Leaving Lebanon

For 20 years, the benefits of living in Beirut outweighed the dangers. No longer

20 October 2012

Beirut is usually a party town, capital of the Middle East’s most glamorous country where people from all over the region come to kick back — but this year’s been a little different. Kidnappings, bank robberies, roadblocks and gun battles — no wonder the free-spending and normally blasé Gulf Arabs have stayed at home, leaving us Lebanese to consider not only a decimated economy, but also the very real prospect of a descent into another civil conflict.

Which is why finally, after 20 years, I’m leaving. My Lebanese adventure, during which I married, had children, lived through three wars, a popular revolution and an attempted coup, has come to an end.

I moved to Lebanon from London in 1992, two years after my Lebanese father died in a helicopter crash in Sierra Leone. I was 27 and still wondering what to do with my life. Lebanon seemed a good place to start looking. The 15-year civil war had ended a year earlier and the country was rolling up its collective sleeves to start picking up the pieces. I figured we would grow together, Lebanon and I.

Less than 20 years later, you couldn’t move without bumping into fawning travel features about how Beirut was once again the party town for the bling-fuelled Arab jet set (think a million Kardashians) inhabited by a cast of edgy designers, restaurateurs and architects (think Arab Hoxtonites, if you can) ably supported by photogenic bankers, ad executives and politicians. They all told us that Lebanon was a beacon of tolerance, creativity and entrepreneurship.

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This was the truth — but not the whole truth. Lebanon could also be a total nightmare, a country where prosperity and fun was punctuated by periods of uncertainty, fear and brutality. In 1996, while my wife was pregnant with our son, we watched from our balcony as the Lebanese army, positioned on the Beirut seafront, fired heavy machine-guns on Israeli helicopter gunships during Operation Grapes of Wrath. Ten years later, at the height of the 2006 summer war, we slept four to a bed as the Israeli jets bombed south Beirut. In the 2008 attempted coup by Hezbollah and its allies, I had the surreal experience of being caught in a gun battle as I walked home from the DVD rental shop. How do you explain this to people who lead normal lives?

I knew many people — Prime Minister Rafik Hariri and MPs Basil Fuleihan, Gebran Tueni and Pierre Gemayel — who were brutally murdered because they wanted a free and sovereign Lebanon. Fuleihan’s death was particularly poignant. When he was caught in the same fireball that consumed Hariri and 19 other people outside the Hotel St Georges on 14 February 2005, I remember asking ‘why him?’ Hariri we could understand, but Fuleihan was a ‘civilian’, a technocrat, a Yale graduate who worked at the IMF before coming back to Lebanon in 1993, no doubt to try to make a difference. Months earlier, we had shared ideas about how to promote Lebanon’s burgeoning wine industry. Now I was watching him on television stagger in flames from Hariri’s burning car. He died in France from his injuries two months later.

And for the next two years, we never knew where and when the next bomb was going to go off. I was with my close friend, the Lebanese-American writer Michael Young, not long after the anti-Syrian Lebanese commentator Samir Kassir was blown up as he was about to drive to work. Troublesome journalists were targets and I expected Michael, another loud anti-Syrian voice, to check under his car. When he didn’t, I pretended to take a phone call, moving safely around the corner, figuring the wall would protect me if he went up in flames. He paused and wound down the window. ‘Get in the fucking car,’ he said impatiently. ‘We’re three floors underground. You can’t get a phone signal.’

Who lives like this? The answer is we all did because when life is good in Lebanon, it is fabulous. There is the weather, the food, the wine, the beaches and the mountains. There is our well-appointed Beirut apartment and the family summerhouse in my village. The kids are in a good school and we can afford a housekeeper and a gardener. Beirut is a small and intimate town where there is a solution to almost everything.

The wine critic Oz Clarke declared when he came here in February that the Lebanese had a huge ‘generosity of spirit’. He is right, but the Lebanon he saw — the five-star hotels, the bars and, dare I say it, even the vineyards — often hides the reality of seething sectarian hatred that has defined the region for the past 18 months.

