lunes, 17 de diciembre de 2012

Holidays in Beirut: Merry Halloween!

The holidays are in the air in Beirut. In the last couple of weeks, holiday decorations have flourished in every street corner and store front.

A couple of weeks ago, I was walking in the supermarket when I came face to face with a very strange scene: an aisle full of Santas and plastic snowmen facing a section of Halloween costumes. I checked my calendar just to confirm we were indeed at the end of November, and not at the end of October, and left laughing a little and telling myself that the Lebanese had a very strange way of confusing holidays.

What would be my surprise the next day when I came face to face with this sight (please excuse the photo, as I took it while my husband and I were driving by)!

On the left you can see Rudolph and his friend, warmly clothed with little red hats and all, and on the right you see a black truck with a giant and scary tarantula on top of it. I thought Christmas had taken a gloomy turn this year…

When I arrived to the office I shared my confusion with my Lebanese colleagues, to their great amusement. And I finally received the piece of information I was missing: on December 4th, the Lebanese celebrate the holiday of Saint Barbara, or “Eid il-Burbara” as it is commonly known.

This is a holiday celebrated by Arab Christians in Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Palestine and the story goes as follows: Barbara- a lady from Baalbek in Lebanon- was put in a tower a la Rapunzel by her pagan (and a bit intense) father to preserve her from the outside world.

In her hours of solace, she became a Christian (not sure how), rejected an offer of marriage and added three windows to her private bath-house as a symbol of the Holy Trinity. The father not being a very tolerant guy, tried to kill her when he discovered her devotions. Miraculously, an opening in the tower wall appeared. Barbara escaped and disguised herself in numerous characters to elude the Romans who were persecuting her (hence the Halloween costumes). After a long series of miracles, the story came to a sad end for Barbara and she was condemned to death. Her own father beheaded her, only to be struck by lightning on the way home and his body was consumed by flames as punishment.

One cool tradition: while fleeing persecution, Barbara supposedly also ran through a freshly planted wheat field, which grew instantly to cover her path. This miracle is recreated symbolically today in Lebanon by planting wheat seeds in cotton wool on Saint Barbara’s feast day. The seeds germinate and grow up to around 6 inches in time for Christmas, when the shoots are used to decorate the nativity scene usually placed below the Christmas tree (thank you Wikipedia!).

And a final note: Saint Barbara is the patron saint of artillerymen, military engineers, miners and others who work with explosives (because of her old legend's association with lightning). Let us hope that she doesn’t intervene too much in our region these days

miércoles, 21 de noviembre de 2012

All we need is a little hope

TEDx Beirut took place last week at the UNESCO Palace in Beirut. For those not familiar with the TED concept, this is basically an amazing group of people who share their passion, knowledge and experience with an audience in the form of 10-minute long talks.

Most of the speakers were Lebanese, both men and women from all walks of life and all ages, whom decided that they had an idea or a compelling story worth sharing with the world.

As a member of the audience- comprised of mostly a young crowd- I was very pleasantly surprised by the experience. The organization of the event was pretty good and the quality of the speakers was astonishing. We heard from the man who led the team that landed the “Curiosity” on Mars, to a woman who found her voice by becoming a cartoonist, to the mountaineer who had conquered some of the highest peaks of the world, as well as his own fears. And there was the extraordinary speaker who talked about gratitude and recognition as a means to transform our world.

I loved the excitement and enthusiasm the event generated. However, what truly reinvigorated me was the collective hope, passion and positivity that shone in the faces of both participants and speakers. Beirut- as you might imagine- has not been a very fun place in the last month or so. The mood in the streets has been tense and aloof –seemingly contradictory moods-in a way only Beirut can be. Beirut has felt numb and shallow lately, as people avoid talking about their fear, the bomb in Ashrafieh, and the local leaders threatening to form militias.  Feelings stuffed, life goes on.

TEDxBeirut offered a space to have a good laugh, a good cry and feel proud about the beauty of the human spirit. It pushed boundaries, brought us together, and put a smile on our faces. It had us think about what the world needed with its brilliant campaign “ All we need is... (fill in the blank)”.  Strangers chatted about positive stuff, exchanged ideas, laughed together, ate standing and traded for a moment the dim picture painted by recent events for a brighter perspective. I truly hope this feeling will be contagious and last for a little longer than that day.

martes, 23 de octubre de 2012

Lebanese courage

The recent events in Beirut last week left loads of us with a strange feeling in the gut.

