The Mole Diaries: Beirut

This article was written by Sophia Smith Galer, published on 16th July 2015 and has been read 3297 times.

Sophia Smith Galer is a student at Durham University studying Spanish and Arabic. She spent eight months studying Arabic and working as a radio DJ in Beirut, Lebanon, and is currently interning for an international auction house in Madrid, Spain.

If I read one more article telling me Beirut is the Paris of the Middle East, I’m going to eat my tarboosh. Maybe this term was suitable for the pre-war, 50s glamour hub that Lebanon’s capital was once known for, but to render modern-day Beirut a European facsimile for the sake of a nimble little cliché isn’t going to quite do it for me. So here I present you this humble mole diary, hoping to bust some myths on Beirut and Lebanon and persuade you into coming to one of the best cities in the world.

1. Why Beirut?

With other places in the Middle East growing less liberal by the minute, Beirut is a twinkling beacon of hedonism and Lebanon is descended from a complex history of differing yet (usually) co-existing civilisations and communities. The civil war (1975-1990) has made a lasting impression on the country's hearts and minds and the horrendous damage it caused can still be seen in bullet holes in walls and the disappearance of entire sides of buildings that have never been reconstructed. The borders remain prone to constant conflict and the country's population is swollen with Syrian refugees; resources are low and there is a 3 hour powercut everyday in the city.

From testing times, however, comes a resilient, persevering people and a fantastically creative cultural scene. The arts thrive in the city and it is full of bars and restaurants. The Beiruti people walk on a tight rope between East and West and, by Middle Eastern standards, they are open-minded and a right laugh.

2. Security Situation

At the time of writing, the Foreign Office hasn’t changed what it said a year ago when I was wondering whether to come to Lebanon or not. Take a look at the map on their website; the country is mostly green, with some orange and red. I’m sure none of you thought that learning Arabic would be easy, and I think an important part of understanding the Middle East and North Africa today unfortunately lies in seeing some of the drama for your own eyes. So whilst not being an idiot and throwing yourself into the throng of warfare yourself, learning Arabic in Lebanon is going to give you a far larger perspective of the region than the cosy language schools of Jordan and Oman.

As long as you aren’t near Lebanon’s old-time occupiers Israel or ISIS soldiers fighting at the border, you’re good to go. The Hizbullah-controlled part of Beirut has checkpoints surrounding it and you’ll get accustomed to seeing soldiers everywhere rather than police; life in Beirut goes on as normal and military presence goes totally unnoticed by a population used to the monotony of war.

3. Being a girl in Beirut

I think it´s safe to say that Beirut is the most liberal city in the Arabic-speaking world, and this was an enormous factor in my decision to study there. In clubs you will see half-naked women just like you would in the UK; however, I wouldn't recommend this in broad daylight. Wardrobe-wise I could wear pretty much what I wore in the UK, just nothing above the knees or with an obscene cleavage (not that I go around endlessly in the UK with an obscene cleavage... but you catch my drift). As a foreigner you are naturally going to draw more attention to yourself by what you look like and expect the usual Mediterranean male gawps as you pass by. I was groped once in a market and catcalls on the street, as well as the odd lecherous taxi driver, might ruin your day; it is, however, not going to ruin your year and you'll learn to ignore them.

You will also see just as much snogging, grinding and PDA during your nocturnal adventures into Beirut's party central of Mar Mikhail as you would in any university town; your wild youth and love life will go largely unaffected in Beirut and you'll have plenty of stories to tell when you get home and show off to all your boring old classmates that decided to become Jordanian desert-hermits instead.

4. Arabic Schools & What will happen to your Arabic

The Head of our Arabic department recommended the Institut Francais du Proche Orient and, having loved every minute of it, would definitely suggest you go there as it seems to be the most intense place of study on offer in the Middle East, considering that Syria's and Egypt's institutions are now out of the question. You have to pass an entrance exam to get in, as well as go through an oral test on arrival in order to stream you into classes, so it is an option if you like rigorous but rewarding study.

