From the Editors
This week, Hurricane Sandy devastated large swaths of New York City's electrical grid, and almost a million city dwellers were left without power and/or water. With electricity gone and much of the city's infrastructure damaged, no internet or phone service was available. South of Thirty-fourth Street on the East and West sides, most stores were closed, and those that were open quickly ran out of supplies. People used their flashlights to scan the shelves of these stores, to walk up and down pitch black building staircases, and to maneuver their way around city streets and their own apartments. Batteries and candles became hot commodities. Many panicked, and most--including myself--were unprepared for the almost five day blackout that blanketed lower Manhattan.
As a Beiruti transplant to New York City, I have often felt doubly happy with myself. After all, the two best cities in the world are my home(s). Some--mostly those unfortunate enough to be from either of my vastly superior cities--have argued that my well founded pride is merely arrogance. But Beirut is a city that has always rivaled New York City in its belief in its own superiority. Beirutis and New Yorkers are both convinced that their city is the best in the world, and they both operate as if they are isolated settlements of cosmopolitanism in the backwards swaths of the United States and of Lebanon. One is the self-stated capital of the world, the other the Switzerland and/or the Paris of the Middle East. One is a paean to modernity writ large and a symbol of the promise of the “new world;” the other claims to be the oldest most continually inhabited capital city in the world (take that, Damascus!). Both cities have convoluted kinship-based criteria for determining different scales of being “really” a Beiruti or a New Yorker. Both have, supposedly, the best food, the most educated people, and the most attractive women. Both are playgrounds of the rich, and both cities are home to some of the most striking income disparities in the world. It seems logical, then, that Beirutis--long accustomed to water and electricity outages--may have some advice for their city-dwelling brethren (and God only knows Beirutis are more than happy to give very authoritative advice about everything and anything). These ten lessons, hard-earned from living and working in Beirut, a city that is clearly also the gotham of the East, are offered to New Yorkers, a city that, especially after the blackout, could use some advice from the third world.
Always fill your bathtub. When the electricity goes, soon after goes the water. Therefore, as soon as the lights begin to flicker, it is advisable to run around like a madwoman filling every possible container with water. This includes pots and pans. In addition, always try to have friends whose buildings have generators and/or who live on lower/underground levels of buildings/houses that are serviced by “natural” water pressure. Its not “using someone” or “maslaha” if you make sure to scope out these possible friends before a blackout or, if in Beirut, before the summer blackout season. Emergency preparedness includes relying on social ties and networks, after all. Why not create those ties preemptively? After the blackout, for example, I now know which NYU residential buildings have back-up generators and which floors in my building have “natural water pressure.” I have added these notes to my little black book that includes friends who have apartments in the richer parts of Beirut--those parts to which the government gives more power and that don't need it anyway because their buildings come with twenty-four hour backup power and private security teams to keep the (literally) powerless rabble out.
It is always a good idea to know your neighbors. In a blackout, particularly a sustained one, your world shrinks. For the elderly or those of ill health, this shrinkage is life threatening. When cut off from the world, they rely on neighbors, and no one else, for care and companionship. For the moderately healthy (and the gage quickly becomes how many stair cases one can climb, carrying what and how many times), neighbors quickly become the primary source of information about what is happening “out there.” More importantly, any Beiruti will tell you that the best way to spend a blackout is arguing through four player card games as people use the candlelight to cover their cheating. For these purposes, it is important to know which neighbors play cards, which neighbors can be coerced into playing cards (bil at`a), and which neighbors hate playing cards and thus don't really count.
Class matters, and its importance can be measured concentrically. While you can be holed up in your apartment cheating your way through a card game, your doorman is still doing his job, only now in darkness and with added responsibilities. While in Beirut, your natour's role as “boy” quickly multiplies with water and electric outages, in Manhattan, doorman and building workers are told to leave their families in the outer boroughs for days on end in order to care for you and your family. In Beirut, price inflation in times of crisis quickly hardens and reveals class boundaries. Similarly, not everybody can buy five-dollar tea candles in New York City, twelve-dollar jars of instant coffee, or four-dollar bottles of water. The concentric nature of class continues as you venture outside the perimeters of your institution, outside your neighborhood, and outside (gulp) of your borough/city. Blackouts and crisis are also a prime barometer of class anxieties, as quickly those in more wealthy neighborhoods “worry” about what will happen “over there”-less than a kilometer away. Crucially, people will start to worry If what is happening “over there” will make its way “over here.” While in Beirut, this class anxiety is inextricable from sectarian discourses and rural/urban prejudices, in New York City it is inextricable from discourses on race, poverty, and criminality.
