May 11, 2009

Why I Live in Beirut; or Random Acts of Kindness

This story has a point. (Although it may take a while before I get to it).

Every morning, I walk my daughter to school. I enjoy the early Beirut, and my daughter entertains me with interesting stories and millions of questions about life and other things during the half-hour walk to school.

I live in a neighborhood with lots of schools. There are two universities, two international schools and a large number of local Lebanese schools, all within walking distance. And so, every morning, when I walk with my daughter, I cross the path of many other children, and parents with children, also on their way to school.

This morning, my daughter had no school, and so I walked alone.

First I was stopped at the girls’ school around the block by a group of teenagers whom I did not know.
Wain el princessa, tante”? they asked (Where’s the princess, aunty?) , and I explained that she was at home because she had no school today. I continued my way.

Then, a few blocks later, I was stopped again by the husband of a colleague, out on his daily training run.
I see you’re missing some of the troops,” he said jokingly, and so I explained that my daughter had no school today. I continued my way.

And finally, a little further, I was stopped by a father (quite a handsome one because I secretly ogle him every morning) with a young boy and a girl, who I meet every morning walking in the opposite direction. We’ve never talked or even said hello.
Bintik mareed?” he asked (Is your daughter sick?). No, I replied, she just has no school today.

And I continued my way.

And I thought about a conversation a Dutch friend and I had some days ago about the changes in Dutch society. You may not have read it, but the senseless violence is on the rise in the otherwise so peaceful nation of Holland. People are getting beaten up for no reason on a daily basis, it seems. This conversation came up because we tried to understand the motifs of a man, who out of the blue sky, ran through a crowd of spectators in order to try and kill/harm the Dutch queen on Queens Day. Eight people died, the royal family in shock (and more popular than ever, it seems), celebrations cancelled, and a nation wondering why on earth a man would do something like that? What for? What was the point?

My friend contributed it to the growing harshness of Dutch society. I think it is our individualism. We hold our individualism very high. But in order to ensure that, we need to have lots of privacy. And to make sure you get your privacy, you need people not to mind your business. We in Holland are – in fact -trained so well not to mind anybody’s business that it has turned into carelessness, because we only care about our own business.

For instance, this gentleman (who attempted to harm the queen and killed 8 people, including himself while doing it) lived in a dormitory where he always ate on his own. He cooked in the communal kitchen, but then took his dish to his room and ate on his own. Can you imagine that in Lebanon? If you really want a quiet meal, do not show your face 3 hours before and 3 hours after dinner time. If you do however show up on someone’s doorsteps within that time period, chances are you are forced to sit down and made to eat. Together. With other people. There is no ‘alone time’ in this place.

Here in Lebanon people do not belief too much in privacy. I have had acquaintances, not family or friends, no, distant acquaintances ask me when I am planning on getting pregnant again, because “a woman of your age…”, tell me that they know an excellent Botox doctor for me because “it would really improve your looks,”, and whether I have contemplated lifting my neck line, because really, “you could be so pretty…”
A Dutch friend of mine once walked with her elderly (and rather wrinkled) mother past a pharmacy here in Beirut, when the owner came out of the story with a jar of anti-wrinkle cream. “Just what YOU need!” he said. You wouldn’t dare say that in Holland.

But because of the lack of privacy, there is not much room for individualism. And although I am sure this has its draw backs, it does have its advantages. We (in Lebanon) do not experience these random acts of violence. Like school shootings (US, Germany, Finland), men barging into day care centers slaughtering toddlers (Belgium), and sending people bomb letters. It never gets to that point because we stick our noses into everybody’s business, no matter how annoying this may be at times. And thus people are never left feeling alone. Abandoned. Because everybody cares, or at least give the impression that they care.

You’ll probably laugh by now. What? No violence in Lebanon? Yes, we do have our car bombs, and shootings. But they are organized by ‘powers high up’. By governments, or organizations, or movements. These are not random acts cooked up by a loner with the simple goal to make himself known before he steps out of this world. Our acts of violence have a political gain, are part of a political game. That doesn’t make it any less painful for the innocent people that succumb to the bombings. But at least we understand why.

