The Lebanese always return home

Beirut You might have thought that the threat of the Gaza war spiralling into an all-out regional conflagration, along with breathless travel advice from western governments urging their nationals to leave the country, would have deterred Lebanon’s expats from flying home to celebrate Eid al-Fitr this year. Not one bit. Flights, hotels and restaurants were fully booked despite Iran’s drone strike. The Lebanese know that even if there is fighting (and in South Lebanon, there is on an almost daily basis), if it isn’t on your doorstep, there’s no reason to stop the party. The Lebanese know that even if there is fighting, if it isn’t on your doorstep, there’s

A war reporter bravely faces death – but not from sniper fire

When you are a foreign correspondent and have covered wars in dozens of countries, the last place you’d expect a threat to your life to come from is your own cells. Yet this was the predicament in which the New York Times reporter Rod Nordland found himself in July 2019. Despite close shaves in Lebanon, Iraq, Afghanistan, Central America and Darfur, he only really became aware of his mortality after collapsing with a seizure in India and discovering the existence of a ‘space occupying lesion’ (SOL) in his brain – a euphemism for a growth, benign or malignant. On transfer to a hospital in Manhattan, Nordland learned that his was

The agony and frustration of reporting from the Middle East

For 25 years, Abed Takkoush assisted foreign reporters like Jeremy Bowen when they arrived to cover the chaos and conflicts in Lebanon. He drove them around in his battered Mercedes, pointing out with grim relish the places where dark deeds had taken place: the assassinations, atrocities, kidnappings and slaughter of civilians that scar this mesmerising nation. During one Israeli onslaught in 1996, Abed sped past a gunship firing at cars on the highway between Sidon and Tyre, laughing with relief when shells exploded on the road rather than the car. ‘We laughed with him,’ writes the veteran BBC reporter. ‘It was a calculated risk. The alternative was turning back to

Under deep suspicion in Beirut, Kim Philby still carried on regardless

The story of the Cambridge spies has been served up so often that it has become stale — too detailed, too predictable, too firmly etched in Cold War monochrome. So it’s a good idea to seek another angle, through the warmer lens of a love affair involving its main protagonist Kim Philby and his wife Eleanor. It humanises the tale, particularly as it draws on a vivid and neglected personal source — The Spy I Loved— Eleanor’s own book centred on their romance in the Lebanese capital, Beirut. That was where Philby was despatched in 1956 to play out the penultimate act in a drama stretching back to the 1930s,

The wonder of Lebanese wine

In the Levant, the grape has been cultivated for millennia, some of it used for wine. The hills of Lebanon were — and are — especially fertile, as the Jesuits discovered. The Society of Jesus was the SAS of the Counter-Reformation. Its alumni were famous for intellectual ability and physical courage: scholars and martyrs. They were also notorious for deviousness. Even Catholic monarchs regarded them with suspicion: the latter-day successors of the Templars. But at least Jesuits were not burnt at the stake, merely expelled from a number of countries, including Spain. The Jesuits believed that in order to convert the world, they had to move effortlessly in sophisticated circles.

The crisis in Lebanon is a warning for the West

 Beirut On the highway into Beirut the other day, we drove past a petrol queue that was more than two miles long. On and on it went, the drivers sweating and swearing in brutal heat. Some had run out of fuel while they waited, having to push their cars when the queue inched forwards. There were people on laptops working from their cars during the day-long wait. Petrol queues are an everyday fact of life in Lebanon, but this was something else. Seeing that I was a foreigner, a frustrated driver gestured at the long line ahead of him and shouted: ‘Lebanon!’ He was summing up the fury and disgust

David Patrikarakos

The tragedy of Lebanon — from safe haven to bankruptcy

Mountains are humanity’s most comforting topographical feature. Wherever you find them you will also find those who have flocked to them for refuge. The Kurds, the world’s largest stateless people, span the most mountainous areas of their host states, while ‘Lebanon’ referred originally to the mountains in the eastern Mediterranean that for centuries served as a haven for all the region’s minorities. First came the Christian Maronites, fleeing the persecution of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire in the 7th century; then in the 10th and 11th centuries the Shiite Muslims, persecuted by the Sunni powers; followed by the Druze, persecuted by the Shiites. These are the origins of the modern multi-ethnic

