Backhanders and queue-jumping a sad fact of Lebanese life

Leaving Beirut last week was tougher than normal. The morning flight schedule that has multiple flights leaving within the space of 10 seconds of each other to make transatlantic connections in Europe, ensures 1 million passengers, processed by a handful of general security officers, turn up at the same time. And let’s face it, the Lebanese do not do orderly.

The hundreds of bleary-eyed passengers, impatient children and wailing babies would be more stoic about a long wait if we didn’t have to witness a steady stream of people – that day a beach-ready family of five in particular stuck in my mind – being whisked through the security checks by one of the many officials who, for a “fee”, can help you bypass the ranks of the unwashed.

What was most depressing was not so much the sight of the parents; they were, after all, a lost cause. It was the three boys, aged around eight to 12 and sporting Mohican haircuts of varying length and colour that made the heart sink. You could see the smugness on their faces and the hardening of the “rules-are-for-losers” attitude that they would carry into adult life.

Farther ahead, we were treated to a well-groomed, and altogether more polished, middle-aged couple – there was enough life left on the women’s Botoxed face to convey the horror of being in a crowd at such an early hour – pushing through the line in the wake of an equally dapper officer. This time the treatment extended to smoothly circumnavigating the queues at a busy passport control, and into the more rarefied atmosphere of the duty free zone, where the process was completed with a handshake and the discreet handing over of a smartly folded bill.

This, of course, is nothing new. The Lebanese cut corners as a matter of habit. The cheat is the smart guy, who has used everything at his disposal to achieve an end. The person who plays it straight is an idiot. We have none of the moral anxiety that grips, say, the British, who, in my day at least, would consider anyone trying to cut corners – queue jumping, cheating, you name it – as quite grubby.

A few days before I left, a friend showed me a picture on his mobile phone of the former president Amine Gemayel obediently standing in line to check in at Charles de Gaulle Airport. It says a lot about the Lebanese that they are amused to see their leaders having to behave like the rest of us. But we forget it’s the norm in the real world. In recent weeks, the British cared less about Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the opposition Labour Party, sitting on the floor on a train to Newcastle after being unable to find a seat. What did upset people was that he appeared to have done it on purpose in a bid to highlight the poor state of the nation’s railways. Meanwhile, former prime minister David Cameron and his family recently took a budget airline flight for a holiday in Sardinia and only last week were spotted in Cornwall sitting on a wall eating fish and chips with other customers after a day on, wait for it, a public beach.

Lebanon’s leaders, who are also, let us not forget, public servants, behave like Roman emperors but have been unable to elect a president; pass a budget; hold a bidding process for the exploration of oil and gas; husband our water resources; or generate enough power to run the country. And yet we don’t hold them accountable because we don’t know whether to loathe them or respect them as Hobbesian role models.

And this is partly why we have become a nation driven by status anxiety, a country in which the bourgeoisie has virtually given up doing things for itself; where having only one maid is akin to slumming it; where the driver, who may carry a gun just for the hell of it, takes the children to school; where beach clubs have VIP areas; where flying economy makes people feel inadequate; and where queuing is considered a form of humiliation.

And that essentially is our problem.

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

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