Reflections on a trip to Lebanon 1995

Børre Ludvigsen
1000 (384x256 pixel) images from Lebanon taken on this trip.

It's now 3 weeks since we (my wife Eva, our daughter Antonia and
myself) left Beirut after a 3 week vacation. Time for reflections
before the impressions become too clouded.

July 18 - Aug 6, 1995.


I grew up in Lebanon which was my home from 1950 til 70, which also
was the last time I was there. Staying in touch has meant maintaining
my Lebanese dialect after a fashion, corresponding with friends both
in Lebanon and abroad, contacting every Lebanese and Arabic-speaking
person in our home district and of course, reading SCL. Creating and
maintaining the "Al Mashriq" WWW-server
(/almashriq/) has also helped a lot.


We travelled from Norway with a charter company to Larnaca on Cyprus.
And then with MEA to Beirut. It turned out just about as cheap as
regular APEX all the way. We then had the advantage of choosing
alternative routes in the area should the situation in Lebanon prevent
us from going to Beirut.

Be warned - the MEA booking system is a mess! They are so used to
people changing their minds, that you need to reconfirm your booking
continually up to the last moment. We were with about 20 people on a
waiting list even though we had received our tickets 3 days before
leaving Norway.

Beirut Airport is a rather ominous place. The tension at immigration
is in ridiculous contrast to the vacant stares from the pictures of
the president and his son which are plastered on all the collumns and
walls. The most curteous of all the various passport peekers was the
"moukhabarat" at the exit who smiled at my threat to run over his toes
with half a ton of luggage.

We were picked up by friends at the airport. Come prepared! You need
tissue paper to wipe lots of tears and room for plenty of water melon.
They take you from place to place to meet all the family members
waiting to see you and never consider all the food that needs


Hotels are expensive in Lebanon. Always eager to turn a quick profit,
the hoteliers seem to have marketed their services rather successfully
to Lebanese expatriates who apparently have been equally successful in
their own endevours abroad. The Kindlife travel guide does mention a
$20 hotel in Ras Beirut.

We found private accommodation.


This is probably the biggest problem of a trip to Lebanon. There is no
public transport other than a handful of unreliable buses and a fleet
of service taxis driven by rather surly guys who have one of the least
comfortable working places in the world. Services move you around
quite efficiently but restrict your range of movement both with
respect to geography and late hours. (Not to mention your scruples
about your own physical well-being.)

You need to rent a car, which is not unreasonable. But there is a
great BUT, the traffic is horrendous. Maybe it's just because a large
number of the drivers were given their licence for Christmas, or just
that there hasn't been any traffic police for years. On the other
hand, it might also be because all these cars are jammed into this
tiny country and the roads are in need of repair. (Beware of manholes
without covers, at night and no street lights!) 

Then again, if you drive yourself and don't get into the habit of
pouring insults pertaining to questionable genetics and relationships
on everyone that does not leave the entire raod to you, you might just
survive. After all there were quite a few nuns and priests driving
around in cars that weren't entirely busted. Of course, not having
ridden with nuns or priests, I am ignorant of whatever habits they may
have on commenting the authenticity of blood relations between their
fellow citizens in rushtime traffic! Apparently an ingrained cultural
and linguistic necessity which I vividly remember being just as
colorful and imaginative before the war.

The reality of the situation is that the government itself estimates 1
death and 8 serious injuries daily in the country as a whole.
Considering that there hasn't been a foreign kidnap in years, I would
rather take my chances with any political group, now matter how
rabbid, than the traffic.


We went to just about all the sites except Baalbak and Tyre. We had no
problems in the souks of Saida or Tripoli. They were just as colorful,
friendly and unchanged as when I left 25 years ago. Along with the
small farms of the Beqaa, they are the only things which are
completely unchanged - probably for some hundreds of years too. There
are a few places we steared clear of. The very south - places like
Tibnin and Beaufort are difficult to get to. We were told officially
that passport controls had been tightened recently. (This was late
July.)  Beaufort Castle is an Israeli gun emplacement and the road to
Tibnin may be shelled by Israelis at any time. A friend who went there
a few days before we met him in Saida, had been near a village in the
south that was rocket-fired when he was there. The Tibnin area is
not difficult to get to, but the trip can be harrassing. When you get
there it's quite OK, being "occupied" by the Norwegian (UN) forces.

