Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Taking time to slow down

Taking time to slow down

شواي شواي
shway shway

(Slowly, slowly!)

I love it when I hear someone say shway shway. It means slowly, take it easy, take your time. Someone much older and wiser than me once told me that a good lesson to learn in life is to take time to slow down. Remembering this at the end of my first week in Lebanon, one week of Arabic classes down, countless conversations had, two chapters written, I escaped the heaving grind of the city centre and headed to the sea. 

The smoggy exhaust fumes of Beirut surrendered to the fresh air riding in on the waves, and that first lungful of salty air was as welcome as the sunset colouring the sky. 

If you've never watched a sun set in it's entirety, you might never discover how many shades of orange grow into our skies every evening. If you can, I recommend taking time to watch a sunset this summer. Here in Beirut, when the embers of the day glow and disappear beneath the horizon, a soulful song fills the air as a dozen minarets call worshipers to sunset prayer. It is time for Muslims celebrating Ramadan to break their fast. Heading back into the city, the air is filled with the smells of cooking wafting from windows, and food being served at last.   

Taking time to slow down is essential when learning a language, I discover. Learning Arabic has always seemed like the path of the mountain goat, never looking up at the vast mountain she has to climb, but looking forward, horns down, tottering along the path she has chosen. Now that I'm here, and taking classes for three hours every day, patience is essential, and patience is easily inspired by those who are fasting, abstaining from water in the heat of the sun, watching the moon as it fattens towards the end of the fasting month.

It's difficult to measure the rate at which a language is sinking into your brain. Three hours a day of intensive class is enough to make anyone conjugate verbs in their sleep, and every day brings an opportunity to speak with people. In class we're moving at a lightning pace, but the practice, I discover, has to be slow and considered. I have to chat to waiters, be teased by strangers, be tested by friends. 

Sometimes my Arabic has a mysterious effect, like when I said good evening to the guy who delivers ingredients to the restaurant at the bottom of my apartment building and he squatted down, hoisted me onto his back, and carried me quickly up the ten flights of stairs to my apartment. Though I tried, I couldn't quite work out how to ask him politely to put me down, and when we reached my door I wasn't quite sure what the etiquette was for a piggy-back up five floors. A glass of water? Some money? But the guy just smiled and left. When I got in, I asked my flatmates if he always did that? 

And now I think half of Beirut knows the story.

Our Arabic class is an interesting meeting of paths. We are an Italian journalist, freshly arrived from a year with the UN in Gaza, a displaced Austrian diplomat from the Austrian Embassy in Damascus, now in Beirut, learning Arabic on her outrageously long lunch break, a Swiss medical student, an American discovering the Middle East, a Frenchman in love with the Middle East, a steely Russian who learnt Arabic in Egypt (and realised she couldn't speak it anywhere other than Egypt), a Belgian-Lebanese, reconnecting with her family in Beirut, and me. 

Our teacher is the sweetest woman beneath the Lebanese sun, but rules with a cranky, iron first, perhaps because she teaches multiples classes a day whilst fasting. 'Yalla, one hand cannot clap,' she cries as she encourages us to study night and day, beyond the bounds of her classroom. She has only one explanation when we question the many subtle differences between the Lebanese dialect of Arabic and fasha, Modern Standard Arabic, spoken formally across the Arab world. She smiles and says 'in Lebanon, we are cool.'

And in Lebanon, people are very cool. I found this lady on my doorstep last week. 

 The word on the streets in east Beirut is very cool.


If my flatmates are anything to go by, the Lebanese are also some of the loveliest people I've ever met. In western and southern Beirut, I'm sure there is a different side of the city, but I've yet to explore. From what I've seen so far, the west is certainly more traditional and conservative than the eastern side of town. Over here in the east seems like a sort of decaying, dappled, fragrant, fading bridge between Europe and the Middle East.

In all cases, beneath the coolness, glamour and style oozing from the surface of this city, there are troubling layers beneath. Like the physical layers of architecture, built around, on top of, and alongside archaeological remains, Lebanon builds steadily on the unsteady memories of the past. 

There is a deep sadness, a mourning, for a past that cannot be reliably written in the modern history books in schools, and for a future that is hard to imagine. There is a phrase repeated often among the Lebanese regarding stagnant relations between religious groups in Lebanon, and that is that 'no one talks about the war.' 

The civil war of 1975-1990 was long, fractured, multifaceted, multi-faith and destructive. It left deep scars and many families unwilling to talk about and reluctant to forgive the losses they suffered. Christians live peacefully alongside Muslims in Beirut, but with growing fears of extremism from both sides, in Lebanon and in the wider region, and personal memories of a brother killed by a Christian in the war, a father killed by a Muslim in the war. Trust between these two majority religious groups seems far from solid.

One Lebanese man, working in sanitation for Palestinian refugees, told me that a hostile attitude exists towards Palestinians, who are granted land and refugee status in Lebanon in a reluctantly accommodating way. Reluctant because they occupy space and resources already limited in tiny Lebanon, and accommodating because as long as these people remain refugees, and hold on to their refugee right to return, a right abandoned if they take Lebanese citizenship, they maintain - and live by - the hope that a free Palestine will exist once more, a hope that undermines the state of Israel. 

Now, with the entire population doubled by the influx of refugees from Syria since 2012, occupying vast areas in the north and east of the country, and many jobs being taken by migrant workers who will work for far less than the Lebanese, life remains unsteady in Lebanon. And yet, despite these changes, the pressures on resources and the challenges faced nationwide, life goes on. Ships come to port, parents bring up their children, people take time to slow down.


  1. I love reading your blogs Helen! So very interesting. X

  2. Beautiful insight into your newest adventure! Take care of yourself lady x