Nicknamed “The Paris of the East”, Beirut is unique in every way. Two Lebanese natives, one living there, the other one an expatriate in Canada, talk about what it means to them.
The flag of Lebanon famously features a cedar tree, a hardy plant that withstands harsh conditions, thrives readily where planted, and perdures for centuries. Small wonder therefore that this tree has become a symbol for the Lebanese people who share the same qualities. Resilience and adaptability have become part of their DNA over the millennia as the country has lived through wars, occupation, and terrorism.
But Lebanon has risen from the ashes over and over, and Beirut keeps reinventing itself as one of the most prosperous cities in the Middle East.
No, this story will not look deeply into politics or conflict, and even less into the touristy aspects of Beirut. We just want to understand what makes this beautiful, charismatic city tick, and we visited with two people with close ties to it to see why they love Beirut and what it means to them.
The life trajectories of French-Lebanese Antoine Keldany and Lebanese-Canadian Josephine Sahely could not have been more different.
Antoine’s story is one of building and rebuilding and re-rebuilding, just like Lebanon itself. He grew up in a climate rife with war and conflict until he fled to Europe as a young man. Eight years later, once the situation in his native country had sufficiently stabilized, he and his young family ventured back home. He has spent the past 24 years in Beirut, working hard to secure a solid middle class existence … until things started falling apart yet again, and he is faced, once again, with the necessity to pack up and leave.
Josephine, on the other hand high, grew up blissfully unaware of the tensions around her, then married young and followed her new husband to Canada, where she has lived for the last two decades. She has nostalgic memories of a happy childhood in agricultural Southern Lebanon and her high-school years in bustling Beirut at a time where the city is safe and stable. She never knew the battle for survival that many of her fellow countrymen fought. But despite the fact that she has lived a continent away for half her life now, she remains closely connected with her family and friends back home, and her heart is filled with worries about their wellbeing in these times when Beirut is on the decline yet again.
With one looking out and the other one looking in, how do they both feel about their beloved city and their home country after all this time? But before they tell us their stories, a very quick detour into Beirut’s bio is indispensable.
A Birds Eye View on Beirut’s Story
Contemporary Beirut is a bustling, cosmopolitan city of around two million inhabitants. Situated on the shores of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, the capital of Lebanon has always been at the crossroads of classic civilizations and modern influences. It is wedged between the sea and mountains, making it one of those few places in the world where you can go skiing in the morning and swimming in the afternoon. Its sweeping bay, promenades, and corniches set against gently rising hills are reminiscent of Nice on the other side of the Med. Lebanon is a small country – its surface area measures less than one third of that of Provence or Ireland – but it is picturesque wherever you go.
People are tolerant, and the day-to-day life between residents of different religions goes pretty well. Hospitality, neighbourliness, and generosity are shared cultural traits. Despite the Muslim majority (most of whom are moderate), this is a thoroughly modern, fast-paced, very “European” city. Skyscrapers tower over the minarets of mosques and bourgeois 19th century mansions. Wide boulevards are lined with chic street cafés, posh galleries, and glamorous hotels.
People dress in style, love dining out and going to clubs, and enjoy the thriving arts and fashion scene. And they are immensely proud of their rich heritage. Beirut may geographically well be an Arab city but an often-heard saying here is, “I am not Arab, I am Phoenician”. It has inspired the greatest poets and singers to world famous works, like those of Nizar Qabbani and Khalil Gibran.
Although Beirut was formally mentioned only about 1,500 years ago, its roots go back about five millennia, just as far as those of Lebanon. The area’s first settlers, the Phoenicians, called the place be’rot, meaning “the wells”, in reference to the site’s accessible water table.
Its strategic position in the centre of the North-South axis of the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, in crucial proximity to Cyprus to the West, and a gateway to the Middle East, have made Beirut a coveted destination for explorers, conquerors, and traders for thousands of years. Terrestrial excavations in the downtown area have unearthed layers of Phoenician, Hellenistic, Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Crusader, and Ottoman remains. And the seabed just off Lebanon holds the wrecks of countless trade ships that have floundered over the centuries.
In more recent times, Lebanon was a French colony during World War II. In fact, many Lebanese came to France in the 20th century, and were well received for their education, love of culture, and sense of style.
Where so many domineering cultures clash, there is bound to be conflict. Lebanon considers itself culturally and philosophically close to the West and socially tolerant but it sits on a wobbly geopolitical perch between Syria to the North and Israel to the South, making it prone to being pulled into regional conflict and strife. For anyone interested in more details, Britannica has a good historic breakdown.