I had never felt before the awful worry of wondering if my friends had died as collateral damage during a political assassination. I had never felt the fear of having lost someone, or maybe something (i.e. home or car). And I had never experienced the feeling of something in my everyday life suddenly being gone.

Believe me, it is not a nice feeling. It is a mix of fear, anxiety, anger and helplessness. And I am just a foreigner, with no extended family and no roots here. This was just one event, and I wasn't even there to see it. I cannot imagine what this would be like if this place was my permanent home, or this incident was only one of many.

This horrible feeling, this post-bomb feeling cannot be shaken easily. It floats like a thick fog in the streets of the lovely city I call home now. The silence is eerie. There are few people in the streets. There is tension in the air. And in the eyes of people around.

I can only start understanding how easily this feeling can turn into hatred. For those that have witnessed bombs before, this event can just be a switch to turn them immediately back on. So many memories these incidents bring back, for so many Lebanese.

I have seen many take the streets and heard reports of people demanding the leadership to step down, or to take control. I have heard stories of people being caught in the street while protesters throw stuff at their car. And I haven't even dared going  near the place where the bomb exploded. It will probably take me months to muster the courage to do that.

But Beirut lives. This morning, kids went to school. Across the street from my house, the workers showed up to the constructions site. Fruit vendors are on the street. Life goes on.

And on my Facebook, e-mail and Twitter I have seen dozens of messages from Lebanese friends asking me - and each other- if everything is OK.  One Lebanese friend offered me the help of his sisters in case I need it. My other friend's father called on my mobile, to check my husband and I are all right.

And all over I see, I read many prayers for peace, words of encouragement and kind offers to help. Restaurants and hotels offering free housing and food for those who lost their home. I have seen moving photos of those who lost loved ones, and slogans calling for strength and tolerance. I have heard leaders call for peace and order and condemning the assassination. There are far many more voices who want peace than those who want violence in this country.

People who kill, people who are willing to kill in order to control, want only one thing: to make others afraid. They want others to be so afraid that they will follow for fear of being hurt if they don't. And they use assassination as a way of saying "You mess with us, this is what happens."

But the Lebanese I see in the street today are not buying it. They are living their lives. They are being kind, loving and concerned for others. They will not give those little people that make themselves big with bombs the pleasure of seeing them scared.

I really admire that.

sábado, 22 de septiembre de 2012

Al Baba in Beirut

The Pope- or Al Baba as you would call him in Arabic- came to Lebanon last weekend.

I cannot highlight the importance of this event enough, not only for its spiritual value to those who believe in him, but mostly as a reaffirming and unifying statement of the existence of the Christian community in Lebanon. I mean the Pope is “the” guy representing Christianity, and having him in Lebanese territory bears a tremendous symbolic- if not political- weight.

Some of my Christian friends were left indifferent to the Supreme Pontiff’s visit. Some others saw a renewed wave of devotion and faith surge in them, and even lit candles the night he arrived and stuck them in their balconies, as rumor had it that a satellite would take photos that night and the candles would be seen as a physical proof of the presence of Christians in Lebanon. I personally am not convinced that a satellite can capture the light of a candle, but I found the idea very poetic.

The Pope hosted a massive Sunday mass in Beirut’s waterfront, that according to the enthusiastic statistics, gathered 350,000 people. That’s close to 10% of Lebanon's entire population. Pretty impressive, if you ask me.


Downtown Beirut was closed, in what was a very well organized operation, with thousands of people either walking, or taking buses which proudly displayed welcoming messages for the Pope in all languages, even his native German. People gathered since 4 am, to ensure a good spot to catch a glimpse of the Pontifex Maximus. Some asserted they had been “blessed” by his mere sight.

Overall, the Pope's message was one of peace and unity and, although I feared his presence might have been seen by some as a provocation, all sects were very respectful. Covered women and Hezbollah scouts even welcomed him at this arrival.

The Pope came and went, and life in Beirut continued. I wish some of the aftermath had been planned better, as a week later, the only thing left from the memorable visit is the trash generated in the waterfront.

Don't get me wrong, his message of peace and reconciliation remains with us. However, the actual implementation of such well-intentioned advice remains, unfortunately,  a miracle we all wish will happen in our lifetime.

jueves, 20 de septiembre de 2012

Hanging out in Beirut

“Hanging out is not what it used to be” , or so I thought before coming to Beirut. I used to remember those long afternoons in my grandmother’s village when I was a kid, far away from Mexico City. I would sit down with her and her sister and “people watch” from the porch, while sipping a Coke or eating a homemade tortilla. The hours, days, weeks, would pass and we would give ourselves to those slow afternoons, just enjoying a cool breeze or each other’s company.

