Monday, August 19, 2013

Turning Heads

When Sue and I got to Beirut in 1970, I found it very irritating how people in the street would stop and stare at Sue. Okay, so she was blonde and it was the era of miniskirts. But that still didn’t justify the way pedestrians, cars and even buses would stop when we walked down Hamra Street.

One day I complained about this to the owner of the school where we worked. He laughed.

“They aren’t looking at Sue,” he said. “They’re looking at you.”

“Me? Why me?”

“Because they’ve never seen a man with long hair before.”

The next time Sue and I walked down the street, I looked more carefully at people’s reactions. Our employer was right. Everyone was staring at me.

Me in 1970

A few weeks after this episode, the Barbers Guild of Lebanon passed a resolution condemning long hair on men. The resolution further stated that any men with long hair who came to their shops would have their heads shaved. I take some pride in thinking that I may have contributed to the barbers' resolution. 

Eating Disorders

Eating with Libyans was normally an informal affair. Everyone would sit or lie on the floor around a large communal bowl of food. You would sometimes use a spoon but often you would just pick up pieces of the food using pieces of bread or just your fingers. Unfortunately, this relaxed style of eating didn’t always go down well when translated to other cultures.

My daughter Emma used to run into problems with this. She spent the first five years of her life in Libya, and she spent much of that time with a Libyan family that we knew well. So she learned to eat the way Libyans ate at home. This caused problems whenever she went back to the UK, where she would tuck into a plate of spaghetti or even a bowl of ice cream using only her fingers. I didn’t see anything wrong with this but her grandma was absolutely horrified by it.

I ran into similar problems when I travelled from Libya to visit an International House school in Cairo. I was invited as guest of honour to a party at the home of one of the school’s receptionists.

My first mistake was deciding to sit on the floor when I saw there weren’t enough chairs for everyone. The hostess said “This isn’t Libya” and brought me a chair.

Then came the food. This consisted of tiny (1.5 inches across) pizzas. I was handed a pretty china plate with three mini-pizzas on it. I picked up the first one with my fingers and ate it.

Everyone stopped talking. Somebody started laughing. “Look at him. He’s eating like a Libyan,” she said. Then everyone laughed. After this, all the Egyptians proceeded to eat their pizzas the proper (British) way, with a knife and fork.

Sometimes I could understand why Libyans generally disliked Egyptians so much.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

To Protect and Serve

Christine, one of our teachers in Libya, was walking down a main street in Tripoli. She noticed that a teenaged Libyan was following her. He kept his distance but he also kept making hissing noises at her. She ignored him. The boy kept following.

Suddenly a car zoomed up and screeched to a halt beside the boy. Christine stopped and turned around to see what was happening. To her surprise, a man got out of the car, grabbed the boy and dragged him over to where she was standing.

It turned out that the man was a plain-clothes policeman. He told Christine that she needed to accompany him and the boy to the police station. When she asked why, he told her that she had to bring charges against the boy for sexual assault, so that he could put the boy in prison.

Christine thought the policeman was overreacting. “He’s only a boy,” she laughed. “And he didn’t really do anything.”

“He was harassing you,” replied the policeman. “In Libya we don’t allow men to harass women. We need to put him in prison.”

Christine had visions of the boy being imprisoned for years and having his whole life ruined. So she kept reasoning with the policeman. It took a while but she eventually persuaded him to let the boy go after giving him a stern talking-to.

“Now I will drive you to where you are going,” the policeman told Christine. She said that wasn’t necessary but he insisted. So she got into his car.

The policeman then drove her to an empty building lot and proceeded to try to assault her.

Christine never could see that by insisting the boy was set free, she had effectively told the policeman she welcomed or at least didn’t mind sexual advances from strangers.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Friday Night at the Movies

Even back in 1970 Beirut was a very sophisticated city. However, if you looked hard, you could find parts of the city that were still unspoiled. One such place was Le Baron cinema.

Sue, our friend Dereck and I used to go Le Baron every Friday night. One reason for this was that no other expatriates ever went there and so we were guaranteed an authentic Lebanese experience. Another reason was that they always showed two good, full-length action films, usually a war film and a western. It was there that I first saw such classics as “Sabata: the man with gunsight eyes comes to kill”.

One endearing feature of Le Baron was that most of the seats were broken. Some were missing seat cushions, others were missing armrests. So our first task every week was to find three seats together that were largely intact. We would then reach over to other seats, pull off any pieces we needed and add them to our seats.

All the films were in English but they had Arabic and French subtitles. As the other patrons didn’t speak English, they relied on the subtitles and naturally felt free to talk over the soundtrack. So we three had to fall back on reading the French subtitles. We were usually able to follow the main gist of the films, although we would get confused when the translations were a little off-track: for example, when “God” was translated as “chien” (dog).