Historically, rebuilding and rising from the ashes is second nature to this country and this city. Lebanon has always turned challenges into advantages, and with its knack for integrating and assimilating outside influences the country has positioned itself as one of the leading, most progressive and most prosperous Levantine societies. Not once but time and time again. Beirut is built upon layers and layers of history. This genius, this resilience, this sense of longing for yesterday mixed with curiosity for tomorrow, is deeply ingrained in the collective psyche. Lebanese writer Nada Skaff, who now lives in Italy, expresses this peculiar relationship with history well in her latest poem:
sardonic flower and tumbleweed of the gutters,
thumbing your nose at destiny,
vibrant, intriguing, enchanting, intoxicating,
joyful and radiant girl of dazzling parties.
Beirut of manholes, speed bumps, dead ends,
filthy buildings, beggars in disguise,
looking for a handful of brilliants in a coal mine.
Ottoman alleys buried under a ring,
lawless schools under Roman mosaics,
Infernal Byzantium far from the Thyrrenian shores,
multifaceted paradox, instantly elusive,
rainbow reflecting in the puddles of a thunderstorm.
I carry my love as one contracts rage.
Beirut at the root of evil and cedar,
antidote and hemlock for any fever,
on your forehead the red iron mark of your lips.
The second half of the 20th century was particularly hard on the population. After enormous challenges and tensions the bloodshed seemed to finally end with the historic but shaky 1989 Taif peace accord. It took until 1996 though until things calmed down enough to rebuild once again, and Beirut developed into a thoroughly dynamic, affluent, and touristy city, a bastion of education and culture with close ties to France, the United Kingdom and the United States. The gradual return of expats gave a sense of hope and optimism.
For a while it appeared as if Beirut had finally achieved stability. But it took only ten short years until things started to become complicated yet again … If Beirut is modern and chic, what’s missing today is the thriving economy the city had built in the outgoing 20th century and the first decade of the 21st. What had gone wrong? Enter Antoine and Josephine who share their stories from opposite vantage points of the world.
Antoine – When Living in Peace is the Exception, not the Rule
Beirut native Antoine Keldany, age 56, hails from a well-to-do family with a love for culture and education, and close ties to Europe. His father and grandfather used to work there in high-level business and science positions. As a youth, in the 1970s and 80s, going back and forth between restless Lebanon and quieter France was quite normal for him and for his girlfriend Tamara Abi Fadel, who with her Lebanese-German-Russian background is just as cosmopolitan as Antoine.
We are in the mid to late 1980s: with tensions continually rising, traveling becomes more than a lifestyle for the two Beiruti students in their early 20s – it becomes a life-saving necessity. In August 1989 – General Aoun and the Lebanese army are fighting the Syrian forces – the situation in the country threatens to come to the boil. With bombs flying overhead, Antoine takes a hovercraft from Jounieh port to catch a flight from Cyprus to France. He and Tamara decide to stay in Europe and build their lives there.
They initially settle in Berlin. By now, Antoine is a newly graduated and ambitious business manager, and Tamara quickly shows her mettle as a rising marketing star. A few years later the couple, now married, moves to Paris where both embark on promising corporate careers with high-profile companies. They are young, in love, successful, and doing well. Both are, as is typical for the educated Lebanese youth, perfectly fluent in French, English, and Arabic.
In 1997, just as Beirut has become safe and stable again, Antoine is offered a job there. He seizes the opportunity, and with Tamara, a toddler, and a newborn in tow, moves back home.
From the Golden Years to the Downward Spiral
The first few years are great. Beirut is Boomtown. Antoine climbs the corporate ladder, and Tamara chooses to drop her career to raise their sons, and also to reconnect with an old passion: thirteen years earlier, in 1984, she had founded Les Amis des Marionnettes with a mission to explain to children that Lebanon was more than just the part they lived in. At the height of the war in 1989, when most members of the troupe were leaving Lebanon, the theatre took a hiatus, but when Tamara returns, she revives it.
Les Amis des Marionnettes’ plays now also have educational and forward-thinking messages about the crucial importance of water and trees to human sustainability. The company soon performs all over the country and the region, and is invited by NGOs to tour refugee camps throughout the Middle East.
But peace in Lebanon is far from durable. There are always flare-ups with its high-strung neighbours, and PLO, Hezbollah, and Christian militia make it a powder keg waiting to have its fuse lit. Another war between Lebanon and Israel in 2006 sets the road map to renewed violence for the years ahead. The outbreak of the Syrian war in 2011 only adds to the unease as Lebanon is flooded with millions of Syrian refugees and faced with the conundrum how to absorb, house, feed, and find occupations for them. ISIS rears its ugly head as well. And in 2013 Beirut is shaken by three bombings.
