ROSE AND ZAATAR

A TASTE OF A LIFE IN LEBANON

Month: June, 2014

A week in Beirut: Wednesday

There is still water today, although there isn’t enough for the washing machine, according to our cleaner (the one from the Philippines who predicts the weather, not the Palestinian one who loves plants– and who from today is officially our ‘gardener’ instead of our cleaner).

I want to ask the concierge family downstairs, but I’m afraid I might confuse matters as I also need to talk to them about a delivery of drinking water for our new cooler, which is due to arrive but hasn’t. There’s only so much you can do with the words (ma) fi  (there is/isn’t) and mai (water).

Luckily our ever helpful third floor neighbour is on hand for translation, although before doing so he gently reprimands the concierge’s wife, telling her she needs to learn English.

No I need to learn Arabic! I say

I’ll teach you he replies

Then before I have a chance to respond  I drink black tea

For a second I think this is my first lesson and he wants me to translate the sentence, which I start frantically trying to do in my head.

But then, seeing my confusion, he repeats I drink black tea. Invite me to drink black tea at your house and I’ll teach you Arabic.

 I smile all the way back up in the lift wondering what the first lesson would really be, and whether we would have water for tea.

 

 

 

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A week in Beirut: Tuesday

We woke up to two surprises.

First, an early text message about a midnight suicide bomb in Beirut. It hadn’t woken us in the night, and our whispered conversations about it in the morning didn’t wake our daughter, who for once slept beyond seven thirty, but the news caught me off guard, somehow the fact I slept through it made me feel extra unprepared.

The second surprise of the day was that we actually had water running from the taps, despite being told the night before by the concierge’s wife that we were about to run out: bukra, ma fi mai – tomorrow there’s no water. We had spent the evening washing up with extreme care and caution, taking super-fast showers and conscientiously filling every container we could find (a red bucket, a blue water bottle, a patterned plastic bowl). We were over prepared for an emergency that never arrived.

But that’s how it is here I suppose, you need to be ready for anything and nothing.

 

 

 

A week in Beirut: Monday

Some years ago, when we lived in a converted chapel in a little English village, I wrote this:

When I got home after work I found the first fat bee struggling in the middle of the living room floor. I know there will be more, like there were this time last year. Or perhaps it is just the same determined bee, coming back again and again to be rescued.

Before even closing the front door I got the dustpan and brush and swept up the relentless bee, heavy with sleep and spring, and threw him out into the sunshine, where he landed on his feet.

On Monday evening in Beirut, it was a bird not a bee that needed rescuing, a little rust coloured pigeon stuck in our kitchen. I wish I could have scooped him up with a dustpan and brush, but he wasn’t sleepy like the bee, and his wings, and my heart, were too quick with fear.

In the end we called the concierge’s brother-in-law (replacing him while he visits Syria), who came to the rescue, albeit slightly bewildered by the foreigners afraid of birds. When he picked up the pigeon in both hands, he held it out to us, eyebrows up as if to ask Do you want to keep it? Or cook it? eyeing the pot of boiling water waiting (and waiting for the pasta) on the stove.

He couldn’t quite believe that we just wanted him to set it free. What a waste of a bird! he seemed to say with his shrug as he threw it out of the window into the sunshine, where it landed, lightly, on its wings.

A week in Beirut: Sunday

A bright-eyed Lebanese friend came for lunch, wearing sunglasses and bearing gifts of cherries and stories to share. Among other things, I learnt that:

-If you have blue eyes (like he does and I do) and live in hot countries (like this one) it’s very important that you wear sunglasses all the time you are outside to prevent damage from the sun.  He said it was (more than 70 years) too late for him, but not for me.

-If your cherry tree isn’t bearing fruit (like his isn’t) you can cure it  by planting  ‘pills that prevent pregnancy’ around its base in the winter and then, according to his car mechanic (and a surprising number of other people in Lebanon) it will produce abundant cherries the following summer. He said he was too embarrassed to buy the pills, but I promised to do it for him if we’re still here in winter.

And last, but not at all least

-If you are Lebanese, you have a ‘war story’, whether you were living next door or on the other side of the world from it. A story that can make you turn your face away, like when you try to look directly at the sun, light years away but still unbearable.

 

Oh Lebanon, how I wish there was a cure as quick as planting pills, for the horror in the hearts of your people.

And how I wish that it was as simple as wearing sunglasses to prevent it from ever happening again.

 

A week in Beirut

This week I didn’t post anything, but every day I had something I wanted to say, something to share- a story, an image, a recipe, an article- something which seemed to explain ‘life in Beirut’ as we know it, in all its warmth and sadness and heart (break).

So over the weekend I will try and catch up on what I missed, one post for each day from Sunday to Friday. Hopefully I’ll be done by Monday and ready for another ride on the big wheel of Beirut.

The long and the short of it

Last night you slept for 9 hours uninterrupted, one of the longest stretches you have ever done, ironically on the shortest night of the year.

