Week in the Life: Patrick Smith, Beirut grocer - A sharp trader who'd do anything for a tenor

ON MONDAY morning, the generators roar. It's 34 degrees Centigrade in the shade and Patrick Smith is writing cheques; to suppliers, to the Electricite du Liban, running his finger over the accounts he still keeps in a large leather-bound book.

Bank Audi looks after his money - Raymond Audi is his brother - but Mr Smith's mind is on the great generator with its new $5,000 (pounds 3,300) silencer just off Sadat Street.

Israel's June air raids destroyed two Lebanese electricity switching stations and whenever Beirut's rationed current is switched off, Smith's own little generating station must kick into life to protect the milk, juice, meat, cheese and yoghurts lining the shelves of what is still called "Smith's Supply and Trading".

It may sound colonial, but there is a bit of the old empire in Beirut's best-known grocer. He's the son of Ani Sarafian - an Armenian whose parents sniffed the political dangers and left the present-day Turkish city of Diyarbakir just before the Turks started their 1915 genocide - and Colonel Sidney Ogden-Smith, one of Britain's last mandate army officers in Palestine.

But apart from the name and punctuality - up at 5.30am, listening to the BBC at 6am, in the shop with his 57 staff prompt at 7am, "put to bed" (as he has it) by 9pm - Mr Smith is all Lebanese, a cynical, shrewd businessman with a wicked humour, a love of the good life and a constant fascination with human folly.

And this being Lebanon, the emergency generators make a profit because Smith leases his power output to 175 customers.

Some of them shop in his store to buy the 1,200 baguettes from his bakery - the Lebanese passion for French bread an inheritance from the country's love-hate relationship with France's post Great War mandate.

Mr Smith watches them arrive from his eyrie on the first floor. He looms over customers and check-out desks like a dangerous owl, eyes moving across the top of steel-framed glasses, distracted only by his battery of phones. His conversations are in French, Arabic, English - he is the last of his family to speak Armenian - and sometimes they are a little testy. Calling up creditors is routine.

u

ON WEDNESDAY, Raymond Audi insists that Mr Smith accompany him to hear Placido Domingo at the Beit Eddine festival. Mr Smith loves the music, hates the night-time journey back through the Chouf mountains with their gorges and hairpin bends.

More than 5,000 opera lovers are trying to leave the small town with its narrow roads and 19th-century stone buildings at the same time. Hundreds of drivers, all hooting at the same time, 10,000 headlights trapped in alleyways: Lebanese gridlock. They get back to Beirut by 2am. Three hours' sleep before opening the store.

u

ON THURSDAY, his staff find another shoplifter; there's one attempted theft almost daily. "Dishonesty is going up all the time," Mr Smith says. "It's a lack of the morality that disappeared over the years of the war, accelerated by the decline in purchasing power of all customers.

"They're poor people, rich people, young and old. Our personnel manager caught one of our regular customers - she'd taken a couple of soap bars and shampoos. We asked her to put them back. She said she was sorry and blushed and left the store.

"Usually people go for more expensive things like cosmetics. We had a woman who came in and hid a bottle of Dom Perignon under her skirt. We had to stop her - it's $175 a bottle."

Over the road, Mr Smith's 22-year-old son, Nael, is working in the family's latest venture, a cyber-cafe, computer mall and video store rolled into one. His older boy, Tareq, will run the place. Mr Smith's wife, May, is masterminding a bookstore up in the mountains at Faqra, beside Mr Smith's other supermarket. He knows how to expand business. And how to relax.

u

FRIDAY LUNCHTIME and, like most days, Mr Smith mounts his Yamaha 400cc trail bike for the three-minute journey to his boat at the St George club. There is cold beer in the icebox, Pavarotti on the CD player, his own jetski to visit other beaches. "Biking is the only sensible way to move around town in Beirut's traffic jams," he says.

Tareq takes his travel more seriously on a Harley Davidson 1400cc Fat Boy, "six times as expensive as the Yamaha and twice as large", Smith notes with a sharp glance at his son.

u

ON SUNDAY, Mr Smith will take the boat across the bay to Jounieh, mooring off Chez Sami's fish restaurant where a boy ties the boat to an underwater buoy. Mr Smith wades ashore like a Roman emperor to order his first arak of the day. It was not always so smooth.

He was kidnapped in 1978 by gunmen who asked for $5,000. "I told them I didn't have the money," he says. "Then one of them shot himself in the foot with his pistol and they decided I was too much trouble and they let me go. The kidnappers were pretty unprofessional in those days."

u

ON MONDAY, he'll be back in the eyrie, contemplating human mendacity but also the problems of his customers.

"They come to tell me they've lost their dog or their cat is sick, great people who've been very loyal to us over the years. One man came to tell me his wife had left him and asked for advice. I said he should let her go because she'll come back in the end. She did."

I realise I need to send my photograph of Mr Smith to London. And of course, Nael sends it to The Independent from the cyber-cafe. The bill will come next week. And yes, I promise to pay.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace in Summer's Supermarket Secrets
tv All of this year's 15 contestants have now been named
Sport
The giant banner displayed by Legia Warsaw supporters last night
football Polish side was ejected from Champions League
Arts and Entertainment
Could we see Iain back in the Bake Off tent next week?
tv Contestant teased Newsnight viewers on potential reappearance
Life and Style
A picture taken on January 12, 2011 shows sex shops at the Paris district of Pigalle.
news
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100(and it's got nothing to do with the Great British Bake Off)
News
Angelina Jolie with her father Jon Voight
peopleAsked whether he was upset not to be invited, he responded by saying he was busy with the Emmy Awards
News
Bill Kerr has died aged 92
peopleBill Kerr appeared in Hancock’s Half Hour and later worked alongside Spike Milligan and Peter Sellers
News
news It's not just the world that's a mess at the moment...
Sport
footballPremiership preview: All the talking points ahead of this weekend's matches
News
Keira Knightley poses topless for a special September The Photographer's issue of Interview Magazine, out now
people
Voices
The Ukip leader has consistently refused to be drawn on where he would mount an attempt to secure a parliamentary seat
voicesNigel Farage: Those who predicted we would lose momentum heading into the 2015 election are going to have to think again
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012
film Cara Delevingne 'in talks' to star in Zoolander sequel
News
i100
Sport
Mario Balotelli pictured in his Liverpool shirt for the first time
football
Life and Style
tech
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Data Scientist (SQL,Data mining, data modelling, PHD, AI)

£50000 - £80000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Data Sci...

Java Developer - 1 year contract

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Cent...

Junior Analyst - Graduate - 6 Month fixed term contract

£17000 - £20000 Per Annum Bonus, Life Insurance + Other Benefits: Clearwater P...

SAS Business Analyst - Credit Risk - Retail Banking

£450 - £500 per day: Orgtel: SAS Business Analyst, London, Banking, Credit Ris...

Day In a Page

Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone