Michael Karam: Lebanese lineage across the Adriatic

It is easy to understand the love affair between Italy and Lebanon, writes Michael Karam.

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I am being driven through the Marche region of Italy (pronounced “Marshay”). Sitting on the Adriatic – on a clear day one can apparently see the nearest Croatian islands – I’m told Le Marche has been called the poor man’s Tuscany, but that’s neither here nor there. Because anywhere that a stereotypically hot-blooded people – loud and unstable – like the Italians, the Greeks, the Turks or even the Lebanese are often perceived, can respect their environment, their laws and their building codes, gets my vote.

It is hard to explain just how frustrating it is to see a country that gave the world the concept of the Mafia and which is still tarred with the brush of corruption and the buffoonery of Silvio Berlusconi, can do this.

In fact, all I could think of was that the Lebanese should be forced to drive around areas like the nearby Conero Riviera and the Conero National Park to see what their country could still look like if they hadn’t blown it.

I’m with Magda, an Italian of Egyptian ancestry. She works in PR between Paris, Verona and Beirut. Magda has a handful of Lebanese clients, probably because she is in the midst of a massive love affair with Lebanon. The back shelf of her car is festooned with the red and white cedar flag and she wears a cedar pendant bought in Baalbek. “What can I say?” she says. “Beautiful country; beautiful people.”

Magda and I discuss the recurrence of Beirut’s apparently chronic rubbish crisis. She tells me, because of course she knows this nugget of trivia, that the Lebanese capital is now the second most polluted city in the world, behind Accra. “But don’t be fooled by Italy,” Magda warns. “Go to Sicily and you will see how much work is still needed. It is all to do with education.” Then a sudden change of tack. “But you know what? For tomato, we Italians say pomo­doro. You say banadoura. We are the same.” Magda is clearly a glass half-full person.

But we probably really are similar. Italy is, after all, where the Mediterranean temperament begins to take on the patina of northern European order. Starched Milan is a universe away from chaotic Palermo. Rome lies somewhere in the middle of the temperament table and Ancona, Marche’s “capital”, lies to the east and the petrol stations around here offer a useful evolutionary table for the gradual East-West metamorphosis.

In Beirut you pull into a tromba and half a dozen attendants will descend on you. They will fill you up, wipe, scrap, squeegee, check your water and offer to bring you any refreshment you want … in the hope of some baksheesh. In the higher latitudes, it’s all self-service but in Italy you have a choice: you can fill your tank yourself or pay a wee bit more to have a callow youth at the neighbouring pump do the honours and wipe the bugs off the windscreen.

Some of this might go some way to explain why we Lebanese love the Italians. Italy is our second biggest trading partner. We import an admittedly modest US$1.65 billion of Italian produce, mostly white goods, ceramics and agricultural machinery, including, let us not forget, the ubiquitous small blue motors that power the water pumps in almost every house in the country. Italy has also stood with Lebanon in its time of need, contributing to the country’s reconstruction process and economic rehabilitation since the 1982 Israeli invasion.

“A good friend of mine was a diplomat in Beirut during the war,” a businessman told me at a dinner on Saturday night. “He said at one point the wall in his office was blown out, but he still went to work. He loved it like no other posting.”

At the same dinner, I got talking to a journalist from La Repubblica who lives in Palermo. “We Sicilians are very different,” she shrugged. “It is chaotic. Yes, we don’t care about the environment as much as we should and we build everywhere and there is too much traffic. What can we do? We are descended from the Arabs.”


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


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