On wednesday, august 2 - we went to Beit Eddine via Damour and then on
to visit a friend in Saghbin in the southern Beqaa. When we got there
they were worried that we had been in Baalbak as we had mentioned we
might take that route. There had been bombing by Israeli warplanes
just across the valley at Kamed el Lauz, which she was afraid might
have provoked demonstrations and roadblocks in the Baalbak area. Our
third alternative that day had been to go to see Anjaar on the east
side of the Beqaa and then south to the stone age settlement at Kamed
el Lauz!

We went to Jbeil which was the only place other than Jeita where we
saw tourists in any numbers. At the wonderful castle of St. Gilles in
Tripoli there were only 5 other visitors at the whole site!

The Jeita facilities have been restored and work quite well. But it's
somewhat costly at LL 17 500. What we did find suprising was the
fairly good state of preservation of the caves. The upper caves
haven't been open to the public that long. They were opened only a few
years before the war, but the lower ones are not too damaged in spite
of the heavy traffic before the war. Take a sweater, it really gets
quite chilly, especially the lower ones with the ride on the water.

The restaurants along the Dog River are still there. July and August
are hot and dusty. The exhaust fumes from Beirut and the coast road
are sluiced up the vally and people have discovered that the road
along the river provides a short cut along the main road to Dhour el
Choueir. It's no longer the idylic retreat off the bustling Jounieh
road. And someone has placed an amusement park at one of the choice

Remember Msaylha? The wonderfully romantic, tiny castle perched on the
high, rocky outcrop in the middle of the valley between Batroun and
Chekka? The only way to reach it used to be along a narrow road off
the main highway into a hidden, quiet vally with its own river and old
rock bridge. Well, the main highway now runs up an elevated bridge
along the north side of the valley, and on the south side there is an
ugly rock quarry scarring the cliff face.

One of Lebanon's real resources, sites of outstanding beauty and
attraction, both natural and historic really is threatened and the
problem is that it is imeasurably more difficult to restore the damage
done here than to all the other resources in the country.


See the above. There's a warning inside the front page of the Kindlife
guide to Lebanon which says "As Lebanon is subject to bouts of strife
and conflict - especially the south of Lebanon which is still, at
times, subject to Israeli shelling - readers should acquaint
themselves of the current security situation prior to their departure.
The publishers and authors cannot accept responsibility for any
untoward consequences arising from the use of this book". Sound
advice. If you don't understand what is being said on the radio, ask
someone who does and if you're going into a questionable area, phone
someone who lives there for advice.

When all that is said, I cannot really say that we felt threatened in
anyway, anywhere except by the traffic. 

There are lots of road blocks. Mostly Lebanese Army, but some Syrian
Army and a very few Syrian moukhabarat. As there was a general strike
the day after we arrived and the day of the army was on August 1, they
were noticably less interested in anyone passing through after Aug 1
had passed without incident. Although we did occaisionally see the odd
car that was shunted to one side for closer inspection. The only time
they took any interest in us was the night I left. I was alone with a
friend (Eva and Antonia left day day after, as I was going for a week
of lecturing in Izmir, Turkey) who drove me down from the mountains to
the airport. We were stopped 3 times on the road from Beirut to the


It's still this land of incredible contrasts. There's no visible
abject poverty on the streets. The gypsies have been located in
various settlements like a rocky hillside next to the main road to
Saida. We also saw a small settlement on the road southward in the
Beqaa. A friend who did a survey of the quality of life in one of the
refugee camps near Tyre last year was appalled by conditions. The only
source of means of survival are the daily rations from UNRWA which
have been coming for the last 46 years.

