Lebanon, for me, had always been forbidden fruit. Living in Israel in 1971-72, Lebanon had conjured up images of territories recently conquered, UN peacekeepers, no-man’s land and the PLO’s launchpad for terrorist attacks. A disastrous civil war between 1975 and 1991 decimated Lebanon’s economy, destroyed the last vestiges of its glory days and made it a definite no-go for tourists. But the war had been over for 28 years, I no longer possessed the verboten Israeli stamp in my passport, a friend who had just visited spoke highly of its hospitality, safety and historical sites and there had not been a terrorist attack for at least 3 years. I decided it was a good time to give it a try.
I flew into Beirut in October, 2019, 2 days after Turkey bombed Syria. Istanbul’s new airport was calm and quiet, but I was still a little unsettled. Fortunately no missiles or other projectiles hit my Turkish Airlines flight and we landed safely. Immigration was a breeze – the “visa on arrival” was nothing more than a stamp in my passport proferred by the immigration officer whose only question was “where are you staying?”
My taxi transfer gave me my first introduction to the city. The airport is about 15 kilometers to my hotel in the Verdun neighborhood, reached first by a freeway followed by wide city streets. Neither had lines demarcating lanes, but no matter. Even on those rare occasions where lanes were indicated, driving in lanes is not something any Lebanese driver does. My taxi driver, and all subsequent drivers, swerved in and out of traffic, honked at every opportunity, never signaled, routinely ran red lights and slammed on their brakes with amazing regularity, only to floor their accelerator as soon as possible. Seatbelts were never used, but cellphones always were. Driving in Beirut is not for the fainthearted, being a passenger even more nerve wracking. I learned quickly to close my eyes, put in my earphones and pray every time I got into a car.
Lebanon’s location at the crossroads of civilization means Lebanon has a long history, beginning with Neolithic peoples, followed by Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantium, Arabs, Crusaders, Egyptian Mamlukes, the Ottoman Empire, a French protectorate before finally becoming independent in 1943. Each successive conqueror left their mark, architecturally, linguistically, ethnically and religiously.
The country is rich with archeological sites and I visited 2. Byblos, from the Greek for book, is one of 3 continuously inhabited cities in the world going back at least 6,000 year – the others are Damascus and Jericho – and its layers brilliantly excavated to expose a little from each civilization. Phoenician Temples are in the shadow of a Crusader Castle, a Roman road with columns scattered about leads to the entrance. a Roman Ampitheatre exists as does a Royal Necropolis.
During the French Protectorate and the 1950’s and 1960’s, Beirut was known as the Paris of the Middle East. The rich and glamorous flocked to its elegant high rises lining the Corniche, the coastline along the Mediterranean Sea. Two train lines operated, connecting it to Damascus and Tripoli/Istanbul. Laws were more liberal than in other Middle Eastern countries; wealthy Arabs came to gamble and drink alcohol. Movies were filmed; theatre performed and the myriad of religions: Muslims, Druze, Christians and Jews got together. It had become a haven for other displaced religions, welcoming large numbers of Armenians fleeing from Turkey in the 1920’s. Things were looking good.
Sadly, between 1975 and 1991, a brutal civil war devastated Lebanon, with an estimated 200,000 dead, an economy in shambles, religious divisions between the Christians, Muslims and a Muslim sect, the Druze and an entire generation raised in fear of bombs and sniper attacks.
Two guides from separate walking tours gave similar accounts of the reasons for the war. One must go back to 1967 and the war against Israel. Lebanon was convinced to join the Arab alliance, wholly expecting a quick and decisive victory after a surprise attack against Israel. But they were resoundly defeated and Jordan, Lebanon and Egypt all lost large tracts of land. Former residents, mostly Palestinians, fled to Lebanon and Jordan and terrorist organizations like the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) emerged representing the displaced Palestinians.
The PLO’s solution to their landless status was to try and convince Jordan to give up half of its remaining land and carve out a separate Palestinian state. After protracted negotiations, the king of Jordan refused and kicked the PLO out of Jordan. They relocated to Lebanon, urging the Lebanese to support continued warfare against, and a further invasion of, Israel. This divided the country into two factions, the right wing content with the status quo provided by the robust economy versus the left wing who favoured supporting their Arab brothers by maintaining the battle against Israel.
The spark setting off the violence was the 1975 murder of Palestinian social workers riding on a bus by Christians, but, amazingly, the next day, the country was fully armed. While ostensibly the war was between Christians and Muslims, the reality was far more complicated. Warlords emerged, each seeking to increase and consolidate their own powers, engaging private militias to terrorize whoever stood in their way. At various times, Muslims fought Muslims and Christians fought Christians.
