domingo, 17 de noviembre de 2013

Lebanese Hair

Hair salons are a dime a dozen in my neighborhood. I mean, in a 2 block radius from my apartment, there are 6 of them. In any other context, this would be a perfect example of market saturation. How can all these businesses stay open or be possibly making money? Where are the clients coming from?

You don't have to be a sharp observer to notice that hair is a big thing in Lebanon. I personally had never seen hairdos like the ones I have seen in Beirut. Big curls, hair extensions, highlights, low lights, wigs... you see it all. And the sophistication, intricacy and complexity of some Lebanese hairdos make the most elaborate styles from other parts of the world look like mere poney tails.

But I didn't understand the extent of the perfect hair culture until one morning at the office. It was about 9 am, and I was rushing through the door when I noticed that my Lebanese colleague was looking particularly polished that day.When I commented on her new look, she just brushed it off by saying "Oh, I just went to the salon this morning".
"What time did you go?" I asked, intrigued. She proceeded to explain that she whatsapps her stylist whenever and he will come to the salon next to her house, rain or shine, and as early as needed.

I thought this was a bit extreme... In my world, you need an on demand stylist if you are in the show business or the President. But after doing a little survey among my Lebanese friends, I corroborated to my surprise that going to the hair salon before work is not only a pretty common practice but also considered completely normal. Apparently, for little more than 10 dollars, you can get a hairdo whenever you want and spend the rest of your day having a fabulous hair day.

Once, I arrived to a meeting and a female colleague asked me with a tone of excitement "Who did your hair?"
I looked at her a little confused. She was certainly not implying that my Mum still does my hair or something like that and she was looking at me with a big smile (which in my mind meant she was not being mean).
I hesitantly replied "Hum... me." (I had a braid).
"Whaaat?"she said impressed. " Where did you learn to do that?"
I kept staring at her not knowing what to say. She then explained to me that in Lebanon, there are places where you can go get your hair done by really famous people, and then you can tell others that "so and so" did your hair. Like a brand name for your hair. Lebanese sophistication at its prime.

On another note, I have found in Lebanon that for the most part, hair salons are run and operated by men. In Mexico, there are some men in hair salons, but I would say 9 times out of 10 hair salons are run by women. And to make it more interesting, here in Lebanon, I have gotten my hair done by men who wouldn't fit the stereotype in my mind of what a "stylist" looks like (i.e. purple highlights, tight leather pants, open shirts with waxed chests, plucked eye brows, etc.). As a matter of fact, the last person who did my hair was a 30 year old man with a 3 day unshaved beard, button down shirt, jeans and Converse, who left to watch the soccer match in a little TV as soon as he was done with my hair.

There is no doubt that hair salons play a key role in Lebanon's day to day life, and I got to experience that firsthand. I was walking around Byblos (North of Beirut), with some time in my hands and I decided to go to a little salon, and ask for a "brushing" (a blow dry). Instantly, I was immersed in the neighborhood's life. In the few Arabic words I picked, I learned about who was getting married that evening, got offered some food and coffee, received expert advice on a wide variety of products, and got asked about every single detail of my life (including the reasons why I don't have blond highlights- which is a very bad thing here). The people in the salon seemed all like they knew each other very well,  like family.

And I understood that the hair salon is much more than just a place where you get a hair done. It is a place where you socialize, get beautified and connected, get special attention, and catch up on the latest and greatest neighborhood gossip. When things are tense and stressful, there is no better place than the hair salon.

No wonder why there are so many of them.

lunes, 21 de octubre de 2013

Lebanese Amnesia

A little over a month ago, I wrote a post about fear and how tense I felt about the "situation" in Lebanon. I say "situation" because whenever I gather with my friends to talk about politics, the economy, regional issues, refugees, bombs, attacks, violence, tire burning, road closures or all of the above, we refer to it as "the situation".

However, lately the discussions about "the situation" have subsided, not because less events are taking place (I mean over the weekend there was a shooting between Bab Tebbaneh & Jabal Mohsen,  an "Energa" grenade fell on Syria Street in Tripoli, and Syrian troops infiltrated Lebanese territory, bombing two houses), but because things have gone back to "normal".