I had about 16 hours a week which included 4 individual tutorials (which are a big help if you have a project to write in Arabic for your university) and a whopping great amount of homework. The variety of classes - modern and ancient literature, contemporary history and media to name but a few - are going to leave you a very well-rounded student at the end of your stay. There are two dialect classes a week taught by a fantastic teacher; during my first term in particular I found these to be a godsend as I navigated my way through Lebanese daily life with a ridiculous and heavily-accented classical Arabic that, in Lebanon, gives off the connotation that you are an Islamist. The sooner you can speak the dialect and assimilate, the better.

The American University of Beirut offers courses, but these are more expensive and I don´t think they are as good. I've heard good things about the Saifi institute too, although these classes tend to have a greater focus on Lebanese colloquial rather than MSA, so it depends what you're looking for.

The Lebanese are generally trilingual (with English and French on top of Arabic) and you have probably already heard from other people that it isn't the best place for full language immersion. For example, conversations often start out like 'Hey Elie, keefak ca va?'. However, I found that with the intensity of my course at IFPO that this wasn't an issue at all as I was speaking Arabic there every day. You are much more likely to find monolingual Arabic speakers in taxis and grocers', so it pays to be nice and have a chat with them as, on top of practising your colloquial, you might get a discount!

A word to the wise - sometimes trying to hold an Arabic-only conversation might insinuate to the other speaker that you don't think they're well-educated enough to know English. So just be mindful and see how the conversation is going; once they know you're an inquisitive and friendly foreigner trying to learn Arabic, as opposed to an ignorant foreigner who thinks they're superior, the Lebanese are sure to have a great time testing your Arabic skills and declaring “Ooooooooh, how CUUUUUTE!"

5. Being politically correct in Lebanon

On top of that little language tip I just gave you, be prepared to enter a country that does not have the same standards of political correctness that we enjoy in the UK. Things to remember…

  • Israel is an enemy state and you will not be able to get in the country if you have a stamp on your passport. (And vice versa for Israel, with a Lebanese stamp in your passport.)
  • Lebanese patience has been tested for decades by an incessant influx of refugees from Palestine and now Syria. Racism against Syrians is not uncommon and I would occasionally witness violence and swearing in the streets against Syrian beggars. Be sensitive; they have fled war and cannot return home. 
  • You will regularly see the Lebanese equivalent of WAGs walking around with domestic workers, mainly from Ethiopia, Sri Lanka or the Philippines, trailing behind them like second-class human beings. Whilst this would be considered awful in the UK, it is totally acceptable here. Again, be sensitive.   Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 09.35.21

6. Currency

Lebanese Lire and the US Dollar are both used here; I got a Post Office Travel Money Card which I would load with dollars and then draw cash out easily in Lebanon - a nice advantage of this is also that people at home can top it up for you at a Post Office if necessary. Usually you use dollars to pay for bigger amounts - like a nice dinner at a restaurant, or your rent - and save your lire for things you buy everyday that cost nothing, like taxis and food.

I wouldn’t recommend opening up a bank account here as it takes a long time and I am hesitant to trust any Lebanese bureaucratic system (it’s a combination of French red tape and ‘Middle Eastern timing’, as I shall politely disclose).

7. Renting/Accommodation

I paid $550 a month for my flat, and that price was for one of the nicest that I saw in Beirut; I had a big bedroom, great flatmates, nice bathroom, bills included and a cleaner come twice a week on top of the fact it was 5 minutes from IFPO and very centrally located. You will find plenty of places cheaper than this, but be prepared for longer distances and shabbier apartments with no cleaners (which was actually a godsend; having never had one at home or university, the lovely lady’s work did give me a lot more time to devote to going out and studying. So might be worth considering if you are renting a flat with friends as there are plenty of domestic workers in the city and you’ll be giving someone a job, as well as offering yourself another opportunity to speak Arabic!).

There are also inevitably people that are out there ready to rip foreigners off, so I recommend that you be wary when browsing the fantastic Facebook page Apartment in Beirut (for Renters and Rentees), which is where I found my place. Just make sure to see plenty of photos of the flat. It is totally normal to not have to sign a contract, though if you feel like you can’t trust your landlord then ask for one, as well as receipts for rent payments and deposits.

8. Public Transport

Embrace your inner Carrie á la Sex in the City and get ready to hail down cabs like your life depends on it. Actually, in Lebanon, it kind of does; respect for traffic laws disappeared during the civil war and it doesn’t look like it’s going to recover any time soon. So instead of trying to traverse some of the city’s pavement-less roads because you’re a skint student, revel in the fact that getting a cab will only ever cost you somewhere between 70p and £1.50 - that is, if you take the famed ‘service’ for 2000 lire.

