Road map’s success could return Lebanon to its former glory as ‘Switzerland of the Levant’
By PARAG KHANNA
Contrary to all expectations, the war in Iraq made no dent in Lebanese tourism in 2003. In fact, the number of visitors in 2003 jumped an estimated 5 percent over the previous year, due largely to Arab visitors concerned by both the perceived anti-Arab sentiment elsewhere as well as the stark appreciation of the euro. Fifty percent of visitors to Lebanon are non-Arab, however, and given the Lebanese population’s historical, even natural, cosmopolitan flair, it continues to present opportunities for foreign tourism, and foreign investment in the tourism sector, which could help spark a brighter, more stable future for the region as a whole.
For bewitched European Orientalists, Lebanon was once considered the Switzerland of the Levant, and its capital, Beirut, the “Paris of the Middle East.” But in the late 1970s and early 1980s ?over a decade before world attention became fixed on the destructive ethnic conflicts and civil wars of Bosnia, Rwanda and Afghanistan, Lebanon was devastated by one of the most complicated and multifarious sectarian conflicts of the 20th century, in which Israeli jets mercilessly pounded Beirut while Israeli and Syrian client militias of Lebanon’s Christian, Sunni, Shiite and Druze factions besieged the city, razing its monuments, factories, offices and homes. In all, there were almost 200,000, mostly civilian, fatalities, with at least as many wounded. Consequently, a walk through Beirut today is war tourism without the war.
The easiest way to get a sense of the unbearable lightness of being in Beirut during the civil war is to rent the recent Hollywood action thriller Spy Games, starring Robert Redford and Brad Pitt. Militia fighting on the streets of Beirut continued through the 1980s, with the government fading, even disappearing, into insignificance. Shelling and sniper fire made crossing certain streets impossible, inspiring the Lebanese to bore human-size holes through entire blocks of buildings to create mole-like passageways which cut through bedrooms and living rooms. A Druze friend, whose family fled during the war, once explained how Palestinians occupied Lebanese families’ homes and had to be bribed, and often violently coerced, to move out. No authorities arbitrated such disputes, leaving the Lebanese to persevere in their own Arab version of Miami. By frequenting fancy social gatherings and upscale restaurants amid the crumbling, contested infrastructure, the Lebanese acquired a reputation as world-class party-goers.
This legacy continues today on Monot Street, which is packed with as many bars and cafes as one would expect in a Barcelona alley; or in the underground nightclub BO18, which with its retractable roof is an easy contender for the world’s coolest disco. These traditions of vibrancy and self-reliance were necessary to cope with the dysfunctional side-effects of war, yet persist in the absence of strong authority. “If they were to impose rules, things would fall apart. Everything just works on its own,” my friend said with a shrug.
Even as Sunnis, Shiites, Maronites and Druze maintain dominant influence in their traditional regional strongholds, they all share the breezy coast in cosmopolitan Beirut, where on Sundays in the Muslim Hamra district, calls to prayer from tall minarets and church bells compete in a religious cacophony. Instead of planning a memorial to commemorate the civil war’s victims or its conclusion, no effort is being spared to erase all traces of the war. On the pedestrian Al-Maraad Street, the meeting point between Hamra and the affluent Christian Achrafieh district, an outdoor exhibit tracks the progress of the city’s resurrection, which has advanced at a pace to rival that of East Berlin. Photographs resembling Grozny are juxtaposed with images of Ottoman council buildings restored to administrative glory, highlighting the mellow aesthetic of neo-Islamic architecture. Another panel contrasts the national Sports City in 1982, when it was decimated by Israeli warplanes, to its packed stands during the Asian and Pan-Arab Games in the 1990s. Al-Maraad Street ends at the Place d’Etoile, also known as Nijmeh Square. Once barricaded with sandbags and gutted by bombs, it now serves as the pedestrian hub of Beirut’s Central District, with quaint, cafe-lined streets spinning off from the Al-Abed clocktower.