As I have mentioned in this blog before, what is considered "normal" in Lebanon is definitely subject to debate. But life has gone back to normal in Lebanon I guess, judging by all the art shows, movie festivals, concerts, restaurants, traffic jams and shopping. The streets are busy, the businesses are open, people are travelling...

I was at a dinner party a couple of days ago and I was discussing this with some Lebanese friends. I expressed my surprise about how quickly everyone had forgotten about last month's crisis, when some countries threatened to bomb Syria, or how no one mentioned all the violent incidents occurring not only in Tripoli, but in many other places as well.

A young woman looked at me and told me "Well, what are we supposed to do, then?".  I responded based on the little experience I have with dealing with collective trauma, which is what I have witnessed in the US. Over there, whenever there is a shooting or a terrorist attack, there is an immediate response with hot-lines, support groups, movies, documentaries, talk shows, magazine articles, blogs, Facebook pages, and so on and so forth.

"Here in Lebanon, people just move on", she said. "We have to move on".

And then it really dawned on me: imagine if every time there was a shooting in Tripoli, or an explosion in the North, people took the time stop and actually consider what it meant.

On the one had, this could be an important introspection exercise, in order to discontinue a vicious cycle of violence. But on the other, the country would be paralyzed for months, if not years.

I would argue that the Lebanese just move on with their lives not because the "situation" is less painful, but because they can't afford to stop. I guess the happy and peaceful times are fewer and far between so it is better to opt for a momentary collective amnesia.

The more time I spend in Lebanon, the clearer it becomes that these intermittent crises, followed by times of "quiet" is what is normal here. I wouldn't personally advice amnesia, as I think one of the worse things we can do to ourselves is reducing our standards of what is an acceptable living condition or not take the time to heal.

But when there are no other options... "What are we supposed to do, then?"


miércoles, 4 de septiembre de 2013

Mexican lies, Lebanese lies?

An inherent part of traveling is comparison. I know I shouldn't, but in a recent trip to Mexico, I couldn't help comparing my country with my current home, Beirut.

Maybe this comparison derives naturally from the fact that most people I meet in Mexico ask me at some point during the conversation "How are things in Beirut?". In order to give a quick answer and not to fall into a lengthy debate, I try to put things into context.

Like the fact that 1.17 million Syrians arriving to Lebanon in the past 2 years is like 25 million people arriving to Mexico in the same amount of time. Or like when an article in the newspaper says there was a bomb in Lebanon, the event occurs for the most part in very specific locations (for the time being), just like most drug-related violence in Mexico occurs in key states in the country.

I wonder if these comparisons are not only a way of simplifying a complex matter to someone who is not familiar with the Lebanese context or my new way to tell people that things are not as bad as they sound. In deed, I have recently developed a need to tell people this, that things are not as bad as they sound.

Probably to make myself believe it.

But interestingly enough, I have been doing the same thing in Lebanon, when people ask me about Mexico. I talk about the positive things, describe beautiful landscapes and present violence and abuse as isolated incidents, and not part of every day life.

Is this lying?

I tell myself that I have some wiggle room when describing "the situation" in Lebanon or in Mexico, since it is unclear at what point car bombs, executions, or kidnappings become an every day fact of life (if they ever do). I mean, there is violence both in Lebanon and Mexico every day, but don't we want to believe that these are in fact unusual, isolated events? Doesn't this rationalization somehow make our anxiety (angoisse, as the French say) easier to bare?

I think this is why when we read the news, we hear the account of events (it is hard to say "facts" at this point) and the corresponding political, economic or social analysis. But we rarely hear people talk about their fear.

However, this fear is very real to me lately. I feel it in the pit of my stomach every time I hear "Lebanon" in the news. I feel it when I leave the country (what if something happens when I am gone?) or when I arrive after a trip (what if something happens when I am here?). This silent fear has become my companion, but I diligently hide it behind the "things are not that bad", "life goes on", or "one has to live" comments I say over and over to make things OK.

