By Lee San
Stepping out of the international airport of Lebanese capital Beirut into driver Mohamed's car, I asked: "Does Lebanon produce marble? Expensive marble is laid on the floor everywhere at the airport terminal. Looks like you really have lavish infrastructure, nothing like a country that has gone through 45 years of armed conflicts."
Looking around me, I felt that the international media had not been fair in their reports on the country. The officials at the airport immigration desk at least gave me the initial impression that they were efficient, professional, friendly and smiling. Of course, my evaluation of Lebanon's safety could only be ascertained after I got a better overall picture of the country over the next few days. I was thinking whether Lebanon's root of undying spirit was still alive.
Mohamed said in a somewhat bewildered manner that he couldn't understand why Western media had consistently labeled Hezbollah a terror outfit. As a matter of fact, this country has been technically at war with Israel for hundreds of years, and with the legitimate government unable to protect the civilians, we have to turn to Hezbollah's militant regime for help. To be honest, Lebanon's awkward position over the past 45 years indeed evokes some sort of uneasiness in many a foreign visitor, but the country is absolutely not that kind of horrific place many would claim "unsafe and unsuited for travel". The fact is, we even hosted a record two million visitors last year, and many impressed visitors vow to recommend this culturally rich, friendly and utterly safe destination to their friends!
By the way, the marble came from Syria, the neighbor we both love and hate. But I have to reiterate that even though we only have a small population of four and a half million, we manage to house some 1.8 million distressed Syrian brothers and sisters and an additional one million Palestinian refugees, besides lots of marble! So, you can imagine we Lebanese people do have very big and inclusive hearts. To be honest, such an enormous number of foreign refugees does give us a multitude of social, religious and ethnic complications and crises. We even sacrifice jobs, which should have belonged to us, for these people. While the UN has handed out almost US$300 for each of the eligible refugee households each month, who will come to the rescue of impoverished and dejected Lebanese families?
But please rest assured, Lee San. I can guarantee you a safe and hassle-free passage here, and will take you to some of the best dining spots around. With idyllic cedar mountains flanked by the pristine Mediterranean, Lebanon is indeed a sight to behold. And we have lots of religious and historical monuments like the 3,000-year-old Baalbek ruins, the world's best preserved and largest ancient Roman building complex just 7km from the Syrian border. I've got to specifically tell you this: it's Hezbollah that has been wholeheartedly preserving these paganistic legacies!
After spending several days with Mohamed, I have to admit that he is a principled young chap. Having worked before in the UK for seven years, he speaks excellent English.
An avid admirer of Western civilization and systems, Mohamed nevertheless responded positively to the calls of prime minster Saad Hariri to return to his motherland to contribute towards the country's development "for the good of future and change". Six years have since lapsed. Mohamed, now married with a two-year-old child, laments the absence of fundamental changes to the sectarian rule. Power struggle, corruption, abuse of power, misappropriation of public funds, spiraling inflation and wealth inequality are still very much evident and even aggravating, culminating in the economic emergency of 2019. Youth unemployment could have topped 40% by now. Mohamed has no choice but to become a taxi driver doubling up as tour guide to feed his family. Unfortunately, goods prices have surged as a consequence of local currency depreciation. Vacant shops and apartments are a ubiquitous sight in the city today.
On a bright note, Mohamed remains optimistic, and has never given up on the government's lofty expectations for the country. He took me on a walking tour of commercial, financial and government precincts, as well as the Parliament Building and the PM's office in downtown Beirut. A visit to these imposing buildings is like walking down a grandiose French boulevard with architectural wonders reminiscent of the glorious Renaissance Era, many with balconies. Nevertheless, some of them are now scarred by the recent massive anti-government protests. Feeling dejected? But Mohamed said this makes a fine historical lesson. Look at that, Lee San, the now vacant Holiday Inn pockmarked with bullet holes. I was trapped in there with my father and family to take shelter from the mortar fire during the war with Israel in 2016. Suddenly the Israeli rocket from the Mediterranean came down on us, and my father's legs... And in 2005, right in this street, our former PM was killed inside his car in a blast... As a matter of fact, during the 15 years from 1975 to 1990, the religious civil war that stole global limelight completely tore up the country into two extremes. What a cruel price to pay for several generations of Lebanese!
It appears to me that there is still a very long way to full interfaith harmony, although cross-ethnic communication and intermarriages have become increasingly common nowadays, which is a good thing. Like all other people on this planet, there is a dream buried deep inside every Lebanese heart that hope will eventually descend on this land some day.
During this crucial moment of coronavirus outbreak, I was apparently the only yellow-skinned man walking in the whole street. Seeing me, a group of peacekeeping personnel suddenly stopped and yelled at me: "Be strong China!" Not knowing what to do, I spontaneously waved my hand and yelled back, smilingly: "Thank you, Lebanon!"
Look, this is the root of the Lebanese people, a kind-hearted empathy for fellow earthlings!
In the meantime, they are also yearning for the imminent resurgence of their once prosperous and splendid capital city.
You too, Mohamed, stay strong!
P/S: In the northeastern hills of Lebanon, towns and villages in Hezbollah's stronghold, local residents from very diverse and convoluted ethnic backgrounds whom I came across, were actually living their own leisurely and care-free lives.
(Lee San is Founder and Group Executive Chairman of Apple Vacations. He has traveled to 132 countries, six continents, and enjoys sharing his travel stories and insights. He has also authored two books.)