Historically, Lebanon was part of Syria along with modern Jordan, Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Due to its strategic position, its coastal towns were important Phoenician trading posts. Later, the area became a pivotal part of the Egyptian, Persian and Roman Empires and many others in the empire-building business.
Lebanon and Syria finally ended up as part of the Ottoman domains ruled from Istanbul, and were dished out to France when the Ottoman Empire broke up after WWI. This caused considerable local resentment, as the region had been briefly independent from the end of WWI until the French took over in 1920.
France never had much luck with its Syria-Lebanon mandate. Local opposition to its policy of carving up the country into mini-states (Grand Liban, Lebanon, Aleppo and Damascus) and minority enclaves (for the Druze and Alawites) led to revolts against French rule. Elections were held in 1928 and 1932, but attempts to establish a constitution were stymied by the occupying power, which compounded its unpopularity in 1939 when Syria ceded the northern cities of Antiock (Antakya) and Alexandretta (Iskenderun) to encourage Turkey’s neutrality in WWII.
Early Years of Independence. Lebanon was officially declared independent in 1943, when, on 22 November, France – which had held its mandate since the end of WWI – gave in to the country’s demands for independent rule. In 1946 the last French troops withdrew and a jubilant Lebanon was left to fend for itself.
Prior to full independence, the government had already been uniquely divided along religious lines: Christians and Muslims held parliamentary seats at a ratio of 6:5, broadly representing the religious make-up of the country established by a 1932 census. The president, the constitution stated, must be a Maronite Christian and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. The speaker was to be a Shiite Muslim and the chief of staff a Druze. Though probably done with lofty aims, dividing the country along sectarian lines from the very start was to be a major source of strife for years to come.
The early years of independence for the fledgling government weren’t easy. First came economic strife and next, on 14 May 1948, the declaration of Israeli independence in former Palestine. Immediately, Lebanese soldiers joined pan-Arab armies and Palestinian fighters in the struggle against Israel. During 1948 and 1949, while war raged, Palestinian refugees flooded north into Lebanon. Amnesty International claims that the tiny nation absorbed more Palestinians than any other country, over 100,000 by the end of 1949 alone. Though initially welcomed into Lebanon, the Maronite majority soon became uneasy about the refugees, mostly Sunni Muslims, who threatened to tilt their precarious balance of power. In 1949 Lebanon accepted an armistice with Israel, but though 1948’s UN Resolution 194 stated that refugees should be allowed to return home if they wanted to, this was mainly not to be. The Palestinian refugees, largely against their own and locals’ will, were in Lebanon to stay.
By the 1950s the National Assembly was once again struggling against economic crisis, along with growing support for pan-Arabism, which advocated the creation of a united Arab entity in the Middle East. In 1952 staunchly pro-Western president Camille Chamoun quickly garnered Muslim enemies by refusing all notions of pan-Arabism, and in 1958, when his term was about to end, the unpopular president tried to extend his presidency to a second term. Lebanon’s first civil war soon erupted, with pro-Western Maronites pitted against largely Muslim, pro-pan-Arabism opponents. Chamoun panicked, turning to the US for help, and on 15 July 1958, 15,000 US troops landed in Beirut.
The presence of US troops quelled trouble and Chamoun was finally persuaded to resign, to be replaced by a new president, Fouad Chehab. With Chehab’s talent for smoothing ruffled feathers, Lebanon soon prospered, Beirut rapidly developing as the banking capital of the Arab world. Civil war, believed the optimistic Lebanese, was a thing of the past.
Swinging ’60s? By the mid-’60s, Beirut, the newly crowned ‘Paris of the East’, was booming, but Palestinian refugees and the Shiites of the south remained in poverty. As Beirut basked in newfound riches, the less fortunate grew bitter and restive, and the good times were already numbered.
The collapse of the country’s largest bank in 1966 and, after that, the 1967 Arab-Israeli Six Day War brought yet more Palestinian refugees into Lebanon. Refugee camps soon became centres of guerrilla resistance, and the government watched impotently as Palestinian attacks on Israel from Lebanese soil rapidly increased.
In May 1968, Israeli forces retaliated across the border. Meanwhile, with sectarian tensions growing, the Lebanese army clashed violently with Palestinian guerrillas. Palestinian forces proved too strong an opponent for the army, and in November 1969 Lebanon signed the Cairo Agreement with the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO), agreeing to large-scale autonomy of its refugee camps and refugees’ freedom ‘to participate in the Palestinian revolution’.
Maronite opposition to the agreement was immediate. Many Muslims, on the other hand, felt an innate sympathy for their fellow Palestinians. In response, a group of Christians known as Phalangists began to arm and train young men, and by March 1970 fighting between Phalangists and Palestinians had erupted on Beirut’s streets as southern Lebanon suffered under Israeli reprisals against relentless guerrilla attacks. Rapidly, the country factionalised and took up arms.
Civil War. It’s widely agreed that Lebanon’s civil war began on 13 April 1975 when Phalangist gunmen attacked a Beirut bus, killing 27 Palestinian passengers. Soon, it was outright chaos. In December, Phalangists stopped Beirut traffic and killed Muslim travellers. Muslims retaliated, prompting ‘Black Saturday’ during which around 300 people died.
The slaughter rapidly reached horrific proportions. In January 1976, Phalangists led a massacre of some 1000 Palestinians in Karantina, a Beirut slum. Two days later, Palestinians attacked the southern coastal town of Damour, and killed over 500 Christians. In August, Phalangists set their sights on the Tel al-Zaatar refugee camp, killing between 2000 and 3000 Palestinian civilians.
Soon Beirut was divided along the infamous Green Line, which split the city in two, with Christian enclaves to the east and Muslims to the west. Though allegiances and alliances along its border would shift many times in the coming strife, the Green Line would remain in place for 15 years.
