My dad is like Johnny Walker; 102 years old and still going. He’s in Beirut, and while I’m at work, he strolls through town with his walker. Not an easy task, he says, because there are the holes in the pavement, the cars are parked on the sidewalks, there’s lamp posts, electricity poles, traffic signs and what-not blocking his path and a curb every 10 meters, so he’s got to lift that walker up and down, up and down and up and down. And I live on a hill. But he keeps on walking.
|Just like Johnny Walker He's a 102 years old|
Last Saturday we decided to go for a stroll along the Corniche. From the Bain Militaire (Or Hamam el Askareh) to McDonalds, and back again, exactly 5 kilometers, is a nice smooth walk. On one side the jagged edges of the city’s high-rise, on the other side the flat and calming waters of the Mediterranean Sea; the contrast couldn’t be starker. I basically live ánd work on the Corniche, but it is odd, I rarely walk there. Yet the Corniche is fantastic entertainment. It is a cross-section of Lebanese society in a way; as you stroll along this long and narrow stretch of beach boulevard, you encounter the contrasts, the cultural quirks, and the gentle and human side of this society.
The really early ‘walkers’ start already at 4 AM, right after the morning prayer, because that is when Beirut is at its best: cool, empty and quiet. We’re a little lazier so we did an afternoon walk. The first thing we encountered was a half-naked man.
It's not that warm, according to the man on the left near the railing
Yes, the bare-breasted/bear chested men are a typical Corniche phenomenon, and they come out as soon as the sun shines, like crocuses. I am rather amused by these men who are so openly working on their tan line, while totally comfortable with bodies that are often less than perfect. They slather themselves in baby oil from top to toe, roll up their running shorts all the way into their crotch, making them look like puffy speedos, and march up and down, from the Bain Militaire to the McDonalds and back again.
This young skinny kid is learning the art of ‘marching for a tan’
It surprises me that no one is offended by this open display of flesh, because although we’re on the sea side, we’re not at the beach, and this is a society where it is often all about covering up. The Dutch seems to have the reputation that everything goes, but Holland is actually a society where quite a few things are deemed ‘improper’. Where the Lebanese frown upon pre-marital sex and immodesty, the Dutch condemn the flaunting of fortune, the boasting of accomplishments and open vanity.
If you get a nose job in Holland, you disappear from the face of the Earth until the scars are gone, and then, if anyone notices, you claim you needed a sinus correction for medical reasons. Here, the surgical nose plasters are so common that you sometimes wonder if they actually had an operation, or just pretend to look cool. And so these semi naked men, so concerned with their tan, always mesmerize me.
The next thing you see are the bikers. There is quite a bit of recreational biking in town these days, but traffic is mortally dangerous for two-wheelers, as no one uses signal lights, drivers and passengers alike open car doors without checking if someone is passing by, or make sudden right turns. The Corniche is the only ‘safe’ place in my part of town.
|Comparing mode of transportation; bike versus walker (actually, we ran into a family member J )|
Coming from a culture where children bike by the time they are 3 of 4 years old, it is cute to see grown ups - confident as anything - on tricycles, on bikes that are 5 sizes too small or in full athletic gear with helmets while going at 5 km an hour. But it is all good. They are all having a good time, riding along the Mediterranean. The ‘Beirut By Bike’ rental bikes are all over the place.
|A very manly man, muscles and a tattoo, quite comfortable that he’s riding a yellow girl bike. That, or he does not know it is a girl bike|
And since everyone is out on the Corniche, you are bound to run into people you know. Sometimes you just slap a high five as you cross one another, walking in opposite directions. Sometimes it merits a stop, and as you talk, you block the middle of the boulevard and now everyone has to navigate around you. Doesn’t matter, nobody gets annoyed.
There’s lots to see, and not just on the boulevard. Part of the life takes place ‘under it’. There’s the AUB beach, which - although the official beach for the American university - sports an unusual amount of men that do not seem to be students, unless they are taking their time with the course work. These are also engaged in some serious sun tanning, lively conversation or very intensive paddle ball competitions. Paddle ball is a sport I did not know even existed, until I came to Lebanon. It’s like tennis, at least the ball gets smashed as hard as in tennis, but the rackets are little wooden paddles.
