Rivoli Square, Beirut, Lebanon, ca. 1960

First Impressions of Lebanon in June 2013

By George Nicolas El-Hage, Ph.D., Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature

In 2002, I published my book, The Return of the Hero and the Resurrection of the City. In this poetry book about Lebanon, I borrowed the tragic image of Virgil’s Aeneas who had left his city of Troy in ashes burning behind him as he carried his father on his shoulder and held his son’s hand and marched forward to the new world where he was destined to build Rome and establish a new world order. My saga of self-imposed exile mirrors that of Aeneas’s in many ways with one major difference: I wanted to come back to my destroyed city, to Beirut, to my Troy, in spite of the temptations of my sweet exile abroad. The burning question was: When? How long will the war last and when will peace reign again? Was I really waiting for Godot?

To have experienced life in pre-war Lebanon in the sixties and early seventies, when Lebanon was the jewel of the Mediterranean, was a time that is unforgettable. Every moment remained deeply engraved in my memory during the 37 years that I spent in the United States. I kept insisting on staying away while Lebanon kept persisting in its suicidal lifestyle torn between nationalism , Arabism, Palestinianism, Islamism, Lebanization, Westernization, globalization and many other “isms” that went on bleeding it to death and dislocating its citizens and scattering them across the globe.

Thirty-seven years later it dawned on me, what am I waiting for? Am I waiting for Lebanon to become a powerful, strong country with a stable central government? Am I waiting for all of its numerous political parties to unify under one leadership or for all of its religious factions to denounce their allegiances and pray under one dome? Am I waiting for the rest of the world and for the friendly and neighboring countries, superpowers and faraway countries to denounce their claim on Lebanon and leave it alone, independent, free and self-governed? No, my friend, this shall not come to pass. After all, when was Lebanon ever in charge of its own destiny and master of its internal affairs or its foreign policy?

Since pre-Biblical times, countless invaders have either conquered or occupied Lebanon. From Gilgamesh to the Pharaohs, the Assyrians, the Akkadians, the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, the Ottomans, the Europeans, the Americans, the Palestinians, the Syrians and the Israelis, all have wanted this tiny country on the shores of the Mediterranean. The engraved rocks of Beirut’s Nahr al-Kalb River are an everlasting witness to many of these conquering nations that were ultimately driven out by the resilience of the Lebanese people. Despite the continuous turmoil, the original inhabitants of this coastal strip, the Phoenicians, like the modern inhabitants of Lebanon today, prospered and made many major contributions to the world at large. For example, the Phoenicians were the first to establish city states. They invented the alphabet and laid down the ancient rules of mathematics and law. They gave the neighboring continent its name, “Europa” and exported their mythology, gods and goddesses. They populated the sea with their ships and carried their artifacts and the harvest of their land to the Greek islands and beyond, to Carthage and even to the shores of the Americas.

Come to think of it, and to be fair to the annals of history, Lebanon was never a strong country, neither militarily nor politically. Lebanon has never been a power broker in this region of the world, and the Lebanese people have never cared to be conquerors or invaders. Becoming an empire was not their aspiration or destiny. They were, and always will be, individualistic in their approach to life. Governments come and go and political parties rise and fall. What matters most to them is the immediate family, extended relationships, and alliances that shift temporarily depending on circumstances and mutual benefit. The Lebanese are businessmen, merchants, traders, poets, inventors, creators, scientists, artists, craftsmen, teachers, wanderers and travelers. They are pleasure seekers and are fascinated with the unknown and the unattainable. The Lebanese are multi-lingual and highly literate. They are cosmopolitan by nature and pride themselves at being able to adjust and survive in any environment. They welcome all those who seek their help. They are hospitable, friendly and kind. They open their homes to almost everyone, yet when their survival is in question, they know how to fight and die to protect their freedom and independence. But picking a fight is never their first choice nor their desire.

Having arrived at this realization, I have concluded that now is the time to return. Lebanon, like no other country, has endured in spite of its multi political groups, its plurality of religious factions, its diverse economic needs, and its geographical location. Lebanon is surrounded by warring nations and countries at odds with themselves, their neighbors, and with the East or with the West.