Life does go on, and one does have to live, with or without fear. But I wonder if we allowed ourselves to feel the fear, acknowledge it and talk about it with one another, we would soon realize how much we all have to loose.  We would see our experience and our enemies' and not only our position. And we would perhaps find our way back to our common humanity, the one that keeps us from harming, killing and annihilating each other.

lunes, 5 de agosto de 2013

The Lebanese Way

Celebratory gunfire is a concept that someone not from Lebanon wouldn't really get when first introduced to it... 

I initially thought it meant really scary people with AK-47s and covered faces shooting in the air and terrorizing the population and that war was coming very soon.

But then a couple of weeks ago, there were a lot of bangs in the street for a few days. I didn't want to panic so I started my little usual inquiry: I checked my e-mail. And indeed, there was a message from my employer saying, "Celebrations for the end of exams are taking place. Celebratory gunfire shouldn't be discarded. Please remain away from windows."

I looked at my Lebanese colleague and asked: "What do they mean, celebratory gunfire for the exams? Celebratory as in yay-I-passed-celebratory?"

She smiled at me and said " Yeeeesss, people are celebrating the Lebanese way." 

The Lebanese Way. This is a concept even trickier than celebratory gunfire. And an endless source of inspiration, I dare say. 

The Lebanese Way applies to pretty much anything that a foreigner finds odd. And it is sometimes the only way a Lebanese can explain to foreigner why things are the way they are, when all reason fails.

There have been two instances where the Lebanese Way has worked to my advantage, so this is not like a bad thing at all.

The first time this happened was when I got locked out of my apartment on a Saturday night. I called my Landlord and explained the situation, super apologetic (I mean, how could he find a locksmith at that time?). He said "No problem", showed up 10 minutes later munching on pumpkin seeds, and with a huge envelope on hand. He looked at me bright-eyed and said lifting his envelope "I brought my tools" (I was intrigued).

Out of the envelope came an X-ray... of a mammogram (I was very intrigued at that point). He passed the X-Ray between the door and the wall, and "click", the door was open. "This is how we open doors," he said, "the Lebanese Way."

The other time I was saved was when I got stuck in my building's elevator. The power went off when I was inside, and the generator didn't kick in. I started shouting "Ascenseur" because I had no clue how you say “Elevator” or “I am stuck” in Arabic.
I was really, really hot, and it was dark, and I was late for a meeting. I started freaking out (just a little) because in Lebanon it's not like you call 911 and the fire fighters show up. So I was banging the door for 10 minutes when I heard a small voice on the other side say, "Wait, wait just a moment".
I stepped back, heard a metallic sound and the door opened. I found myself not in front of firefighters, but face to face with two young women. They were holding a long metal hook. They then showed me the little hole on the top of the door so next time someone gets stuck, I know what to do. I was very grateful for the Lebanese Way that day.

So in absence of services or of a solid infrastructure, people find solutions. And I must say the Lebanese Way is creative, certainly ingenious, and a little defiant... A rule broken here and bent there, but basita, it's not a big deal, right?  

How about you? Have you ever been saved by the Lebanese Way?

martes, 18 de junio de 2013

Fifty Shades of Lebanese Grey

A few weeks ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning and did what everyone does: I checked my e-mail. I had 2 messages awaiting in my inbox: one, from the security services saying that there had been a violent clash in Tripoli and residents were leaving the area. Two, an invitation to a beach party in Batroun.

Source: Lonely Planet

Go along the coast line up North. Yup, that is about a 30 kms (18.6 miles) distance between the two places. In my book, that is not very far. How is this possible?

Well, this is the perfect example of the illusion of war, or that of peace. While something devastating, violent and horrifying is happening, life goes on in other places. I knew that intellectually, I mean, violence and war are occurring in many places in the world as we speak. I just had never experienced it this close

Recently, I've had to face my pre-conceived notion about what war (or peace) looks like. In my mind, when there is war in a country, then all is black. When there is peace, all is white. In Lebanon, we have been living in a comfortable grey, that has been getting darker lately, but remains grey all the same. And people in Lebanon are very comfortable in the grey. 

