In early autumn I was on a train travelling from London to Brighton, on the final leg of a journey that began earlier that day in Beirut, and which was taking me back to live in Britain for the first time in 22 years. It was late Friday afternoon and the man opposite me was droning into his mobile phone. He had not drawn breath since he joined at Clapham Junction except to take a swig from one of three bottles of Black Sheep beer he had lined up on the table. Friday night clearly couldn’t start soon enough.
Back then, the Islamic State had just begun to pick at the edges of Lebanon. A force of 6,000 fighters from IS and the Nusra Front were scrapping with units of the Lebanese army in and around the Bekaa Valley border town of Arsal. Five days later, 19 Lebanese soldiers, 16 civilians and over 50 jihadists were dead. The end-of-days shadow cast by IS across Iraq and Syria had begun to lengthen and creep over Lebanon. But invasion was not our only worry. There are now 1.5 million Syrian refugees — 1.5 million extra Sunnis — taking up residence across the country, upsetting Lebanon’s finely calibrated religious balance. Even without an IS invasion, it is hard to see how my country can survive.
The influx of Syrian Sunnis mean that tensions between the country’s two Muslim communities are at their most acute. Lebanon’s Shia blame Sunnis for ‘inviting’ IS fighters into the country, while the Sunnis are angry about Hezbollah’s dominance (mainly at gunpoint) of Lebanese politics over the past decade. Over the past few years Hezbollah’s influence within the army has grown. It has battled Syrian rebels on behalf of the Assad regime, and now that Assad is no longer the great bugbear of the West, it has lost its pariah status and gained legitimacy. Meanwhile, the influential, but dwindling, Christian community in Lebanon is terrified by reports of crucifixions and beheadings elsewhere in the Levant. No wonder many of us are folding our tents and moving out.
‘You are making the right move in getting your family out of here,’ a Christian banker told me over lunch in Beirut last month. ‘I wish I could do the same, but my wife loves it here. She won’t move.’
Though many of us are leaving, a serious chunk of Lebanon’s bourgeoisie, the perennially optimistic merchant class, is in denial in much the same way it was before the civil war in the 1970s. I remember, in 1975, my late father assuring me Lebanon was solid even as it was crumbling. ‘The world won’t let anything happen to us. Look at the Lebanese lira. It’s practically a hard currency!’
It was, but we still went under. And Lebanon was in a much better place then than it is today. It had the best hotels, schools, hospitals, banks and aviation in the region. Its engineers built the Gulf. But even so, Yasser Arafat’s PLO drove a wedge between Lebanon’s Sunni and Christian communities over the right to fight Israel from Lebanese soil, and plunged the country into 15 years of civil war.
As my train reached East Croydon that autumn day, my first day back in Britain, the man opposite was well into his second bottle and there was no let up in the commentary. His world was one of ‘start-ups’ and ‘smart solutions’. His boss was a ‘total cunt’, and he couldn’t wait to ‘fuck off out of it’ and make ‘north of £800, maybe even a grand a day, as a consultant’. The only fly in this potentially bountiful ointment was that he couldn’t resign just yet, because he still needed to avail himself of all the advantages currently afforded him by the company he despised so much. He would, he admitted, ‘stick it out for a bit’. A young Syrian couple sitting across the aisle, by contrast, exuded dignity and manners.
In some ways, it’s hard to be in Britain. For 22 great years, Lebanon made a decent fist of regaining its fabled pre-civil war glamour, and by 2010 Beirut was full of energy, bling, optimism and telegenic doe-eyed beauties. Everyone remembered the horror of the civil war, no one grumbled.
Back here, everywhere grumbles — every-one seems so offended all the time. So what if the owner of a Lebanese restaurant in Harrow wants to hang a giant photo of Saddam Hussein in his window? Does it really mean we have lost our sense of humanity if we put ‘studs’ in doorways to deter dossers? There’s a sense of entitlement that I don’t remember from my previous life here. Every house must have a flat-screen TV, a Sky box, and a PlayStation; we should all take a holiday abroad, and be able to take our kids out of school. The notion that ‘if you can’t afford it, you can’t have it’ has all but vanished.
But while I still have some perspective, let me tell you how terrific it feels to once again live in a country that is — don’t laugh — powerful, wealthy and governed by the rule of law. It is a joy to access free education and health care; plentiful and safe water, 24-hour electricity, good roads, public transport, an effective police force (again, don’t laugh!) and accountable public servants.
It is also — despite the rise of Ukip, anxiety over radical Islam and unbridled harrumphing at the inflow of work-hungry eastern Europeans — a more culturally diverse and racially tolerant country than it was when I left in the early 1990s. As the lunatics of IS begin to fight in northern Lebanon, as our country once again sinks into bloodshed, I’m grateful to be in Britain, still a remarkable and unique country.
When the train pulled up in Brighton station, the bore of the year was still swearing away. An elderly lady had had enough of his embarrassing language and moved to another carriage, but the young Syrian couple stayed put, although their discomfort was palpable. They had experienced much worse in their lives. A few louts are a small price to pay for the peace and prosperity of Britain.
Michael Karam is a journalist and wine writer. He is a former features editor of the Beirut Daily Star, and the author of Wines of Lebanon.