To the eyes of this newcomer, Beirut seems a city at once stalked by the past, wary of the future, but determined to live in the moment.
The scars of Lebanon’s notoriously brutal civil war run deep. Although this city by the sea is renowned for frenzied rebuilding, the many pock-marked buildings scattered throughout the city are the physical evidence of a trauma that persists.
It is jarring to see these crumbling structures juxtaposed with sleek glittering high-rises that would not look out of place in Dubai. And though I’d hoped for a view of Lebanon’s famous mountains from my tenth-floor hotel room, the numerous construction sites that greeted me instead are a fitting metaphor for the city itself; Beirut is caught in a perpetual state of remaking itself.
The locals like to boast that no one can rebuild a city quite like they can. Or so says Lara Chlela, 32, a born and bred Beiruti who works for NGO International Medical Corps (IMC). “I always like to say, ‘Instead of bragging how you have rebuilt five times, how about you just stop flattening it?’”
Beirut is caught in a perpetual state of remaking itself.
But it seems that every time Lebanon tries to move on from the past, something threatens to send it back. In 2005 it was the assassination of beloved ex-Prime Minister Rafic Hariri. The following year Israel’s ‘War on Hezbollah’ decimated the country’s infrastructure. Now, it’s the conflict in once-fearsome neighbour Syria that casts a shadow.
Lebanon can fit into Australia 774 times over. It takes just six hours to drive from top to bottom in this tiny state that had just 3 million people until 2014. And yet, it is punching well above its weight when it comes to taking in Syrian refugees. The exact number is unknown because many are unregistered but is somewhere in the vicinity of 1.5 million.
Lebanon’s demographic make-up has always been uneasy. With 18 recognised religious groups, the 2012 Report on International Religious Freedom puts Muslims (an even split of Shia and Sunni) at 54 per cent of the population, while the various denominations of Christians make up 40 per cent (of that, 20 per cent are Maronites).
This breakdown is reflected in the politics. The constitution requires the President be a Maronite, the Prime Minister a Sunni, and the Speaker of Parliament a Shia. Although Presidential elections are meant to be held every six years, the last one was in 2008, meaning Lebanon has been without a president since 2014.
Add to that the months-long garbage crisis and it’s not surprising many Lebanese have lost faith in their government.
Talk to the locals and they’ll tell you it wasn’t always like this. Sixty-six-year-old Amer Wadi Sharhul is former head chef at the Golden Tulip Hotel in Sodeco, east of downtown, where he still works. When he’s not overseeing the dining room, Amer can be found at the hotel’s outdoor café, smoking and playing backgammon.
Although he immigrated to Germany with his wife and children 14 years ago, his homeland called him back a few years later. His family remained in Europe and none have been back.
“Yes,” he says wistfully. “Yes, Lebanon is beautiful. But it’s gone. It’s gone.” He bitterly recalls the civil war from which he says Lebanon will never truly recover. “Our economy is shattered. Our government does not function. And where are all the tourists?”
Where are all the tourists?
His eyes glisten and I know he has retreated into the past, into that other, pre-war Beirut. The one they called the Paris of the Middle East. A hub of tourist activity and the playground of the rich and famous, it seems Lebanese may never let go of this old image of their first city. For Amer, it was the last time his country was truly itself.
Not everyone shares this sepia-hued nostalgia for the past. Wahibe Moussa, a Lebanese-Australian actor and writer in her fifties, has little patience for “the romanticism [Lebanese] attach to the 50s and 60s”.
“Yeah, it was beautiful,” she shrugs. “New marble buildings rose where the upper class lived and Europeans holidayed. [But] my family lived in Al Dowra,” she continues, referring to a poor Christian area populated by Armenian and Palestinian refugees.
“We had good times but we were lucky if we could afford more than one room for the whole family. Our toilets were holes in the ground. We often had rats coming up from the sewers.
“That part of Beirut is the one you don’t hear about.”
