During the fall of 2009 I grabbed the opportunity, quit my stiff public authority employment and left for Lebanon to freelance for the Daily Star Newspaper in Beirut. The reasons for this odd choice of destination were based on several circumstances. Perhaps it’s about a lust for adventure and a curiosity of other countries that somehow ignited when I was a small boy; perhaps it’s all about a wish to avoid the routine life of a nine-to-five job, mortgages, kids and a dog. And after high school, then, I got the taste for trips to strange places and have since then covered half a year in Asia (with focus on Borneo and Fiji), half a year in war-torn Sierra Leone, a year in equally war-ravaged Sudan and four months in a Kenya tangled up in deadly revolt.
But I had missed the Middle East and Lebanon appeared as the obvious choice with its intriguing combination of interesting colonial history, political unrest and armed conflict. Of course, the fact that Lebanon is a beautiful, mountainous country with a coastline towards the Mediterranean Sea, and that offers a possibility to lead a free and liberal life, certainly also played a part.
My curiosity towards Lebanon probably started already when I was a small child as I was constantly fed with those war footages on TV. My interest continued to grow when I as a young adult read war correspondent Robert Fisk’s literature on the Middle East wars, with a special focus on Lebanon. The famous journalist has lived in the country since 1976.
Lebanon’s complicated position and situation today are rooted in several historic courses of events like its colonial history, the birth of Israel and the following surges of Palestinian refugees into Lebanon, the Palestine issue as a whole, the special ethnic composition that made the country explode into civil war in 1975, as well as the Syrian occupation that was forced upon Lebanon all the way up to 2005.
So I left the Swedish autumn behind and chose a hot and sunny Middle East. Immediately I fell for the beauty of the capital, helped by a deep blue Mediterranean that glowed seductively in a seemingly eternal sunlight. The cooling sea surrounds the whole city that is built on a peninsula and crawls up along the mountainous landscape from the coast. This grants it a wonderful atmosphere. It is fairly chaotic and Beirut is alive in a way that a Scandinavian city never is. I lived in a sort of apartment hotel in the Mreiseh area in West Beirut, close to the famous Corniche where the Beiruters exercise, swim, fish or just hang around. Here are located several of the high-end hotels and the most expensive apartments with their fantastic sea views, as well as a few decent restaurants.
Nearly daily I walked up the hill into the famous, pulsating Hamra district, passing the distinguished AmericanUniversity where herds of students seemed to live a careless student-life, hanging around the rows of hectic fast-food places during eternal, lukewarm summer evenings.
Daily Star’s humble office was located right in the middle of the party district Gemmayze in East Beirut, and my body fat disappeared like a weekly salary thanks to my daily walk to work between the geographical extremities of the city. The respective area was held by Muslim and Christian militias during the devastating civil war during 1975-90. The city was thus divided by a “green line” where the Christians controlled East Beirut and the Muslims controlled West Beirut. The entire centre of the capital was consequently turned into ruins and became a no-man’s land throughout the war.
During the nineties a huge restoration project commenced, led by billionaire entrepreneur Rafik Hariri, and the result is fantastic. I had the privileged joy of passing through this appealing neighbourhood on my way to work every morning and in dusk on my way home. Beirut’s new centre reaches through several blocks with a large square in the middle that is crowned with a characteristic clock-tower. The style is old-fashioned and romantic and everything is draped in sand-coloured stone that could have been there for centuries if you didn’t know the history behind it. The delightful city centre is flooded with elegant restaurants, cafés, shops and expensive apartments.
My daily walk continued past the huge, spectacular Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque that was finished in 2007, also a Rafik Hariri initiative. The only thing that spoils this idyll and antiquated beauty of the city are the armed soldiers that guard in every second street corner. Thereby one is reminded that this is actually Lebanon with its fragile democracy and still not disarmed Hezbollah militia.
Not much more reminded me of the war as I walked through the city, except the deliberately preserved, bullet-peppered skeleton of the old high-end Holiday Inn hotel. The ruin of the high-rise building stands as a last reminder of the devastating war that ended Lebanon as a beautiful tourist destination in 1975. I also become aware that some sort of abnormality still prevails as I was about to immortalize the spectacular hotel ruin when some sort of guard turned up from nowhere and asked me to stop taking photos. He let me keep the pictures however and I guess he saw me as a naïve, Scandinavian tourist rather than an Israeli spy.
The relationship between Lebanon and Israel is still somewhat tense in the aftermath of the 2006 blitz war, and skirmishes still occur in the border areas in the South. Hezbollah and radicalized elements in the Palestinian refugee camps are certainly knots that have to be resolved before a long-standing peace can be restored.