In Mexico City, such an activity was almost impossible, mostly because my house didn’t have a porch and people rarely walked in front of it. Also, in a fast-paced city such as Mexico there wasn’t really time to hang out like that anyway. So as I grew older, as a busy city girl, I would remember those afternoons with my grandma with nostalgia, the times when people would just hang out for the sake of it, without accomplishing much more than looking out or chatting about that evening’s supper.

When I came to Beirut, I had the chance to re-discover hanging out and I really admire Beirutis for keeping that ability. Beirut is in fact a big city, with traffic and all, but people still take the time to chat for hours on end, maybe smoking arghileh, eating some nuts or drinking their third of fourth cup of coffee. This is the case for men and women by the way, young and old.

The very sociable side of the Lebanese has them hanging out with people all the time. As a matter of fact, you can drop by your neighbors’ house anytime for a cup of coffee and a chat, without announcing yourself, or planning to meet up one week in advance -like you would in Mexico City. People invite you to stay for lunch, dinner, or both, just to hang out, without doing anything, getting anywhere or accomplishing a thing.

There is this juice bar in the corner of my street and people spend hours there, just drinking juice (they don’t sell anything else). I can’t imagine what someone can talk about for so long, but I guess someone who has lost the habit of “just hanging out”-like me- needs a bit of practice to master this art.

Some people would call this behavior “lazy”. But sometimes, I wonder if this being constantly busy, constantly on the run from one appointment to the other is in fact more of a disease than something “productive”.

After all, what is more revitalizing than a nice long afternoon with friends, talking about everything and nothing, relaxing and reinventing the world?

sábado, 8 de septiembre de 2012

Following rules in Lebanon

I recently visited the United States, a land that I love dearly and one that I also equate to "the land of rules".

Those who know me well know that I am an avid rule follower, but the US takes rules to the extreme. From the moment you step out of the plane, directives are showered on you: where to stand, where to look, what to do, what not to do. Coming from Beirut, all the rules are at first overwhelming. But I must confess my jaw dropped when we came out from the airport to a wide highway full of lanes, with people driving one behind the other, under the speed limit, using their blinkers, letting us pass as we approached the exit... The Jounieh-Beirut highway I had driven (praying) the previous Saturday night seemed so far away!

As the days passed, I would look at some street signs and only smiled as I discussed with my husband how these rules could be applied in Lebanon.
My favorite example is the "no honking" signs, looking down at you from many street corners, and threatening violators with a $350 dollar fine. Can you only imagine if every time someone honked in Beirut, the government got $350? Lebanon could pay the national debt in a month! * 

Another thing that made us laugh was street crossing. We were patiently waiting for all cars to pass before we would dare even stepping down from the sidewalk. At one point we realized that all drivers had stopped, a long distance away from the crossing lines, looking at us patiently. And that's when we realized that drivers give priority to pedestrians! Can you imagine this in Beirut? 

Looking for a parking spot in an American city was an adventure. You see, there's all sorts of complex parking rules you need to know: resident parking, parking available at certain hours, places near the crossing where you can't park, water hydrants for firefighting you wouldn't even dream of parking in front of, handicap parking, sides of the street where you can't park for street cleaning... And those few spots left, you bet you have to pay the meter to park in them. Violating these rules is very expensive and often means your car is towed away. 
As we kept driving in circles, I imagined just pulling in one of those "forbidden places". In the end, the parking ticket in Beirut can be as low as 10,000 LL (around $7 dollars).  

I could go on and on about these little incidents. But what really impressed me was when I arrived back to Beirut (and parked on the sidewalk in front of my house- good habits quickly lost) and found out that there was a new smoking ban in restaurants and cafes. This is the new talk in town, and everyone has an opinion about the issue. Regardless of whether I agree with it or not, I have to say it is proven to be the first effective rule I have ever seen in Beirut. I think this is due to the fact that it has the essential two components of a rule: a consequence if broken, and someone to enforce it. If someone catches you smoking, it is $100 fine for you, but $1,000 for the restaurant. And if 2 people are smoking, it's $100 each, plus $2,000 for the restaurant, $3,000 for 3 people and so on and so forth. You bet the restaurant owners will make sure you will not smoke in their establishment!