From here on, the situation only keeps worsening over the next several years. Economy is taking a sharp downturn, and the flourishing country that Lebanon was only a few years ago, now finds itself at the brink of starvation, in part due to incompetent and corrupt political leadership. In 2019, the Lebanese lira is devalued, prices on goods and services inflate to unaffordable levels. Protests grew louder and louder. Singer Rodge’s 2019 hit “Tawrit Lebnon” (Lebanon Revolution) talks about freedom and the power of people to stay strong together:
And then, the 2020 Triple Whammy…
In typical Middle-Eastern fashion, Beirut is a place where people love going out, spending time with their friends and neighbours, enjoy life, and help each other as they can. The support of your family and your tribe – this is how you get through challenges and survive hardships.
Like many other hard-working middle-class families, Antoine’s also starts feeling the economic pinch. He has worked his way up to become the Head of the Administration Department of a leading bank, making a comfortable living. But the country’s increasingly worsening economic situation and salaries like his, paid in Lebanese pounds, are devalued to a point where they are worth no more than 18% of their previous value. The bank freezes his savings. All of a sudden he, too, has to scramble to make ends meet.
At the same time, the global pandemic does not spare Lebanon, and life slows down to all but a standstill. The fabric of family and friends that has held society together so far begins to unravel, the city’s infrastructure falls apart at the seams, and the already weak economy comes to a screeching halt. Lebanon is not equipped with efficient resources to fight a health crisis of this caliber and now is reliant on other countries to help them. “If before we still thought that things would sort themselves out, we now lost all hope”, Antoine tells us.
And then, as if to add insult to injury, on August 4th, 2020, a massive explosion rocks the port of Beirut. It turns an entire neighbourhood to rubble, leaving over 200 people dead and 7,000 injured, causing property damage to the tune of billions of dollars, and making 300,000 homeless overnight. Hundreds of thousands have lost their jobs for the unforeseeable future. Beyond any speculation as to political motives, the facts show that a stockpile of explosive material had been left unsecured in the Beirut port for six years. A disaster waiting to happen … and it finally did.
Antoine describes it as a new low of negligence and absolute carelessness by the government, which in fact is actually forced to promptly resign over the same public accusations. When asked what he would compare the detonation to, Hiroshima comes to his mind. With his offices located in the hardest-hit part of the city, it was a miracle that he was not at work that day due to curfew measures. And fortunately, his home also got off lightly, save some glass shards and lots of dust that came flying in through the open windows. But many others were not so lucky …
However, apart from the human and material loss, the damage on the national psyche weighs even more heavily. Beirutis may be as used to explosions as one can possibly be but this one marks a particularly sombre day in the city’s annals, and the point of no return for many who have clung on so far.
The Number One Export Product
After years of having wrenches thrown in the spokes, a significant portion of the educated and highly qualified workforce has already left the country for greener pastures. Lebanon has a population of 6.8 million, with at least three times as many citizens living in the diaspora. The primary destinations for Lebanese expats are Brazil, North America, and Western Europe. Your local pharmacist or computer repair guy may be one of them – Lebanese are typically highly educated and multilingual, possess great business acumen and adapt quickly. “Emigrants have been the Number One export product for the last thirty years,” Antoine sums it up drily.
If Lebanon used to be a regional leader of progress and education, children and youth now don’t have access to good education anymore, and job prospects are dim. The young generation sees the exodus as the only possible option and wants to leave the country as soon as possible.
The Keldanys’ sons, now in their twenties, have also moved to Paris. Nicolas, their younger one, studies architecture, his older brother Michaël, pursues a career as an aspiring musician, and father and son keep in touch via social media, even playing together across the miles.
And seeing his life of the past 24 years fall apart, with no perspectives of a stable future, Antoine is rethinking his life, too. At age 56, he is ready to trade it all in and start over. His wife Tamara wants to stay behind to take care of her elderly mother and to keep working with her successful puppet theatre which she has recently taken virtual due to the pandemic.
But Antoine has taken stock of his talents and passions, and feels drawn back to France. Why France? “France has always been a ‘mother’ to the people of Lebanon. The two countries have historically a strong bond”, he says. Regardless of his high-profile corporate career, regardless of his love for Beirut, now he just dreams of channeling his culinary talent into opening a restaurant in some small quiet Southern French town.
If we know one thing it’s that Antoine will do very well. And when his future projects materialize you will hear it here first.
Josephine – You Can Take the Girl Out of Lebanon but You Can’t Take Lebanon Out of the Girl
Josephine Sahely’s life path took the opposite direction. Born in Zahle, an hour’s drive east of Beirut, she grew up in southern Lebanon before coming to the capital city at age 15 to go to high school. She was all of 19 years old when a dashing Lebanese-Canadian named Shadi came along, swept her off her feet, and whisked her off to Prince Edward Island, Canada. That was in 1999, just at the brink of Beirut’s recovery from decades of conflict.