Syria & Israel Intervene. In 1976 the civil war gave Syria a reason to send tens of thousands of troops into Lebanon, initially sympathetic to the Palestinians and the pan-Arab cause. It wasn’t long, though, before Syria switched allegiance to the Maronite side, occupying all but the far south and angering other Arab countries.
In October 1976 the Arab League nevertheless brokered a deal with Syria, allowing it to keep 40,000 troops in Lebanon as part of a peace-keeping ‘Arab Deterrent Force’. Syria was left in primary control of Lebanon, and the first of the civil war’s 150 short-lived ceasefires was declared.
But Palestinian attacks on Israel continued, prompting Israel to launch ‘Operation Litani’ in 1978, swiftly occupying most of southern Lebanon. Immediately, the UN demanded Israel’s withdrawal and formed the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) to ‘restore international peace’. Though Israel withdrew to a 19km ‘Security Zone’, it simultaneously installed a puppet South Lebanon Army (SLA) and proclaimed an 1800 sq km region south of Nahr al-Litani (the Litani River) ‘Free Lebanon’. For the coming years, this area too would be knee-deep in war.
In 1982 Israeli ‘Operation Peace for Galilee’ troops marched into Lebanon, heading to Beirut, supported tacitly by Maronite and Phalangist leaders. By 15 June, Israeli forces had surrounded and besieged West Beirut, bombarding 16,000 PLO fighters entrenched there. Heavy fighting, unsurprisingly, ensued, and in just two months the city was in ruins and 20,000, from both sides of the Green Line, were dead. On 21 August the PLO left Beirut, guaranteed safe passage by multinational forces. By now, however, battle was also raging in the Chouf Mountains, the historic preserve of Druze and Christians, and an area until now free from the ravages of war. The Lebanese army joined the Phalangists and Israelis against the Druze, who themselves were aided by the Shiite militia Amal, until the US intervened and another ceasefire was called.
The US, however, was becoming increasingly entrenched in the war, appearing to favour Israel and Lebanon’s beleaguered government. In 1983 came the reprisals. In April, an Islamic jihad suicide attack on the US embassy in Beirut left 63 dead. In October, suicide bombers hit the US and French military headquarters in Beirut, killing over 300. In 1984 abductions and the torture of foreigners – whose involvement in Lebanese affairs the abductors deeply resented – began. The following year, international forces hastily left Lebanon.
Battle of the Camps. In early 1985, the last Israeli troops finally withdrew to their self-proclaimed ‘security zone’, leaving their interests in the hands of the SLA and Christian militias, who immediately clashed with Druze and Shiite opponents around Sidon. In West Beirut fighting continued between Shiite, Sunni and Druze militias, all battling for the upper hand.
In the midst of the chaos, PLO forces began to return to Lebanon. Concerned, however, that this would lead to a renewed Israeli invasion of the south, the Shiite Amal fought to remove them. Heavy fighting battered the Palestinian refugee camps during 1986, causing many more thousands of casualties.
To add to the confusion, in 1987 the National Assembly government finally fell apart and split in two, with a Muslim government to the west of Beirut and a Christian administration to the east. Fighting along the Green Line continued to rage as Christian leaders attempted to drive Syria from Lebanon, angering Syria still more by accepting arms from Iraq, Syria’s gravest enemy. It wasn’t until 1989 that a road to peace finally seemed viable, with the drafting of the Taif Accord.
Road to Peace. The Taif Accord, the product of a committee consisting of the Saudi and Moroccan kings and the Algerian president, proposed a comprehensive ceasefire and a meeting of Lebanon’s fractured parliament to discuss a new government charter, which would redress the Christian–Muslim balance of power. The accord was formally ratified on 5 November 1989, and constitutional amendments included the expansion of the National Assembly from 99 to 128 seats, equally divided between Christians and Muslims.
Despite some resultant in-fighting, in August 1990 the National Assembly voted to accept the terms of the Taif Accord. With the exception of the still-occupied south, the country saw peace for the first time in 15 years, and the civil war officially ended on 13 October 1990.
Syria’s continued presence in Lebanon beyond the civil war was justified with reference to Lebanon’s weak national army and the government’s inability to carry out Taif Accord reforms, including dismantling militias, alone. In 1990 Syria formalized its dominance over Lebanon with the Treaty of Brotherhood, Co-operation and Coordination, followed in 1992 by a defense pact. In May 1991, most militias – except Hezbollah – were officially dissolved. In line with Taif Accord conditions, Syria began its military pull-out in March 1992, taking another 13 years to complete the job. The last Westerners kidnapped by Hezbollah were released in 1992.
Postwar Reconstruction. From 1993 onward, the Lebanese army and life were slowly rebuilt and Rafiq Hariri, a Lebanese-born multimillionaire and entrepreneur, became prime minister.
Meanwhile, however, the south remained impoverished and the base for Israeli–Hezbollah offensives. In 1993 Israel launched ‘Operation Accountability’ and in 1996 ‘Operation Grapes of Wrath’ in response to Hezbollah and Palestinian attacks, the latter a land-sea-air offensive that devastated newly rebuilt structures, destroyed Beirut’s power station, and killed around 106 civilians in the beleaguered southern village of Qana.
In 1999 Israel launched further attacks, targeting Beirut’s power stations, while Hezbollah continued its offensives. Sustained losses, however, led to calls within Israel for military withdrawal, and its army finally withdrew from southern Lebanon on 24 May 2000. Hezbollah stated, however, that Israel would remain its target until Israeli troops were also withdrawn from Shebaa Farms, a 31 sq km area southeast of Lebanon, captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War. In the years since the civil war, this bone of contention has frequently been the alleged reason for Hezbollah violence and Israeli retaliation.