I think it was a gift for your papa (whose name you called loudly when you woke at 5.30am with the sunrise), your own sweet way of saying ‘Happy Fathers Day!’

Patisserie door to patisserie door

In the words of Now Lebanon, a local news website, ‘Friday’s suicide bombing marks an end to a 12-week lull in such attacks in Lebanon’. 

I had been well and truly lulled, as just yesterday I was considering that it might be OK to go back to the Bekaa Valley (where the bomb was) when my mum visits in July. As I’ve said before, living here for a while, you let yourself be lulled, but at the same time you know it won’t last. You let yourself be rocked to sleep by the rolls of thunder and fireworks in the distance, because you can’t keep your eyes open any longer, but you know you will wake up, sooner or later.

This time we were woken, on a sunny June afternoon, by the alarm bells of text messages telling of an explosion outside Beirut on  the Damascus Highway, and raids and roadblocks closer to home (in the very next neighbourhood to ours). At the time, we were on the other side of town, sharing an almost midsummer’s day with lovely mama friends,  story-swapping, cherry-popping, paddling pool splashing. My friend whose house we were at thanked us for coming and said she ‘felt at home‘, which may seem a strange thing for a host to say, but somehow in Beirut it makes sense.

My own sense of feeling at home came a few hours later, when I needed to take a taxi back across town.At this point the text messages were still coming but they were more like traffic updates than news headlines, warning of nightmarish  jams and the city at a standstill. We called a local taxi company because my friend assured me they knew where her building was (near a patisserie) which is half the battle in Beirut, but it turned out it was the other half of the battle that mattered, as when I told them where I wanted to go (near another patisserie) they said ‘no taxi‘ and could give me no explanation.  I started to feel a bit nervous, wandering how I would get home, imagining myself walking all the way as no one would drive me ‘to the other side of town’! But then I called ‘my’ taxi company who I use when my taxi driver friend is unavailable, like today. Miraculously they knew where I was (seems the patisserie is more famous than I thought!) and even better they knew exactly where I wanted to go:

Taxi: And where are you going?

Me: Ain Mreisseh

Taxi: You want to go home

Me: Yes!!! ( I could have hugged him through the phone!)

It turned out that I didn’t even have to tell the driver about my own landmark patisserie as when we approached my street, he already knew the name of my building! What may have seemed slightly disturbing (‘I know where you live….’) on another day, in another city, today in Beirut was infinitely comforting and made me feel so at home.

A morning at the park, Beirut style

Today we made our second visit to Sanayeh Gardens, one of Beirut’s oldest and only green spaces, recently reopened to the public.

Sanayeh Gardens

In the background you can just make out a mosque minaret and a construction crane- so you know we’re in Beirut- in case you were temporarily confused by the fact  we’re in a park!

Today, at 9.30am, it was still relatively quiet and we had some of the play equipment to ourselves, but our first visit on Sunday afternoon was a different story. The three play areas were literally swarming with children, little bees buzzing around honey pots hungry for more, while every inch of shaded grass was spread with families or sprawling teenagers and the benches under the trees were heavy with old men and their memories. It brought tears to my eyes, happy that finally there is a park, which doesn’t involve cars, and sad because it isn’t enough, for the city, or even for the neighbourhood.

 

Picnic on the grass

A picnic on the grass- not the blanket!

This morning, after playing for a bit, we went to have a fig and apricot picnic under a tree (the benches were already busy with pensioners). I had just spread out a blanket and was trying to convince my daughter to sit on it instead of the grass, which she much preferred, when one of the many security guards patrolling the park came over to gently reprimand us, explaining with gestures and a few words of Arabic/French/English that we couldn’t use the blanket. I wanted to know why, wondering what security risk could possible be posed by my flowery towel/sarong (thinking back to previous incidents with flowery backpacks). The answer he gave, that the grass is good (nice, not dirty), made me laugh and realise that, as so often happens, my little flower fairy had been right all along.

And maybe they both knew something I didn’t, as a few minutes later I spotted this 5000LL note a few metres away under a tree- definitely good grass!

Found on the grass under the trees

Maybe money does grow on trees after all!

 

The security guard incident got me thinking about park rules and on our way home I checked them out, expecting something along the lines of:

No litter, no dogs, no smoking, no picnics (with blankets!)

Sanayeh Gardens Code of Conduct

Please use bins to litter

 

 

but I must of momentarily forgotten we were in Beirut as number one (click here for a legible photo!) was:

No firearms

closely followed by

No fireworks

and littering was the last on the list, apparently allowed, but please use bins to do it!

Home (another one)

We’ve just come back from two weeks away.

I started this post the afternoon before leaving but never got a chance to finish it.

Back then I was wondering what it would feel like to wake up to this view

  DSCN1163

and what it would feel like, for the very first time in my life, to sleep in a house that I actually own.

Now I know.

It feels like the end of one story and the beginning of another.

It feels ordinary and extraordinary and just right.

It feels like home.