As my wife and the boys prepared for their usual summer trip to Lebanon few days ago, I noticed that the number of luggage has almost doubled this time - I counted four large suitcases and three smaller ones, in addition to the carry-on handbags.
I opened one of the newly bought suitcases, which looked overstuffed and as I suspected, found that there were no clothes or shoes or the usual trivial personal items we carry in our travel. The bag was full of groceries! That is right.
A couple of Nestlé’s Nescafe, the pink coffee mate, several cases of Panadol and other medicines, several jars of creamy cheese and strawberry jams, boxes of cereal and oatmeal, sunscreen and many other things stuffed neatly beneath.
I couldn’t help thinking as I closed the bag about the sorry state that Lebanon has so much degenerated into that one would have to stock on food and medicine when traveling there. All travellers to Lebanon today do exactly as my wife.
A nation in distress
Life in that country as described by their families is absolutely petrifying. Long lines and skirmishes at the few gas stations that still have fuel and the empty shelves at the supermarkets as almost all imported groceries, such as the cereals and my wife’s favourite coffee, Nescafe, disappeared.
Many pharmacies closed because they have no stocks. And whatever is available has become beyond the reach of the average person because the prices have skyrocketed as the Lira, the Lebanese currency that is pegged to the dollar, has lost more than 90 percent of its value.
Inflation has gone over the roof and, according to a recent World Bank report, more than half of the families are now officially under the poverty line. Welcome to a Lebanon unlike the Lebanon we used to know and love.
In his book, “My Story- 50 Stories in 50 Years,” His Highness Sheikh Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum had a chapter titled “Beirut.” He recalls his early and fond memories of the 1960s Lebanon, when it was called the Switzerland of the Middle East and Beirut was the region’s Paris.
“My first memories of Beirut date back to the early 1960s when I came from the desert of Dubai, with its mud houses, sandy streets and palm-covered markets. I travelled to Beirut with my family, passing through on our way to London. Beirut amazed me as a child, and I fell in love with it as a young man. But it would break my heart as an adult.”
Lebanon of yore is gone
Tragically, the Lebanon that amazed Sheikh Mohammed and millions of Arabs in those days no longer exists. Decades of civil war, Israeli occupation and frequent attacks, rampant corruption, power struggle and management failure left the once prosperous country fragmented land, ruled by selfish sectarian and communal chieftains. Beirut today is merely a ghost of what was once the jewel of the Arab world.
Until recent years, the Arab world’s health was measured politically, economically, and culturally by the condition of certain cities, mainly the four civilisation centres: Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus and Beirut. These cities are some of the oldest cities in the world.
Cairo’s history goes back 5,000 years ago, the days of the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis, near the head of the Nile delta, south of the present capital of Egypt. The current city though was established by the Fatimid military commander Jawhar Al Seqelli in 969 AD. For centuries, it was the centre of learning, wealth and political power in the Arab world.
Modern Baghdad was founded in 762 AD as the capital of the Abbasid state and for 500 years thereafter was the most significant cultural centre of Arab and Islamic civilisation. It lies in the heart of ancient Mesopotamia, the cradle of human civilisation that thrived almost 7,000 years ago.
Founded in the 3rd millennium B.C., Damascus was an important cultural and commercial centre, by virtue of its geographical position at the crossroads of the orient and the occident, between Africa and Asia. It is considered to be among the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world.
Evidences of the subsequent civilisations- Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine and Islamic are prominently visible around the city, which was until a decade ago one of the central power centres in the region.
Beirut meanwhile was founded as early as 3,000 BC., before Jerusalem, Athens, Damascus, or any other current capital. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, the first historical mention of Beirut is found in the ancient Egyptian Tell El Amarna letters dating from the 15th century BC.
Take a look at these four cities today. They don’t resemble at all the cities they used to be. Ravaged by either war, civil strife, mismanagement, neglect, each of these historic capitals has become a case study for self-destruction.
Take Beirut for example. Since its founding, Beirut, nestled between the eastern mountains and the Mediterranean Sea to the west has played an important role as a trade gateway between the Middle East and the western world.
Lebanon has faced and overcame endless campaigns by foreign invaders and occupiers- the Romans, the Crusaders and then the Ottomans followed by the French and more recently the Israelis.
Its most notable period of prosperity began in first half of the 20th century, with the oil boom in the region coupled with the start of tension and war in it surrounding areas - the Palestinian Nakba in 1948, the successive regime changes in Syria and Iraq as it became safe haven for money, politics, culture and art.
Its banking sector was then the most active in the region, and Beirut became the preferred destination of the rich Arabs seeking both business and pleasure and also the latest fashion.
Venal politicians and petty squabbles
It was also the attractive spot for Arab Gulf vacationers with its white beaches, beautiful countryside and stunning mountain homes. Beirut housed the largest number of publishing houses in the Middle East, and its airport was the busiest in this part of the world- the preferred transit link between this region and the rest of the world.
That unfortunately lasted only a couple of decades as its people decided one day to sink it in the overly complicated maze of regional politics. Lebanon’s main problem is that some of its politicians (and warriors) thought that Lebanon was too small for their own ambitions- people like Riad Al Solh, Camille Chamoun, Suleiman Frangieh, Kamal Jumblatt, the leaders of the civil war militias and currently Hezbollah. And instead of Lebanon being ‘the Jewel of the Middle East’ which it should be, it has become the preferred arena of the Arab wars and dirty politics.
The Lebanese people certainly bear the ultimate responsibility for the destruction of their country that began with the start of the civil war in 1976. Today, Lebanon is officially a failed state on the brink of a total political, economic and social collapse. The political parties and the ruling class have failed for almost a year to agree on a new government because of their petty quarrels over ministerial quotas.
Lebanon does not lack human resources at all. The Lebanese are known for their skills in all fields. They are a worldly educated and talented people, open minded, and fast leaners. The country’s predicament is its overpoliticisation. Too much politics at play. That and of course a selfish political elite that doesn’t care at all about the national interests- their loyalties lie elsewhere.
In a superbly composed 3,000 essay published in the London Review of Book, 4 July 1985, titled the fall of Beirut, the late great Arab-American intellectual Edward Said had this to say about Lebanon’s political leaders: “I have almost given up trying to plot the changes and the turns, each of them denser and more complicated than the preceding, each of them reminding me of Lebanon’s astounding capacity for money-making, conspiracy, and individual as well as mass murder.
Yet the so-called traditional leaders and their variously mediocre progeny remain unchanged, as they forge and almost immediately betray alliances with each other, as well as with the Syrians, Palestinians, Iranians, Americans, Israelis, and Saudis. There is literally no one to admire or trust in this too long and too sordid spectacle of idiotic violence and limitless corruption.
Even the innocent civilians who have gone on and on, with their brave routines, their ability to rebuild and restart their lives a dozen times, their courage under fire, must have secretly connived, one feels, with the leaders who have kept the war going. Otherwise, how could it have continued for such a long time?”
Many Lebanese claim Phoenician roots. They believe their country is the living embodiment of the mythical firebird, the Phoenix.
The legendary Phoenix is a supernatural bird which lives for 500 years. Once its life span is over, the Phoenix builds its own funeral pyre, and throws itself into the flames. As it dies, it is reborn anew, and rises from the ashes to live another 1000 years.
The Lebanese believe their country will rise from the ashes yet again. I don’t think it is that easy. It will take more than a legend to save Lebanon this time. Because even at Lebanon’s worst crises, and we have seen a lot of them, we never had to carry Nescafe, cereals and Aspirin when we flew there.