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Words From Adelaide: The Old Lebanon

John Powell weeps for the Lebanon he knew fifty years ago - a place where people of all religions mixed socially and were at peace with one another.

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Today I weep for the Lebanon that I so enjoyed fifty years ago; a country of friendly, hospitable people, where everybody, led by astute Levantine businessmen, wanted to work hard and to enjoy life. It was a peaceful Lebanon and a time when nobody cared whether a Moslem was a Shiite or a Sunii, least of all the Moslems themselves. Moslems, Maronites, Greek Orthodox and other Christian denominations, mixed socially with amiability and the goodwill of friendship. It was a Lebanon of happy times.

Lebanon itself was surely one of the loveliest of countries; bathed in hot sunshine, it stretched peacefully along a wide coastal plain liberally sprinkled with olive groves, towns and white-painted villages between the deep blue Mediterranean and a background of majestic, rambling, pine-covered mountains. During the winter, snow falls and the enthusiasts brought out their skis to enjoy, maybe, a morning's skiing while the very hardy descended to enjoy an afternoon swim in the sea. The sea can become very cold in the winter but in the summer one can spend hours in the warm Mediterranean; only the salty water stinging your eyes ends your luxuriating.

Beirut, its capital, was known as 'the Paris of the Middle East' because of its chic, attractive womenfolk and bright night life while its boutiques were filled with the latest Paris fashions. Years of French occupation, until World War II, were evidenced by a strong French influence in culture, customs and language, for French was widely spoken. In the Night Clubs one could see artists of those days such as Maurice Chevalier, or singers of the calibre of Edit Piaff or Jean Sablon and dance to the music of the Quintette Du Hot Club De France with Stephane Grapelli and that master of all jazz-guitar players, Django Reinhardt.

In the hot summer months there was always an exodus to the cool mountains where the open-air cafes flourished in towns like Aley, Bhamdoun and Shtoura, and the customers sat with a glass of Araq, or sipping small cups of Arab coffee; smoking their hubble-bubble pipes or Nargheelies as they are called; or playing cards, or the popular backgammon. They remained long into the cool evening eating the exquisite Lebanese dishes like Lahmee Mishwee, Maashi, Kufta, Waraq Ainub with Tabooli, and Homus and beautiful sweets such as Baaklowa, Snood es Sitt, and Burrma.

It was only a twenty minute taxi drive from Beirut to the mountains up the twisting roads, sometimes with a sheer drop on one side. The Lebanese taxi drivers were very skilled, driving their late-model American cars at breakneck speed, usually with one hand on the steering wheel while the other was used to gesticulate as they turned round to converse with the passengers on the back seat. They took a quick look at the road to overtake another vehicle, and then turned round to continue the conversation. In all my time in the Lebanon I was never overtaken by another vehicle; my taxi always did the overtaking. The Lebanon was a happy, thriving country. Half a century later, the internecine madness took over and ruined it all.

Last year I returned for a nostalgic look. The pine-covered mountains were pock-marked with ugly cement slabs of high-rise apartments; the beautiful blue Mediterranean along the coastal road up to Tripoli was barely visible behind more ugly high-rise apartments. All towns and villages had their derelict buildings shell-scarred and bullet-riddled; the beautiful Ambassadors Hotel in Bhamdoun, had disappeared, wrecked in the battles and no longer existed; the picturesque bay at Shekka where once small fishing boats, sparklingly white in the sun, pulled at their anchor ropes as they leisurely rolled and gently pitched in the swell, had all gone. Instead two rusty merchant ships loaded cement from a factory. Even the coastal road was unused; instead cars sped along modern freeways. Worst of all was to discover old friends had been killed.

I went onto the roof of my hotel and looked across the Beirut rooftops; all was peaceful again but it was not the same; the atmosphere had gone; people seemed more serious and I understood then the meaning of the phrase, 'You can never go home again.' It is never the same. It was not long before the mayhem re-started: TV news viewed across the same rooftops, showed a pall of smoke hanging over my favourite city as Israeli rockets cascaded down to create their havoc of bastardry, and innocent people are killed. The lovely old Lebanon is dead.

This is why I weep.

John Powell


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