Okay, my jaw is better now and I can resume normal service. Sorry for keeping you waiting.
Anyway, firstly to the UAE…
That was a nice little trip, my first to the place since I left a-Sakhalin bound in September 2006. Many things had changed, but many things had also stayed the same. We arrived into a new terminal, under construction when I left. Huge, white pillars and white marble floors gave the impression you’d entered some Greek temple rather than an airport terminal. But such misconceptions were soon righted once you saw the impressive bank of twenty or thirty immigration counters of which only four were open, manned by slovenly youths in national dress more interested in talking to each other than processing passports, with large queues of Indians clutching fistfuls of paperwork leaving little doubt you were trying to enter Dubai. Like I said, many things had stayed the same.
As had the drive from the airport as far as the creek. Not much has changed there at all, and most of the development has taken place in the south of the city, leaving Deira and Bur Dubai pretty much how it was. The first major change I saw was that the Garhoud Bridge – for years operating largely as a car park – had been upgraded to one with four lanes running in each direction and we whizzed across it in seconds. As we went further towards Sheikh Zayed Road I could start to see the results of the enormous construction projects that were underway during my time there: a forest of new buildings along the road itself, an enormous shopping mall and residential development, and of course, the Deathspire, the tallest building in the world, more commonly known as the Burj Khalifa (named after the ruler of Abu Dhabi’s wallet). But that wasn’t what made my jaw drop; contrary to what I was expecting, I did not see an enormous difference between the buildings of Dubai then and now, probably because most of it was well under construction even then which rendered the difference merely one of finishing and colour. What did amaze me was the lack of traffic. I went from the airport to the residences under the Deathspire in less than 20 minutes, and the roads just didn’t seem to have any cars on them. Back in 2006 I’d have endured an hour of bumper-to-bumper misery. I asked my taxi driver, who had been in Dubai for 32 years, what had caused the improvements. The answer was several things: much better roads, a lot of people leaving, toll charging on certain routes, a new metro system, and speed cameras preventing people doing the idiotic, breakneck speeds which inhibited the formation of consistent, flowing traffic. Indeed, the roads had improved a lot. I’m glad I wasn’t there during the chaos of their construction, but a few of the worst roundabouts I remember had been replaced with mini, and sometimes not so mini, spaghetti junctions. Sadly, it was obvious that most of the transport routes had been thrown into the plan as an afterthought, rather than the buildings positioned to suit. The metro – which I didn’t ride but it looked pretty neat – threaded it’s way around, under, and over various flyovers and other structures like a snake trying to work its way through an obstacle course, testament to its inclusion coming late in the planning stage of the new Dubai, assuming there ever was a planning stage.It was still red hot as ever, something I was utterly unused to despite a few months in Phuket to bridge the forty degree gap between the Middle East and Sakhalin. Refuge was take in one of the enormous shopping centres – the Dubai Mall, touted during its construction as the biggest in the world. True, it was enormous but suffered from the same problem as shopping malls the world over: they are pretty much all the same. Without even walking inside I could tell you what shops you can find, and I reckon I’d be pretty good at guessing where they’d be located, too. And Dubai Mall was way too big, it took an age to walk around, and the space was not filled with more and better shops. Instead, each shop was simply massive, and again the space was not filled with more goods, they just spaced the wares out leaving ten foot gaps between items. If shopping centres are not going to become the most dreary, conformist (despite the gaudy decor) monoliths causing husbands the world over to stifle an enormous yawn or feign appendicitis at the mere mention of their name, their saviour should come in the form of dozens of independent, specialist shops which can be browsed for hours. This was the appeal, to me anyway, of the Metro Centre in Gateshead when I visited there a decade ago. To be fair, the Dubai Mall did have a few specialist stores but they weren’t much to shout about: a musical instrument store which sells neither Yamaha nor Gibson guitars is not going to be patronised by anybody wishing to make a serious purchase. They did have an enormous and quite superb bookshop though, which I spent a good hour in. But in general, it was a hundred acres of fashion stores, jewelry shops, and brand name electronics with some “authentic” local Arabic stuff thrown in for anybody in the unlikely position of wanting to buy a gigantic coffee pot.
