Beirut: Paris of the Middle East – NOT

During the recent Eid-ul-Adha holiday, I went to Lebanon and visited the following places: Beirut, Tripoli (Trablous), Sidon (Saida), Tyre (Sour) and the Bekka Valley. For some strange reason, I was not inspired to write while there. Much of Lebanon was familiar to what I have seen in Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt. In my opinion, it is not the “Paris of the Middle East.” I guess my inability to reflect immediately in pen stemmed from the fact that I was stuck in traffic jams daily in ridiculously expensive taxis with abrasive drivers who lack the charm of those in other places in the Middle East.

I flew to Lebanon leaving Kuwait in a north-westerly direction, flying over the parched desert of Saudi Arabia, then entering Jordan, and finally Syria, moving northwest to the Mediterranean Sea, staying very far from treacherous airspace between Israel and Lebanon. Middle East Airlines, (MEA) approached the runway from the Mediterranean Sea, making it look like we were landing in the water. Suddenly, we approached a lit runway and to the left the awesome skyscrapers of the coastal city were in sight.

After landing at the Rafik Hariri Airport, I easily secured my visa. Downtown Beyrut has been rebuilt by the Hariri family who inspire both love and hate. The Hariris are well liked in the North but hated in the South, where Sayeed Hassan Nasrallah rules. Syria and Israel are blamed for the chaos. More recently, the Lebanese have come to accept the fact that they maybe be an extension of Syria indefinitely as they were in the 1920s.

My beautiful tour guide, Nancy, was well spoken and politically correct but couldn’t hide her fear of the growing Shia power in Lebanon. As we passed the mountains of rubbish going to Tyre, she explained to us that the Crusaders captured this city. Tripoli in the north and Sidon in the south were also part of the Crusade Empire. Christianity took hold in these areas before Europe or America. Many people do not know that the Middle East is made up of Christians who, like their Muslims brethren, feel great animosity towards Israel. Why so much hate? Israeli drones and jets invade the country daily, as a trip to the south will make obvious. How does one explain repeated invasions and the blockade of ports and airspace? Does “Hezbollah terror” justify this daily humiliation? Do Hezbollah rockets reek havoc in North Israel? How many Israelis are dead? How many Arabs have been killed? Often I heard them say, “We don’t hate Jews. Jews have lived in Lebanon for thousands of years.” But they are gone now.

Nancy explained as she showed me several Palestinians camps which have existed since the Naqba (the catastrophe) that these enclaves in Lebanon are semi independent. Lebanese police can’t enter these camps, and those who dare to criticize their presence there are accused of being selfish and anti-Palestinian. This was one major factor that led to the civil war in the 1970s. These 500,000 refugees are not Lebanese. They have no interest in a Lebanese passport and rightfully so. Why should Lebanon upset its ethnic/religious balance? That will create a political quagmire for this country.

Nancy also took me to Tyre (Sour in Arabic), another historical city of the Phoenicians. She quickly pulled her scarf over her bare shoulders as we entered the South. This is Shia’s territory, followers of Hassan Nasrallah, the Grand Imam of Shia Lebanon. Even in Morocco while teaching there, students and adults admired this man. In the South, prayers are broadcast from speakers on all corners. Women are in black hijab and sheep were seen waiting to be sacrificed for the Eid- ul- Adha.

The following day, I took a public bus from Beyrut to Trablus (Tripoli). Pity is was the weekend of Eid-ul-Adha and the Souq (market) was empty. But Tripoli is like any other Arab city: crowded, dirty,,air filled with the fragrance of spices and roasting nuts, children running wild and the azaan blasting five times a day . I spoke with a few people who wanted to keep me company had a shave and a good scrub at a 300-year old hammam and then rushed to the Corniche with what seemed like half of Tripoli to enjoy the sunset and the loud music.

In the evening I returned to Beyrut by public bus, greeting everyone with “Salaam Aleikom,” except this is Lebanon, not a fully Muslim country, and so this is not the normal greeting and only few replied.

The trip back to Beyrut was a nightmare because of the traffic. In Beyrut, everything is expensive, water, drinks, juices, food, and transportation. Everyone is busy keeping up appearances even if it means spending that last dollar. In Beyrut, the dollar is everything. I was in Lebanon some years ago for three days, and while I saw little, I remember very clearly the slick, cunning, well spoken and well dressed Lebanese charming me into renting a Benz and leaving the price to be finalized. Later, he demanded a huge fee and left me in an embarrassing bind.

Lebanese love to show off their brand name clothes: Dolce & Gabanna, Armani, Louis Vutton, CK, DK, you name it. And if that’s not enough, plastic surgery is cheap enough that most can afford to be beautiful and handsome. They are very conscious and spare nothing to look good. Plastic surgery is a big business here. I don’t know what Nancy, Elissa, or Haifa looked like before. Lebanese also love to keep a maid from Sri Lanka or the Philippines. They import street cleaners, toilet cleaners and other laborers. I guess they are no poor Lebanese?

Going out just to eat tabulah or hommus in a Benz and sporting a new noise or car is in style. Sidewalk cafes, bars, pubs, discos and the malls are packed with people sporting their new wardrobe, noise, buttocks, or car. But as you leave the city centre, just a 15-minute drive out of Beyrut centre, there is wretched poverty, dirt and old uninviting concrete block buildings and street corners full of immigrants and hustlers. In the air the stench of last night’s pee reeks. This is not the Beyrut that my fellow teachers see when they go there. Most confine themselves to the beaches, night life, bars, discos and the beautiful, fashionable people in the posh neighborhoods of Ashrafeh and Verdun. Sadly, they miss much of Lebanon.

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