An American in Lebanon

Submitted by the Anti-gnostic

It’s a rare event, but I have done this before. The first such occasion was to a Mexican resort on the Pacific. The second time was to the wilds of Montreal, Quebec. This month (September 2019) I ventured quite some cultural and geographic distance from that well-ordered land to the organized chaos of Beirut, Lebanon.

The first leg took us to Heathrow Airport in London. There is no way those accents are real. Four and a half hours from Heathrow, we landed in big, grimy Beirut. Our hosts were a mid-30s professional couple. They are solidly middle class and live in the northern suburb of Jal Ed Dib.

The most salient feature of the place is the stacks of tan, unremarkable concrete apartments and retail shops everywhere. The standard of living is lower but not drastically so. The country is seemingly just discovering central HVAC, and the electrical grid goes down for about one to two hours every twelve. People pay extra for a building with a generator, so there is lots of diesel burning everywhere. Your hosts must perforce be stingy with the air conditioning, so you run your window unit only in your bedroom at night. The municipal water supply is undrinkable even for the locals. The government has been shockingly irresponsible with the fisc. The exchange rate is an appalling 1500 lira to the dollar, which I was told was fixed with intervention by U.S. and Gulf Arab central banks. A free-floating lira would probably collapse. The political class is universally hated, with the widespread perception that taxes only go to enrich individual politicians and their patronage networks.

Most neighborhoods in Beirut and the metro area have a strong Maronite Christian vibe—that’s who the French set up the country for, after all—with impromptu shrines to the Virgin Mary and St. Charbel (Makhlouf) everywhere: in the lobby of your building, at intersections, front porches, etc. Our hosts related the story of an old female relative who was always pausing in her habitual barrage of curses directed at other drivers to cross herself at roadside statuary. Traffic is chaotic. Lanes and traffic control signs are just guidelines, but I didn’t see a single wreck in two weeks.

Our hosts do not like the city but that’s where the gainful employment is so that’s where they live. They would like to emigrate, but don’t relish the idea of leaving their country’s professional class to get tossed in the mix with other foreigners in Europe or the Anglosphere. They stay in their homeland for now, and travel whenever they can.

Several people asked me for my honest impressions of the place, and I told them that the contrast between private holdings and the public commons was rather tragic. Picture well-run, well-capitalized, spotless businesses and nice, modern homes cheek-by-jowl with piles of trash and crowded tenements and jerry-rigged electrical wiring. The O&C Fresh Market is as good as any Whole Foods. You can buy a smoked ham leg to carve off your own prosciutto. Sea Sweets sells wonderful baklava and candies. Literally the best sushi I have ever had in my life was delivered from Sushi Tsunami. Progress marches on, the Lebanese want affordable bourgeois toys just like we do, and I foresee a lot of mom-and-pop businesses disappearing.

The downtown Beirut waterfront is developing rapidly due to a lot of buy-outs and redevelopment by the company Solidere, which is owned by the politically powerful Hariri family. This hotel refused to sell out to Solidere, so the owner was unable to get permits for renovation and it’s now defunct.

Ironically, about 50 yards down the street is the spot where Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was blown to bits in 2005 by a bomb that left a 40-foot crater. The message was chilling and direct: we will not leave enough of you for your family to bury. This being Lebanese politics, nobody really knows who or why, but it’s widely believed he was assassinated by the Syrian government and Hezbollah. Rafic’s second son, Saad, is the current prime minister of Lebanon, and was inexplicably detained and announced his resignation in Saudi Arabia, only to rescind the resignation and return to Lebanon. After selling his firstborn? Drugged and hypnotized? Threatened with his father’s fate? Who knows.

