ROSE AND ZAATAR

A TASTE OF A LIFE IN LEBANON

Month: August, 2013

The plan, according to the baby.

Our little love has her own answer for the ‘What’s the plan?’ question.

At 10 months old she is obsessed with moving objects (books, remote controls, dirty laundry, wooden fish, plastic fish…) from one place to another and back again. This ‘work’ can sometimes last for 20 minutes at a time and shouldn’t be interrupted at any cost, especially not with the tickling of toes,  blowing of raspberries on the belly or any other tactic to make her laugh.

Maybe this is just a developmental phase, but I wonder if it is also her attempt to somehow order the disorder outside. And watching her deep concentration and the determination etched on her face I am comforted by her grand plan to put everything in its rightful place.

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The plan

What’s our plan? Do we have a plan B, rescue plan, emergency plan?

This week my friends here, of all nationalities, are asking their families, themselves, each other, these questions.

The answers involve houses in other places, flights to far away, ships waiting in the port. There is talk of keeping cash and cans of food at home and packing suitcases, just in case.

At home we have also had similar conversations, passing our thoughts back and forth across the table on the terrace, when it is dark outside and the baby is sleeping inside.

For now, the plan, the prayer, we make is to be in the right place at the right time; the place where we can make best use of our lives; where we can hang up our string of little lights, bright against the night.

What can we do? A weekend in Beirut.

On Saturday we went to the market, like we nearly always do. It was almost empty. In broken Arabic I managed to ask the man at my regular organic stall, who looks like a good-natured pirate, where and how his wife was. She is in the mountains and hamdillah (thanks to God) she is well. She will be back next month- Inshallah  (God willing).

It seems half of Lebanon is in the mountains, escaping August, its heat, its unpredictability.

On Sunday, like many other Beirutis (the half who are not in the mountains) we went to the beach. Not a beach with sand and castles and sea. A beach club, with salt water pools and sun loungers and skyscrapers. Image

We were joined by a British friend who’s lived in Beirut for a lot longer than us and speaks Arabic well. When we discussed the current situation she used an expression I hadn’t heard before Shu mnaamol?  ‘What can we do?’ Apparently it is often used by the Lebanese in the hopeless rather than the practical sense, a question left hanging in the air, not expecting an answer.

It seems that some people answer it by going to the beach, like they did during the civil war ceasefires. Last year, when I read about that in the book Bye Bye Babylon it seemed surreal. But slowly I’m beginning to understand that, like the mountains, it is just another form of escape.

Io sono Ambra e questo e’ un muro

Today I’ve started three posts about lunch and air conditioning and the concierge’s plates. But I haven’t finished one of them.

Today was an uncertain day. It started with a text message about an incident in a nearby neighbourhood, which turned out to be a false alarm, but it was a little too close for comfort- on the same page as us in the Zawarib map. 

And in the south and the north the alarms aren’t false.

And all I can think about is the green hill in Sardinia, where you can smell the trees and see the sea and hear the land take deep steady breaths. Where the house is, and where the little girl next door, 2 years old with dark chocolate eyes, stood by me in the front garden under the jasmine and said

Io sono Ambra e questo é un muro

I’m Amber and this is a wall.

She knew who she was and what was in front of her. And that was all that mattered.

Oh Lebanon. I wish you peace. I wish you calm. I wish you Amber’s certainty that everything will be alright.

Moon

We sit side by side on the bench at the table on our terrace

and watch the huge gold coin of full moon

rise majestically from behind the bombed out shell of the Holiday Inn Hotel.

 

I think how many other times I have seen the same moon,

under other skies,

between other buildings,

over other mountains.

Sometimes crooked. Sometimes upside down. But the always the same moon.

And to me the same slight image inside, two people dancing, holding out their hands to each other in delight. 

Cake and a candle

This morning the concierge’s eldest daughter knocked on the door unexpectedly with a plate of cake, three fat slices of sponge with a smooth ruby of jam in each. Just before she knocked I had been preparing a bag of no longer needed baby clothes and bottles for her littlest sister, born 2 months ago. I went to the door with bag in hand and so we made an unplanned exchange, which left me feeling sweeter and lighter.  It wasn’t so much the cake (which I couldn’t eat as I had an upset stomach) but the fact that the ‘thank you’ arrived together with the gift. A cause and an effect wrapped up in the same moment of generosity. It reminds me of the words of a wise Buddhist woman who says that most people consider a smile the result of happiness while it is in fact the cause for happiness.

Shortly after the cake episode, and still feeling smiley, I went to the bakery with the baby in my arms rather than her buggy. She was also very smiley, happy to be up on our eye level, and succeeded in charming the whole shop. When we left 5 minutes later I had a loaf of bread and the baby had a big pink lipstick kiss on her elbow from the shop assistant and a birthday cake candle in the shape of a number one from a customer. He had wanted to buy her a sticky skewer of donuts but when I said she was still too young he bought her the candle instead, determined not to leave her empty handed. 

Later I think about the cake and the candle we were given today and wonder whose birthday it is? 

Maybe it is a reminder that any day is as good as another to celebrate, to begin afresh, to start by smiling.

 

Music to your ears

The clank of metal from the construction site

The whisk beating eggs in the bowl

The water sloshing in its plastic bottle

They all make you smile, and lift your arms up, keeping time, as though you are conducting an invisible orchestra playing your very own city symphony.

 

Back in Beirut

On the day before I left Beirut, 6 weeks ago today, I couldn’t decide whether I was happy or sad to be leaving. It was a typically intense, love/hate day in the city:

Running last minute errands, three scooters in a row, try to pass me and the buggy, on an already narrow, potholed stretch of pavement.

HATE.

Buying a new watch from a little gem of a shop just off Bliss Street (when I finally get there), the owner, who had fixed my husband’s watch strap for free a few weeks before, says Mabrouk! Congratulations! for my new purchase.

LOVE.

Being told off by the woman at the reception desk of the hair salon for bringing the baby with me.

HATE.

Having my hair cut by a hairdresser who has a son almost the same age as my daughter, and understands why I don’t have a nanny, and why she’s much happier sitting on the floor at my feet playing with shampoo boxes than being strapped in the buggy with her real toys.

LOVE.

Do you like living in Beirut? I ask the other English woman at the hairdresser’s.

Yes and no she replies.

Exactly.

But at the end of the day (that day anyway), LOVE wins. And it is hard for me to leave Beirut.

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But it is even harder to come back.

On our first full day we try to settle back into the city:

We have manoushe for lunch, from our favourite place just down the street, where the zaatar is just how I like it, full of flavour but not too bitter, and the baby has her first taste of one of Lebanon’s national dishes.

We visit the watch shop (again) for a new battery, setting ourselves back on Beirut time.

We buy coffee for our caffetiera at home and have a drink at our favourite cafe Younes, where the fresh lemonade is perfect, with just the right amount of rose.

But despite these familiar things, Beirut still feels strange to me.

I know I will fall in love again, but I wonder how long it will take.