For instance: I was in a traffic jam the other day and two people started honking, then yelling, then the fist fight started. My first thought was immediately dramatic and I thought " I hope they don't have guns". As I drove frantically around this to "escape", I looked 25 metres ahead and saw a couple kissing passionately. 

No big deal. It's just a fight, right? 

However, I constantly feel this fear that we are all like the frogs in the pot, and that as the temperature rises in the country and we pretend nothing is happening- we keep living in the grey- one day, we will fail to see danger until its too late. And we will get boiled. 
Source: The Atlantic

But a conversation with a Lebanese colleague, opened my eyes. People in Lebanon are not in denial.  They are, in fact, very aware of what is happening. But this war just doesn't affect them anymore, or at least not the way it affects me.

We were in the elevator with him and another friend, and I was asking them about what they thought of "the situation". And they told me: "We hate to break the news darling, but you are living in a country at war." Then I looked at them, both spotting this suberb tan, and said "But you are still going to the beach!". They both smiled in the oh-you-poor-little-foreigner way and said "Dear, no one stops going to the beach, just because there's war".

Fifty Shades of Lebanese Grey.

martes, 21 de mayo de 2013

Spring in Beirut

The last couple of weeks have been a true pleasure in Beirut. The Spring is finally here after a very wet "winter" (I mean, winter for Mediterranean standards). And the Spring has brought one of my favourite things about Beirut: flowers.

One of my earliest childhood memories was the blossoming Jacaranda trees outside of my aunt's summer house. I would walk among these beautiful trees, and just love the purple carpet under my feet and the contrast between the very dark and knotted bark and the fragile purple flowers. 

To my delight, Jacaranda trees are very common in Beirut. And the flowers cover all streets and cars beautifully (and cars get sticky, but let's us not talk about that).

Also, the scent of flowers in the street is truly exquisite. I like to take walks at night around the neighbourhood- taking advantage of the last remaining cool evenings before the sweltering summer arrives- and I come to a sudden halt many times just to relish on the gardenia trees' perfume emanating from people's backyards. It is intoxicating. And there are so many of them! On a couple of occasions, Lebanese friends have brought me from their garden some of these flowers in trays. "We don't know what to do with them" they say. I welcome these gifts gladly. 

These days, when you walk on the "Corniche"- the seaside road in Beirut- you will see several street vendors with little wooden racks, who sell gardenia garlands to cars. It is not uncommon to see a car - a brand new Porsche or a 1984 Mercedes- with a couple of garlands danggling from the review mirror. Forget about the little pine scented things people buy at the gas station! These garlands will keep your car smelling a-ma-zing, even when the flowers have dried up.

I know there are little good news coming from this part of the world these days. However, in the midst of it all, there are still amazing things happening in Beirut. I guess the old saying "Stop and smell the roses" has taken in Beirut a whole new meaning for me.

PS: The morning after I wrote this post, I was entering my car and saw an old gentleman waiting for the school bus with his granddaughter. They were standing next to a huge garnenia tree. I smiled at him and he approached my car... with a gardenia as a gift. Only in Beirut...

sábado, 27 de abril de 2013

Electric Lebanon

I was blow-drying my hair the other day, rushing to get to work and asked my husband to plug the iron so I could retouch my shirt... I continued drying my hair and.... silence. The power went off. 
That is when I remembered that we were on "generator electricity" that morning, and I could not have 2 appliances on at once. With half wet hair, laughing and cursing, and a wrinkly shirt on, I had to go outside of my apartment, down half a floor and flip the generator switch back on (dangling from a cable that climbs from God knows where all the way up to where we live). I hear the sound of the blow-dryer at the distance. It worked.

Welcome to a normal morning in Beirut.

"Ma fi Kahraba"(there's no electricity) is one of the first sentences you learn in Arabic when you move to this city. You know that you need to know this in case you have to call your landlord to tell him/her that the generator is not working during the 3 hours of power cuts that you will experience every day. The generator not working is a very big deal, believe me. It means no Internet... and no AC, which in the summer is equal to a death sentence. 