Then there are the dog owners. Not a pet society by tradition, and so if you have a dog, you got to walk it here. The poor huskies and woolly German shepherds, on super short leashes, and in the blazing heat, walk next to their owners as everyone gives them wide berth. There is a fear for dogs among many. Big dogs that is, because the little ones get patted and picked up by everyone. One of my little dogs is a nasty one, a nipper, and I’ve stopped walking that one in public, because every time someone wanted to pet him, I envisioned scenarios where I had to drive to poor guy to the hospital with an index finger dangling by a threat
While strolling, you notice the sharp contrasts in dress, from the revealing to the covered from head to toe, but regardless the garb, they all there to exercise, or stroll to see the sea, or escape the house. You have the ‘sweater’s, those that walk in tight plasticized suits, in the hope, I assume, to lose the excess weight through profuse sweating. Granted, you do lose quite a bit of weight that way, but it’s never a long lasting affair.
Since the influx of Syrians into the country, you obviously see them strolling on the Corniche as well. They are – in general – dressed a little more conservative than the Lebanese, and love taking pictures of each other in front of the sea. Or with the dog. Or next to a bike. In front of the rose peddlers, or the balloon salesman. They just love taking pictures.
And while some flaunt full skin, others prefer to walk around as if they are about to join a sailing competition. It’s their understanding that it isn’t summer until summer starts on June 21. And so until that time, they wear something warm.
You see tourist from both sides of the realm, the Westerners, white as milk, not used to sun so early in the season, and the Arabs, some fully clad in chador, and sometimes with face coverings as well. The war in Syria has pulled in quite few young westerners, all working for NGO’s that deal with Syrian refugees. I always have to smile when I see them. Dressing up in Europe and the US is obviously a different affair than dressing up in Lebanon. When people here just go out for ‘a drink’, they’re often dressed better and more formal than how most westerners would show up at the wedding of a friend. What is most striking are the shoes. And I know this from myself; in Holland you wear shoes until they fall apart. And nobody is more notorious for not polishing their shoes ever than the Dutch. Not here. There are shoe shine boys all over town, so there is obviously a market. And shoes that look slightly worn, or scratched, or a little old, get discarded.
|A father dragging his toddler; both were very happy doing what they were doing|
This eye for details is lost on the westerners, especially the young ones. They often wear clothes that we as Lebanese slightly frown upon; a T-shirt with a frayed neck line, a pair of shorts that have been washed so often that you cannot determine the color anymore, un-ironed shirts, jackets with stains or shapeless dresses. And of course the shoes. But in this xenophile society, anything coming from abroad is forgiven for their ignorant approach to style. Well, depending from what part of the world they come.
Here is an elderly gentleman, walking, with what I assume to be his housekeeper, but I may be totally wrong, conditioned as I am by the expectations of society, which assumes that if you’re colored, you must be a maid. It is just that mixed racial marriages are – unfortunately – quite unusual in Lebanon. The Lebanese are not THAT xenophile. I once had a housekeeper from the Philippines, who married a Lebanese man, and she complained that every time she’d show up with him at his friends’ house, they’d assume she’d be doing all the cleaning and the dishes, seeing that she was a maid. It drove her wild.
I find it very endearing though, this lady and gentleman, walking so patiently side by side, assisting one another in life.
A bit further ahead are the fishermen. Most of them are hobby fishers; they go after the little fish with the spiny dorsal fish. There’s a reason of course why all these fish gather in this specific place; the city’s waste water exits here into the Mediterranean. The water is warm and obviously rife with all kinds of ‘edible’ items, and although it’s not exactly the sewer, it is still not quite the fish I’d like to eat. But these guys sit here all day, while the people look and see what they are doing.
And while you walk, you see the same people several times, because it is only 2,500 meters, and so everyone walks up and down. Well, there’s much more to see. The daddies with newborn babies, swathed in blankets, as they proudly parade their child along, showing it off. The skaters, the argileh smokers, the men in groups of three (somehow a magic number), the couples - oddly out of shape - in matching Adidas straining suits and shoes, the girls eye balling the guys sitting on the railing and the guys eye-balling the girls walking by.
|Always in sets of three (the magic number)|
|Even the police bikes here|
And so if you’re not busy, and need some diversion, go for a stroll on the Corniche. If you like it busy, go for Saturday and Sunday late afternoons.