Last night I was coming home from Hamra and passed through the Bshara Khoury intersection. What I saw was very disturbing. A police car was smashed up so badly, and not from a car accident. The proliferation of soldiers and police throughout the intersection was jarring to say the least and the smoke from burning tires was dissipating. What was more disturbing was past the intersection and before there was no such signs of violence or dissent.  Chatting with the service driver I found out it was a very strong objection by the people to the continued, arbitrary and chaotic electricity cuts in the city of Beirut.

I’ve been in Beirut on and off for 9 months now and one thing that has been constant was the electricity rationing. In central Beirut we are lucky we only get one cut a day and it last 3 hours. There is a schedule, a cycle you can chart and follow. But what has been happening in the summer and due to the excessive heat additional rationing has been introduced; only it has no rhyme or reason. But, even with this erratic additional cutting we are still privileged. If you are not living in central Beirut this means you have electricity for four hours at a time and then it is cut for four hours and back again for four and off again.  GO farther afield and you get less and less electricity with longer periods of cuts that can go up to 12 hours.

Tourists don’t really have to deal with any of this, they may not even notice it, but for the people living here it can be a nightmare. You can’t store anything in a fridge. You can’t turn on a fan let alone an A/C, you sometimes have to deal with total darkness, electrical appliances sometime just frizz out and die, if you live or work in a tall building you are screwed. I am sure you can think of further horrors related to being without electricity.

A lot of people have found solutions around the electricity cuts, but not everyone can afford them and so, even though I was disturbed I was not surprised by the public display of anger. What did happen though, was that in my mind I thought of the water rationing and the shortages in Jordan and how if you don’t consume carefully your water ration will run out and you won’t be able to go to the bathroom, brush your teeth, bathe or more importantly drink and eat. Yet, Jordanians don’t go out and demand more water, burn tires and make very visible their dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. And I wonder why is that?

We keep saying the next war in the region will be over water, yet we wait patiently for it. I wonder if it is because we are all aware that this resource is not “generated” but rather dependent on forces of nature (over simplification and totally ignoring water treaties here). Is it because even in the winter we are constantly told how much water we have in our dams, what our consumption is and we are all collectively responsible for the water (just think of all the complaints the water company gets if there is a burst pipe in a street)? Or is it because we take it lying down and are not used to vocalizing our displeasures in such visible and violent ways because a- we aren’t used to it, b- we are afraid of the consequences.

I don’t really have any answers here and it might be I am comparing apples to oranges. But the question in my mind is would I rather have water or electricity rationed and cut? I don’t know. I do many things that I normally wouldn’t when there is no electricity, but I don’t know how long I can handle it in this unbearable humid heat. I’ve also have learned to conserve water, take bucket showers and value water like the scarce commodity it is, but I like flushing toilets and running facets. So where do draw the line on tolerable and intolerable things we can live with and without?

A friend of mine scaled Everst and when he returned he brought me a small package. It was a very colorful roll that when unraveled a string of beautiful colorful flags with prayers surrounding Buddha was on each one. He told me they were pray flags that need to be hung in the wind so that they may send out prayers on your behalf to the world. They ward off evil, bring luck and protect. I hung them immediately and for over two years no one questioned their presence only their purpose!

Knowing I was going to move to Lebanon and into new territories I asked a friend who was visiting Tibet to bring some home for my new life. I thought I needed all the help I can get as well as some reminder of home. And so after I arrived I unraveled my new set and put them out. How quick were my Lebanese friends to make fun and joke away at the colorful flags making remarks that I found not only hurtful but very rude and intolerant as well. The flags stayed.

Earlier this week I moved to a new apartment and only last night did I hang my flags, happy to see them flutter in the wind for me. It is part of what makes my home a home. And so I went to sleep just that bit more content with my symbolic and simple nestling. But after coming home from work today I was confronted by the doorman making these statements “the other tenants want you to remove the flags immediately” “what are they anyway?” And the most upsetting remark of them all “that there is no need for them” said in a very dismissive tone. The reason given for the removal of the flags was the outside of the building is “ours” not “yours” and so it has to remain uniform. And mind you this Urban, concrete jungle is not so pretty so I really don’t understand this obsessive need for concrete uniformity!

The whole issue in the grand scheme of things is trivial, but is significant of much larger things at play to name a few xenophobia, conformism, and that simply it is very difficult for the Lebanese to celebrate what isn’t them or even their idea of them.

I have been here for a bit over four months and I feel Lebanon is a hostile unwelcoming place. It is about circles of exclusivity. I have been trying very hard to turn those ideas around and become positive about this experience. Some days I am successful and other days I fail, sometimes even miserably. There have been people around me who are supportive and welcoming and inclusive and to them I send out a big heartfelt thank you. Slowly I am finding these people, but it is a struggle which I will explain another time. For now I have to try and find a way to make these flags flutter in the wind for me where there is no wind.

This past Eid holiday I decided very impulsively to go to Beirut. Everyone knows that Beirut is the playground of the Middle East, or should I say the night club of the Middle East? I have made numerous trips in which to partake in the bustling night life of a city that truly doesn’t sleep. But this time it was different, very different.

 

This time it was a trip into the mountains, a trip to the sea, north, south and east we went. Meeting friends and their families, I got to see Lebanon from a whole other perspective. In Alay I played with statues and sculptures, constructed and created there during sculpting symposiums since 2000. It was a lot of fun walking around them, touching them, sitting on them, contemplating them, and of course photographing them. Ending the day looking at the sun set over the Mediterranean from an old family home.

 

In the south we walked through old costal cities with citadels and old towns still in use with people living among ruins or in old ancient homes. Walkways, arches, and old stones spoke of a rich history that needs to be visited and explored again and again. And in between Saidah and Sour we detoured to a stream that was nestled near a hill. It was so inviting that I waded in and just stood there in clear refreshing water. We also went further south to land that was occupied and now free, we went to Qana and visited the sites of massacres (I will write later about this experience).

 

And after visiting the south, we went north the next day. Up into the hills where we hiked down stairs that snaked down the side of a mountain. We stopped numerous times to look down at the beautiful Mediterranean cost, shimmering below us. At the bottom of the stairs lay a small monastery in honor of The Virgin that appeared in light to two wandering souls. The men lived there where they saw her and worshipped in a cave.  The view was phenomenal and all we could think of was driving down and diving into the sea; and so we followed the road down to where it met the coast and though we couldn’t dive in we swam in clear deep waters.

 

It was a short trip and what time we spent in Beirut was spent by the sea or walking on foot. The city is a concrete jungle of many identities. It is a beautiful old lady. The obsession of the Lebanese with cosmetic surgery extends to their capital. The city is tired and old but it has been reconstructed, botoxed and made up in places, while others were being prepped for surgery; but throughout it all you can find pockets of authenticity and original beauty, still untouched. Beirut is a testament to its history even though there are no historical places to visit. You can find the beautiful old facades of colonial times and you can find the bombed out craters of a time past, new plazas and modern buildings are dispersed throughout the city, alongside preservation efforts. Beirut is a place you walk through aimlessly rather than with purpose.

 

Aimlessly, I went to Lebanon and I had a marvelous time. Lebanon and not just Beirut is a playground with something to offer every traveler. Next time you are in Lebanon try to go away from the shops, restaurants, bars and clubs and enjoy the country. Walk through its varied places. Enjoy it as it can be a very relaxing place with out all the night stimuli.