Things aren’t always what you might think they would be in Lebanon
1. The Chevrolet Camaro is a man’s car, a real man’s car. Its muscular solidity just shouts America! at you. There’s no mistaking its form for some limp wristed, feminine, European design. But this is Lebanon, not Buttfuck Tenessee and the driver isn’t a hooch swilling redneck but an immaculately dressed Muslim lady, her head a mass of impossibly elegant hijab folds, a dazzle of shimmering colour. Her two girlfriends hop in and the deep, menacing rumble of 455 horsepowered V8 sparks into life to continue their evening cruise past posters of Hezbollah martyrs and black turbanned clerics on the streets of Tyre. The Israeli border sits comfortably within shelling range, just to the south.
Rather than a thousand anti islamophobia marches, this one image alone would do more to blast through the car worshipping, American myopia of Trump voting dim-wittedness and illuminate enough soporific brain cells to raise the possibility that Islam may not quite be what they thought.
2. A late afternoon stroll along the sea front in Tyre throws up some other contrasting images to confuse those eager to fit a majority Muslim country into one, simple concept: black clad women puff away on shishas, chatting to their friends; two couples celebrate a white wedding, the guests clad in pan-chromatic, peacock array of dresses; guys swig Lebanese beer by fishing boats, watched over by a statue of the Virgin Mary in pure white stone; a gaggle of laughing young women stroll past, a hijabi in black head scarf, arm interlocked with her short skirted friend in high heels; cool rich kids in a pair of gleaming street racers gun their throttles, engines roar, tyres screech, burning rubber as they chase each other up the street.
3. On the steps to my hotel a neatly dressed man in his sixties, with wiry grey hair, is enthused at learning I am from England so he can relate his happy memories of my country from many years ago. He talks of what we all share, regardless of race or religion and of his dear daughter marrying an Italian Christian, “I am so happy, now we have two religions in the family”. Religious communities haven’t always lived together in peace but the relatively large numbers of Christians, both Orthodox and Maronite as well as Druze, create a different dynamic to other Middle Eastern societies that make this man’s attitudes far from abnormal.
4. Just listening to a conversation between more educated Lebanese is a lesson in multiculturalism. All languages borrow words from others but Lebanese grabs whole sentences from English and French to mix with its Levantine Arabic. A paragraph’s worth of speaking will effortlessly jump between all three in a seemingly random fashion and should they encounter a visitor from another country there’s a good chance they may well be able to throw in the odd word or expression in their tongue as a sign of affection.
5. Downtown Beirut oozes the kind of soulessness that only billions of dollars can buy. It’s a gleaming temple built by the kind of people with wealth that all religions wisely warn us about, for the kind of people that all religions warn us about. At no point in the design process did anyone ask, “what would the people of Beirut want, like or need from this project”? There’s no park; no benches to sit and feed the birds or relish the calm; no kid’s playground; no falafel stands. Virtually nothing exists that would give 99% of the city’s population a single reason to grace its hallowed pavements, unless they were inclined to gaze longingly into window displays that contained little under the cost of a year’s wages for a street sweeper. The only surprise is that the developers somehow resisted the urge to concrete over the ancient ruins that dot the cityscape: the one decision that wasn’t entirely driven by Return on Capital Invested ratios. Even this you suspect was probably justified by saying, “we could charge more for an organic, fair trade latte if the client has some old ruins to look at”.
One small word in its developer’s defense is that its crimes are less of an architectural nature than social. At least some of the polished apartment towers offer a bit of design pizzaz, even if it’s solely because you have to do something to justify the equally towering sales prices. The faux historical buildings, with their blend of colonial and Islamic heritage may not appeal to architectural purists but us lowly mortals find them more human than the spires of heaven probing modernism that leer down upon them in condescension.
One factor helping to keep anyone away from the Downtown area is the least pedestrian friendly traffic system in the Middle East that surrounds it. Pedestrian crossings offer you only the luxury of choosing the likely location of your demise at the hands of oblivious, wheeled metal monstrosities but in other respects hardly differ from any other portion of asphalt.
It’s of little wonder that heavily armed soldiers almost outnumber the few souls on the streets whose bank balance or curiosity justify them being there. I suspect that terrorists long ago decided that it would require something just short of the blast range of a battlefield nuclear device to kill more than about three people, so could better invest their energies on killing poorer people elsewhere, who are more inclined to gather in easily disposable crowds.
As you walk away from the centre of the Downtown quarter you pass the occasional relic from the war: low, bullet splattered buildings squatting in the shadows of the reconstruction, waiting only for a court case to decide their contested ownership or the optimisation of property prices to maximise financial gain. A little further, beyond the point where hanging washing on the balcony wont get you arrested for crimes against architectural purity, you gradually find more older buildings and hints of communities rather than investment portfolios. Close by, on the shoreline, the Corniche offers enough foot space for the middle classes to preen in their ritual jogging display but also for the more humble Beiruti to experience some less fume tainted air or even a spot of fishing for their dinner.
6. Only half an hour’s walk away, the Palestinian refugee camp of Shatila is everything that Downtown isn’t: a clamour of life and atmosphere, with exclamations of greetings battling the shouts of traders’ sales spiels, amidst wafts of cooking smells that defy fermenting drains. The term camp long ago lost its relevance as its been here since 1949, when it sheltered those fleeing the brutality of the formation of Israel. Temporary structures have long-since been replaced by a higgledy-piggledy, bodge job of concrete and grey blockwork that has constantly morphed to accommodate newcomers, such as Syrians in recent years. The forever evolving, tangled lattice-work of water pipes and electricity cables overhead has transcended functionality to become an organic art form, a worthy competitor to similar efforts in places like Bangladesh.
Quite why the camp features on European government travel warnings remains a bit of a mystery to the foreigners I spoke to who had been there a while, all of whom had reported positively on interactions with the residents. That’s not to say there’s no possibility of the situation changing or that a measure of discretion isn’t required: poking cameras into people’s faces and expounding loudly on your opinions on the Middle East may lead to complications.
Although its best not to regard Shatila as a tourist destination, if interested you can stay in the camp at CYC Guesthouse, run by the Children and Youth Centre. If you have any skills to offer and would like to volunteer they’ll be happy to hear from you but if you just want the cheapest place to stay in Beirut ($15/night) and gain a bit of insight into life in the camp, you’re also sure to be sharing the guesthouse with some interesting people. Bear in mind that, given the circumstances, things don’t always function with five-star efficiency.
7. At almost opposite ends of the Lebanese coast, the cities of Trablus (Tripoli to the colonials) in the north and Saida (Sidon) in the south, provide differing historical feasts for the visitor. Like many of the other towns on the coast, both have an unbroken lineage that stretches back to the early days of human civilisation. Only traces of the sea-faring Phoenicians or Roman imperial splendour may remain but the Crusader and Islamic periods offer a bounty of architectural delights for the enthusiast. Saida, much of which has been sensitively restored, teems with life, with nothing preserved in aspic for the handful of tourists braving Lebanon’s largely undeserved reputation for chaos (Syrian border areas and some refugee camps excepted). Every old building is lived in and used by the populace. Its poor cousin Trablus is no less graced with historical sites but many seem unloved or little used, sitting among crumbling ruins. The abundance of heavily armed military are testimony to the sectarian fallout of the neighbouring Syrian civil war but the occasional gun fights that disturbed the outskirts until last year have calmed, so there’s no reason to scrub it from your itinerary. Both places share the welcome that Lebanese hospitality demands, regardless of the host’s religion.
8. Lebanon’s ancient history isn’t only human but natural, however it equally only remains in traces. This natural heritage is exemplified in the Lebanese Cedar tree that has pride of place in the centre of the national flag. As far back as the ancient Sumerian and Egyptian empires, the Cedar was recognised for its value in construction and boat building. The roof of the great Palace of Persepolis, burnt down by Alexander the Great in a drunken rage was made of this fine wood, as was the Temple of Solomon, such is its iconic place in the region. Consequently it comes as no surprise that most of it was chopped down centuries ago, but thankfully much of what’s left is now protected. One small glimpse into this living past is on the mountainside near Becharre in the north-east. This small wood may only consume half an hour of leisurely strolling but the serenity and fresh air is a much-needed antidote to the klaxon ravaged cities where the car is king. The oldest tree of these slow-growing giants is a good two thousand years old, maybe more but thankfully no one is going to bore a hole in it to find out exactly how much. On the surrounding slopes thousands of saplings have been planted in an effort to recreate some of the majesty of the ancient forests. So if you’ve got a spare weekend in about five hundred years time, do drop by to appreciate the natural splendour. Being so central to the course of civilisation for so long, half a millenia is but a trifling thing to the Lebanese, they can afford to wait.
9. “How’s business”? I ask the shop keeper. He replies with the kind of deflated shrug that I saw from many small businessmen across the Middle East but here is a factor he adds to the usual malaise of government corruption and incompetence: Syrians, around one and a half million of them, escaping the horrors of the neighbouring war. The fuss made in many rich, western countries over accepting a few thousand refugees looks pretty pathetic from this small land of six million and its hardly a surprise that it has led to tensions. God knows what would happen in our countries if the population had increased by a quarter in the space of a few years but I suspect it would have been met with a lot more than a resigned shrug in most cases.
Employers are only too happy to take on Syrians at knock down rates, usually half the normal pay, creating unemployed young Lebanese and dragging down wages overall. Already strained public services and infrastructure are not up to the job of the additional demand. Like many in the region, Lebanese take their charity and hospitality seriously, knowing full well Syrians would have done the same for them, but the ostentatious wealth of Downtown Beirut is in no way representative of the whole country and lines have to be drawn somewhere. Some politicians are exploiting these tensions and are demanding the removal of Syrians, conveniently ignoring the fact of their own contribution to the failing systems, after creaming off profit for themselves for so many years.
Throw in the complications caused by Hezbollah’s backing of the Assad regime and the future looks far from clear but Lebanon has experienced worse and somehow muddling through before the shit really hits the fan has won out in the past, when faced with the option of repeating anything akin to another civil war.