"Hello, Kifak, Ça va?"

The Berlin journalist Jan Oberländer spent four weeks in the Lebanese capital Beirut as part of an exchange program. Here are a few snapshots...

My encounter with the Orient began as soon as I boarded the plane. Serious gentlemen wearing expensive glasses studiously read Arab newspapers, while I absent-mindedly glanced at the pages of the International Herald Tribune.

A Chihuahua belonging to a fellow traveler could be heard yapping in the baggage compartment. It was November 2, 2005 and I sat in a plane headed for Beirut. My first contact with the Arab world was made possible by the Goethe Institute and the Heinrich Böll Foundation.

Exchange program "Living Globality"

Their joint exchange program "Living Globality" aims to provide cultural correspondents from Germany and Arab countries with the opportunity of directly experiencing the cultures of each other's countries. In August 2005, journalists from Alexandria, Casablanca, Ramallah, and Beirut were in Berlin. Now it was my turn for a reciprocal visit – four weeks in Beirut.

The time passed as if it were fast-forwarded. I was so overwhelmed by the avalanche of new experiences that I can now only offer snapshots of my impressions.

Snapshots are a good place to start. I frequently asked myself the question, "What do I really want to photograph?" Everything Middle Eastern, all that is strange and new to me? Or everything Western, that which is just as pervasive in Beirut as in Berlin? Veiled women or the sexy club crowd, dilapidated taxis or shiny SUVs, war ruins or the architecture of Bernard Khoury, the souks or the shopping malls, falafel shops or McDonalds, the Hisbollah poster or the advertising billboard?

At the Home Works Festival, which serves as a forum on cultural practices and provides creative artists from the whole region with the opportunity to exchange views, I managed to see Fouad Elkoury's documentary film "Welcome to Beirut." In one scene, two young women are driving through the city.

They converse in English and French, and one of the women tells how she once accused a tourist of secretly photographing her. The tourist, it seems, had only wanted to take a shot of a bombed-out ruin. The young woman took this as an even greater affront. "Is a building covered in bullet-holes more attractive than I am?"

I have frequently heard that Beirut is the place to gently introduce Europeans to the Arab world. Even the language heard on the street would support this assumption. Upper class young Lebanese are very Western, international, and often raised trilingual.

They chat in English, even among themselves, or in a hybrid slang consisting of Arabic, English, and French. The typical greeting "Hello, kifak, ça va?" sums it right up. SMS messages in Arabic are transcribed in the Latin alphabet and numbers replace certain Arabic letters.

I got into a conversation at a restaurant with some students from the American University of Beirut. They were unanimous in their desire to go abroad after finishing their studies to find a good job and earn money. Perhaps, someday, when the infrastructure and the job market in Lebanon improves, they might return.

"Say No to War" - "Say No to Stress"

I became irritated by a fashion placard featuring various young, well-dressed models releasing a white dove. The slogan was "Say No to Terrorism." I saw it frequently, as well as other placards in the series – "Say No to War," "Say No to Stress," "Say No to Anger" – consumption as harbinger of peace, lifestyle as a policy of détente. In this respect, at least, one could say that the West has arrived in Lebanon.

Amer, one of the roommates in the flat where I was staying, is a Jordanian Palestinian. He displayed a preference for wearing t-shirts with the names of English language alternative bands – "Radiohead", "Tool", and "A Perfect Circle". We set up our laptops together and exchanged mp3s.

One day, Amer and I, together with two other Germans, drove to Sabra, the Palestinian refugee camp near the Beirut Airport. We didn't enter the residential area, but we could see the shacks down the side streets.

We went along the main street, with its low-lying houses, chicken grills, vegetable stands, and handcarts piled high with pirated CDs, until we reached the memorial to the massacre that took place in the Sabra and Shatila refugee camps in September 1982 at the hands of the Christian militias. Amer stood there, perfectly still in his "Radiohead" pullover, and prayed.

Driving along the coastal road from Beirut to the south, one sees nothing but banana plantations for kilometers on end. I accompanied Wissam Saade, my exchange partner, editor and columnist with the daily paper Al-Safir, to Tyrus, where he was to meet with a friend.

We quickly stopped off at the editorial office so that Wissam could submit an article, and then we set off, with the sea at our side and communist revolutionary songs droning from the car's cassette deck. Wissam grinned, apparently finding the lyrics amusing. I didn't understand a word.

The pattern was set for the rest of the day. We sat on the veranda of the second floor of a small brick house surrounded by an ocean of banana leaves, and the friends conversed in Arabic. They talked politics, laughed a good deal, and Wissam interpreted next to nothing. Fish was grilled, served with lemons fresh from the tree, olives and bread, arrak liqueur, and Almaza, Lebanese beer. The sun set in the banana sea and we got on brilliantly.

Another evening, I drove with some colleagues to a bar called "Green". We were eight in the car – three in front and five in the back. "Welcome to the Middle East," laughed one of them. We arrived in no time at all. A three-man band played Middle Eastern pop on the premise's tiny stage.

An Almaza helped me find the courage to join the crowd on the dance floor. A word on dancing. In Lebanese restaurants, even the cutlery cupboards are occasionally moved to the side to make room for swinging hips. You don't see that in Germany. This particular night in Green, my hips felt loose, my arms were swaying, and I had all the moves down pat. Or so I thought. A Lebanese beauty observed my dancing, then laughed and commented, "This is not at all oriental."

Jan Oberländer

© Qantara.de 2006

Translated from the German by John Bergeron


CrossCulture Internships
European-Muslim Cultural Dialogue
The Objective of ifa's CrossCulture Internships is to increase the intercultural, political and specialist knowledge and competence of future representatives and multipliers of the Civil Societies from predominantly Muslim countries and Germany


  • Heinrich-Böll Foundation in Beirut

  • Goethe-Institut Beirut