beirut

Chapter One: Falling Out of Love

city2.jpg

In retrospect, that sticky Saturday night in July was the moment my love affair with Lebanon peaked.

Ours had been a love, if not quite at first sight, then certainly at second. In the eight years I lived there before the day I voluntarily drove into a warzone, I’d come to love it with a passion that still gives me pause. Never one to wave flags, the pride I took in a nation that was not my own surprised me as much as it delighted the Lebanese in my life, especially as it was never supposed to happen. 

Lebanon had not been not the culmination of some life-long dream. Nor for that matter, had the Middle East ever featured in my plans. Thanks to a father who was a civil engineer, I grew up around Asia, with stints in the UK and Brazil in between. Lebanon had happened while I was on my way to somewhere else and like all the best gifts in life, this one had been entirely unexpected.

I think in part, my instant attachment stemmed from my lifelong tendency to side with the underdogs and the misunderstood. Lebanon was both. Heir to 7,000 years of history and home to more of the longest continually inhabited cities than any other country but cursed with an easily manipulated political system and two of the worst neighbours a small, unstable nation could want, in the late ‘90s, the country was still often reduced to its last four decades of existence, which had been dominated by bloody episodes of civil and international war. 

Looking back now, I’m not sure what I expected Lebanon to be before I arrived there. My plan had been to stay three days, to see Beirut, Baalbak and Byblos, so I doubt I’d given it much consideration, anyway. But it didn’t take me long to understand that it was about so much more than war. Home to Christians, Muslims, Druze, Alawites and Jews, Armenians, Turkomen, Circassians, Kurds and Greeks, like Smyrna and Alexandria of the past, Beirut was a cosmopolitan city by dint of its own domestic diversity. 

Under assorted forms of Western rule for almost as long as it has been Arab, Beirut was and still is one of the last gasps of the Mediterranean mixity first created by the Greeks, a way of living that survived the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Once, this cosmopolitanism had been shared by all the great Levantine entrepôts but the end of empire, wars (both world and civil), the drawing of borders and the advent of the nation state gradually brought three thousand years of glorious miscegenation to an end. 

Lebanon’s embrace of its diversity, awkwardly enshrined in a constitution and political make-up that divided power between its different groups, lent the country its creativity, dynamism and strength but also opened it up to division. Worse, in the remorselessly nationalistic politics of the post-Ottoman eastern Mediterranean, its size and penchant for playing both sides made it an anomaly and after its lengthy Civil War, an object of scorn.

While the wider levant could still claim to be diverse, only Lebanon was truly a nation of minorities, on that no one group could control alone. Riven by dissent and a frequent pawn in regional geopolitics, it was, as the Americans like to say, a ‘hot mess’ of divergent politics, cultures, traditions, histories and religions, an unpredictable, unstable kedgeree of minorities that could only effectively be governed by consensus. And then, only just. But this precariousness was also part of what made it so fascinating. It was the least likely of countries, improbable on paper, and yet somehow one that not only endured, but often managed to shine.

And so, Lebanon became my Cause. For years, I revelled in trying to set the record straight. When I arrived in 1998, Lebanon was still occupied by both its neighbours and Israel would bomb the south of the country almost daily and Beirut occasionally. But in place of hair-raising recollections of life in civil war Lebanon, a time and place that had ceased to exist eight years before I arrived, I wrote about the country’s architects and designers, its food, its culture and its amazing sights. Rather than seek out former fighters to interview about the atrocities they had committed, I sought out those who were trying to build a better country. Not because I believed documenting Lebanon’s civil war wasn’t important, but because I didn’t believe it was the only thing that was important. 

Compared to the civil war, which had raged on and off for 15 years, the 2006 War that I experienced, was a blip - 34 days from start to finish. Still, it was brutal, asymmetric and unfair. 

Fighting a guerrilla force that was impossible to target, Israel broke International law by inflicting collective punishment on the entire country. Its air force targeted roads, electricity and water infrastructure and bombed cities and towns all over the country, killing almost 1200 civilians and displacing a million more.

