Jour­neythat con­vinced mepar­adise is truly lost

The Jewish Chronicle - - LIFE - TES­TI­MONY RON­NIE LAN­DAU

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.

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