Still, despite my cynicism of Dubai’s retail outlets, the place had improved. I took a ride up to the Dubai Marina, which represents an attempt by Dubai to replicate the housing density of Hong Kong for reasons which can only be guessed at. During construction it looked like some post-apocalyptic nightmare, but it has turned out a lot better than I thought it would. A family I am friendly with is living in one of the tower blocks there, and when I travelled through the development it didn’t seem like the ghetto I had expected. But then again, I doubt the occupancy is very high in any of the towers, and once the market picks up – if the market picks up – and the development reaches capacity, I can still imagine it becoming a teeming mass of bodies and cars trying to squeeze through unnecessarily narrow spaces between buildings. In fifty degrees of desert heat. On the Friday I partook in a brunch at the still-excellent Carter’s bar in Wafi City, in an area of Dubai which five years ago would have been considered central but now seems to be too close to the narrow streets of old Bur Dubai to claim inclusion in the “nice” area of the city. Much wine was consumed amid conversations with people who had recently arrived to Dubai with all the enthusiasm and excitement I had in the late summer of 2003. At least one person commented on how I didn’t seem to have forgotten the routes to the various bars, as I helpfully guided a confused taxi driver in the right direction.
On my final day I took a trip out to The Palm Jumeirah, although they might as well just call it The Palm given that the other palm projects have been halted or canned completely. Sneaking down one of the fronds to have a look (telling a whopping lie to the security guard in order to gain access) I was struck by two things. Firstly, the long rows of huge villas spaced evenly along each frond seemed to be empty, even if many of them were indeed occupied. Maybe it was the heat of the day, but nothing stirred anywhere. It looked like an American suburban housing development waiting to be sold, or the set of a film where humanity has been wiped out in some fashion. It seemed to me the deadest place on earth, and nowhere I could ever imagine wanting to live.
Secondly, amongst all the hundreds of mansions nobody thought to provide the security guard – a permanent feature at the entrance to each frond – with anything more than a plywood sentry box and a chair. Not even a table for a bottle of water. How difficult would it have been to build a small, air conditioned, concrete hut for him to sit in instead of leaving him almost completely exposed to the elements? But that’s not the Dubai way, and the inhumane treatment of those from the Indian subcontinent by their Arab masters – aided and abetted indirectly if not directly by many of the expatriates who choose to purchase property there – continues the same as before. It did not sit well with me then, and it doesn’t now.
It was a nice trip, and it was good to catch up with some friends from Sakhalin and the Brazilian family I have known since I first moved to the Middle East. Interestingly, had I not taken the job which will catapult me into Nigeria once the HR department get back from their summer holidays, there is a good chance I would have eventually been offered a job in Dubai. Despite some nostalgia and a desire to have spent a few more days there, I have no desire to go back to living in Dubai, which is entirely consistent with my not having missed the place one jot since I left. I might go back for a holiday at some point though, Dubai being almost exactly halfway between Nigeria and Thailand and Emirates Airlines servicing both countries.