One of the great things about Le Baron was there was always lots of audience participation. When a western was showing, the spectators would boo the villains and cheer the heroes, and we would boo and cheer along with them. When it was an American war film, things would turn upside down and everyone would boo the American military and cheer the German or Japanese soldiers. Some of the patrons near us would turn around to check that we, too, were booing and cheering appropriately. We never disappointed them.

The very best thing about the cinema, though, was related to smoking. This was banned in all cinemas in Beirut but more or less everyone who went to Le Baron smoked, and smoked a lot: From our usual seats near the back, we could look towards the screen and see the red tips of scores of cigarettes in front of us. Not surprisingly, the police knew about this and they felt obliged to enforce the smoking ban. So at some point every Friday evening a police officer would enter the cinema and walk down the aisle, shouting at everyone to put their cigarettes out. The red tips blinked out row by row as he passed, and by the time he reached the screen nobody was smoking. Then he would walk back up the aisle. And as soon as he passed each row, everyone in that row would immediately light up again. By the time the officer reached the back of the cinema, everything was back to normal and we were watching the film over a sea of glowing red tips.

I miss Le Baron.

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Driving with Camels

Driving in Libya was a tricky business. Even Libyans said so. They had two sayings about it. One was, “In England you drive on the left. In America you drive on the right. In Libya we drive in the shade.” The other was, “In Libya you can drive for hundreds of kilometers without seeing another vehicle. But if you see one, you will probably hit it.”

By the way, I can vouch for the truth underlying the latter saying. Once when driving on a road in the middle of nowhere, I saw a truck coming the other way. As the road was absolutely flat and straight and visibility was perfect, I was able to watch the truck for miles as it got closer and closer. It was driving right in the middle of the road. I got nervous and blew my horn. This seemed to wake up the other driver, who swerved back onto his side of the road at the very last moment, just missing my car.   

The problem wasn’t just that Libyans were undisciplined drivers, although that certainly contributed to the chaos. It was also that the roads were not well maintained. So you constantly had to swerve to avoid huge potholes. And potholes weren’t the only dangers. At some point before we got to Libya the military had moved large numbers of tank transporters and other very heavy vehicles east from Tripoli to the Egyptian border. This had left deep ruts in the tarmac on the main coast road. Some of these ruts were so deep that, if you got your wheels into them, you could be stuck in them for miles.

There was another problem with roads and the military. Whenever the latter were in a hurry - which was often - they would drive in the fast lane on the main roads, but going against the traffic. It could be very disconcerting to zoom along in the fast lane and suddenly see a convoy of military vehicles heading straight towards you.

Anyway, thinking about Libyan roads has reminded me that the worst driving experience of my entire life occurred in Libya, and it happened the very first time that I drove in that country. I had just bought a Beetle and had to drive it home from the dealer. (Perhaps I should mention here that I was a very inexperienced driver and had never driven on the right before. Also, I had failed the only driving test I had ever taken, which was in the UK.)

I managed the first couple of miles all right. Then we came to a large roundabout, which was a seething, disorganized mass of cars, trucks, buses, bikes, donkey carts and pedestrians. I stopped and waited for a space to open up so I could enter the roundabout. After several minutes I realized a space was never going to open up. So I said a quick prayer and drove into the chaos. Remarkably, we didn’t crash. I was elated.

But then I couldn’t get off the roundabout. We went around it again and again. Every time I tried to get off, I would have to swerve back onto it to avoid running into another car or a cyclist or a bus. Once, my way was blocked by a donkey pulling a cart filled with toilets. Another time, I almost escaped only to be thwarted at the last second by a line of camels, each with its tongue connected by a piece of wire to the tail of camel in front of it.

I don’t know how many times we went around. I’m guessing at least twenty but it could well have been more. I do know that when I finally broke free, I pulled over to the side of the road, put my head on the steering wheel and wept.

Libya could do that to you.

Monday, July 29, 2013

Papers, Bloody Papers

As I have mentioned before, the amount of bureaucracy we had to deal with in Libya was horrific. As a result, episodes like the one described below were not uncommon.

I needed to get an exit visa so that I could travel to the UK for a meeting of International House school directors. As usual, it took hours for me to complete all of the necessary forms, because this had to be done in Arabic and I didn’t really read or write Arabic.
Once the forms were done I went down to the Ministry of Immigration with Mansour, the school “fixer,” and handed in the bundle of papers. The counter clerk looked only at the top sheet and handed the bundle back to me. I looked inquiringly at Mansour and he explained that the top form was an old one and that we needed the new version.

We rushed over to one of the kiosks that sold government forms and asked for the new version of the form that had been replaced. The man there told us that the new form wasn’t available yet. God willing, it would be available the next day.

Apparently God wasn’t willing, because the following day the new form still hadn’t arrived.