While definitely Middle Eastern and nativist, Beirut is still a cosmopolitan place, and they have no problem glomming on to whatever bits of foreign culture they find desirable. Our hosts got a craving for hamburgers one evening, so we went to Bedivere’s Pub in the Hamra district near the American University of Beirut. We were greeted by a tattooed hipster hostess and preppy bartender. I’m confident if my nerdy daughter ended up being parachuted into Beirut, she could get out her phone and promptly track down the nearest Dungeons & Dragons meet-up and get along just fine. One afternoon, I was astonished to see a jacked-up Ford Bronco as we drove down Jal Ed Dib Highway. Why, I asked our hostess, am I seeing a 4-wheel drive painted in woodland camo with an American Flag seal on the side? Oh, I was told inexplicably, that’s probably one of the local hunt clubs. The large, gray-haired guy with the tribal tats and arm propped out the window in universal redneck driving posture looked every bit the part, so there’s a place for the good ol’ boys in Lebanon. I saw billboards for several gun clubs and also saw a few bikers out on their Harleys, with the same tribal markers of beards, ponytails and vests as their compatriots in the Americas.

Speaking of firearms, military checkpoints are common. The soldiers appear fit and professional and use the AR platform. The military purchases much of its gear from U.S. vendors. I was told a lot of these checkpoints are guardsmen, not regular army, and they are as much to give the troops something to do as anything else. Still, everybody makes sure to obey the government’s directive to roll down your window, brake, and make sure the soldier waves you through. I was told cars are only stopped and searched if intelligence hears about possible weapons, drugs or people smuggling in an area.

We visited our hostess’s family in the Mount Lebanon district. So refreshing to leave the city!

Our hostess’s elderly relatives served us a simple, traditional meal in their vine-shaded courtyard, presided over by a dignified nonagenarian uncle. As we left, he smiled and told me, “You a good man.” Absolutely charming.

By the way, kill yourselves for not being the Chad Lebanese amo, in well-deserved retirement after hooking the whole village up to the electrical grid, never working ever afterward except to hunt down a toy for a grandchild, and sitting in a chair being kissed on both cheeks by a constant stream of family and friends.

The most striking geographic feature is the rapid elevation change from sea level to the 1,500 to 1,700 meters above the Bekaa Valley. If you’re an Ottoman coming over the mountains, I can easily imagine the decision not to stop until you get to the verdant plains at the bottom. I also got a craving to re-play Assassin’s Creed: Odyssey once I got back.

One of the trip highlights was the impressive Roman ruins of Ba’albek in the Ba’albek-Hermel Governorate.

The Syrian border is just over that ridgeline. The ruins are extremely well-preserved and the Lebanese have been very forward-thinking and scrupulous about maintaining them.

It’s a popular spot for daytrips. The young people who can be observed under the arch in the photograph below are wearing keffiyehs they bought from souvenir shops outside the site.

You’ll be greeted by an odd cluster of tour guides at the entrance whose “official” status I could not determine, but they were cheap in terms of tourist dollars and have the site’s history down pat, so we considered it part of being a good guest. There are also beggars and child-vendors outside the site who will flock around you like seagulls. Shoo them off.

Ba’albek is in a heavily Shia district, and the flag of the Amal Movement is everywhere. They are pro-government, and rivals with Hezbollah. They hold sixteen seats to Hezbollah’s thirteen in Parliament.

Hezbollah is admired for its relative non-corruptibility but everyone who’s not Hezbollah regards them as problematic. Nobody wants war with Israel, but everybody worries that Hezbollah is chomping at the bit. Hezbollah actually fired off a couple of missiles during our visit in retaliation for a couple of missiles from Israel. The Hezbollah launch appeared largely symbolic, as the missiles only landed in some farm fields with no casualties. I was told the current President, a Maronite politician named Michel Aoun, has signed a “letter of understanding” with Hezbollah by which, according to my friend, he was able to secure the Presidency. (While the Presidency traditionally goes to a Maronite under the National Pact, the Muslim population is politically restive in light of an outdated census which would otherwise reveal a substantial increase in the proportion of Muslims). Thus, people worry, the next time Hezbollah decides to trade blows with with Israel, Israel will bomb all of Lebanon and not just the southern part controlled by Hezbollah.

