Farewell to Lebanon: terrorist-infested, war-ridden hell or the Paris of the East ? Unlike your poli
Unlike your politicians, I can’t extend my own term so I left Lebanon after 4 years (© Tom Fletcher ex-UK ambassador to Beirut) Having left Lebanon a few months ago and with the benefit of hindsight and some healthy distance from the country, I think it’s time to write a final update about this tiny country in the Middle East and its inhabitants based on my experiences over these past few years. And this time it means trying to finally make up my mind whether either Lebanon is a terrorist-infested, war-ridden hell, or the Paris of the East…
…Paris of the East, the Saint Tropez of the East, the Switzerland of the East, a country where you could ski and swim in the same day – with sexy, couture-clad women shaking champagne bottles and belly-dancing belts in your face....
In my conversations with the westernised and moderate elite of the country, that is the image of Lebanon that they desperately try to cling on to. For them and for the somewhat naive and politicaly correct Westerners that is an image of an exotic yet friendly East, far from the untamed orient of the movies and novels and the terrifying headlines and breaking news items on CNN and BBC-world.
A kind of idealized past, never to come back of course, but still a better image to dream and talk about then the harsh reality of the Lebanon of today. It reminds me of the conversations I had more then 30 years ago in Africa with the old colonials idealizing the “good old days” of the colonial hegemony of the West in Africa.
Today Beirut and Lebanon is a hectic (and sometimes explosive – pun intended) mix of cultures, political parties and socio-economic strata, all of which are the result of the labyrinthine web of religions built over the past centuries. The results are obvious. Choices of who to marry, where to live, where to buy property, who to hire, how to dress, what to eat ... are all based on your religion. Your identity is your religion. Any local will never fail to point out to me who is a shia or a sunni, a maronite or a druze…
And they all look at each other with suspicion at best, but usually with barely hidden hostility and seething with resentment.
The Lebanon that the Lebanese were proud of: an ancient and tolerant land of history and culture, a complex web of religions, languages and sensibilities, over the past few decades morphed into a never-ending, gruelling news report. Lebanon died, religious sects survived.
So how many religious sects there actually are in Lebanon? The standard answer you’ll get is 17. As most of the Lebanese very conveniently seem to forget the existence of the Lebanese Jews (there seems to be a community of about a 100 of them, probably hiding in caves somewhere in the Kadisha Valley)
Well, it’s 18 then? No! Actually it should be 19!
Twelve brands of Christians, five brands of Muslims, the Jews and…me of course: the atheist! And from my days in Pakistan I remember that, for religious people, it’s hard to decide which is worse: being of the “wrong” religious denomination or not being religious at all. In my experience it definitely is the second option.
So what is the answer to the question whether the country is a clash between barbarism and western-style liberalism? Well, for me and given the last few years of its history: yes it definitely is.
And frankly I really don’t see any bright and happy future for this western-style liberal Lebanon, just barely 20 years out of its soul-destroying civil war. Sectarian strife, corrupt politicians, religious extremists in government, more than 1.5 million Syrians who have fled their country's civil war to Lebanon whose population is just 4.5 million. A country barely bigger than a breadbox…you really have to be terribly naïf to think there is anything nice waiting in the Lebanese future…
Especially with Hezbollah, the party of god, lurking everywhere in Lebanon. Hezbollah's military strength has grown so significantly over the past years that its paramilitary wing is considered more powerful than the Lebanese Army. Hezbollah is a "state within a state" and has grown into an organization with seats in the Lebanese government, a radio and a satellite TV station, social services and large-scale military deployment of fighters beyond Lebanon's borders in Syria. The Lebanese government officially adopted the "policy of dissociation" in the conflict in Syria but is powerless against Hezbollah who are openly sending thousands of its Lebanese militants to Syria in defiance of the government stance, and with the help of Russia and Iran having saved "barrel bomber" Bashar Al Assad's ass.
What I think is going to happen next? One day the war in Syria will finally end, civil wars tend to last an average of about seven to 12 years, this one is in its 7th year. The Hezbollah fighters will come back to Lebanon and in a postcoital haze over their victory in Syria, they will start harassing Israel again and the next war is just around the corner with a promise of Israel to bomb Lebanon back to the stone-age...over and out?
Everyday, from the windows of my 10th floor Embassy office, my back to the Southern Beirut areas where sunni and shia muslims try to blow each other to Kingdom come, I saw with astonishment the ever increasing height of the brand new bell tower of the Saint George Maronite Cathedral they were building just next door to the Mohammad Al-Amin mosque. No expenses spared to have a bell tower reaching higher into the sky and closer to god then the mosque’s minarets. I suppose the mosque will soon retaliate by adding a few meters to the height of their minarets... or .... well, perhaps my successor shouldn’t stand too close to the window any more...
But from that same window and behind the cathedral and the mosque, everyday I could see the beautiful (but not so clean any more - due to Lebanese pollution it's actually more of a toxic soup) waters of the Mediterranean Sea and dream about my next diving expedition under the waves far away from all this man-made madness.
Oh and I certainly did have the excitement I so much crave in Lebanon, never a dull moment, no doubt about that. Have a look at the major bomb explosions and assassinations while I was in Lebanon. More than 30 bombs exploded since 2013, some of which were so close or powerful the windows at home or the office rattled. And at least 6 political/religious leaders were assassinated.
The rich and powerful Lebanese spend most of their time abroad, only to come back to Lebanon to show themselves in downtown Beirut in their latest model Ferrari and to destroy another piece of Lebanese nature to build completely illegal and without any valid construction certificate yet another palatial mansion standing empty 51 weeks a year.
The same rich who tried to flatter and feed me to then ask me to move their cousin’s friend in front of other people applying for a visa.
But of course I have to mention also the incredible number of fantastic people my wife and I met in Lebanon. Within the diplomatic community, the expat community, the locals ... The fact that most Lebanese speak fluently French or English helping of course. My wife was more isolated in Hungary - an EU country ! - when we were stationed in Budapest than she ever was in Lebanon. Because of the language. In Lebanon up to 65% of the population can read and converse in French. In Hungary more than 63 % of the population doesn't speak any foreign language.
I would like to close this blogpost and my time in Lebanon with a quote from the fantastic UK Ambassador to Lebanon Tom Fletcher, from his unique goodbye speech (read it here) to the Lebanese: "If the internet doesn’t work, build a new internet. If the power supply doesn’t work, build a new power supply. If the politics don’t work, build a new politics. If the economy is mired in corruption and garbage piles up, build a new economy. If Lebanon doesn’t work, build a new Lebanon. It is time to thrive, not just survive."