In 1983, when I was working at Quartet Books in London as an office boy, I was dispatched to the King’s Road in Chelsea to hand out flyers promoting one of the company’s new titles. It was edgier than most of the books Quartet published, and the marketing people decided that it needed a bit of “street” selling.
So there I was, happy to be out of the office, cheerfully thrusting leaflets into the hands of passers-by. A middle-aged man took one, looked at me, carried on a few paces, turned around and began berating me. He was a friend of my father and demanded to know if he, my father that is, knew I was doing such menial work. He then stormed off, shaking his head and muttering in disbelief.
It didn’t take long for the word to get out. My father, who was in the UAE, called me the next day. How could I embarrass him like this? I couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, but looking back it was clear that he’d have been much happier if I’d interned at a law firm or a merchant bank, or at the very least had been beavering away at university, anything that allowed him to tell his friends that my professional trajectory was on track.
I don’t blame him. He was a product of a country and a culture that places huge importance on education and achievement. Most Lebanese parents want their children to hit the ground running in the jobs they trained for and there is something within the Lebanese psyche that is not comfortable with their kids doing jobs that might be seen as beneath them.
But in the real world, however, the majority of us have to start at the bottom, often to pay for, or at least supplement, student life or simply to earn a living, something my Lebanese-born and raised son has discovered since moving to the UK last summer. He wants to work in the music industry, but before he achieves global domination he will take any work that will give him an income while he works on his music.
Easier said than done. Ever since the EU was founded in 1993, the UK has become a magnet for Europeans seeking work. Many have two or even three jobs. They have families, immediate and extended, who rely on their wages and competition is fierce. When my son jokingly said that he might have to apply to stack shelves in the local supermarket, I told him he’d be lucky to get the job.
The calibre of staff at that particular branch is very impressive. They are probably all university students. They are smart and have that cheery can-do demeanour required when one works with members of the public. My son eventually applied and didn’t hear anything. He also applied to the local outlet of Sports Direct, confident that his English would be enough to get him a position in a shop he assured me was staffed largely by Romanians. Nothing. He tried Gap, Fat Face and American Apparel. Also nothing. Lowering his sights, he offered his services as a dishwasher in the kitchen of our local pub. He was told he lacked experience.
What’s my point? Well, I think things would have been different had we always lived in Europe or the US, where it is considered normal for a teenager to get a part-time job. It instils a work ethic from an early age and equips young people with the instincts to compete in crowded job markets. My son is having to develop these instincts because in Lebanon, the spiritual home of entrepreneurship, the bourgeoisie don’t encourage their kids to deliver papers, babysit, stack shelves or bus tables. Ironic isn’t it?
And it’s a shame because it also makes them better people. Those Lebanese professionals I have met who did work their way through college, are not only committed, focused and hard-working, they have a humility that makes them infinitely more fun to work.
“Dude, my first job was washing dishes,” said my friend Mark, a successful freelance film-maker based in New York. “I worked my way out of the kitchen and into the bar. Working in hospitality and dealing with the public taught much of what I use in my current work. I lived on tips and I can assure you I was never broke as a student.”
I never did find out who the man was that harangued me on the King’s Road 32 years ago. I just know he was wrong.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
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