“A friend who is far away is sometimes much nearer than one who is at hand. Is not the mountain far more awe-inspiring and more clearly visible to one passing through the valley than to those who inhabit the mountain?”
How can we even imagine that frisson of intense, gut emasculating emotion – a mixture of horror, fear and, I am sure, anger, in that split second between the explosion and the arrival of the shock wave for the millions of people crammed into Beirut. The failure of governance since the civil wars of 1975 to 1990 mean no one actually knows what the population is. In fact, usually August is the month when the population rises as many Lebanese working all round the world return for family reunions and celebrations. This year a combination of the Covid crisis and a disastrous collapse of the economy after years of the incompetence and corruption of the tiny elite who control the country means there would have been fewer returnees. So, let’s say in a population of three million inhabitants there will be very few who have not been impacted in some way even if they are not among the hundred and fifty or so killed, the thousands injured and 300,000 whose homes have been damaged or destroyed. The numbers are still tiny compared to other tragedies in the wider Middle East that are happening as I write – Yemen, is currently probably the most horrific but there are still people being killed by warfare, state terror, religious intolerance and starvation (or usually a combination of these) in Iraq, Palestine, Syria, Libya and other places. So, why have these pictures triggered an urge for me to write about them?
Why should I care when there is much tragedy?
We care and are connected more to places we know and particularly when we have friends and family there. I have very close Lebanese friends, most of whom fortunately are not there at the moment but their families are. One of my mates who is there and lives in the southern part of the city, far enough away, he tells me, to be sheltered from the blast by a hill has been sending me news for several months about how difficult life has been in the city as the economy collapses. American sanctions against a country they see as dominated by Hezbollah have contributed to a collapse of the currency and consequent shortages for much of the population. Many of the elite, reviled by ordinary Lebanese have already fled the country, along with their loot. For probably the first time in the country’s history demonstrations and riots have been inclusive of the many religions and sects, often ancient enmities, now combined in their hatred for the corruption that is seen as the cause of their condition. Years of civil war between these factions, exacerbated by their aggressive neighbours often fighting a proxy war within Lebanon’s borders even dividing the city, have meant for the last thirty or forty years any news about Lebanon has been negative. Yet it has not always been thus.
I was twelve when I first went to Lebanon. My parents had paid for me to do a history school trip to Greece and the Holy Land. The first few stops were to classical Greek sites and I have had a love of that culture and the ‘wine dark sea’ around it ever since. The Lebanon was something else. It was the Levant, The Orient. It was my first taste of a non-purely European culture. I can remember Byblos – a city continually inhabited since 5000 BC with links to countless civilisations and conquests – that is now almost a suburb of Beirut but was then a scattered village by the side of romantic ruins. We did a coach trip to Baalbeck in the Bekaa Valley to the amazing Greco-Roman temples and I remember to this day the taste of some roadside food. The guide suggested we try some: simple kebab style meat and bread (this was 1966, long before kebabs became common in the UK) and most of my schoolmates hated it. To me it was the taste of exoticism. The guide also gave us fresh oranges. Again, my first taste of a fruit close to source instead of shipped and stored, and it was like someone had lit a sparkler in my mouth. In those moments in the Lebanese sunshine I became addicted to travel.
However, this was not my only exposure to Lebanese culture. My father worked for a company that specialised in the packing and shipping of fine art and antiques. This was the time when Beirut was booming and earned the soubriquet of ‘The Paris of the East’ and Dad was made responsible for the Lebanese clients who came over to source for their antique and furniture shops. They appreciated his old school English service and I can remember at Christmas wooden cartons of fresh oranges, pistachios and dates arriving at the house. They bought lace for my Mum and sometimes took us all out – the first time I was ever in an expensive Black Cab. Dad used to travel out there and built business relationships into friendships and even maintained his links and made trips during the early stage of the Civil War – as late as 1983 I recall. He used to tell stories of seeing water skiing on the Mediterranean in the morning and watching snow skiers as he had lunch in ski resorts up in the mountains behind. However, as Beirut disintegrated and his contacts’ businesses were destroyed that connection disappeared but my fascination with and romantic attachment to Lebanon was sealed.
Lebanon and my Nigerian connection
Years later and my work life took me more and more to Nigeria and I eventually moved there full time. Then, I was exposed to that other side of Lebanese culture. There have been Lebanese or ‘Syrians’ as they were known across Africa before WWI. There are records of them in anywhere that trading took place along the West Coast in particular. They are present in any histories of Ibadan, Kano and the emerging Lagos of the late nineteenth century and in greater numbers than British or other western nations. Unfortunately, too often the role of the Lebanese businessman became associated with dodgy dealing and corruption. The history of Lebanese control and exploitation of diamonds in Sierra Leone is a sorry one. In Nigeria the name Chagoury will be forever associated with the cruel and corrupt regime of general Sani Abacha (1993 to 1998) and the origins of the family’s almost monopolistic control of the entire prestigious waterfront along Kuramo Waters and Bar Beach are steeped in exploitation. Even the recent controversy of the Carlos Ghosn/Nissan scandal in Japan is testament to their proclivity with corruption or suspicion and envy of their astute business sense, depending on your point of view. In any case, to many ordinary Nigerians on the street the term Lebanese is often synonymous with foreign corrupt business practices but there are equally many families who have generations of genuine and productive links to Nigeria. I have worked with many responsible Lebanese-Nigerians on community projects and philanthropy and many Lagos educational and cultural institutions would not have been possible without their support. Their restaurants for years were the ‘go to’ places and my memories of carousing in ‘Antoine’s’, ‘Bagatelle’, ‘Bacchus’ in Lagos and ‘The Cabin’ in Ibadan go back to the 1980’s.
