“Will I ever be Lebanese or Beiruti?” This is one of the questions that Nasri Atallah ponders in his book “Our Man in Beirut.”
The London-born Atallah moved to Beirut after 22 years in London. Though he lived in Beirut for five years as a teenager, he decided to return to his parents’ country in 2009. He “left his native London,” he writes, “... more or less on a whim.”
Lebanon is renowned for its several expatriate communities in the Americas, West Africa and Australia, as well as in the Gulf states. It is not uncommon for Lebanese expatriates to decide to “return” to Lebanon. Yet even the simplest practices can be a little bewildering if you haven’t been immersed in local culture since birth.
“Our Man in Beirut” began life as a blog Atallah created in 2009, inspired by his experience of being stuck in a traffic jam on the Mkalles roundabout. He was amazed by the apparent rage of his fellow motorists, leaning relentlessly on their horns, that when he got back home he decided to blog his observations on Lebanese cultural practices.
Every day or so, his jotting mixed his anecdotes from Lebanese culture with his sarcastic British sense of humor. He chose the title “Our Man in Beirut,” he writes in the book’s introduction, as a reference to television news’ foreign correspondents. “And now,” as the anchor is oft heard to say, “it’s over to our man in Sarajevo.”
Evidently, it was the quickly swelling popularity of Atallah’s blog that attracted the attention of Turning Point, the publisher of this book, which was released a few weeks ago – its text is interspersed with random pictures of Beirut taken by the author himself. For foreigner readers, there is also a glossary of the local terms to which he refers.
For 150 pages or so, Atallah shares his perceptions of Lebanese group behavior. From driving to clubbing, to the country’s notorious “scheduled blackouts,” from the pandemonium of the airport’s arrivals area to the Lebanese obsession with the scalpel of cosmetic surgery, Atallah’s representation of Beirut and its residents is, alas, verifiably accurate.
Lebanese society is notoriously divided against itself, with different observers tending to focus on class disparities or else sectarian or regional disparities. For Atallah, though, the principal division in Lebanon lies in the dichotomy between those who have lived abroad and those who haven’t.
“I want to be part of the generation that comes back and makes the difference,” he writes.
Atallah immediately steers his readers into the daily lives of his countrymen. When driving an automobile, for instance, you shouldn’t put both hands on the steering wheel and “the driver’s seat must be in an uncomfortable and impractically reclined position at all times.”
Whether you are at the cinema, in restaurants or nightclubs, what matters most is to be seen. Most importantly, it is important to be noticed in the most-trendy clothing, the most expensive car and clutching the newest line of mobile device – since “ownership of a mobile phone released more than two months ago is a big no-no.”
All this should be spiced up with a mastery of the language that Atallah calls “Frenglishabic” – an admixture of the three languages that Beirutis are likely to draw upon when composing an average sentence in a mobile telephone conversation.
Whatever you do, you can be certain that the intimate details of your life will be quickly disseminated around your neighborhood. Atallah depicts how, after going to the pharmacy, he received a phone call from his aunt calling to make sure he was feeling okay. The city’s residents enjoy little privacy, he notes, which has made “Beirut is a village” a common lament among Beirutis.
It seems paradoxical that, in a country where there is so much interest in technology, “some things,” as he writes, “never change.”
Take the power cuts, for example, which make some Lebanese think that without televisions, computers and phones, their lives have no sense.
Atallah may have found the solution: A sign warning that, “The 21st century will be suspended between the hours of 11 a.m.-2 p.m. and again between 10 p.m.-midnight ... Enjoy the dark ages.”
An entire chapter of the book is devoted to Lebanon’s “love affair with the scalpel and Botox.”
It is an accepted part of local culture that Lebanon is the No. 1 country in the world for plastic surgery. Lebanese women can get a “bank loan to get a boob job,” Atallah writes. “What a source of pride.”
He describes the obsession some Lebanese have with cosmetic surgery and how Lebanese women “insist on looking like some form of transvestite hybrid of Haifa Wehbe and Michael Jackson.” We are living, he observes, in “a nation of proud bimbos.”
The “Zouzou” is another important part of Atallah’s Beirut. His book includes an “Ode to the Zouzou,” a man obsessed with “pimping their ride” (or, in an earlier dialect, “souping-up” their cars). He tends to set his car stereo to maximum volume – which gets the car windows trembling – and over-indulges in hair-care products, which grease the hair from the roots to the ponytail. “O Zouzou,” he writes, “how I love thee.”
Rendered as they are here, Atallah’s observations may seem condemnatory. In fact they come across as little more than amusing portraits of what all Beirut residents see on a daily basis.
He describes with great accuracy what is annoying in the Lebanese, but also what is appealing. “I love Beirut because it cares about you the same way you care about it,” he writes. “Always.”
Nasri Atallah’s book “Our Man in Beirut” is published by Turning Point Books and is available in all area book stores.