Hooked on Phoenicia: A Week in Lebanon

Tuesday, December 27, 2005 | Beirut, Lebanon (map)

In Beirut, some buildings are no more than empty husks, pitted with the signs of war, while other have been wholly rebuilt.
Since I last saw him in Damascus, my friend Julian and I had been trying to find a chance to get together before I returned to the States. We settled on a week in Lebanon around Christmas, when his fiancée Emma would be visiting.

A few days before the holiday, the three of us met at Talal's New Hotel, a small backpacker joint in Beirut's Gemmayzeh neighborhood, and promptly headed out for some mezzeh (often described as "Lebanese tapas"). We caught up on each other's news, and I tried to digest what little of Beirut I had seen in my route from the airport to the hotel to the restaurant.

* * *

Back during my freshman year, my friend Mahmud invited me to his Arabic class for a screening of West Beyrouth (بيروت الغربية). One of my all-time favorites, the beautiful film tells the story of three
kids struggling to lead normal adolescent lives in the midst of a conflict they hardly understand. From that image of Beirut's bloody past, I extrapolated forward a decade or so, and expected to find a city revitalized.

Parts of Beirut were, indeed, brand new. From our hostel, we had crossed the Martyr's Square (ساحة الشهداء) and passed the clock tower at Nejmeh Square (ساحة النجمة), where the surrounding buildings have all been restored to their pristine pre-war splendor.

Yet on our walk, I had already seen several façades pockmarked with bullet holes from the street level on up to where the roofs used to be. Missiles and mortar shells had left gaping holes in many buildings. Throughout the week, the further we walked through Beirut, the more we saw the scars mixed in with the fresh construction. Fifteen years after the war, Beirut's residents were either still picking up the pieces. Or worse, perhaps they weren't bothering—why rebuild if the war could restart any day?

* * *

While Damascus relishes its history with pride and fears the menacing liberalism of the future, Beirut seems to be chasing the promise of a more hopeful day—a day in which the joys of modern living might overtake the shadows of the past.

Like all great tragedies, the modern history of Lebanon is an epic fall from grace. Once the "Paris of the Middle East", Beirut was consumed by decades of civil war. The assassination, in February, of Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and, two weeks ago, of MP and prominent journalist Gebran Tueni, are unambiguous reminders that the country has yet to find peace. A blackened crater, surrounded by police cordons, still marks the spot where Hariri was killed by a powerful car bomb, its maker still unknown.

Lebanon's story contains some genuine innocents, but is dominated by an intricate host of antagonists all avenging some historic injustice. Pride plays a strong role; it has been the rallying force for each of the country's many religious, cultural, and political minorities, all of which, by virtue of their tiny population size, existed for decades almost on the brink of extermination.

Every group blames the others: Catholics, Sunni Muslims, Druze, Maronite Christians, Greek Orthodox, Armenians, Israelis, Shiite Muslims, Allaouites, and more.

Ironically, Lebanon remains a troubled country precisely because its myriad resident groups have spent decades fighting each other for control of the homeland they all love, and have nearly destroyed it in the process. Foolish though this seems, it is deeply human: who among us would not consider his own homeland to be a land worth fighting for?

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