I heard several Lebanese refer to the Lebanese military as “the good guys.” I have a hunch, and it’s no more than a hunch, that at some point the Lebanese government, the U.S. government, and the Israeli government may team up to bring the hammer down on Hezbollah. It would be easier (comparatively) than attacking Iran to further Israeli and Saudi policy, and there is no room for two sheriffs in any town.

I also learned of the Syrian Social Nationalist Party, which has an interesting flag. My hosts graciously indulged me in attempts to track down a party office and acquire a t-shirt but we were not successful. It’s a pan-Arabist party that promotes the ideal of a Greater Syria encompassing Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Kuwait, Jordan, Palestine, Israel, Cyprus, Sinai, and southeastern Turkey. Good luck with that one. But they have two seats in Parliament and seem to punch above their weight. Follow them on Twitter.

We were blessed to attend Orthros and Divine Liturgy at the chapel at Balamand University, which is the Greek Orthodox university started by Patriarch Ignatius IV of blessed memory in 1988. The Greek Orthodox are unusual in that they do not have a political or paramilitary arm. We had a wonderful visit with the Dean of the School of Theology, Father Porphyrios, and his wife and young son. Fr. Porphyrios drives determinedly and deliberately like a proper American. He expresses his disapproval of his countrymen by rapping his knuckles on his driver’s side window.

Students earn a Bachelor’s in Theology and are then eligible for the diaconate. I was told around 90% of the students join the priesthood. They were a handsome-looking bunch, and the local congregants were so pleased to learn we were from the American Archdiocese. I would very much like to go on Orthodox pilgrimage to sites in Lebanon and Syria, but I’d need to get there as steerage on a container ship. I’m not sure if I’m willing to spend eight and a half hours on an airplane ever again.

The School of Theology researches theological and canonical matters for the Antiochian Patriarchate, and Fr. Porphyrios was on the negotiating team which met with the Ecumenical Patriarch over Antioch’s dispute with the Greek-dominated Jerusalem Patriarchate and her Qatar bishopric. He said they were talking to “deaf ears.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate doesn’t negotiate anything. They have started discussions with Jerusalem directly through the mediation of the Cypriot archbishop. He is hopeful they will get the issues resolved over the next 50 years.

We visited the Orthodox monastery (that is, a convent) of Our Lady of Nourieh in Hamat. We lit candles and venerated icons under the eye of a nun who was shoe-leather brown and thin as a stick. She barked out occasional words which not even the Arabic speakers in our party could understand and my best guess is she was counting her prayers. Monastics are strange people. The Mediterranean Sea cleans up beautifully north of Beirut and I would have loved a swim.

The Orthodox Cathedral of St. George in downtown Beirut is also worth visiting, with its archaeological excavation below the nave. The bishop just authorized a dig straight down: you will inevitably come across the Medieval and Roman ruins on which the modern city was built. The district is a renovated, pricey area with some decent cafés. The district (which is adjacent to the Parliament and government buildings) was plagued by riots over a literal garbage crisis a few years ago so the government barricaded the whole sector and it’s still recovering with businesses slowly re-opening. I saw several obviously affluent Sunni tour groups from other Middle Eastern countries who appeared to be shopping and sightseeing.

We were hosted for a few days by an expatriate American whose family owns a villa north of Beirut. At this point, I became ill with a stomach virus which tends to happen to visitors. I recuperated under the care of our host’s Nigerian maid (with facial scars denoting her tribe back home). Very sweet woman, and African maids and nannies are common though they are practically indentured servants. She kept the TV tuned to her favorite Nigerian soap operas on Netflix. They tend to be love triangles set in these bizarre fictional kingdoms. They are pretty straight-laced and modest but could be written by 14-year olds. The episodes are in Pidgin English so I could follow along. All the TV’s on the production set were tuned to the Cartoon Network, so the king is sitting on a sofa watching the Cartoon Network.

Middle Eastern food is underrated in my opinion, and we went to several excellent restaurants. The best “street food” was the shawarma served at the sidewalk frontage of Beit Halab on Main Street in downtown Beirut. The upstairs is more formal dining with large meat platters. I’m convinced they source their chicken breasts from the same farms as Chick-Fil-A. Great stuff. There are lots of crap places; go only where the locals tell you to go.

