I wanted to kill her or congratulate her... I was just sorry I couldn't tell her "Que gandalla!"

But to back to my initial point: what is appropriate, polite or "bien educado" in Lebanon? Maybe this "gandallismo" is the survivor's attitude. Maybe this is just who you become when you can't rely in a system to make things orderly. You have to fight your way through life... and the traffic light.

domingo, 17 de abril de 2011

Green space in Beirut

For those of you who live in Beirut, you know that this city is not what you would call "green". Parks are not particularly common, especially since taking care of them is expensive. Near my house there is actually a park called "Sioufi Gardens" that is so run down that it is almost depressing to walk around it.

So you can only imagine our surprise when one day my husband and I found Horsh Beirut, this amazingly beautiful park in the middle of Beirut.

This park has been there forever, and was completely burned during the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon. From a pine forest of over 1,250,000 m2 in 1696 to a park of over 800,000 m2 in 1967 (≈ 5% of Municipal Beirut), today Horsh Beirut is only a park of 255,000 m2. But still, it is huge!

After the war Horsh Beirut was restored and opened to the public.

However, some said that the crowds were starting to do some real damage to it, while others were afraid that sectarian fights would erupt in its grounds, so the municipality closed it. Today it is this beautiful green space surrounded my closed gates, between the Muslim side and the Christian side of town that can only be seen when you pass it while driving.

Yup, this magical place is actually closed to the public. And most Beirutis have never entered the park.

We felt like little kids who were been given a candy, and had to give it back after the first bite. "What do you mean we can't go in?", we asked the guard.

So this weekend we beat the system and spent actually a whole morning in the park... How did we do that??

Well, with a group of 32 friends we took on helping Zahra, a lovely Lebanese woman in her late 40s who takes care of the "Greenhouse", a garden located in the heart of Horsh Beirut.

As you might imagine, the gigantic greenhouse was a bit run down too, and Zahra does not receive any funds from the municipality to buy new tools. "We work with what we have" she says, while showing me broken shovels, twisted scissors and old buckets.

With the help on an incredibly generous person, we were able to buy Zahra new tools. Our friends were totally on board to spend a Saturday morning getting dirty and enjoying the fresh air, the flowers and plants and the tremendously calming effect of working in a garden.

Zahra walked us around the park and showed us the trees and the medicinal plants that you can find in it: remedies for a tummy ache, leaves to kill feet fungi, trees that absorb bacteria and clean the air... We all felt healthier, more knowledgeable and connected to one another.

Zahra told us stories of reconciliation, personal growth and atonment. She recalled how she was afraid of the "others" after the war, and that through receiving little kids from different groups in the park, she has been able to embrace human beings, no matter what religious background they have. She has also brought together people who wouldn't normally come together, to have fun while working in the gardens.

I think these stories left us all full of hope and with a renewed optimism. Spending time in the park was healing for all of us. And the only thing it took was offering a couple of hours of our Saturday morning.

So whoever is reading this post and lives in Beirut: the park is NOT closed to volunteers. Just go to Horsh Beirut on a Saturday morning and ask to speak to Zahra from the greenhouse, or send her an e-mail to zouzou_wr@hotmail.com. She will welcome you with open arms.