In Lebanon, discontent rumbled on. Maronite groups opposed Syria’s refusal to withdraw from Lebanon while Shiites and Hezbollah continued to support its presence. On 2 September 2004, the UN issued Security Council Resolution 1559, which called ‘upon all remaining foreign forces to withdraw from Lebanon’. Syria still did not comply, and on 20 October 2004, Prime Minister Hariri tendered his resignation, announcing that he would not be a candidate to head the next government.
Killing of Rafiq Hariri. On 14 February 2005, a massive Beirut car bomb killed the former prime minister, Rafiq Hariri. The event triggered a series of demonstrations, with protesters placing blame firmly on Syria. Tens of thousands of protestors called for Syrian withdrawal from Lebanon, for an independent commission to investigate the murder of Hariri, and for the organization of free parliamentary elections. Together, these events became known as the Cedar Revolution. On 14 March, Lebanon’s largest-ever public demonstration was held in Martyrs’ Sq, Beirut, with between 800,000 and one million attendees spanning sectarian divisions. The result was the March 14 Alliance, an anti-Syrian governmental alliance led by Saad Hariri, son of the murdered ex-prime minister, Samir Geagea and Walid Jumblatt.
With the UN, the USA, Russia and Germany all backing Lebanese calls for withdrawal, Syria finally bowed to pressure, withdrawing its 14,000 remaining troops from Lebanon on 27 April 2005 after almost 30 years of occupation. For the first time in more than two decades, Lebanon was completely free from military forces other than its own. This situation, however, was destined not to last.
The months after Syria’s withdrawal were characterized by a spate of car bombs and targeted assassinations of anti-Syrian politicians and journalists, with growing calls for the expedition of a UN probe into Hariri’s murder.
The 2005 parliamentary elections, the first after Syria’s withdrawal, saw a majority win for the March 14 Alliance led by Saad Hariri, with Fouad Siniora elected Lebanon’s new prime minister. The elections also saw Hezbollah become a legitimate governmental force, winning 14 seats in parliament, while in the ” “south its fighters continued to launch attacks on Israeli troops and towns. Though Siniora publicly denounced the attacks, it seemed that once again Lebanese authorities were powerless to stop them.
Meanwhile, the investigation into Hariri’s death continued. The UN Security Council, along with the Lebanese cabinet, approved a special tribunal to prosecute those responsible for the crime. In 2011, four Hezbollah members were indicted for Hariri’s assassination.
Lebanon Today. On 12 July 2006, days after a Hezbollah incursion resulted in the deaths and kidnappings of several Israeli soldiers, Israel invaded Lebanon with the aim of destroying Hezbollah. For the following 33 days, Israeli warplanes pounded the country, resulting in the deaths of over 1000 Lebanese civilians. On 14 August fighting finally came to an end, though Israel maintained an air and sea blockade until 8 September.
Following the war, Lebanon once again struggled back to its feet. Its tourist industry was hard hit, and homes and infrastructure countrywide were damaged or destroyed. Major contributors towards Lebanese reconstruction included Saudi Arabia, the European Union and a number of Gulf countries.
Lebanon’s problems, however, are far from over. In December 2006, Hezbollah, Amal and various smaller opposition parties overran Beirut’s centre in an attempt to bring down the government. The summer of 2007 saw fierce fighting near Tripoli, with the Lebanese army battling Palestinian militants, while car bombs during the early part of the year killed two anti-Syrian members of parliament. More street fighting erupted in Beirut and Tripoli in early 2008, and a bus bombing in Tripoli in August 2008 prompted fears that Palestinian militant activity had still not been vanquished.
Meanwhile, the world’s media continues to speculate that renewed conflict between Israel and Hezbollah – allegedly rearming furiously – is an ever-increasing likelihood. Though the Lebanese continue to live in hope, it seems fair to assume that the dark days are not over yet. The impact of Syria’s internal conflict that began in 2011 (and is still going in 2012) has yet to be fully felt in Lebanon. Syrian refugees have taken shelter in Tripoli and the north of Lebanon. Although there has been some violence in Tripoli between opponents and supporters of Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad, the rest of the country has remained relatively calm.
PALASTINIANS – DISPLACED & DISPOSSESSED
Most Palestinians who ended up as refugees in Lebanon were relegated to UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA)-administered refugee camps, 12 of whose original 16 still house most of Lebanon’s Palestinian population today.
According to UNRWA, there are now about 455,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, and Amnesty International estimates that there are another 3000 to 5000 second-generation unregistered refugees living illegally and without rights.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon still suffer from a lack of opportunities, prohibited from joining professions such as engineering and medicine, largely barred from owning property and with only limited access to public health care, education and welfare programs. Most are still provided for by UNRWA, which runs the camps’ schools, hospitals, women’s centres and vocational training programs.
They are not, however, Lebanon’s only disadvantaged group. The Geneva-based Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre (IDMC) estimates there are up to 600,000 Internally Displaced Persons in Lebanon, defined as individuals forced out of their homes due to war, persecution or natural disaster. Many are still displaced following Lebanon’s civil war, and Israeli invasions and occupation of southern Lebanon.
For more information, visit the IDMC website at www.internal-displacement.org or UNRWA at www.un.org/unrwa/english.
HEZBOLLAH – Party of God
You’ll probably hear far more in the world media about Baalbek’s local Hezbollah party than you’ll ever hear about its temples. From its roots as one of dozens of militia groups fighting during Lebanon’s civil war, following a Shiite doctrine propagated by the Ayatollah Khomeini, Hezbollah has risen to become what many consider to be a legitimate resistance party, with its own radio station, TV network, countrywide network of social services and 14 democratically elected seats in the Lebanese parliament.
Upon its foundation, the party initially aimed to bring to justice those accused of war crimes during the civil war (particularly Phalangist Christians), to create an Islamic government in Lebanon, and to eradicate ‘Western colonialist’ influences within the country. Since then, however, Hezbollah has given up on the second of these aims, replacing it with the desire to destroy the ‘unlawful entity’ that is present-day Israel. Regular vicious attacks on Israel’s northern border attest to its attempts to carry this out.