It was an Emirates Airlines flight which I clambered aboard to take me to Lebanon on a Sunday afternoon, and which turned out to be one of the worst flights I’ve ever been on in terms of the behaviour of my fellow passengers. The plane was rammed full to the last seat, almost entirely with Australian Lebanese. For every one adult passenger there were at least three children, and everyone seemed to be related. Certainly, they all dressed the same. The women wore appalling sports hot-pants and tracksuit tops, usually white with pink trim or black, and the men wore shell suits, chunky gold necklaces and bracelets, and thin goatee beards. Nobody appeared to have told them they are supposed to put luggage in the hold, so they all came on carrying monster suitcases which didn’t have a ghost of a chance of fitting in the overhead lockers. Of course, this was the airline’s fault so they all started complaining loudly. Then nobody was happy with where they were seated, each family wanted to sit together, all thirty five of them. I moved from my allocated seat to another (to be fair, the guy was very polite in asking me to) so somebody could be with his twin baby daughters, but the seat I moved to had a Sri Lankan nanny in it who needed to look after some whelp or other, so I moved to the nanny’s seat. Then a few minutes later one of the stewardesses asked if I wouldn’t mind moving so somebody could be near somebody else. I made the stewardess an offer: if you stick me up in business I’ll sit down, put my nose in my book, and you’ll not hear a peep out of me for the whole flight. Apparently she couldn’t do that, so apparently I couldn’t move from my seat either. The plane took off hopelessly late because the stewardesses had to stuff bags in all sorts of nooks and crannies to clear the aisles for take-off, and (as I found out later) a couple turned up to the departure gate hopelessly late carrying a fat, screaming baby and demanded they be given access to their stowed luggage because the baby might need changing. Eventually we took off, but the minute the seatbelt sign was turned off a hundred kids got up out of their seats and started charging around, grabbing, pulling, and kicking anything they could find, including banging on all the toilet doors and throwing the drinks containers around. The adults could not care less, they were too busy pulling down all their baggage from the overhead lockers and taking out piles of clothes, leaving the bags lying on the floor whilst they went and changed in the toilet from one hideous early ’90s sports rig into another. The steward serving my area was a model of calm, but you could see the exasperation on his face. “Is it always like this?” I asked. “On this flight, yes” he said.
When we landed, and I let the travelling safari park stampede its way past me, I found myself at the back what first looked to be an enormous rugby scrum but turned out to be the queue for immigration. I had read that I could get a visa on arrival and that it was free, but I had been given conflicting advice every time I asked anyone. No, it wasn’t free but you could pay in USD. No, you had to pay in Lebanese pounds. Yes, you need to go to that desk over there. No, not this desk, that desk. What do you want? It’s free you idiot, now get in one of those lines! Eventually I made it through, in no particular hurry, and collected my bag. Half of Lebanon had turned out to meet and greet arriving passengers, so it was not surprising that my friend failed to see me and I him. So for fifteen minutes I stood around gormlessly – having spent 3 years in the Middle East before, I am good at this – until I saw him coming through the crowd at me, a friend I’d met over 6 years ago in a seedy Dubai nightclub but had not seen for 4 years. I’d always promised I come and visit him in Lebanon and (I have a habit of doing this, so beware of offering me invitations on a whim) now I had finally got myself over there. One of the first things I asked him was about the behaviour of the passengers on the plane I’d come in on. “Oh yes,” he said “Lebanese Australians. We don’t like them either, always causing trouble and giving us a bad reputation everywhere.” Later, I spoke to a friend of his who worked for Emirates Airlines as a steward, and by chance had been on the same flight as me. “That route is the worst we fly at this time of year,” he told me.
I was delighted to find the Lebanese living in Lebanon to be altogether different. It was a twenty minute drive from the airport to his house, situated high up on a hill overlooking a deep valley which I would soon learn is an adequate description of pretty much every decent Lebanese home outside of Beirut. The drive was short, but revealed much. Lebanon is a chaotic place with minimal infrastructure, hare-brained drivers, half-built houses matched in number by those which are half-destroyed, and too many men standing about in tatty uniforms doing nothing constructive. In other words, the Middle East! I asked my friend if the police were corrupt like they are in Russia. He replied “We have virtually no laws here, so why do we need police?” If the driving was any measure of the prevalence of Lebanese law, he wasn’t exaggerating. We arrived at his house, a large building situated in a small Druze village somewhere near Beirut. The first thing I noticed was an enormous German flag hanging from one of the balconies. The next day I would find the country festooned with German flags, and an attitude to the world cup which I had not seen from any other nation. Let me explain.