One of my favorite places was the Em Sherif Café. It appeared very popular with the dressed-to-the-nines business class and their wives and girlfriends. They also have a formal restaurant, and locations throughout the Gulf Arab States. Again, large, well-capitalized businesses appear to be as much the wave of the future in Lebanon as in the U.S.

We visited Tripoli, which is a large, worn-out Sunni town, though the people were very polite and friendly. Our Beirut driver did not like it; it is one of the more lackadaisical, dirtier locations in Lebanon.

We visited the medieval-era Citadel and very large souk and bought some nice jewelry and I bought some good worry beads. The bargaining was transparent and (for me) blessedly brief. There is a stream which meanders through the center of Tripoli which could be very nice but, of course, is treated as a common dump.

The Tripoli souk was classically chaotic with many shops selling the exact same items; I have no idea how anybody but the jewelers makes any money. For that matter, much of the country was pretty much one retail shop after another in between the drab, dumpy apartment buildings. Tripoli was also where I saw a lot of the peculiarly “Greco-Roman” phenotype, with the striking blue, green, or hazel eyes and brown and even reddish hair. A silvery-haired, bearded man in traditional dress with stunning blue eyes, fair skin, and straight Roman nose gave me a long, not unfriendly look. I stared back, and we stared at each other across that big, weird chasm all foreigners have with each other. Tripoli has a lot of old country characters with juice sellers tipping their large silver urns, coffee sellers clapping their serving mugs, and men in classical Arab dress.

There were a lot of soldiers at the Tripoli souk and a number of billboards with a picture of a general and Arabic script. Our driver told us that Tripoli is rather riot-prone, and the local businesses erected the billboards to show support for the military official who ordered troops deployed to their district.

We stopped at Hallab Bakery, a highly regarded patisserie, and one of the chefs asked me where I was from. I told him my hometown in the U.S. and he said, “You are welcome in Lebanon any time.”

There is a definite sectarian vibe to daily life. We were visiting a family which had the TV tuned to a memorial for the 1980’s civil war martyrs (every political party has them and puts them on promotional literature). It was a Maronite Catholic service presided over by a bishop and government ministers. I glance at the family friend sitting next to me and by golly he’s humming right along with some Maronite nationalist hymn. Everybody in Lebanon is a minority, so to speak, which means there’s no consensus on running the place and the central government is unaccountable to the country at large. The political parties are omnipresent and very public, while the only public-facing aspect of the government seems to be the military.

There are over 1 million Syrian immigrants in this country of 6 million, and my impression is public opinion is as divided over them as the immigration issue divides the U.S. Another peculiar divide is Israel; Middle Easterners are not monolithic on the topic. One of our friends, to the consternation of his wife, watches the Sacha Baron Cohen series The Spy, based on the dangerous life and ultimate execution of Eli Cohen, the Israeli intelligence agent who infiltrated the Syrian defense ministry.

We visited the premier Sunni mosque in Lebanon, the Mosque of Mohammed al Amin (the Trustworthy). I talked at length with a man who was a scholar, not a cleric, and appeared to have some authority at the place. I estimate it would have taken no more than fifteen minutes for him to outfit me with everything I needed to be a devout Muslim. By the way, this chandelier weighs six tons.

The mosque is well air-conditioned and you can see a man resting on the floor to the left. The women’s section is upstairs to the right. Visitors, photography, and questions are all encouraged. Islam is a simple, transparent, and iconoclastic faith that regards itself as fully entitled to whatever cultural space it wants. If you’re an alienated white guy willing to learn Arabic, you can go to the Mosque of Mohammed al Amin and they will take good care of you. I don’t know if the Shia are more ethnically insular. The Ashura festival took place during our visit and we were told to avoid the Shia areas on that date.

