The Lebanon is a loose cannon of a country and, as its capital, Beirut is fittingly fast-paced, colourful and raw. It is a window on the innumerable faces of the original phoenix which spouts folklore and capitalism in the same breath, where the rousing song of the minaret competes with the clamour of church bells, where faith meets hedonism, and where first world meets third world.
The history of Beirut is not relegated to museums and dusty libraries like a venerated but useless grandpa stowed out the way on a comfy chair in the back room. Its past is chronicled on the walls of the capital, from the Roman baths to the damage of the civil war in the eighties. It neither worships nor denies its past, perhaps because it is never over. The business of making history thrives in the Middle East, though the storyline loops and the actors merely change masks.
Even after the civil war ended in 1990, this esteemed undertaking has punctuated life for the Lebanese with almost monotonous regularity and repeatedly punctured the bubble of hope that swells each spring as Beirut’s businesses look gingerly forward to that elusive thing – a tourist season. Year after year, a new boil burst from an old infection, scuppering any likelihood of a return to the heady summers of the early seventies when the city was awash with visitors.
But the summers of 2009 and 2010 were exceptions to the rule. In the sometimes uneasy absence of war, phase one of Lebanon’s comeback was like a reunion with an old flame for first or second generation Lebanese expatriates and visitors from the Gulf, preferring the hospitality of Lebanon to the increasingly equivocal reception of another old favourite, the US. With phase two came visitors from across the world, people falling for the many faces of the phoenix for the very first time.
Now the Syrian conflict has pushed Lebanon back into those only too familiar war guessing games. The Lebanese, for their part, remain wary of the future and weary of the past. Above all Beirut lives its golden age in the present.