March 22, 2004

Lebanon: Death of a Nation by Sandra Mackey -- An Idiosyncratic Review

My review of Lebanon: Death of a Nation, will be quite personal for I had the pleasure of visiting Lebanon six months before the catastrophic civil wars broke out. Fittingly enough, the author begins with the description of two hotels, The St. Georges, a magnificent old haunt of spies and correspondents, and the glistening new Phoenicia Intercontinental, which was favoured by the new business class and American tourists. The dowager and the hipster could be seen from the balcony of my hotel, what was--then--the charming, small, four-star Alcazar. In a very short time they would become scarred fortresses for the myriad armies of "liberation". All three of these hotels represented the fine patina of Western influence that overlapped a seething mass of Arabs, who considered each other's religious confessions to be apostate.

How my travelling companion and I even came to be in Lebanon must reveal something of its people's character. We were scheduled only to land in Beirut as in-transit passengers. A quick refueling and on to Istanbul was the plan; however, the outline of the city as we flew in was so intriguing that we decided to stop over. My travel partner tried one gate to get through to the main terminal; I tried another. The burly guard at my exit refused to let me in. Dejectedly, I returned to my seat; however, my travelling companion had made it through and, within minutes, returned with an airline ticket agent who commandeered a Jeep and drove out on the tarmac to our plane. The baggage hold was opened; we retreived our bags and then went through customs. In the line-up, some Texan oil roustabout dressed like a cowboy told us about the Alcazar Hotel and gratitously gave me 20 Lebanese pounds for the taxi. The airline fixed us up with new open tickets to Istanbul. The Alcazar had reduced the price of their rooms and meals by 50% because of the Arab-Israeli war. Ah, the good old days -- when travelling was a joy.

Lebanon, being a tiny country, was just right to explore. Through the conceirge, we arranged two separate trips, one to the north, the other to the east of Beirut. Moving north we entered the stronghold of the Maronite/Greek Catholic area. It was rather prosperous-looking and still had the crusader's forts intact. As Mackey points out in her book, the crusader spirit was equally intact. The return trip to Beirut took us past a Druze settlement. The Druze are an off-shoot of Shi'ism, but considered only one notch above the Maronites in terms of their infidel status. The driver pointed it out and said, "Bad Muslims. Very war-like. Big trouble someday."

The following day, we had a new driver/guide and set out for the ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley. As we zigzagged through the Shuf Mountains, we passed through hamlets that appeared to be fortified enclaves, with high walls isolating them from their neighbours. I didn't realize that we were close to the demarcation line between the Maronites and their mortal enemies, the Shi'ites. As we descended into the valley, the horizon was filled with what appeared to be small tree plantations. They were marijuana plants. The stuff was even growing in the roadside ditches. Jokingly, I suggested the driver stop so I could pick a basket or two. He laughed and said, "No way!" Farther on, I saw why. A motley-uniformed militia group had set up a check-point. Vehicles were searched. It turned out that the only thing the Christians and the Muslim militias could agree on was that the hashish must get through. Later when the civil war started they always arranged ceasefires at harvest time. The Muslims controlled the hash production, but the Christians controlled the ports for shipping it out. Small wonder the stoner's mantra is "peace, brother".

Baalbek, outside the of the quite impressive Roman ruins, was a dusty collection of sand-coloured houses. Black lumps of women in chadors furtively scuttled by. Nothing worth buying as a souvenir was to be found in its shops. On the return to Beirut, we glanced down on the Shatila Palestinian refugee camp. Huts made of cardboard and mud wattle were crammed together. The driver, A Maronite, leaned out the window and gave it the finger. "B*******! They will destroy Lebanon yet. Just like they tried to do in Jordan," he railed. The seismic shifts were gathering; that, we could discern from both drivers.

Yet we had no idea that his words would be so prophetic, so soon. My visit was in mid-November, 1973 and by April, 15, 1974 shells would be raining down on that very camp. Actually, we had strolled unaware through various sections of Beirut, savouring the sophisicated Western image, then rubbing shoulders with that of old Araby. Back home, I had only half a year to extol the wonders of intriguing Lebanon -- when the unending brutality and destruction began. As always, losing a country forever, produces a great sadness. Here was a country so distorted and dangerous that a return would be almost suicidal.

Mackey's book ties together the threads of this fraternal hatred. Pandora's box had been opened and it could never be closed. She shows how internecine distrusts, even among the same religious faction, helped tear the country apart. The Sunnis were split between Amal, who wanted a secular Lebanon run by Muslims while Hizbollah (backed by Iran) wanted a theocracy. When they were not duking it out amongst themselves, they fought with the Maronites and the Druze--the heretics had formed a temporary alliance. Later, the Shi'ites and the Palestinians would join the fray. Only after The Paris of the Middle East had been reduced to a pock-marked slum and the Syrians moved in, did the fighting cease. By then the various religious camps had segregated the country into bristling fiefdoms. Any pretense at multiculturalism was buried, along with the uncountable dead. The tourist trade is gone, as well as the international banking system that was Lebanon's other economic mainstay. The drugs that used to be exported now, more and more, sustain the shell-shocked citizens. Israel gave up its northern cordon sanitaire in Lebanon and its Maronite population moved into Israel. The country is effectively run by Syrian proxies and Hizbollah. The northern Maronite/Greek Catholic mountain areas survive by maintaining a massive militia force. As Pierre Gemayel, a Maronite President said in the 1960's, "The Maronite pyschosis is internalized, vicious, and tenacious. Nothing can be done about it. It is the Muslim's job to reassure them." This is not about to happen. The demographic surge of the Muslims alone has doomed the Christians to minority status. The book is a fascinating minature portrait of what Iraq could easily become. Highly recommended.

© Bud -- who went when the going was good

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