The Seekers of Lebanon

I arrived in Beirut on Monday night to my hotel in the very cool neighborhood of Gemayzeh. Cool but confusing, actually. Bombed out buildings and piles of garbage are next door to edgy bars, organic cafes, and upscale art galleries. Crumbling walls are stenciled with political messages and poetry. There is a feeling of a fight for survival, and after learning a little about Lebanon’s history, I understand why.

Lebanon’s story is long and complicated but here’s a short version, which by necessity exposes my biases. Any account of Lebanon will include plenty of bias no matter who tells the story. 

The City of Beirut commissioned this incredible sculpture of two women staring at an urn of the martyrs who reclaimed Lebanon from the Ottoman empire in 1917. It was originally in Beirut’s famous Martyrs Square and was replaced by a more traditional depiction of martyrdom because, as one tour guide explained, “the people in power didn’t want women representing freedom.”

Even the shortest version of Lebanon’s history has to start at least a 100 years ago with the fall of the Ottoman Empire, when the US and Europe carved up the world into spheres of influence. France got Lebanon, which is why you hear that Beirut is the “Paris of the Middle East.” And indeed parts of downtown are drop dead Parisian. But, like all colonial ventures, the French occupation would lay the groundwork for disaster for the occupied people.

The Paris Part.

When the French left Lebanon in 1946 ,they left behind a system that virtually guaranteed the continued power of the Christian elite. Meanwhile, Israel — with the support of Europe and the US — began the expulsion of Palestinians from their homes and communities. Tens of thousands of Palestinian refugees arrived in little Lebanon. The increasing economic and political inequality created unrest at a time when Palestinian militias like Hezbollah started fighting against  the occupation of their homeland — sometimes from the Lebanon side of the border. Israel responded with murderous attacks on Lebanese communities.

The Egg is an unfinished cinema building that was abandoned when the civil war broke out in 1970. It’s now an apt landmark on the edge of Beirut’s wealthiest neighborhood.

By the mid-1970s, Lebanon was in a civil war that continued for 15 years with more than 200,000 deaths and the displacement of a quarter of its population. Lebanon’s civil war officially ended by 1990 but the underlying political and economic conditions didn’t change. The violence with Israel has continued. While a handful lead comfortable lives, most live in poverty. By percentage of population, Lebanon hosts more refugees than any other country in the world– mostly Syrian and Palestinian — and without adequate assistance from the international community.

With the global pandemic, tourism collapsed in 2020, In August that year, a blast at Beirut’s port killed hundreds and decimated entire neighborhoods.  The cause of the blast has been consistently attributed to corruption and mismanagement by the Lebanese government, which hasn’t been held accountable or changed its approach to governance.

Portraits of blast victims line damaged buildings in the center of the city.

The evidence of all of this in Beirut is obvious even to a tourist. The once-upscale shopping areas are either abandoned or otherwise depressed. Prices in restaurants and hotels are very high, even by US standards. Young men and children rummage through garbage bins. Taxi drivers beg for fares. There is a feeling of anxiety and anger in the air.

At one end of Martyrs’ Square, a traffic light that was destroyed by the 2020 blast. The city has not been able to repair the lights downtown so the traffic is positively scary.

And yet there is a feeling of hope here, mainly in those parts of the city where young people are taking the reins. Maybe they can salvage what remains of Beirut, and promote social justice. With its galleries and murals and youthful spirit, Gemayzeh expresses that middle way.

18 comments

  1. Great post. I am reading An Unnecessary Woman at your recommendation. Great. Our book club needs to read it.

    1. Hi Judy, Yes, that book has stuck with me over the years. It’s so beautiful and even funny. It’s amazing that a man wrote it in the voice of a woman. The first time I read it, I assumed “Rabih” was a woman.

  2. Wow, such a good article Kim! I understand the “bias” thing and how could one not have one when experiencing such a contrast of opposites as this?! One is either inclusive and compassionate or exclusive and separatist. I don’t see a middle ground where selfishness and suffering coexist in such a small place as this. We’ll done and happy travels Kim, love from Jim and Michael in San Miguel 💕.

    1. Yes, except Austria seems to be doing quite well and staying out of trouble. My hotel manager says it’s partly because it agreed after WWII to never join a military alliance. So Austria doesn’t spend much money on weapons.

  3. Fascinating, Kim, and I appreciate your commentary and bias, and the photos. Also the hope and creativity of the young people. Seeing that quote by Khalil Gibran made me wonder when he lived. I hadn’t remembered he was Lebanese American and died in 1931. I wonder what he would say now about Lebanon.

  4. Kim, thanks for offering us an insight into this land we only associate with extremism, violence and suffering. I worried a bit when I heard you were going there, but as usual you offer all of us an excellent birds eye view and insight into a complicated country of contrasts. Love the murals and the messages. “The Prophet” by Gahlil Gibran has been a longtime favorite. Pease stay safe and continue writing us from your “camino milagro.”

  5. Thanks Kim for making Beirut come alive. A dear friend of mine grew up in Beirut until her father who was a reporter for the LA Times was killed by a sniper in the 70’s so I’ve always been keenly aware of the danger and complexity in this region of the world. I appreciate you going to see with your own eyes and words and reporting back to us, your friends and fellow travelers.

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