In Beirut there is a combined Ferrari, Fiat, Jaguar and Roll Royce
dealer.  Although I didn't see too many of the latter, Lebanon must be
the country with most damaged BMW's and Mercedes'. What irks most is
the ostentatious affluence with is displayed without
inhibition. Kaslik, Jounieh and much of the mountains above see some
serious partying during the summer, especially on the part of
returnees - many of whom return only for the summer.

While most of the rest spend their time trying to push the edge of a
decent living on meager wages constantly threatened by inflation. The
upheavals of the last 20 years has accelerated the migration of people
from the countryside and the towns and cities outside Beirut. Many
have moved to the towns. Saida had grown enormously, much more than I
would have normally expected. And the population in general seems to
have moved and settled along religious and secterian lines.

The war has also contributed to a curious imobilizing of time. People
have brought the customs and social values of the towns and villages
with them as they moved to the city, leaving those values frozen,
almost as a means of comfort and security during the most trying years
of the war. Families seem even more cemented than they were 25 years
ago and the sons and daughters of neighbors who's friendship was
tenuous at best during their farming days, have now become indebted
for the help and sustenance they shared during the worst years. We
went to visit them all and many tears were shed.


It's most poignantly and truthfully expressed by those who mutter
about politicians wasting taxpayers' money being escorted about by
traffic police. "We need the police to direct the mad traffic. What
kind of politicians need that kind of protection from their own
people?" It was true that the only time we heard sirens was when some
big shot was being escorted or someone wanted to pass in the traffic.
(People use immitation sirens on their private cars.)

It was also somewhat disconcerting to see more pictures of foreign
politicians displayed in public places, than those of Lebanon's own. 

One of the things I found most disconcerting was that all the
conflicts I knew from long before the war were still there, only more
acute and there were some new ones to add. Even more disappointing was
that young people often seemed even more discriminating and intolerant
than their parents.

Not a good foundation for political conciliation.

On the other hand, the Lebanese Army was everywhere and most appeared
happy to see them. 


Probably the worst problem facing the future of the country is the
awful environmental pollution - especially air and water.

The strip development of buildings almost everywhere along the coast
was devastating. I realize that regulations were difficult to enforce
during the war, but nevertheless the buildings are there and will
obviously not be pulled down. They are built too crowded and there
appears to be little or no sewage treatment. Proximity makes for a bad
noise problem. Just the thought of the days where many had their own
private little Japanese 2KW electricty generator on the balcony! We
were told that the conflicts between the need for sleep and TV did not
enhance neighbor relations.

The problem became so bad and the entreprenuerial drive so strong as
soon as the war was over, that the present, larger community
generators were set up and alleviated the most intense noise
problem. As the public utilities only supply between 6 and 12 hours of
power daily, the generators (called motors) are still necessary. The
sound of them is ever present all over the country, where they also
add to the general air pollution.

The combination of unregulated emissions from private and public
utilities and complete lack of control over emissions from road
vehicles provide a dismal state of air pollution. Looking down from
the mountains toward Beirut was invariably through a dense, brown
smog. A thin veil of smog was also visible in the Beqaa, have
partially spilled over the mountains, but also being built up by
exhaust fumes in the valley, where petrol driven pumps also add to the

The very low number of birds is remarkable, especially when hunting
shops with shotguns on dislay are numerous. I remember talk of hunting
bans on birds in the late 60's. They don't seem to have had much effect!

Also an apparent drastic reduction in the number of visible reptiles
was remarkable. I remember seeing lizards all over the place, they
could be found sunning on just about any stone wall away from the
densest populated places, but also in towns.

The Mediterranean really is dead as far as Lebanon is concerned. I
spent much time diving along the coast before the war - in Saida,
Beirut and the north. I've also spent time in the water in southern
Turkey the last few years. We went swimming at Amchit, what was
apparently one of the cleanest places we could find driving north of
Beirut. The sea bottom is full of carbage (tires, plastic, etc.), the
surface is covered with small particles of efluent, which some places
gathers into swathes of yellow muck. More ominously, the normal black
algea found on shore rocks has been replaced by a light green, slimy
variety and the large white, spherical jelly fish are everywhere.
Jellyfish were only exceptions in the 60's.

