Stuck In Beirut

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Things you need to know about Beirut but were afraid to ask

Now that the vacation is over and I am back in the states uneventfully, I can't help but reminisce about some of things that are unique to Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, that visitors would find very strange. One of them has to do with parking or curb side service. Many shop owners with store fronts on the main street will “reserve” a spot in front of them for their clients to park either to go down or shop or to order from their car in the Lebanese version of the drive through window. These shops include small sandwich stands, photo marts, butchers, hair dressers and pharmacies. The interesting part is the array of items that are used to indicate that a spot is reserved such as old chairs, shopping carts, step ladders, old tires and the more official chain linked posts. What is really weird is that Beirut is a very crowded city, where parking spots are in high demand and where tempers flare easily, yet everyone accepts and respects the code of the chair in the street.
A Second unique feature of Beirut is large portions of a block with no parking allowed at all. This is usually an indicator that some important public official lives in the building and these precautions are taken to prevent any strange vehicles from getting too close. The amount of no parking space correlates directly with the importance of said official or his/hers prominence in the political circles. This can therefore escalate to the point that the entire street is blocked to regular traffic and even, in the case of Hariri and Berri, several cities blocks become off-limits and traffic becomes even more ensnared that normal. What a way to serve your constituents and put yourself at their service.
A Third aspect that takes some getting used to I will call Bi-Monetarism. This refers to the fact that all Lebanese who handle money must be fluent in converting dollars into Lebanese Liras (LL) and back. The official rule specifies that all transactions must be done in LL, where 1 $ = 1,500 LL. However, most visitors don’t bother exchanging their Dollars to LL and prefer to pay directly with Dollars instead. The Lebanese have adapted to this reality and will now provide a bill with the amount figured in both currencies. The part that is amazing is that everyone will figure out very quickly the best combination to pay the bill and the best combination to make change. I on the other hand must look at my change for a minute to make sure everything is right. This includes parking attendants who, without the use of a calculator, will know that the correct change for a $20 on a 3,000 LL fee is $10 plus 12,000 LL.
Speaking of parking, due to security reasons, all cars entering public facilities are inspected. The inspection team usually consists of two young men. One uses a mirror to look at the undercarriage of the vehicle and checks the trunk. The second man has a “wand” that he must hold in a very specific manner while he walks next to the car. Not sure how this thing works, but its supposed to be very reliable and it costs thousands of dollars. It appears to be an electromagnet of some sort. Its made of two dissimilar metals, one used for the handle, the second used for the antenna. If it detects something, the antenna will rotate horizontally towards the car. That’s when the questions begin. Apparently this thing is so sensitive, it detects perfume (don’t ask me how or why). So the ladies in the car will be quizzed about what they have in the hand bags and the suspect hand bag will be removed from the car while the "wanding" is repeated. This routine causes back-ups entering the parking lots and creates congestion in the surrounding streets. Fortunately, or unfortunately, this ritual is accepted by all as a small price to pay for everyone’s safety and security and everyone abides by it without complaining. Makes for an interesting and memorable vacation spot.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Winners and Losers

In typical Lebanese fashion, both sides are claiming victory after the local elections in Maten. The actual seat went to the opposition, under the leadership of Aoun, who now claims that the people have spoken. The ruling party, represented by Jemayel, was quick to point out two things: one, the votes that gave the opposition the upper hand came from areas know for falsifying poling results and two, the majority of Maronites voted for them, not the opposition. So Jemayel is now claiming a political victory as the new representative of the Maronites. This is a key point because of its significance in the upcoming Presidential elections. Both sides now claim that they are the legitimate heir to the presidency. Both blame each other for the deep division in the Christian ranks to led to these results. So in my view, neither can claim to be of Presidential material, since that post should act first and foremost as an arbitrator and excel at bringing different people and opposing factions closer together. Furthermore, neither side really has the final say on who the new President will be. That decision lies outside of the Lebanese borders and circles of influence. That picture is still out of focus and will continue to cause heartache and lost opportunities for the Lebanese people. In the meantime, Jemayel has officially contested the results of the elections and the parliament is still closed.

Sunday, August 05, 2007

The emotional return

Maybe I should change the name of this blog to Stuck ON Beirut. I have no other way to explain how happy I am to be back home. The touchdown at the airport a couple of days ago was a mini triumph on several fronts. Personally, it meant that I was able to see family again and to take care of unfinished business from last year. Regionally, it meant that Lebanon found a way yet again to overcome adversity and regain a sense of normalcy. Internationally, it meant that a new chapter was underway, with several authors vying to write the ending that suits them more than their enemies.
As always, I had to remind myself to start adapting to "Beirut Rules" as soon as we landed. The first thing was watching almost all the people around me switch the SIM cards in their cell phone. This allowed them to start making calls to let everyone know they were back. The second thing was getting used to the positive energy in the street and on TV, anticipating the upcoming elections and the definite, assured, positive knowledge that their side will win. Those elections are going on right now, and things are quiet and running smoothly as far as I can tell.
The third Beirut rule is getting readjusted to traffic laws (which don't exist by Western standards) and getting from one place to another in the narrow streets and alleys which don't provide much room for maneuvering.
Many Lebanese who initially cancelled their trips to Lebanon have decided to come after all. I still can't explain it. The economy is down, the politics suck, the security situation is tense and the whole thing could fall apart any minute, yet Lebanon still has so much potential and so much promise, that The Lebanese are not willing to give up on it. That's why they stay, that's why they always talk of coming back and that's why they choose to spend their vacations here.
I wish our politicians would realize this and leverage it to improve things for everyone one rather than take advantage of it to advance their own meager political and power-grabbing agendas.