Unfortunately, I found out only when I moved to the building that the generator only fed individual apartments and not the common areas. This means that when there are power cuts... the elevator doesn't work. Bummer when you live on the upper floors. So my husband and I have the handy (and free!) "Beirut Electricity" app in our phones, which tells us when the electricity will be off in the coming days and we can plan accordingly. Trust me, when you go grocery shopping, you don't want to carry your bags up multiple flights of stairs.

What really cracks me up is when I am in an important meeting, with everyone debating heatedly, and the power goes out. When it comes back, all the people from outside Lebanon have a puzzled, and sometimes scared " what's going on?" look on their face. And then you act like this is normal and continue with the meeting. 

Therefore, we are all condemned to pay extra (lots extra) to have electricity 24/7- or more like 23.75/7, as there is always a delay when the electricity switches from source. My Lebanese friend even has another generator for this gap, but that's another story. 

I thought this electricity issue added "character" to life in Beirut until I read an article that brought to my attention the environmental and health hazards that this problem brings. Turns out that these diesel-run generators release carcinogenic particles in the air we all breath, and residents are highly and directly exposed to them when the generators are on. And the fact that generators are not necessarily new, or well maintained, aggravates the problem. Just imagine having the generator blowing carcinogenic stuff into your balcony every day?? Not an encouraging thought.

So generators are a quick fix to a broader electricity problem in the country, but now it turns out that it is also having a direct negative impact on our health. When will this issue be fixed? With the current state of affairs in the country and the region, I think we'll all keep involuntarily inhaling bad stuff, planning our grocery time and turning off appliances for a while.

PS: Thank you to M.M for sending me this article.

domingo, 10 de marzo de 2013

Lebanese honesty

When reading newspapers lately, there is a lot of talk about crime increasing in Lebanon. Kidnappings have been on the headlines for the past month or so, armed robberies are occurring and there is definitely a sense of mistrust in the air with all the newcomers from Syria, whom some stereotype as thieves.

I think this is a true pity, us buying into the idea that Lebanon has become a crime-ridden place. I will not deny these incidents are happening, nor that one should be careful and use common sense to avoid unsafe situations. But my experience in Lebanon has been so far, in the past 2.5 years, and more so recently, that Lebanese are some of the most honest people I have met.

And as this statement might raise some eyebrows, I would like to share with you 2 recent incidents that happened in the past couple of weeks. 

Some friends organized a party at my place recently and one of them went to the corner store to buy water. As he was leaving my house after the party was over, he realized he didn't have his wallet. We looked everywhere in the house and couldn't find it. After reflecting some time, he realized the last time he saw it was at the corner store when he paid for the water. We looked in the street but couldn't find it. The next morning, my husband went to the store, and the storeowner, a 70 year old man who doesn't make more than 40 dollars a day in his store, handed him back the wallet intact, with all IDs, credit cards and money (over $200) inside. 

As we might try to downplay this, by saying that this is a "normal" thing to do, the reality is that the man could have decided to keep the wallet for himself. No one would know. But he instead chose to act with kindness and honesty.

Which takes me to my other story. I went swimming a couple of days ago to the gym. When I was taking my shower, I realized that one of my earrings had fallen. I freaked out, as I had received these earrings from my husband just the day before, and they had not only sentimental but also monetary value. I dressed as fast as I could and went back to the pool area, praying that my earring might have fallen outside of the water. I asked all instructors and people who where there and they all looked at me with a "poor you/hopeless case" look on their face.  Ten minutes later, as I was packing my stuff from the locker room, I heard a knock on the door. One of the swimmers had found the earring at the bottom of the swimming pool (what are the odds??) and most important, had decided to return it. The person who gave it back, a trainer who has seen me there a couple of times before, put his hand on my shoulder and said "You are at home here. You have nothing to worry about".

