BEIRUT, LEBANON — The weekend was quiet. Mostly just spent getting acclimated, catching up on some stuff missed in two days of travel, and having a wander about the local place. I found a mall: it was smaller than those in Britain but in every other way identical down to the teenagers hanging out.
I wrote in the last post of the crazy driving but having had another look it’s even worse: nobody believes in indicator lights and red lights are, at best, a suggestion. It turns out there are busses here too; no idea how to use them but they are there. There are also no laws against smoking inside. A major difference from home is that there is no drinkable running water. Though not unexpected, it’s actually more difficult than it might sound. Things like brushing your teeth or just needing a bit of cold water for a hot drink; you catch yourself—or I have so far—about to run the tap.
Across the street from my apartment block there’s a large German flag hanging from one of the windows. I’d thought that, odd as it would be, it must just be some particularly patriotic expat. But then I noticed others, saliently the Brazilian flag, and they’re everywhere: windows, on lampposts, and even the bonnets (hoods, if you insist) of cars. It turns out to be to do with the World Cup. The Lebanese national team is—to put it delicately—not brilliant, so everybody just picks another team. Germany, Brazil, and Italy are the main ones, with Argentina and Spain somewhere behind. The Lebanese evidently pay some attention to these things: almost nobody chooses England.
On Monday, when coming back from the office, I saw a supermarket that looked near to where I was staying so got the driver to let me out there and planned on walking back. The main problem I’ve had since being here is finding “normal” food—i.e. stuff I can cook for myself—which is both healthier and cheaper than the take-out that is the only other choice. This seemed like an answer. It wasn’t. It was more like a large corner shop but without so much choice. I managed to get some milk and eggs and even some rice crackers and then set off for the flat. It didn’t go quite as planned and I spent an hour-and-a-half wending my way through the streets in the vague direction of my apartment. I was never truly “lost” because the place is easy to find: all you have to do is get to the water-front. But it’s a bit strange with the layout in that it’s really not made for pedestrians; there are no walkways between the buildings. If there’s a way through it’s for cars too. And it’s not regularly set-out. This results in having to go on massive loops if you’re in the middle of one street and need to get to the middle of the next. So it was more a question of economy than direction in trying to get back to the room. It was worth it though: I really have gotten to know the local area and am now refining it with alternate routes.
Today I managed to crunch the numbers I’m working on for Syrians using the health-care services provided by the aid groups and then had to get myself a certificate of good health from the AUBMC (American University of Beirut Medical Centre). To work with the United Nations you have to have this for reasons wholly opaque to me. I booked an appointment yesterday, took a taxi down there, and then after a brief exam by two people—blood pressure, do I smoke (no), do I drink (yes), and interestingly they were able to tell I’d lost weight (not sure how this works)—they gave me a letter, charged me $50 (£30), and sent me on my way.
It struck me again in the hospital that the local lingua franca here actually is—for once—just that: French. Bonjour is the common greeting if somebody looks foreign. But you can still get by with English. I’m assuming it is to do with living on an island and not having to deal with neighbours at close-quarters but most British people, deep down, feel that those who affect not to speak English are simply being awkward. At high enough volume and with enough sounding out, everybody really understands English. Sadly this has actually proven to be the case for me so far: I’ve skated by knowing little or none of the languages of the countries I’ve been in, and Lebanon is not proving to be an exception.
When I came out of the hospital it was raining. Rare apparently for this time of year but it had been thundering earlier on, too. The presence of Syrian refugees was very noticeable in this area (Hamra). Many of them were women sitting on the curb surrounded by small children. There were also some boys trying to make a living of some kind from the streets. One of them—can’t have been more than 14—approached and indeed followed me down a fairly lengthy street. He seemed to have three English words: “Syria,” “sandwich,” and “yes,” and combined them—particularly the last one—to try to get me to take what is actually a wrap, though is called a “sandwich” here. (Not sure if this is a specifically British formulation: when I say “sandwich” I mean two pieces of bread with something in-between.) Quite honestly if I had the 1,000 Lebanese Pounds (about 40p) in change I would have given it to him but I’d just been ripped-off once and didn’t have the funds to sustain another such calamity; I had a $10-note and 10,000-Lebanese-note (£4/$6.5).
Having finally brushed off this enterprising boy, I kept my bearings as to the University and just walked around. I came to the École Supérieure des Affaires, a business school set up by the French in the 1990s—on Rue Clemenceu, no less. Right across the road from this is a university affiliated with the American Johns Hopkins. It’s a testament to the twin—and somewhat competing—Western influences on Lebanon: the United States and France. I took some pictures and kept going. I was looking for somewhere that might sell do-it-yourself food but could only really find fast-food places—including a falafel place, which was my very lifeblood in Jerusalem, especially after arak. Just about resisting, I eventually found somewhere and it turned out to be … the same place as yesterday. So I saved myself $15 on a taxi to get back to the flat.
Outside the flat there was a small concentration of Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF). Enquiring if anything was wrong I was told it was not: just a routine patrol. The LAF comes in for quite a lot of flak because when things really get going, so does it. At worst, as in the civil war, it breaks down into its constituent religious and ethnic parts and goes to stand sentry as militias for its local areas; at best it gets out of the way, as it did when the Hizballah started that war against Israel in 2006. But, sectarian as it no-doubt is, conscripted, and loyal to its own group rather than the State—and even to foreign masters in some cases—it nonetheless looks professional, has been helpful whenever approached (as the only authority figures and with my woeful sense of direction I have several times asked soldiers where things are), and, at least by local account, have not been without success in recent weeks in pacifying the country. The south of Lebanon is apparently very much at peace, as is most of Beirut, and even the fighting in the north, around Tripoli, that began with the rest of the civil war in the mid-1970s and never did end, has apparently come to a halt, at least for the moment. This is said to be the work of the LAF and the security forces.
True or not about the LAF, I do seem to have come at a particularly stable and peaceful moment, so that’s something to be happy about.