So it seems like rule following is possible in Beirut. And even if I am not clear if this city will ever be an "orderly" place, I must say this ban is a breath of fresh air, literally.

* On a side note: a friend of mine just started a "Stop honking" group on Facebook. This group was created to give some ideas about how to stop this very bad habit in Beirut... or at least to provide a space to vent a little :)

martes, 7 de agosto de 2012

When Lebanon gives you lemons...

There is this old saying I really like: "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade." And I think the Lebanese have mastered the art of making the best out of what they have.

As you know, things in Lebanon have not been particularly stable or quiet. A lot of people, from different places in the country are displeased with how things are turning out. And I am keeping this general, as this blog is a place where I don't inlcude, to the extent possible, any political views.

So, as I was saying, things are not turning out so great in Lebanon lately. And one of the favourite ways for some Lebanese to express their discontent is through burning tires. Once there is a problem, be with goverment, with another group, for bad wages, etc. the tires go up in flames and the streets are blocked.

What I love about this place is that someone actually saw this as an opportunity for an add campaign. A fancy mall is having its summer sales, and found a creative way for attracting costumers:

The add depicts a young woman, wearing fashionable clothes and extinguising burning tires with price reductions. The word "chill" both applies to extinguishing the fire, being away from the smothering heat of the summer and also chilling as in not making a big fuss out of things. The words in Arabic under the word "chill" say "and don't leave", probably refering to the thought that Lebanese would leave if things in the country got really "heated".

I find this add of particular interest because it is both an add campaign and a political statement. Maybe the publicist was just trying to say, "Life goes on. Come shopping".

The design studio Bjorka has turned the symbol of the tires into art pieces, to protest pollution in Beirut (I can only imagine the amount of bad stuff that gets released into the air when you burn a tire). Their moto? "We are Tyred". I don't know if they meant to use the "y" to spell the word in British English, or they are hinting to Tyr in Sounth Lebanon (these days I see political messages everywhere).

And lastly, I recently heard a story of a person who actually made the business of tire delivery in Tripoli, in case someone wants to start a protest. You call the number and... Tada! Tires delivered at your place of choice. I don't know if this is an urban legend, but knowing the Lebanese's ability to make the best out of things, it wouldn't  surprise me.

So when in Lebanon, if you are given lemons, you make lemonade. And if you are given burning tires... well, possibilities are endless. 

viernes, 27 de julio de 2012

Public Space in Beirut

It is that time of the year when the heat is pretty intense in Lebanon, and the only thing we want is to go to the beach and enjoy the little breeze that comes from the sea.

One of the big challenges one faces is a) going to an awesome beach that happens to be a beach club, where you have to pay loads of money to enter, listen to techno music and be maybe the victim of discrimination (see St. George Beach Club story here)  or b) go to a public beach were you can face poor maintenance and very dirty water (according to a local newspaper 85% of household water ends up in the shore without any treatment). Add to this little regulation on how beach fronts get exploited  (or no respect for regulation as this article indicates) and you find yourself with a coastline that is increasingly privatized, "VIP" and exclusive.

Little options for the simple, non- Louis Vuitton, beach goer.

But the beach is not the only public place that is getting very private in Lebanon. I have recently heard accounts of people regarding Beirut's exclusive marina, Zeitunay Bay.

Photo credit: Lebanon Pictures

This place is very fancy, with a series of exclusive restaurants overlooking the water. Everyone who is anyone in Beirut can be seen here, sipping a cappuccino or having a meal with friends and family. If you want to know what the latest fashion trends are in the world, just come here to see the Lebanese ladies display their best outfits.

This is all good. The downside is that there are LOADS of things that you cannot do in Zeitunay Bay (including not speaking loudly), as the guards around it and the signs gently (and not so gently) continiously remind you.

Photo credit: author's own

Two friends of mine have recently gone to Zeitunay Bay with a book and a sandwich to seat down and spend a quiet moment while enjoying the view. In both cases they have been told that they cannot eat  seating on the benches. You can sit there, you can drink a to-go Mocha, but you cannot eat. In other words, if you can't afford the restaurants, you don't eat in Zeitunay Bay.

