Rose George

On my first night in Lebanon, there are fireworks and a ruckus. A local by-election has just been held in a Christian area of Beirut. The two candidates were the sister and the uncle of the Interior Minister. When the votes were first counted, the Minister’s father claimed that his daughter had won. His brother contested the result, and now he has won. The fireworks are the uncle’s supporters’, the ruckus his niece’s.

Lebanon was the war of my teenage years, as Bosnia was the war of my adulthood. It was background noise in my schooldays, and I remember very few things about it: Terry Waite’s beard; the Human League song, dark and booming, testament to the fact that Lebanon used to have a definite article. Also, that the producers of Star Wars had clearly pillaged the Lebanese phone book when they were looking for character names (Lorth Needa etc). The fighting Lebanese were indisputably foreign, because the complexity of their wars was usually distilled to ‘ethnic hatreds’, like the Bosnians’. Only occasionally – on the grounds that Beirut was ‘the Paris of the Middle East’ – were they also ‘just like us’.

A Lebanese friend drives me through Beirut. The Baghdad highway at peak bandit time is nerve-racking, but this is scarier. I suppose all these lunatics have reflexes sharpened by years of shell-dodging. Even my friend gets nervous (he moved to South Kensington years ago and is out of practice). I try to concentrate on the sights.

They’re the ones you read about in tourist brochures: the blue Mediterranean, looming Mount Lebanon, the mosques and churches, side by side. And then there’s a statue of a shopping trolley, a massive structure overlooking the ringroad as if it’s the best and biggest symbol Beirut has of its much trumpeted rebirth. Newspaper stories about Beirut often include the words ‘phoenix’ and ‘ashes’ in the headline. An expat professor of architecture here says that when he arrived in 1999 there were three decent bars and seven decent restaurants. Now there are three hundred bars and seven hundred restaurants. New establishments are opening all the time; they stay in business, on average, for three weeks.

Lady Yvonne Sursock Cochrane, who lives in Sursock Palace in Sursock neighbourhood, is the matriarch of one of Beirut’s grand families. In 1960 she founded Apsad, a heritage organisation. It had its work cut out during the war, but peace keeps it even busier: ‘Beirut had five hundred houses worth saving after the war, and most have been pulled down.’ In a small, ambitious country, land is worth more than historic property. On one occasion, she says, there was a demonstration to save a house. The Ministry of Culture responded by promising to list it, and the protestors left at midnight. The owners demolished the house by 4 a.m. At the Foreign Ministry – another palace – the driveway is lined with fresh tree stumps. ‘We cut them down,’ a guard says. ‘There was a delegation wearing white suits. They didn’t want to get them dirty.’

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