Bye bye Beirut!

After three tumultous years it’s time to say goodbye to Beirut. We’ve seen a mini civil war, car bombs, crazy traffic, the world’s biggest hummus, and lots of good times in between.  We’re hitting the skies tonight, with a detour in Perth before finally returning to Casa Sherlex in Canberra.

Wish us luck for the transition home.  It’s going to be a real shock!

Autumn approaches

We’ve had a pretty crazy autumn here, with temperatures staying above 30 degrees until the last week or so. Then earlier this week we had some torrential rain and this dropped the temps to a much more comfortable 22 during the day and 16-17 at night.

Sounds very pleasant you may think. Well, it’s been great watching the Lebanese adapt to the sudden change.

It’s as if the second ice-age has hit. All of a sudden the women have ditched their tight fitting summer dresses for jeans, scarves and long leather boots (one could unkindly describe them as FMBs). One of my work drivers took me to an appointment the other day and he was wearing a long overcoat, scarf, gloves and cap – and it was 21 degrees outside. I was sweating just looking at him.

Now to be fair, the climate is a bit chillier up in the hills. There has even been a dump of snow on Mt Sannine, which is actually visible from Beirut because all the rain has rinsed the crap out of the air.

But come on. It’s not that cold, really!

A close match

Last night I headed up to Tripoli to catch a game of rugby league. The Lebanese national team was playing the Italians as part of the European Cup (don’t ask me why Lebanon is in the European cup). But given that 15 of the 20-man Lebanese squad are Australians, and a few of the Italians were as well, it was almost like being at home. I haven’t been around that many Australian accents for ages!

Of course this being Lebanon it started a bit oddly. As I drove up to the stadium 20 minutes before the game was due to start at 8pm, the whole complex was pitch black. I wondered if I’d picked the wrong night maybe, or perhaps the wrong stadium? No, just your run of the mill power cut – right in the middle of the under-16s warm up game!

The power was soon restored (it had been out for 30 minutes apparently, leaving the kids on the paddock to get up to god knows what kind of mischief) and I was into the stadium ready for some action. As kick-off occurred I was filled with fond memories of the old man and me standing on the hill at Leichhardt Oval, yelling our heads off to encourage Backdoor Benny (born in Tripoli), Blockhead, Sirro and the other Balmain cohorts across the try-line.

Sadly, there were no soggy hotdogs and plastic schooners of Tooheys New available.

Even worse, within about 30 seconds it became clear the game was a little one-sided. How shall I put this? Lebanon won 86-0. A close game by all accounts!

Maybe I need some pec implants?

As we’ve noted before, Lebanon is pretty famous for the pursuit of physical beauty. Nose jobs are common and it’s not unusual to see people (men and women) proudly wandering around with plaster on their noses or for your colleagues to come into work one day with suddenly and eye-poppingly inflated chests. Two years ago one of the banks actually offered a special loan for plastic surgery.

This year is proving to be a mega summer tourist season in Lebanon. The country’s the most stable that it’s been in ages, and it is a more affordable option for many who’ve taken a hit in the global economic crisis. There’s been a huge number of visitors coming for the beaches, mountain resorts and to hang out with the (artificially) beautiful people. Many also come to get some work done, as demonstrated by this article published today.

But hey, I’m beautiful just the way I am (or I will be once the braces come off, insha’allah). Not that my staff don’t occasionally suggest I get a touch of botox or a nose job myself…

Election day in Achrafieh

At long last, today’s the day. We’ve had months and months of electioneering by the political parties. We’ve had even more time spent by the Interior Ministry planning Lebanon’s first ever national elections to be held on just one day. The security planning has been meticulous, as has the traffic management.

What a relief that this day has come. Soon it will all be behind us, so that we can get on with the next drama!

Watching the elections has been really interesting as an outsider. The process is amazingly complicated, and would take a whole year of blogs to explain fully (assuming I understand it all, which is not likely). There are so many little quirks to the Lebanese system which you don’t really see anywhere else.

Take the ballot papers for example. Lebanon doesn’t have pre-printed ballot papers. Officially, a voter is supposed to go to the ballot box with a blank sheet of paper on which they write the names of the candidates they’re supporting. In practice, voters are handed little pre-printed ballots by the different parties as they go in, usually with no room to make any changes. According to some of the election monitoring NGOs, these ballots are often printed with a certain colour or font depending upon the family voting – making it easy for a party to work out afterwards if your family voted for them or not (so that they can then either reward or punish you). Here are a few ballots that I picked up today:

So it has been fun to watch the goings on here in Achrafieh, which as the core of Beirut 1 district, is one of the most hotly contested.

