I am sitting in a big fancy looking hall when suddenly the speakers start shrieking and with full blast comes out the Lebanese national anthem. It was almost comical, everyone rose up (the hall was full of expats and NGO workers and only a few people I would identify as local), no one sang, apart from the speaker in front of the hall together with the sound system which was judging by the sound quality at least 30 years old. This was my first official conference at my new internship here in Beirut, Lebanon.
Yes, I am running around the world again and enjoy it to the fullest. After two years absence I am finally back in the Middle East with all it’s beauty, quirks and annoyances. We arrived in Beirut the 26th of August after taking a stop in Athens to visit the Acropolis, and the last three, almost four weeks have been more than interesting. The city is vibrant, very much alive, full of contrasts, beautiful and ugly, kind and harsh at the same time. It’s the kind of city you want to explore and feel. We live in a residential area a bit outside the city center which usually surprises other expats when they hear about it but I really like it. It feels more real than for example Hamra, the central district. Walking through Hamra street (where I also work) feels almost like walking through any common Western city. I like the flat in which we live in it has a lot of charm and I already feel home here. Like I said, this city is full of contrasts you find rather fancy districts, there are many new houses and at the same time you can find houses where the remains of the civil war and the war in 2006 are still very visible, you can find hip areas, really normal residential areas and rather industrial like areas. There are lots of nice bars, clubs and cafes here, the bar I spent my 25th birthday at (The Junkyard in Mar Mikhael) was just awesome and the altcity cafe in Hamra has been a lifesaver for Rickard as they have a lot of work space, fast internet and good food. Every day I hear Mosque singing which I have missed since I have been to the Middle East last 🙂
Another thing which I truly like here is the people. Most of them are really kind and welcoming. The only times I sometimes feel someone tries to take advantage of me not being from here is when I try to catch a taxi (or ‘service’, a shared taxi) but slowly I know how much which distances should cost. So they usually quickly come to understand that they can’t fool me, or they still do and then it’s their bad they won’t make money of me as I have no problem with walking. Apart from the lovely Lebanese people here I have met a nice Norwegian Girl, the people at work are really great too and another Italian friend currently lives in Beirut as well. On Monday I will start a Language course in Arabic (birthday money well invested!) which I very much look forward too and where I hopefully will also meet many interesting people!
Now to answer the question almost everyone has asked me; no I don’t feel unsafe. I have not ever felt unsafe in Beirut, I have walked through many areas, I have walked alone and I have been out night times. Also during the the travels we have done so far to other places in Lebanon I have always felt safe and welcome.
My internship at Kayany Foundation here is interesting and I think I can learn a lot here. The organisation works and does projects with Syrian refugees and focuses on education and building schools for children and youth in camps in the nearby Bekaa Valley. When I have worked here for a while I will dedicate a whole blog post to my work, for now this is more about my first impressions of living in Lebanon 🙂
If you have been pampered by Swedish efficiency the past few years there are a few things to get accustomed to when living here. Let’s put it that way, almost all the ‘annoyances’ here have their bad and good sides, however, it’s easy to romanticize things here as an European expat who knows that she can leave any time fancied and get back to her privileged country of origin. It is interesting to talk to people about the conditions here at first I have gotten the impression that many have somewhat accepted their state of being here and don’t care overly much, however, if you actually talk a bit more with them and basically ‘dig’ a bit most people are quite frustrated with many things here (this weekend I was sharing the back of a taxi with two twins, Lebanese women in their 40s who had a lot to say about that topic…). The political situation here has been and is difficult and I am sure everyone has heard about the trash crisis here, which is only really the tip of the iceberg. I decided I will write my Master thesis about the political situation here and/or the general geopolitical situation of Lebanon and the connected issues and risks. I am currently doing a lot of research on it. Once I am really into the topic and feel comfortable in expressing my opinion I will dedicate a whole blog post to this topic as well.
Okay let’s get back to how I experience life here;
Power cuts. Before coming here I expected 3h power cuts per day which usually should be easily dealt with by switching to a generator or an alternative power line. Reality looks a bit different, at least where we live and considering the last two weeks. Most days we experience three cuts and many of them can’t be countered by the alternative power line, leaving you without electricity and internet. Good things are ; I read more books, I spend less wasted time on the internet, if the cut happens at night candles make everything very cozy and I made tea on a gas stove for the first time in my life :P.
