Beirut, habibi

Beirut, September 2012. As always the city has found the energy to raise from its ashes. Cranes dominate the skyline, expensive night clubs fill the roofs on the Corniche, Ferrari’s rush through avenues with their boutiques and espresso bars. Most women wear high heels, tight dresses and great hairdo’s. Most have been through plastic surgery and that’s why they all seem to be sisters. Men are more macho here than in Buenos Aires and they have more weapons in the back of their cars. To be rich is normal, unless you are poor. To show off is tradition, to live above your means a must. The power is still in the hands of the big families, the dealers and wheelers, the same suspects as ten or thirty years ago. I have been here in 1988, interviewing Walid Joumblatt, the shrewd leader of the Front de Lutte Nationale, in the Chouf mountains. He is still the trouble maker he used to be, changing sides whenever it pleases him. And then I was here again in 2003, just after and just before yet another war. That’s when I met Gebran Tueni, editor in chief and publisher of An Nahar, the influential, not so pro Syria newspaper. We talked a whole day and when I came back in my hotel room I found bottles of wine from the Bekaa valley, books and chocolates. Two years later, after returning from Paris where he received a high decoration, he was blown to pieces, most probably by the Syrian secret service, together with his body guards. Syria had warned him not to come back to Lebanon or he would die. He came nevertheless, knowing, but believing that courage would beat terror. I stood for a few minutes next to his picture on the side of the road. The wall has not been repaired in order for all of us to remember. A piece of one of the car’s doors is still visible in the abyss below the road. Death is still a daily ingredient in Beirut. Death, like always challenged by optimism and courage. In three decades everything and nothing has changed in Beirut.
The eighteen religions live next to each other, more often than not in the same village, where they create small ghetto’s, each with its own belief and traditions. A Christian village doesn’t resemble an Islamic one, or one where the Druze form the majority. An Hezbollah village is not an Amal village, although both are on the extremist side of Islamic fundamentalism. Lebanon is a chequered flag of differences, an impossible mixture of contradictions and hate, but it manages, somehow, to be united in their lack of unity. If one looks at a map one wonders: what is the rationale behind the existence of Lebanon? It is an ever irritating element in an already explosive region. Due to its multiple religions a single match can light up a huge fire, which has been happening ever since its creation by the French in 1920. It is small, almost crushed by huge Syria, constantly watched and hated by Israel and there is just one way out: the sea. In many ways just like Israel, just a little less organized, a little less united and therefore a little less efficient. But don’t dare say that Lebanon is unimportant, because it is. Lebanon is a necessity in its very perverse way. It is the escape route, the secret meeting point between competing parties, the best way to import anything from weapons and scotch to drugs and call girls. It is still today the Monte Carlo of the Middle East, where sheiks from Qatar and Saudi Arabia spend their naughty weekends. A war economy that thrives when there are fights and that cries when peace is once again broken. Like its economy Lebanon as a whole is double, not transparent, corrupt, drowning in opportunism and totally committed to itself. But the wonderful side of this all is the talent to survive, the joy the people always find when eating and smoking and partying. In that way the Lebanese are über Mediterranean: flexible, hungry, thirsty, in love with olive oil, hospitable and sharing. I honestly think that sharing food and recipes postpones civil wars in Lebanon. The fear today is that the war in Syria will spill over the borders and will spoil the little slot of peace the Lebanese so much deserve. I suggest you all go and see for yourself, despite the negative advice you will get from your embassy. Before the next war.

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