There are about 4m citizens living in Lebanon (the last census was conducted in 1932 but hasn’t been revisited due to sectarian sensitivities) and a sizeable diaspora approximating 15-20m depending on who you ask. Largely as a result of the Lebanese tradition of traveling and its geographical position as a ‘gateway’ between the Middle East and Europe, Lebanon has one of the largest expatriate communities in the world per capita with more citizens living outside the country than are resident. But for those that do decide to stay (or have no choice), the majority choose to live in Beirut.
The city is chic, beautiful, dirty, noisy, ugly, fragrant, fast, and determined. It’s an irrepressible place. Many commentators have said that Lebanon is a microcosm of the Arab world, and for this reason alone I can see why Beirut is the religious and cultural melting pot that it is. Every denomination or sect of the world’s religions can be found here. Like vibrant threads that have woven their diverse customs into Lebanese culture, they make up the rich – and at times confusing – tapestry of this beguiling city’s life. Once dubbed the ‘Paris of the East’ when film stars flocked to its favourable climate and fashionable waterfront before the devastation of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), Beirut still holds an intoxicating allure.
The tree-lined boulevards built from the ashes and rubble of the most recent conflict with its neighbour in 2006, are a contemporary veneer to the city’s war-torn past. Army sentry posts are positioned outside blast wall protected buildings and the flash of polished gun-metal is ubiquitous. Despite the astonishing efforts to rebuild the commercial and financial districts near Martyr’s Square, the memory of armed-conflict over the past few decades never seems far away. The skeletons of bombed out, bullet ridden buildings stand beside modern cathedrals of gleaming glass and steel. This gives the skyline a jagged look; a permanent architectural reminder of the rise and fall of the capital’s fortunes. In downtown Beirut where I’m currently staying, Ottoman-style houses are sandwiched between elegant high-ceiling French apartments and the ‘construction by numbers’ of grey reinforced concrete is everywhere. The ancient remains of Phoenician, Byzantine, Greek and Roman civilizations punctuate the dusty construction sites that are being hurriedly prepared for yet another high-rise apartment block or office space. It’s relaxed waterfront along the Corniche pulses with a joie de veuve as families and friends gather to watch the sun set. Meanwhile, the surgically ‘enhanced’ social elite walk side-by-side with people of all backgrounds and walks of life. Although European in outlook, Beirut has a distinct Middle Eastern character and a pace that never rests. Forever in flux.
You don’t stand still in Beirut for long.
Having had the honour of talking to many Beirutites during my short time here, there is a pervasive unease concerning their country’s future as the sands of the region shift into a period of great uncertainty; whilst the Lebanese can only stand by and watch. Some are more optimistic than others. It seems that the ‘wolf of occupation clothed in the lamb’s fleece of liberation’ (Eugene Rogan) is ever-present as its neighbours vie for influence and control over the nation’s affairs. But the picture is not as entirely bleak as it looks. The formation of a new Government since the collapse of President Saad Hariri’s unity Cabinet at the start of this year does offer some grassroots of hope. As a visitor, it’s my heartfelt wish is that the fire currently raging on its borders does not spread to burn this ancient land once again.
The stark reality is that things do appear to be hotting up as the Arab Spring turns into a long tempestuous Arab summer. Only a few days ago, there was an attack on a (French) UN convey on the main road to Sidon in the south. Similarly, the news of seven Estonian cyclists who were recently abducted (and have subsequently been released) whilst traveling through the lawless Bekaa Valley means that I’m confining my movements to the relative safety of the suburbs.
It’s been a dream of mine to visit the old Cedar forests high up in the mountains but I expect the only Cedar I’m going to see is emblazoned on the nation’s flag. It’s a fitting emblem for the nation’s identity; for like the mighty cedar tree, the Lebanese may be bowed, but they will never be broken.