Ras Beirut, Lebanon
It is 6:13 am, and I am sitting on my balcony overlooking Beirut’s streets as they gradually wake from a short slumber. I myself woke up to lights flashing across my ceiling and the sound of powerful thunder crashing off of the surrounding buildings and echoing down the empty streets. Roosters added to the impressive ensemble and the muezzins beautiful voice cut through it all to announce it was time for the morning prayer.
I moved into my new apartment yesterday. It is simple but lovely- two symmetric rooms, one a bedroom and one a living room- connected by a open hallway where the kitchen and bathroom lay. The kitchen had no appliances, so yesterday I went to Ouzai and picked out some new ones. A little refrigerator, a washing machine and a gas stove with an external gas can- there are no municipal gas lines here. I don’t have an air conditioner so finding a good fan was a priority- All the stores in Ouzai said they were sold out because of the recent heat wave. 98 is not normal this time of year, thank God. So, I had a taxi drive take me to BHV is Jineh. A place where Amercians feel comforted by endless aisles of shiny new things all packaged up and and marked prices that you don’t bother haggling…They carry electronics, homewares, appliances, nice clothes- basically anything. I founds some sheets, towels and pillows to my liking, and then asked where the fans were. No fans. Out for the season. A place with everything people don’t really need is out of what I need. So, I trek on. Someone in the store said they might have fans in Corniche al Mazraa. Not that I know where that is…
So, I get in a taxi with all my stuff, and I am on my way. I tell the driver we are on a mission to find fans, and off we go. I open up my iPad which despite it’s lack on wifi connectivity still has a Beirut Google map up. It has kept me out of trouble more than a few times in the last couple of days. I decide we are heading north east and look for a large road that could be what we are traveling on. A few landmarks help me find out where we are, and we are indeed heading towards Mazraa. A sigh of relief.
We get there, and I spot a lovely fan that a looks as though it can blow away my dread of returning to a scorching apartment. We haggle, I fail- he can see the desperation in my face. I go home with a lovely fan.
In no time my apartment is filled with men installing appliances, putting up clothes lines on my balcony, arguing about why exactly I don’t have water. Ah yes, I have failed to mention this- my shower has no water. Beirut is suffering from water shortages right now, so I can expect water to come out of the shower every other day. Except I have been in the apartment 3 consecutive days and have not seen water come out of the shower.
This water dilemma is a perfect segue to my second urban planning related discovery- In most parts of Beirut, the power cuts for 3 hours a day during the day light on a rotating schedule. Today, I will have no power from 9 to 12. Yesterday there was no power from 12 to 3. That means no elevator to my 4th floor apartment, and no fan when I get there. Many nice buildings and most businesses have generators that kick in to provide electricity for those 3 hours. I do not live in one of those buildings.
Yesterday while waiting to ambush my often traveling advisor, I met a future classmate. She is starting her masters in Urban Design, while mine will be Urban Planning. Our first year core classes will be together. She is smart and savvy, and studied something similar in her undergraduate years. So as we wait, I ask her how a city like Beirut, filled with people full of great ideas and knowledge, could suffer from water shortages and accept power cuts for 3 hours a day, every day. She stated very matter of factly that politicians here don’t focus on the provision of services because they are distracted by politicking with each other, and that people just learn to live with it.
It barely makes sense to me. In my year in Cairo, which mind you is 20+ million strong and surrounded by desert and rarely sees rain- I never ran out of water. My power never once cut. Egypt is far less democratic and developed than Lebanon, though I guess I will have to question my development indicators. The fact that Beirut is full of Chanel and Versace boutiques and endless traffic jams of Mercedes and Land Rovers may have colored my metrics.
I wonder if the sheer population size and it’s proclivity to agitation makes basic services a priority for the Mubarak regime. Perhaps risking power cuts and water shortages is too high a risk in a city so densely populated- though government subsidies and health services are often miserable failures. But, when subsidized bread runs out, the population makes sure the government is aware of its disapproval.
I guess this is what I can look forward to learning about. In the meantime, I will learn to shower with a bucket of water and bowl and take advantage of the disgustingly cheap shampoos and blow outs at the numerous salons that dot my neighborhood.
The rain showers and thunder are rolling inland, and I have two hours of power left before I will do as apparently you do in Beirut. I will go eat breakfast and sit in an incredibly lovely cafe full of incredibly lovely people for 3 hours. I was very sad about my lack of water yesterday, and fell asleep at 7:30 pm in frustration. But today I think I am ready to figure this out.