Beirut, 1st January 1994

The Lebanese Civil War (depending on how you calculate such things) lasted from 1975 to 1990.

I was in Beirut on 1st January, 1994. This is part of a diary entry:

As I sit here writing in my Beirut hotel, there’s a humdinger of a family argument going on in the next room.

This morning, a guide took me round what used to be the centre of Beirut, passing the gutted Hotel St George and the pockmarked shell of what used to be the Holiday Inn, winding through what used to be streets, lined now with the cratered shells of concrete buildings. If I hadn’t expected this level of total destruction, I would have been shocked.

The city is fairly normal and then suddenly – and I mean suddenly – you are on another planet in another time. It is as if most of London was fairly much as it is now except that the West End looks like a set for a post-Apocalyptic movie.

We ended up in Martyrs’ Square – the big rectangular one that used to be the bustling centre of Beirut when it was ‘the Paris of the Middle East’. There used to be grand buildings lining all four sides; limos and heavy traffic; vast al fresco eateries.

This morning it was a silent vast rectangle lined with ruins and, beyond those ruins, the ruins of other buildings in surrounding streets.

There’s an untouched Heroic statue in the middle of Martyrs’ Square and, nearby, a little nine year-old boy was selling pictures of the square as it used to be. An old man – OK, an old dirty man – was selling coffee from a flask which he poured into tiny cups. Plus there were maybe five chairs and a small table. And a disintegrating van nearby.

Imagine Trafalgar Square with a small statue in the middle, ruined buildings all around… silence… and only one young boy, an old man, five chairs and a decaying van.

My guide was maybe in his mid-twenties, intelligent, articulate and amiable. He used to be a student at the American University in Beirut. For four months, his lecturer was future hostage Brian Keenan. He says they went on strike for a week when Keenan was kidnapped. He hadn’t heard that Keenan had now written a book and got married.

He said the economic problems of Beirut/Lebanon are the government’s not the people’s. The people, he says, are middle class and there’s a vast service industry – restaurants, ice cream parlours and so on. This seems true.

There certainly seems to be a fairly OK lifestyle for most people, I guess, although there are also the people I saw last night in a former tower block with glass in their windows but corrugated iron for walls.

He says Lebanon will have some tourist problems in years to come because, unlike Jordan and Syria, it is not rich in historic remains.

This evening, I took my first solo walk around town; my guide said it was safe to walk along the ruined streets in the middle of the city but best not to go into any ruined buildings as some were mined – and not to go up side streets for the same reason.

He said there were three main factions who had mined areas during the Troubles and the Lebanese Army didn’t have maps of all of them.

I doubt if anyone ever had.

I couldn’t understand why the whole city hadn’t been messed-up by the fighting. The beach area is pretty unscathed but, when driving along, without much warning, you suddenly pass through devastation. It must be because the city was divided into West/Christian and East/Moslem. The devastation must be where the two halves of the city met but the sections further back from the Green Line, in one or other heartland, would have been relatively safe.

Southern Beirut, where I don’t intend to go, I don’t know about. That’s the area the infamous Airport Road goes through.

The guide told me one long street lined by lots of good modern buildings did not exist before the Troubles started. Ironically, a lot of building went on during the fighting.

There would be a lull. People would think the fighting was over. They would start to build. Then the fighting would re-start, but they would complete the building.

The lulls never lasted longer than a year.

Outside, I can see a poster for Omar Sharif.

In Lebanon, ‘Omar Sharif’ is a brand of cigarette. People presumably pop into a shop and say, “Give me 20 Omar Sharifs.”

Last night, on the coastal video screen, there was Omar again, apparently flogging carpets. I asked the guide this morning and he explained Omar owned a carpet factory.

It’s alright for some.

The argument in the next room has subsided now. The horns of the taxi traffic jams are still tooting outside. All the taxis are Mercedes-Benz.

I am going to have a bath now. The water from the taps is orange-coloured.

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