Going to Lebanon was a difficult decision. Since it borders Syria and Israel, my only option for visiting and leaving was to fly. I try and avoid flying for environmental and cost reasons, but in the end I couldn’t help but visit. I have met too many wonderful people from Lebanon and I love their food too much not to visit.
Lebanon is probably most famous for its recent history – a bloody civil war from 1975-1990. Though the war ended, the factions didn’t end. Today the Sunni and Shia continue fighting. Beirut is safe in terms of crime, but acts of terrorism can occur at any time.
While I was in Lebanon, Beirut was safe and stable, but Tripoli in the north was not at all. Though I visited Byblos, the ancient Phoenician capital, I didn’t get a chance to visit two historical sites: Baalbek and Tyre. Baalbek is the largest Roman ruins outside of Italy. While I was in Lebanon some German tourists were kidnapped while visiting Baalbek. I’d say the kidnapping is merely a business to extort money, but it would still be an unpleasant experience.
Tyre was the other historical place I would have liked to visit but couldn’t due to the security situation. Tyre is relatively safe, but many people recommended that I don’t go there alone. Although I find such paranoia usually over the top, I heeded the advice of local people in Lebanon. The advice was always the same “It’s probably safe, but what if something happens?”
Lebanon’s story is hard to understand. It’s so small, has something like 19 officially recognized religious identities composed of the various interpretations of Christianity and Islam. Many people say its golden age is behind it, that it peaked just before the civil war as the “Paris of the Middle East.” Syria long had a strong influence (if not control) over Lebanon before its soldiers pulled out in the mid-2000s. Iran is said to fund Hezbollah inside Lebanon. The population dynamics have changed considerably since so many people (especially Christians) fled during the civil war.
The conflict in Syria is also causing demographic change as Lebanon has accepted something like 1,000,000 Syrian refugees – increasing the population roughly 25%. That would be like the population of the U.S. increasing by about 80 million people in just a couple years. Some say Lebanon is collapsing under the burden of being the top destination for fleeing Syrians.
Lebanon is an undisputedly beautiful country. You can swim on the beach, drive 30 minutes, and then go skiing. Two mountain ranges cross the country from north to south and provide numerous climate zones for living and growing different crops and vegetation. Lebanon’s symbol, the cedar tree, grows best above 1500-2000m (5000-6600ft).
The food. Oh, the food. I’ve long known Lebanese food is my absolute favorite in the world, but coming here was a bit of a dream come true for my tongue. Hummus is my favorite, but I could happily eat Lebanese mezze daily for the rest of my life. Mezze means appetizers and usually consists of small bowls of hummus, salads (tabouleh, fattoush, etc.), baba ganouj, yogurt, etc. Olive oil is always present and so is zaatar (thyme), though I don’t like either one very much. I am sure I gained several pounds in Lebanon as a result of my friend’s mom ensuring my stomach reached full capacity and because I’d devour way too much mezze before the main dish arrived.
The older generation of Lebanese people often speak French. The young generation often speaks English and French on top of Arabic of course. I would say that you can get by in English in Beirut, but not easily. The center of Beirut is walkable.
The people I met in Lebanon were all incredibly nice. Regardless of what community they came from, the people were incredibly hospitable, kind, and generous. You could even argue the people were too generous. And it is here I want to end this post on Lebanon. Despite its problems, despite all the people there have gone through and continue to go through, the people are truly wonderful. I don’t know why. They have every right to be bitter and angry, but they aren’t. They’re lovely. They’re a beacon of hope for all of us, and embody the idea that happiness is a decision and comes down to one’s attitude.