Journeythat convinced meparadise is truly lost
SEVERAL WEEKS ago, I found myself on a coach hurtling towards the heart of Beirut, a city once described as a ‘‘paradise on Earth’’, thanks to its stunning coastline (still very much in evidence), and as the ‘‘Paris of the Middle East’’, due to its French influences and vibrant cultural and intellectual life. So what exactly was a Jewish boy, frequent visitor to Israel, Holocaust historian and long-term teacher of the Arab-Israeli conflict doing here?
Well, last year, I embarked, rather fortuitously, on a post-retirement ‘‘career” as “guest lecturer” on oceangoing cruise ships, specialising in Classical Greek civilisation and modern European and Middle East history. Whenmyagentofferedmeagigon a ship visiting Turkey, Lebanon and Israel, I jumped at the chance to visit a city that the countless Israeli stamps inmypassporthadalwaysrendered impossible. For the fact that I was technically working on the ship meant that I could go to the British Passport Office and obtain a second, ‘‘clean’’ passportonthegroundsthatmy employmentwouldtakeme—inthe Passport Office’s wording — to ‘‘politically incompatible countries’’.
While there, I discovered that ours was one of the only passenger ships to dock in the port of Beirut this year! The Americans had long been scared off: the migrant crisis and con- tinuing political turmoil, not only in Beirut but elsewhere, in north Africa — most notably in Tunisia — and the Middle East had severely damaged the Lebanese tourist industry, especially that involving cruise ships.
Beirut is a city trying desperately to stage a comeback, an effort that has been only very partially successful. Beirut still bears the visible scars and psychological feel of a deeply troubled city; one that has been ruined, not only by the tensions between the Christian and Muslim sections within its “indigenous” population — which boiled over into a disastrous civil war between 1975 and 1990 — but also by the ruinous interference of foreign elements, Syrian, Iranian, Palestinian and — lest we forget — Israeli.
As my coach progressed, I opined that, if someone wanted to make a quick, sizeable fortune, they should go into the razor-wire business in this city! So ubiquitous were cordoned-off sections of the centre that it resembled the heart, not so much of a beautiful Middle Eastern city but of Belfast at the height of the Troubles. The Lebanese army seemed to be everywhere, with sentries surrounded by sandbags preventing access to beautiful streets and historically important areas of the city, some containing significant churches and mosques. We eventually sweet-talked our way into one street, into which entry was formally verboten, previously the pulsating nerve-centre of the city’s social and cultural life but today completely deserted and lined heartbreakingly with gorgeous-looking cafés and restaurants now silently gathering dust.