Lebanon, People and Politics, a view of a visitor from England

I was  fortunate to have the opportunity to visit a friend in Lebanon, my first visit to this region, here is my experience and my insight of Lebanon, its People and Politics. My first view of Beirut was as the plane came in to land, this spectacular view of tall buildings on hillsides soon revealed one of poverty amongst riches, as many of these splendid buildings had fallen into disrepair. After a swift passing through Lebanese customs I was soon in the taxi to my hotel in Jounieh, the Portemelio and my first observation here was the large number of cars and trucks, both new and old, on the roads. It was around 4:30 pm so I assumed commuting time was beginning. The drive was chaotic, cars literally bobbing and weaving in and out of lanes, straddling lanes, horns blaring everywhere; I quickly tightened my seatbelt. Looking around, as the speed varied from slow to fast to slow again, I saw very little use of seatbelts, including my own driver, and many drivers using their cell/mobile phones. The use of seatbelts is mandatory in the UK and using a phone whilst driving also illegal, more serious when driving a bus; this could lead to a criminal conviction in Britain. But this is Lebanon where, I guess, the people decide for themselves. My journey continued with my view of Beirut now in more detail, and there again was the rich and poor side by side, the rich showing in the grand shop fronts of the more major stores, the poor in open front or smaller, dingier looking stores and businesses. Many buildings were derelict, one I later observed comprised just a shell, the centre having been over run by trees, nature always finds its way back; others were abandoned and pitted by the signs of a war. Also during this journey I spotted some makeshift shelters of the very, very poor.

On arriving at the hotel Portemilio I was greeted with politeness, the same politeness I had experienced on Lebanon’s MEA airline and my room didn’t disappoint either, with a balcony and sea view. My host, Rita, was to take me to many places, from Jounieh, to Beirut, Jbeil, Batroun, Tripoli,  Baalbek, Sidon and many more and to meet many of her friends over the next two weeks. These friends were mainly university professors, one also a local politician, all interesting and extremely intelligent (as is my host, Rita). My thoughts that follow are based entirely on my observations and the discussion I had with these eminent people. 

Our longer journeys were all by bus, where I experienced the willingness of fellow passengers to help and assist wherever possible. Indeed, when Rita’s phone’s battery had died, one associate of the bus driver, before departure, actually alighted and returned with the appropriate cable so her phone could be charged and used on our journey; a gesture that would be extremely unlikely in the UK. A passenger on another bus journey was in the Lebanese army, and he and Rita struck up a conversation, the content being unknown to me as it was in Arabic, and I have no knowledge of Arabic, let alone that spoken in Lebanon. When we alighted the bus, it was his stop too, and his wife, I assumed his mother-in-law and 5 children awaited him in their car. Evidently he had offered all of us a ride to our next destination, Al Shams restaurant. So, with the four older children in the back, our army friend, his mother-in-law, wife and baby in the front and us three seated comfortably on the wide back seat, he took us to Al Shams; what a gentleman and such a generous family. On arrival our army man spoke to the restaurant security, who then escorted us inside to the restaurant reception and on to our table by the restaurant staff. This is great example of the genuineness of the Lebanese people I was already experiencing. It was at Al Shams restaurant that our waiter was curious about the UK and its differences to Lebanon. When I answered the honesty of the Lebanese compared to the UK neither Rita nor the waiter believed me. On a previous visit to Beirut we met one of Rita’s learned friends who had cycled to our venue and had left his cycle outside for the duration of our meeting. After our long chat he returned to his cycle which, much to my surprise, was still where he left it. In many parts of England, locked or not locked, that cycle would have been stolen without any doubt at all. Also mentioned by this friend was “if a pickpocket was found in Beirut that would make headline news,” unfortunately pickpocketing is a common occurrence in London and other major UK cities.

The topics discussed during these meetings were varied, but one common theme was central to all, that of corruption in politics, something that we all seem to believe when discussing our politicians. I will leave it to the reader to decide on this issue as I have no personal knowledge of Lebanese politcs. Currently Lebanon is feeling the hurt of austerity and, of course, the ordinary people will have to suffer the brunt of this. Many countries in the world have suffered austerity, in fact my own country is slowly coming out of it after over 10 years. Our austerity was caused by greed in the worlds international banks (based in Britain and American), which meant the value of the pay packet became less as inflation rose; not understanding the economics of Lebanon I cannot make a comparison. I do, however, note that the better restaurant prices are lower than in the UK (and the food hugely superior and more plentiful) while the shop priced goods like clothes are similar. Not knowing the average Lebanese wage packet it makes it hard to judge, but many of those I met deemed prices to be high. Unfortunately austerity implies that governments are short of cash and every citizen has to pay for that in taxes (or should have to) to make up any shortfall and repay national debt, but it is the ordinary citizen who does the bulk of the paying, hence the general suffering, while the rich barely notice. But to increase taxes when times are hard is always difficult to accept.

Another theme that ran through these discussions was that of hope, or the lack of it, and of motivation for the future. Apparently, I glean from my many meetings and discussions, that many Lebanese people have become de-motivated, especially students. Apparently some students will have work found for them on graduation, whist others have to fend for themselves. This must have a disheartening effect on the students who fend for themselves. Also discussed was the lack of motivation amongst some of the professors too, which of course falls back on the student. I read that the unemployment rate in Lebanon was 6.2% in 2018, but this is based on people looking for work, not necessarily all who are out of work. The young, especially the students, are the future of Lebanon so it is imperative that they are motivated to complete their degrees and to motivate themselves to find work after graduation. As a visitor, I saw the need for much work in construction (with much already in progress), but for a student graduating in micro-biology this doesn’t offer much incentive. In the UK, schools, colleges and universities have career councillors to assist graduates in finding work, maybe that is something that could aid graduates in Lebanon. There is much pollution in Lebanon, especially in the larger cities like Beirut. It is visible to the eye and to the nose, so there must be much work to be found or created in this area. Other forms of generating energy need to be sought, without believing that the future of Lebanon lies in oil discovery and extraction. Continuing to restore the Cedars of Lebanon is a great start in fighting pollution and climate change, not just for the planet in general but also for the health of the Lebanese people. Motivating people is hard enough on its own, I spent much of my working life doing just that (and with much success), but in general you have to prove a substantial improved and rewarding outcome for the recipient in order to achieve this success. So what is this substantial benefit for the Lebanese people? One professor mentioned that the only dream some students have is to own a shiny new car, this to me is a great incentive, especially if that new car replaces and older, more polluting one. It all amounts to fighting pollution and is a byproduct of success.

For a successful nation the citizens have to work together, I don’t see much of this harmony at home in Britain, let alone in a nation that is comprised so many differing ideals, religions and factions. But one professor pointed out where Lebanon has been in their history, through wars and conflicts, “we” are still standing, there is the hope in just those fine words.

© Copyright 2019 Al-Khabar/Stephen Froggatt all rights reserved

About Steve

Steve is part of the publishing team of Al-Khabar. He was initiated into Neptune Lodge 5150 EC In 1986 and completed his third degree by being exalted into Neptune’s Royal Arch Chapter in 1989; he also enjoyed two successive years in the Chair of KS in 1993/4. He has also enjoyed being a Mark Master Mason and a Royal Ark Mariner. He has been honoured with the position of Past Provincial Deputy Grand Registrar. All the articles are his own and represent no Official Masonic Body

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