Saturday, 24 October 2015

48 hours in Lebanon

I love Arab cities. I love that certain smell they have.

TAROM in February had a special offer selling return tickets to most of its destinations for EUR 100  for dates throughout the year and I, somewhat unthinkingly, bought a ticket to fly from Bucharest to Beirut this weekend. I arrived here at 2.15 on Friday morning. I'm dismayed to find my plane back leaves tonight, or rather tomorrow, at 3.30 a.m. This no longer seems such a good idea.

The streets have no lamps but busy streets are lit intermittently by shop windows. Staying up for the plane I'm whiling time in the terrace of Bricks, which flanks a dark street. It's a fun bar popular with expats and UN people (UN people and USAID people and international organisation people bestride developing countries like collosi, but the prices at Bricks are no dearer than anywhere else, which means London prices). I got talking to a nice Syrian who insisted on standing me a drink and told me Russia's intervention in Syria might be positive. The Syrian regime recognises that it is stronger but no longer autonomous. Russia certainly cannot win the war for the regime, has an interest in the regime surviving but not necessarily in Assad surviving. 

Had he met Assad? Yes many times in small meetings and he is 'useless, completely useless, a really poor quality person". His wife, "a complete bitch, a horrible person, is much smarter". I suggested that Assad is mere a front man for the gang in power and my new friend agreed

What he said is what I had imagined. I said that whatever happens a democratic election would be a disaster because it would bring Sunni Islamists to power as in Egypt and, had the army not intervened at the cost of huge loss of life, Algeria. He wholeheartedly agreed.

I asked the driver of the first taxi I took about the refugees from Syria. They cause no problems, he said, "but we are a poor country". Then he mentioned the migrants in Europe and without stating mine I asked his opinion."It's very bad. I lived in Italy for ten years and know what they're like. They're thieves and bad people." I asked him his religion, a question that I know can cause offence in the Lebanon, to check for anti Muslim bias. "I'm half and half. My father's Muslim, my mother's Christian".

The migrantophobe taxi driver asked me if I liked Porsches but my answer that I take no interest in cars killed that gambit, so he asked me if liked women, and satisfied that I did very much, said 'Women are the life.' Which I suspect is true. What did Aldous Huxley say about intellectuals and sex?

Don't come to Beirut for the monuments. Come, instead, for the restaurants, bars, if you like bars, and clubs if you like clubs. 

Wandering around the new, rebuilt, old town in Beirut (the original was destroyed in the war) is hard to do. Things are cut off by barbed wire and armed soldiers are everywhere. It smells of death and the rebuilt cathedrals and mosques have no charm for me. I did enjoy a signpost in French that read, 'The Grand Seraglo: Presidency of the Council of Ministers'. I climbed the steps to find the Seraglio but the way was barred by barbed wire.

The one sight that is worthwhile is the wonderful National Museum which I loved when i was here fore a few hours in 2006 but it was closed today because of a public holiday. For which I am glad as it made me venture out to Byblos instead and, better than Byblos, see the amazing Jeita Grotto. Some of the statues in the National Museum are extremely beautiful, but nothing man-made compares to the Grotto - and I speak as one who usually prefers the works of man to God.

The food is great. Breakfast at my hotel (a rare affordable one in the centre, the Mayflower) included delicious foul and sublime tomatoes that were poems. Like tomatoes used to be in Romania ten or fifteen years ago. There are many ways in which Romania has deteriorated not advanced. Vegetables, fruit, meat and not by any means just food.


  1. Paul, tell us about the wine and the music. Andrei

    1. Music I heard some in passing - wine good - women very pretty. They only very slightly remind me of Lord Macaulay's remark :
      'Some admire the Jewish female physiognomy. I admire it but with foreboding. Jezebel had those dark eyes.' Good restaurants, though not cheap.

  2. As ever, an entertaining read. I envy your freedom to travel, but it is always enjoyable to share your experiences. I suspect you may not be able to comment on the basis of a stay of just a few hours, but I have the view that Lebanon is one of those countries where there is no real peace. The country may be quiet on the surface, but just below that deceptive surface there are unseen conflicts and tensions - sectarian, political, military - that could burst out into open violence at any moment. What a harrowing existence for the unhappy populace.

    1. I was expecting the war in Syria to spill over into the Lebanon. People I spoke said they didn't think this would happen but the day before I arrived they arrested an ISIS leader and other suspected terrorists who confessed to plotting bombings and assassinations in the country in order to destabilise it. Lebanon has been without a president for over a year. The president must be a Maronite Christian and two candidates are contending for the position, backed by different Muslim factions. The National Assembly which elects the president is deadlocked, foreign powers are squabbling over who should be president while the Speaker of the National Assembly tries to enable Syrians to choose their own president.
      Beirut is easy to get to from Bucharest - I recommend you visit.