I was unprepared for how emotionally devastating those 34 days would prove but for the Lebanese, it was as if a nightmare had come to life. Many of those old enough to remember the wars of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s were already convinced that conflict would return. They were a generation that had watched the fighting that erupted in 1975 morph from a genuine civil war into a series of proxy wars, which often had little to do with Lebanon. By the time the conflict ended in 1990, the corrupt cabals that ran it had permitted the country to become a convenient battleground for regional powers to settle grudges, prove points and send ‘messages’.

Still, even the most pessimistic Lebanese were shocked by the 2006 war. In some ways, it was the country’s cruellest. Lebanon was mending. For the first time in 34 years, it was not occupied. Israel had departed in 2000 and though the Syrians had clung on for a while, a series of political blunders had forced them to withdraw in 2005.

The year that followed had felt incredibly optimistic. Diaspora Lebanese talked about visiting for the first time and many Lebanese expatriates, abroad for years if not decades, planned to return and had begun looking for work in the country. Not even a campaign of car-bombings targetting public figures known for their opposition to Syria’s former ‘presence’ in Lebanon, the new government’s obvious flaws or the rancorous dispute in Parliament over the country’s future political orientation, seemed able to dispel the heady sense of possibility. For the first time in decades, Lebanon was in charge of its own destiny. 

Then, we had a war. 

It was after the bombing stopped that things really began to go downhill.  As Lebanon struggled to recover, it was periodically roiled by a succession of events that appeared intended to keep it from getting back onto its feet. Political jockeying gave way to sterile retrenchment, which in turn gave way to economic stagnation. The optimism evaporated. Young Lebanese started to emigrate en masse and slowly, a bitterness began to grow. 

Gradually, my life as a freelancer became increasingly tenuous. Work came in dribs and drabs, never enough to save but never so little that I was penniless. In part, this was due to the local situation and later, the 2008 economic crisis, but in part it was also due to wider changes wreaking havoc in the global media. 

Unconsciously, I began to tighten my belt, cushioned at first from the full force of developments by choice foreign assignments. Eventually, these too began to dry up and as they did, so did my own optimism. I’d always believed, mostly due to the incredible people I’d been privileged to meet in my years in the country, that once Lebanon was free to do as it pleased, it would finally realise its full promise. Even hobbled, the country punched above its weight, especially culturally, it was a powerhouse of ideas and individual talent that had everything it needed to thrive. Except, perhaps, for a political class willing to put the country before themselves.

For whatever reason, whether internal or external, Lebanon seemed unable to rise above its own divisions. To grossly simplify a very complicated matter, voters were disillusioned, disenfranchised and apathetic. The ruling classes too interested in their own bottom lines and in pursuing the kind of fruitless, zero sum politics that to paraphrase Chairman Mao, were effectively war without the bloodshed.

By late 2015, I belatedly realised that I barely recognised the country I had come to love. Nearly everyone I had come to know over the years had emigrated in search of work or stability, and where once, public interactions had been characterised by a gentle humour, tensions defused with a smile or a joke, they had begun to take on a harsher, more aggressive edge. And everywhere you heard everyone voicing the same complaints. There’s no stability. I spent three hours in a traffic jam yesterday. My daughter can’t get into university because she doesn’t have influence. My son is moving to Dubai for a job. This is not a country!

If I’d been living anywhere else, I like to think I would have left. But Lebanon was a honey trap. Even under straitened conditions, it was still possible for me to live reasonably well on relatively little. There might not be much work and the government might be a basket case, but the mountains were beautiful, the food was fantastic and culturally and historically, the country still fascinated me.

And so, despite the tribulations, the daily power cuts, the summer water shortages, the sheer effort that getting even the simplest things done, between being unwilling to leave and not knowing where to go next, I allowed myself to drift.

Do come back on Friday December 14th for the next chapter