I wrote extensively about Lebanon after my last trip to this beautiful country, back in 2011 (see: ‘On The Road to Damascus’) and after returning again last month, three years on and the first time since the start of the Syrian crisis, I thought it was worth a mention again.
I discovered not much has really changed apart from areas that have now become strictly ‘no go’; i.e. Baalbek, in the Bekaa Vally, which, alongside the fabulous classical ruins,
(For a greater understanding see: http://www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2013/10/30/comment-mutual-misery-syrian-refugee-crisis-lebanon-and-australia)
They are gradually being processed and trickling onto the streets in search for the limited available work opportunities; Tripoli in the northern regions bordering Syria and, as I arrived just a few days after yet another devastating suicide bombing in Beirut city itself, the fashionable ‘Downtown’ area. Avoiding it altogether, although as it turned out was unnecessary, seemed the most sensible action to take at the time.
As through all its many years of conflict and turmoil, Lebanon and its people carry on with their daily lives, regardless. If there was any notable difference, the lack of tourists was probably the most obvious. The tourist industry, sadly but not surprisingly, is all but dead. The many luxury hotels, both on the sea and up in the ski resorts, may stand empty but they are not yet totally abandoned. Foreign investment may have slowed down but beautiful modern high rises continue to alter the skyline; the infrastructure may be seriously damaged but regular power cuts have become an accepted way of life. Shopping trips and visits to friends and family are arranged around elevator operating times.
Streets are unusually empty and quiet. Highways, for once, are free-flowing and un-congested and, 3000 feet above the city, at the Monastery of St. Cherbel
where we made a pilgrimage to offer prayers for the lost generations caught up in the conflict (and to give thanks for our forthcoming first grandchild!)
it was as quiet on the way up, outside, as it is was deep within its cold stone walls.
Without the customary frenzy, its hustle and bustle, Beirut is almost unrecognisable. An air of calm, almost complacency, prevails, replacing the erratic excitement and vibrant energy normally associated with it.
That said, the many fabulous restaurants continue to open their doors daily and lay their tables with crisp linen and gleaming silverware, in expectation.
One of the greatest qualities of this resilient people (their generous hospitality aside) is their eternal optimism. They simply never give up hope….and while the tourists (and now substantial number of expat Lebanese) may be giving all this wonderful country has to offer a wide berth, the dwindling number of inhabitants who do remain (but would probably leave, given half a chance) continue to enjoy Life and live it to the full, as best they can – perhaps even more so, now that they have the place virtually to themselves.
So, for the moment, Peace reigns but there’s an uneasy stillness knowing the horrors that are taking place just the other side of the mountains; the raging war, the brutal, senseless killings and the millions of starving and homeless – children especially. It’s too close for comfort and impossible not to think of when presented with the incredible feasts placed before us in every restaurant we visited. One, certainly worth a mention was the glamorous new seafood restaurant Babel al Bahr – complete with its own tower of Babel:
and chic interior:
and selection of ‘Mezze’ dishes were spectacular:
but it was the glorious display of seafood that stole the show:
with the fabulous desserts, a close second:
Delicious as it all was, for the first time ever, with thoughts of all the starving children not a million miles away, I found the abundant and delicious Lebanese food almost too difficult to swallow….and the unusual silence that enveloped us almost everywhere we went, filled us with uneasy foreboding and trepidation….The lull before the storm perhaps?
Whatever’s in store for Lebanon, one thing is sure, its cities and people will survive and thrive. Lebanon, like Beirut and Byblos, the world’s oldest, continually inhabited city, still stands, tall, defiant and proud – just as it always has done since the dawn of civilisation……and long, LONG may it continue to do so!