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Lebanon - Jewel of the Middle East?
You have your Lebanon and I have mine - K Gibran
Lebanon is a tiny country at the far east of the Mediterranean blessed by spectacular scenery and an ancient history. Lebanon is bordered by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south.
What is Lebanon?
It is an Arab nation where the very identity of its people is in constant debate.It has a population of less than four million and an area just over 10,000km2 (about half the size of Wales) much of which is uninhabitable because the mountains are too sheer.
Lebanon hosts 17 recognised religious sects at last count: five Islamic1, 11 Christian2, and Judaism. There is a significant integrated Armenian population and Lebanon also hosts about half a million stateless Palestinians, 80% of them in refugee camps for over two generations now. This figure represents a huge eighth of Lebanon's indigenous population and is cause for great concern on many fronts: primarily humanitarian, but also political and economic.
Flag and Anthem
The Lebanese Flag is composed of two horizontal blood-red stripes on a white background denoting peace, and a holy cedar in the centre. The Lebanese Anthem was adopted in 1927, with lyrics by Rachid Nakhlé and music by Wadih Sabra.
The Lebanese government is based on an agreement made in the early 1900s. A long and complex history full of outside influences, major power decisions and other interventions brought the country to its current composition. There is a constant and perhaps healthy debate that has been ongoing, in the country and its diaspora, for decades about the true nature of Lebanon's politics and the jury is still out.
What was Lebanon?
Lebanon has a long and complicated history extending back to the Neolithic times. This was where the Phoenicians established their main city states. They were a Semitic people who were renowned for their trading and maritime skills (c2700-450BC). Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon range are mountainous areas that (pre-aircraft and roads) were a perfect hideaway for persecuted people.
Later still, the Crusaders discovered this asset and built forts in Lebanon. The Greeks and Romans came and went as did the Byzantines, the Mameluks and countless others.
After nearly four hundred years of occupation, the Ottoman Empire's collapse post WWI meant that the five Ottoman mutasarrifat (provinces) making up Lebanon were mandated to France by the League of Nations.
Lebanon finally gained independence in 1943, with French troops leaving in 1946.
In the following years, Lebanon grew into a momentarily successful laissez faire economy where capitalism and minimal government intervention allowed it to flourish into a main banking and tourism hub for the Middle East. However, 1958 heralded the first civil war.
The famous war which began in April 1975 and continued to ravage the country and its occupants for the best part of two decades almost destroyed every aspect of Lebanon's assets: people, environment, infrastructure, reputation were all just about decimated.
However, the spirit of survival and endurance finally rallied and in the 1990s, things began to change for the better. This is in great part thanks to the vision and untiring work of the late Rafik Hariri, in honour of whom Beirut International airport has been renamed.
Lebanon Has Five Main Towns
Other Towns and Sites of Interest
Arabic is the national language. Classical Arabic is used throughout the Arab world for official and government business. It is also the language of the Holy Qur'an and therefore also used throughout the Muslim world. It is thanks to the fatwa3 forbidding this holy book to be translated that the language has survived intact for so long. This Arabic is not generally used for speaking. It is a written language. Each country has its own spoken version of 'Arabic' and spoken Lebanese differs greatly from Saudi or Omani, for example. Due to the isolation, over centuries, of many Lebanese communities from each other 4, the Lebanese language also comprises widely variable dialects within Lebanon itself so that people are very easily pinpointed down to their village by their speech. French, English and Armenian are also widely spoken.
The Daily Star is the local English-language newspaper and is linked to the International Herald Tribune. The Lebanese lira has been pegged to the US dollar (at LL1500:USD1) and the two currencies are equally accepted tender throughout the country.
Food - Simple Yet Complex
Lebanese cuisine is a very special aspect of the country. Food to a Lebanese is not just fuel to ingest. Food is nourishment of the soul. It is the vehicle for hospitality. Making food for someone is a labour of love. Food ingredients are lovingly prepared and stored carefully: tomato puré e in the cupboard, dried mint and herbal teas, wild pine nuts and sumac powder, dried garlic and frozen coriander garlic pestos for inclusion in a pot of mouloukhiyyeh for guests on a special feast day. Most families own some land in their village and will plant it with great reverence, producing the fruits, vegetables and herbs as great prizes on a Sunday in summer.
Lebanese food has two main personalities. On one hand you have the elaborate and complicated dishes served at great and holy occasions to guests and extended family. On the other hand you have the simple and yet varied everyday dishes which are made from fresh wholesome ingredients to nourish and keep your family healthy. These recipes are relatively easy to learn with the right guidance.
Agriculture and Wine - Drink of the Gods
Lebanon is a narrow, steep, coastal strip of land. If you imagine flying in from Cyprus, you first see the humid coastline, fly up to avoid fiercely sheer cliffs of the Lebanon Mountains in places, then dip down into the dry, cool Bekaa plateau which is about 1,000m above sea level. Soon, though, you come face-to-face with the anti-Lebanon range which heralds the Syrian border. This means that Lebanon has two sources for water: the clouds speeding in from the Mediterranean hit the cool air of the high mountains and release their load, and in spring the snow melts, together feeding hundreds of underground rivers. All this water makes for an environment that is ideal for agriculture. Lebanon has an ancient history of cultivating mulberries for silk, olives for oil and soap, fruits and nuts, and of course, wine. During the war of 1975 - 1992, Lebanon also became famous for a high-quality cannabis resin, the sale of which went to finance various militias.