Poverty has always been constant but there’s little doubt Lebanon is now facing a crisis that it hasn’t dealt with before. What effect will the influx of Syrians have on the country’s long-term future? How can a government that many deride as incompetent and corrupt cope with this escalating problem?
“The government has no plans. No vision,” scoffs Joseph Nemer, a fifty-something businessman and owner of the Golden Tulip. “Tourism is our star industry but they give us no tax breaks.”
“Tourism got hit in 2011,” he links the downturn to the Arab Spring and Syrian conflict. “Not only do we have less tourists but hotel room rates are now down 20-30 per cent.”
Born in Adelaide to Lebanese immigrants, Nemer moved here with his Lebanese-born wife 16 years ago because he wanted his children “to feel their Lebanese heritage”. Now adults, none have any plans to return to Australia.
Like many Lebanese, Joseph channels his frustration into anger at the garbage crisis (that finally appears on the brink of being resolved). If the government can’t handle the garbage, how on earth can they cope with a problem the magnitude of the refugee crisis?
The strain is starting to show.
“We don’t blame the refugees,” insists Joseph. “We just wish we had more help from the international community in dealing with this crisis. The government needs help to cope with the strain on services.”
But the sad - if understandable - truth is, some Lebanese do resent the refugees. Now comprising one-quarter of Lebanon’s population, this tiny country has the world’s highest numbers of refugees per capita.
With the help of a $1.5 million grant from the Australian government, Plan International Australia, in conjunction with (IMC), provides medical and mental health services to Syrians in woefully underfunded community centres across the country. I have sat in these centres as refugees recounted tales of their Lebanese neighbours who berate them for “making too much noise,” leaving them whispering and tiptoeing in their own house for fear of “starting trouble”. Some claim they are overcharged on rent and even blackmailed into sex by landlords, while others have stopped wearing the niqab after locals took to calling them ‘Daesh,’ the Arabic name for Islamic State.
The irony that Syria, once unafraid to flex its muscle, now has its citizens literally begging for their help is not lost on the Lebanese. “They don’t know how to take it,” explains Renad Mansour, a researcher who is currently an El-Erian Fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.
Are they afraid the conflict will cross the border? “Oh, they are terrified,” he nods, but some “view the change as a turn in fortune. Lebanon had the civil war for 15 years and the sectarian strife, but now Syria is going through it.”
Lebanese may feel they have the upper hand but many are wondering how long this tiny country can hold out while its neighbour disintegrates. “Lebanon is a safe haven at the moment,” says Joseph Nemer. “Can you imagine what will happen to the refugees if Lebanon goes back into war?”
I ask if he’ll consider returning to Australia. “There is a life in Lebanon you don’t find anywhere else,” he shakes his head. “There is a vibrancy here.”
I wonder if it is precisely the decades of turmoil that has spawned this unadulterated love of life.
Beirutis certainly love to party and I wonder if it is precisely the decades of turmoil that has spawned this unadulterated love of life. Dalia Khamissy, 42, a busy photographer who has attracted worldwide recognition, is, like many locals, something of a social butterfly. Out most nights, she is forever bumping into people she knows in the current hipster hotspot of Gemmayzeh, a hub for artists and activists, or Hamra, long known for its nightlife.
“There is a sort of over-enjoyment of life,” she puts Beirut’s famous nightlife into context. “We are always out. Drinking. Dancing.” She makes sweeping gestures with her hands. “But then we go home and we just sit like this.” Her smile disappears as she folds her hands in her lap. Her face is blank.
The battle scars may run deep but the Lebanese are not in any danger of giving up on their country. Lara Chlela says that her family couldn’t leave even when the war was at its worst. “We lived right on the Green Line, the border separating the Christians from the Muslims,” she recounts. “Sometimes my mother wondered if we should go but my father just loved his country too much.”
Joseph wasn’t here during the war but he shares this unyielding love for Lebanon. “Whenever you leave it,” he struggles to put his emotions into words. “You always long for what you left behind.”
Love the story? Follow the author: Twitter @rubyhamad.