Returning to sleepy London town after a week in Beirut was really quite strange. Living in Zone 2, I never thought where I lived was particularly peaceful. However, on a relative scale compared with the centre of the Lebanese capital, I may as well be living in the middle of Siberia in terms of sound levels. It affects your sleep more than you realise, cacophony does, and feeling back to well rested has been one of the benefits of the last couple of days.
But I did love Beirut and its bustle, even though I’m also relieved to have returned to Albion’s saner shores. The Lebanese capital has within its tiny space all you really need to know about the problems geopolitics, internationalism, democracy and pluralism face. The place is multi-faith yet riven with sectarianism; it is very liberal in so many respects and yet contains within it some of the most conservative forces on Earth.
On our last full day in Lebanon, we drove up the north coast, past Byblos, to a little place just south of Tripoli. We couldn’t visit the country’s second largest city; FCO advises against all travel there at present. This is because it is the site of many Sunni-Alawite flair-ups, essentially the Syrian Civil War brought to the Mediterranean, stoked intentionally by the Assad regime. I had lunch with an Alawite who dares to say that peace can only come to the region if Bashar steps down; in an environment like modern Tripoli, such a stance is brave beyond description.
The danger of my friend’s position on the current Syrian regime is a great example of how deep the sectarianism of Lebanese society runs. The entire political system has it embedded within, on purpose. Following the civil war’s conclusion, it was decided that quotas needed to exist in terms of MPs and their respective sects, in order to stop any one group dominating and thus kicking off another conflict. So the Sunnis get so many, the Christians that many, the Druze get this allotment. I can see why it was probably necessary in the 1990’s, when peace was still so fragile, but the problem with baking sectarianism into a system is that it is then pretty much impossible to get it out again. And this, in turn, makes it nearly impossible to lower sectarian tensions within society itself.
It’s an example of Game Theory in practice: many people in Lebanon would love to see the astriction between different groups diffused, but they simply do not want to have to be the first one to offer the olive branch. If you don’t know what the other guy is going to do, you keep your defences up. All sides feel the need to protect themselves as a result and creating an open, liberal society becomes difficult if not impossible. Which again is why, given everything I’ve just said, it is amazing just how liberal Beirut is in many ways.
On the taxi ride back to the airport, there was terrible traffic trying to get out to the motorway. We were stuck on an overpass, small yet determined Roma children trying to extort money from our cabbie, while there were black jihad banners draped to our left and the start of the Hezbollah dominated south suburbs on our right. Combined with my stress about possibly missing the flight, it is a moment I think I’ll always remember, a little Beirut vignette. Only an hour or so earlier, we had been sat in an Italian restaurant in a trendy part of town, a live feed from the outside of its sister restaurant, in Bologna, being beamed in front of our eyes. I ate very authentic Italian pasta while watching Emilia-Romagna drift by. Next thing I know, I’m on the doorstep of Shia militants – only in Beirut.