Finally, after a ten hour flight from San Francisco to Paris on the way to Beirut, United Airlines landed its big bird gracefully. It was a long, yet comfortable flight and the atmosphere on the fully packed plane was subdued, quiet, courteous and formal. You could feel the disconnect among the passengers. All were strangers with no common topic to discuss or chat about. Of course, we did not know each other, and naturally each person was lost in his or her own thoughts and also concerned to safeguard the privacy of the next passenger. After a two hour stop in Paris, we proceeded to board the Middle East Airlines airbus, Lebanon’s official airline. You could immediately feel the change of atmosphere on board the plane. Even though some people had known each other beforehand, most of us had never met, yet the plane was instantly transformed into a café-like setting, alive with friendly chatter and loud, familial conversation among total strangers. Strangers? But we are almost all Lebanese. The voice of Fairouz was reverberating throughout the plane, welcoming us all to Beirut, and the louder she sang, the higher our conversation went. The menu, a full course meal with appetizers, entrée and dessert, fruit and pastry, concluded with Lebanese coffee, a much welcome offering after the limited and meager meal on the United flight to Paris. By the time we had landed, the passengers on this full flight to Beirut were more of a community with much in common, and good wishes were floating across the isles. For the most part, we all quickly learned each other’s final destination, who was meeting whom, where each had come from, how much time each had spent abroad and what business or profession each person was engaged in. As for me, I connected with the cousin of a dear friend whom I had not seen for 30 years. For my American wife who had been to Lebanon many years before, this experience re-confirmed to her that the wonderful spirit of warmth and hospitality of the Lebanese people is still very much alive and well.

I have been blessed to marry a woman who is educated, open- minded, tolerant to other cultures and willing to try everything new and exotic. Of course, our love story plays a major role in accepting new places and wanting to embark on new adventures that are of mutual interest. Although my wife is an American born from Italian parents, she really has a love relationship with Lebanon, my hometown and its people and history. Similarly, she had an instant connection of love and mutual respect with my parents, particularly, my father. I am sure that my love for Beirut, for Lebanon and my hometown that she came to appreciate through my poetry and my numerous discussions with her played a role in preparing her to accept my heritage, but I cannot take more credit for her sincere and overwhelming embrace of the Lebanese people, culture and heritage. The latter is all hers. I strongly believe that it is the blessings of my parents and their prayers that brought this woman into my life.

Today, after 37 years of war and continuous attempts to partition and destroy Lebanon and crush the spirit of its people, Lebanon thrives again and the Lebanese spirit of adventure, innovation and survival lives and prospers. Despite the quagmire of destruction that surrounds Lebanon across its borders and the internal strife that seem to threaten its stability, security and continuity, this country lives on, lives well and endures. The Lebanese spirit is neither broken nor subdued. Lebanon has emerged from the river of ashes, risen like a phoenix and reinvented itself almost anew.

Although tragic events happen here and there every day, and certain areas are still dangerous to navigate, yet there are also friends, family, the beach, the sun and much fun. Lebanon is the land of hospitality and it has much to offer. The restaurants are busy, hotels are open, nightclubs are full, and new shopping malls are springing up everywhere. Beirut is hustling and bustling. Hamra Street and all of the Greater Beirut area, the North and the South are a sight to see. Downtown is alive and vibrant. In Beirut, as in many villages and countless towns, churches embrace mosques, and narrow streets divide Moslem and Christian communities where the ringing of bells and the chanting of minarets mix together in a symphony of prayers for one God. All of Lebanon is a major construction site in progress. New buildings with red roofs adorn the hills, mountains and valleys. Lebanon is experiencing a massive wave of population explosion coupled with an invasion of refugees from neighboring Syria and many other countries, Arab and otherwise. The spacious orchards of olives, oranges and delicious fruit trees have given way to new high rise buildings and elegant villas to accommodate the amazing increase in population. The modern embraces the classic; the ancient greets the new. This land continues to be fertile in spite of the Lebanese who carelessly eliminate trees and plants. Fruit trees insist on growing and blooming on their own. Even if there is a crack in the concrete or the stone, you will see something begin to grow as if the land refuses to stop giving her free, nutritious gifts. Although plentiful orchards are not as pervasive as days gone by, still you can’t miss seeing a fruit tree loaded with deliciously ripe figs, plums, or almonds that seems to grow almost effortlessly. Pergolas abundant with hanging grapes often grow in private gardens and roof tops. Buildings pop up all over the place and real estate is booming. In our area, for example, seven miles east of Beirut, overlooking the Mediterranean, a two bedroom flat, 150-170 square meters, is selling for $450,000 to a half million dollars. People are building like there is no tomorrow, and the land is so precious. A plot of land of 1000 square meters is worth well over one million dollars. Downtown Beirut is measured by yards not meters and prices are comparable to New York City. Yes, you cannot help lament the loss of fruit trees and open spaces, but the sight of these numerous massive new and elegant buildings loudly announces the arrival of modernity and expansion to even the remotest villages and heralds the coming of modern conveniences to our farthest corners, whether we like it or not. In addition, Lebanon’s Central Bank and privately owned banks continue to preserve the secrecy of deposits and are offering loans to citizens and businesses to start private enterprises and to expand or buy houses and apartments.

