My family and I used to accompany a Lebanese friend in Monrovia to his beach house on the weekend. The bungalow faces the Atlantic Ocean, and waves hit the shore with animosity as if punishing the sand. There was always a colorful cast of characters from the local UN mission and the Liberian diaspora, coolers of Heineken, fish barbeque and Justin Bieber on the playlist. It was here, one day, my new friend told us how his grandfather had landed in Liberia, on accident.
He was on a steamer, which was headed to Brazil before the Great War, and stopped over at the West African port—then nothing more than a small colony of African-Americans surrounded by hostile forest-dwelling tribes. Somebody on the ship told him and other Lebanese émigrés that this was the first stop in Brazil. The dense green jungle and humid skies are certainly no different from the shores of Northern Brazil. Whether the story is true is debatable. The Lebanese definitely arrived, and not just to Liberia but Senegal, Venezuela and nearly every other country between Lebanon and Brazil.
His grandfather made a living trading small amounts of gold with tribal leaders up and down the coast, eventually his son went on to open a successful hotel, for which his grandson waited out a near twenty year civil war in Liberia to protect. In 2013, I stayed in that hotel.
“That’s the story of my grandfather. He left his homeland for something better, and like the majority of the Lebanese in the world, many of us feel like we no longer have a homeland, we belong wherever we are,” he told me.
I shouldn’t have been surprised by the Lebanese presence in Liberia. This tiny country in West Africa would have appeared a legitimate destination for Lebanese émigrés, offering all the promises of untapped resources in the throes of upheaval and the promise of growth. In 2013, a large part of the major transactions I made in Liberia were with Lebanese owners and operators from my landlord to the mechanic, bars and grocery stores.
There are somewhere between four and five million Lebanese living in Lebanon and an estimated 12 million living abroad, the majority no longer Lebanese citizens, but Brazilians, Argentines, Australians, and Cubans. The Lebanese is one of the most diversely spread out populations on the planet, although the diaspora tend to lean towards the Americas. This year I traveled to Lebanon to write for an economic strengthening project focused on farmers and food processors in a variety of sectors. A small peek into the Lebanese mind and a deep dive into the country’s food and tourism sectors have helped me put their history of world travel into perspective.
The streets and buildings of Beirut cannot completely hide the country’s past. Burned down, busted up and yes, the clichéd bullet-ridden buildings stick out between the renovated facades. You still see a tank or two sitting out in front of some foreign Embassy, where at the ready is a soldier sitting high on the horse so to say while bumper-to-bumper traffic pumps through Beirut’s narrow veins. Lebanon, especially Beirut, presents a series of unbelievable contrasts ranging from luxury cars to contaminated rivers, piles of uncollected garbage and generous lunches with mountains of leftover food. I heard once to really understand a culture you got to put yourself in the driver’s seat, and although I never got behind the wheel, I spent hours and hours in the hustle of drivers gassing and breaking with ferocity. Every streetlight, a countdown to another race of drivers calculating in centimeters temporarily empty spaces while trying to move forward on a mission to defeat time itself.
Time too is a different matter for the Lebanese. Even under the rule of the Ottoman Empire, the people living around Mount Lebanon, as it was known in the day, experienced relatively short periods of stability and prosperity before interrupted by conflict, usually between groups divided by religion. In the twentieth century, Lebanon witnessed the Great War, the Great Famine, the fall of the Ottomans, World War II and later the ongoing migration of Palestinian refugees, until finally giving way to a long, deadly civil war pitting Lebanon’s Christians and Muslims, Israel and Syria in a never ending strategy of attacks and alliances.
Lebanon is famous for many things, but strategically avoiding a national census and political assassination are probably not what you were thinking. If you talk long enough, you’ll hear the word sectarian while describing the state of affairs and lack of religious harmony. The shaky division between Christians, Muslims and the sects therein has the entire nation anxiously expecting another wave of protests, violence and suffering. Due to this, the Lebanese approach life with a live-in-the-moment mentality. The past wars, their relatives living abroad, the family village that still lacks basic infrastructure and support are all part of a landscape funneling thoughts into the here and now where the past and future are forbidden to reign.