I’m leaving unsaid a number of sights and conversations, and my trip truly covered only a small slice of this densely populated, complex country. I never had any concern about street crime though I did stay within my comfort zone with bilingual speakers. My main takeaway is that Lebanon should be doing much better than it is. The people are handsome, refined, and the country seems to have a more than ample Smart Fraction. So why is the water unpotable, the electrical grid unreliable, the exchange rate an appalling 1500 lira to the dollar, and the commons polluted and trash-strewn?

There is some genuine Third World-level poverty, but homelessness is not one-tenth the issue it is in the U.S. There are some “Hoovervilles” and grim-looking tenements but nobody is starving and the median annual income is a respectable $40,000 (compared to the U.S.’s $60,000). I made these observations to several friends and the universal response was the 1980’s civil war set the country back drastically. There’s also the Problem Everybody Has: those who should breed don’t, and those who shouldn’t breed do. While purchasing our food at Beit Halab, a beautiful brown-eyed girl came up to us with a handful of pathetic roses for sale and just stared. Our hostess bought a sandwich and handed it to her, and the little girl vanished into the crowd. She told us the girl would be married off at age 13. She has personal knowledge of a household consisting of one man, four wives, and 40 children. Nadine Labaki’s jarring 2018 film Capernaum is a tragic reality for the bottom, what, 10%, 20%, 30%? I don’t know.

I compared notes with a friend who had visited Lebanon a few months earlier. He told me their driver advised them that a day trip to a site near a Palestinian encampment was delayed as two clans were in a shooting feud. The driver assured them the matter would be handled in a couple of days after the local Hezbollah general met with both sides and told them to knock it off or Hezbollah would start shooting as well. Sure enough, in a couple of days all was safe and profitable again for the local tourism industry. I also discussed my trip with a Lebanese Greek Orthodox friend who fled the country in the 1980’s, and related my observations of the vaguely Zoroastrian and (I thought) relatively pacifist Druze sect. He told me that in his area the Druze militia had targeted Christians for killing. Oof. He does not trust Muslims of any political stripe to be secular nationalist either.

As generally happens with me on such ventures, I had a much better time than I thought I would. The country’s saving grace could turn out to be its bourgeois striving. I don’t think any of the many young people I saw (the median age is 28 and I casually observed a number of wedding parties in just two weeks) are interested in taking up arms to fight sectarian warfare. They are good people and they deserve a good country. For the time being, I am glad Lebanon is over there and I am back here.

4 Comments Add yours

  1. Alfonz Cavalier says:

    Great stuff, always interesting to hear American perspectives on the Old World. It amazes me how surprised Americans are to encounter widely available, unpretentiously marketed fresh fruit, meat and vegetables in Europe and the Middle East – this is the norm throughout the Mediterranean region and isn’t considered especially fancy or bourgeois. It’s also true that most Middle Eastern cities I’ve seen seem to have a vast semi-formal retail economy of people selling near identical goods from small shops or stalls. Lord knows how any of them stay afloat, I suppose the cost of doing business must be extremely low. This exists in place of any significant industrial or service sector.

    You can tell when you go to North Africa or the Middle East that this is still sort of part of the European world. The Greeks and Romans were here long before Mohammed, Saladin or Tamerlane, and there are significant remnants of Classical and Indo-European culture, including influential Christian minorities and holdout ethnic subgroups who look almost nordic. It’s really only Islam and Arabicization that has taken these countries out of the European world, and 19th century colonialism nearly brought it back in. The Islam that has surged back in the last 50 or 60 years is as much a political, anti European and anti colonial ideology as a religion, and it has devastated the region.

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  2. Thank you for the comment Alfonz. I consumed a lot of excellent store-bought grapes, nectarines and apples that my hosts kept around the house which probably led to my stomach bug– washing with non-potable water. So in retrospect the illness was inevitable. I think there’s a scant bleach-to-water ratio that more experienced travelers use for this.

    My theory on the retail is they sell to family and friends, and any business outside their patronage networks is gravy.

    My impression is the Lebanese (the Christians at least) would very much like a more Mediterranean-facing culture than an Arabic-facing one. I don’t think the Sunni feel that way based on my conversation at the mosque but I don’t know for sure, nor do I know what the Shia think.

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