Often represented to the outside world as a bloodthirsty and brutal organization only interested in bombings, kidnappings and mayhem, Hezbollah nevertheless does far more than simply amassing arms and planning raids against Israel and potential aggressors. Its network of schools, hospitals, garbage disposal plants, training institutes for farmers, fresh water distribution points and childcare facilities are unsurpassed in Lebanon, bringing crucial aid to thousands of Lebanon’s poor and needy. The money for all this, says the group, comes from ‘donations’, though many believe it’s actually directly from deep Iranian high-profile pockets.
However the aid gets there, though, get there it does – to many impoverished communities in southern Lebanon and southern Beirut who would, if Hezbollah did not exist, almost certainly go without.
WHO IS HEZBOLLAH?
The vicious 1983 suicide attacks on international forces in Lebanon heralded the first public appearance of Islamic Jihad, the armed wing of the radical, Iran-backed Shiite Hezbollah. Though relatively new, the group would soon prove a key figure in the civil war.
Historically, the Shiites had always been Lebanon’s poor, concentrated in the south and having borne the brunt of Israeli retaliation against Palestinian guerrillas. As a minority group, they had little say in the country’s government and had been displaced in vast numbers without adequate central aid.
With Syrian approval, Iranian revolutionary guards began to preach to the disaffected, who proved fertile ground for its message of overthrowing Western imperialism and the anti-Muslim Phalange. Alongside suicide bombings, its ruthless armed wing also resorted to taking hostages, including CIA bureau chief William Buckley, who was tortured and killed; Associated Press bureau chief Terry Anderson; and UK envoy Terry Waite, who were held for almost seven and five years, respectively.
Today, Hezbollah’s armed tactics revolve around rocket attacks on Israel and kidnap missions against its soldiers. The group also concentrates on welfare projects in the still-stricken south, and holds 14 seats in the Lebanese parliament.
WHO IS HASSAN NASRALLAH?
Born in 1960 in a poor Beirut suburb, Hassan Nasrallah has gained international notoriety in recent years for being the public face and voice of Hezbollah.
His career began in 1975 during the civil war when he joined the Amal movement, a Shiite militia. In 1982, following a period of religious study in Iraq and after Israel’s invasion of Lebanon, he joined Hezbollah, and soon became known for his charismatic brand of fierce and fiery rhetoric. In 1992, after Hezbollah’s former leader was killed in an Israeli helicopter attack he took on the role of Hezbollah’s Secretary-General. Nasrallah’s own eldest son, Muhammed, was later killed in combat with Israel in 1997.
Often branded a terrorist by the West, Nasrallah has publicly criticised both the Taliban and Al-Qaeda, but he remains set on the destruction of Israel.
His leadership has seen Hezbollah responsible for kidnappings and bombings, as well as for far-reaching social, medical and educational programs throughout the impoverished south and beyond.
Though Lebanon’s 18 official religions have fought quite consistently since the country’s creation in 1943, one of the central paradoxes of the Lebanese psyche is the country’s collective and overriding national pride in its tolerance of others. You’re sure to hear this repeated throughout your trip, even when there’s sectarian fighting going on just up the road.
You’ll likely also experience the strange collective amnesia that seems to descend on the population if the country’s civil war is brought up in conversation. A painful memory for most, reticence to talk about it (despite the physical scars that still pepper the landscape) is common. You usually won’t encounter the same problem, however, if you mention current politics: everyone is keen to share an opinion on the political issue of the day. Another common feature among the Lebanese is the overriding optimism that ‘everything’s going to be all right’, in the end.
While each of these three things may seem strange to a first-time visitor, you’ll soon realize that all are essential to keeping the troubled country soldiering on, no matter how bad life gets.
However, the element of national identity that will most profoundly affect visitors to the country is the justifiably legendary hospitality of the Lebanese towards their guests who, as the Lebanese saying goes, are a ‘gift from God’. You’ll be assured a warm welcome every step of the way, and will barely have to pause on a street corner for someone to offer you assistance, refreshingly free of strings. This makes Lebanon a reassuringly comfortable place to spend time, despite the country’s reputation for frequent violence, and it won’t take long for you to start reciprocating the Lebanese affection for their visitors ten-fold.
Though it’s hard to generalize about such a traditionally factionalised country, family life, as in most Middle Eastern destinations, is central to all in Lebanon. Extended families often live close together, and many children live at home until married, either to save money for their own home or simply because they prefer it that way. Social life, too, is both close-knit and gregarious: everyone within a small community tends to know everything there is to know about everyone else.
Marriage is a second crucial factor throughout Lebanon, and members of all religions tend to marry young. An unmarried woman in her thirties will raise eyebrows, though a man still single at 30, as in most parts of the Middle East, is usually thought to be simply waiting for the right girl. And though there has traditionally been an expectation that people will marry within their religion, this barrier is slowly being broken down: many mixed-religion couples opt for marriage in Cyprus or Greece, if one half of the couple (usually the woman) doesn’t choose to convert.
Alongside the importance of family and marriage, a university education is highly valued in Lebanon. Financial constraints aren’t too much of an issue: those whose parents can’t afford to subsidize them usually take part-time jobs alongside their classes. This is true for both men and women, since women of all religions are now readily accepted into all areas of the workplace, including the government. Many young people study with a view to emigrating overseas, lured by higher salaries and the promise of a safer, calmer lifestyle away from the unrest.
