Lebanon has struggled to stay afloat against heavy odds and has yet emerged as a beautiful and captivating nation
There is hardly anything going for this country. It is surrounded by two volatile neighbours, Israel and Syria, who have each invaded Lebanon in the recent past. The society is split along every line imaginable, there are Shias, Sunnis, Druze, Maronite Christians, Orthodox Christians, Alawites and Armenians to name but a few. It has been through a debilitating civil war lasting decades, scars of which are still visible in the skyline of the capital Beirut. The political system is arcane and corrupt as evidenced by the recent wave of protests. The economy is teetering on collapse as it is also one of the most indebted countries in the world.
To top it all, the country hosts more than two million refugees, representing a third of its population.
Upon landing, I felt excited with a tinge of trepidation as my documents were stamped by a surly but efficient immigration officer. Stepping out of the airport, I saw a parking lot that was full of ‘70s Mercedes taxis with their chain-smoking drivers. Although it was my first time in the country, I had a feeling of deja-vu. The scene reminded me of movies with a sinister CIA-Middle East plot.
Drive to the hotel took me through the Dahieh district which is home to Beirut’s Shia community. Portraits of stern-looking Ayatollahs stared back at me reproachfully. The area appeared conservative. My driver and guide during my stay, Aref, advised me not to take any photographs.
I feared that the apprehension I had experienced earlier was well-founded. I couldn’t have been further from the fact. By the time I got to my hotel, near Zaitunay Bay, the surroundings had completely transformed. Modern sleek skyscrapers surrounded a beautiful marina with the trendiest bars, restaurants, and cafes. And the people inhabiting these establishments were dressed to the nines to put the chicest of Parisians to shame. I could have been anywhere in the Côte d’Azur or modern Dubai.
This stark contrast in environments, within minutes of each other, is the real beauty of Lebanon.
Lebanon is home to one of the most dynamic cultures. Lebanese movies, music, and TV shows are ubiquitous in the Arab world and Lebanese cuisine ever-popular everywhere. Few people would be unfamiliar with the works of Kahlil Gibran. All this is thanks, in part, to the incredible success of the Lebanese Diaspora. It is said that there are more people of Lebanese origin in Brazil than the original population of Lebanon.
History has been kind to Lebanon. Geographically, it is located in the heart of the Fertile Crescent – the birthplace of modern civilisation. This land, part of what is called the Levant, was never really independent, bouncing readily from one colonial empire to another.
All visitors of note have left their mark, from the Phoenicians to the French. To them the Levant region has been a welcoming host, absorbing these invading cultures and mixing them up with its own traditions to create something quite novel. Sometimes these values, imbibed over time, contrast sharply and the resulting clash has been devastating. But when it works, it is extraordinary in its vibrancy and joie de vivre.
For a small country, it is blessed with a beautiful landscape. One could be sunbathing on the Mediterranean in Byblos and within hours be skiing up in the Chouf Mountains to the south.
If you are looking for a bit of history, like I was, then you are in for a treat. Not much remains of the Phoenicians except the remnants of their port (Byblos) and a sea wall, which is rather apt as they were known seafarers. Baalbeck, in the east, is home to one of the grandest Roman ruins. The sheer scale of the two temples, with the snow-capped and Anti-Lebanon Mountains in the background, is a breath-taking sight. Tripoli, to the north, is a true Middle Eastern city.
Lebanon is home to one of the most dynamic cultures. Lebanese movies, music, and TV shows are ubiquitous in the Arab world and Lebanese cuisine ever-popular everywhere. Few people would be unfamiliar with the works of Kahlil Gibran.
The old bazaar is dusty, loud and chaotic, a true stimulus for the senses. Outside of Cairo, it is the only city with sizeable Mamluk architecture. The area is full of forts, castles, and hospices built by the Crusaders. Walking the old bazaar, I was fascinated to see how Arab builders recycled materials from old Roman and Crusaders’ buildings. A marble slab covering the doorway to an Ottoman bath bore Christian symbols from the times of the crusades. Time, life and history wait for no one. They just move on.