The only really threatened natural resources that effect the economy
are farming and the sea. The fertile coastal plain is not all that
theartened by air pollution because of the rapid circulation of air
off the sea. But the fruit farms in the hills are. What is worse is
the long-time threat to the Beqaa. However, agriculture is resilient
and it takes a long time before cash crops really give up. The other
resource, the sea has already been so far reduced that fish slowly
recedes from the diet without much effect. What is left is the damage
to the tourist industry, which at present is virtually non-existant.
But it will probably also grow enormously on expatriates who are far
more forgiving that the fickle charter tourist. I'm afraid that there
really aren't very strong ecnomic incentives to do anything drastic
with the environment yet. Unless of course, the government discovers
environmental taxes as a supplementary income source in its eagerness
to emulate other nations. 


I found the number of Syrian workers, India and Celonese construction
workers and Sri Lankan / Philipino maids strange. But there appeared
to be less destitute on the streets than I remembered. 

While Kindlife's travel guide says travel checks are accepted
everywhere, we found that the only place they were accepted were at
the money changers in Ras Beirut.

Always the land of contrasts, restaurants can skin you completely or
leave you with a resonable bill and wonderful meal. There is still
fruit, vegetables, cheese and olives, bread and labneh to be had at
very reasonable prices. So if you kand find somewhere to live cheaply,
trust your life to the technical conditions of service cabs and find a
good map, you can pretty much travel the country without incurring
exhorbitant costs.

As is usual after wars, a few are doing very well, but most are trying
to pick up the pieces. Living in crowded, expensive accommodation and
trying to make meager wages stretch agains galloping inflation. The
same inflation that has reduced the greater part of the retired
population to rely on others' largess in the absence of pension

Housing is short and very expensive. Consequently, the young put off
their weddings, blaming both the expense of expected celebrations and
the costs of establishing a home. People do their elopements to
Cyprus, I'm told. Now they fly - the boats being run by the profiteers
between Larnaca and Jounieh have trickled down to a twice weekly
service from Beirut to Limassol. It used to be Egypt they would run
off too, waiting a long time to come back.

Travel is a sore point for those not afluent enough to fly directly to
Paris. For a large part of the population, Syria is not an option, for
obvious reasons. Turkey, has a deep tradition in the whole eastern
Mediterranean as a hostile nation. (Something the Turks, and
especially the younger generation don't really understand. After all
they have been through their conversion from a despotic empire to a
modern nation. A process very internal to that nation and not
experienced by her neighbors at the time.) Which leaves much of the
country feeling very isolated.

And of course, there's the traffic and pollution to cope with.....


The Lebanon I knew when I left spanned the glitz and literary
intellects of the cities of the coast to the plains of the southeast
with traditions and farming stretching back to bronze age methods. 

I saw my first TV in Saida growing up on Abu Salim, Um Kalthoum,
Sabah, Wadi el Safi, Fairuz and Abu MilHem. We didn't see too much TV
while we were there now, but from what little I did see, it appears to
have gone the way of tube entertainment everywhere else.

The Beit Eddine music festival was on with some good performers, but
none of the "big names". The venue may preclude some too, I expect.
There is talk of reviving the Baalbek festival and a committee has
been convened. 