As you’ll notice from the pace of Beirut nightlife, young Christians – both male and female – usually have far greater social freedom than Muslims or members of other religions. But while these freedoms may at first appear similar to their Western counterparts, there are definite limits to acceptable behaviour. Drinking heavily, sleeping around and taking drugs are frowned upon in Lebanese society – not that you’d necessarily know it on a night out at Beirut’s nightclubs. And while party-central Beirut seems, on the surface, no different from any European capital city, venture just a few dozen kilometres north or south and you’ll find people in traditional villages living and farming almost exactly as they did a century or more ago. Add to this a substantial Palestinian and Syrian population almost entirely cut off from the mainstream – and rarely referred to in conversation by the Lebanese themselves – and you’ll find that daily life in this tiny country is incredibly complex, and often wildly contrasting.
A favourite topic of Lebanese conversation is the country’s ‘brain drain’. Current unofficial estimates suggest that one in three educated Lebanese citizens would like to live abroad, while a recent study by the Beirut Research and Development Centre (BRDC) found that 22% of the Lebanese population is actively working on an exit strategy. Another survey of university students showed that as many as 60% are hoping to leave Lebanon following graduation.
There are a number of reasons why so many of Lebanon’s bright young things are disappearing elsewhere, not the least the climate of fear that has lingered after the Israel-Hezbollah war of summer 2006. Terrorist attacks on Lebanese politicians, in which civilians are sometimes caught up, have also sent young Lebanese in pursuit of jobs overseas. Most popular tend to be the burgeoning Gulf States, which have the advantage of high salaries and being fairly close to home, with the USA, Canada and Europe all close seconds.
The second principal reason for the mass exit is that salaries in Lebanon are often too low to provide a comfortable, viable living. Those who manage to acquire good jobs – often through family connections – hold tight to them and are reluctant to relinquish the security and move on.
Although Lebanon was largely spared the impact of the Global Financial Crisis, and many people returned to Lebanon after losing their jobs abroad, the influx is temporary. Most intend to leave as soon as jobs and salaries overseas become available.
Lebanon’s official population of just over four million people is boosted by its Palestinian refugees, whom the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) puts officially at around 455,000.
It’s a largely urban population, with around 90% of people living in cities, of which Beirut is the most highly populated, followed by Tripoli, Sidon and Tyre. According to the CIA World Factbook, the population growth rate currently stands at around 0.24%, which is very low for the Middle East. Lebanon has a youthful population: nearly a quarter is under 14 years of age.
Lebanon hosts 18 ‘official’ religious sects, which are Muslim (Shiite, Alawite, Ismaili and Sunni), Christian (Maronite, Greek Orthodox and Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Gregorian, Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian, Chaldean, Copt, Evangelical and Roman Catholic), Druze and Jewish. There are also small populations of Baha’is, Mormons, Buddhists and Hindus.
Muslims are today estimated to comprise around 60% of the population, though before the civil war unofficial statistics put the Muslim to Christian ratio closer to 50:50. The shift is attributed to the mass emigration of Christians during and since the civil war, and to higher birth rates among Muslims.
Traditionally, Muslim Shiites have largely inhabited the south of the country, the Bekaa Valley and southern suburbs of Beirut. Sunnis, meanwhile, have been concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli and Sidon; the Druze in the Chouf Mountains; and Maronite Christians (the largest Christian group) in the Mt Lebanon region. Though recent years have seen population shifts, particularly in Beirut, this still largely holds true today.
In summer, many towns and villages hold fabulous dance and music festivals, which are well worth looking out for. Baalbek’s international festival is a particular highlight on the calendar. The nation’s capital hosts its own lively arts scene and is well equipped with theatres, cinemas and venues for the visual and performing arts.
Though for much of the 20th century Beirut was the publishing powerhouse of the Middle East, it suffered during the civil war and much of its recent literary output has been shaped by this long drawn-out and horrific event. Even today, a great deal of Lebanon’s literary output remains concerned with themes drawn from these 15 years of hardship.
Of the writers who remained in Lebanon during the civil war, Emily Nasrallah is a leading figure, and her novel Flight Against Time is highly regarded. Those who work overseas include London-based Tony Hanania, born in 1964 and author of the 1997 Homesick and 2000 Eros Island, and Amin Maalouf, whose most enchanting book, The Rock of Tanios, is set in a Lebanese village where the Sheikh’s son disappears after rebelling against the system.
Of those authors most widely available in translation, Lebanon’s two major figures are Elias Khoury and feminist author Hanan al-Shaykh. Al-Shayk’s Story of Zahra is a harrowing account of the civil war, while her Beirut Blues is a series of long letters that contrast Beirut’s cosmopolitan past with the book’s war-torn present. Elias Khoury has published 10 novels, many available in translation: his 1998 novel Gate of the Sun has achieved particular international acclaim.
Poet Khalil Gibran (1883–1931) remains the celestial light in Lebanon’s poetry scene. Interestingly, today poetry is once again flourishing in the largely Shiite south, partly due to a movement known as Shu’ara al-Janub (Poets from the South), for whom poetry has become a means of expressing the frustrations and despair of life in that most war-ravaged of regions.
Top Lebanese Reads. Here’s some fact and some fiction to accompany any journey through Lebanon.
» Sitt Marie Rose: A Novel (1982), by Etel Adnan
» The Stone of Laughter (1998), by Hoda Barakat
» The Rock of Tanios (1994), by Amin Maalouf
» Memory for Forgetfulness: August, Beirut 1982 (1982), by Mahmoud Darwish
» Death in Beirut (1976), by Tawfiq Yusuf Awwad
» Pity the Nation: Lebanon at War (2001), by Robert Fisk
» Beirut (2010), by Samir Kassir
» The Ghost of Martyr’s Square (2010), by Michael Young
» The Prophet (1923), by Khalil Gibran
» Lebanon: A House Divided (2006), by Sandra Mackey
» From Beirut to Jerusalem (1998), by Thomas Friedman
» Lebanon: Beware of Small States (2010), by David Hirst
» The Hills of Adonis: A Journey in Lebanon (1990), by Colin Thurbon
Mustn’t Miss Movies
If you get the chance, don’t fail to look up some of these cinematic treasures.
