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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.