It started as soon as we boarded the plane: the fluent switching between Arabic, French, English, and the requisite assistive hand gestures — all in the service of negotiating seats. The number on your boarding pass holds no sway when you’re on a flight to Beirut; you’re expected to haggle. To, essentially, get to know the strangers around you. Eventually, we settled in, and everyone went about their in-flight business. Were any of us going to see each other again once we got past customs? Probably not. Regardless, those few minutes of pre-flight diplomacy created a bond — a cursory one, maybe, but still a bond. I could exchange a knowing glance with my neighbor across the aisle, or laugh at a joke someone told three rows back, or commiserate over the horror that is airplane food with the person behind me without any awkwardness, and even though those interactions were minuscule, they were genuine.
The Lebanese people are shrewd and gregarious, which is not surprising given the millennia they’ve spent as successful traders and merchants. They know what they want, and they know how to get it. But the key to their success—and to the very existence of a city like Beirut, which mostly harmoniously houses people of all creeds (including over a million refugees), an oddity in this part of the world—is generosity. They have grasped the simple concept that in order to receive, one must also give. And that in that exchange, the giving is paramount.
Yesterday, we went to the grocery store to pick up some seasoned meat. The butcher handed us our portion, saying “I think this will be to your taste, so I gave you some extra.” We weren’t regulars at the store; we’d never even seen this man before. But he gave us more than we’d ordered at no charge. He was probably angling for a new regular customer, and a cynic would argue that he didn’t actually give us extra (what were we going to do, ask him to weigh it to make sure?), but that’s the paradox of this place: even if your end goal is ultimately self-serving, you have to be generous—or at least appear that way—to achieve it. Instead of approaching a transaction with the hand that wants your money open and the hand containing the goods closed, people here approach you with both hands open. You see what you’re going to get, and you also have the opportunity to put your own value on it. You inevitably disagree, debate, and end up with a compromise. The result of this transactional politic, intentional or not, is an overwhelmingly compassionate culture that is open to dialogue.
That kind of casual openness, in addition to what we in the States would classify as a “Type B” attitude towards everything from ordering food at a restaurant to issuing a passport, can be infuriating. Definitions are fluid, deadlines are rarely enforced, traffic laws are basically nonexistent—to someone like me, this is anathema. And there’s no shortage of complaints from local residents, either. But, somehow, it works. You may not have electricity 24/7, but you find a way to adapt, whether it means doing without for a few hours every day or circumventing the government by hooking up to a private generator. Regardless, the locals meet these relatively small adversities with humor and grit, and they make the most of whatever situation they’re in. No electricity? Break out some instruments, move the party outside, and keep dancing. After all, once you’ve watched your country completely tear itself apart and then poke its head out of the rubble and begin to thrive again, a few hours of interrupted electricity isn’t such a big deal.
Such a perspective, though extreme, means that people here know how to differentiate between what matters and what doesn’t. They also know how to live an open-hearted life that doesn’t hinge on convenience. They learned that in the end, bonds between people—not mortar and cement—keep a society together, and that hard-earned knowledge is evident in almost every aspect of life here.