Britain must learn from Israel’s mistakes as it prepares to leave Afghanistan

On 24 May 2000 the last Israeli soldier left Lebanon after 18 years of war. A few months earlier I completed my national service as an IDF operations sergeant, serving in command centres on the Lebanese border. Back then I watched the withdrawal with relief; happy that the roadside bombs, shelling, Hezbollah attacks on convoys and outposts, the wounded and the killed – everything that had been my daily reality for two years – was now a thing of the past. Today I watch the withdrawal of American and British forces out of Afghanistan with dread. There are differences between Israel’s involvement in Lebanon and the involvement in Afghanistan; there

Migrant smuggling is one of Lebanon’s last businesses

Ibrahim Lachine sold his mother’s furniture to pay for a place on a smuggler’s boat from Lebanon to Cyprus and left without saying goodbye. Stealing was, he admits, a bad thing to do, but the boat mafia wanted $700 (£500) and he couldn’t see any other way to get the money. He was 22 and hadn’t worked for three years. Food came from charities. Rent hadn’t been paid in months. Ibrahim leans back on a plastic chair, tall and angular in a black tracksuit and black running shoes. ‘We were very sad and very poor.’ Then he grins, a little embarrassed but mostly pleased with himself. He says he waited

The beauty and tragedy of Lebanon

I was thinking about tragedy. Could one use the term ‘chronically tragic’? My first instinct is against. Tragedy is the soul-ravaging final scene of Othello or King Lear, when hope is overpowered by implacable despair. In Kent’s words: ‘Break, heart; I prithee, break.’ Flesh and blood could not withstand such emotional intensity in chronic form. Then again, how else can we describe the modern history of Lebanon? I have just heard of the passing of a splendid old girl. Yvonne Sursock was caught up in the terrible explosion which shattered Beirut at the start of August. Being a tough old bird, she lived for more than two weeks. Being 98,

Portrait of the week: Employment falls, exam failures and a roundabout rigmarole

Home In fine weather with calm seas, 565 migrants in four days crossed the Channel in small craft. French officials said that 33 migrants in two boats that got into difficulty had been returned to Calais. In July more than 1,000 migrants crossed the Channel. Priti Patel, the Home Secretary, appointed Dan O’Mahoney as Britain’s Clandestine Channel Threat Commander, tasked with somehow making such voyages ‘unviable’. Employment fell by 220,000 in the three months to June, the biggest quarterly fall since 2009, but unemployment remained at about 3.9 per cent, as millions stayed on the furlough scheme. At the beginning of the week, Sunday 9 August, total deaths from Covid-19

The mood in Lebanon is for revolution

When 2,700 tonnes of ammonium nitrate left in Beirut’s port exploded last week, a three-year-old girl named Alexandra Najjar was torn from her mother’s arms as they ran inside from their balcony. In the same instant, every-thing in the apartment was flying through the air — doors, window frames, shards of glass, the air-conditioning unit, the family’s piano — and something hit the little girl. She died later from her wounds and on Lebanese social media she has become the ‘Angel of Beirut’, a symbol of the innocent people ‘murdered’ by their government’s negligence and incompetence, as her father, Paul, put it. He gave a restrained and dignified interview to

Lebanon’s existential crisis

It had to happen. On Monday evening, just under a week after 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate stored in a warehouse at Beirut’s port exploded and killed over 160 people, the entire Lebanese government resigned. This was not a surprise. The blast resulted from negligence of the grossest kind. Three cabinet ministers and seven members of parliament had already quit. And frankly, in these times: who would even want the job? Prime Minister Hassan Diab made the announcement in a national TV address. It came after days of protests in which demonstrators hung effigies of Lebanese President Michel Aoun, and even Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah. That anyone would dare to