And I guess that would be somehow OK if this was a private space as the sign point out, but let me clarify that this is a very public space. Yes, you pay to park your boat here, yes you pay to eat at the restaurant, but the access to the deck is open to the public, since it is, afterall, directly connected to the street. A friend of mine, which is not one to be shy to argue when she sees an injustice, sat down with the guard and then the manager asking them to tell her exactly where it is written that she cannot have a sandwich in that place. Besides an "it is our policy", they were not able to produce anything more substantive. And they could also do nothing to prevent her from continuing to eat. She was, afterall, doing nothing illegal.

Which brings me to my last point: public and private space in Beirut. I recently talked with a Lebanese friend who happens to be an anthropologist, specialized in Lebanon. She was telling me that one fascinating thing about the Lebanese is that the concept of public space doesn't really exist. It is more of an inside/outside phenomenon, where inside (my home, my relatives' homes, my people's space) is to be protected, cherished, polished and cleaned (indeed, Lebanese houses are gorgeous, spotless and tastfully decorated... on the inside) and outside doesn't really matter. Outside is not mine, so why bother taking care of it?

No surprise then that streets are dirty, people litter, there are no parcs and the little open space left is privatized. If the sense of public is equated to "not mine" then it is also subject to be made "mine" by paying a bribe, building a fence around it and charging to get in. I am afterall letting you in "my" space now.

So my question is... What happened to "our" space?

domingo, 1 de julio de 2012

Soccer in Lebanon

It is the final. Tonight. Italy vs. Spain. And I am not watching it (please don't hate me).

The past couple of weeks have been a little disorienting. I have really felt like I was in Mexico. Except I am in Beirut. And people here seem as obessesed with the Euro 2012 Soccer Cup as they are back home. Mind you, neither countries are in Europe. But I guess that is just a minor detail.

When there is any sort of soccer related event, Mexicans go crazy. I mean, life literally stops. I used to date this guy who would tell me never to call on Sunday afternoon, because that's when soccer was on (that relationship didn't last much). Also, I remember this place where I used to work in Mexico during the 2002 world cup. The director decided to buy a TV and put it in the office, since no one was showing up to work. It was a smart move...

The last few weeks my Facebook page has been occupied by 50% people cursing because of the presidential elections in Mexico, and 50% cursing because this and that team lost/wan.

In Lebanon it is the same. But what I like about the Lebanese is that they really went full out with the Euro 2012. The square near my house is virtually covered with European flags. I actually didn't need to watch the games, as every time a team lost, the flags from that country would be taken down (who would want to buy flags of a losing team, anyway).

Tonight, the square is covered in red and yellow. Some little flags of the non-Spanish team are flown here and there. But I am clear the Lebanese are going for Spain (don't ask me why, I don't know either). I was just at the mall and I couldn't even hear myself speak, people were yelling so loud. Giant screens were on in every restaurant, in every floor on the building. People have those noise makers that you would actually bring to a 100,000 people stadium (and that I am sure can make you deaf if you stand next to them in a confined space). Teenagers have flags as capes and their faces painted. Young girls shriek everytime, what's his name- Shakira's boyfriend, enters the screen. I decided to escape. And spend some alone, quiet, soccer-free time in my house.

I guess I just didn't know the Lebanese were that much into soccer. Which brings me back to my point. The past couple of weeks have been a little disorienting. Because the more I spend time in Lebanon, the more I feel like I am in Mexico. The more I feel like home.

miércoles, 20 de junio de 2012

Who do you call in Beirut?

A couple of days ago there was a big fight in the street, just outside of my building.  I heard screaming and a big commotion and when I went to the balcony, I saw about 12 guys going at it. Swearing and punches and a lot of yelling. I quickly moved away, as I thought that someone might be armed.

I looked around and saw all my neighbors in the buildings in front of mine in their balconies, just watching the “show”. No one seemed ready to intervene or even to try to call the police. And that’s when it hit me… There is no police to call in Lebanon.

I mean there is a police. And an army. And sometimes army guys stand outside private houses as guards. Or tell you not to park somewhere. While the police is coordinating traffic, but sometimes the army is. Listen, it is very confusing. I wouldn’t even try to understand who does what.

But that was what alarmed me the most. Without clear roles, in a moment of stress, I didn’t know who to call. The fight ended up eventually. But the feeling of vulnerability didn’t leave me. Who would I call? Who do Lebanese call?

I sat down for lunch the following day with a Lebanese colleague. I shared with him the experience and he just smiled. And then he told me “You call your uncle. He will call his friends. And in 15 minutes, you have 30 guys at your house ready to help”.

