Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Notes on Beirut part 1

To those of you just joining the broadcast I am currently doing an academic year abroad in Lebanon. These are just some thoughts I felt were necessary to share with...well someone I'm not sure who reads this.

Let me clear up some illusions that you may or may not have concerning Lebanon, and Beirut specifically. First, the Lebanese are a multilingual people who speak French, Arabic, and English. So far here are my findings on retrospect I hesitate to say illusion, so I shall rephrase it to an statement. Now this statement is thrown about willy-nilly all over the internet, and by the Lebanese themselves. Even our own CIA world fact book lists french as spoken here. Well if we shipped a Frenchman to the moon we could say that french is spoken on the moon, when clearly it is not a lingual-franca despite the prevalence of cheese on said astral body. All joking aside there is some french here. One will find it on the menus, the street signs, and rarely someone passing by will be speaking it. But that my dear francophone is as far as the dream goes. One of our first days in Beirut we went to a restaurant and upon sitting down I was delighted to see that the menu was in french. Imagine my confusion when upon ordering in french the waiter looked at me in utter confusion, I must have looked at him with utter confusion at that point and it soon became apparent to both of us that neither of us knew what was going on, but he gave me a look that said “this is a restaurant, you order food here, you do understand that right?” So I ordered in English and he nodded and smiled and came back later with the food I ordered. I had a similar experience in Italy, I thought that sharing a border as they do with France I might get to use some french to help me get along. However french only confused the Italians beyond any hope of understanding what I was trying to say. I did much better with short English sentences and lots of gesticulating.

In theory Lebanese people speak 3 languages and interchange them as they go. The reality is that the Lebanese people speak Lebanese Arabic, know a few phrases in french (if anything) and speak a level of English that varies widely. The Arabic class I took at UNM, turns out it was Egyptian, and all the phrases and whatnot that I remember have turned out to be 70% useless. Not useless because they aren't useful, but useless because the Lebanese dialect is spoken here, and while the two are not incomprehensible to each other they are different enough to make what I remember of minimal value. The french I know (up to and including 201 at a university level) has proved useless outside of reading things. I haven't (successfully) spoken to anyone in french outside of the 202 class I’m taking.

The other interesting factor I’ve noticed is that those individuals who do speak some french(or claim to*) are older, usually more affluent individuals. Here is my theory, someone versed in the topic please feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. The french mandate was enacted by the league of nations after WWI and the fall of the Ottoman empire. Mandates were pretty much the European powers cutting up the middle east to suite there desires. France happened to get the area we now call Lebanon, and through collusion with the Maronite community managed to have a relatively successful exploitation. I say collusion because it was primarily the Maronites wanting to carve out their own state in the region that they worked so willingly with the french to create “Lebanon” the vast majority of the Muslim population (which was and still is the majority of the population, it's currently 59% currently as of a 2007 census I believe) wanted to rejoin with Muslim Syria (another french mandate.) But the Maronite Christians saw an opportunity to create a nation for themselves and so worked with the french.

The point of this history lesson? Those who wanted seats of power. Those who wanted to do well in business. Those who wanted the best education. Those people had to deal with the french to achieve those goals. As is still the case if you want to successfully deal with the french, it requires that one use their language. Which leaves the people of Lebanon with social stigma that states “knowledge of french probably equates to money power and intelligence.” So knowing french was a sign of the sophisticates, it separated them from their hoi polloi Arab speaking countrymen. Since everyone pretends to be above their station in life of course, lots of people learned french. There was a time I imagine when Lebanon truly was bilingual. However, the french mandate ended and in 1946 the last french troops were pulled out of Lebanon.

Crazy as it sounds, that was 64 years ago, over half a century. That's 3 generations of people who've no longer had any reason to maintain the french component of the overall language profile. That mixed with the almost viral like nature of English and what we see today is the tail end of some serious attenuation of use for french within Lebanon. It's a cultural remnant of something most Lebanese weren't even alive for.

Assertion number 2: the Lebanese are CRAZY drivers. Frankly I saw just as much swerving and weaving in Italy. Don't get me wrong here traffic is hectic, and people do use their horns WAY to much. But watch the traffic for a while and clear order and pattern emerges. Imagine a game of chicken at every light, every crossing etc. This is pretty much how traffic works here. Who wants it the most is who gets it. There are lanes, but they are ignored. Now to most Americans (and I assume Europeans) this sounds horrifically dangerous, and it should be, but let's take into account the compounding effect of so many people doing it. In Beirut traffic is so horrific that it can take over a half an hour to drive what would amount to maybe a 15 minute walk. In all the vehicle rides I’ve taken in this city the car rarely makes it over 30 miles an hour and even then it's only for a moment or so. As a result I also haven't seen many bad accidents, people just can't get enough speed to really damage each other. Let us also consider, as I was told today, that for every two people in Beirut there is one car. If everyone is trying their best to get where they are going at the expense of those around them what happens, Beirut traffic happens. It's like everyone in a very crowded room running for a fire exit and all trying smash their way out at the same time. What ends up happening is that no one gets out quickly and we all sit around jockeying for position to no real avail because it's just a huge press of people and only 3 or 4 are getting through those doors at a time. Traffic here could be much smoother, if everyone worked together that is, which as we all know the Lebanese seem to have a difficult history of doing.

*we've met a few older people who claimed to be french tutors who never once spoke to us in french even when they were floundering for words in their limited English