Intoxication is your friend.
You are not the center of the world. For Beirutis and New Yorkers, this is perhaps the hardest lesson to swallow. The “extra” power and water cuts felt in Beirut every summer are quite normal year round in the rest of the country and even in many parts of the city, including in Palestinian refugee camps. Likewise, Manhattan is not Staten Island or parts of Queens or Brooklyn or, it bares repeating, New Orleans circa 2005. Just because the lights are back on in Manhattan does not mean the crisis is over, and it does not mean that the post-hurricane recovery was successful. Furthermore, while the sight of a dark lower Manhattan and water rushing through the streets of gotham are certainly stock full of media value, hurricane Sandy is not a New York, or even an American, tragedy. Storms are not geographically bound, even if a comparison of the media coverage of a Sandy struck New York City and of a Sandy struck Cuba might lead us to believe so.
Get used to seeing the military. In Beirut and in New York City, extra military are always at the ready, and curiously positioned at the borders of neighborhoods with electricity and those without. (In Beirut, this maps neatly into class boundaries.) Sure, these men (and some women!) are there for your protection. Unless you do something wrong or look suspicious or get uppity while in line waiting for the man with a gun to give you a bottle of water.
Get used to asinine comments by politicians and members of the commercial aristocracy about prioritizing the economy over human beings. In fact, while hearing Mayor Bloomberg's spirited defense of the NYC Marathon while bodies were still being recovered on Stated Island, I was reminded of politicians/businessmen bemoaning the lost summer season as Israeli bombs fell on parts of Lebanon and Beirut in 2006. Both backed down (publicly at least) only after being publicly shamed. Clearly, the rotting food is not the only thing that stinks today in New York City, just as on any given day one can detect the acrid smell of politicians in Beirut.
Cash is king. Without electricity, those pieces of plastic we carry in our wallets are useless. Without ATM machines, the importance of planning ahead is amplified. Coming from the third world, I have learned to always have cash on hand. Post-Sandy, I relish the opportunity to boast to ex-roommates who were perplexed about my hoardish attachment to paper money. Furthermore, prices will go up as everybody tries to profit from the storm. Faced with higher prices and limited funds, you will quickly know what matters to you. Your blackout shopping list (in Beirut this becomes your war time shopping list) is a window into who you really are, deep down. For example, I (transnationally) am coffee, cards, chocolate, cat food, the Twilight series, and paperback crime novels. Similarly, the different energies harnessed in the efforts to restore power and services to Manhattan and to Staten Island speaks volumes about the priorities of both the city and the corporations that "serve" it. Clearly, cash is (still) king.
This is perhaps the most important lesson that a Beiruti can teach a New Yorker: Do Not Trust Your Government. You cannot depend on the government as you can your neighbors, friends and relatives during a crisis. A stranger will be more able, and perhaps more willing, to offer you more than your elected officials during a blackout or during a war-and you will be able to offer more to that stranger in that moment. While New York City, and the United States more generally, promotes itself as a model of efficiency, accountability, and perseverance, this blackout revealed the city, state, and federal government(s) to be largely unprepared to deal with the crisis caused by Hurricane Sandy. It also revealed what institutions, and what people, matter more and matter less to the local and federal government. But perhaps the biggest reason we should not trust our governments is that our hardships and injuries will always be transfigured into fodder for political maneuvering, mudslinging, and electioneering. We are used to this in Beirut, and the post-hurricane United States is no different.
Intoxication is your friend. Wallahi.*Gebran Bassil is the Minister of Electricity in Lebanon. He is widely reviled and blamed for the continuing breakdown of the Lebanese electrical grid.
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