The Masjid al Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut
When I started telling people I was going to visit Lebanon I got one of 2 reactions. The first being the typical response of ‘Where is that?’, the second response was the one you always get when you tell someone you’re travelling to the Middle East. The over cautious ‘Why are you going there?’, ‘Is it safe?’ and ‘What if you get caught up in a terrorist attack?’.
The Middle East has drawn my interest over the last few years. I have become accustomed to the language and culture, something so similar yet very different to my own. My expectations of Lebanon were somewhat hazy, having been to Palestine the year before I had some inclination of what to expect from a Middle Eastern country but I wasn’t entirely sure what this may entail. I envisaged Lebanon to be a sort of revolutionary capital within the Middle East, a home to a variety of Arabic residents full of creativity and ambition. I imagined Beirut to be a thriving capital full of intellects and nightlife. That is exactly what I found, to an extent.
I arrived in Beirut on Eid ul Adha and I was greeted by a very vacant city. The markets were closed and streets were bare. People who live in the city use the Eid holidays to travel back into the mountains where they visit their families and celebrate the holidays together. A striking contrast in culture here where majority of Muslim population fill cities with chitter chatter, the vibrant colours of their new clothes, the fragrant smell of perfume mixed with the aroma of home cooked foods. This gave me chance to explore the city, I quickly came to realisation that Beirut was in fact a very large city. Its centre consisted of several parts separated by about 2km of distance. Being a cheap bag packer my proffered method of getting around by walking, soon became a ridiculous idea. . Having the luxuries of a car and working in an office where I don’t really have to move around a lot, the sudden increase in physical activity caused a painful swelling in my foot. Being the determined person I am, instead of resting I limped another 2km the next day before actually going to a pharmacy to seek some help.Having walked almost 7km in 2 days I contracted the self coined term of ‘Lebanese Foot Syndrome’ I decided to start using the local taxi service
Left: Traditional tea in the Baalbek mountains Right: The pigeon rocks in Beirut
Lebanon to me is a city that is in-between, in-between the western and southern worlds, in-between modern and traditional outlooks on life just in-between. I couldn’t help but feel the sense that something was missing. The city had a very modern feel to it and the people very representative of what you would see in London, but there was also this sense of chaos and dust filled roads like you would find in a rural area of South East Asia. The sharp contrast between the modern European mall type feel of Zaytouna Bay and the overcrowded and bustling Hamra Street perfectly describes the two sides to this city. I would never really know what to expect around each corner. A large shopping mall full of modern designer stores or a small independent lemon juice seller, the city certainly did not fail to surprise me. By day Beirut was a old friend busy in his day to day chores and by night it became the naughty maid tempting you with its short skirts. Most of this temptation laid on Armenian street which during the day was quite empty, just a few restaurants and banks, by night this is a comparison to any European strip full of outdoor bars and loud music and locals singing and dancing into the night. The conservative view of the Middle Eastern Muslims is long to be seen in Beirut , a city filled with young out going and passionate citizens striving for a bigger and better Lebanon.
I had the pleasure of meeting some these passionate young people when I volunteered with a local charity called LOYAC Lebanon. I spent the day with a group of volunteers visiting an orphanage and 2 old peoples homes. It was an interesting experience as not only do I get to see parts of Lebanon I never would have but also I get to hear stories from people I would never get the chance to meet. I quickly learnt that we had a lot more in common than different, despite the language barrier we laughed at the same jokes and enjoyed the same foods. I got to see how young adults live in Lebanon and the struggles they face, the struggle of not being able to get work and the harsh reality of discrimination against non-native Arabs. This was probably the most surprising thing to learn. As Lebanon borders Syria and Palestine it isn’t hard to believe that they house a large number of refugees from these countries. I was told how young people born and raised in Lebanon, who identify with the country and speak the dialect are openly discriminated against when applying for work or ustice like occurs everywhere and that the difference between us are used against us.
The Loyac Volunteers
A trip to Lebanon would be incomplete with visiting the old city of Baalbek. Around 10km from the Syrian border this city was under complete Hezbollah control. Just like Israel Hezbollah set up their own checkpoints to control who comes in and out of their territory to protect the locals . The Hezbollah soldiers were dressed just like the Lebanese military making them hard to distinguish. They have taken control of the border cities close to Lebanon and Israel to protect the locals as they feel the government was not doing a good job which was shown when Israel invaded southern Lebanon during 1982. The locals in Lebanon love the freedom firefighters and everywhere you go people will always praise them saying how safe they have made Lebanon. I sort of had the pleasure to meet a Hezbollah solider outside the shrine of Imam Hussein’s daughter. He had a 313 on his back; I later learnt that this meant that he was in the highest rank of the Hezbollah force.
Overall my trip a very interesting experience. I didn’t see what I expected and I didn’t expect what I saw. Lebanon for me now is a country in-between. It is full of culture and history but its also on the verge of becoming very European. The people were so friendly and the cities full of life.