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The Middle East (Part 4/8) - The Lebanon - Pint-Sized Gem

Updated: Mar 31, 2019

Pigeon Rocks, Raouche, Beirut, Lebanon
Pigeon Rocks, Raouche, Beirut

Safety doubts

The Lebanon (why do we use 'The'? I'll drop it if you don't mind) is what is known as a political powder-keg. A beautiful country that finds itself very much in a tough neighborhood. Before the trip, I wasn't at all sure I would be going there, and despite getting a multiple-entry visa for Syria (travelling overland towards Jordan or Israel entails leaving and then coming back into Syria, as it is the only country with open border crossings with Lebanon) I had one eye on the political and security situations there in the weeks before entering. The brief but fairly brutal war with Israel in July/August 2006 was fresh in the memory, and the situation in 2008 was tetchy if peaceful for the time being, though Hezbollah had been coming out with some fairly provocative statements. However, I had met several travellers on the way through Turkey and Syria - in particular, one Polish guy who had assuaged any worries about it being a 'dangerous' place. He had encountered no problems and was happy to report he'd had a wonderful week there. I still had at the back of my mind the fact that before we left, 14 people were killed when a bomb exploded in Hezbollah stronghold Tripoli on August 13th. Nine of those killed were soldiers travelling on a bus. What you should consider before visiting a country like Lebanon is, what constitutes 'safe', and if that is enough for you to take the minor risk of going there. The most important question you have to ask yourself is not 'is it safe?', but 'will I feel safe?'. Objectively, in purely statistical terms, I would think that a visit to Lebanon is probably no more risky than a visit to a country like Turkey or India which experiences occasional bombings and an unstable security situation in certain parts of the country. I do not know of any foreign tourists who came to harm either this May or during the 2006 war (though a couple of returning expats did get caught up in each event). Like most of the Levant, the greatest danger that you're likely to be exposed to in Lebanon are the somewhat eccentric driving standards. Subjectively, however, it's a different kettle of fish. Are you comfortable around guns, soldiers, tanks, etc? Because you'll be seeing a lot of them. The Lebanese army is out in serious force around the country in order to help preserve stability, and almost every major junction or important building will have soldiers toting M16s or AK47s stationed nearby, if not a few tanks or armoured personnel carriers.

Downtown Beirut by night, Lebanon
Downtown Beirut by night


I entered Lebanon overland. At Damascus bus station I hopped into a service taxi with two Syrian guys. It is really only a short hop from Damascus to Beirut - about 100km - and with the border crossing delay, it takes about 3 hours, through scenic mountainous countryside. At the payment booth where I stumped up 25000 Lebanese lira (about $15) for a Lebanese visa. Paperwork done, we hopped back into the taxi and down the mountain pass into Lebanon and to Beirut. The views down to Beirut were spectacular from the road. From above, it is an incredibly densely-packed city, rolling down the hillside endlessly to the sea - the downtown a mass of high-rise buildings, clustered along the glistening coastline. Once you arrive, you find that it's quite a noisy, traffic-choked city, and that the taxi drivers are even more unscrupulous and dogged than other places in the Middle East. They have the annoying habit of dawdling alongside you as you walk the pavements, honking at you to get in. On leaving the service taxi, one such driver attempted this with us, but to no avail - we hopped on a micro bus to the downtown area for a dollar each and then made our way through the district of Hamra to one of the few cheap lodgings in town. Still swealteringly hot, this march through the city was extremely hard work, and at one stage I collapsed on the pavement in a state of exhaustion. The hostel was at the bottom of a steep hill near the corniche. Seedy, a little bit scruffy and noisy - it was next to several night clubs (and, I later discovered, in the heart of Beirut's red-light district), it wasn't the most salubrious place we stayed in, but it was welcoming and characterful anyhow.

