Week 1, the cultural shock
Je l’imaginais différemment, arabe et fiére de l’être. Je me suis trompé. Ce n’est qu’une ville indéterminable, plus proche de ses fantasmes que de son histoire, tricheuse et volage, décevante comme une farce.
I’ve landed in Beirut at sunset.
«Bienvenue au pays des contrastes»
Welcome to the land of contrasts, says my friend picking me up at the airport. Lebanese living in Paris, a few years younger than me, looking like someone that lived many more, he’s one of the chasers of the European dream.
He starts making plans for the week. There is so much here to see, and apparently I have to do it in one week, before he leaves the country to go back to la belle France.
Why are you doing all this? I ask. We don’t really know each other, we just have a friend in common. C’est l’adhiafa libanaise, the lebanese hospitality.
We pass through the southern area of the city. This is Hezbollah’s land, the shi’a area, he explains. But don’t worry, we will be soon in the area un peu plus classe. I don’t really understand the exact meaning of classe, but those decadent buildings, with bare wires and Arabic writing that I’m still not able to read properly, are very close to what I would define home.
Next Christmas ring a different bell, says a huge poster, promising new fancy apartments ready before the end of the month. Suddenly, the bare wires and old buildings make way to shiny skyscrapers, lights and Starbucks cafés.
In the blink of an eye, the old familiar world is gone and a new, arrogant, western-like Beirut stands out in front of me.
Tu parles arabe? Tahki arabi?
Chouai, a bit. My five-months stay in Jordan helped me to understand basic conversations, deal with taxi drivers and buy stuff in supermarkets.
Well, all this here is useless. Lebanese people like to feel unique. Everything they do, from sharing food to hanging the laundry out is done, in their opinion, à la libanaise. And, of course, they want to have their own language, their own way to communicate, a sort of secret code to understand who’s a real lebanese and who’s not.
«Shoukran, ma’ salama» I say to the guy at the phone shop.
He laughs. My friend smiles, embarrassed.
If you say shoukran, he explains, they understand you are not from here - in case blue eyes were not clear enough.
Here we say merci.
But not the french «mevci», it’s a «merci» à la libanaise, rolling the r.
Why? Just because they’re too lazy.
At dinner, we meet some people. All Lebanese, they introduce themselves with what I tought is was just one of the clichés of this culture: «Hi, kefeek, ça va?» Ça va, I guess. They all went to the two prestigious Lebanese universities that make the education system of the country something to be really proud of, the American University of Beirut and Université Saint Joseph. Then, they completed their studies in France. Some of them speak English, all the girls speak French.
They’re frenchies, says my friend. Girls who speak French at home and with their friends. They went to private Christian schools, where Arabic was not a major subject and everything was taught in French.
They speak Arabic, he confesses, but they started using it in France, so they could gossip about people without being understood.
Here’s my number, call me whenever you want, I speak a good English, says the taxi driver dropping me off, after I gave him directions in what I thought it was a good Arabic. During the ride, we listened to an Arabic radio station. You’re the first foreigner who asks for Arabic music, you know. Here we like people who want to learn our culture, but also those who don’t want.
We like everyone. Do you know some Arabic music?
I went to a Mashrou’ Leila concert when I was in Jordan, I confess proudly. But then again, when you think something may help you in this country, it probably doesn’t mean much to its people. Here in Lebanon there is another group as famous as them, said my friend once. But their songs are in English. Listening to them, you can’t really tell they’re Arabs, let alone Lebanese.
You have good music in your country, I don’t understand a word, but I like it. Ah, Italia! I have some Italian friends, benvenuto, come stai? goes on the taxi driver.
In this land of contrasts, carrefour of languages and cultures, I feel like I will always be a foreigner, but never actually feeling a stranger: in Lebanon, we are all home.