Bad things are; if you rely on the internet for work like Rickard does – you feel yourself pretty screwed sometimes running around Beirut finding a cafe with WiFi and power, or like the other night when the power cut while I stood under the shower and did not bring my phone or a candle with me into the bathroom… Since a couple of days the power has been a bit more reliable, let’s see if it stays that way.
Let’s get to the traffic and streets here – I think Beirut is the least pedestrian friendly city I have ever visited. Cars drive where and how ever they want, red lights don’t necessarily mean they stop, they park everywhere which makes walking longer distances sometimes slightly challenging. Also, in Beirut you don’t stop a cab, the cab stops you – or honks at you. The more Western you look, the more honking. On the plus side – once I have lived here for a while my reflexes will be trained like they never have been trained before 😉 Also, interesting enough, there seem to be some unspoken rules for how to get your way as a pedestrian. Once you actually don’t stand like a scared tourist girl at the sidewalk waiting for ever to get over a street but simply demand your right to walk with some decisiveness and make eye contact you usually get your way without seeming to really upset anyone. There are shared taxis which you can catch pretty much all over town and pay around 2 dollars to get around within the city, there are also buses and mini vans which you can stop almost anywhere and hop on and hop off again when you want. I have come to really appreciate that concept when going to work. I still walk a lot since it is a nice way to get to know the city, by now I can almost find my way around without maps. However I really have to highlight I have never in my life felt so much appreciation for an app as I do for “Here Maps” this wonderful app has better maps than google maps (at least in Lebanon), it is for free and if you download the map for the country you are in (again for free) the app works beautifully offline and can navigate you. Especially in the first two weeks I would have felt pretty lost without it.
The weather. The weather has been tough on me especially in the first week. It has been very hot and really, really humid. Now slowly slowly it gets a bit cooler here but I yet haven’t managed to arrive at work not sweaty. We have an AC at home which works when the main power lines functions so that’s at least something. I start to appreciate the evenings here, now you can actually sit outside and enjoy it. Especially on the wonderful balcony we have at home which has come to be my favorite place to hang out if the heat allows it. A week or two ago we had a sandstorm here for a few days. I was breathing dust for about three days and that in combination with the heat and humidity was hard to bear sometimes (the pictures below which look really dusty are from those days) but ever since the storm passed the weather has become nicer and nicer. October is supposed to be a really nice month, around 25 degrees and a lot less humid. Looking forward.
Apart from my field trips into the Bekaa valley with work we have visited two other places in Lebanon so far; two cities in the South, Saida and Tyr also called Sour. Taking a mini van to Saida was more than easy and we spend a nice day there walking along the water side, visiting an old crusader castle and had amazing Lebanese food. At Tyr/Sour we spend a day and night this weekend and it was a really great mini vacation. The city is known for its nice beach so we went swimming for the first time since we came to Lebanon. The water was crystal clear! Swimming in Beirut is not really a great idea as the water is rather dirty. We spend the night at a nice apartment which we rented over Air BnB and went out for dinner at the harbor in the evening. Now we just came back home and we actually had electricity and internet so I thought I finally get to my blog again. If the internet allows it I will attach some pictures to this post from Beirut, Saida and Tyr/Sour. Now that I got started to write about my time here I will update my blog every 3-4 weeks again or if something interesting happens earlier as well so you can follow me around. Stay tuned and thank you for reading!
The view from our Room during the Sandstorm
Travelling in the minivans
The view from our balcony in Tyr/Sour
Probably one of the worst advertisements for a seafood restaurant I have seen
One of the many cats in Beirut
Beautiful Stairs on Gemmayze Street
Having an emergency case at work when having no power at home is not fun, thankfully many Cafes have WiFi
Our lovely Balcony at home, Rickard trying to make Semi-Lebanese Food 😛
I spend my 25th Birthday at this great Bar, after telling them its my birthday we got lots of free stuff and a birthday desert with fireworks 😀
Power Cuts 2
Street in Beirut
Dusty City and tenting Activits
Mohamed Al-Amin Mosque aka the Blue Mosque at the Martyr Square
Between the Flags
Swimming and Lebanese Beer
After enjoying the sea and sun
Evening in Tyr/Sour
‘ There’s something in your face’
Dinner at the Harbor
Who would have thought ruins close on Sundays…
Mediterranean at it’s best
One of the Schools built by Kayany in the Bekaa
Taking the Bus to Saida
Enjoying Lebanese Food
Crusader Castle in Saida
Enjoying the View
People of Saida
In our Neighborhood