Lebanon, Part I: The Country
I like to take a winter week away, especially while living in France. Last year it was the Maltese Islands, this year Lebanon. I've been fascinated by the Middle East (and North Africa) for several years, and go wherever and whenever I can. Lebanon is easy and affordable to get to from France; they speak English and French there (in addition to Arabic, of course); and although this would be my 55th country visited, I still didn't have an "L" for my alphabetical repertoire.
Lebanon is impossible to explain. It is, to say the least, daunting to try to explain a country that really was always meant to be part of Syria, with 7,000 years of history during which it was ruled by 19 civilizations and empires (e.g., Phoenicians, Greeks, Romans, Byzantium, Crusaders, Ottomans/ Arabs, French...) and is now run by religious sects that are always at odds with each other. Daunting, yes -- but fascinating!
There aren't a lot of photos in this "chapter", but the stage needs to be set. Let's start with this: Lebanon today is safe. You can -- and should! -- travel anywhere in the country. There are spots in the south that occasionally are dicey because of Israel's constant aggression and Hezbollah's defense of Lebanese borders and its own attacks against Israel (whose security is threatened, and who are the defenders, is a matter of point of view), but the 15-year civil war (1975-1990) ended almost 30 years ago and Lebanon is definitely open for tourist business.
Lebanon has perhaps the most diverse geography in the region, from swimming in the ocean to skiing in the mountains in a little more than hour (and there's no desert)...
arguably the most diverse population, boasting 18 different religions/sects, which is both a source of pride and was the aegis of the civil war; and everything is written and often spoken in three languages: Arabic, English and French. Lebanese women are highly educated, professional, and free to dress as they choose.
|Older women and grandchildren: women covered, young girls not.|
|Young women: no head scarves, bodies covered.|
While the population of Lebanon is numbered at 6 million, more than a million are internal Syrian refugees living in tent camps, and there are from 200-500,000 Palestinian refugees, living in more urban ghettos than tents because they've been there longer. I'll cover this topic a bit more in later chapters, but suffice it to say that with all the problems Lebanon has on its own, the refugee issues just exacerbate them, in terms of both infrastructure and social demands. In fact, more Lebanese (appx. 8 million) live outside the country (especially in Brasil!), than in it, and remittances (money sent home by the diaspora) comprise a significant percentage of Lebanese (and bank) revenues.
However, the exact numbers aren't known as there hasn't been an official census since 1932 because in Lebanon, everything is politics and all politics are religion -- or, to put it more correctly, religious sects that arguably act like tribes form the political parties that run (and ruin) everything.
After WWI, when the European powers were divvying up the Ottoman Empire among themselves, the French got Syria/Lebanon, but the majority Maronite Christian forces pushed for an independent Lebanon, which happened in 1943. (The Muslims were more interested in a pan-Arabia -- by which they meant Muslim, not Christian.) It's pretty clear now, though, that a census today would show a Muslim majority, which wouldn't please the Christians and it is why, many believe, the Palestinian refugees are not afforded Lebanese nationality and remain in poverty conditions, forbidden to work in certain professions.
The Lebanese government was set up as and remains today a "confessional" (or sectarian) system, whereby specific government posts are held by specific sects: the President is Maronite (because the Maronites had the majority population when they allied with the French for an independent Lebanon), the Prime Minister must be Sunni Muslim, and the Secretary of Parliament, a Shia Muslim. Seats in Parliament are also assigned according to religious sects, including the Druze and Greek Orthodox. It seemed like a good and fair idea -- in fact, a model for people living together peacefully -- except as the basis for politics and thus governance, it has never been peaceful, with each group and its sub-groups (one might argue, "tribe") fighting for its position, power and prestige.
Most recently, there has been no functioning government in Lebanon, but that just changed, much to everyone's great pleasure...displeasure...hopes...dismay.
Many (maybe most) believe this sectarianism was the cause of the civil war and while it's clear the Maronites, Druze and Sunni Muslims (and to a lesser extent, Shi'a Muslims) have been at loggerheads for a long time, it's also true they've lived together for a long time and intermarried (only the Druze seem to have a problem with that...they're not crazy about native daughter Amal's marriage to George Clooney). There are very few Jews left in Lebanon, but the Lebanese are very insistent and specific about differentiating between Jews and Israel; they well understand that being anti-Israel does NOT mean being anti-Judaism (remember: EVERYONE in this region is "Semitic", so "anti-semitic" is NOT correct in meaning, "anti-Jewish").
There are three points on which there is little dispute in Lebanon: 1) Israel is an aggressive neighboring enemy who wants regional hegemony; 2) You really can't hate the Syrians because they're "cousins" but as with most family, they can be really annoying; and 3) Hezbollah, albeit Shi'a Muslim and funded by Iran, whose dead soldiers are considered martyrs in the face of Israeli terrorism, was the only friend to all during the civil war, providing water, electricity and roads when no one else would or could. Even now in the garbage crisis, with the government at a standstill (waste management contracts could be lucrative if more companies wanted to participate in the government's bribery schemes), it's Hezbollah who has turned over two parcels of land it controls in the southern part of the country for landfills for all Lebanese.
On just about everything else, there are some 14 million opinions.
In short: Don't believe anything you might have seen or heard about Lebanon through the lens/filter of Western propaganda. Lebanon is complicated, fragile, difficult, and fascinating. Its government is corrupt but its people are incredibly warm, welcoming, and resilient, despite a proclivity to shoot themselves in the foot.
Next chapter: Beirut, the Capital