There May Be Fire, But There’s No Smoke

Fires continue in the Middle East, with the war in Syria, and protests in many countries across the region over the past couple of weeks. Friday before last in Lebanon (the day of the attacks in Libya, and protests in Egypt) there was violence in the northern city of Tripoli, with attacks on Kentucky Fried Chicken and Hardee’s (a burger joint), as well as on a government building in that city. This past Friday the papers reported that tens of thousands were demonstrating in the Bekaa (eastern Lebanon), and a few thousand gathered in downtown Beirut at Martyr’s Square to protest the notorious film and comics.

Coming from Latin America, protests certainly aren’t new to me. I remember a day that there were protests near the university in Tegucigalpa, Honduras, which I passed daily on my way to pick up the kids from school. I spotted a burning tire down the road. I did the sensible thing: I turned the car around, and found another route. When there’s fire – literal or figurative – I stay away, and I’ve kept well away from the protests in Lebanon.

Fortunately, both of the demonstrations this past Friday were without violence. And although it may seem surreal, life went on as usual for most Beirutis, who simply avoided the demonstration in downtown Beirut and its associated traffic (the police had closed off nearby streets, turning the usual traffic into an ugly snarl). For me and my family, life as usual meant attending a school event, one that had been scheduled weeks in advance, but coincidentally fell on the same date and time as the protest: Chalk for Peace.

So while protesters gathered in one part of the city, hundreds of school children were gathering in another, using chalk to write messages of peace and hope.


But as I said, for most folks things are business as usual in this corner of the world, and the complicated life of Lebanon is peppered with more mundane issues, such as the new smoking ban.

sign in a mall – eager enough about the law to implement it two days early

 On September 3, 2012, Lebanon followed the likes of New York, San Francisco, Seattle, Argentina, Honduras and numerous other countries, and put into effect a ban on smoking in all enclosed bars, restaurants and cafés (completing a ban that began with public buildings and transportation). Individuals can be fined US$100 for violating the ban, while establishments can be fined US$1000 to US$4000 for allowing the ban to be violated on their property. We went out for dinner a night or two later, and found it a relief not to have to breathe in others’ smoke while eating. Also found it interesting that around 9pm, one of the waiters came through the establishment and placed ash trays on all the tables. Didn’t see anyone light up before we left though, maybe you need to stay out later than we do.

According to local newspaper The Daily Star, “Smoking rates in Lebanon are among the highest in the world, with 42 percent of men and 27 percent of adult women smoking.” In addition to cigarettes, the Lebanese often smoke nargilehs (also known as arguileh, shisha or hookah pipes): water pipes that are heated with live coals, used to smoke fruit-flavored tobacco. The water serves to cool the smoke, and establishments serving nargileh typically have one or more staff specially dedicated to bringing the tall pipe to your table, lighting it up (by smoking it a bit – and changing the mouthpiece before handing it over), and stopping by with more coals to keep the pipe going. Nargileh smoking seems especially popular with women, and in particular, with Muslim women. They are smoked at cafés and restaurants (now just those with outdoor seating), at the beach, I’ve also seen ladies sitting and smoking at the amusement park and at a waterslide park, while the children play.


Despite its popularity, one of the people I met in my first couple of weeks here pronounced that “smoking one nargileh is the equivalent of smoking 40 cigarettes.” Couldn’t find anything to back up that stat online, but did find some other proclamations: “One nargileh pipe has 100 times the smoke as a cigarette.” “Because the tobacco is heated rather than burnt, there is less tar.” “The levels of carbon monoxide produced and absorbed is likely as much or more in a nargileh as in cigarettes.” (But how many cigarettes?) “A pipe has nicotine the equivalent of 10 cigarettes.” (But you don’t necessarily smoke the entire pipe’s worth.) Effects vary not only according to how long you’re smoking your pipe, but what type of pipe it is (they come in different shapes and sizes). The nebulous details lend themselves nicely to ignoring the effects of nargileh smoking, although clearly, anyone could agree that it’s harmful. But that’s not stopping an estimated one-third of high school students in Lebanon from lighting up a pipe (as opposed to an estimated 6% that smoke cigarettes). I’m all for supporting cultural practices, but when they’re harmful, a little legal determent can be a good thing.

Attacks in Tripoli, protests in the Bekaa and Beirut – figuratively speaking, there are fires in Lebanon. But thankfully, no more smoke.


Beirut Beaches

In my last post I wrote about increasing tensions in Beirut. Then I mentioned that I was on the beach in Sicily. Frivolous on my part?

Before arriving to Lebanon, I might have thought so. But with a summer in and out of Beirut under my belt, I know better. Beirutis are passionate, maybe even obsessed, about going to the beach. In one of the memoirs about the city I read during my first month here, the author recounted a friend´s desperation to go to the beach when the city was under siege during the 2006 war with Israel. At the moment of a brief cease-fire, the friend leapt into her car, and drove furiously to get out of town. One highway tunnel was blocked at the end by a lone, but heavily-armed soldier. She turned back, tried another route, and another, and another, until she found a way out of town and a day on the beach.

That’s some serious dedication to the beach.

Lebanon´s coastline is 140 miles long, pebbly in parts, sandy in others, and Mediterranean waters warmly lap its shores. There is a public beach at the southern end of Beirut. It is popular with families, but women anything less than fully-clothed while bathing are rare there. Along the Corniche, locals (mostly men) cool off by jumping into the water from the rocky shore. You can spot the occasional woman, sometimes fully clothed, sometimes in modest, 1920s-style bathing suits.

There are few free public beaches, but many beach clubs, charging anywhere from US$10 to US$35 or more per person, for use of their facilities. Beach chairs and umbrellas are abundant, and many clubs also have swimming pools. In the city, the moneyed set tends to lounge poolside at one of the expensive clubs built along the rocks, muscled men and bikini-clad women hidden from gawkers by screens and awnings that line the clubs’ edges. The seashore north and south of town is similar, public beaches interspersed with private clubs that are set well away from the public eye.

For the Lebanese, where you go to the beach says something about who you are.

“You went to Al-Jisr beach?” asked my Arabic tutor with surprise. “There is another you will like better, you must try Jiyé Marina…. All the people that go to Al-Jisr come from the same village.”

¨You went to Al-Jisr beach?” questioned the stylist at the hair salon. “You must try Lazy B, it is more European, you will like it better.”

I wasn’t sure quite to make of either of those comments, but my family and I were game for trying them all.

We liked the budget-friendly prices at Al-Jisr, their gazebo-like thatch shades on the beach, and the huge swimming pool, despite the massive crowds and the pervasive smell of argileh pipes. (Argilehs are water pipes for smoking fruit-flavored tobacco, popular with many Lebanese.)

We liked the sandy cove and calm waters at Jiyé Marina.

And we did like the colorful, sleek, “European” aesthetic at Lazy B, as well as their kids pool.

Hmmm… how does that define us? Perhaps as the multinational, adventurous family that we are.

On our way to the beaches in the south we drove by The Palms Ladies Resort. An expat friend I’ve made told me about her visit to the resort with a group of Lebanese women and their children (boys under age 10 only). It´s a place where women can strip down, away from the prying eyes of men. Jetties are built out into the water to prevent anyone of the opposite gender approaching too closely by sea. My friend reported that the bikinis were shockingly itsy-bitsy (and told of a collective gasp that went up from the crowd when a male jet-skier shot by too close for comfort). Conservative and rebellious mixed together, defying any attempt to pigeonhole. Just the way I like it.