This morning I took a wander up to Sassine Square, the heart of Achrafieh. This was clearly one of the identified flashpoints: around the six-road junction there were just as many armoured personnel carriers, together with around 80 special forces soldiers from the Lebanese Armed Forces. Cars cruised past in every direction with huge Lebanese Forces (Geagea), Kataeb (Gemayel) or Free Patriotic Movement (Aoun) flags on display, the drivers honking out the signature tunes for their chosen political party. Basically it felt like I was outside a major football match. Everyone in the area behaved like fervent supporters, energetic but otherwise calm.

All of the posters above are around Sassine Square. All of these groups are part of the March 14 alliance. Before anyone accuses me of being pro-March 14, can I just point out that this part of Achrafieh is predominantly March 14. On the other hand, my own part of Achrafieh, heading towards downtown, is much more pro-Aoun (of the March 8 alliance) – an example being these posters, which are outside the Aounie electorate office next door to my apartment building.

Anyway, here’s a little bit of video I took this morning of the boys in khaki at work. Not very exciting, but some local colour for you.

Update: the Aounie office next door has taken over the adjacent carpark and has a bank of concert speakers set up blaring out motivational Lebanese music. Presumably the FPM supporters will congregate here in the hope that Interior Minister Baroud announces the outcome soon. Could be a long and loud night for us…

One week to go

Things have been a little quiet here this week, although in a way that’s not really true. You see the parliamentary elections are only one week away, so there’s been lots of politicking going on.

The political banners are everywhere, with each party differentiated by colour. The Sunni Future Movement is sky blue, Michel Aoun’s FPM is orange, Hizballah is yellow, and Amal is green. The various communist and pseudo-socialist parties are red, although the current government majority (which is pretty neo-con in its outlook) has been using red too so that gets a bit confusing.

We came back from Australia last month to discover that FPM has opened an electorate office just around the corner from our apartment, which is just swell of them. So far we’ve had several late night rallies complete with the propaganda van (a beat up old van with the HUGEST speakers on its roof blaring out martial rousing nationalist music) and fireworks louder than the Hiroshima bomb. Hopefully on election day the drive-by shootings will be kept to a minimum, although if they don’t get rid of that bloody van I might be tempted to do a swing past with my mate’s AK47 on full auto…

It’s quite weird to see polls which are almost purely personality driven. Hizballah is the only party to have released a policy proposal, and even that’s very vague. (I guess that means at least here you don’t get the post-elections media obsession with broken electoral pledges.) There’s been a bit of scaremongering by the ruling majority. But otherwise it’s all essentially a beauty contest. Candidates are either dashingly handsome, or else they’re from rich and powerful families.

On the security side, the elections have been remarkably stable thus far. Sure there’s been lots of punch-ups, and a couple of fatalities (and lets face it, elections are boring if no-one gets killed), but we haven’t had any massive carbombs or rampaging riots. Election day itself could be exciting, and of course when the results are announced it might get a bit loud. We’ve already had lots of celebratory gunfire, but I suspect that we ain’t seen nothing yet.

Needless to say, I think we’ll be staying indoors that day…

Seasonal variation

It seems to me that the Lebanese have a pretty set idea about the seasons.  In their minds early March is still winter, which would normally be the case given that Mount Sannine still looms over Beirut all capped with snow and earlier in the week there were gusting frosty storms.

But today the reality was a bit different – it was 30 degrees celsius outside, with gorgeous sun and sparkling seas. And yet everywhere I looked, the locals were still dressed for winter. Coats were on, some wore hats. And I was sweating in my shirt sleeves. I guess nobody them that it’s okay to dress according to conditions, and not the calendar.

This truly is a strange – albeit great – country.

It’s raining men! Hallelujah!

So sang The Weather Girls, but in reality it’s just raining rain. Lots of it.

Lebanon’s winter storms have hit suddenly and with a vengeance. For the past few days we’ve had steadily dropping temperatures and an almost constant rumble of thunder, together with sporadic torrential downpours. Today it only got up to 21 degrees – a far cry from the 30 plus temps of a month ago.

Of course the Lebanese being the hot blooded Mediterraneans that they are, they’re now all rugged up. I kid you not. I had to pop up to the ABC mall last night and half of the locals there were wearing scarves, coats and long black boots. But it was still 20 degrees and I had a t-shirt on. Go figure.

So with the end of daylight savings last weekend and lots of rain, it’s looking pretty gloomy and miserable all of a sudden. Which is kind of nice after the endless months of summer, but it’s looking like it might be a dismal winter.

Although the silver lining is that the ski slopes should be smoking in another month or so…

Summer is (finally) starting to wind down

Thankfully, it’s looking like summer might just be starting to wind down. For the past few months it’s been sticky, muggy and pretty darn hot.

But today it was only 28 degrees. Almost time to get the winter woolies out!

At least it hasn’t been as hot as when we were in Abu Dhabi and Riyadh, as this (blurry) photo attests (taken at 9.30am on our former balcony in Abu Dhabi).