Lebanon to Canada – quite a change, one would say, but as is typical for her people, Josephine has the “thrive where you are planted” gene. The young couple, soon joined by three children, worked – and still works – at her in-laws’ grocery store, family-owned and operated since 1973.
But calling it a “grocery store” is an understatement. Named after the family’s patriarch, Norman’s Brighton Clover Farm is a beloved Island institution where you’ll find all and sundry but also traditional Lebanese specialties such as falafel, hummus, baklava, labneh, and Middle Eastern spices. In fact, Norman himself had moved from Lebanon to the Caribbean and Australia before settling down for good in Canada, always carrying his homeland with him in his heart and on his shelves.
Never more than a Heartbeat away
She may be thousands of miles from the home of her childhood and youth, but Lebanon is still omnipresent in Josephine’s life, and not just through the goodies in her store. Her family and friends still live there, and she tries to go back every couple of years with her children, now aged from 14 to 18, to keep them close to their heritage and their cousins.
What, apart from her family there, does she miss the most after 21 years in Canada? “The amazing food, the beautiful scenery and the culture of the city that never sleeps, Beirut,” she says with her big lovely smile. She loves her adopted country and is happy there but she certainly still carries the seeds planted in her early life with her and nurtures them lovingly.
For any Lebanese, food is synonymous with culture and family, and Josephine nostalgically remembers that “living in Lebanon, there are so many unique experiences you get that other people pay dearly for to sample. Some of my favourite memories are picking figs and olives from the trees when they were ripe. And my siblings and I were always excited for our father to harvest fresh honey from his bees.”
Growing up in Lebanon in the 1980s and ‘90s, she enjoyed a carefree childhood and youth, never realizing that there were tensions; on the contrary, she always felt safe and at peace. From today’s adult perspective she is of course vividly aware of them, especially as they kept growing the past few years, and she has become increasingly worried about her family as Lebanon’s economic crisis has impacted everyone in the country.
A World Away but Yet so Close
Imagine her shock hearing about the August explosion and feeling helpless from so far away… Thankfully, no one of her circle was hurt, but watching videos of the explosion was heartbreaking. “I thought about all of the damage and how long it would take Lebanon to recover and I felt horrible for all of those who lost their lives that day and their families. One of my cousins is a doctor and worked in a hospital very close to the explosion. The hospital was destroyed, impacting thousands. He was not working that day, rather at home, but his house had its windows broken and the glass was shattered everywhere.”
But Josephine’s local Lebanese community was quick to rally and do its part, raising almost $50,000 to aid Beirut. There are around 100 Lebanese families in PEI and almost all of them still have relatives back there. The money was donated to non-profit organizations like the Red Cross, Lebanon of Tomorrow, and Live2Share. The fundraising events were also an opportunity for the Canadian Lebanese Association of PEI to showcase the country’s culture and cuisine which is still celebrated in all its glory, and Canadian and other expat neighbours are always warmly welcome.
Like food, music plays an essential, comforting role in Lebanese culture. The August tragedy brought a classic Arab song back on the mainstream stage: the hauntingly beautiful “Li Beirut”, originally performed by Fairuz, one of Lebanon’s most famous singers, has recently been covered and adapted by countless artists to express their love and grief for the martyred city.
The Lebanese are resilient and hardy, like the cedar tree in their flag, like the olive trees that dot their country. They will recover and rebuild, and rise from the ashes. Again. Our wish to the much-plagued people of this beautiful, generous, friendly country is the same that Josephine has for them, “I hope the people of Beirut will find peace and try to see the light at the end of the tunnel. My heart goes out to them and I wish Lebanon the best.” And if hopefully travel is permitted again sometime in 2021, and tensions are under control, Lebanon truly deserves a place on everyone’s bucket list.
In a newly released book, thirty-five personalities – Lebanese and French artists and writers – tell the story of their Beirut and the intimate link they have with this city. The likes of Isabelle Adjani, Fanny Ardant, Jack Lang, Amin Maalouf, Patrick Poivre d’Arvor, and Elie Saab capture the soul of a capital with many facets. Published by Fayard, “Pour l’Amour de Beyrouth“ is available at FNAC, Amazon, and your local bookstore, and €2 of each copy sold goes to the recovery efforts following the deadly port explosion.
Lead image © Johnny Maroun on FreeImages (cropped); I Love Beirut photo by Apanig – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, Link (cropped); photo of Nada Skaff © Anna Sara Mangano; photo of explosion damage by Mehr News Agency, CC BY 4.0, Link; photo of Lebanese food by Ewan Munro from London, UK – Byblos Harbour, Millwall, London; Uploaded by tm, CC BY-SA 2.0; photo of Lebanese flag by Vladanr – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, link; all other photos as credited
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