In Lebanon, public utilities remain a challenging factor: electricity and water supplied by the government are rationed, but think not that the Lebanese people will settle for this. There always seems to be a way to work around a problem and find a solution. Perhaps this trait is what makes the Lebanese such great businesspeople! Private generators are either individually owned or shared by participants who pay a monthly fee to have electricity 24/7. The same arrangement applies to the water. Trucks loaded with fresh water from rivers and fountains stand ready to deliver with one phone call. Phones are operational for the most part, and smart cell phones with the latest gadgets and free downloads are ubiquitous. Many homes are equipped with solar systems to keep water supplies warm without much cost and are extremely efficient.

Although the central government is weak and dysfunctional, yet there is a vivid sense of law and order. Traffic is a nightmare, but accidents are miraculously uncommon. Even though road signs, traffic lights and traffic cops are largely ignored, there seems to be a laissez-faire attitude that seasoned drivers all understand. Nevertheless, there does not appear to be a short term solution to the seemingly endless traffic jam that awaits you on the Jounieh Highway which leads to some of the most serene and beautiful beaches on the Mediterranean coast. Many take the highway on the way to their private chalets on the beach, a destination well worth the trouble of the trip. What may alleviate the traffic and ease the commuter’s mind is the new dependence on the organized and relatively cheap Taxi Service System that has become a major means of transportation in addition to a shared car passenger service and busses. However, almost every person owns a car, an unnecessary but favorite luxury, that has transformed Beirut and its suburbs into a big parking lot. The parade of new and expensive European, Japanese and American cars on any minor road or highway forms a long line of cars, day and night.

Education is a big industry in Lebanon, and in addition to a comprehensive state university system, private and expensive major universities are spread across the country, attracting top-notch faculty and students from local communities, the Arab world and international reaches. The Lebanese are privileged to have some of the best state-of-the-art medical facilities in the world. Highly trained and experienced physicians offer optimal medical care. Neighboring Arab citizens and Lebanese working in various Arab countries seek treatment in Lebanon on a regular basis. Health care, dentistry and health insurance are amazingly well-organized and cheap compared to Europe and the U.S. Plastic surgery is widely available, and Beirut is labeled as the capital of the best and most affordable plastic surgery in the Middle East. One welcome fact is that doctors, beauticians and barbers still also make house calls on demand.

Another favorite on demand enterprise is the quick and efficient delivery of fresh food items and groceries. Even one falafel sandwich, one gyro roll, a dish of warm French fries, a sizzling kebab or an order of a hookah with flavored tobacco and lit charcoal can be delivered on demand anytime, any day of the week. Although extremely modern and efficient supermarkets abound, you still find many local community shops that sell fresh, daily produce, meat, poultry, dairy products and all of the basic food staples. However, one need not step into a grocery store since everything can be delivered free right to your door. In addition, small-town vendors reminiscent of the Middle Ages still visit the villages selling their products daily. Fresh fish and other produce can be ordered at the crack of dawn from your bedroom window simply with a hand gesture.