The palace at Beit Eddine has been restored and refurbished. There was
an interesting exhibition on the life of Kamal Jumblaat. But the
"eternal flame" (not burning) and the statue in the outer court was
rather reminiscent of the "lord of the manor" puttering about the back
stables after having given over his palace to the (English) National
Trust in return for life tenancy. The visitors feel very much like
intruders. Especially when the brochure (much changed since the 1970
Tourist Board version) mentions all the objects in the museum being
"donated" by Walid Jumblat and the little cards in each an every
exhibition case declaring the veritable treasures to be very much his
personal property. In fact a rather presentable national museum in lue
of the original being closed for a brush-up of the facade. (While the
exhibits, or what is left after the looting of the war, languish.) If
you do go to Beit Eddine, have a look at the mosaic floors from the
churches of Giyheh. I suppose leaving them in situ was out of the
question. The might very well have been carted off to the pleasure of
the international antique trade. (Antiques my be sold in Lebanon, but
not taken abroad without an export permit.) Now they are at least on
view for the public. Some of the restoration was overdone - especially
the wood ceilings. A lot of priviously open rooms were now closed. Oh,
and don't go around snooping too much into all the little side rooms
with Roman collum capitals and weapons crates strewn around, you never
know what you might stumble over. But then there are also some pretty
hefty watchmen around who will keep you out of trouble.

Not so in Saida. The Khan el Franji has been restored very well after
the great Mosque was done a few years back. There are several sites in
the souks and old town that will be done as long as the funds are
forthcoming. And for now they seem to be flowing rather well.

The big bone of contention is of course the plight of the
archeological surveys being pushed in front of the bulldozers of
Solidere's work crews in the old and ancient city center of Beirut. In
the absence of the necessary funding by the government, international
sources and the developers to be administered and coordinated by an
appropriately competent and disinterested party, Solidere's financing
of the whole effort is a god-send. On the other hand, month-long
suspension of wages to the excavating teams as a reaction to an
unsolicited letter of protest from outside the community, is not quite
exemplary. In spite of reports and rumors of fly-by-night removals,
cover-ups and destruction, we will, at some future date, see the
results of one of the biggest single urban archaeological excavations


I've tried not too make too many comparisons to "the old days". Other
than for nostalgia or historical interest, it's not very constructive
to dwell on the glories of the past and people, especially in Lebanon
sorely need constructive comment. Also, everyone suffers to a greater
or lesser degree of patriotism, easily injured by negative criticism
of one's own country. As it's mine too - it hurts doubly to see it
degenerate and unjustly criticized.

So how did the future look from Lebanon? While it's impossible to
foresee anything, especially in that part of the world, some of the
more promising characteristics might indicate what degree of hope that
may be offered at the end of the millenium. 

Asolutely ALL the foreigners' predictions of the hopelessness of the
Lebanese character that were expounded before the war have been put to
shame. Granted that 15 years of malicious devastation is not a
flattering record, the resilience with which life is now faced is
nothing short of spectacular. Part of that resilience being a good
measure of ability to turn a profit on most everything. But the
greater part is that optimism that exudes from every part of the
population. Sometimes veiled in dejection at low investment rates,
high inflation, increasing defaults on credit and general despondency
- but mostly it covers for all the complaints of social maladies. From
corrupt politicians to disgust with everyone else's notion of the
ideal political cure for the country.

Apart from the physical evidence like the pollution and the traffic,
the single most disturbing aspect was the pervasive feeling of
unresolved political conflict. While there may evolve matters of both
political and social significance that will replace those conflicts,
they are not yet apparent. The one, really positive part of the
situation is that most seem to feel that using war to resolve those
conflicts by attempting to create more homogenous geographic groupings
of the population, although resolving some conflicts is not a workable
solution to long-term conflicts.

It is not easy to believe that significant improvements will come
quickly. Especially when the younger generation appear to have learnt
even less than their elders and display the most insidious cynicism.
The single most encouraging factor must be the continual preoccupation
with education as a solution to every social ill. And with education
and educators as the institution most likely first to recognize the
futility of war and greed as the solution to its cause and
consequences, there surely is a lot of hope.

Whatever your view and whatever the measure of hope and anticipation,
one thing is certain. Life in Lebanon is that more intense than
anywhere else. The days last longer, are more colorful, surely more
noisy - but somehow more happy - than any other place I know.


Most of the sites and places mentioned in this article are illustrated
with pictures old and new on the Al mashriq - Levant cultural
multimedia servers. The URL is: At
present the pictures from our 3-week visit (almost 1000 photographs)
are being transferred to the server and linked in to the web pages.

- Barre 950901 

al@mashriq                       960901/960602