He continued “ In Lebanon you call your people when you need help. You don’t rely on the government, or on your neighbors. Your people are the only ones you can count on for your safety, for survival. “

As things get tense in Lebanon these days, these words resonate more and more in my head. That is probably what happened on my street that day. Two people had a problem, and they called their people for the fight. And when we see the ongoing fighting in this part of the world, although at a different scale, it is not that different. People fight for their own, and against the “other” because there is no common identity, institution or sense of citizenship that binds them together. My family, my friends, the people of my same religion, sect, tribe, group are my people. The other ones are outside. I fight for my own because if I don’t a) no one will protect the people I love and b) the group won’t be there when I need them.

Looking at it from this perspective, the conflicts that comprise the every day struggle of the Lebanese make a little more sense. And it also overwhelms me. Where do you start building unity? How can one trade a sense of group, safety and survival when no one else will have your back?

lunes, 28 de mayo de 2012

Beirut on wheels

Until recently, the only wheels I had been on in Beirut were my car's.

Beirut is not what you would call a bike-friendly place (and by bike I mean bicycle, not a motorbike. There are plenty of those in Beirut).

First of all, the driving in Beirut is not what you would call, hum, disciplined. As soon as there is a little room on the side of the road, it is occupied by a car, or a vespa (or both). So an attempt at biking in the city would be basically a death wish. And trying to introduce anything remotely resembling a bike lane would be a) naive and b) probably laughed at.

So, to my surprise, I saw an ad in TimeOut Beirut about a night ride in Beirut. Cool! I haven't been on a bike for... basically the time I have been here, and I love, love, love riding bikes. Plus, it's a different plan for a Friday night. So off I go, equipped with my helmet and blinking lights (and not my orange reflective vest, since my husband thinks it looks dorky).

After renting my bike (and arguing with the guy at the rental place who was trying to convince me that girls, according to him, don't need the front brake), I went to Cyclo Sport on Gouraud St. in Gemmayzeh. I meet there about 50 ciclysts in a parking lot. We are all crammed in a corner, since it is an active parking lot, and there are cars coming in and out. A lady is passing energetic drinks for free. People are chatting and showing off their super cool outfits and matching bikes (Of course! This is Lebanon. What was I thinking, bringing those old jeans for the bike ride?).

A whistle blows, and off we go. All very orderly, at first, following some professional looking riders that had lots of brands on their outfits, so they must mean business.

The ride through Gemmayzeh, down the Corniche and Hamra was frankly fun. I had never felt in Beirut the feeling of wind in my face that only a bike ride can give you. And the organizers were very good a stoping the traffic, so we could all pass. I would have never dared crossing some of the larger roads on a bike in Beirut, but in the middle of a sea of bikes, I felt safe.

Some of the areas in Beirut are definitely not meant for biking and going up and down the hills was pretty exhausting. So I wouldn't recommend this bike ride for people who are not in shape. Because you don't want to fall behind (that is what eventually ended up happening). When the group spreads out, it starts getting harder to manage for the organizers and more dangerous for the bikers.

By the time we reached the National Museum, everyone was super tired, and going at different paces. This left long empty spaces in the group between bikes that car drivers promptly took advantage of (dorky reflective vest would have come in handy here). The result was that by the end, the bike ride was quite dangerous, and not so fun.

But overall, I think the experience was worth it, and I would recommend it, if you are looking to bring a bit of an adrenaline rush to your life in Beirut. These bike rides happen quite often as I understand it (Check out their Facebook Page or visit Cyclo Sport). You can rent a bike with them for a whooping LL5,000/hour (includes helmet), or go to BeirutByBike and rent your bike there for the same price.

This, by the way, would not be an appropriate activity for kids. The route is long (3 hours) and the pace is rather fast.

Enjoy the ride!

sábado, 28 de abril de 2012

Bullets over Beirut

One thing that I love about having visitors over is that they remind me of the things I used to find incredible about Beirut, and that I have grown accostumed to over the years.

So I was very "amused" at first when my family asked me to stop the car to see buildings filled with bullet holes. I guess it has become so common for me to see them that I barely notice them now. My family wanted to take photos.* They wanted to know what the story behind the building and the bullets was.

Little by little, I started remembering how impressed and scared I was at the sight of bullet holes when I first arrived to Beirut. Because of what those holes meant.  With my family here, every time we saw a building filled with little holes there was silence in the car for a moment and someone would ask me "Are those... bullets as well?"

