Beirut, ornament of our world
Beirut, exquisite as Paradise’s gardens.
Those shattered mirrors once were
The smiling eyes of children.
– Faiz Ahmed Faiz
If immigration presents the first face of a country, the five-person-wide two-hour-long queue does not bode well…
Before long you realize incompetence – and corruption – is a hallmark of the malfunctioning state of Lebanon. Dirty air, unsafe drinking water, garbage and sewage crises, polluted beaches, nightmarish traffic jams, inaccessible healthcare, exorbitant real estate… The only impressive thing is the efficacy with which power cuts are administered daily. Suspense at 11:59pm, 2:59am, 5:59am, 8:59am, 11:59am, 2:59pm, 5:59pm, 8:59pm! Some bureaucrats decide whether you will be woken up in the middle of the night by heat, begin your day without being able to make tea, come back home in suffocating afternoon heat without fan/AC, dine in the dark, or be resigned to your bed at 9pm!
Ah, but there is such a thing called private electricity, for those who could afford! It’s part of Lebanese life to dance around your circuit board with five to ten switches with a broom in hand! Water purification must be a lucrative industry here! A survey shows an average Lebanese spends 9% of its income on water. I am typing with dirty fingers due to an unannounced water cut that lasted for five days…
What a pity! During my month-long stay for a documentary project on Palestinian and Syrian refugees in Lebanon, Home Away from Home, I discover this gorgeous country with a long beautiful coast, enchanting mountains and valleys with UNESCO world heritage rock-carved monasteries, thousand-year-old cypress forests, orchards and vineyards, time-suspended souks, some of the most majestic ruins I have ever seen in my life, a rich culinary tradition, and art de vivre despite the enormous economic, social, and political challenges.
And the most welcoming people…
From Beirut, I go down South first to visit beautiful Sidon and the Roman ruins of Tyre. Then I head back North to the enchanting Kadisha valley to see the magnificent cedars forest and the old monasteries in Bsharri. I take a day trip to the Phoenician coastal cities of Batroun and Byblos before heading up North to the old city of Tripoli.
The stunning Roman ruins in Baalbeck alone are worth the trip to Lebanon. Those in Tyre, Byblos, and Anjar are icing on the cake. If you are not too into archeology, Lebanese ice-cream, sweets, and the rest of its culinary repertoire – except for the recent fast food invasion – should be enticing enough!
Lebanon is also one of the most culturally and religiously diverse countries in the world. The French influence from the Mandate era (1923-1946) is still palpable (croissants and eclaires, rues and impasses, Ave de Paris et Charles de Gaulle! banques, ecoles, eglises… even les caves de Taillevant! et, bien sûr, quite a few froggies/French tourists!). In the Qadisha valley, you hear bonjour and merci instead of asalam alaikum and shoukran. In Beirut, you walk a few blocks and enter a Christian neighhorhood in the Eastern part. Like elsewhere, the class gap is shocking. A short bus ride away, you leave the working class neighbourhood in Southern Beirut and arrive at tranquil Sursock street with palatial mansions and the oasis of the American University of Beirut…
Beirut is a beautiful and vibrant capital city with old streets and large squares, ancient mosques, a pleasant Corniche that’s always teeming with life from morning till night…
Sidon, meaning fishery in Greek, is a beautiful ancient Phoenician port city in Southern Lebanon with a sea castle, long beach, and bustling old souk where residents enjoy tea in the late afternoon shade. An hour further South is the old city of Tyre, famous for the UNESCO World Heritage site of Al-Bass necropolis, entrance of the town in antique times…
Up North in the Qadisha Valley, the famous Cedrus libani, the first of trees and Cedars of God, are majestic. Walking among these tall, wide, strong, and incredibly graceful living things brings one back to deep time, far from today’s woeful socio-political reality…
Bsharri, meaning House of Truth, is home to the most ancient Christian monastic communities of the Middle East who fled persecution and sought refuge here in the 7th Century AD. I hike along ancient paths amidst quiet monasteries where pilgrims come for their summer retreats.
Bsharri is also where the immortal poet, Kahlil Gibran, rests in peace…
ever seeking the lonelier way,
begin no day where we have ended another;
and no sunrise finds us where sunset left us.
Even while the earth sleeps
– Khalil Gibran
Back to the coast, Byblos and Batroun are both among the oldest continuously living cities in the world with pleasant beaches and beautiful Phoenician and Roman ruins.
I love the bustling city of old Tripoli with a historic center, citadel and mosques, colourful souks, hammams, and the second highest concentration of Mamluk architecture after Cairo. I meander through its various neighbourhoods, getting lost in an old way of life…
For ruin buffs, the magnificent Baalbek temple complex that includes two of the largest and grandest Roman temple ruins – the Temple of Bacchus and the Temple of Jupiter – are a must!
Alas, Lebanon suffered from a long civil war (1975-1990), numerous invasions, occupations, and ongoing sectarian conflicts. It feels surreal to walk in Beirut, especially along the “Green line”/demarcation line. I have never seen as many pockmarked buildings and military check points in my life. They are poignant reminders of Lebanon’s traumatic past and still tenuous peace. Military presence remains heavy throughout this heavily scarred country…
It is remarkable to see how resilient and enterprising the residents are in a country where nothing can ever be taken for granted including the most basic access to water, electricity, and sanitation. The Lebanese are such a gregarious bunch. “Welcome, welcome!” is what you hear everywhere before you even utter anything. The end of my stay coincides with Eid, the most important religious holiday where people put on their Eid best and get together to share some precious moments. Nothing – not war, poverty, deprivation, or corruption – seems to have taken away their joie de vivre!
Two months before my visit, a Lebanese film, Capernaum, directed Nadine Labaki, won the Grand Jury Prize at the Cannes Festival. The plot – surrounding the claim of the 12-year-old character, Zain Al Rafeea, who lives in the slum of Beirut – speaks volume about the society.
I want to make a complaint against my parents. I’d want adults to listen to me. I want adults who can’t raise kids not to have any. What will I remember? Violence, insults or beatings, hit with chains, pipes, or a belt? The kindest words I heard were get out son of a whore. Bug off, piece of garbage. Life is a pile of shit. Not worth more than my shoe. I live in hell here… Fuck this shitty country.
‘Cause every night I have it as if my last
This dream is all that I need
‘cause it’s all that I ever had.
– Nadia Tueni
All Content © 2023 by Jennifer Chan