people & society


Abd al-Latif Fakhuri, one of my favorite local historians, has an article on the history of epidemics in Beirut in today’s Annahar. Local histories of the various quarters in Beirut are very interesting — if also sometimes inaccurate. In this genre, I find Fakhuri’s work the most interesting because he does serious research in periodicals and literary works to complement other sources. In this article, he goes through a list of epidemics that have struck Beirut in the past, tying into the narrative local beliefs, quarantine measures, epidemic-poetry, advertisements, etc…

It is all written in the spirit of the flu season and, if you are historically minded (and read Arabic), it makes for a very interesting read. I found the local name given to the flu when it first struck in 1889 rather funny: the goat’s nose. anf ‘l-3anza. Inf ‘l-uenza.

Since we are on the topic of local history, there is a small museum worth seeing in `Ayn al-Mraysah. A certain Ibrahim Najem, a diver/fire-fighter of the neighborhood, damaged his legs during decompression many, many years ago. He has since taken to collecting things that most, in utter fascination with “the new,” would have thrown away. The three rooms that constitute this “museum” are a heap of objects many of which are commonplace. But the gems scattered indiscriminately among them and the pleasure of meeting the wonderful Ibrahim make this trip definitely worth it. Contact details can be found here.

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After I wrote a post last month touching on the issue of prostitution, this blog has been receiving hits from searches such as “beirut AND prostitute.” And while “russian prostitutes lebanon” is an expected search term, “beirut indian prostitutes” might come as more of a surprise — and both searches have led here. But these search terms are two faces of the same coin.

Most reporters on prostitution in Lebanon “venture” to Maameltein or to Hamra and many end up unwittingly marketing prostitution rather than shedding light on its problems. This Meow Lebanon article, for example, makes human trafficking sound almost benign. A better researched report from Executive magazine (via Qifa Nabki) deals with some of the problems of semi-legal prostitution of the super nightclubs, such as the practice of withholding women’s passports and restricting their movements. But with its artsy photographs (many from Amsterdam!) and its detailed description of the logistics, it feels at points like something out of a tourist guide. The fact that it does not venture beyond Maameltein and Hamra either contributes to the relatively “rosy” picture of the business.

The darker side is very dark. There is a certain hierarchy to prostitution in Lebanon, topped by the super nightclubs and their well-off clientele. Lebanese, Egyptian, and other Arab sex workers come next, many working the seedier places such as the older bars of Hamra. Further down the ladder lie the less known facets of prostitution. A recent article (h/t: Antoun) begins to scratch the surface by touching on forced and family aspects of the business. Far less common are discussions of under-aged prostitutes, both boys and girls. As one descends the prostitutional ladder, leaving Maameltein and Hamra behind, the value of the human body drops radically. The markets of Khaldeh and Sabra Palestinian Camp offer bodies as young as 14 for the equivalent of $6.5-$20.

A very fragile and invisible group occupies the lowest rung: female workers from Africa and Asia. Though some light is being shed on the abuse domestics in Lebanon are subject to, not enough is being said about the destitution and deception that leads some to prostitution. One can only imagine how fragile the position of a domestic worker would be if she ends up out of cash and living illegally in Lebanon. And there is no dearth of people willing to take advantage of that. I know from a friend who is active in human rights that some who come to the country as domestic workers end up offering sexual services in Ouzaii, Khaldeh, and Dawrah for as little as $6.5. Others are deceived into coming to Lebanon for the sole purpose of prostitution, as is the case with Burundi and undoubtedly many more.

The Lebanese authorities are complicit in all these various forms. Whether in the semi-legalized glamor of Maameltein or the desert of human rights of Palestinians and foreign laborers, the hand of the law is there: overlooking, encouraging, taking bribes, setting visa categories, and perpetuating the depraved conditions that make the oldest profession in the world a flourishing business in Lebanon. As far as reporters go, however, the lower down the ladder one goes, the less sexy the topic becomes. So do not expect to see photographs of the brothels of the poor adorning the pages of a glossy magazine.