Then jumping forward. When the daughter of my closest friends in Lagos married into a Lebanese family and I started traveling with them for weddings, christenings and family holidays – most recently in 2017. My first feelings were of shock at how Beirut had changed since my childhood visit. The Christian part of the city has stretched North, long and thin squeezed between the mountains and the sea. Byblos is 26 miles from downtown but the new suburbs almost stretch that far. As this growth is basically along one road the traffic is amongst the worse I have ever experienced. The amazing thing is that as August, until this year, was party time for a party people in a party city, the worst jams seemed to be around 3 o clock in the morning! And when I say parties, I mean parties. The glitter and ostentation of the night scene is unbelievable. However, before one is ready to jump into condemnation there is context to consider. The Lebanon I witnessed in the 60’s started to disappear as the civil wars progressed from 1975. Anyone born since that date has been forced to observe little but ferocious conflict until the fragile and uneasy peace of not much more than a dozen or fifteen years ago (or less in the southern part of the country). Many had no choice but to participate in the violence to protect family and under peer pressure. Refusal to take part would be seen as complicit with the other side be it Christian or Muslim: Druze, Maronite, Phalangist, Hezbollah, Palestinian let alone American, Israeli, Syrian, Iranian or United Nations Peacekeeping forces. Someone explained his apparent hedonism to me “Uncle Keith, I have never had a future. I have to enjoy any small present I am allowed”. Many young men like him and his friends will have been handed AK47’s and been told to support older family members on patrols and roadblocks and will have been forced to become killers in their teens. They will have seen the life of their parents and older generations destroyed about them and how many times has Beirut been repaired and rebuilt only to be devastated again. No wonder they party like there is no tomorrow.
Yet again, to go South from Beirut is another story. My own trips have just been to the airport but even on that journey the signs of decades of war are all too visible. While down town Beirut has been rebuilt (amid yet more controversy about the corruption of the elite and their bankers) and until the 4th of August was a gleaming cornucopia of restaurants, boutiques and shopping areas, the south has been starved of investment. Shattered buildings and bombsites and even whole standing buildings are pitted with bullet marks. Too close to the site of the Sabra and Shatila massacre and in areas controlled by Hezbollah: an organisation demonised by the west and rightly condemned for its own atrocities but nevertheless where governance and infrastructure is absent provides schools, hospitals and during the pandemic, food and water, to the local population.
My last visit with my sons was about three years ago over an Easter weekend and, staying centrally near the American University, we were able to stroll around the city. It was a little tense through fear of sectarian violence and the army was highly visible and even blocked some of our stroll (though were polite and helpful and explained how we could make detours). An early sign of the growing frustration of ordinary people with their political and religious leaders we could see Christians outside mosques and Muslims outside Churches as solidarity over the shared Holy weekend. In the daytime we walked and ate in older parts of the city and in the evening celebrated the birthday we were there for in the refurbished expensive downtown area. (Needless to say, I bailed around two while the younger generation carried on until daybreak). Not for the first time the Beirut that I met no longer exists. I doubt I shall visit again.
I cannot claim to truly know Lebanon and Beirut. The historically strategic position has made them the battleground of so many ancient conflicts: between Phoenicians and Egyptians, Persians and Hittites, Crusaders and Saladin’s warriors, Ottomans and the French/British allies to name just some. Now they are the frontline for proxy wars between America, Israel and their followers on one side and Iran, Syria and supporters of the Palestinians on the other. The creation of the Lebanese State is itself is the result of intrigue and betrayal deriving from the British and French battle for political influence over the Middle East after WWI and much of the blame for today’s instability lies with those two powers. Today that strategic positions means the country is a home for more refugees as a percentage of their own population than practically anywhere else on the planet. Another millstone around the ailing economy’s neck. Anyway, I have not tried to explain that history but it provides some indication of why Beirut is what it is today, my fascination with it and my respect for the ordinary people of the Lebanon.
Robert Fisk – a man to read
There is an journalist, now writing for the Independent, that I rely on for Middle East coverage and who has lived off Hamra St in downtown Beirut, now no doubt covered in rubble and broken glass, and a place where I too have sat and drunk coffee and watched Beirutians go about their lives. Yesterday Robert Fisk wrote this about the place that he loves……
“………a bankrupt country which has been owned for generations by venal old families, crushed by its neighbours, the rich enslaving the poor, its society maintained by the very sectarianism which is destroying it.
Could there be a more symbolic reflection of its sins than the poisonous explosives so promiscuously stored in the very centre of its greatest metropolis and whose prime minister then says that “those responsible” – not him, not the government, be sure of this – will “pay the price”? Still they have not learned, have they?
And sure, we all know how this “story” will play out in the coming hours and days. The incipient Lebanese revolution of the young and the educated must surely now acquire new strength to overthrow Lebanon’s rulers, to hold them to account, to construct a new and non-confessional modern state from the wreckage of the French-created “republic” in which they were mercilessly born.” *
It is hard not to agree.
For me. I am delighted that the friends I still have there and their families are safe. Some of them have lost their businesses but have learnt to appreciate the importance of just staying alive. I don’t have to name them, they know who they are and I have written this as my small gesture of solidarity.