This exchange really brought me back to reality and made me realize how much I was buying into the negative speech that has been floating around me, trying to convince me (us) that Lebanon is indeed a dangerous place to be in, a place where one needs to be in fear. And although I do not want to downplay the consequences of the dreadful conflict that is occurring very near, the effects of the economic crises, and the crime rise, I would like to remind ourselves that Lebanon is still the place where people are honest, where people are kind, and where people have your back.

martes, 19 de febrero de 2013

Death and Love in Beirut

Last week I was engaged in all sorts of debates with friends about the meaning of Valentine's Day in Lebanon. I must say that I am quite impressed by how adamant some people can get about celebrating or not celebrating the day, as a matter of ethical principle in some cases...

A Lebanese friend told me that celebrating Valentine's Day was a rather new phenomenon, and that even if it was in the end a "commercial" holiday when restaurants, flower shops and teddy bear makers would do anything to sell a mass produced ideal of romance, she still liked to celebrate it. As a matter of fact, Lebanese- according to her- use any occasion or excuse to turn it into a holiday. She then proceeded to explain that during the war, when (I quote) "death always waited behind the door", anything was a good reason to forget the misery and the pain, and celebrating even the smallest things became a matter of survival.

I thought this was a rather interesting way to put things in perspective, as the Lebanese do celebrate loads of holidays and have special dishes for the weirdest occasions (take Snayniya, for instance, a dessert made to honor the occasion of a baby's first tooth). And I also thought that the image of having death waiting for you behind the door was rather spooky.

Valentine's Day in Lebanon is a day off, not because the Lebanese are particularly into the holiday, but because the 14 of February also commemorates the assassination of the late Rafic Hariri. You walk on the streets and will see everywhere adds for diamonds, roses and hearts alongside billboards with dark images and political messages inviting you not to forget his death. In the words of another friend, "On Valentine's Day, politicians even managed to take love away".

This day brings about yet another contradiction that I don't seem to understand about Lebanon. How can one celebrate, while morning at the same time? I guess if death had been - and these days seems like still is- waiting behind the door, I would try to make the best out of life. Even if that meant buying a stupid teddy bear.

martes, 29 de enero de 2013

Lebanese Nuances

Travelling is an excellent way of discovering our preconceived notions. And although after almost 3 years, it would be difficult to still assert that Beirut is "abroad" for me, I continue to be impressed by this city's ability to challenge me.

Here is the story.

Last week, the Muslim community celebrated a holiday that marks the birth of the Prophet Muhammad. I personally don't know much about this celebration other than it is a day off at work. So I enjoyed my free day, thinking that all my Muslim colleagues would be celebrating.

The next day, I overheard a conversation between an Egyptian and a Lebanese colleague, who both happen to be Muslim. My Egyptian friend said that she had witnessed the strangest thing in downtown Beirut. She then proceeded to describe a scene: she was walking on the street and a couple of people approached her to give her flowers and chocolates. She was taken aback by the gesture and asked them what this was for. The people looked at her wide-eyed and in disbelief and replied: "To celebrate the holiday of course".
She apologized, said she meant no disrespect and continued her way confused. She had never seen this done for this holiday before.

I then asked her how people celebrated this particular holiday in Egypt. She replied, "Well, there are many ways, but I just don't" and explained that this particular holiday poses disagreement among different currents in Islam, where some believe it should be celebrated and others don't. And then she made an intriguing remark: "I went to a Catholic school and noticed that Christians give each other gifts the day that Jesus was born. I wonder if Muslims in Lebanon don't have this tradition of giving chocolates during the Eid (holiday) as a practice mimicking the traditions of other groups in the country."

I don't know how true her statement is, but I thought this was an anecdote worth sharing as it highlighted two things that I often forget as a foreigner:
1) The diversity among and inside groups in Lebanon- and in the Arab world for that matter- are far more complex than the "neat" labels that us foreigners apply on people from various religious backgrounds
2) Religious practices are local and, as with any other religion, vary from one country to another.

I think this week helped me uncover yet another layer of stereotyping that was hidden in my head. I am thankful to be able to be here, see these things, draw some conclusions and share then with you dear readers, hoping that we all learn a bit more about this fascinating place that we call the Middle East.