The one clear demarcation was Beirut’s Green Line, dividing Beirut into Muslim West and Christian East. The Green Line became a no-man’s zone which no one dared cross. The lack of human contact allowed nature to take back the concrete, creating a thin forest of trees, 24 kilometers long, through the center of the city. Today, it has reverted back to a cityscape – a bland area beside an overpass with sidewalks and streetlights on either side.
The downtown was battered on all sides. Strategically, the higher the building, the better to serve as both a watchtower and a perch for snipers, and there was no bigger prize than the Holiday Inn. Newly opened in 1974, the largest Holiday Inn in the world had a revolving restaurant on its roof and was opulence at its best. It operated for only a year, before being targeted in The Battle of the Hotels, in which it and the nearby Phoenician Hotel became battlegrounds. Thousands died and the hotels abandoned except by the militants. Whatever remained after the war were vandalized by scavengers.
Today, the blackened shell casts a long shadow over the city, both a momento to the war and a symbol of Lebanon’s inability to repair itself. Currently owned jointly by a Kuwaiti company who wants to demolish it and put up a new high rise and a Lebanese group who want to renovate it as a reminder of the war, the consequence is nothing gets done. The Lebanese Army now occupies it, citing its potentially strategic use in the case of another war with Israel, but do nothing with it other then prohibiting tourists from taking photos of it.
The aftermath of the war:
A ceasefire was signed in 1991, with terms guaranteed to lead to a chaotic future. All parties surrendered their weapons, which made sense, but the new government was split, with the Presidency reserved for a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker a Shi’ite Muslim. As one fellow tourist, an ex-pat Lebanese living in New York said, the system was inherently weak because no one faction could dominate and consensus was impossible. A further term of the ceasefire was no narratives could be spoken about the war unless everyone agreed. The result was a de facto pardon: no war crime trials, no apportionment of responsibility and no teaching about the war in schools.
Lebanon has not had an easy time since the war ended. It has been invaded by Israel twice, occupied by Syria for 15 years and has had to absorb an estimated 2.5 million Syrian refugees, who are a huge burden on the health care and education system and are accused of taking jobs from Lebanese as they are perceived to be willing to work for less. During my bus tour to Baalbeck, we drove alongside Syrian refugee camps, their tent homes made of plastic sides with rubber tires on the roofs to keep them in place. Signs of permanency were obvious, satellite dishes, electric wires and water tanks. They could not go back: Syria’s President Assad declared every Syrian who fled to be a traitor who would be shot on sight if they tried to return. But as with everything in Lebanon, nothing is clear cut. A British fellow working with the UN told me the border with Syria had always been quite porous and up to 1 million Syrians regularly crossed, working in the fields of the Bekaa Valley and, unless one had been a Syrian draft dodger, Syria had no record of who had fled.
But the real problem, quoting from various guides and the Lebanese who I met a number of my tours, is simple. The government is as corrupt as can be, interested only in maintaining power and growing richer. Everyone has their hands out, the top 1% of the population holds 50% of the wealth and are doing their best to keep it that way.
The most glaring symbol of the corruption and bad governance is downtown Beirut. Completely destroyed in the civil war, the then Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (assassinated in 2005), set up a privately owned, publicly listed company with government powers called Solidere, whose mandate was to redevelop downtown Beirut. Solidere acquired all of the downtown land, often at ridiculously low prices from unwilling former owners, and set about constructing modern high rises designed by world renowned architects, set along perfectly tiled, clean sidewalks with cooling fountains and street level storefronts. Journalists have described this downtown area as Disneyesque.
The problem is, it is empty. Estimates range between 50 and 70% of apartments are unsold and many more are vacant, owned by wealthy expats and Middle Eastern foreigners seeking to invest in Beirut and using real estate to launder money. Lebanese banks used to be notorious for their accommodation of illicitly gained funds, but crackdowns have moved the money from banks to buildings. When I asked how the moneys made their way to the real estate developers through the banks, the answer was that blind eyes were turned when dollars changed hands.
Equally dumbfounding are the prices for the apartments, beginning at about $1 million and going up to $10 million for a penthouse. Monthly rents in the storefronts are $5000 per square meter. The result is a ghost town, populated only by security guards and privately engaged street cleaners, with an occasional Mercedes Benz car speeding in or out of underground parking garages.
Another problem is the decaying buildings. Some of the gleaning new buildings are right beside decrepit, shot out buildings, still standing empty after nearly 25 years.