The Lebanese are traders by nature; they are not inventors, labourers, bureaucrats or administrators, they are businessmen in the sense they will involve themselves in any business which brings them money with minimal effort. For most, this means trading: buy something and flog it on, usually having little or no interest in the product itself. The Lebanese descend from the Phonecians, who were the greatest traders of their time between 1200BC and 539BC. Unlike most peoples who have little idea who even their recent ancestors are, all the Lebanese seem to know exactly who the Phonecians were and what they were all about, and talk about them with pride. As an explanation as to why the Lebanese are so keen on trading it is as good as any. The running joke between my friend and I – I can’t even remember if it is true or not – is that when I met him the conversation went like this:
“What do you do?” I asked.
“I’m a businessman” he replied.
“What sort of business do you do?” I asked.
“I sell stuff” he said.
“What do you sell?” I asked.
“Well, what do you want to buy?!” he replied.
And that’s not far from the truth. Like all good traders, Lebanese will tell you what you want to hear, which is why they enjoy considerable success with the more gullible European (and Russian) women who hang about in Dubai’s nightclubs. Another joke I share with my friend is that Lebanese – who are usually Christian, Muslim, or Druze – can change their religion to suit whomever they are trying to flog something to. They are as comfortable smoking a shisha pipe and speaking Arabic with a Muslim client as they are propping up a bar downing whisky with English-speaking Christians, and I suspect should a Jew come wandering into town they’d be wearing a kippah and reciting the Torah before you knew it.
Such flexibility comes in handy when choosing a football team to support, Lebanon obviously not featuring in the finals itself. Initially, most Lebanese will support Brazil: mainly for reasons of shameless glory hunting but also out of genuine admiration for their style of play, coupled with the fact that there are a significant number of Lebanese living in Brazil and the two countries enjoy strong diasporic ties. So for a while, I was told (and I saw some residual evidence to support this) every car, building, and bar flew Brazilian flags. However, a few days before I arrived the Netherlands had inconveniently dumped Brazil out of the tournament with a 2-1 win. Most Lebanese were appalled by this, claiming the Dutch were a much worse team and merely lucky to have won. I can sympathise with the view that Holland was lucky to score the equaliser which deflected off Felipe Melo’s head, but I’m not sure what part luck played in Brazil allowing Wesley Sneijder a free header six yards out from a set piece while their defender stood still as a statue looking on gormlessly. But the Lebanese were having none of it, so they naturally turned their support to Germany who, having thrashed Argentina 4-0, were looking the best team of the tournament by far. So by the time I arrived, the whole country was four-square behind Germany and the black, yellow, and red flags were everywhere. With German flags in short supply, some had even gone so far as to make their own from material of the corresponding colours, but within a few days German flags were on sale in every small hill village we drove through.
My friend, in typical entrepreneurial spirit, had asked his uncle to bring three Brazil shirts back from Brazil with him (he was visiting that week), and was now wondering what to with them. When the time came for Germany to play Spain in the semi-final we went to a local bar which was mobbed with Lebanese wearing German shirts and waving German flags. Even the little kids had been decked out in German gear and instructed to wave German flags enthusiastically upon any sign of action on the pitch. When the game began an enthusiastic roar went up which was repeated on those rare occasions in that first half whenever Germany looked like doing anything good. I was therefore somewhat surprised to hear an even more enthusiastic roar go up when Spain scored the one and only goal of the game, and when the final whistle went the place went bananas with celebrations. Fireworks started going off in Beirut, visible a few miles away on the coast, and cars were driving down the street – some still sporting German flags – blaring their horns with people hanging out the windows punching the air. The explanation was simple: Spain had won, so everyone was now supporting Spain. By the next day, most of the German flags had disappeared and Spanish ones – what few could be found – appeared on cars and in front of cafes and bars. No doubt the celebrations of the overall Spanish victory in the 2010 world cup a few days later went on until the early hours in Lebanon, celebrations which apparently would have taken place regardless of who won. As a method of following the world cup it is probably not a bad one, and beats sulking over yet another English underperformance any day. True, the Lebanese probably stand accused of not holding true to any one position and lacking principles, but they’ve probably been subject to that criticism since they were Phonecians.