The system is simple, once you get the hang of it. Yell out ‘TAXI!’ to a passing cab that already has people in it and try to appear as Lebanese and non-touristy as possible as you tell them your destination. If your destination is en route with the other passengers, the driver tells you to get in. If not, he tuts and drives off and you hail down another one. Rinse, wash, repeat etc. until you get your way. ‘Service-ayn’, literally ‘two services’, costs 4000 and the driver often tries to bring the price up to that if your destination is ever so slightly out of the way.

There are some obvious disadvantages to this transport system. Mainly, that you are getting in with strangers, but this is the risk you run and as long as you have common sense you are going to be fine. (You can always ask the taxi for an individual journey, and this costs 10,000LL.) Making sure it’s a registered cab by checking the sticker on the windscreen, or that there is either only the driver or a few women in the car is going to ensure the journey is safer. To give you some perspective, when I first arrived in Beirut I had half the populace telling me I would be fine and half telling me ‘You are a girl, you will get raped and die.’ The odd mugging has been reported too. Did anything ever happen to me? Not anything serious; I did have a few dodgy moments of drivers asking me to sit in the front with them or try to grab my hand but I politely said no and lived to tell the tale. Just be as streetsmart as you would be in any other big city and you’ll be fine.

9. Travelling outside Lebanon

An absolute must whilst already in the Middle East is to take advantage of the cheaper air fares and visit some of the neighbouring countries. I visited Turkey and Jordan (Istanbul and Amman) and had a wonderful time. Visiting Amman and other areas in Jordan gives you great perspective as an Arabic learner as you probably have tonnes of friends studying there instead of Beirut; you’ll instantly see it as a more conservative and thoroughly Arab society with no night life and worse food. But Jordan has the beauties of the desert and a Bedouin culture which Lebanon lacks and one of the highlights of my year abroad was camping one night in Wadi Rum with my Durham friends and a Bedouin guide.

I had a few friends go to Egypt but wouldn’t recommend this right now given the security situation, especially for girls.

10. Travelling inside Lebanon

Lebanon is a small country, with a skinny coastline that in a few minutes becomes a tree-heavy, cavernous mountain region with the beautiful Qadisha valley and the famous Lebanese cedars. Travelling around is extremely easy as the roads are full of what can only be described as sardine buses - they are tiny, squeeze as many of you in as possible and, for say 3000, will drop you off anywhere on your route.

Beit Eddine, an Ottoman palace, is stunning, and there are plenty of hiking groups that take you around the country (to safe places of course!) on the weekends.

11. Spare time

When I wasn't devoting myself to a life of either rigorous study or relentless partying, I spent my spare time taking every advantage I could to help people, speak Arabic or just bulk out my CV:

  • I used my music journalism credentials gained from roles at university to become a radio DJ for Radio Beirut, the Middle East’s first radio cafe. I got to interview and befriend some of the region’s best musicians and it’s provided me with invaluable experience in radio.
  • I volunteered for Jusoor, a charity that supports educating Syrian children in Lebanon whilst they are unable to return to school back home. Feel free to teach in their usual English teaching programme or, like me, introduce something new; I started music and drama workshops with 12-13 year olds that I ran in Arabic.
  • There are a lot of random opportunities that crop up if you keep an eye on social media and beirut.com, a brilliant website that has a calendar telling you what’s on every day; one weekend I helped to paint some rainbow stairs in one of the side streets, another weekend I helped at the Front of House for a play starring Syrian refugees. There’s even a pub quiz at an Irish pub that I have lamentably never won….yet.    Screen Shot 2015-07-17 at 09.35.33

So there you have it; nuggets of gold from somebody who wishes she was still there walking down Beirut’s boulevard, the Corniche, scoffing down man’ousheh, or strutting down Mar Mikhail at 3am testing her resistance to Arak. A degree in Arabic should mean a lot more than a command over grammar and knowing your خ from your ح; it's a commitment to understanding a different culture and way of life. Of all the places on offer to you right now, the real opportunity to relish in that great aim of 'living the language' lies in Beirut and Lebanon. Enjoy it while you can.

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