The Bekaa, home to the Temple of Bacchus, has now been re-established in its ancient role and is producing many millions of bottles of wine every year for export and home consumption. It is said that the Chardonnay grape originated here. The wine labels themselves are award-winning and of a superior quality. The wineries all welcome visitors with a variety of tours and facilities. A good place to start would be at the oldest wineries in Ksara, combined with a visit to Baalbek and the temple of Bacchus.
Tourism and Leisure
Sports and leisure activities form a large part of Lebanese life. Given the wide variety in elevation and its coastal position, Lebanon boasts that you can ski in the morning then swim in the sea in the afternoon. There are six winter resorts packed with facilities from December to April: the Cedars at an altitude of 2,300m, Faraya/Ouyoun-Es-Siman at 1,890m, Laqlouq at 1,740m, Faqra at 1,750m, Qanat Bakiche at 1,990m, Zaarour at 1,990m, and Jabal-El-Chaik at 2,860m. Most resorts also have skidoos which you can hire with a guide. This is by far the most rewarding way to experience the mountains cross country.
Off-roading has a great presence, as do camping and potholing with groups and societies dedicated to these activities. Abseiling and water skiing are two more sports with a zing of excitement to them. For the more sedate, there are luxury yacht clubs, marinas and many beaches all along the long coast 5 and most regions have a 'country club' in the mountains. As a reaction to the consequences of the war and subsequent over-development of many regions, ecotourism is also increasingly prominent in Lebanon. The Palm Islands off Trablus are protected wetlands, but there are also the two Holy Cedars reserves (in the Chouf and Mount Lebanon) and several other places of interest.
Night Life and Shopping
Nightlife and generally having a good time are almost the raison d'ê tre of the Lebanese, in the summer months especially. The Casino du Liban in Adma stages many theatrical productions through the year. Aley in the Chouf and Broummana in the Metn are towns popular with foodies wanting to be somewhere less developed. Jounieh is renowned for its nightclubs and restaurants. Beirut is now a veritable metropolis boasting many fine hotels, theatres, clubs and restaurants. Shopping is a national pastime also. There are many fine shopping centres throughout the country but the best designer boutiques are to be found in Ashrafieh, Beirut, Hamra and Kaslik.
There are regular public buses running on most routes along the coast and some up the mountains. These cost 500LL per trip (about 30¢ ). Another cheap option is the service, or shared taxi. These cost 1,000LL. There are many reliable taxis in Lebanon but do negotiate your prices before embarking on a trip, as these can vary wildly. All the tour operators run trips on comfortable Pullman or coaches. These are best booked through your hotel concierge. Walking is definitely an option as Lebanon is very safe in terms of petty crime, despite other dangers. Do be aware that pavements were not built into the design of old Beirut nor many of the villages.
Be aware that in many areas modest dress is the courteous option and in Muslim areas a scarf is advisable for women. Churches require heads, shoulders and knees to be covered and you must never walk into a mosque with your shoes on. In general, women are not often seen on their own and it is best to wear a contingency wedding ring to avert undesired attention. It may be useful to know that eye contact between a man and woman is generally seen to be permission to approach and speak to you. The Lebanese are friendly and hospitable, so don't be surprised if the old man at the corner shop invites you for Sunday lunch with his children and grandchildren. When you become familiar with the culture, you will learn how to say no to food, but this takes a lot of practice and expertise.
Festival season usually kicks off in June for 12 weeks. There are over 38 festivals but the best are at Beiteddine, Jbeil (Byblos) and Baalbek. You can see acts as diverse as Marcel Khalife, Ravi Shankar, UB40, Dizzy Gillespie, Gregorian, Placebo, Phil Collins, Paco de Lucia, Sting. The one exception has to be the Al Bustan festival which usually runs from mid February to mid March – a truly eclectic mix of outstanding classical productions in music, dance and poetry.
Is it a Jewel, Though?
This is a country that elicits great emotion in people. Its exiled diaspora (emigrants) adore it. In the summer of 2004, it was reported that over a million visitors had landed at the airport in a four-month period. The joke was that the country was in danger of sinking with the temporary increase in weight of 25 percent of its population. Visitors from the middle of last century seem to remember Lebanon with great fondness and some awe. Current visitors obsess about it. Its neighbours view it with some disdain. In the current climate of world politics, many feel fear or indifference, both spawned by lack of information about the true nature of this country.
Who remembers the day when Beirut was invoked as the 'Paris of the East'? Although there is something to the moniker, the use of a western city is inappropriate as it does not reflect the eastern essence of the city. Many people today grew up with the image of a devastated Beirut in the 1970s and 80s. Older generations grew up with the image of a glorious and adventurous Lebanon which they heard about from their parents and grandparents - a sort of frontier between the Arab world and the West.
Lebanon has a gorgeous landscape, a fabulous (if tortuous) history and its people are outstanding in many, many ways. However just as its history, its topography and its people are so wonderful, there are many ugly truths about the country. Its politics are inequitable and it is cursed by its physical position in the globe - right at the centre of turmoil and unrest for centuries. Yet despite this, it could be argued that Lebanon is a jewel nonetheless...
Some facts about Lebanon
Contributions to the world by Lebanon's sons and daughters
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