Vasco da Gama
Ian Strathcarron
Thu 1 Jul 2010 09:39
Beirut is a frantic and tense city. It must have been beautiful once, as it is built on several hills, forested with pines and cedars at their summits, which drop dramatically into the sea. There is a large harbour packed with commercial shipping and many bays and inlets so there is always a view of the Mediterranean as a backdrop to the steep winding streets. There is still evidence of the civil war on the outside of many buildings, scarred with bullet holes and shells. But there is also a lot of new building of futuristic hotels and apartments. The trouble is not much thought has been given to the infrastructure so to walk around the city, as we tried, is fairly hellish as there so many potholes and unlevel steps. The streets are permanently clogged with traffic, especially scruffy yellow taxis. The background noise is of continuously blaring horns. Crossing the road can be terrifying, although we are learning the Levantine way – just barge across and hope for the best. Young soldiers armed with rifles stand on every street and there are army checkpoints everywhere.

‘Downtown’ is a new development in the centre of the city. The attractive colonnaded buildings replace the bomb craters and skeletal ruins which still surround Downtown, and it’s a good place to sit in a café and watch the world go by while sipping a delicious fresh lemonade with mint. The redevelopment of Beirut was led by the charismatic Rafiq Hariri, Prime Minister from 1994 to 2004, but as so often happens in this region to anyone who seems to be a force for the good, he was assassinated a year after leaving office. An early death by bombing or shooting seems to be the fate of anyone who tries to make an improvement in the way of life in this turbulent part of the world.

The quietest area of Beirut during the day is Achrafiye. Many grand old buildings survive on tree-lined streets which are reminiscent of Paris. To the north of Achrafiye is a district called Gemmayzeh, and these two quarters of East Beirut come alive every evening with dozens of bars and clubs where Beirutis love to dance the night away. It’s understandable as the nights are so delicious and cool after the frantic heat of the day. Ian and I have not joined them yet but I’m sure a research trip there will take place before we leave.

We berthed for the first week in a swish Lebanese club called the Automobile Touring Club of Lebanon in Jounieh. Jounieh is 20 miles north of the centre of Beirut, and the Marina there was recommended to us as it is equipped to provide entry visas for Lebanon. Acquiring visas for any Middle Eastern country is always time consuming and usually fairly expensive so we aimed for the most helpful-sounding option.

We were quite lonely in Jounieh as we seemed to be the only people in evidence on any of the boats. None of the other yachts or powerboats went anywhere. This must be because there is nowhere to sail to, as there are very few harbours which welcome pleasure boats in Lebanon, and to the north is Syria and to the south, Israel. Both countries have invaded Lebanon in the recent past and at the moment there is an uneasy truce which could turn into aggression at any time. The only English person we met in Jounieh, an engineer working on a Lebanese-owned boat, thinks that the boats were there for rich Lebanese who may need to make a quick get-away if hostilities start again. The club members spoke French and English as much as Arabic, and the club had a colonial feel about it. The young couples who brought their children there at the weekend all had Filipina nannies, and in the evenings, elegantly dressed older couples sat in the air conditioned club house playing elaborate card games (involving gambling but not sure which games they were).

We moved because 70 boats from the EMYR rally were coming into Jounieh for a few days, and we sailed to an even more exclusive marina called La Marina JK. It’s in an unprepossessing site bordering an industrial estate on the edge of the Port of Beirut, but within the compound it is beautifully landscaped, has the longest outdoor pool (100 metres) I have ever seen and dozens of enormous yachts registered in every tax shelter on the planet, including a new one to us, Bikini Atoll.

Beirut and the north of Lebanon is a mainly Christian, although there is a large Palestinian refugee camp in south Beirut which is Muslim and loyal to Hezbollah, ‘The Party of God’. Hezbollah represents poor, mainly Shia Muslims and has moved from being a terrorist organisation (responsible for the murder and kidnap of Western hostages in the civil war) to a political organisation with representatives in Parliament. Hezbollah is an offshoot of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard and reveres the late Ayatollah Khomeini. Hezbollah is bankrolled by the government of Iran. They control the south of the country, around the ports of Sidon and Tyre, and the border with Israel, and also the Bekaa Valley on the Eastern border with Syria.