These random acts of violence within the Dutch society are often without an explanation. And if there is an explanation, it is so trivial, so useless, so stupid.

Now what was my point, you wonder?

Lebanon is a society with an immense amount of troubles. Dutch problems probably pale in comparison. But what we do have in this place are the thousands Random Acts of Kindness you experience.
Like the strangers in the street, stopping me and asking me about my daughter. People here care.

And so this morning I was reminded again of why I live in Beirut.


Serpico said...

This is very true. Being a Lebanese living in Canada, I have realized this difference of attitude here too. i find that people in Canada are just disconnected from each other, and this affects the well being of a person.

Ji said...

very very nice post Miss *!

thank you for pointing out the difference between passive violence and active violence:
sometimes when i see two guys fighting over driving issues in beirut, so passionnate! using strong verbal language
(quite creative)
and beating each other up
i really wonder if it s not out of a love/hate relation :) so love there comparison to more western societies where people simply wouldnt care as if one doesnt exist :(
one can roam the streets of beirut at any given time and never be bothered (ok for 99.9% of time)

now if you allow me an attemp to explain the motif of the gentleman trying to harm the Queen, Allah ye7fazah, and her family,
wallahi it made them more popular than ever (you said it), how that for a motif?

thank you again for this refreshing post, one of the lots that you have generously given us

i particularly fancy reading you writing "us lebanese", great!

Ji, Lebanese(sometimes)

quiet creative said...

"where people simply wouldnt care as if one doesnt exist :("

"where people simply wouldnt care as if one doesnt exist : )"!?...

Oscar Grillo said...

Hiya, Hanna: "Lebanon is a society with an immense amount of troubles." I live in England and even if the violence is a little less noticeable, the ammount of accumulating problems is not to sniff at. We are here in collision course to social disaster. And don't even have good weather here!

Anonymous said...

A social disaster in England? Yeah... Maybe it is about time we send in these guys from the North, from Scotland, and give the English a good beating. A bit like the Israelis roughing up Lebanon. Now wouldn't that be a good idea?

Kheireddine said...

How true, Seitske.You know the Lebanese society very well! :) This place is heaven...for people who want to socialize. But sometimes, lack of privacy becomes oppressive because people stare and observe each others. And the family wants to organize your life all the time.
Serpico, Canadian society is starting getting on my nerves...after 18 years ;)

Kheireddine said...

Seitske, would you allow me to quote you on facebook, Cedar Memories group, for you lovely post? :)))

less quiet said...

"you? lovely post!"
that's a great one ; )

DaZeN said...

Being a lebanese who lived in beirut (from ages 0-10) then the states (10-21) and now in the nl (21-22.5), I have to agree with part of your assessment on the nl but not all. Granted I've only lived in Delft for a year and most of that has been spent being a slave to my dissertation committee, I have noticed that people do strive for individuality all the while working very hard to make sure they're exactly the same. What I mean by that is that dutch people (and this is just what I've seen so far) work very hard to make sure they don't come off as 'better' than or 'superior' to anyone else around them (not that it's really possible in this UNBELIEVABLY expensive place). So they end up valuing individuality so long as they self-maintain themselves to the class and standards all their social networks are in while being impressively tolerant of those who are not. IMHO (how lebanese to just force upon you my opinion, I know), I think both the balance of individualism and collectivism as well as the question of identity are responsible for the phenomenon you described in the nl. Having previously lived through two "identity-heavy" cultures, the deflection of defined identity in delft is giving me a serious case of culture shock (especially now that I'm visiting the rents in the states). I'm not going to even go near the cluster-f*ck of problems that is my homeland because frankly I think that's best assessed by observations such as your own. I'm sorry for the long rant, but your post was too interesting to pass up.
Big fan of the blog :)

Kheireddine said...

" less quiet" that was a typo, I meant "your lovely post" ;)

Raffi said...

Impressive, impressive impressive! Very well put into words!

Liliane said...

This post definitely put a smile on my face...