One of the main reasons I came to Lebanon is to learn Arabic. As a journalist, and especially one with a passion for the Middle East, it would be quite practical. I spoke Arabic as a child. And I took a course in Dubai, where my teacher said I could probably be fluent both orally and written within a year if I really set my mind to it. So I have a lot going for me on that front. The problem is that I’m shy as hell. Especially in a foreign language. As a journalist, words are my tool. And not being able to master them makes me extremely frustrated.
Having been here for about two days now, I’ve already gotten into the bad habit of asking people right from the start if they speak English. And (un)luckily most of them say yes and we continue our business. But today I drove with a taxi driver, who’s English, was worse than my Arabic. I could of course just have given him the address and not said anything more. But I had a question I was dying to ask someone: Why on earth is the German football team so popular in Lebanon???
Lebanon has never (and probably never will) come close to qualifying for the World Cup. But that doesn’t mean the Lebanese don’t follow the tournament with a passion. Everywhere you go flags of different countries are hanging out the windows. And for some reason a lot of people have chosen their cars as the number one way to show who they support.
Now, I can understand why the Lebanese would support Argentina, Mexico or France – all countries with a large Lebanese community. I can even understand the support for Brazil. But Germany?!?!
So driving through Beirut I asked in my most pitiful Arabic: Lesh ktir bahib Allemagne? And luckily enough my driver understood me. He didn’t have an answer for me though. He personally supports Germany because he likes the flag. But he couldn’t tell me why other people support them. And his loyalty wasn’t greater than him being willing to switch to Denmark once he heard where I was from.
So that was enough to start my first real conversation in Arabic. Once we’d finished on the football we spoke about all the things there are to see in Lebanon. The competition amongst taxi drivers here is extreme. You can hardly walk five meters without 2-3 taxi drivers asking if you need a ride. So many drivers try to get regular costumers in the hope that that will give them some long rides (a ride within central Beirut costs less than 2$). And this guy was trying to convince me of all the places I should visit – the further away the better it seemed.
I did however learn a bit about the risks you run when you pretend to understand more than you do. By the end of the ride I thought we were having a nice conversation about the different beaches in Beirut. It turned out he was making arrangements for where to meet the next day.