That crazy egg stucture in downtown. The Holiday Inn. The tower as you go up towards Achrafieh. These are buldings I pass very often. And I have just stopped noticing.

Why did I get used to bullet holes?

Was it because there are so many? Was it because I never witnessed the actual moment when the bullet pierced the wall? Was it because I just stopped caring?

One of the highlights of my family's visit was the walking tour around Beirut with Ronnie. I never miss a chance to introduce my family to this fellow, whom so eloquently explains the history of his city.

One of my favourite parts about the tour is the bit about Martyr's Square. There is something about the place that is so moving. There is the history yes, this is a site of protest and where the Lebanese come when they want change. But there is something about the statue in Martyr's Square that just brings tears to my eyes.

Source: TripAdvisor

The lady with the torch represents freedom. The fellow she is holding represents Lebanon. You can see the statue is filled with bullet holes. It has become a symbol of everything that was destroyed in Beirut during the civil war. I think this statue represents the city, the country, so well. The fellow is filled with holes, has lost an arm, but keeps standing. And for one reason or the other his bullet holes haven't been "repaired". Like all the other bullet-studded buildings. Like so many other things in the country, including the people.

I have met so many people who walk this city with their bullet holes, real or metaphorical, still piercing, still acking. So many who have learned to live with bullet holes inside of them, and have forgotten, like me, to notice the bullet holes all around us.

I really hope we won't see any new bullet holes anytime soon. But I mostly hope we won't grow unsenstive to what they mean. They are not trivial. They are not to go unnoticed. Those holes mean someone or something was killed. Slowly or instantly, phisically or metaphorically. Those bullets were meant to anihilate something. A person's joy, freedom, feeling of safety, compassion, or even life.

Those little holes are reminders. Of what has happened, and might still happen in Beirut. And when fighting might seem like a good idea, I wish we will all look around and see the bullet holes. And remember that they could so easily happen again.

*Thanks to M for letting me use his gorgeous photos from his trip to Beirut!

jueves, 22 de marzo de 2012

The Lebanese Scooter Diver (or LSD)

Lebanese Scooter Drivers, otherwise known as LSD- because you think you are hallucinating when you see them- are some of the most common individuals you encounter in your everyday life Beirut. They are everywhere and deliver all sorts of things.

They are the first thing that scares you when you first get here, especially when you cross the street. You curse them for a while, but in time, you learn to appreciate their bravado (or stupidity depending from which angle you choose to see them). You just get used to them coming from all sides. And I must admit, they make me smile at least once a week.

You see, the LSDs have some special characteristics that make them fascinating individuals to me. Please allow me to recount them so you get a sense of their uniqueness:

LSDs are artists: they just don’t drive around a scooter in the streets of Beirut. They create their route. This can include driving on the sidewalk when there is too much traffic (zigzagging among pedestrians if necessary), doing a 3-point turn in between cars in a traffic jam or driving in the opposite direction of traffic on a highway. Pure talent.

LSDs are practical: If they have 2 kids and need to get somewhere, they’ll squeeze them in the front. If their giant German shepherd needs to go to the vet, they’ll squeeze it in the front (I have seen this with my own eyes). If they need to deliver an arguileh (water pipe) to someone’s house, they just squeeze it between their legs, drive the scooter with one hand while holding the burning coals on the other. Anything can be transported on a scooter. The sky is the limit.

LSDs are renegades: if someone wants to pass them, they go faster. If you are on their way (on the sidewalk) they’ll honk. If someone asks them to wear a helmet, they wear it without the strap (which makes me wonder why they are wearing it in the first place). If it rains, they’ll build a metal roof on their scooter. If there’s a little space to squeeze into, they’ll take it. They leave by the motto “You snooze, you loose”.

LSD defy the law: Nature’s, reason’s or traffic’s . No rules apply to them. If they need to deliver a sheet of glass during rush hour, they’ll bring it on their legs, it won’t cut them. If a car comes to a crossing, they’ll speed up, it won’t hit them. If there’s a red light or a do not enter sign, it doesn’t apply to them. They don’t follow rules. They make them.

It takes some ballsy dudes to be LSDs (and sorry for the “dudes” but I haven’t seen any scooteryet in Beirut so far). Not any-one is allowed in this very selective club. I guess some of us just prefer the lameness (and safety) of our cars.

So here’s to all LSDs out there. May the road keep them safe.

PS: This blog post is dedicated to my beloved C and his month-old scooter (and his safety).