If there was ever a question on how strategic Lebanon is, look no further than the Dog River. Just thirty minutes north of Beirut, lies this estuary which has been crossed by invading armies since times immemorial. There is a tradition that the passing army carves its plaque on the rocks surrounding this river. In just an hour’s walk, I was able to see plaques placed by Egyptians, Romans, Mamluks, Napoleon III and more recently, the British Army who ‘liberated’ Lebanon from Vichy France in World War II.
After the intense history exposure, I needed somewhere to relax. On the lively Corniche, I found a cafe perched precariously on the cliff edge overlooking the iconic Pigeon Rocks. I was treated to jaw-dropping views as I sipped coffee watching the sunset into the Mediterranean.
The city of Beirut merits a separate mention. It has its share of history in shape of Roman baths and various Ottoman buildings. Before the civil war it was the party hub of the region where royalty and Hollywood rubbed shoulders. Remnants of the war are the most striking feature of Beirut today. I took a guided tour with Ronnie Chatah whose father was killed during this period.
Most of Beirut damaged in this war has been regenerated, thanks especially to the Solidere project. Some buildings though remain pock-marked with bullet holes, a reminder of darker days. The most striking is the Holiday Inn which was the ground zero of the conflict along the ill-famed Green Line. Ironically, it was so named as trees and bushes grew where humans feared to tread because of snipers. Life thrived for the plants but suffocated for man.
Holiday Inn actually paid to have their logo removed as this building is synonymous with the war in Lebanon. Bad publicity, you see. Due to an ongoing legal dispute, the building is yet to be demolished. I’d much rather it remains as a living museum to self-destruction. The ugly face of war in the most beautiful of surroundings.
The locals are friendly, cooperative with tourists and, rightly, proud of their country and culture. The only time I faced resistance from Aref was when I insisted on visiting Tripoli to the north. Too many Syrians, he said. As a non-Arab, it is not easy for me to differentiate a Syrian from a Lebanese or a Palestinian. Lebanon is not a poor country when compared to South Asian and many African countries. Yet I saw beggars in touristy areas of Beirut. All Syrians, said Aref. Driving through Bekaa Valley on the way to Baalbeck, I saw young men huddled together by the highway, often with tools in hands. They were looking for daily labour. Again, Syrians. This was rather depressing.
I encountered a similar situation in Sidon, a pretty port city which is known for its seafood and the Crusaders Sea Castle that juts out dramatically into the Mediterranean. It was time for Friday prayers and the shops in the old bazaar were closed. I meandered through the labyrinth of the ancient city centre to take more pictures. I stumbled upon what seemed a slum-like area. There were some children playing football. They were Palestinian refugees whose families moved here in the 1940s. They were the fourth generation of a stateless nation. They had no passports or citizenship, just travel documents. The children and their parents have known no other existence. Unable to return to their land and nowhere else they can call home.
Lebanon has given them shelter, some semblance of peace and a temporary home, for the last seventy years. Yet their arrival also sowed the seeds of civil war.
Clearly the pressure of refugees is taking a toll. The Lebanese society is a patchwork quilt that has been ripped apart in the past and been mended with great difficulty and pain. It is once again being stretched to breaking point.
The Lebanese have learned to deal with the chaos and calamities with stoicism. They have mastered the art of living in the present. Beirut is home to a vibrant nightlife. Mar Mikhail is the main party district, throbbing with life, full of bars, live music, and restaurants. Going out and socialising is practiced with almost a religious fervour.
Lebanese cuisine is world-famous and for a reason. It is a beautiful mix of cultural influences absorbed throughout the course of history. There is that taste of Mediterranean seafood, the Armenian meat dishes, the Ottoman desserts, all served with a French panache. The key to the food are the ingredients, all locally sourced and cooked with pride. I will happily return to Beirut if only for the food.
This is a nation that is struggling to stay afloat against heavy odds. Its location is both a curse and a blessing. Yet from this uncertainty, has emerged a culture that is beautiful and captivating.
My mind wanders to the drive back from Baalbeck through Bekaa Valley. It starts off from the Hezbollah strongholds, very austere and conservative. 40km west lies Chateau Ksara, maker of one of the finest wines in the region.
Somehow through the mayhem, the Lebanese have found an equilibrium to coexist – at least for now.