November 10, 2004
by Rami Husseini
When I tell people that I spent my summer in Beirut, many give me a confused look. They often ask "That's an actual place?" as they think of their favorite Thursday night drinking game, not knowing it is the capital of the small Middle Eastern country of Lebanon. Some give me a look of horror, thinking I spent a few months in the civil war-torn city which defined Beirut in the 1970s and 80s. Others seem to think of Lebanon as an oasis in the middle of some Arabian desert, not the coastal and mountainous country it truly is. Only a small fraction initially understand what kind of experience I had.
Lebanon is a country that is smaller than the state of Connecticut and lies on the Mediterranean Sea, west of Syria and north of Israel. Due to its large Christian population, Lebanon has had close ties with France for centuries. Before 1975, Beirut was known as "The Paris of the Middle East" as it had evolved into a tourist, financial and open cultural center in a rather conservative region of the world. Complicated by the Arab-Israeli conflict and the increasing number of Palestinian refugees, problems started to arise in the country. The growing Muslim population wanted more say in the Lebanese power-sharing that had traditionally favored the Christian communities. The various powers of the Middle East got involved in the growing Lebanese conflict, financing and arming the competing factions. The result was a bloody and extremely complicated civil war that started in 1976 and did not end until 1990. It was a conflict that would devastate Beirut and many other areas in Lebanon. The city was split into two sections: East Beirut was controlled mostly by Christian and rightist forces while West Beirut was controlled by Muslim and leftist forces. By the time the civil war ended, between 100,000 and 150,000 people were killed and an entire city was left in ruins.
The first time I went to Lebanon was in April 1992 with my family to meet my grandmother and much of my father's family for the first time. I remember driving by hundreds of shelled-out concrete skeletons that were once apartment buildings and still inhabited. I remember avoiding certain parts of the city, because we did not know if there would be snipers in the buildings. We never knew when we would have power, so we were subjected to many freezing showers and climbing up eight flights of stairs to my relatives' apartment where we stayed. I have visited Beirut a half a dozen times since, and more amazing than the devastation of the civil war is the rebirth the country has experienced since.
Last spring, my friend and I decided to continue our study of the Arabic language at an intensive program at the American University of Beirut (AUB). We arrived with my parents a week early to visit family, tour the country and get used to the sights, sounds and smells of the city. Soon we knew how to expertly bargain for a taxi -- you could get almost anywhere in the city for about 1000 Lebanese Lira, or 66 cents. We knew the best places to buy Middle Eastern fast food, and in what situation it is best to speak either English, French or broken Arabic. After a few weeks my parents had left, and we were completely immersed in learning Arabic and experiencing Beirut. The Arabic program we attended was made up of about 60 of the most interesting people I have ever met in my life. Most of the students were American, ranging in age from a senior in high school to a mid-40s accomplished international lawyer. Everyone in the program had their own interesting story of why they had ended up in Beirut for their summer studying Arabic for six to eight hours a day. Many wanted to learn Arabic because of their heritage -- as was my reasoning. Most wanted to speak Arabic for future jobs, and others wanted to study just for the fascination of the language.
Our typical weekday started early in the morning with a traditional Lebanese breakfast of strained yogurt with olive oil and toasted pita bread. After sitting through four tough hours of Arabic class, we would get our bathing suits, towels and homework assignments and walk down to the beach on the AUB campus. We would then return to our apartments and finish our work in time for dinner at a restaurant in downtown Beirut. This area was practically razed during the civil war and is now is made up of new Arab-style buildings, dozens of restaurants, expensive shops and clubs.
Though it is the capital city, Beirut is not characteristic of the rest of Lebanon. There are small, tourist areas in the mountains close to Beirut, but most other areas have not been greatly affected by the Western influence. Travelling just a few hours by car, we visited Tripoli, the second largest city in Lebanon. There we visited a castle from the Crusades and an ancient marketplace, or souk. Northeast of Beirut in the Bekaa Valley, we visited the largest Roman temple outside of Italy, called Baalbek. South of Beirut and just north of the Lebanese-Israeli border we walked on the ancient ruins of the Phoenician city of Tyre. No matter how many times I travel to Lebanon, the diversity of its history will always astound me.