“Bonjoureen”. That’s a double “hello” from Beirut, where the Arabic language fuses with French in the most wonderful way. Lebanon’s capital city, home to roughly two million people, is loud and proud – a place where you must speak up to be heard.
Since its independence from France in 1943, the small country, which sits at the crossroads of the Mediterranean Basin and the Arabian hinterland, continues to embrace its former colonial master’s ‘joie de vivre’.
Cocktail bars, artistic cafes and stylish restaurants have made it back with vengeance after the country’s devastating civil war (1975 to 1990) and conflict with Israel (2006) destroyed its capital’s infrastructure.
Beirut – and its infectious beeping horns – is a city that will constantly surprise you.
Lebanon is still very much a patriarchal society, with deeply-rooted ideas about gender similar to its neighbours in the Middle East. I never felt unsafe as a solo female traveller but I did have a hard time persuading the immigration officer why I would visit the country alone. “You want to make tourism by yourself? You don’t know anyone in Lebanon? This your first time?” he asked repeatedly until muttering a reluctant “welcome”.
Fortunately, the rest of the men I met on my trip where much more pleased to see me. From the ever cheerful security guard at my hotel in downtown Beirut to the taxi drivers who offered me cigarettes and were happy to converse in a mix of Arabic and English, I experienced the warm Arab hospitality I had dreamed of.
I arrived in Lebanon the day after the country’s first election in nine years and was greeted with the sight of hundreds of campaign posters featuring the giant faces of middle-aged male candidates plastered above highways and homes
Only six women were elected into parliament out of 128 seats. Although small gains are being made, equal rights are a long way off. As the Middle East Eye explained after the election result: “How to regulate marriage, divorce, child custody or inheritance are all left to religious bodies which run the country’s 18 officially recognised sects. As a result, women often don’t have the same rights as men.”
Iran-backed Shia militia group Hezbollah won a small majority in the elections at the expense of Sunni prime minister, Saad Hariri, whose authority was weakened by a relatively poor turnout at the polls. Among the 3.6 million eligible voters, only 49.2 percent took part.
Hezbollah’s gains are unsurprising in a country struggling to cope with hosting at least one million refugees from Syria to its east and the threat of another potential war with Israel to its south. Dozens of countries in the West are shifting towards nationalist politics so why would little Lebanon, with a long history of being invaded, feel any different?
Despite Hezbollah flag-toting supporters firing off celebratory gunfire and riding mopeds through the streets of Beirut on Monday night, the threat of serious clashes was soon suppressed by the Lebanese army who enforced a 72-moped ban on the city.
Soldiers and checkpoints are a common sight on most street corners in Beirut and have a reassuring presence. One local told me she believes Lebanon is safer than a lot of European countries now as it’s more prepared for trouble and can respond quicker.
Hezbollah may have increased its political clout in Lebanon but Sunni Prime Minister Hariri, who last year mysteriously stepped down while on a trip to Saudi Arabia only to rescind his resignation on his return to Lebanon, will keep his seat. A power-sharing system put in place when the civil war ended in 1990 sees the country’s three most powerful positions allocated along sectarian lines: a Maronite Christian holds the presidency, a Shia Muslim is the speaker of the parliament and a Sunni gets the prime ministership.
If the buzz of the city, friendly people, delicious food and the multi-cultural mix of districts don’t get you hooked on Lebanon, its history will.
Beirut is one of the oldest cities in the world, inhabited more than 5,000 years ago, and the earliest evidence of civilisation in the country dates back more than seven thousand years.
In the ancient town of Byblos, around 40 minutes drive from Beirut, I walked among the ruins of a Phoenician city, Roman theatre and Crusader fortress, all originally uncovered by French archaeologists.
In Harissa, a gondola ride took me 550 meters above sea level, to an important Lebanese pilgrimage site, Our Lady of Lebanon. And in Jeita, I walked inside incredible limestone caves, the longest in the Middle East, formed over millions of years.
Three days was not long enough to see the rest of the treasures Lebanon has to offer. There’s no doubt I’ll be back.