My work at the small editorial office included reports on local politics, the traffic situation and school system, but also articles on African civil wars, something I could strongly contribute with thanks to my background. I also got to cover the Francophone Games – a sort of mini Olympics for former French colonies that was located in Beirut that fall. I thus got to hang around at basketball games and around boxing rings, interview athletes and create pieces of results and so forth.
Evenings could be spent hanging around the Corniche or having beers in some of the many cosy bars in the party district of Gemmayze. Beirut is pleasingly free from street crime, which I can corroborate after several nightly walks through the city. I actually felt considerably safer in Beirut than I’ve ever felt in an intermediate Swedish city (or any other larger West European city) where gangs rob and beat people through the weekend nights.
Since the 2006 war with Israel the tourists have pleasantly returned with over a million visitors per year in Beirut alone. The capital certainly offers a dashing party scene and many things to do and see, but also outside of Beirut the country offers a lot, with great scenery and several ski resorts in the mountains. As long as one avoids some Beirut suburbs, the border areas in the South and the towns on the border to Syria, Lebanon absolutely offers an interesting, peaceful – and not so obvious – choice of destination.
Following Syria’s withdrawal in 2005, the democratic power-sharing system from 1943 has been reinstalled and the country is freer than ever, even though many obstacles remain to be solved until Lebanon can be defined as a developed democracy or a fully functioning state. Hopefully it can recapture the title as the free oasis of the Middle East where Christians and Muslims live side by side in a flourishing democratic state, which was the country’s slogan until the war broke out in 1975. But Lebanon is still tangled up in a regional political reality that’s impossible to sweep away only with political reform.
The tense relationship with Israel, the eternal refugee camps with stateless Palestinians, a Hezbollah that still exercises military power, and lately the Syrian civil war that constantly spills over onto Lebanese soil, are all grave realities that need to be resolved before Lebanon can be given a chance to thrive.
The basic criteria for the definition of a state is that the government, through its national police force, sustains a monopoly on the use of force within its country’s borders and that the government through its military controls the territory of the state. Today, the Lebanese government does not maintain this control since Hezbollah – now also a political party with seats in the government and in parliament – simultaneously functions as an armed militia that exercises political pressure through military power.
The militant Shiite resistance movement emerged in 1982 along with the Israeli invasion of Lebanon. The fact that it still exists has been possible only with the support from Syria and Iran. This means that Lebanon is a victim also of the great Shiite/Sunni conflict that splits the Muslim world and which can explain a whole lot of the turbulent, political reality in that part of the world. Hence, when the Alawite (i.e. Shiite) Assad regime falls in Syria it might have significant consequences also for Lebanon since (Shiite) Hezbollah then will lose its closest ally and therefore also loses its natural source of military support.
Then, if a power shift will happen in the increasingly isolated (Shiite) Iran it is definitely the end for Hezbollah as an armed player, since its public support is hardly significant anymore. And that is exactly what the Lebanese society needs; a Hezbollah movement as a political party without the possibility to carry out armed resistance. Hezbollah is actually the main reason for Israel’s hostility towards Lebanon, something that has proved devastating (latest in the bomb war in 2006). The militia’s ravages in southern Lebanon at the border to Israel was in fact what triggered the 2006 war between the two countries where large parts of Beirut’s suburbs were bombed to rubble. Not until Hezbollah is disarmed and fully integrated into Lebanese society, a definite peace with Israel can be achieved.
Above this, the enormous Palestinian refugee camps, permanented since long, have developed into a potentially very dangerous situation. The camps were created during Israel’s war of independence in 1948 as the Israeli army through ethnic cleansing forced hundreds of thousands of Palestinian civilians to flee their homes (which later were over-taken by Israeli occupants). The Palestinians in Lebanon, of which most were born and raised in the camps, don’t maintain a Lebanese citizenship and therefore lack basic rights such as being able to take a proper employment. The poverty and hopeless situation almost certainly have a radicalizing effect on the young population that therefore serves as a generous recruiting base for militant groups such as Hezbollah. The issue of the refugees has developed into an enormous problem that requires radical political reform to be resolved; because they hardly return to Israel.
If Lebanon would manage to overcome these obstacles it might certainly look forward to a bright future. Its democratic history, ethnic diversity, educated Diaspora, excellent geographic position as well as the lucrative tourism sector, all constitute these possibilities. Despite moments of loneliness and despair, I certainly miss Lebanon and wouldn’t hesitate to return would the right job offer present itself.