Saturday, February 18, 2017

Return to Lebanon: February 2017

Lebanon17-Boat Harbor @ Tyre.jpg

I had last been in Lebanon in Oct 2005 as part of a three country Middle East sight seeing tour with Explore.  Several months after a popular Prime Minister had been assassinated.  Floral tributes were still across the way from the St George's Hotel where the act had occurred.   And now the son has his father's job.  With sectarianism and corruption still problems with the added impact of Syrian refugees to the long time Palestinians. Still a fractured country., continuing to be impacted by Iran, Israel, Saudi Arabia and Syria. 

This time I booked with Political Tours, which does a short term - in this instance, eight days -  study of the whys and wherefores of countries in crisis.  A  field study which includes interviews with various participants in the political scene.  I've gone with them  four times before   and came away with an appreciation of that particular country's problems.  (In my notes, I called it a graduate seminar on wheels.)

This tour group was all American excluding one Australian journalist:  three couples and a media person, all  from he East Coast.  The couples, all friends,  included a retired diplomat, several attorneys, a financier and a literary agent. With us was Nicholas Wood and Karen Davey, operators of  Political Tours. Nicholas is a Brit, a former Journalist while Karen  is a South African doctor.  

We started in Beirut, then South to Tyre, Chtaura and Baalbeck before returning to Beirut.   We visited  both Palestinian  and Syrian  refugee camps  and a former Hezbollah base, now a tourist center.  We drove along the Blue line. the border redrawn in 2000.  And there was wine tasting in the Bekaa Valley.  Plus crawling about Beauford Castle, a crusader castle which had been more recently affected  by the various conflicts. There was a glorious view of Lebanon, Israel and Syria at the meeting of the borders. 

We talked  with a local Hezbollah supported mayor, a volunteer Christian militiaman, an arts advocate and NGOs providing services at a Syrian camp -  one was a US citizen, a PhD,  spending two years there as a volunteer. Another camp backed up to the ancient road and hippodrome at Tyre - the now and then of Lebanon.    Met with another mayor, a former General, also acceptable to Hezbollah, a major influence in this country, which is ruled by designated Sunni, Shia, and Christian forces with bits and pieces of other sects thrown in.

We did wander about the ruins of Baalbeck and  into the old Palmyra Hotel, that once housed deGaulle, Churchill and Cocteau.  Throughout, we had the commentary of Nicholas Blanford, longtime Lebanon-based Journalist and author.  He had an amazing memory, with details of   significant  events at his fingertips. 

In Beirut, there was time with Robert Fish, another long time observer of Middle Eastern politics, Journalist and author.  I had read some of his stuff before and after my earlier foray into Lebanon and was an admirer of his work. He had been present at many of the significant events affecting the region.   Michael Young and  Jim Muir were two other journalists who spent time with our group.  And really running the show was British-Lebanese  journalist and "fixer" Leena Saidi, without whom we would have been stalled in the midst of Beirut traffic without a cab to catch. 

And did I mention there is no public transport in the country?  So .imagine traffic atop traffic! Along with the ever  present Smart phones.  And the convoluted  electrical  wiring, not only   in the Palestinian  area but citywide.  Overall, Beirut was much as I remembered:  a combination of the old, the new and the destroyed.  Obviously, no planning in the rebuilding.  Catch as catch can. 

The Armenians are alive and well in Beirut - we walked about their neighborhood, trailed by a young boy and  were serenaded at lunchtime but a ninety-four year old. woman playing Chopsticks.  

Early on, we  met  three local activists in a local coffee shop, right after a meeting with a government official in  his beautifully appointed office. 

There were meetings with representatives of the local bank, Hezbelloh, the Christian  party., a former Prime Minister, a defense consultant for defendants in the eleven year old assassination   of the then Prime Minister, culminating in a luncheon gathering at the home of the Peace Party Byblos.  And that home was comparable to San Simeon, the estate of William Randolph Hearst, now part of the  California State Park system..

About Hezbollah, the so-called  terrorist organization influenced by Iran:  at one point, having saved Lebanon  from an Israeli incursion after the Lebanese Army fell apart, Hezbollah chose to enter the Lebanese political life.  They expanded  and modified a bit.  their hard edge. The representative we met with, said Hezbollah was not looking for conflict with Israel but if the Israelis initiated,  Hezbellah would respond.  He  was convinced the US had supported DAESH/ISIS.

I most enjoyed time spent at the American University of Beirut.  It had been high on my list of places to visit. Staff and students gave me a positive feeling about the future for Lebanon.   We had a great guide:  A enthusiastic twenty  one year old Palestinian scholarship student, who chose to  wear a head scarf when she came to  college and plans to continue the practice.  She hopes to study aboard but will then have employment difficulties: 

For Palestinians can not work in Lebanon proper.  We talked with a dentist, educated in Cairo, who can  only be employed in the "camp" (seriously  crowded tenement buildings for the Palestinians) and certainly unable to visit family in Gaza.   However, they are at least recognized/registered which is more than the Syrians, who are in tents and without any acceptance by the host country.  A few NGOs are active, providing some educational and health services. The hope is that the Syrians  will all disappear.  Back to Syria.   Soon.  The Lebanese do not want a repeat of the Palestinian situation where refugees have remained since 1948..

Conclusion:  Lebanon, a small country carved from Syria by the French post WW1, is dealing with an impossible number of refuges - has been since 1948 - who are barred from participation in Lebanese life with a government  mired in inaction with a sectarian based Agreement and endemic  corruption.  Estimated one million Syrians and 450,000 registered Palestinians in a country of 5,988,000 residents.  Hezbollah, which may have been the only honest bunch, is with growth. susceptible to the national disease.  However, despite British and American governmental  travel warnings, I did not feel unsafe at any time though stopped at various checkpoints by various security types.  .

Accommodations:  Plush!  Two of the hotel "rooms" were larger than my one bedroom place in Palo Alto. .  Four to Five star.  The  boutique hotel in Tyre was quite unique with  an impressive view of the harbor.  Breakfasts were extensive.

Food:  From local pick-up stands to elegant  restaurants, we had a choice of all types of Lebanese food.  Wines were often included with  the evening meals; they were reportedly quite good, wine making doing well in the Bekaa Valley.

Cost::  I paid $5130 for the tour which included  two extra nights at the Beirut hotel and  all meals but one. Airline fare San Francisco-Istanbul-Beirut via Turkish Air was  $881 economy  plus $92 Insurance.   Shuttle was $60.  Cat care was $460. 
Lebanon17-Syrian Refugee camp.jpg
Lebanon17-Beaufort Castle.jpg
Lebanon17-Downtown Beirut.jpg
Lebanon17-Jo @ scenic point.jpg