Over millennia of foreign intermingling, Lebanese became the original globalization chic: Their role throughout history as merchants and traders has always been strong. An Arab saying recounts that books were “written in Cairo, printed in Beirut, and read in Baghdad.” One cultural perk of being an imperial sandbox is that Syria and Lebanon are the archaeological equivalent of icebergs, with perhaps 80 percent of their ancient ruins still buried underground. In Beirut’s Central District, the history of Mediterranean civilization is excavated as simultaneous efforts to rebuild the shattered city accelerate.
Geographically, Lebanon is but a mountainous sliver: it’s only a 90-minute drive from the rough plains of western Syria to Beirut on the Mediterranean shore. Roughly corresponding to the land of the ancient Phoenicians ?the name meaning red or purple given to the Levantine people by the Greeks ?Lebanese history has indeed been a nonstop succession of imperial occupations. Situated at the crossroads of civilizations, Phoenicians from the port of Tyre founded Carthage in North Africa, but three centuries later the city was invaded by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar and then blockaded by Alexander the Great. The Hellenistic period was quickly eclipsed by the Pax Romana under Emperor Augustus, who brought great prosperity to Tyre and Sidon. Following the conversion of the Lebanese to Christianity under Byzantine rule, Beirut grew to prominence, with its law school the most famous throughout the Roman Empire. But a devastating earthquake and tidal flood in 551 AD enabled a victorious Arab invasion, bringing both Islam and Arabic to replace local dialects. The crusaders also took hold of the Levant in the 11th century, but were ejected by the Mamluk sultans, who turned Tripoli, today Lebanon’s second largest city, into a great center of Islamic architecture with the building of mosques, madrassahs and hammams.
With Beirut as the Middle East’s most hip city, combining the elegance of Istanbul with the seediness of Tangiers, Lebanon could become the next Turkey or Morocco on the traveler’s map. In addition to its sandy beaches and archaeological treasures, Lebanon also boasts the Middle East’s highest mountains, the three thousand meter Lebanon range, which provides the only skiing in the Middle East. The Qadisha Valley in the north offers convenient hiking terrain and rich forests of the Lebanese national symbol, the cedar tree. Perched on a plateau below the forests is the village of Bcharreh, where one can visit the home, now a museum, of Gibran Khalil Gibran, Lebanon’s most famous writer, whose Prophet is one of the best-selling books of all time. Throughout the country, luxury hotels provide all-season retreats for those seeking to beat the heat, get out of the big city or experience multiple climates in a single day.
Driving south from Tyre, I passed through the town of Bint Jbeil, proudly identified by its signage as the “Capital of Liberation.” The May 2000 Israeli withdrawal from southern Lebanon was celebrated with great festivity nationwide. Hizbullah receives the lion’s share of credit for Israel’s withdrawal. Cases of Katyusha rockets mark many zones from which it frequently launched resistance, tellingly also just a few hundred meters from the site of the Qana massacre. But Hizbullah seems to have changed with the times. Recognizing that post-civil war Lebanon prefers pluralism to extreme sectarianism, Hizbullah has had to combine its Shiite-driven agenda with a political platform, giving itself plenty of attention via its own Al-Manar television station. It now focuses on compensating, as during the civil war, for the lack of government provision of social services. It therefore functions like India’s Shiv Sena in Bombay, building hospitals and spending $3.5 million per year on educating even the most deprived Lebanese children. Its stronghold of Baalbek – once the ancient Greek city of Heliopolis – remains Lebanon’s second most visited city for its wonders of the ancient world, the ruins of the 1st century AD Jupiter and Bacchus temples, which particularly at sunset exude their aesthetic might over the neighboring fields.
If the “road map” does indeed advance, many Lebanese believe that peace with Israel is possible. With their well-developed tourist infrastructure and cultural adaptability, Lebanon and Israel are poised to gain the most from any progress on regional peace as exotic destinations for pilgrims and sun worshippers alike. Another friend believes this is just a matter of when, not if, saying: “Lebanon is in its fabric comfortable with European values. It can play an important cultural and economic role as a moderate society.”
Indeed, it is not madrassahs which have risen from the rubble of Beirut’s civil war, but French boutiques, and Mercedes-Benz far outnumber other automobiles. And this year, the number of tourists passed the 1 million mark, representing steady growth with room to improve as Lebanon continues to accelerate its national reconstruction effort.
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