Beirut: why the joke is on the Syrians
Helena Frith Powell makes her first visit to Lebanon and finds humour and familiarity in the landscape
I had been living in the Middle East for more than a year by the time I finally travelled anywhere else in the region. A friend invited me to stay with her in the hills outside Beirut.
For me, Lebanon had always been a place of war; war-torn Beirut, conflict and hostages were words I associated with the place until I went there.
I had also heard it called the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, but I was dubious: it seemed an incongruous mix. It was where John McCarthy was taken hostage for five years. If I were taken, would I have as many friends? I was unsure of what to expect, but like most places of conflict, I thought it would be very different to anywhere I was used to.
When my Lebanese friend Ghada drove us from the airport through the city and to the mountains where her parents house is I was struck by how familiar Lebanon felt to me. It did not feel like the place I had heard about that held innocent journalists hostage and an estimated 250,000 civilians were killed during years of civil war.
As we drove through the centre of Beirut my six-year-old son pointed out the bullet holes. I had told him there were bullet holes in Beirut and was fascinated by the whole concept.
I have to admit I was as well. Here were buildings that would not look out of place on the Boulevards of Paris or the streets of London riddled with gunshot wounds. I couldn’t imagine a war in a place that looked so much like home. War happens in far-away places I will never see that are populated with people I would never meet.Just as we left Beirut I saw a mosque and a church practically next door to each other. A reminder that however much like Europe it felt we were in the Middle East.
But as we drove up into the hills the feeling of being somewhere very familiar returned. The landscape was just like Italy; even the architecture was reminiscent, if ugly in places. It reminded me of southern Italy, a place I visited as a teenager when I met my Italian father for the first time.
My parents were divorced when I was two and there had been no contact between them until I was 14. Then my father took me on a grand tour of Italy; Venice, Rome, Florence and Naples. It is a journey I recently repeated when I was writing my book Ciao Bella – Sex, Dante and How to Find your Father in Italy.
But there are Starbucks in Italy. It is hard to imagine people shooting at each other at Starbucks.
I asked my friend Ghada why the war started.
“No one really knows,” she says. “There is so much hatred and anger. People blame it on different things. We even fight about the reasons we started fighting in the first place.”
“Why do the Lebanese hate each other so much?”
“There are too many reasons to relate,” she said. “But at least we have one thing in common.”
“We hate the Syrians even more.”
She told me a joke. A Syrian, a Lebanese and a black man were all waiting for their wives to give birth at the same hospital.
“There’s been a terrible mix up,” said the doctor. “We have mixed up the babies and have no idea which baby is which. You will just have to go in and pick whichever baby you think belongs to you.”
The Lebanese man goes first and comes out with the black baby.
“What are you doing?” said the doctor. “That can’t be yours.”
“Well,” said the Lebanese man, “at least I know he won’t be Syrian.”
We had lunch when we arrived and there was a long and rather loud discussion as to whether hummus should have garlic in it or not.
“Maybe this is what the war was all about?” I suggest.
They all agreed it was possible.
Helena Frith Powell is the author of Ciao Bella – Sex, Dante and how to find your father in Italy published by Gibson Square at £7.99
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi-based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor-in-chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. She is working on a thriller set in Sweden as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
In 2022 her short story The Japanese Gardener came second in the Fish Publishing Short Story Prize. One of her stories was also shortlisted for the Bridport Short Story Prize. When she’s not writing, she works as a headhunter for the media and entertainment industry for the Sucherman Group.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019