Observations from a trip to Lebanon
Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the Middle East but has long been a mirror for the wider region. It would not be wrong to describe it as the “laboratory” of the politically-fragile region. For a small country, it has a deep and complex history and, undoubtedly, one could not truly claim to be a Middle East expert without setting foot there.
One should pass through the history-stained corridors of the American University of Beirut, walk the streets of the city’s downtown, which was the battleground of a terrible civil war that raged between 1975 and 1990, taste the rich Lebanese dishes and listen to the songs of legendary Lebanese singer Fairouz. From its geographic location to its politics, its cuisine to its culture, its people to its architecture, Lebanon is a country to be explored.
The first thing that grabs your attention is that the capital, Beirut, is the most liberal city in the region, widely known as the “Paris of the Middle East.” In addition, Lebanon is home to great tourist attractions, magnificent mountain vistas, impressive ancient ruins and a multi-religious population.
The effects of the devastating war can still be felt but there is a sense of joy of life in this country. Despite politics occupying the majority of their lives in one way or another, the Lebanese people refuse to let political problems overshadow their pursuit of happiness. When the sun sets, they put on their best clothes and head to downtown Beirut, which was once the front line of the civil war and underwent a thorough reconstruction in 1994 that transformed it into a modern hub.
The Lebanese people embody many religions, sects, histories and political views but they live peacefully and in harmony, trying to forget the terrible memories of the past. This mix of cultures makes one feel comfortable. The people are warm and friendly and willing to chat with visitors about their politics and issues related to their country.
The main issues that bother the Lebanese people I spoke to are the pollution of their beaches, which have been declared “unfit for swimming,” the decrease in the number of foreign tourists, and the increasing number of Syrian refugees.
The Lebanese people embody many religions, sects, histories and political views but they live peacefully and in harmony, trying to forget the terrible memories of the past.
About 1.5 million Syrians are registered with UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, in Lebanon, a high number for a country with a relatively small population of its own. Some Lebanese people consider the refugees a threat to country’s identity and economy.
This is a general complaint common to the countries that border Syria and host refugees who fled the civil war there. Turkey, which hosts one of the largest populations of Syrian refugees, faces similar problems regarding their acceptance by society. As in Lebanon, there are politicians in Turkey calling for refugees to be returned to their war-torn country. Until the civil war reaches an end point at which those people feel safe to return, Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey continue to face a refugee problem.
It is worrying, meanwhile, to hear from about two of every three Lebanese young people that they are looking for ways to move abroad due to the deteriorating economic conditions in their home country. Lebanon has one of the largest communities in diaspora. It has a population of approximately 4 million, and an estimated 16 million of people of Lebanese origin living overseas.
Particularly in the past decade, economic instability and growing insecurity have been pushing young, well-educated people to emigrate. This exodus by the younger generation might be one of the most important problems that Lebanon will face in the future because a country with no youth is a country with no future.
Political sensitivities, economic deterioration, a lack of tourism, pollution issues and the youth brain drain were the main concerns among the people I encountered during this trip. However, as I left Lebanon, with the Fairouz song “Li Beirut” playing at Beirut-Rafic Hariri Airport, despite all the problems facing the country it was the “joie de vivre,” the enjoyment of life, of the Lebanese people that was foremost in my thoughts about this beautiful country.
• Sinem Cengiz is a Turkish political analyst who specializes in Turkey’s relations with the Middle East.