Existing as a foreigner in Lebanon is no easy feat. Not to suggest, of course, that the life of a typical Lebanese is easy; in fact, quite the opposite. Life in Lebanon is challenging, difficult, stimulating, thought-provoking, memorable, problematic, chaotic, arduous and inspiring all at once.
The excruciating poverty of an unbelievable number of people — a third of all Lebanese people, according to An-Nahar, live on less than $266 dollars a month — has created a chasm between the people and the government; an invisible anger that manifests itself, every so often, in little acts of defiance in small neighbourhoods that barely scratch the surface of the all-powerful Lebanese Government. Life in Lebanon is tough, there is no denying it. In fact, that’s probably an understatement.
However, for those of us auspicious foreigners who have had the privilege of visiting and living amongst the Lebanese, one thing is visible above the troubles, like a single white dove over a barren desert: their attitude to life. There is an old Lebanese proverb that perfectly encapsulates this: ‘El Beb yalli byejeek menno ree7, seddo w stree7′. This literally translates as: ‘close the door that brings gusts of wind and relax’.
In a place where civil war, economic troubles, the uncontrollable influx of refugees from neighbouring countries and sectarian disputes have almost — but not quite — brought the country to its knees, the people have become resigned to it. In an almost optimistic way, their mantra is to let things happen and relax. Living in a world of poverty and uncertainty, where they have no control over their environment or the actions of their government, the Lebanese have taken the worst situations at their door and calmly settled in their chairs to watch. It is an inspiring testimony to a group of people who only want peace in their personal lives, if they cannot have peace in their world. Of course, this doesn’t refer to absolutely everyone, as no two people are the same, and each sect has their own attributes that are personal to their religious and political culture. But in a small way, the collective attitudes of the hopeful, yet resigned, have infiltrated the culture of the entire country. As a foreigner in a land you can never fully understand this, but it is palpable.
So are the experiences of the expat.
Lebanon is an endearing place of wonder and chaos, and through the rose-tinted glasses of your European passport you can view life in this country as a magical land of sensation and exquisiteness. Through the haggard beauty of the oldest pre-civil war buildings, with their elaborate wrought-iron balconies, the muddled streets of Bourj Hammoud, the noisy souks (markets) of Trablous and Saida, the barren and troubled atmosphere of the Syrian border and the bullet-ridden edifices that have been left to decay in their ivy on street corners across the country, the sad, yet still hopeful, history of Lebanon is truly visible. Through the eyes of an outsider, Lebanon becomes almost an idyll.
Having spent many years travelling here, often as a solo female traveller seeking adventure and knowledge, I have made many friends, seen many things both joyful and heart-breaking, and opened my heart and my eyes to the sadness of a culture that will never be lost, even to colonialism, war and poverty. For those of us who really feel an affinity with this part of the world, a deep understanding of the sorrow and wretchedness that plague Lebanon, this is paramount to existing and surviving in this most confusing paradise. An acceptance of basic hindrances to daily life, like lack of reliable electricity (shout out to Electricité du Liban, just as I am writing this the electricity cuts and nobody comments), laughable Wi-Fi, perpetual traffic jams, salty tap water and no-contract jobs that will have you thrown on the street as quickly as you were hired, is vital to becoming, at least in your heart, a part of this world.
For many of you, this may be the first time you’ve really heard anything significant about Lebanon. As a tiny nation stuffed awkwardly between Syria and Israel, its geographical, economic and political place in international affairs is perhaps less remarkable than that of other, larger nations. Its turbulent relationship with neighbouring countries is constantly fluctuating, being a hotspot for occasional violent skirmishes and sectarian disagreements. Its recent history is aggressively disputed by different factions across the country and the ruthless warlords of the civil war still sit on their velvet thrones. But above all this, above the destructive nature of their democracy and the poverty within which they have resigned themselves, Lebanon is a beautiful land of gently sloping mountains, craggy foothill caves, centuries-old monasteries and crumbling rock faces. It is a collective of communities, friendships, close neighbourhoods and festivities. It is also one of the most creative artistic scenes in the world, with its glistening capital city of Beirut forever being the Paris of the Middle East.
The flavour of life in Beirut is vibrant and intriguing. No two streets are the same and the expectation that you will get lost is vital; and so, embrace it. Turn off your maps and walk, take a service (a shared cab — usually a car in desperate need of a paint job and a new engine) and chat with your friendly driver who will most surely welcome you to his country. Take a stroll through Gemmayze and witness the hidden street art and small-time galleries featuring youthful and hopeful artists. Drive through the winding roads of the Chouf and observe a landscape untouched, throngs of cedar trees and beautiful houses mounted on cliffs facing the treacherous views. Spend an afternoon in Byblos, the oldest still-inhabited city in the world, jutted out on the shoreline with its crumbling castle and the freshest fish you’ll ever taste. Walk the citadel in Trablous and hold your nose through the marketplace; amble past small children running through the corridors in the tiny caves of the souk. Take your time at a waterfall in Balou3 Bal3a, take an evening swim in Batroun, climb Lebanon’s highest peak, Qurnat as Sawda, or camp out and see the milky way drifting above you at the summit. You will find beauty when the electricity turns off, sitting out with your neighbour and drinking coffee. You don’t need Wi-Fi when you can sit on the street playing Tawle and smoking arguileh with your friend. You will find the famous Lebanese hospitality and be fed a thousand times by complete strangers just because you walked past their house. You will witness the fierce loyalty of the Lebanese, apparent in even the most unexpected of places. In the words of my landlord, Zico, a colourful man with an eclectic life, an ‘anything goes’ attitude and a huge speckled beard: ‘The Lebanese like conversation. We like conversation. Talk to us and we will be your friend’. They are a memorable people. Lebanon is a memorable place. And even the most unwilling will leave their heart here.
For those who listen mainly to the BBC and the scaremongering stories of The Daily Mail, and are truly frightened by the prospect of visiting such a ‘dangerous’ place, or for those people who think of Lebanon as a far-off nation to which you have no reason to go; please, get your things in order and come. For each of your fears, there are a thousand reasons to visit Lebanon. You’ll most likely find that your fears were irrational, and instead, you will surely return to your country a changed person, with a wider understanding of the world and a sure disdain for mainstream Western news.