Three weeks ago I was running late for a meeting in New York with a Lebanese financier who I was hoping might “help out” with a documentary I’m co-producing on the indomitable Lebanese entrepreneurial spirit. The trouble was that President Obama was in town; half the roads in Lower Manhattan were closed and the Uber carrying my co-producer that was en route to pick me up was nowhere to be seen. To make matters worse, the financier had warned us that he was on a tight schedule – “can we meet at my office? I have a busy day” – so we had been extra careful to arrive on time. But we didn’t count on Potus.
When the black Escalade (as far as I can tell the Uber of choice in Manhattan) eventually came into view, we only had 15 minutes to travel nearly 60 blocks. The GPS told Enrique, our driver, that the journey would take an hour in current traffic conditions. We ditched the SUV and took the subway.
I hate being late but I’m equally a bit old fashioned when it comes to what to wear for important meetings. Hence my surprise when I saw my 43-year-old partner, who had been sitting in the back of the Uber when I climbed in, wearing a fluorescent green baseball cap, a white T-shirt, cut-off shorts and black Vans. All he needed to complete the ensemble was the skateboard he had wisely left in the SUV. “The shorts may not be the best look,” I muttered in the crowded carriage. “Dude! Relax!” he grinned. “I was filming. You saw the traffic. There was no time to go home and change. Don’t worry. It’ll be cool.”
I tried but the man we were meeting was a high-flyer, one of a small group of successful Lebanese money men working out of the Big Apple recently named in a New York Times piece. More importantly, we Lebanese by and large don’t always understand “dressed down”, let alone turning up in what could be pyjamas. It’s probably something to do with the Arab notion of respect and of being seen to do the right thing that runs through almost all aspects of our society.
So we arrived 20 minutes late. My partner looked even more out of place among the Brooks Brothers types milling around the elevators, but no one gave him a second look. I began to calm down as we headed up to what seemed like the 300th floor.
“I’m glad you made it,” the financier said cheerily. “I should have told you Obama is in town today.” Did he bat an eyelid when he saw how my partner was dressed? Not a bit of it. In fact, he was wearing black jeans and a white button-down shirt. The meeting went as well as it could have and it occurred to me that the world had moved on from a solid handshake and a well-tied Windsor knot. While I was living in the bubble that is Lebanon for 22 years, the world had moved on.
It is, thankfully, a message that is slowly seeping into a hidebound Lebanese business culture that has seen the internet and social media turn received wisdom on its head. Last week, in London’s Borough Market, I met my friend Jamil Haddad, a Lebanese entrepreneur who three years ago founded The Colonel, a company based in the northern Lebanese town of Batroun. The Colonel is flourishing, even in Lebanon’s arctic economy, and one reason for this has been Mr Haddad’s ability to tap into a new, less-stuffy Lebanese consumer.
“Gone are the days when we have to wrap everything up in prestige and position and claim it is the most exclusive,” he said wearing a T-shirt and cut-off denim shorts and tucking into a portion of fish and chips. “The new generation laugh at that attitude. They are not impressed with wealth and influence. They want something new and fun and, above all, authentic.”
And who am I to argue?
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton.
Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter