Beirut is starting to cool down. The suffocating heat of July and August has given way to a perfect marriage of balmy afternoons and temperate evenings. A mist settles over the surrounding mountains and there’s a welcome nip in the air. The coastal city breathes a sigh of relief, leaving its diverse population to enjoy their beers and mezze in comfort. The city pulsates with glistening lights, tinny music and perennially beeping car horns. Traffic lights are ignored and tyres screech through the busy streets. Mosques neighbour churches and clubbers chat with soldiers on Saturday nights as the jewel of the Middle East comes alive.
Having never been to the Middle East, and having absorbed the British media’s take on the region my entire life, it’s safe to say that there were a few concerns before setting off. After my first weekend in the city almost all those worries had been quelled leaving behind them a sense of excitement and wonder.
It seems that everyone I encounter wants to wish me well or invite me somewhere special or take me out to eat. New acquaintances become old friends in the space of a conversation and that is something I’ve never experienced to such an extent. Everyone is eager to find out why you chose to come to Lebanon, what are your impressions and are you not afraid? Most have a preconceived notion of how the rest of the world views the region, and each passing conversation, each invitation for a drink, some food or a day out reaffirms the decision to come here; to see the region as it really is.
About the size of Wales with a population of around six million, two million of which are classified as refugees, Lebanon has had its fair share of problems with civil war, Israeli occupation and an incredibly divided political and social system. However, besides the trouble in their past and the current threat from Syria, people just want to get on with their lives and enjoy life without fear.
And for most Beirutis, having a good time is what it’s all about. Every Friday and Saturday, the bars are packed full of people from all age groups, from all walks of life. There are the more hip areas like Mar Mikhael where Radio Beirut airs from inside its eponymous bar and then the more upmarket and showy areas of Uruguay Street and Hamra, where cocktails are shaken and glamour fills the air.
Restaurants serve steaming pots of rich shish barak (a yoghurty dumpling dish), kafta skewers (spiced lamb), tawouk sandwiches (marinated chicken) and platters of kibbeh (spiced cooked or raw meat) to a full-house most nights. the markets overflow with second hand knock-offs and quality antiques, everyone looking for that bargain.
Beirut has everything you’d expect from a capital city and more. The modern malls are around the corner from ancient mosques and tiny chapels seem to pop-up between houses. Winding alleyways lead onto brightly painted staircases that are lined with posters advertising the array of cultural events on offer each month. Remnants from its difficult past are also everywhere to see, with every other building wearing mortar-blast scars across its chipped façade, bullet holes and shrapnel marks are strewn like flower petals on a spring day.
Being such a small country everywhere is accessible by day trip from Beirut. A few kilometres up the coast is the old Phoenician town of Byblos, birthplace of the first recorded alphabet and now a tourist hub set in desert hues. The Crusader Castle contains ruins from the Romans to the Ottomans and everyone in-between and overlooks the small but unspoilt stretch of beach.
The whole length of coast is a blurred line between deep sea and high mountains. Moving further inland the mountains gorge valleys that lead to the plains of the Bekaa Valley, the bread basket of the Empire as the Romans named it. It’s here that world-class wine of all varieties is produced and each estate will gladly give you a guided tour.
Zahle, an hour inland from Beirut, has a French feel from the surrounding vineyards and the shutters on every window. It’s dotted with Ottoman buildings and steep lanes that overlook snow-capped mountains to the one side or the vast Bekaa Valley to the other. Further north is Baalbek, where the ancient Temple of Jupiter still stands dwarfing everything around. Looking at the landscape it’s not hard to see why people all those years ago felt the need to consecrate the natural beauty of this land with the majestic monument.
There is a wealth of variety up and down the 120km of coast, from the charmingly different old souks of Tripoli and Saida to the Roman hippodrome in Tyre, where sea-turtles arrive on to the city’s beaches during the summer months. As winter comes so does the snow and the area simply called The Cedars (the same tree that adorns the flag) has the countries best ski-slopes that trail through the 3,000 year old forest where Gilgamesh travelled through on his epic journey on the search for immortality.
Many boast that you can ski and lie on the beach within an hour of each other. Although no-one I’ve encountered has ever achieved this, it’s a fitting testament to the diversity of the country as a whole.
On a visit to Byblos in late October, we saw two military choppers racing north overhead. It would be later reported that insurgents associated with ISIS had entrenched themselves in Tripoli’s old souks. The choppers were the first time airborne power had been used on Lebanese soil for years and served to remind us that the comfort all around can change in an instant.
Just over the eastern mountain range, visible from Zahle, lies Syria and the wanton destruction just a few kilometres away is casting its shadow over Lebanon. Occasional rockets will land outside northern villages, supposedly sent from ‘Daesh’ (ISIS). However, as my students say, no-one can tell exactly who is sending them. Lebanese army soldiers have been kidnapped and police posts attacked. The threat may not be visible to the casual observer and you can often hear ‘Daesh’ in off-hand conversation, yet the jokey tone is always undermined by a telling nervous laughter.
Lebanon is dealing with the spill over from the conflict in Syria in more ways than extremist violence. It’s now estimated that there are now two million refugees in Lebanon, making up roughly a third of the overall population. Around most towns, especially those in the Bekaa Valley, you see UN High Commission for Refugee ‘Informal Settlements’ and UNICEF logos adorning the temporary ‘schools’ – large tents divided into classrooms, dug into the ground ready for the coming snowfall. Whilst they may sound depressing, the schools run by organisations such as Beyond Association are a hive of laughter, play and education.
A sad fact is that most of the teenage children have to help their parents in the fields to earn money for their survival and therefore cannot attend conventional Lebanese public school, of which they are accepted, or even attend NGO schools consistently. Money is demanded for the plot of land they live on and cuts are taken from the profits they make. There’s also growing ill-feeling from a large proportion of society, so to say that a refugees life in Lebanon is tough would be an understatement. Yet, it’s encouraging to see the happy faces of the children playing, simply doing what kids do in the safe-haven of the temporary schools.
Each new eruption of violence brings with it fresh tensions that are exacerbated by the difficulties of increased checkpoints along the roads or even entire villages being closed off by the army looking for extremists. But in the face of these challenges ordinary life must prevail and the extremists cannot be seen to have the upper hand, so life goes on. People are certainly not living in fear as we may perceive it. If there is one thing the collective Lebanese mentality knows it is vigilance, and the people are certainly not willing to give into the fear espoused from the extreme views of a minority over the hills.
The Lebanese people have survived decades of war and indeed many of my students state their first memories being bombs dropping on their school runs. Nevertheless, they still remain hospitable and open to any visitor they encounter. Eager to chat and offer their unique insights on anything and everything, it’s the people that really make Lebanon so appealing. And Lebanon is an incredible country to be a part of. It’s a humbling experience treading through the mountains, a cradle of civilisation that’s made all the more special because of the warmth of the Lebanese people.
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