That’s the answer. The question: What makes Lebanon special? We’re back in much more affordable Syria now after a week in the tiny but bewildering land of Lebanon, reflecting on our diverse experiences in our short time there. We entered Lebanon at Tripoli before heading down the coast and basing ourselves in Beirut to explore that city as well as the Roman city (and Hezbollah HQ) of Baalbeck. We ended with a night by the ocean in Tyre with the smell of the sea and the lapping of the waves filling our hotel room.
Beirut: Lebanon’s capital and home to a third of its population is a bizarre mix of Singapore’s cultural clash, Paris’ glamour, Bombay’s disparity and Sydney’s pleasant seaside weather – but with more history than all of them.
Yet this is a relatively new city. Not nearly as ancient as nearby Damascus or Jerusalem and devastated by a civil war that ended in the 90s, parts of Beirut are awash with cash, while others are struggling to pave their roads. In our 4 days here, we saw more Ferraris, Porsches and Bentlys that I’ve ever seen before – not to mention the sea of BMWs and Mercedes that clogged the city’s streets. What I just don’t understand is just where the money comes from. There are no massive oil reserves, no old mansions and the sporty new BMW M3s are just
as often driven by super-stylish 20-something women as by their far less fashionable male counterparts. As obvious as the new wealth is, the signs of civil strife are strikingly obvious too. We witnessed a massive rally to commemorate the 5th anniversary of the assassination of the former PM Rafiq Hariri. Who killed him? No one knows – perhaps Syria? Also, standing out from the skyscrapers and tower cranes, one of the tallest structures stands empty and alone. The bombed out, bullet-hole scarred carcass of the high-rise Holiday Inn, opened to great fanfare just days before the civil war broke out, now blights the carefully manicured cityscape of cobblestoned streets and French fashion stores.
Baalbek & Hezbollah: The Roman ruins (yes another lot!) of Baalbek are famous for the fact that they have aged very gracefully. The massive temples
are unquestionably impressive, but the really interesting thing about Baalbek is that it’s the home town of Hezbollah. Like the Romans, they’re also in the business of making ruins, they just tend to use occupied (preferably by Israelis) buildings to begin with. Western governments have always labelled Hezbollah a terrorist organisation and Iran of supporting them. While we’re not really in a position to comment on the first, we can say
for sure that visiting Baalbek was like going back to Iran. After 3 weeks in Iran, you get used to seeing Iranian mosques, Iranian tilework, Iranian charity-donation-boxes and of course the very Iranian mosaics of ‘supreme leader’. Two weeks after leaving Iran, we were pretty certain that we’d left all things Iranian (especially portraits of the supreme leader) behind. So when we arrive in Baalbek to see an Iranian mosque, covered in Iranian mosaics, surrounded by Iranian charity-donation boxes and proudly displaying the very same portraits of Khomeni and Khameni that were ubiquitous in Iran, one begins to wonder…. Anyway whatever one says, we’ll never be able to listen straight faced to any denials about the connection between Iran and Hezbollah.
Tyre and the Palestinians: The seaside town of Tyre was a charming and relaxing way to end our time in Lebanon. We splashed out on a hotel that got
us a room perched right on the water’s edge and wandered around the (you guessed it) Roman ruins during the day. Being not far from the Israeli border, Tyre has been inundated with Palestinian refugees numerous times over the last six decades, most of whom live in areas that are no-go to us foreigners. We saw many thoroughly bored, aimless and seemingly purposeless young men
wandering around, driving reconstructed cars and trying to impress the local (and foreign) ladies. One such area spills over into the Roman ruins we were exploring. We thus encountered a pair of horses and twice as many Palestinian kids – I guess between 8 and 11 years old. The horses were grazing. As we approached, we noticed that the kids were throwing rocks at the horses. We told them to stop. They didn’t like this and so began throwing the rocks (and a few glass bottles too) at us instead. When I chased them, they ran into their house and to their mother who, while obviously disapproving of their actions, did little to correct them. As I walked away from the apologetic and somewhat helpless mother I wondered if this is how these boys lives would play out: With few opportunities and fewer role models, in a few years, their rock-throwing abilities impress Hezbollah; they graduate from rocks to molotov cocktails, to grenades and RPGs; their targets, not horses or tourists, but Israelis, the Israeli army; when chased they run; the army follows them home; they attack the house of a terrorist; the cycle starts again – everyone in that house remembers only one thing – the Israelis attacked my house. Without any clear leadership on how to end this cycle, is it too cynical to foresee such a bleak future?? I hope so but unfortunately, I fear not