No census has been conducted in Lebanon since 1932, but an estimated 1.5 million people live in Beirut or the many towns surrounding it. Most must endure long commutes because the price of housing in the downtown is far beyond most people’s reach and the owners would rather keep the rent/selling prices high and the properties vacant than pollute their areas with middle class people. Better to have an empty store than fill it with a coffee shop which might attract poor people. The few shops with tenants all sell high end, luxury goods.
Equally stupid is the lack of public transit. No public bus system runs in Beirut. The two train lines had both ceased service by 1974. Trams used to run through the downtown but their lines were destroyed in the war. After the war, the government decided to demolish the remaining few tracks, forcing the people to endure daily commutes from the suburbs. The reason? Apparently the government was close to the few families who owned all the gas stations. Without public transit, everyone would be forced to buy lots of gas at higher and higher prices. Needless to say, the roads into Beirut are ill-equipped to handle this traffic and hour long jams every morning and evening are the norm.
The National Museum is a wonderful exception to the government’s incompetence. Closed when the civil war began, many of its priceless treasures were stored in its basement or encased in concrete for protection from the artillery which heavily damaged the building. Restored and reopened in the 1990’s, the museum houses artifacts from Byblos, Baalbeck, Tyre and other sites, including excellent Roman mosaics and Phoenician sarcophagus. Its basement is most intriguing; it traces burial rites from the Neolithic period all the way to those of the Ottomans, with a place of honour bestowed upon the Phoenician sarcophagi:
Education and healthcare are free, but only the poorest use it. Private education and healthcare flourishes. Education is very good, most Lebanese are fluent in Arabic, French and English, but few jobs exist. My tour guides were architects and archeologists; the unemployment rate is high and too many Lebanese are forced to go abroad to find jobs. Over 40 million Lebanese live in other countries, with the Ottoman Empire forcing many to leave for North and South America and the civil war encouraging many more to leave.
Everyone agreed and was anxious to tell me, life in Beirut was difficult for the middle class and the government was largely to blame.
Lebanon has a lot of great things going for it. The archeological sights are fantastic, there are lots of museums and galleries, food was delicious, the people warm, friendly and multilingual. I never felt concern for my safety, even grabbing non-Uber taxis or walking around by myself, with the exception of crossing the roads with their madcap drivers. The walking and bus tours I took were excellent, my hotel was up to Western standards and no one seemed to care what my religion was, despite my Jewish last name.
Yet I felt uncomfortable in Beirut. On a Sunday morning, I walked to the Corniche from my hotel, just 10 minutes away. Walking along the sidewalks was a dicey proposition. In addition to broken tiles and day old garbage hazards, I had to walk out onto the street to get around a makeshift guard booth. A few minutes away, 4 soldiers with ugly looking guns manned a barricade. I initially thought they were guarding a foreign embassy, but later learned that the barricades were a common occurrence; politicians and wealthy people demand high security. Further on, I passed yet another hollowed out hulk of a building, its concrete black with mold and pockmarked with bullet holes.
After reaching the Corniche, I looked forward to a peaceful walk along the shore. But it was not to be. Lebanon is not quiet and Beirut even less so. Cars without mufflers raced by, honking their horns at every opportunity, motorcycles loudly screeched, even the pedestrians were all shouting, never talking, into their cellphones. I retreated to the calm of my hotel room, something I did over and over in Beirut. I found the city to be beautiful and fascinating, but oddly unsettling, for reasons I couldn’t quite put my finger on and still can’t articulate.
I left by taxi for the airport on Thursday, October 17th, about 4PM. It was an uneventful ride and my 8:35 PM flight on Lebanon’s national carrier was routine. But the next day, I started getting emails: “are you safely out of Lebanon” and “were you caught up in the fires or protests?” I checked the news to learn beginning late Thursday, demonstrators had rallied against government corruption in the downtown and closed the road to the airport.
The spark was a proposed tax on WhatsApp phone calls, designed to dent the country’s huge deficit and one which would hit the middle class the hardest. The protesters, united despite religious differences, were tired of government austerity measures which impacted them but did little to tackle the underlying problems of government corruption and elitism. As I write this, 4 days later, the marches are getting bigger, the calls for significant reforms continue to grow louder and the government seems to offer band-aid solutions designed to appease the protests, not resolve the real issues.
I think I finally figured out why I felt so uneasy in Lebanon. Despite the ceasefire in 1991, at its heart, the country is still at war with itself. Maybe not this religion against that religion and not one with tanks rolling down the streets, but it’s the haves against the have-nots and a war nonetheless.