Monday, August 2, 2010

Summer hols - 2010, Escape from Beirut

Lest anyone think we are being extravagant taking 7weeks of holidays away from Beirut….let them spend July and August in the torpid depths of our Paris in the Middle East before judging. Its true that we haven't spent the summer in Beirut yet either (this is our second summer) but from what our friends say and the fact that all of them, Lebanese and expats alike leave town or country for these 2 months was for us enough of a measure. I returned from mission in Chad in early June and our departure for points west seemed imminent and indeed by July it was starting to get steamy in the city and by early July we were gone.
It is not only the combination of coastal heat and humidity that sweats things up but the airborne pollution that enters the mix. They say the city swells 2X its population in the summer, but that sounds more like a tourism board exaggeration, but suffice it to say the population increases considerably and with it the number of cars goes wild and with that the smog becomes intense. Arabs from the Gulf have become disenchanted with Europe as a holiday destination and with the relative calm in the region and the less than welcoming atmosphere in traditional countries of summer visitation like France (where it will soon become illegal to wear the hijab), they are looking at Beirut as a much closer to home alternative.
Beirut of late has become the haute couture destination of choice and all the top brands have outlets in malls throughout the city including the newly opened Beirut souks. The Beirut souks were once the commercial heart of the city where you could buy anything from langoustines to lamborginis and everything in-between. The souks bordered the 'green line' dividing the city east and west along factional lines during the civil war and were bombed and bombed and bombed to bits. In their planning wisdom developers (well, one in particular) have re-constructed the souks not according to their former ancient plans but according to someone's desire to pull in the 'Gulfies' (as wealthy Arab neighbours are known) and it has become a high end shopping mall where normal Beirutis come to gawk but cannot even afford to stop for their ubiquitous tea and nargile (and only then if they can afford to park their car). Such is life in the new 'money first and get it nownownow' orientation of modern day Beirut.
Methinks I digress from my point and that was the pollution. The part of development that has been overlooked by city planners (if they exist) is the traffic circulation and it is appalling. Imagine also that it is not as if the Gulfies come and rent an Echo or some kind of Micro car, oh no, where would you put your 3 wives and 27 children (and mother, sister-in-law, etc? No, you rent a Hummer or BMW X6 or the most popular SUV on steroids of choice this year seems to be the Rangerover. Its amazing. Check the AVIS rent-a-car site for Lebanon and you'll see….its Top Gear heaven.
There are then two primary compounding issues in my deconstruction of Beirut pollution forgetting the out-dated street layout and chaotic one-way system that causes unending grid-lock, the illegal double parking that jams things up, the arrogance of people who feel they can stop anywhere anytime and discharge their passengers or buy cigarettes from the street vendor, greet their old high school buddy they see on the street, etc. The first issue is the fact that (probably due to the heat but also the cultural characteristic of entitlement which is quite complicated to unravel), Lebanese and the Gulfies prefer not to walk, so they don't. Valet parking is a huge summer employer in Beirut and if you can't park within 30m of the shop or restaurant then you leave it with the Valet…..this means endless circulating looking for parking for some and of course then it also means the valet has to drive off to park your car who knows where and later retrieve it from who knows where when you need it back…..both adding to the traffic.
I think the major contributor to summer pollution, the second compounding issue, are the single person vehicles that are driving around…why so many single person vehicles? because anyone with any money at all has a driver. The lack of parking and the non-walking culture then requires the driver to simply circulate having dropped off his clients and wait for his phone to ring so he can pick them up again and go to the next place. What a mess. Time to leave and so leave we did the first week in July. Did I mention Zaki’s asthma and the fact that he was hauling on his ventalin inhaler at least once/day in the weeks before we were leaving?

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