Lebanon’s politics and businesses are fair game, but don’t insult its culture

Michael Karam defends Lebanon, with all of its failings, against its misinterpretation by American chef and TV personality Anthony Bourdain.

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Trying to find Lebanon’s good points is often like looking for change down the back of your family’s sofa.

It doesn’t matter that we Lebanese are imbued with a huge sense of fun, that we invented the alphabet or that we showed the world how to trade, because to balance it out we are also one of the most fractious countries on the planet with a political system that ensures nothing gets done because everyone has to agree, and a culture of corruption that would make the Mafia blush.

Even supposedly good news makes one want to weep.

Take the latest “initiative” from the ministry of telecommunications, a pledge to deliver the very latest and fastest fibre optic technology to almost every home in the country by 2020.

“Great,” we say.

It's about time, because every now and then we really want to spend a buffer-free evening surfing YouTube – those online journeys that start off with the best bloopers from Seinfeld and end up three hours later with basic embalming techniques.

But then we are reminded by the likes of the local journalist Habib Battah in his blog, Beirut Report, that over the past 10 years successive governments have made similar grandiose promises and consistently failed to deliver.

And so the temptation to put the boot in and ridicule the vacuous promises made by our incompetent political class is mouthwatering, especially when our irritation is echoed by august bodies such as the IMF, which recently urged the authorities, to “strengthen confidence and secure more inclusive growth by implementing priority fiscal and structural reforms”, such as passing a budget (duh), reforming the electricity sector (come on guys, it’s been nearly 30 years) and reinvigorating private investment.

Ditto the private sector – the media needs more transparency; the real estate troll Solidere must be held more accountable for virtually killing off central Beirut, the very area it was tasked with reinvigorating; and our national carrier Middle East Airlines must do something about its appalling service. (Memo to the cabin crew – act like you can at least tolerate your job.)

But when CNN's roving food reporter Anthony Bourdain jetted into Beirut to film an episode of Parts Unknown that reduced Lebanon to every creaking cliché in the book, someone had to make a stand.

The charges against the intrepid American chef and TV personality are that he has presented a skewed image of Lebanon that will have done little to restore confidence in our tiny nation and a lot to portray a resilient and enigmatic (fair enough) gun-slinging city (not really) simmering on the edge of Armageddon (Zzzzz).

Visually the place looked a mess – a bullet-riddled, Hobbesian jungle that reminded me of the Homeland episode that shamelessly lied to show Beirut's Hamra Street as a hotbed of terror and intrigue.

Factually inaccurate in places and heavily skewed to summon up a whiff of danger at every turn (one senses Bourdain fancied swapping his chef’s hat for a flak jacket), the programme trod a fine line between grungy edginess – bikers munching on deep -fried chicken, rappers and an evening at a communist theme bar – and all regional bogeymen – ISIL, Hizbollah, Israel, Syria, the Palestinians and so on.

But Bourdain forgot to mention that, while it may not be to everyone’s tastes, Beirut has a sunnier, more cosmopolitan side, a tireless and at times brave private sector, and the city is enjoying a significant gastronomic revival, something that should fall slap-bang in his purview.

For heaven’s sake, man. Lebanon has the best food in the region and you eat an artery-clogging moussaka with a Hizbollah fighter just because there’s an AK-47 hanging on the kitchen door.

Yes, we get it. There are guns in Lebanon.

Move on.

The sad reality is that viewers who don’t know Lebanon will find the 40-minute documentary fascinating, and I guess that is what CNN wanted. Bourdain showed a truth, but while he is entitled to tread any editorial path he chooses, it was at times a horribly sensationalist truth and it certainly wasn’t the whole truth.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.

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