Thursday, 30 September 2010

Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

A Lebanese friend of mine in Beirut just told me that the Danish editor who published the original Mohammed cartoons has just released his book, in which the cartoons are reprinted.

After a quick Google, here’s a link.

The Danish government was in discussions with Muslim leaders yesterday to try and smooth their feathers prior to release.

My friend has Danish connections and has been advised that they’re expecting trouble.

I told her she’d be fine. It’s the Europeans who’ll get it in the neck.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

A discussion? Wow!

Oussama posted a lengthy piece on the issue of old buildings in Beirut.

It's a bit blunt, but he makes many a sound point.

A good read, I recommend it.

Personally, I'm a little too nostalgic to give up on my views.

I've noticed that some comments appear to be disappearing into the ether. This is down to my ineptitude when dealing with my comments system rather than any attempt at censorship. To date, I haven't edited or rejected a comment. So, if yours has never shown up, you have my apologies. I am but a simple man.

Monday, 27 September 2010

Beirut = Beer pong

This might be old news, but… As I'm not of American / Canadian background, this one was new on me...

Going through Google Reader this morning I spent some time trawling through Under Rug Swept as I’m occasionally want to do. The “Looks like Beirut” collection is a personal favourite.

I had a few minutes to kill just now and Googled “like Beirut” to find out how prevalent the phrase really was.

Here’s what I found:
“Beer Pong, also known as Beirut, is a drinking game in which players throw a ping-pong ball across a table with the intent of landing the ball in a cup of beer/water on the other end. The game typically consists of two two-to-four-player teams and multiple cups set up on each side set up in triangle formation.There are no official rules, so rules may vary widely, though usually there are six or ten plastic cups arranged in a triangle on each side.”

Yes… they named an adolescent drinking game after Lebanon’s capital.

Hoping for some truly inspired reasoning behind this, I returned to Google. Here’s what I found:
Q. Why is the game called beirut?
A.      No one really knows, but the likely reasoning is related to the violence in Beirut, Lebanon during the eighties.”

Look at the name of the site containing the rules … …

Someone needs a smack up the side of the head.

I could just about understand a drinking game named after a particularly memorable night in Gemmayze ... but because of the "violence in Beirut during the eighties" ... uurrrgghhh...

I get the feeling the printing press at Under Rug Swept will be working overtime.

Sunday, 26 September 2010

On buildings...

Walking through the streets of Beirut, or in fact any town in Lebanon, presents a never ending clash between modernity and the past.

The older buildings of the city, some dating back over 500 years, stand as monuments to the heritage of the country. For people who haven’t visited Lebanon, the average Lebanese house tended to be high ceilinged, with comparatively large windows covered by wooden shutters. The buildings themselves are normally around four stories at most. The majority of flats had balconies.

Generally made out of the soft, yellow stone found in the Levant, they frankly, would not have looked too out of place in any Mediterranean town. Driving through the mountains reveals expanses of red-tiled roofs, slanting upward and, generally speaking, not the flat roofed types of roof often seen in, say, Greek villages.

However, sadly, this is changing. The old buildings are gradually disappearing from the country.

There are a variety of reasons for this.

  1. The population boom in Lebanon since the 1930’s – as with the rest of the world – has led to a serious demand for housing. 
  2. Alongside the relative population boom, across the world, agricultural industries are on the wane and jobs tend to be found within the cities. In the case of Lebanon, silk used to a major export in the 1800's. With the, relative, opening up of China, the Lebanese market was blown away, depriving many rural communities of regular work.
  3. Traditional Lebanese houses are not space-efficient. Large, open rooms and high ceilings are not what you need if your urban population is booming.
  4. The Lebanese diaspora – With many people overseas the properties they own are presently unoccupied, unrestored and uninhabitable. This means two things, first, the expats are often more interested in selling the property to whoever bids that renovating it, second, these houses are effectively off the market in many cases, furthering the housing crisis.
  5. It's often easier to sell the property, to whoever, than divide it up between the interested parties. As such, entire buildings, or old houses can be sold, which are then knocked down and redeveloped.
  6. Given the housing crisis, developers are throwing up high-rise buildings all over the place. However, Beirut’s a developed city and there’s not a lot of space. The end result is that older buildings are bought, ripped down and replaced with towers.
  7. There are very, very few zoning or building regulations in Lebanon, or concepts such as listed buildings to my knowledge. If they do exist to any extent, they’re easily bypassed.
  8. The Civil War left many buildings unihabitable.
  9. Allegedly, many high ranking public figures have holdings in various development companies.  
All of the above means there's a severe shortage of houses. The upshot of all this is the death of the traditional Lebanese house.

