What do you associate with the word Lebanon?
Perhaps a photograph of Jackie Onassis on a luxury yacht in Beirut harbour, or the blackened ruins of the Holiday Inn (a bleak symbol of the Civil War 1975 – 1992), or news bulletins of refugees who have fled into the country from Syria. I think too of Phoenician traders on the Mediterranean coast thousands of years ago and the ‘Cedars of Lebanon’ which are mentioned in the Bible and which still grow here – even the national flag has a cedar on it.
In a short visit I experienced a small part of this fascinating country of contrasts.
On the plane from Heathrow I read in the i the obituary of the Lebanese novelist, Emily Nasrallah, whose honours included German’s Goethe prize. She was born in 1931 and refused to leave Lebanon during the Civil War, despite losing her family’s home and possessions. She described herself as ‘a village farmer from South Lebanon’ and rose to be an international writer.
Beirut is a centre for art and literature. I visited the Sursock Museum of modern art and was impressed by Abed Al Kadiri’s thought-provoking mixed media exhibition of paintings, sculpture and film all centred round a tree and an abandoned house. There are some beautiful old buildings in Beirut but too many of them are dilapidated or even derelict, and are being swamped by modern high-rise blocks.
Of course I went to some bookshops, despite having little extra space in my suitcase. Aaliya’s Books is a small well-curated bookshop with a café. I browsed an anthology of Lebanese women’s poetry. The café was quiet and the waiter brought out a box of toys for two fidgety small children – and then sat down on the floor and played with them, giving their mother time for conversation with friends. By contrast, Librarie Antoine, is more like a Waterstones – a big glossy shop with books laid out over three floors (I found the glass stairs slightly unnerving and felt like my father’s old sheepdog who wouldn’t go up steps if he could see through them – after the second floor I resorted to the lift). It is a sobering thought that in both bookshops there were books in Arabic, French and English – many people in Beirut are trilingual. I’ve never managed to master a second language fluently – I’m still working on my Welsh.
Just a short distance from Librarie Antoine I found some verses of Arabic (mainly), French and English set into the pavement. Here are the two verses in English –
How can we build a Lebanon without the participation
of the youth and the new generation,
while their opinion is still ignored?
When is the killing of the dreams of the youth going to end?
When is the endless flow
of departing immigrants going to stop?
These were modern inscriptions but Emily Nasrallah recalled her grandmother saying ‘Lebanon is a land that does not hold its people’.
But on a lighter note, I was just there visiting family and doing touristy things. As well as mooching round Beirut I visited Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara wineries in the beautiful Bekaa Valley, went to the impressive limestone caves of the Jeita Grotto, and was fascinated by the layers of history of the ancient city of Byblos (inhabited continuously from about 8000 BC) . At Byblos the Palm Sunday service was broadcast on loudspeakers from the church (there were too many people for them all to fit inside). When the service had finished loudspeakers started up again – this time broadcasting the call to prayer from the nearby mosque.
So many contrasts in this small country where on the same hot sunny day I paddled in the Mediterranean and saw snow on the mountains.