Three days later we finally got a copy of the new form. I completed it. Mansour and I went back to the Ministry and I handed in the stack of papers again. The clerk shook his head sadly, handed back the papers and said something to Mansour. The latter explained that the form was not valid because it didn’t have the government’s motto of the day stamped on it. 

As neither Mansour nor I had never heard of this motto of the day, we went to the bank where our friend Mustafa worked to see if he knew about it. He did. He explained that the government now issued a new motto every day and this had to be written or stamped on all forms. That day’s motto was the Arabic equivalent of “If a job is worth doing, it is worth doing well”.

Since Mansour was illiterate, Mustafa wrote the motto on the immigration forms, and Mansour and I rushed back to the Ministry. Too late! It was an hour from closing time and there was a huge line of people waiting. Okay, we would go back the next morning and would get there really early.

The following morning Mansour and I were first in line when the counter opened. I handed over the papers. The clerk glanced at them, shook his head and handed them back. “What is it this time?” I asked Mansour. “This is yesterday’s motto,” he said.

A quick trip to Mustafa’s bank revealed that the current motto was, “If you help a friend, he will stab you in the back”. (This was no doubt inspired by some recent action by the Egyptian government.) Mustafa crossed out the old motto on each form and replaced it with the new one. 

Back at the Ministry, we waited in line for two hours before we reached the counter. The clerk took the bundle of papers. Mansour and I held our breath. The clerk looked at us, shook his head and said something I didn’t catch. Mansour translated, “The motto is an Islamic motto. So it must be written in green ink. You wrote it in black ink.”

Back at the bank Mustafa found a green pen and rewrote the motto on each form.

Back at the Ministry we waited in line and finally reached the counter again. The clerk took the papers. He looked at the top sheet and he smiled. “Quies (Good),” he said approvingly. Mansour and I grinned at each other. The clerk turned to the next sheet. Another smile and another “Quies”. We worked through the stack of forms, nodding approvingly at each one. Mansour and I were almost hugging each other by now.

 The clerk reached the final page. No smile this time. He pointed to where I had written my name, in block capitals as specified on the form. To my surprise, he explained the problem in English this time.
“This name no good.”
“Why?” I asked.
“All letters same size.”

Obviously they were all the same size, because my name was in block capitals. Trying to stay calm, I asked him to explain.
“You are English teacher. You should know this.”
“Know what?” I asked.
“In English first letter in every name must be big letter.”

I had been in Libya long enough to know how to react to this type of idiocy. So I didn't try to put the clerk right about capitalization in English. And I didn't do what I wanted to do, which was to grab the clerk's head and smash it repeatedly down on the counter. Instead, I meekly apologized, took the form and rewrote the first letter of each of names in even bigger capitals.
The clerk nodded approvingly. He stamped the papers and gave me a receipt.
“Come back tomorrow with your passport and you will have your visa”.
“Shukran (Thank you),” Mansour and I said in unison.
“La shukran. Allah wajib,” the clerk responded. “Thanks are not necessary. I’m just doing God’s work”.

No doubt.

Murderers' Home

There was virtually no crime in Libya when we were there. Most people were comfortably off and, besides that, Libyans were basically very honest people. Two quick examples will illustrate this.

1. We sometimes ate in a cheap little workers café on Shara Mizran. A really cheap little café. After eating there one evening, we drove home and went to bed. The next morning I realized I had left the school cashbox in the café. The box had a broken lock and it contained about 3500 dinars ($10, 000 US – a LOT of money in 1975). I drove into town at 90 miles an hour. As I hurtled into the café, the waiter waved at me. “Good morning! You left your money last night. Here it is.” And there it was. All 3500 dinars. In a cashbox that didn’t lock.

2. People didn’t much like leaving their money in banks. (Since last year, I know why.) So they often carried around large amounts of cash. One day I saw an old man come out of our bank with wads of money in his arms. As he walked off down the street, he dropped one of the wads without noticing. Another Libyan picked up the wad of notes and ran after the old man, shouting, “Hey, stop. You’ve dropped some money. Here it is.”

So we were all shocked in 1977 when there was a murder in Tripoli. What happened was an immigrant worker from Tunisia tried to rob a jeweller’s on Shara Istiklal and ended up killing the shopkeeper.

The murderer was caught, put on trial and sentenced to death. Ghadaffi came on TV and praised the court for imposing the death penalty. He suggested that the execution be carried out in public and the man’s body then be hung from a lamppost on Istiklal Street as a warning to other potential murderers. Bloodthirsty stuff worthy of a Texas governor!

But this was Libya. A couple of days later, Ghadaffi came on TV again to announce that he had been thinking about the case and had revised his opinion. After all, the killer was a poor uneducated immigrant worker from a class-ridden neighbouring country. As a fellow Arab and Muslim, he surely deserved compassion.

So the murderer was granted amnesty, given a house and provided with a government job.