Once upon a time… there was Lebanon which was called “Paris of Middle East”…and then something happened and the Paris and Pearl of the Middle East.. changed from heaven to hell…. Let us have a look and see what Lebanon has to offer now for Ghumakkars !
It was 2004 and I boarded Air India flight from New Delhi to Dubai for my journey to Lebanon.
I had reached Dubai early Morning. My next flight for Beirut was on next day and I had full day and a night in Dubai. My employer had booked me in hotel Intercontinental, a good hotel… but away from traditional markets. My room was rather a suite with a huge bathroom with luxurious bath tub. I thought of going to the Market and went out with patniji, but even in September it was so hot as if we have come near a furnace.
Dubai is just like any Indian city, if you add cleanliness, discipline, law & order and lot of Malyalis to it. People had been dying to shop in Dubai, but I found it really useless. The Gold was just 900 Rs. less than in India…. so adding 250 Rs. custom duty it is not a wise bargain.
Most of the ornaments were imported from India. Ladies dresses also were mostly imported from India…. The mobile phone I purchased for 7,500 Rs. from Karol Bagh was Rs. 7000 here… not impressed !!!! So a person coming 3 hours ago from New Delhi may find no interest in it.
So after making some useless purchases, I decided to come back to hotel and have an Arabic Sheikh type luxury in the huge bath tub !…sipping a glass full of foam, in foamed Jacuzzi, and listening to songs of Haifa Wehebe….
Next day we reached the airport. All counters had long lines except one… and that was our counter for taking flight to Beirut. I got my favorite window seat and was soon drowned into thoughts about my next place…BEIRUT !!!
How this country would be ??? where you have to be a Christian to become a President… a Sunni Muslim to become a Prime Minister and a Shia Muslim to become a Home Minister ? I never found anywhere in the world such an interesting situation.
In Dubai, I had searched the internet and from various sources, found some historical facts about Lebanon. I present them just to give you an idea about the ancient history of Lebanon.
The coastal plain of Lebanon is the historic home of a string of coastal trading cities of Semitic culture, which the Greeks termed Phoenicia, whose maritime culture flourished there for more than 5000 years. Ancient ruins in Byblos, Berytus (Beirut), Sidon, Sarepta(Sarafand), and Tyre show a civilized nation, with urban centres and sophisticated arts. Present-day Lebanon was a cosmopolitan centre for many nations and cultures. Its people roamed the Mediterranean seas, skilled in trade and in art, and founded trading colonies. They were also the creators of the oldest known 24-letter alphabet, a shortening of earlier 30-letter alphabets such as Proto-Sinaitic and Ugaritic.
The ancient Lebanese set for sail and colonized overseas. Their most famous colonies were Cadiz in today’s Spain and Carthage in today’s Tunisia.
Phoenicia maintained an uneasy tributary relationship with the Mosaic from Baalbek, Roman Empire period.
Neo-Assyrian and neo-Babylonian empires; it was conquered outright by the Achaemenid dynasty of Persia, which organized it as a satrapy. It was added to the empire of Alexander the Great, who notably conquered Tyre (332 BC) by extending a still-extant causeway from the mainland in a seven-month effort. It fell to the Seleucid Empire after Alexander’s death. The area was conquered by the Roman Empire in the first century and remained Roman until the advent of the Caliphate. Christianity was introduced to Phoenicia from neighboring Galilee soon after the time of Jesus of Nazareth; the Arab advances brought Islam soon after the death of Muhammad. Muslim influence increased greatly in the seventh century when the Umayyad capital was established at nearby Damascus.
Beirut is the capital of Lebanon, which borders Israel to the north. The Mediterranean Sea borders both countries to the west. In the late 1970s Lebanon was torn by a civil war among rival religious groups, sects within such groups, and gangster families. We will need to know that in Lebanon there were camps of Palestinian refugees expelled from Israel. And to complete our thumbnail sketch, the Palestinian Liberation Organization, claiming to represent all such Palestinians, had military bases in Lebanon.
But that was all theoretical knowledge. Seeing Lebanon now was altogether different from texts on Lebanon… a place which had so rich ancient culture, but reduced to a mere civil-war torn country now.
Now Lebanon is a fortress of Hizbullah the dreaded militant group…who caused severe damage to the American and French forces when 250 navy seals & 60 Frenchmen were killed in a suicide attack by Hizbollahs. Israel was/is continuously irritated by them but hasn’t been able to control their movements so far.
Lebanon which was seeing a bomb attack every week, killing important politicians and VIPs…. was it the same Beirut which I saw in movie Ankhen ? (old Dharmendar wali film). How will Beirut look like now, which was once called the Paris of the Middle East or Pearl of the Middle East.