Much of the above is equally applicable to any city in the world and, in many cases, it’s somewhat inevitable. London and Berlin spring to mind as cities ravished by war, for example, and the boom and expansion of London as the hub of British enterprise following the death of the Empire. 

Nevertheless, despite it being commonplace, it’s a sad situation.

Cities the world over have managed to develop without destroying their culture. Rome, Athens, to a certain extent, Damascus. It's not impossible. And before the corruption card is played in defence, none of Italy, Greece or Syria are paragons of transparency.

Where Lebanon has been let down is the lack of real opposition to, or regulation dealing with, the building boom.

Thankfully, there are some areas in which efforts at preservation have been made. Soldiere, whatever you might think of the initiative, was probably the only way to renovate the heart of Beirut. Yes, there should be some form of drive to open up residential areas in Downtown, yes, there should be business incentives, and yes, it’s not all roses, but at least the buildings have been repaired.

There’s also this company. The houses are pricy, but at least they’re renovating the buildings rather than, a., letting them sit empty, or b., ripping them down.

There is some hope for progress. According to Naharnet, the Ministry of Culture is finally showing an interest. Added to the regulations mentioned in the article, the Ministry recently released this video (which I recall seeing when watching a movie):

And this print ad:

Powerful stuff.

Organisations such as this one are raising the issue and there was a march yesterday. Around 150 people went. The organisers of the march published this PDF, their contact details are included.

There’s, clearly, a long way to go, but the beginnings are plain to see. And, no doubt, the wife will chain me to the railings of a threatened old building before long.
As you can see, I’ve updated the photo in the background.

Unfortunately, I can’t take credit for the shot. That honour goes to Abzyy. Check her out, she’s very talented and my homepage isn't the best showcase.

Here's a better look:
Yellowish Red by Abzyy

From time to time I'll be rotating the picture in the background. If you've got great shots of Beirut, preferably street scenes, and are interested in having them on show, please contact me. My email's in the imaginatively-titled "Contact Me" tab.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

This is why I love her

An SMS from the wife who’s, as previously mentioned, abroad for work:

“At first I thought the positive attitude from the staff was refreshing, but today I just miss the cynicism.”

That’s the spirit, Honey!

Sobering thoughts

A recent post on the British Ambassador to Lebanon’s blog caught my attention and brought about a profound sense of sadness.

Here’s an excerpt:
There are nearly 60 Palestinian veterans in Lebanon who served with the British army during the 2nd World War.   The tragic irony of their situation is heart-wringing.   After loyally serving the Union Jack, in 1948 they were forced to flee their homes when the state of Israel was created.   Some of them have been in refugee camps in Lebanon ever since.  They are getting old (even those who joined up too early at the age of sixteen are over 80 now) and in need of medical attention.  

This week we had a visitor from the Royal Commonwealth ex-services League.  He was here to visit some of the veterans in their homes and oversee the work that is done on the League's behalf to give some assistance to these men in need. 

The sense of gross failure, to both people and state leading up to the Nakhba, sticks in my throat and slowly gives way to anger. The provision of medical care seems like a drop in the ocean.

With Remembrance Sunday not too far off, I’m looking forward to going to the British war cemetery in Jalloul, in Assas. It’s a most humbling experience for an expat with a military upbringing. Plus, they serve good cake.