» Where Do We Go Now? (2011), directed by Nadine Labaki
» Towards the Unknown (1957), directed by Georges Nasser
» West Beirut (1998), directed by Ziad Duweyri
» The Little Wars (1982), directed by Maroun Baghdadi
» The Broken Wings (1962), directed by Yousef Malouf
» In the Shadows of the City (2000), directed by Jean Chamoun
» Caramel (2007), directed by Nadine Labaki
» Bosta (2005), directed by Philippe Aractingi
» Giallo (2005), directed by Antoine Waked
» Bint el-Haress (1967), directed by Henry Barakat
» Harab Libnan (2001), directed by Omar al-Issawi
In the bars and clubs of Beirut’s Hamra and Gemmayzeh districts, contemporary fusions of oriental trip-hop, lounge, drum and bass and traditional Arabic for both the dance floor and chilling out, have for the last few years dominated sound systems. Groups such as the Beirut-based REG Project specialize in Arab deep house and lounge. Soap Kills and Mashrou3 Leila are also popular. You’ll hear these sounds, along with traditional belly-dancing tunes remixed to electronic music, almost anywhere you stop off for a strong drink and a good dance or two.
Ancient architecture in Lebanon can be found at Baalbek’s spectacular remains, in the traces of the Romans in Beirut and at the Umayyad ruins at Aanjar.
Much of Lebanon’s more recent heritage architecture has been damaged over the last century by the combined effects of war and redevelopment, though there remain a substantial number of examples of the country’s traditional architecture dotted about the country. To the north, Tripoli’s old city souqs contain a wealth of medieval and Islamic architecture, while Deir al-Qamar, in the southern Chouf Mountains, is a well-preserved village with some beautiful 18th- and 19th-century villas and palaces. Beiteddine Palace, also in the Chouf Mountains, is a melange of Italian and traditional Arab architecture, more remarkable for its lavish interiors than any architectural innovation.
Interior designers are doing wonderful work in Lebanon these days, and Beirut’s B 018 nightclub, designed by Bernard Khoury, is a top-notch example. Situated on the former Green Line, the club pays homage to the past at a site that was formerly a quarantine zone, a refugee camp and the site of an appalling massacre during the war – and is worth a visit as much for its appearance as its sizzling-hot DJs and crowd.
FOOD & DRINK
Lebanese cuisine has a reputation as being one of the very best in the Middle East. The proof of the pudding, as they say, is in the eating, so sample as much of it as you possibly can.
Fresh ingredients, including numerous types of fruit, vegetables and pulses, are plentiful in Lebanon. Mezze, small dishes often served as starters, are a godsend for vegetarians even in the most far-flung parts of the country, with hummus, tabbouleh and salads galore, while seafood and grilled meats are staunch favourites of carnivores. In Beirut, the diversity and quality of food on offer matches any international city: want tapas at two in the morning, or sushi at six? You’ll find it all here.
Arabic or ‘Turkish’ coffee is particularly popular in Lebanon – look out for the men dispensing tiny, strong cups of it from the back of battered old Volkswagen vans – while delicious freshly squeezed vegetable and fruit juices are on offer almost everywhere throughout the summer. Alcohol, too, is widely available in Lebanon; Beirut’s awash with cocktails, but the most popular alcoholic old-timer is the potent aniseed-flavoured arak, mixed liberally with water and ice, and sipped alongside meals or a long game of backgammon. The best local beer is Almaza, which lives up to its name (‘diamond’ in Arabic) when served ice-cold.
Though Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the world, its terrain is surprisingly diverse. Four main geographical areas run almost parallel to each other from north to south. They are (from west to east): the coastal plain, the Mt Lebanon Range, the Bekaa Valley and the Jebel Libnan ash-Sharqiyya (Anti-Lebanon) range.
The Mt Lebanon Range includes Lebanon’s highest summit, Qornet as-Sawda (3090m), and an example of the famous cedars of Lebanon at the Cedars. Jebel Libnan ash-Sharqiyya marks the border between Lebanon and Syria. Its highest summit is Jebel ash-Sheikh (Mt Hermon), at 2814m.
Ravaged by more than two decades of war, anarchy, unfettered construction and weak state control, Lebanon’s environment remains very fragile, and some of the only areas to have escaped destruction are, ironically, the heavily landmined or cluster-bombed areas, still filled with unexploded ordnance.
The complete lack of basic service industries or infrastructure during the civil war meant that solid waste was dumped throughout the country, and many water sources are still polluted. Air pollution is another serious, ongoing problem, particularly in Beirut, with a couple of million cars (many of them ancient, spluttering wrecks or petrol-guzzling SUVs) plying its crowded roads. Add to this catastrophic oil spills caused by the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, and it’s not a pretty picture that emerges.
All is not lost for Lebanon, however. A host of local and international NGOs are working to secure a better future for Lebanon’s environment, while the government itself seems, in theory at least, committed to change. Huge national parks such as Chouf Cedar Reserve (which makes up an incredible 5% of Lebanon’s landmass) are, though underfunded and overstretched, working hard on protecting its wildlife. With time, money and persistence, there’s still hope for the country to prove that, as the saying goes, great things come in small packages.
Accommodation prices for double rooms, with a bathroom, breakfast and taxes included: budget options are under US$80, midrange between US$80 and US$120, and top-end over US$120. This is in high season (June to September) except for the Cedars, which is for a room between December and March. Prices are either in US dollars or in Lebanese lira (LL), depending on which is quoted by the establishment itself.
In low season large discounts are often available, sometimes 50% or even more, so it’s always worth checking. Some smaller places, however, may shut up shop if there seems to be no likelihood of travellers, so it might pay to call in advance if you have any doubts.
