Hello again. A day off in Jordan means an opportunity to sort through a virtual stack of photos and update you on some of my recent travels. Bear with me.
The panorama from the balcony of the Beirut Intercontinental Phoenicia* sums up, on the surface at least, this dichotimous city. In one shot we can see both great riches and the debris of war; the view from my bedroom window was only of war.
I’ve not spent long enough in Lebanon to even begin to get a grip on its identity save to say that, as we normally find, there is a good deal of truth in the stereotypes. Getting into a cruddy taxi on my first trip from the airport, windows down as we roared through the plethora of underpasses and around unsigned motorways, it felt the closest I’ve been to a real life Grand Theft Auto (not the bit that Hillary Clinton ‘didn’t like’). There seemed to be no respect for the rules of the road, cars were jumping red lights and cutting across lanes, music blared from the car radio and we passed two or three tanks – tanks! – on street corners. Another was stationed just up from our hotel. There’s Middle East driving, which I’m used to… and then there’s Lebanese driving.
The women are beautiful, which is to say it’s easier to judge their beauty given that most dress in a Western manner. The driving and the drinking suggest the Lebanese really do live as if they may die tomorrow and are happy to flaunt this fact. Indeed, the highest bill at one of its flashiest bars is publised in the next day’s newspaper. The infrastructure’s in a dire state of repair, with every building relying on back-up generators and internet connections hacked into datalines around the world, with Google thinking our focus group location is in the Netherlands, not the Levant. The whole place is nuts. It’s running on fumes as the fuel evaporates.
Listening to Beirut youth talking about their lives it quickly becomes clear that they are accutely politically aware. They view everything in life through a prism of religion, sect and neighbourhood leading to an over-riding disgruntlement with their political leaders. If Egypt is a timebomb with a slow fuse that’s about to combust, then Lebanon is a cluster bomb that’s already embedding shrapnel deep into its citizens. It still bears the scars of distant and recent civil unrest, indeed until recently the crater of President Hariri’s assasination remained unfilled whilst the surrounding buildings have not been touched since the explosion. Instead the road has been reopened and the Lebanese drive daily through the wounds of their continual conflict.
Yet Beirut is set between the Mediterranean Sea and beautiful mountains with reliable skiing for three months of the year. It’s a city with so much potential, if only its leaders could find a way to accomplish peace between its different ethnic groups, hold Syria and Israel at bay, and bring new polish to the city.
This week will be my last visit to the city for some time, as I’m being sent to more sober, conservative places. I must get out and see some of the fabled night life. And we should all hope that its leaders act maturely and bring stability to this remarkable little country.
*Since you ask – overpriced, small-roomed, insulting service. I’ve yet to find a tolerable, smoke free Lebanese hotel. But if that’s the worst thing in life then things aren’t that bad…