Maybe that’s why wealthy Lebanese purchase the extravagant sports cars, and Beirut’s downtown souk—destroyed in the war—is now a chic mall offering expensive fashion, gadgetry and other unaffordable goods for the majority of Lebanon, after all if you’re going to live in the present, you should enjoy it in a Ferrari. Indeed, the people I met were not depriving themselves of the good life, surrounded by delicious food made from fresh ingredients. Every meal is a losing battle to eat every salad, every mezze, and every dish placed on the table and washed down with the local elixir arak infusing the body with the spirit of the land.
It’s odd, while Beirut continues to struggle with garbage and traffic, the Lebanese are almost obsessive with perceived personal hygiene and the need to protect themselves from germs. I thought surely the shisha, the hubbly-bubbly, this ubiquitous symbol of the Orient would be an exception to the rule and transcend that sacred space of sterilization. I was wrong, one person per pipe and if they do share, they use a plastic tip. This quest for cleanliness is manifest in other aspects such as retail where every purchase is double bagged or triple packed. Each layer of packaging presents an additional untouched and unadulterated dimension of safety that assures the Lebanese consumer what they are buying is of the highest purity. In one instance, I witnessed how this fixation on clean space could be detrimental to the wider community.
In the small town of Tannourine, located halfway up Mount Lebanon, thousands of people divert their sewage directly into the valley’s river, which runs through the middle of town and down into the Mediterranean. When I asked the mayor why the town has not installed a water treatment plant, he said nobody would accept a sewage plant as a neighbor. Treating sewage too close to a neighbor’s house threatens that sacred, personal space. There is a bitter, almost septic irony imagining someone obsessed with personal sanitation using that river to wash his hands.
Despite biohazard rivers, I like Lebanon, which is not nearly as dirty as some other countries I’ve traveled. Emerging from the sectarian mess is a picturesque landscape that combines the inviting Mediterranean with what can only be called Levantine Alpine, snowy peaks, limestone walls and Cedar forests. As a tourist destination, Lebanon stands alone in the region providing even the most experienced traveler a glimpse of something totally unique, where culture, history and geography blend a fascinating fabric of existence.
Like anywhere, the people are the most important part of the experience. The Lebanese are not only hospitable and proud of their origins, they are inquisitive, easy to get along with and resourceful. They are, for the most part, educated, and on the receiving end of rich cultural diversity in arts like poetry and music. Most are bilingual, many speak three languages fluently, and a mix of Arabic, French and English cover the city in graffiti, billboards and street signs. The Lebanese are above all problem solvers, inventive and able to come up with solutions on their own.
In Ehmej, a small village located 1000 meters above Lebanon’s coastline, neighbors used to dump their garbage in a narrow canyon above town. One day, the Ehmej Neighbor’s Association realized that their makeshift garbage dump would be much more useful as a mountain tourist lodge, and much more beautiful. The association is not new to DIY. Founded in 1985, the group first mobilized the funds to connect the town to the electric grid following Lebanon’s 20-year civil war. When their children had no way to get down the mountain to school, they raised the funds for a bus, and over the last five years have planted more than 11,000 Cedar trees. The list goes on.
The mountain lodge is no different. After removing the garbage dump, the tourism site was opened in 2008 to attract Lebanese visitors interested in hiking or spending a relaxing day in the mountains or en route to one of Lebanon’s ski resorts, just an hour outside of Beirut. “Our motivation is to conserve our mountains, attract people to enjoy and create job opportunities for local residents,” the association’s President Charles Khalife told me. “Our goal is for our children to want to stay in Ehmej.”
I imagine a similar Charles Khalife 100 years ago, singing a familiar tune as the sons and daughters of his village and hundreds like it make their way to Beirut to climb aboard boats destined for the New World. I imagine the despair of witnessing the fragmentation of a family, the fear of the unknown awaiting intrepid immigrants, and the brothers who choose to stay behind to protect the father’s property, perhaps a farm smaller than a quarter hectare, sometimes the only chance for survival.
Before, I thought surely it is the sea calling the Lebanese back and forth across the world’s oceans and maybe there is something genetic leftover from the mighty Phoenicians that instills adventure. The more I visited villages and farmers and the more I learned about the past, I concluded the Lebanese are not destined to travel the world, rather they have been sentenced. Today, new Syrian refugees line up at the shared border, trying to escape the latest war in the region, and a divided class of leaders cannot agree on anything. Lebanon’s next generation of migrants is building up, waiting to join their relatives on a beach in West Africa, beer in hand, forgetting the horrors of the past.