Another very visible phenomenon is the fact that almost every household has a live-in maid from overseas. Most maids clean, cook, babysit, run errands, and cater to the needs of all members of the household. Although a country officially still at war, Lebanon harbors thousands of foreigners who are not tourists but rather hired help in various businesses, industries, offices and homes. Most laborers in the flourishing construction business are from neighboring Syria. Syrian refugees constitute the largest percentage of foreigners across Lebanon.

In a country standing as a bridge between the East and the West and fast forwarding towards modernity and globalization while struggling to preserve its heritage and tradition, the institution of marriage in Lebanon is in jeopardy. At face value, the marriage ceremony has become a big business. Wedding planners, expensive venues, live entertainment, fireworks, beautiful dresses, professional make-up artists and hair services, and sit-down dinners are all in vogue. There is almost a competition to have the most expensive wedding ceremony. Yet the seriousness of marriage is a thing of the past. A life commitment, a common expectation prior to the war, seems to have become all but a faded memory. Sadly, a great number of marriages in Lebanon end in divorce. As a result, many of the young generation are not in favor of tying the knot. Perhaps it is due to the newly acquired freedom of this generation, the available and open means of communication, the high cost of living or fear of betrayal and lack of loyalty now common in marriages. Young men and women are simply afraid to get married, are not seeking a permanent relationship, or are postponing this frightful decision to a much later date. They are too busy working, living and enjoying their single lives. They want to experiment first, to live it all and then consider settling down. In many cases, it becomes too late to get married. But so what, they say, for it is better to be alone than to end up in a marriage that ends in divorce. Or perhaps there is not a sense of urgency because no one is really alone. The young generation still lives with their extended family, and typically parents, siblings and maids cater to almost all of their daily needs. In addition, extra marital affairs are common, and so are pleasure offering females from many foreign countries who offer affordable prices and who are only a phone call away. This phenomenon, is perhaps, the most discouraging of social norms that saddens and disturbs me.

However, one of the most amazing stories is the connection with people. In spite of the long years of war and devastation (most scars are no longer visible on buildings, roads or structures), people are still warm, welcoming and friendly. I have met with so many friends and even casual acquaintances whom I have not been in contact with for over 35 years and was astonished by the warmth and the still strong connection that seems to have never faded. It felt like we had just had dinner the night before. If for nothing else, this fact is a good enough reason to return to a place where friendship is still cherished and held in the highest esteem, where you are a real person for who you are, the son of so and so, where you have a history, a legacy, not because you are a doctor, a professor, or a politician, but simply because you are George, son of Nicolas, and whose family has lived in this house in the center of town for the past 100 years. The house is built on the same plot of land that has been inhabited by generations of the same family. Each new generation builds or renovates anew, but the location never changes and is always known as the family house. Street signs and house numbers are not needed, for one simply needs to ask an old-timer where the family house of such and such is, and soon you will be quickly directed to the home along with all of the fond memories of the family that the old timer feels compelled to share with you.

Lebanon is a country of contrasts. It is a mixed bag of the good and the bad, the yin and the yang. Take it all or leave it all. If you start a wish list of the things to change, you also have to compose a list of the things to keep. As much as it is the people who may drive you out of this country, it is also the same people who draw you back to it. Personally, we are back not only for the climate, the beach, the history and the memories, but ultimately because of the people who enrich our daily life, make us feel alive, loved and welcomed. It is amazing how every day you are greeted anew by the same people with a joy and excitement in their voices and a twinkle in their eyes that makes you feel special, missed and genuinely loved. They may have just seen you an hour ago, and yet every new meeting is a gift and a celebration.

My wife is enjoying her stay and does not want to leave. We are seriously considering renovating the 100 year old family stone home in the center of town and restoring it to its old glory with all the modern conveniences but without changing the original structure. My wife and I believe that this is the right thing to do like generations before us. It is a minor contribution, not only to my father’s memory but to the town that has endured and to the future of Lebanon, the land that Sa’id Akl described as: “A house carved in solid stone suspended from a star.”