Lebanese Youth Hostel Federation (www.lyhf.org) lists nine hostels serving the country, though no hostel in Beirut itself. Most are in small, rural villages, offering a taste of real local life, and have beds for around US$10 to US$20 per person per night.
L’HoteL Libanais (www.hotelibanais.com) offers upscale homestays across the country.
GAY & LESBIAN TRAVELLERS
Homosexuality is illegal in Lebanon, but there’s a thriving – if clandestine – gay scene in Beirut. B 018 (www.b018.com) nightclub is a gay-friendly establishment, while Beirut’s hammams and cafes provide plenty of opportunities to meet and greet.
»The Daily Star provides good coverage of local news in English, the daily L ’ Orient Le Jour in French. The monthly magazine Time Out Beirut is useful for upcoming events, openings and exhibitions in Beirut.
»The BBC World Service can be received on 1323kHz; popular locally are Radio One, Light FM and Nostalgie.
»European two-round-pin plugs are needed to connect to Lebanon’s electricity supply (220VAC, 50Hz).
Lebanon’s currency is the Lebanese lira (LL), also known locally as the Lebanese pound. Banknotes are available in 1000, 5000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000 and 100,000 and coins in LL250 and LL500.
US$ are widely accepted countrywide and many establishments rarely quote prices in anything else. ATMs are reliable and available and dispense LL and US$.
Budget hotels and restaurants generally do not accept credit cards. Tipping is widespread, usually LL2000 for simple services. Waiters are usually tipped 10% but check your bill first as some places add a 15% service charge.
New Year’s Day 1 January
Feast of Saint Maroun 9 February – feast of the patron saint of the Maronites
Easter March/April – Good Friday to Easter Monday inclusive
Labour Day 1 May
Martyrs’ Day 6 May
Assumption 15 August
All Saints’ Day 1 November
Independence Day 22 November
Christmas Day 25 December
Also observed are Muslim holidays”
Although its recent history has included several lengthy periods of relative calm, Lebanon’s chequered religious, political and social fabric has frequently caused tensions to flare suddenly and violently.
Many countries, including the UK, Australia and the USA currently include Lebanon on their list of countries to which all but essential travel should be avoided. Most specifically, foreign offices advise against travel south of the Litani River or into Palestinian refuge camps, and suggest avoiding all public demonstrations.
Despite the bleak warnings, you’ll find warm, welcoming people in Lebanon, eager to help travellers, and you’ll quickly feel safe and at home.
Nevertheless, circumstances can change extremely rapidly: in summer 2006, for example, many travellers suddenly found themselves stranded after Israel’s attacks on the country shut down the international airport and rendered the main highway to the Syrian border impassable. Most crucially, keep your eye on the news (www.yalibnan.com) and on the Daily Star (www.dailystar.com.lb) are both good sources of up-to-the-minute online news.
Avoid driving at night largely due to Lebanon’s hair-raising, headlight-free driving. Take local advice when travelling in the south. If you’re planning on visiting any Palestinian or Syrian refugee camps, make sure you have a reliable local companion. Threats to UN Interiim Forces in Lebanon (UNIFIL) troops have led some to warn against visiting restaurants or other establishments frequented by UNIFIL staff in Tyre. Talk to your embassy in Lebanon if you’re in any doubt as to your safety.
Since the Syrian civil war, violent conflicts in Tripoli have occurred between opponents and supporters of the Syrian government. Seek advice before travelling to Tripoli and to the north of the country.
Theft. This is a minor problem, but random crime is far lower than in most Western cities. There are occasional spates of motorcycle bag snatchings, particularly in Beirut, but as in any large city, you only need to exercise normal precautions.
All nationalities need a visa to enter Lebanon, though costs and visa requirements are constantly changing. For the most up-to-date information, visit the website of Lebanon’s General Security Office (www.general-security.gov.lb).
Citizens of Jordan and Gulf Cooperation Countries (Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Bahrain and Oman) are entitled to a free three-month visa at the airport free of charge.
Citizens of most other countries are entitled to a free one-month visa at the airport. For other nationalities, visas must be obtained in advance at any Lebanese embassy or consulate: you’ll need two passport photos, and possibly a letter from your employers stating that you’ll be returning to your job. Visas are usually issued the next day, but may take longer.
Israeli Passport Stamps. Lebanon denies entry to travellers with evidence of a visit to Israel in their passport. If asked at a border crossing or at the airport if you’ve ever been to Israel, bear in mind that saying ‘yes’ (if you have) will mean you won’t be allowed into the country.
Extensions. To extend your one-month visa to a three-month visa, go to the General Security Office (Rue de Damas, Beirut; 8am-1pm Mon-Thu, to 10am Fri, to noon Sat) in Beirut, a few days before your first month ends. Take a passport photo, your passport, and photocopies of your passport ID page and the page where your entry visa was stamped.
The only land crossings from Lebanon were into Syria (the Israel-Lebanon land border has not been open for many years). I would imagine that they are all closed because of the Syrian Civil War now. There were four in total and the most reliably open was Masnaa, on the Beirut-Damascus Highway. The other three are a Al-Qaa, at the north end of the Bekaa Valley, Aarida, on the coastal road from Tripoli to Lattakai; and the Aabouyide on the Tripoli to Homs route.
Buses to Syria from Beirut left from the Charles Helou bus station. Four years ago (when my LP was written, bus services to Lattakia or Homs or from Tripoli were severely limited. There was a 7 hour bus, via Syria to Amman Jordan 4X a week.
Lebanon, in general, is an easy destination for solo female travellers, more akin in attitudes to neighbouring Israel. Revealing, Western-style clothes are common in Beirut and Jounieh, and in the beach clubs that line the sands from Sidon up to Byblos, but outside the main centres, long-sleeved, loose clothing is still preferable. This is particularly the case in the south, the north around Tripoli and in the Bekaa Valley, all predominantly Muslim areas, and, of course, when entering holy places.
