Beirut is usually a party town, capital of the Middle East’s most glamorous country where people from all over the region come to kick back — but this year’s been a little different. Kidnappings, bank robberies, roadblocks and gun battles — no wonder the free-spending and normally blasé Gulf Arabs have stayed at home, leaving us Lebanese to consider not only a decimated economy, but also the very real prospect of a descent into another civil conflict.
Which is why finally, after 20 years, I’m leaving. My Lebanese adventure, during which I married, had children, lived through three wars, a popular revolution and an attempted coup, has come to an end.
I moved to Lebanon from London in 1992, two years after my Lebanese father died in a helicopter crash in Sierra Leone. I was 27 and still wondering what to do with my life. Lebanon seemed a good place to start looking. The 15-year civil war had ended a year earlier and the country was rolling up its collective sleeves to start picking up the pieces. I figured we would grow together, Lebanon and I.
Less than 20 years later, you couldn’t move without bumping into fawning travel features about how Beirut was once again the party town for the bling-fuelled Arab jet set (think a million Kardashians) inhabited by a cast of edgy designers, restaurateurs and architects (think Arab Hoxtonites, if you can) ably supported by photogenic bankers, ad executives and politicians. They all told us that Lebanon was a beacon of tolerance, creativity and entrepreneurship.
This was the truth — but not the whole truth. Lebanon could also be a total nightmare, a country where prosperity and fun was punctuated by periods of uncertainty, fear and brutality. In 1996, while my wife was pregnant with our son, we watched from our balcony as the Lebanese army, positioned on the Beirut seafront, fired heavy machine-guns on Israeli helicopter gunships during Operation Grapes of Wrath. Ten years later, at the height of the 2006 summer war, we slept four to a bed as the Israeli jets bombed south Beirut. In the 2008 attempted coup by Hezbollah and its allies, I had the surreal experience of being caught in a gun battle as I walked home from the DVD rental shop. How do you explain this to people who lead normal lives?
I knew many people — Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and MPs Basil Fuleihan, Gebran Tueni and Pierre Gemayel — who were brutally murdered because they wanted a free and sovereign Lebanon. Fuleihan’s death was particularly poignant. When he was caught in the same fireball that consumed Hariri and 19 other people outside the Hotel St Georges on 14 February 2005, I remember asking ‘why him?’ Hariri we could understand, but Fuleihan was a ‘civilian’, a technocrat, a Yale graduate who worked at the IMF before coming back to Lebanon in 1993, no doubt to try to make a difference. Months earlier, we had shared ideas about how to promote Lebanon’s burgeoning wine industry. Now I was watching him on television stagger in flames from Hariri’s burning car. He died in France from his injuries two months later.
And for the next two years, we never knew where and when the next bomb was going to go off. I was with my close friend, the Lebanese-American writer Michael Young, not long after the anti-Syrian Lebanese commentator Samir Kassir was blown up as he was about to drive to work. Troublesome journalists were targets and I expected Michael, another loud anti-Syrian voice, to check under his car. When he didn’t, I pretended to take a phone call, moving safely around the corner, figuring the wall would protect me if he went up in flames. He paused and wound down the window. ‘Get in the fucking car,’ he said impatiently. ‘We’re three floors underground. You can’t get a phone signal.’
Who lives like this? The answer is we all did because when life is good in Lebanon, it is fabulous. There is the weather, the food, the wine, the beaches and the mountains. There is our well-appointed Beirut apartment and the family summerhouse in my village. The kids are in a good school and we can afford a housekeeper and a gardener. Beirut is a small and intimate town where there is a solution to almost everything.
The wine critic Oz Clarke declared when he came here in February that the Lebanese had a huge ‘generosity of spirit’. He is right, but the Lebanon he saw — the five-star hotels, the bars and, dare I say it, even the vineyards — often hides the reality of seething sectarian hatred that has defined the region for the past 18 months.
Syria is key to all this. Lebanon’s Sunnis, still angry at what they believe was the order from Damascus to kill Hariri, support their co-religionists, while the predominantly Hezbollah-led Shia community backs the beleaguered Assad regime. Battle lines have been drawn and the fallout from divided loyalties is biting. And this summer we all wondered if once again we were heading into the abyss.
My feeling that it was time to get out came to a head during the furore over the now-notorious film Innocence of Muslims. Sunni protestors in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city, torched the local KFC, the nearest symbol of American imperialism, while Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for further protests across the country. The film was a godsend for the militant Shia party, deflecting attention away from the daily slaughter in Syria, which for political reasons it has been unable to condemn, and reminding the world that the Arab Spring has a dark side.
Lebanon has of course seen it all before. Instability has been the default setting since 1990 and has not stopped bursts of growth and prosperity. It’s up to the Lebanese to determine just how much of their destiny is in their control and what that destiny is. I’m just not sure I want to be part of it anymore.
Next week Mary Wakefield will report from Lebanon on the fate of the Christians who have fled Syria.