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.

Source: rtl.fr 

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 :)