Anyway, shortly after arriving to my friend’s house on the hill, which was absolutely massive and featured two or three sitting rooms each with multiple sofa sets and capable of sitting upwards of twenty people in each, we went to a wedding in the local village. The village was a single street affair which wound slightly uphill with a small square in the middle in front of what could be classed as the village hall. The street was narrow and roughly paved, lined with stone houses with balconies and orange tiled roofs, and the village square was packed full of people all dressed up for the occasion, sat on white plastic chairs. There was barely a spare seat, but my friend found two of them and we sat down whilst the bride and groom walked down the hill into the square onto a stage which had an ornate double chair for them to sit on whilst various religious folk and village elders blessed them. Then the music started and everyone started dancing, with the bride and groom taking the centre of the floor and eventually being carried shoulder-height around the square. It was a scene right out of the Godfather films; were they not speaking Arabic you’d think you were in an Italian hill village at the wedding of a Don’s daughter. It was impressive. There was no alcohol, I think for financial and traditional reasons rather than religious, but there was plenty of food on offer in the village hall and my friend started dragging me towards it. “But I’ve not been invited,” I protested. “Nor have I,” he said “nor has anybody! We all just turn up to these things.” So I grabbed a plate and after negotiating a crowd of a thousand people managed to get to the tables which were piled high with Lebanese food: little rolls containing spicy meat, a huge pile of rice with a whole lamb in it (complete with jaws, teeth, eyes, the lot), humus, and that finely chopped, vinegary salad they eat in the Middle East (yeah, good research you did there, Tim!). A few platefuls later, I was done. Apparently the die-hard party goers go on to a club somewhere and get smashed, and looking around I thought it was probably a good idea they saved the alcohol until later.
I spent the few days I had there being driven about the countryside by my friend, and I can only describe it as stunning. Except for the flat strip of land beside the coast, and the coastal plain on which Beirut sits, Lebanon mainly consists of high ridges of dry, crumbling rock, either bare or covered in trees flanking deep valleys with incredibly steep sides. Villages are perched on the sides of the hills, terraced so the roof of one house is level with the floor of the one above it, each square and of the same white or light grey colour with orange tiled roofs. Time for some photos.
There was clearly wealth in Lebanon, but unfortunately this is not coupled with confidence in the government, civil society, or with expectations of future stability. Like Russia, another country where personal wealth is shadowed by a fear that everything will collapse tomorrow, large, grandiose houses stand newly built alongside derelict buildings and crumbling infrastructure. Buildings damaged from the 15 year civil war which ended in 1990 lie abandoned on what ought to be prime real estate, the holes from bullets and artillery sometimes still visible in the concrete. Sometimes a new mansion is under construction next door. When anyone has money in Lebanon it is channelled as quickly as possible into building yourself a house; unlike cash, houses are more difficult for a corrupt government to take from you. Lots of money from the gulf states has found its way to Lebanon, with Saudis and Kuwaitis buying large houses in the hills outside Beirut in order to take advantage of the cooler summers and (whisper) Lebanon’s more relaxed laws. But signs of government bureaucracy and incompetence is everywhere: men in a variety of scruffy uniforms (some armed with M16s) standing about doing nothing, intermittent electricity, and a sign in one of Lebanon’s most popular tourist attractions – the Jeita Grotto - saying approximately: “We would like to provide our visitors with toilet facilities but the local municipality told us to stop our renovation of the old toilets for no reason whatsoever.” On the plus side, the government tends to leave people alone. It takes about a decade to obtain a building permit in Lebanon, so most people just build something anyway and apply for permission later on, not worrying when or if the approval will be granted. My friend, who is trained as a surveyor, makes a reasonable living producing drawings of existing buildings for submission with their planning applications.