Portrait of the week: Local lockdowns, busy beaches and an explosion in Beirut

Home Some 2.7 million people in Greater Manchester and parts of Lancashire and West Yorkshire, where many Muslims live, were put under tighter restrictions on the eve of Eid al-Adha. Wedding receptions, gambling in casinos and eyebrow-threading continued to be banned when the government decided to ‘squeeze the brake pedal’ to control coronavirus, in the words of Boris Johnson, the Prime Minister. Aberdeen was put back into lockdown. People would have to wear masks in church from 8 August. The sudden actions came after new cases rose from a probable 2,800 to 4,200 a day, according to a survey by the Office for National Statistics, based on 116,026 swab tests

Will the Beirut blast change Britain’s foreign policy?

What should the British government do to help Lebanon recover from the Beirut explosion? Ministers say they are working to provide the Lebanese government with technical support and financial assistance, but they are coming under pressure from senior Conservative colleagues to use the disaster as a turning point in the way Britain approaches the Middle East generally. Tobias Ellwood, chair of the Defence Select Committee, and Tom Tugendhat, chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee, have both called for Britain to take a more active role in the region, or risk seeing hostile states such as Iran and terrorist groups filling a ‘vacuum’. These two MPs have been instrumental in pushing

How Lebanon unravelled

Lebanon will be 100 years old on 1 September. But the joke circulating in Beirut is that the country may not be around for the party. Eye-watering hyper-inflation, not helped by the Covid pandemic, has brought the country to its knees, just as famine and extreme poverty sparked its creation after the end of the Great War. Lebanon eventually won full independence from the French in 1943, and became an impossibly glamorous, multilingual entrepôt with a rare facility for doing business. According to Major General Sir Edward Spears, the British minister to Syria and Lebanon, the country ‘sprang from a far older and higher’ civilisation than the French. Even so,

Letter From Lebanon

Look down from the mountains outside Beirut and, on most days, you’ll see a grey blanket of smog choking the city. The smog comes from diesel generators: almost every building in Lebanon is hooked up to one because of rolling power cuts. This isn’t because Israel bombed one of the country’s few power stations in 2006, though it did. Instead, the power cuts are a constant reminder to the Lebanese of their politicians’ greed, venality and incompetence. Successive governments have failed to build new power stations. Some are supposed to be finished next year, finally, but everyone knows they won’t be enough. The Lebanese will tell you that the ‘generator

Hair-raising stuff

Ask most people whether they fancy a four-month, 5,000-mile trek across the Middle East and they might conclude you need your head seen to. With civil war raging in Syria, Iraq mired in internecine conflict while mopping up the remnants of Daesh, al-Qa’eda running amok in southern Yemen and simmering strife between Israelis and Palestinians, walking across 13 countries might not seem like an obvious itinerary. But Levison Wood, it is fair to say, is not your average traveller. A committed biped, he is the author of a trio of books on walking the Nile, Himalayas and Americas respectively. Ostensibly unlike the other television-led journeys which preceded it, this expedition

Beautiful thoughts for all occasions

Kahlil Gibran was 40 years old, a short — he was just 5’3” — dapper man with doleful eyes and a Charlie Chaplin moustache, and in the first throes of the alcoholism that would result in his early death, when in 1923 he published The Prophet. A collection of 26 prose-poems, written in quasi-Biblical language, the book takes the form of sermons by a fictional sage named Al Mustapha, on the big questions of life: family, friendship, love, work and death. These range from the profound to the banal. ‘Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be possessed; For love

Double speak

Tom Fletcher, a young star of the Foreign Office, made his reputation last year when he blogged his ‘valedictory despatch’ from Beirut, where he had served as ambassador for several years. From time immemorial ambassadors had written these despatches on quitting their posts. It was the occasion to spread your diplomatic wings with candid observations on the country or career you were leaving. A few have been small literary gems and have been republished in book form. Some were laced with indiscretion. In his farewell despatch, Sir Ivor Roberts, our man in Rome earlier this century, was extremely rude (rightly so) about the way the Foreign Office was run. His