Beirut suburbs, Lebanon
Beirut suburbs: scarred, scruffy and noisy

Cultural diversity Beirut is one of the most religiously diverse cities of the Middle East, with Christians and Muslims both having a significant presence. There are nine major religious sects in Beirut (Sunni Muslim, Shiite Muslim, Druze, Maronite Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, Armenian Catholic and Protestant). You may think that this would give it a certain religious gravitas, but it doesn't have very much in common with other important cities of the Middle East; it is a firmly western-facing city, and its heart is young and dynamic. It still remembers the days it was known as "The Paris of the East', and it wants to recapture those days. It's a forward-looking place, full of young people intent on partying hard and no doubt out to make fast money. I have rarely seen a city with so many big and expensive cars - BMW's, Mercedes, Land Cruisers, Hummers - all full of well-to-do Beirutis and their well-dressed wives. It is said that there are only a handful of important families in Lebanon, and that they control the majority of businesses within the country - which is quite easy to believe in a sliver of land like this, half the size of Wales. The amount of foreign cash that floods into the country - including from many rich Gulf states, as well as Iran and the States, depending on which political faction you believe, should not be under-estimated. When you are walking the streets of Beirut, you feel as if you are in some lost part of Europe which has been evacuated and repopulated with a diverse mixture of Middle eastern cultures, most of whom are fluent in French and English as well as Arabic. This creates a strange kind of argot, a street language, in which people switch from Arabic to English and French, often in the space of one sentence. The differences between Beirut and Damascus are astounding; they might have been part of the same Syrian land before 1945, but they feel like they are a million miles away from each other now. Of course, Beirut was on the front line of a warzone for 15 years on and off, and is only just beginning to recover from those days when The Lebanon was a byword for utter destruction and devastation. Another positive difference is the way women can act and are treated - not as complete second-class citizens as in Syria, and not covered from head to toe in black (very often) if Muslim. Women and girls seem to have a great deal more freedom in Lebanon.

Lebanese girls working in parents' sweet shop, Beirut
Lebanese girls working in parents' sweet shop

Who will have won when the soldiers have gone?

Wandering around the downtown district, you get a feel that the rebuilding process (which is more or less complete) has maybe not achieved quite what it could have done. Like many city centres that have been rebuilt from scratch, Beirut suffers from the feeling of no atmosphere, and buildings which feel a bit too perfect in their imitation of what they used to be to feel authentic. And who will have won when the soldiers have gone? Well, to answer the Human League's pertinent 1984 question, the architects, builders and land development corporations. The foreign investors and advertisers who came here, the rich business men. They won. And good luck to them. But in all honesty, I cannot say I loved Beirut. It's hard to love. You can only admire the resilience of the people, their determination and character - their will to keep going and their optimism. Rarely have I seen a people so hell-bent on having a good time. The city comes to life at night, and keeps on partying well past dawn. It's got one of the best clubbing scenes in the Middle East, and certainly the most thriving gay scene (which probably isn't saying that much). But it's not a city for walking around and enjoying. The distances are too great, the traffic too noisy, the wide roads too difficult to cross and the still bombed-out areas still too numerous to get around comfortably. It's also an expensive city - doing it on the cheap ain't easy. It's a place with towering hotels and posh restaurants catering to an altogether more wealthy type of guest than I was. It also lacks any real tourist 'sights' as such. Obviously this is because most of them were shelled for a decade and a half. However, there is one natural sight in Beirut which should not be missed - the Pigeon Rocks, just off the Corniche at the southern end of town. These huge, impressive limestone features have been carved out by the sea and bare more than a passing resemblance to Marsden Rock, off the Sunderland coastline. But obviously better. The two huge rock formations, which stand like gigantic sentinels, are a popular destination for locals and visitors alike.

The Corniche, Beirut, Lebanon
The Corniche, Beirut: one of the few sights in an underwhelming city

The Lebanese coast I explored the Lebanese coastline from Beirut - south to Side (pronounced 'Cider') and Tyre (pronounced 'Tire'). You don't have to go far; if you drive for two hours you'll reach the Israeli border. Nothing is far in Lebanon, which makes it pretty easy to just base yourself in Beirut and see everything on day trips. A week would be ample time to see the important bits. Of these two pretty coastal villages, it's hard to choose a favourite - Side boasts an unusual castle and fortress which extends into the sea and a lively souq (market); Tyre is famous for its spectacular Roman ruins (all of which were pretty much non-Lebanese tourist-free). Both towns - especially Tyre, which was only 25km from the Israeli border, bore the scars of war, with bullet-pocked and heavily-damaged buildings; the feeling that I had entered Hezbollah territory was intensified by the fact that there was a much heavier army presence on the roads, with check-points every few kilometres. Another feature of this area were ubiquitous pictures of war heroes or suicide bomb 'martyr