In comparison to the British cemetery (which is actually quite pleasant), the French equivalent, which on the same road, is in a state of disrepair and is a thoroughly depressing place. There’s also some sort of migrant’s cemetery across from the military sites, I forget the details exactly, but I believe they were mainly Eastern European names on the tombstones. I don’t believe they were Armenian, which might have been the obvious answer. However, if I recall, the dates on the tombstones were around the Second World War. Which raises the possibility that they were Jewish immigrants heading for Israel.

I might well post some shots on Remembrance Sunday, but I shall certainly look into the Eastern European site.

If anyone has a clue as to the background of the "Eastern European" site, I'd love to know.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

Rules of life

A list of thoughts, vaguely aimed at newcomers, after 6'ish years in Lebanon:

1. An expensive TV is worth little when one has pirated cable

2. Always carry a bottle of water with you when entering an elevator … power outages are not your friend

3. Always negotiate the price before entering a service (shared taxi) a basic understanding of numbers helps here, though not always

4. Forget the concept of punctuality, it will do you no good

5. The “I’m a dumb foreigner, help me” line generally works, unless negotiating with a service driver

6. Failing to like parsley, and therefore tabbouleh, marks you out as a devil worshiper

7. Learn to love parsley

8. Unless you’ve played rugby or American football before, you can forget about getting to the front of the welcoming crowd at the airport. Live with it

9. Light, or indeed A/C, is not a requirement for life

10. Before driving rehearse a mantra. “It’s not personal”, or “I’m not a bad person” are good starting points

11. There is a reason why people drive slowly on the highway when it rains, you’ll soon discover it

12. Learn to drink neat spirits, it’ll save you a lot of pain on your first trip to Gemmayze

13. Yes, shots are compulsory

14. The concept of lines, or queues, doesn’t exist, gentle use of elbows is the way forward, if you're a woman, you can forget to be gentle

15. If you’re European-looking it’s assumed you understand no Arabic. This can be useful. Do not spoil it for the rest of us

16. Visiting General Security or the Ministry of Labour? Bring a book

17. Abandon all principles of “dieting” or “healthy eating” when visiting a home

18. Talk topics: Religion, politics, sex, electricity. Or electricity, sex, politics, religion

19. Foreigners: Do not attempt to talk politics or religion at first; you’ll inevitably get it wrong. You’ll probably get the sex part wrong too … electricity’s your safe ground here

20. Foreigners: Lebanese are the most hospitable people in the world. Learn to love caffeine

21. A dynamo torch is your best friend

22. Foreign men: Gentlemen, Lebanese women are incredible (and, in the main, not due to this). However, they also have male relatives, often hundreds of them and you are not their idea of the ultimate brother-in-law

23. Foreigners: You need only five Arabic words/expressions, to live in Lebanon: anjad, yani, bukhra, inshallah and m’baref

23(b). Krikor rightly suggested the addition of yalla to the list. I'm slightly ashamed I missed it. 

23(c). Joe's nominee is habibi, favorite of everyone from service drivers to the mother-in-law.

24. You need to be able to spell those using numbers where applicable

25. Inshallah means many different things depending on the context. Understand this to avoid disappointment

26. Learning to distinguish between gunfire, fireworks, firecrackers and backfiring cars will help lower your blood pressure

27. It’s acceptable for older people to stare at you in public. It is not acceptable to stare back, it makes you look like a loon
28. Never enter a bank, keep your money under your mattress
29. Memorize when the electricity is going to cut ... that way, you'll only be surprised when they change the schedule, that's when you'll thank me for passing on rule No. 2...
30. Almaza is the finest "beer" in the world, this is not up for debate. Quibble with this at your peril and never, never, mention any reservations about the quality of Almaza in public
If anyone has anything to add, feel free.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Six months late, as usual...

I have finally signed up to Twitter.

Wheter or not this will actually add up to anything worthwhile is debatable... nevertheless, it has happened.
It wasn't me...

I'll see on you on the bridge, will you hold my hand?

As if that wasn’t enough…

Here’s a link to a lovely PDF download that’ll tell you that, a., Lebanon is on the verge of war, and b., that it’ll be much, much worse than 2006.

Via. here.

Mondays, huh?