Another sign of Lebanon’s wealth which appears at odds with the rest of the country is a pastime seemingly enjoyed by the nation’s young women: driving about in a $100,000 4WD chattering on a mobile phone. As we crawled through traffic on Beirut’s main highways it seemed every fourth car was a Range Rover or BMW X5 filled with attractive young women (the Lebanese women are attractive, some stunningly so) dressed up in designer clothing with a Louis Vouitton handbag each and Nokia’s latest pinned to their ears. My friend complained about the Lebanese women: “They always ask how much money they will have and what size of house they will live in should we get married,” he told me “and none of them want to work.” This might be an unfair generalisation, but it was common knowledge in Dubai that wealthy Arabs often take young Lebanese women as mistresses and buy their consent with gifts, or at least the use of, Mercedes sports cars and luxury villas. Certainly, it didn’t look as though many of the girls driving the fancy cars up and down Beirut’s streets, and patronising its high-class bars and nightclubs, had done much by way of working for a living. But almost certainly these would have been in the minority: I simply chose not to look so long at the men and women with six children stuffed into an ancient Volvo who looked as though they’d spent a life outdoors.
I cannot write about Lebanon without mentioning the cars. It appears there is no requirement to keep a car in serviceable condition, so people drive them until they literally stop and refuse to move. I saw machines whose bodywork was in such decrepit shape – doors missing, half the roof removed, body panels from a different vehicle held on with string – I was amazed they were able to run. And there are hundreds of old 1970s Mercedes running about, some still in reasonable condition, the preferred vehicle of Lebanon’s taxi drivers (whose services I thankfully did not require). Old Citroens and Volvos from the 1980s were common, as were the BMWs and Mercedes from the same era. For a place to see retro motoring, albeit a bit banged up, Lebanon is the place to go.
On my last night my friend’s uncle was arriving from Brazil, the first time he’d been back to Lebanon in 6 years. Naturally, this called for a party, and half the family were invited so only about 40 or 50 people were in attendance. The party took place in his parents’ house (at which point I understood why the living rooms need to be so big), mainly on an enormous balcony which ran the length of the house. Enough food to feed an army was conjured out of thin air, and once the hour-long introductions were made (during which I said as little as possible and tried not to look like the only foreigner and the only guest who couldn’t speak Arabic) I was encouraged by several women at once to go and eat some of the Lebanese food. I piled my plate high and wide, but once I’d packed it all away inside myself I was ordered back to the table to eat some of the Lebanese food; apparently, what I had eaten wasn’t Lebanese so I allowed somebody else to pile my plate up with much the same as what I’d just eaten and start all over again. It was good fun, and huge glasses were filled with ice and then whisky and handed around, and all the men sat at one end and talked business and all the women sat at the other and talked about whatever the hell women talk about, and I sat with my friend and a half a dozen of his cousins, some of whom were educated abroad including the UK. My friend’s family, including all those at the party, were wonderfully hospitable towards me and made sure – with the help of whisky – that I did not feel too uncomfortable. Personally, I was fascinated. They had managed to get 40 members of the same family in one place, serve alcohol, and nobody was fighting. If we get more than three members of my family in a room we start arguing and storming off after about ten minutes, alcohol or no. Organising a party for eight people in the west takes a fortnight’s preparation, my hosts pulled off theirs as if they were having granny round for tea. After a few hours, and long before it got too late, everybody got up and left and the food was cleared away in under half and hour, leaving the place looking as though nobody was ever there. I was impressed, and I told my friend so. He laughed: this was not a party, it was a small gathering. They have these all the time, it’s a big part of Lebanese life, and not a bad part at all I thought.
I enjoyed Lebanon, I really did. I did not really sample Beruit’s nightlife so I cannot confirm its reputation as a party town (I think I’m getting old, I had no great desire to go out). But I saw the countryside, lots of it, and it is worth seeing. I said I’ll go back, and I hope I do some day, but practicalities and opportunities are going to determine when. One thing is for sure, I’m glad I went, and I’m glad I saw my friend again.