GETTING THERE AND AWAY
With the Syrian Civil War, the only way to travel to Lebanon is by air.
Beirut Rafic Hariri International Airport (BEY. www.beirutairport.gov.lb) is Lebanon’s only airport. The national carrier, Middle East Airlines (www.mea.com.lb; Beirut), has an extensive network including flights to and from Europe and to the Arab world. It’s reliable and has a decent safety record.
The following international airlines, among others, currently service Beirut:
Air France (www.airfrance.com; Beirut)
Cyprus Air (www.cyprusairways.com; Beirut)
EgyptAir (www.egyptair.com.eg; Beirut)
Emirates (www.emirates.com; Beirut)
Gulf Air (www.gulfairco.com; Beirut)
Lufthansa (www.lufthansa.com; Beirut)
Malaysia Airlines (www.mas.com.my; Beirut)
Royal Jordanian Airline (www.rja.com.jo)
Turkish Airlines (www.turkishairline.com)
Tunisia Airlines has direct flights from Tunis to Beirut twice a week ($167US), certainly the cheapest flight between the two.
Car & Motorcycle
Since Lebanon levies a steep charge at the border for bringing in your car (calculated on a sliding scale, depending on the vehicle’s value), it’s not really advisable to try bringing your own vehicle into the country. Four years ago the best bet was to park it securely in Damascus, and take the bus into Lebanon from there.
There are no air services or trains operating within Lebanon, but the country is so small (you can drive from one end to the other in half a day) that you don’t really need them. In and around Beirut and the coastal strip, the bus, minibus and taxi network is extensive, cheap and fairly reliable. To fully explore the hinterland of the country (especially around the Qadisha Valley, Bekaa Valley and the south) it’s well worth hiring a car or negotiating a private taxi to avoid waiting for hours for a bus that eventually decides not to arrive at all.
Bicycle. Lebanon’s steep terrain and the state of many urban roads demand a rugged, all-terrain bicycle. There are few designated bike lanes or routes, however, and drivers – whose driving style could politely be described as ‘loose’ or ‘creative’ – aren’t exactly used to giving space to cyclists plying the country’s roads. If you have thighs and nerves of steel, however, cycling the countryside is certainly stunningly scenic and the fresh mountain air a joy.
Bus & Microbus. Buses travel between Beirut and all of Lebanon’s major towns. There are three main bus pick-up and drop-off points in Beirut:
Charles Helou bus station Just east of downtown, for destinations north of Beirut (including Syria). This is the only formal station and is divided into three signposted zones with ticket offices. Buses usually have the destination displayed in the front window, but largely in Arabic only.
Buy tickets on the bus at the other bus stations.
Cola transport hub. This is a confused bustling intersection (often known as Mazraa), generally serving the south and the Bekaa Valley.
Dawra transport hub northeast of Beirut, and covering the same destinations as Charles Helou bus station, it’s usually a port of call on the way in and out of the city.
Microbuses. Independently owned microbuses that cover the same routes as the buses. The advantages are that they’re comfortable, frequent and often quicker than regular buses. The disadvantages are that they’re more expensive and, since they’re privately owned, you’re taking a chance on the driver’s motoring skills. You pay for your ticket on board, either at the start or end of the journey. See individual town and city listings for detailed information.
Car. You need to be a competent driver with very steady nerves to contemplate driving in Lebanon, since there are few rules of the road. A three-lane road, for example, can frequently become seven lanes. Hairpin bends and pot-holed roads are frequent in the mountains, and few roads are gritted after a snow fall. Beirut’s traffic is often heavy, and road signs (where there are any at all) can be cryptic or misleading.
Having said all that, renting a car is a fantastic way to get to some of the most out-of-the-way parts of the country, especially if time is tight. With a car, you’ve got the freedom to explore the small villages peppering the Qadisha Valley, and make your own unexpected discoveries en route. In addition to being generally cautious, remember to stop at military checkpoints and have your passport and car rental papers ready for inspection.
As well as the usual gamut of international operators (Avis, Budget, Thrifty and Sixt all have offices in Beirut), local outfit Advanced Car Rental (www.advancedcarrent.com) comes highly recommended.
Bus. Some towns, including Beirut, have privately owned buses that operate a hail-and-ride system. Fares are generally LL1000 for all except the most distant destinations; see individual town or city information for details.
Taxi & Service Taxi. Most routes around Lebanese towns and cities are covered by service, or shared, taxis, which are usually elderly Mercedes with red licence plates and a taxi sign on the roof. You can hail them at any point on their route and also get out wherever you wish by saying ‘anzil huun’ (drop me off here). Be sure to ask ‘servees?’ before getting in (if it’s an empty car), to ensure the driver doesn’t try to charge you a private taxi fare. Going rates are generally LL1500 to LL2000 for trips within a town, and LL5000 to LL10,000 for trips to outlying areas.
If you want to engage a private taxi, make sure the driver understands exactly where you want to go and negotiate the fare clearly before you get in (fares are suggested in relevant sections). Bear in mind that it might actually be cheaper, especially if you’re planning on taking several day trips, to rent a car.
Several Lebanese operators organize reliable tours within Lebanon. They cover most of Lebanon’s highlights, are reasonably priced and usually include lunch, guide (in English or French), entrance fees and pick-up/drop-off at your hotel, and transport is usually in air-con coaches or minibuses. Half-day trips cost from US$30 per person, full-day trips around US$60 to US$80.
Adonis Travel (www.adonistravel.com/lebanon)
Cynthia Tours (www.cynthia-tours.com) Offers customised small and large group tours. Multilingual guides.
Nakhal & Co (www.nakhal.com; Sami el-Souh Ave, Ghorayeb Bldg, Beirut) One of the largest tour operators.
Tania Travel (www.taniatravel.com; Rue Sidani, Hamra, Beirut; 8am-6pm Mon-Sat)