Lebanon broke my heart.
I witnessed the country’s rebirth during the Beirut Spring in 2005, when citizens mounted a peaceful revolution against Syria’s suffocating military occupation, and I witnessed its whimpering end when Syria, Iran, and Hezbollah struck back.
While the Arab Spring of 2011 toppled tyrants in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, and we have seen brave souls continue protesting against the brutal Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, Lebanon’s Cedar Revolution was really the first, and it came six years earlier. It took place in the one Arab country that already had a history of free and fair elections and representative government, but the revolution was still too weak to stick. By early 2011, Syria and Iran were back in the saddle. They don’t govern the country directly, but they control all of Lebanon’s foreign and internal security policies through their local proxies, the most powerful and notorious of which is Hezbollah.
That the radical Islamists of the Party of God—what Hizb Allah means in Arabic—can subvert a popular, nonviolent, people-powered movement in a relatively liberal country like Lebanon demonstrates that even the most tolerant and progressive parts of the Arab world are still places where the ruthless prevail.
Beirut is my favorite city, and I’m not—I swear—crazy for saying so. It’s hardly a Middle Eastern backwater, and it’s not, like some of the Persian Gulf emirates, a steel-and-glass petro-metropolis that decided only yesterday to import foreign labor to graft skyscrapers and shopping malls on top of a Bedouin culture. Nor is it, like Cairo, an ancient Third World megacity choking with poverty and pollution. As a city, it is younger than most, and as an Arab city it is more modern, more cosmopolitan, and more progressive by far than any other, with the possible exception of Tunis. Here is where the region’s taboos about alcohol, sex, clothing, religion, and free speech break down.
The city’s culture is liberal and tolerant (except when it’s not), even anarchic and libertarian. Its pleasures are physical and decadent. It is where Saudis and other Gulf Arabs like to visit when they need a break from their fanatically conservative culture back home.
Beirutis knew how to have fun even during the black years of the 1975–1990 civil war. “We would have war right over there,” one resident told me in 2005, shortly after the Cedar Revolution, pointing across the street. “Right here,” he said, meaning our side of the street, “we would have a party.”
A famous nightclub advertisement captures the balance between pleasure and terror precisely. The cityscape is shown in ruins with thick gray ash falling from the skies, as though all had been annihilated in a nuclear holocaust, yet just below street level, in a club called Basement, young people are drinking and dancing their hearts out. The ad ends with the tagline, “It’s safer underground.” And it’s fun down there, too.
At times while visiting some of these clubs I couldn’t help but imagine an assassination going down there, or masked men barging in and spraying everyone with automatic weapons. The possibility was spectacularly unlikely, and I felt silly even thinking of it, but that sort of thing doesn’t even occur to me in America. In Lebanon it adds a certain frisson to the atmosphere. Beirut, at least most of the time, is a safe dangerous place.
In May 2008, however, one of my favorite café-pubs on the west side of the city was transformed into a neighborhood headquarters for the thuggish Syrian Social Nationalist Party militia during a weeklong civil war. My earlier thoughts of masked gunmen in clubs weren’t quite as off-the-wall as I thought.
Even so, every Westerner I have ever met who has been to Beirut fell in love with the place almost at once. Even the Israelis I know who have sneaked in (and I know several) think it’s fantastic. “Life crackles in the air there like it does here,” Israeli journalist and academic Jonathan Spyer told me after he used a British passport to visit Beirut from Jerusalem. “I think that’s proof of health. And I don’t feel that in Western Europe.”
I’ve had long conversations with American and European colleagues about our dark romance with the city. And Beirut is addictive. Some say those who get hooked are bitten by the “Beirut bug,” but it’s really more of a drug. At its best it’s like a shot of adrenaline. I’ve tried to find a place in America that gives me a similar feeling, but I never have.
Lebanon’s capital, as American journalist and Istanbul resident Claire Berlinski wrote in City Journal, is a “Weimar city … rich in history and culture, animated by political precariousness and by a recent rupture with the past, vivified by a shocking conflict with mass urbanization and industrialization; a city where sudden liberalization has unleashed the social and political imagination—but where the threat of authoritarian reaction is always in the air.”