arren Singh-Bartlett, the author of Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut!, certainly wins his wager. The vast majority of facts, tidbits and insights into the history of Lebanon and its capital, Beirut – whose name, the book claims, is most likely derived from the Canaanite word B’rt for wells– offer something new to most readers, from the local who prides himself on his knowledge of his home country to the expatriate journalist.
The book is impressively well-researched and covers a broad range of topics and time periods, interspersed with anecdotes and witticisms. But if you expect to be bowled over with mind-blowing information, you might be slightly disappointed. Taken as an amusing and interesting collection of less well-known bits of information about Lebanon, this book is a neat addition atop any Lebanon-aficionado’s coffee table.
Singh-Bartlett’s easy, light-hearted writing style is one of the books greatest strengths, often leaving the reader smiling at his comical observations of Lebanese insults or the brutal honesty of the Lebanese. As an example, the author points out that it is not uncommon to hear someone greeting a friend they haven’t see for some time with “Yii, you’re so fat!” Incidentally, a similar statement was said to a friend of mine. She was none too happy.
But back to the book; it is certainly ambitious. It covers mythology, gossip, language and history among other topics. Sometimes, the facts are alarming – around 3,500 Lebanese die every year of tobacco-related illnesses – but also, often surprising. For example, Shia girls are reportedly allowed to be legally wed at the age of nine. Other stories are inspirational, such as that of the shrewd Lebanese businessman Nicolas Hayek who founded Swatch, but a few others seem hard to fathom. Is the Lebanese diaspora really the third largest in the world?
Between the banal and the amazing, the amusing and ridiculous, Singh-Bartlett also highlights significant socio-cultural and religious issues in Lebanese society that might otherwise be entirely inaccessible to foreigners. For example, how religious laws and customs permit a Muslim man to marry a non-Muslim woman but prevent a Muslim woman from doing the same, or how the children of any couple will automatically follow the father’s religion, even if the mother is of a different faith, or how the word Ethiopian is largely synonymous with maid, or how “hymenoplasty, a procedure that can restore the semblance of a woman’s virginity, [is the] second most popular plastic surgery in Lebanon.” With these facts and more, Singh-Bartlett does not shy away from giving a holistic insight into Lebanese society, both good and bad.
But the book’s ambition is also its shortcoming. The author has a tendency to include more tedious factoids: that Youssef Moussa Chidiac was the first Lebanese to immigrate to Brazil in 1880 is presumably of little interest to the majority of people. And although impressive in its own right, the fact that a Lebanese farmer grew an 11.3 kilogram potato loses its significance when it is later revealed that the world’s largest potato weighed 37 kilos. Moreover, dedicating an entire section to cuisine is a bit excessive.
That being said, most of the facts and anecdotes in this almost 200-page book are bound to impress, entertain or at least inform the reader. It is surprising to learn that, although a dying tradition, one can hire professional mourners called Niddebeh to cry, sing laments or create a scene by rolling in dirt.
To complement the almost compendium-like book of factoids are apt and amusing illustrations by Sinan Hallak. His pencil-drawn images with scant injections of color make for real eye-catching complement to the accompanying passages in this aesthetically appealing, informative and entertaining book.
“Bet You Didn’t Know This About Beirut!” is available at all major bookstores for $20/30,000 LL.