“Where are you going?”
“What? Why? What are there to see? Where will you stay?”
“I want to see Beirut and …”
It appeared that to one of my friends, the Lebanese capital has a much more positive reputation than the country itself, which is understandable since Beirut has been known for decades for its vibrant nightlife and thriving financial industry. Often dubbed the “Paris of the Middle East”, Beirut enjoyed a status as the financial center of the region during the Persian Gulf oil boom, and a holiday destination for rich Gulf Arabs and Europeans who sought a relaxed way of life in a balmy Mediterranean setting. Numerous celebrities, including Brigitte Bardot and Elizabeth Taylor, made their way to Beirut, which only increased the city’s popularity among the jet-set. All seemed to be well.
However, in 1975 conflict broke out in Beirut, and soon afterward it escalated into a prolonged civil war that took 120,000 lives, displaced tens of thousands, and forced almost one million to flee the country altogether. It has left scars on buildings around the city and throughout the small nation, on the hearts and minds of the people, and unfortunately it has shaped the rest of the world’s perception of Lebanon even until now. To understand why this otherwise beautiful land was devastated by war, one needs to understand Lebanon’s long and convoluted history.
Lebanon falls under what historians call the Fertile Crescent, a well-watered region stretching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean Sea that was the cradle of some of the earliest great civilizations. This western end of the crescent with easy access (by ship) to Egypt, Greece, and the rest of Europe and North Africa was settled by the Phoenicians, a seafaring people known for their extensive trade network and for inventing the oldest known alphabet. At their peak, the Phoenicians possessed trading colonies as far as what is now Cádiz in Spain. These Levantine people were able to rise in prominence following the decline of the Ancient Egyptians and the Hittites (centered in what is now Turkey), two regional powers that controlled lands far beyond their core realms.
The Phoenicians once again found themselves under the shadow of other nations when Cyrus the Great conquered Phoenicia in 539 BC and incorporated it into his fast-expanding Persian Empire. And over time, this land was subsequently conquered by the Greeks, the Armenians, and the Romans. When Christianity spread across the Roman Empire, centers of the new religion’s teaching were established in many places within the vast realm, including the snow-capped mountain range called Mount Lebanon from which the name of the country is believed to have originated (the Phoenician word lbn which means “white”, referring to the snow, is the root for Lubnan, Liban, and Lebanon – how the nation is known today in different languages). A hermit named Maron founded a monastic tradition in this area which was then introduced by his followers to the region. Eventually, Maronite Catholicism became the predominant Christian denomination in this part of world.
Since the rise of Islam in the seventh century, much of what is now Lebanon has been administered as a part of different Islamic dynasties, from the Umayyads (based in Damascus) to the Mamluks of Egypt and the Ottomans of Turkey. Despite being under the control of Muslim rulers for centuries, much of the general populace retained their Christian faith. When the Franks in Western Europe instigated the Crusades against the Arabs to regain what had been lost from the Byzantine Empire, the coastal areas of modern-day Lebanon temporarily came under the control of two Crusader States – the Kingdom of Jerusalem and the County of Tripoli – until the recapture of the Levant by the Muslims. Nevertheless, the most lasting legacy of this chapter in Lebanon’s history is the allegiance of the Maronites to the Pope in Rome, instead of Eastern Mediterranean patriarchs like that of Constantinople.
Following the Ottomans’ defeat in World War I, the French took control of Syria and Lebanon. By this time, Lebanon was still predominantly Christian, with Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as Druze, making up the rest of the population. Decades later, when France was occupied by Germany during World War II, Lebanon gained its independence in 1943 with one of the most significant pacts unique to the country coming into effect. The unwritten National Pact dictates that the president of Lebanon should be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim, the speaker of the parliament a Shia Muslim, and the deputy prime minister as well as deputy of the speaker of parliament a Greek Orthodox. This power sharing based on religion is known as Confessionalism.
In 1948 the founding of Israel was declared to the south of Lebanon, and the Arab-Israeli war followed several decades later. Both events resulted in, among many things, the exodus of Palestinians to neighboring countries. The Sunni Palestinians who made their way to Lebanon mostly settled in the southern part of the country which is traditionally the land of the Shia Muslims. This caused a sudden shift of demographics – an issue so sensitive that the last official Lebanese census was conducted in 1932 – which created further tensions in the already convoluted relations among sect-based communities in the country. At the beginning of the war in 1975, one side looked to the West for support, the other to Arab nationalists aligned with the Soviet Union; one side was sympathetic to the Palestinians while the other was closer to Israel; then came the meddling of Syria and Iran; until it all got really tangled up with ever-shifting alliances. One’s enemy today might become an ally the next day.