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Unless you live in one of the “security squares” in Beirut, you would be hard pressed to count to ten before a car honks somewhere within earshot. This is even more true in the Hamra area, where through traffic subsides only after midnight and in the summer heat, fuses tend to blow rather quickly. Given that these are also residential areas, it is easy to lose sleep over this. Someone has decided to express their frustration on Abdel Aziz street in colloquial verse (loosely translated):

Take it easy while you’re waiting

Clever guy, no need for honking

The traffic will flow on its own

Without all this posturing

Signed: Bin Displeased

There is a reason why the “service taxi” conversation genre in Beirut never grows old. Here is my contribution to it:

From Ras Beirut to Cola:

Omar: (shouting to a man on the street) Allah y-khalleek lal-tayfeh [May good keep you for the (Sunni) sect]. (Turning to me with an apologetic smile) I am trying to embarrass him the way he embarrassed me once. I am Palestinian, you know. We helped them [the Sunnis] in Tariq Jdidah on May 7th [2008]. That is why Hizballah did not enter the neighborhood. Don’t you believe it when they say the Palestinians have little influence in Lebanon. We are everywhere, keeping their back. But they do not like us. Between you and me, the Sunnis are the most fanatic in Lebanon. Rafiq al-Hariri did not do a thing to help us. He fought against us, depriving us of work, ownership, everything.

[…] I have family in Sweden. Where? In Malmo, that’s where all the Arabs are. I traveled there through Turkey, then by boat to Greece, making my way up from there to Sweden. I would never do it again. The smugglers are ruthless. A woman’s son fell off the boat and they did not stop for him. […] A Palestinian has no heart, he is afraid at nothing. At the border with Turkey I helped an Iraqi who got caught in barbed wire and got caught myself in the process. The Iraqi ran off without trying to help me. I still have the scar, look (he shows me a scar on his hand). And another long one on my leg (he points along his left shin).

[…] I lived in Sweden for two years. No, I do not speak Swedish, but my 10-year old daughter does. I came back to Lebanon thinking things were looking up and ended up driving this service. I am going back to Sweden, khalas. At least we get some respect there. Excuse me? Yes, tfadalli. Tasharrafna b-ma3riftik, madam.

From Cola to Ras Beirut:

Tariq: Look at this jam, they have cut off traffic on the airport highway. I wonder who is visiting this time. If only we treated each other the way we treat our visitors […] Better go through Ayshah Bakkar, there is less traffic.

[…] (through Ayshah Bakkar, between army tanks) What, they burned tires here yesterday? What is the point of that? What is the fault of passersby like you and me who get caught up here? Or that woman who was shot on her balcony? […] Why would anyone support Hariri or Berri? Look, I support neither Hariri nor Berri. I support my shoe which keeps my feet protected (he points at his feet) — well, I am driving barefooted now. I also support the customer who pays me 2,000 Lira to get him from one place to the other. What have Hariri or Berri ever done for me?

[…] All that goes up comes down. When a bullet goes up, it comes down. No, it has nothing to do with gravity, it has to do with the angle. (He then proceeded to explain about bullets and B7’s, ranges, angles, and detonators using the American University Hospital as an illustrative target). […] I know about these things. I have received military training in the USSR during the [Lebanese civil] war. Houn? Eh, tikrami. Allah ma3ik.

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If you live in or around Beirut, you might have seen those pink taxis driven around by women in white shirts and pink ties. They are driven by women and service only women and families. When I mentioned them to a friend of mine, his knee-jerk reaction was to lament what this country is coming to and to complain about the segregation of the sexes inspired by Wahhabi culture.
Perhaps. But Nayaghi taxi has little to do with that. It is based in Dekouaneh (i.e. Christian area, since ) and is inspired by London’s Pink Cabs.

If you live in or around Beirut, you might have seen one of these pink Peugeots being driven around by women in white shirts and pink ties. A highly unusual phenomenon — not the attire, but women driving taxis or “services.” Nayaghi Banet Taxi (Nayaghi girls’ taxi), as the name evinces, serves only women or women accompanied by their families. When I mentioned the idea to a friend of mine, his knee-jerk reaction was to lament what this country is coming to and to complain about the segregation of the sexes inspired by the demands of our Gulfite tourists. Pink taxis, after all, are current in the UAE.

Perhaps. But that is not all there is to Nayaghi taxi. To begin with, it is owned and run by a woman and based in Dekwaneh. As far as inspiration goes, the websites cites the imagery of Pink Ladies’ Cabs, launched in the UK in 2006 to get party-going women home late at night. Pink Cabs can also be found in South Africa and Australia.

But of course, let us not forget the Lebanese flare or that Lebanese version of female emancipation that refuses to go without makeup. When I asked the lady driver in the pink tie for a card, this is what I received:

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