Happy New Year, Beirut – January 2007

As a kid, I remember hearing about Lebanon and its capital, Beirut, on the news.  The reports always had something to do with bombs, attacks, tragedy, and guerrilla warfare.  I was particularly confounded by the idea that gorillas were in Lebanon.  Heck, that was just down Route 202 (or is it the Carl Broggi Highway?).  Weren’t these gorillas content to stay at home in Africa?  Would the attacks on Lebanon prevent my family from driving to the Lilac Mall to eat at Papa Gino’s? 

I was an easily confused child.   

Of course, Beirut and Lebanon are primarily associated with a brutal civil war that raged from 1975 until 1989, pretty much destroying the country.  By the time I visited in 2004, Beirut was largely reconstructed.  Still, just blocks from the city’s brand new luxury hotels and upscale restaurants, several partially destroyed buildings sat decaying on prime seaside lots.  Along the “Green Line,” which was the epicenter of the conflict, most buildings were scarred with bullet holes from the years of fighting.

I was struck by several impressions of the country during my visit.  First, Lebanon looked and felt pretty prosperous despite the years of fighting.  Having visited other post-conflict areas such as Vietnam, Cambodia, and Uganda over the years, I figured that Beirut would have at least a few of the hangover effects (poverty, poor infrastructure, crime) that plague these former war zones.  Instead, Beirut was an elegant and prosperous Mediterranean city jammed with sidewalk cafes, stunning sea views, and stores hawking luxury goods.  The country had regained its status as a prime vacation destination for Arabs looking to unwind in a far more permissive environment than they could find at home.  In essence, Beirut felt like a boom town, albeit with a few battle scars thrown in to temper the excitement. 

People I met in Beirut were too busy living in the present to be caught up with the past.  My first night in town, a Lebanese friend took me to a nightclub called Cristal.  The place was called Cristal for a reason, as this place clearly catered to the champagne and caviar set.  The narrow strip of pavement by the front door was jammed with several Porches, a few Bentleys, and the odd Rolls-Royce.  Inside, I was impressed to see that Beirut lived up to its reputation for having some of the best nightlife in the world.   I decided to join the fray, drawing upon the considerable Sanford charm that I developed during years of school dances at the Memorial Gym (even though they wouldn’t play “Stairway to Heaven” for me at Cristal).  

Within a few minutes, I found myself talking to a Lebanese-Palestinian girl and a group of Syrians.  I had never before met people from this part of the world on their home turf.  As a result, I always assumed that both of these societies were ultra-conservative, making it taboo to engage in frivolous activities like going out for a night on the town.  When I asked one of the Syrian girls what she was doing in Beirut, she rolled her eyes and said, as if stating the obvious, “Damascus is soooo boring.”  Maybe Americans and Syrians are supposed to distrust one another, but these enmities were left aside, even if momentarily, in Beirut. 

I asked my Lebanese friend about the lively nightclub, the flashy cars, and the feeling that Beirut somehow existed in some alternate universe.  She reminded me that the many years of civil war, coupled with rapid reconstruction and relative prosperity, now fueled a culture of carpe diem.  Beirut lived for the present because few people trusted that the future would hold unending peace and prosperity. 

Clearly, the people of Lebanon had far more insight into the future than I anticipated at the time. If you turned on the television this summer, you couldn’t miss the heartbreaking scenes of conflict in the streets of Beirut.  Finger pointing for the causes of the latest conflict has been amply discussed elsewhere.  No matter whose side you take, however, you’ve got to admit that the Lebanese were spot on with their approach to life.  The future didn’t hold continuing prosperity and peace, but at least the good times didn’t go to waste.

My Lebanese friend has since left Beirut and is now living in London.  She hasn’t given up on her city, despite the challenges of the last year.  She wrote me last week with an update after a trip home over the holidays:  “The political situation is still tense, but at least the security situation is under control, so let’s just hope 2007 will bring better days and some longer term stability for the country.”

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