Recently I spent 10 days in Lebanon. There were 6 reasons why I thought this tiny country was the Middle East’s playground. Not just because it was a fun place, but also because it was possible to see a range of religions, ideologies, conflicts in action.
1) Mar Mikhael
Beirut is a party town, hedonist and liberal. This is particularly the case in the neighbourhoods of Christians, who make up 40% of the country’s population. There is Mar Mikhael for instance, with bars as cool and alternative as those you would find in the East London neighbourhoods of Shoreditch and Dalston. There was one called Junkyard, which was built entirely out of recycled materials. Lorry containers were turned into rooms, gas cylinders burst into lamp shades, beer bottles cut into glasses.
2) Private Rooftop Party
The population of Lebanon is 4 million (excluding refugees) and I was told there are an estimated 2-2.5 million refugees, mainly from Syria and Palestine but also from Iraq. This creates a huge strain on the country. Locals blame the refugees for water and power shortages.
To support all these refugees, there is a large contingent of NGO and UN workers. Through a friend of a friend who was working for the Norwegian Refugee Council in Lebanon, one night I ended up at a private rooftop party. There were probably more than 100 guests, a BBQ, a sound system with a DJ.
There I primarily met NGO and UN people who were working in the humanitarian aid sector. These people go from one crisis to another. They had lived in places such as Afghanistan, Sudan, Yemen, Haiti, Congo. They don’t stay long anywhere, 6 months, 9 months, at most a couple of years. People my age had already lived in 10 different countries. My friend of a friend ran into someone she had met in Yemen some years ago.
Normally at parties I feel an outsider, not having enough in common with people I meet. But at that party I was overwhelmed, as I could connect with a lot of them.
3) Hostel Beirut
I stayed at Hostel Beirut, which was in Geitawi, just above Mar Mikhael. It had a wonderful large open-top balcony. At night I sat there with people from the hostel, drinking Colonel beer, talking about Hezbollah, Iraq, Syria, ISIS. I met fascinating people there, people who had shunned the mainstream. NGO workers, journalists, diplomats, exchange students from places such as France, Switzerland, Norway, Germany, US.
One night we had a BBQ on that balcony. Another night we listened to songs from Fairouz. I can still hear Li Beirut wafting through the warm air of Beirut.
The hostel was established by a Danish guy who was a musician and who had lived in Brasil before coming to Lebanon. He had opened the hostel early Jan 2014 and had not got his first customer until February. But when I was there, the hostel was almost 100% full every day.
4) Hezbollah Museum
One day with people from the hostel I went on a day trip to the Hezbollah Museum in Mleeta in the South, which is predominantly Shia. It was an open-air museum built on a former military outpost from which Hezbollah had fought Israel as recently as 2006. On display were military equipment captured from Israel. Tanks, helicopters, jeeps, artillery. But these were not just exhibited plainly. An artwork had been constructed out of them. All the equipment were made to look like they were sinking into the ground. The gun barrel of the tank had been tied into a knot.
It was a combination of madness, art, and venom towards Israel. It was built with support from Iran and it was the cleanest place in Lebanon!
We also walked in the tunnel network of the outpost and saw the first drone that had successfully flown to Israel and come back.
We had a very knowledgeable guide, a member of Hezbollah. He had a thick American accent even though he had never been or lived there. He believed Israel had a Greater Israel ambition, one stretching from the Euphrates to the Nile — the two lines in the Israeli flag, he told us, represent these rivers.
Hezbollah is defiantly anti-Israel. They believe Israel has no right to exist. Visiting this museum and talking to this guide consolidated my view that Hezbollah is strong. They don’t sit back and cry and complain of injustice. They are ready to fight Israel, as they have in the past, resulting in Israel withdrawing from Lebanon in 2000.
All taxi drivers I spoke to — who are sometimes the best barometer — told me they liked and supported Hezbollah. They see them as an action-oriented organisation that delivers.
5) Tripoli: Al Nusra flags, Souqs, Syria conflict
I also went to the North, to Tripoli, where it was more Sunni. I went there with Mellatra whom I met at the rooftop party — she was Swedish-born, Ethiopian-origin, London-bred.
From the VICE News documentary I knew problems from Syria had spilled over into Tripoli’s suburbs, Bab al-Tibbaneh and Jabal Mohsen. Every now and then the Alawites, who supported the Assad regime, fought with the Sunnis, who sided with the likes of al-Nusra Front, branch of al-Qedea operating in Lebanon and Syria.
Flags of al-Nusra were hanging openly in Tripoli. It was a more typical Arab town than Beirut in that it had an old mazy part with souqs, mosques, churches and the superb Hallab Patisserie. Upon Mellatra’s suggestion, we spent the night at the Relief & Reconciliation for Syria a bit further up north, an NGO providing education to Syrian refugees, and talked to the engaging country director Friedrich who was from Bremen, Germany.
6) Qadisha Valley & Mountains
And finally what made Lebanon the Middle East’s playground in my eyes were the Qadisha Valley and the mountains surrounding it — a region that inspired the author of The Prophet Kahlil Gibran and where in the winter it is possible to ski.