There are two manufactured products for which Lebanon is known – and each is cruelly symbolic of the nation's woes.
Lebanon’s most high-profile products are probably sweets and wine. As an industry, wine generates revenues of about US$50 million annually, the kind of money that might buy a Russian businessman a half-decent London town house. Not much is it? But then again Lebanese industry has always been something of a non-starter, blighted as it is by a lack of government support and the high cost of land, permits and power.
And things, as you can imagine, are only getting worse. While our politicians try to form a cabinet, I read in the local press last week that some “energy-intensive” Lebanese industrial firms, either have, or are considering, relocating abroad. And you know things must be really bad when you read that for many Lebanese business owners, Egypt is the destination of choice. Then again, who cares about a little instability when, as one company confirmed, the move can save a reported $500,000 a year in electricity bills? Instability is after all part of our default setting.
In Lebanon what passes for real industry is the production of paper, cardboard, tissue and plastics. Not very glamorous is it? But it is a manufacturing base that is the mothership of two items, without which we Lebanese would be lost: Ladies and gentlemen I give you the white (it’s always white) plastic chair and a box of paper tissue or Kleenex (emphasis on the “n”, please).
The plastic chair is the ultimate Lebanese invention. (By the way, the “Florence” model, made by Kamaplast in Sidon and which with comes in nine other redundant colours – I have never seen pistachio or navy blue chairs – must surely be the gold standard of this mighty tradition.) Affordable, easy to wipe down and eminently stackable, the white plastic chair is not only practical, a quality the Lebanese love, it performs a huge cultural role. It allows people to instantly gather and sit, always a big deal in Lebanon, where everything takes time.
If political rallies were banned plastic manufacturers would, if not go out of business, then at least take a new strategic direction. But then again there are always funerals, a serious red-letter day for cheap seating. Two years ago, an elderly man in my village died suddenly when I was visiting his house. As news spread of his death, the well-rehearsed protocol kicked in and by the time the local doctor pronounced the poor fellow dead (we already knew), the familiar lines of white chairs had already been set up outside the house to receive the first wave of mourners.
Understandably, tissues are also very big at funerals, but when we Lebanese are not dabbing away a tear, we are also reaching for them in shops, garages and waiting rooms where they are always handed out with unconditional understanding.
“We just don’t use them in the same way,” barked my sister, who lives in London. “Why would anyone want a box of tissues in every room? And what about the environment? No wonder there is so much litter in Lebanon when everyone blows their nose all the time.”
She had a point. All this plastic and all this tissue – I haven’t even touched on the millions of free shopping bags and bottles of mineral water that are consumed every day – add up to one gigantic environmental headache in a country which is already one of the most polluted in the Mediterranean.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer based in Beirut