Moving to Lebanon
As a freshly minted university graduate, unsure what exactly to do with the rest of my life, moving to Beirut to ostensibly improve my Arabic and do some vague sounding imaginary job in some way connected to journalism and/or human rights charity work seemed as good a plan as any. Lebanon, once the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, has for the last 35 years been considered one of the Middle East’s most unstable countries. With its beautiful expanse of Mediterranean coastline and its lush green mountains providing hiking in the summer months and skiing in the winter, it has the potential to be a prime tourist destination. However it is landlocked by Israel and Syria which have directly contributed to Lebanon’s political problems, including the civil war which lasted from 1975 to 1990, and the subsequent skirmishes between Israel and Hezbollah. Somewhat ironically, since the so-called ‘Arab Spring’, which began with the revolts in Tunisia last December and is ongoing in a large part of the Middle East, Lebanon has become one of the more stable countries in the region. Consequently many of the foreign travellers to the Arabic speaking world, in particular students who might have previously chosen to study and travel in Syria, Egypt and Jordan, are now choosing Lebanon as a base, taking advantage of Beirut’s gradual regaining of its pre-war status as a cosmopolitan city combining the best of Middle Eastern and Western culture.
Arrival in Beirut
Arriving in Beirut on a Monday morning, sweating in the many layers of unseasonably warm clothes worn in an effort to outmanoeuvre the rigidly enforced luggage restrictions imposed by budget airlines, my boyfriend Everitte and I tried unsuccessfully to take a firm stand against the taxi mafia who pounced on us in the arrivals lounge. Our winter clothes and fur-lined boots made speed rather than price the focus of our choice, and settling on $20, less than the initial price of $30 but more than the going rate of $15 we gratefully climbed into a rusting old Mercedes. As we were driven through the morning smog towards the city centre, we marvelled at the transformation from the run-down outskirts to the industrial area around the Kola bus station, so named for its proximity to the old Coca-Cola factory, to the plush, spotless opulence of Downtown, completely rebuilt after the war.
We spent our first few nights in bohemian Gemazzeh, an expensive area known both for its art galleries and its nightclubs, where Saifi Urban Gardens is situated. The Saifi Institute provides classes in both Modern Standard Arabic, used in written materials and media broadcasts across the Middle East, and also, somewhat more unusually, in Lebanese colloquial Arabic, the language you need in order to actually speak to people in a social or business context. Alongside its Arabic classes the Saifi complex boasts a lovely cafe, sight of frequent poetry readings and live concerts, a set of simple but clean private rooms and dormitories, and a rooftop bar with amazing views over the city and out to sea.
Searching for a home
After dropping our bags in Gemazzeh and fortifying ourselves with some rocket-fuel cardamom coffee we set straight out for Hamra, the cosmopolitan, student friendly area of town close to the seaside corniche, and the home of both the world-famous American University of Beirut and the Lebanese American University. Although one of the more expensive areas of the city to live in Hamra seemed the perfect choice as a place to settle in, get to know the city and make some friends. Everitt, who works as an artist, creating figural desings out of Arabic calligraphy, was also keen to make some contacts and get involved in the Beirut art scene, and Hamra is one of the favourite hang-outs for artists, journalists and poets.
Having been told by several people, including the receptionist at Saifi, the airport taxi driver and multiple shop keepers, that it was ‘very, very difficult’ to find a flat in Beirut we were anticipating a challenge. In fact our intended stroll around Hamra to scope out the area turned into a gruelling 7 hour series of telephone conversations conducted in rusty Arabic and viewing after viewing of flats. While we were encouraged by the number of flats available, none of the flats we saw were anything like what we were looking for, ranging in cost from $800 to $1200 a month for one room, often a bedroom/sitting room/kitchen with a tiny bathroom in the corner, in varying states of disrepair. Having come from Edinburgh, one of the most expensive cities in the world when it comes to property, we were fairly amazed to find that the average one bed in Hamra costs more per month than we paid back in Scotland.
After seeing various properties, ranging from an absolutely beautiful fully furnished flat with two huge balconies and decorated with the most amazing bedspreads, carpets, wall hangings and paintings, which we fell in love with but couldn’t afford at $1200 a month, to a couple of tiny, cockroach infested dumps with no windows in the kitchen, which could just about fit one person standing up for $800 a month, we called it a day and headed back to Gemazzeh for some much-needed sleep.
Despite the rocky start, after three days of searching we found a flat which seemed perfect. It was a separate structure built on top of a three-story building, with its own porch and front door – more like a house than a flat. Despite its somewhat make-shift feel, with thin wooden boards nailed to the walls and ceiling and fluorescent tube lights and tiled floors throughout, it had a lot of character and felt like a real home. It was located in central Hamra and only $650 a month, making it the cheapest as well as by far the biggest space we’d seen, with a huge bedroom, another smaller room which makes a perfect studio/guest room, a living room, a big kitchen/dining room and a fair-sized bathroom. Unfortunately, the man who showed it to us was not the landlord but an agent who was asking $350 as a finders-fee. Although we had promised ourselves we would deal with landlords directly and avoid middle-men, the flat was so nice and so cheap for its size we couldn’t resist, even with the proviso that we couldn’t move in until the end of the month, which left us homeless for another ten days. Having paid our ‘agent’ his money the landlord agreed we could leave some of our luggage with him, so we lugged most of our posessions over and set off to explore Lebanon. We spent 10 days travelling around Tripoli, the Qadisha Valley and Baalbek, where we had a series of adventures, some good and others not so good, arriving back in Beirut very ready for the luxury of having our own space and being able to cook our own food after a diet of street food consisting almost exclusively of shwarma and falafel.
Sadly when we turned up at our new home all ready to put up a few pictures and settle in, we had a bit of a shock. The flat, which the middle-man had told us was furnished, did contain the basics – sofas, beds, wardrobes and a big kitchen table, but of the fridge, washing machine, stove and mattresses there was no sign. We went to have a word with the landlord, a lovely Muslim man who speaks absolutely no English or French, and asked where all the rest of the furniture was, only to be told that he had informed the middle-man that it belonged to the previous tenants and that we would have to supply our own. At the looks on our faces he realised something was amiss and took us to speak to his ‘madame’ who speaks fairly good English. She obviously felt for our plight but there wasn’t much they could do for us. She told us that we’d have to buy mattresses and a stove as well as everything for the kitchen, but that they had an old fridge that we could fix instead of buying a new one. The landlord himself took us to a nearby shop to help us select some mattresses and ensure that we got a fair price, and since then he has been extremely generous, fixing his old fridge/freezer and moving it in for us, and bringing us shelves for the kitchen as well as putting up curtain rods and providing us with curtains for the living room, and two extra kitchen chairs.
Although we were furious with the agent who found us the flat, who the landlord loyally deemed a ‘bad man’, rightly ascertaining that he had successfully ripped us off, we love our new flat and have had a great time shopping for cheap bedding and kitchen supplies, and choosing our own plates, glasses, cutlery and pots and pans, and generally making it feel like our home. We now have a fully functioning flat, although it is a little bit like camping in some ways – we cook on two electric rings (when the electricity is working), and we wash our clothes by hand in two big plastic tubs – it’s all good fun and we’ve managed to cook some rather nice meals on our two little rings, even having a couple of Lebanese friends over for dinner last weekend.