How will Beirut be as my next place of long stay… capital of Lebanon… the only country in Middle East which has no desert and no oil. Lebanon which has double the numbers of expatriates than the population… which is humming ground of almost all the terrorist organisations and all the intelligence agencies of the world including CIA, KGB, Mossad, MI6 and a playground of PSD !
I looked down from the window… the ugly and boring desert view was being replaced by green mountains and I knew it was time to disembark. The plane slowly reached the terminal and I took my first full breath of this wonderful, dangerous and mysterious land.
The first impression was not very encouraging. I was driven straight to my apartment an outer wall of which was perforated with bullet marks and a big hole made by a rocket propelled grenade in it. I was lodged into a Sunni area. Surprisingly Beirut is the only city I have seen with separate areas for Sunnis, Shiyas, Druze and Christians.
In Muslim areas, you find burqas and beards… hukka & coffee shops. …mosques all around that reminded me of Kabir’s doha :
कंकड़ पत्थर जोड़ के मस्जिद लयी बनाय
उस पर मुल्ला बांग दे.. क्या बहरा हुआ खुदाय
I continued living in my ashiyana and one day i crossed over to the Christian area… just a few kilometers of travel brought me into Europe. Big shining showrooms of all cars, all electronics. Glittering sign boards indicating pubs, bars, night clubs and casinos…. girls in minis and boys with beer bottle in hands. I could not believe my eyes. I have seen many countries and cities … but such a sudden change in environs was not there in any country and in any city. This side of Beirut was looking like Paris or any other European city.
Slowly I explored Lebanon and visited every nook and corner of it and found the best term for this – A heaven on fire!!!.. In this series I will take you to some very good tourist places of Lebanon, which make it a heaven for all ghumakkars.
There are Indians in Lebanon but almost all of them are either chowkidars of buildings, or farm / factory workers. In my 3 years stay I did not find even one Indian who was an Engineer or a doctor or a rich businessman. Our dear Mumtaz (oldie bollywood heroine) had a big glass bottle manufacturing plant in Lebanon, but it was destroyed during Israel bombing in 2006.
My house was at a stone’s throw from sea shore and I always dreamed of living near the sea shore.
In aankhen film, Beirut was quite different from now. Even after +20 years of civil war and still going on bomb blastings Lebanese are so hard working and positive in attitude that they never stopped their constructions of sky-scrappers, malls and other buildings in Beirut. I was so happy to see the stone gate in the sea and remembered Ankhen where Dharmender chased the villain in a motor boat through this gate.
Meanwhile one football team from India, came to Beirut to play a friendly football match with Lebanese team. The Lebanese side of gallery was full of public and to encourage the Indian team only this much were the viewers plus me shooting their photo.
Lebanese were very happy when their team was hitting goals and since it was a friendly match, their team deliberately slowed down to give Indians some chances. The moment number of goals became equal, some one from gallery started shooting in the air. Police came in, declared the match finished and escorted the crowd out of the stadium. At least half of the crowd was having pistols or guns hidden under their clothes.
“Lebanese are modern friendly and warm, but in our area it was a little different. They would start expolding fire-crackers even in the mid of night on any small pretext, be it some court case won, or their leader arrived at airport or a baby is born. Many times, we woke up from our sleep, thinking it is a bomb blast but found they were exploding crackers on some idiotic pretext.
But when on Diwali, some Indian children were exploding small fire crackers outside, many Lebanese gathered and started fighting with the parents to stop the fire-works. This arrogance, intolerance and Badtamizi was not found in other areas where some Lebanese, mostly christians, took part in Diwali festival and danced with Indians.
But outside Beirut.. Nature has blessed Lebanon with all her beauty. Snow clad mountains, meadows, historical ruins, beautiful rivers and what not. Tourism is the only industry in Lebanon which has a major chunk in its national economy. From May to October, Lebanon is thronged by tourists mainly from Europe, Japan, China and Gulf countries. Tourists are not normally harmed and are kept safe by Lebanese.
And yes… within one year of my stay there, my secretary and my driver both were singing hindi songs… (thanks to my patriotism & my efforts..LOL)…see the proof :
Beirut is a small city and there is not much to do… but to make it a base and see around Lebanon. the whole Lebanon can be seen in 2/3 days. The main activities in Beirut are scuba diving, fishing, yachting, exploring under-sea caves or spent evenings in pubs and casinos.
..next I will take you to Baalbeck, Cedars and some other tourist attractions in my forthcoming posts…
bye till then