We drove through the Bekaa Valley as we wanted to visit the Roman ruins at Baalbek. We were also curious to see what a Hezbollah stronghold looked like. I can report that it was very poor, very dusty, and there hasn’t been a litter collection for a long time. The Hezbollah green and yellow flag, showing a Kalashnikov and a copy of the Koran, hung everywhere, as did posters and banners showing various ayatollahs and clerics, smiling benignly over photographs of soldiers bearing arms. There were posters too, surrounded by plastic flowers, showing serious young men and women. I suspect these were suicide bombers.

Lebanon is a country divided by money as well as religion. At one extreme there are the rich, educated, Christian and Sunni Muslim families who flaunt their expensive European cars and Italian designer clothes (in a not very Christian way) and at the other there are the very poor uneducated Shia Muslims, who are becoming radicalised by the teachings of Hezbollah.

Lebanon was created by the French after the First World War when the Allies gained control of the region which had been part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire for centuries. Syria had a mainly Muslim population but there had been persecutions of the Christian minority, who took refuge in the area around Mount Lebanon. The French created Lebanon as a multi-cultural country and a haven for Christians, with a Christian President, a Sunni Muslim Prime Minister and a Druze (an esoteric offshoot of Shia Muslim) Speaker. (The country is very small, a coastal strip the size of Devon and Cornwall). At that time the population was evenly divided with 50% Christian and 50% Muslim and the system worked quite well, although the ruling clique soon established itself as a few rich families, of all the religious colours, ruled the country on an almost feudal basis. Moving on to today, the balance of power has shifted as the current estimates are 25% Christian (and falling as Lebanese Christians emigrate to the US, Canada and Australia among other countries), with the Muslims increasing in number, especially the Shias who have always resented the Sunnis.

I have been trying to understand when and why the Palestinian refugees arrived, and it appears that it was in 1948, at the time of the creation of the state of Israel, in what had once been Palestine, when 700,000 Palestinians chose to leave the country, moving to Jordan, Egypt, Lebanon and Syria. The original number has now increased to 4,000,000, but they have not been granted citizenship in any country except Jordan, as the governments of Egypt, Lebanon and Syria refuse to recognise the existence of Israel and the relinquishing of Palestinian rights to the land they once occupied. There are now about 500,000 Palestinian ‘refugees’ in camps in southern Lebanon which has had the effect of de-stabilising the country and gave rise to the civil war in 1975.

History if full of ‘if onlys’, but it seems as if Israel was created with very little regard for the indigenous population, or at least enough safeguards to protect the Palestinians. The majority of Jewish people in Palestine by 1948 had immigrated from other parts of the world, particularly from Europe, European Russia and the USA. They created a successful modern country with one of the highest per capita incomes in the world, in a region which had been poor, backward and barren. They were helped by a subsidy from the USA said to be around $4 billion per year and they applied the Judeo-Christian work ethic in a region which had embraced Islam 1300 years before, with its fatalistic belief to leave everything to the will of Allah. Thus we have a successful country, but armed to the teeth, having to be at constant battle with its poorer, often uneducated if they are Palestinian refugees, neighbours. The Israelis waged a successful war in 1967 against Syria to the north, and bagged the Golan Heights, which had given cover to Muslim guerrilla attacks against Israel, and part of the Sinai Desert, where Egypt had amassed troops and tanks on the Israeli border. The Syrians tried to win back the Golan in 1973, but were repulsed by the superior army and firepower of the Israelis. The balance of power has been with the Israelis thanks to their work ethic and American subsidy, but now Iran has stepped in to arm the Palestinians and the power of Hezbollah is growing.

Understandably, we are looking forward to returning to Syria as the next part of Ian’s Holy Land research takes us to Damascus, a few hours by car from Beirut. Syria has been our favourite country in the eastern med so far. I think this is because it is an authentic country with a long history and the people are charming and civilised. Next blog will be from Damascus.