Explosions are nothing new in Beirut. My childhood visits to the city were punctuated by car bombs. I’d grab my mother’s hand and ask why. Usually there was an election on. Lebanese elections were not always orderly, and the many factions were particularly competitive in the 1960s.
But none of those explosions came close to this week’s huge blast, said to have been felt as far away as Cyprus. It was the very last thing this debt-stricken country needed.
My grandfather’s family came from Ehden, then just a small mountain town in North Lebanon, not far from Tripoli. The Arabic name for Tripoli is Troublos which tells you a lot about the country. The history of Lebanon has been nothing if not turbulent. And yet there was so much to admire and enjoy, as any Lebanese person will gladly tell you, in great detail.
This tiny country boasts (I use the word advisedly) snow-capped mountains and bright blue sea. Why, you could ski in the morning and water-ski in the afternoon. And did you know that St George slayed the dragon right near the centre of Beirut, in St George’s Bay?
Until civil war began in the 1970s, Beirut was the Paris of the Middle East. The main cultural influence was French and the city was famed for its night life, restaurants, glamour, intellectual society, and tourism. Scratch that. It was the Paris of the entire world.
I’ll bet you never realized that the Lebanese invented online shopping. Why, even 50 years ago, I saw housewives lowering their baskets on a line from their balconies down to street level, their order either written on a list in the basket or, more often, relayed at full volume to the shopkeeper below.
As for taxis, Beirut pioneered the ‘service’ type which is a shared cab and much cheaper than regular taxis. To find a service, all you do is stand at a corner and a service driver will screech to a stop and carry you off, even if all you wanted was to cross the street. You might share a ride with a Maronite priest, a tourist, a student, a huge housewife clutching bunches of herbs, or whoever happened to be standing there. The drivers all drive with one hand out the window, the other giving you back your change, and the head turned back to see if you are happy. You’d better be, because if you’re not, they’ll sing along with the music on the radio and never look at the road again. There are fewer accidents than you’d expect. Every chauffeur has a string of blue beads hanging over the mirror to keep the Evil Eye and other drivers at bay.
I recall being disappointed with the Cedars. There were only about 40 of them left, and locals happened to be using them at the time to hang carcasses of various animals they were selling. But not far away there was a magnificent picnic spot by a stream. I drank from it with my hands and it was the iciest and best water I had ever tasted.
There’s no shortage of historic sights in Lebanon, so it puzzled me that for many years their postage stamps bore not photos of ancient monuments but images of fruit. Then again, the Lebanese are big on food. Nothing in Lebanon is small, except the country itself which is half the size of Israel.
Over the years, many Lebanese have left the country for bigger pastures. New York has long been a favourite. The city never sleeps and everything in the USA, especially the steaks, are twice as big as they should be, so it’s the natural destination for a young person making their way in life. The Lebanese have a deserved reputation for being good at making money, and a great many of them have succeeded in the New World.
I won’t even try to unpick the current economic situation which was dire even before this massive explosion. There’s no hope of ever recreating Beirut’s former glory, but there’s every reason to save as many lives as possible. My own cousins living near Beirut are safe. Thousands weren’t so lucky.
If you can, please help. The Lebanese Red Cross is non-partisan and is a good place to start.