For 15 years, a bloody civil war ravaged the entire country whose land area is about the same size as Massachusetts or just half of Slovenia. Communities were pitted against each other, Beirut was divided into a Muslim west and Christian east with the notorious Green Line (which gained its name thanks to nature reclaiming roads and concrete as this strip became a no man’s land) separating the two. Luxury hotels in the capital were turned into sniper dens during the Battle of the Hotels with the Holiday Inn – which had opened only a year prior to the outbreak of war when Beirut was still enjoying its status as a prime holiday destination – being one of the most heavily contested of all.
Finally in 1989 a breakthrough was achieved when the Taif Agreement was signed, providing the basis for ending the civil war. According to its terms, the Christian to Muslim ratio in the Lebanese parliament which had long favored the former with a 55:45 ratio would be changed into 50:50 for a fairer balance of power. Also, the prime minister who was previously beholden to the president would now report to the legislature. The agreement also dictated the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon (except for the Iran-backed Hezbollah for it was considered a resistance force in the Israeli-occupied south), the expulsion of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), and the eventual withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon.
To a certain degree, peace and normalcy soon returned to Lebanon following the signing of the agreement. Rebuilding commenced, and in Beirut a company called Solidere was responsible for the rebirth of the downtown area from the ashes. Rafic Hariri, a businessman and important political figure who became Lebanon’s prime minister from 1994 to 1998 and a major shareholder of Solidere, implemented policies that helped the country’s economy rebound. However, a rift between Hariri (who opposed Syria’s influence in Lebanon’s internal affairs) and Émile Lahoud (the country’s president from 1998 to 2007 who was backed by Syria) led to increasing tensions in the country which was still reeling from the wounds and damage of the civil war. In 2000, Rafic Hariri was appointed prime minister once more, leading the anti-Syria camp in the government until 2004. One year later, he was assassinated in a car bomb attack in the hotel district of Beirut. Syria was believed to be responsible for this killing which triggered a series of mass protests, especially in the capital, demanding the withdrawal of Syrian troops in Lebanon and the replacement of the Syria-backed government, among other things. Under immense pressure from the UN, Syria completely withdrew its troops from its smaller neighbor within a matter of months, although the pro-Syria president remained in office for three more years.
However, normal life had yet to come despite the success of what was called the Cedar Revolution. In the following years, a string of car bombings targeting anti-Syria politicians rocked the country. Then in 2006, in response to a cross-border ambush by Hezbollah, Israel once again attacked Lebanon. Some observers viewed this as the beginning of a proxy conflict between Israel and Iran, which supports the southern Lebanon-based Hezbollah. During the summertime war, Israel imposed an air and naval blockade on Lebanon, while bombing targets and destroying infrastructure up and down the small nation. Fortunately hostilities ended a little over a month after they started, and exasperated by Hezbollah’s position in Lebanon (effectively operating as a country within a country), the Lebanese Army was reintroduced into the south, making the presence of the central government felt in Hezbollah’s stronghold.
Since then, no large-scale conflict has ever erupted in Lebanon. As a result, Beirut is gradually regaining its former status as a vibrant and cosmopolitan city. New businesses sprout as the Lebanese diaspora slowly return to their homeland, bringing in cash and fresh ideas. Rebuilding and gentrification are a common sight, especially in downtown Beirut. The city has once again won back the confidence of international hotel chains like the Four Seasons, and its cultural scene is booming too. More and more publications feature Beirut and Lebanon in general as among the most exciting places to visit in the world.
“Some parts of Beirut remind me of Montreal,” James told me. “It’s the atmosphere, some of the modern buildings, the way people dress.”
Sure, French signs are ubiquitous along with Arabic and, increasingly, English. But the city has its own distinct character. Walking down one street you might understand why it was called the Paris of the Middle East, then take a turn and you’ll probably think it looks a little bit like Istanbul. But since this is Lebanon, you can agree to disagree with me, just like everything else here. The spelling of a place name, for example isn’t standardized: is it Gemmayze or Gemmayzeh? Ashrafiyeh or Achrafieh? Zokak El-Blat or Zuqaq El-Blat? Then, of course, all the political disagreements that have gotten this country into a lot of trouble.
But forget about all those troubles if you visit Beirut today. It has world-class museums, great art spaces, inspiring retail shops, charming old neighborhoods, delicious food, a beautiful Corniche, and friendly cats. Some places, like Beit Beirut, are purposefully untouched or minimally renovated to remind people of Lebanon’s dark past and what could happen if communal conflicts are allowed to simmer and boil over. Stroll through its gentrified, rebuilt downtown and catch a glimpse of the filming of a Lebanese movie or soap opera (popular throughout the Arab world), or explore Martyrs Square and get a sense of the Roman civilization that once called this city Colonia Iulia Augusta Felix Berytus. Walk across the city and see its numerous mosques and churches, and mosques, and churches. In some areas you will see military personnel in uniform who will remind you not to take any photos of certain buildings, in a friendly and far-from-intimidating way. Walk around, and you’ll see that beyond the palpable scars, Beirut exudes hope, which makes me optimistic about the prospects for other war-ravaged cities around the world.