Syria is key to all this. Lebanon’s Sunnis, still angry at what they believe was the order from Damascus to kill Hariri, support their co-religionists, while the predominantly Hezbollah-led Shia community backs the beleaguered Assad regime. Battle lines have been drawn and the fallout from divided loyalties is biting. And this summer we all wondered if once again we were heading into the abyss.

My feeling that it was time to get out came to a head during the furore over the now-notorious film Innocence of Muslims. Sunni protestors in Tripoli, Lebanon’s second biggest city, torched the local KFC, the nearest symbol of American imperialism, while Hezbollah’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, called for further protests across the country. The film was a godsend for the militant Shia party, deflecting attention away from the daily slaughter in Syria, which for political reasons it has been unable to condemn, and reminding the world that the Arab Spring has a dark side.

Lebanon has of course seen it all before. Instability has been the default setting since 1990 and has not stopped bursts of growth and prosperity. It’s up to the Lebanese to determine just how much of their destiny is in their control and what that destiny is. I’m just not sure I want to be part of it anymore.

Next week Mary Wakefield will report from Lebanon on the fate of the Christians who have fled Syria.

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Show comments
  • http://www.facebook.com/jmoodey Jeremy Moodey

    Er, is this the same Michael Karam who wrote an article in The National only 18 months ago which began with the line: “Suddenly, Lebanon does not look too bad.” Shome mishtake shurely?

  • George Sfeir

    A very well written article that captures the struggle of all Lebanese people who still live in Lebanon and those who have left this beautiful yet controversial country. Most Lebanese still living in the country contemplate about when they need to leave and not if they need to leave this place. In this article, Michael Karam was able to express the feelings that many Lebanese go through. Well Done.

  • http://www.facebook.com/jmoodey Jeremy Moodey

    Er, is the same Michael Karam who wrote in an Abu Dhabi newspaper only 18 months ago that life in Lebanon “did not look too bad” (see http://dld.bz/bQcVt). Shome mishtake shurely?

    • Anonymous

      The title says “For 20 years, the benefits of living in Beirut outweighed the dangers. No longer” then he explains “my feeling that it was time to get out came to a head during the furore over the now-notorious film Innocence of Muslims. ” If u know how to count, u’ll understand the time he realised it’s time to go was recent when the tables were turned and the dangers outweighed the benefits, not around 18 months ago when he wrote the Abu Dhabi article!

    • JamesHip

      A lot can change in 18 months, Jeremy, and surely that is the point of the article.

      • Alex

        Yes Jeremy have you not noticed what has changed in the last 18 months in Syria/Lebanon?

  • Robert H

    Good luck – I’ll be following you

  • http://twitter.com/sean_piggott Seán Piggott

    I lived there 2006 – 2008. An ‘interesting’ time, was how we decided to describe it. An amazing place, with some great people. Your article does a good job of highlighting some of the dichotomies involved with living in the place.

  • Serena

    Did you get a job offer abroad? Because whoever endured all of that, would certainly endure what is happening now.

  • Lebinlon

    you can get out of Lebanon, but can you get Lebanon out of your system ? I tried -many times- but couldn’t. it really IS a great place when no-one’s shooting.

    • lemec

      you can stop listening to Fairuz every morning

  • http://www.facebook.com/dany.elchartouny Dany El-Chartouny

    A very biased view of life and politics in Lebanon.

  • Jenny

    It’s a shame really, losing a damn good journalist, one I’m honored to call a colleague, and a fine wine connaisseur among numerous other qualities. Michael, I can understand why you can no longer have faith in the Lebanese – and you’re right, they are not to be trusted these days – but please don’t give up on Lebanon! We’ll sure miss you though.

  • TJO

    My advice, stay here and enjoy the good life & low taxes, but run if things get out of control !

  • MahmudH

    It seems a pretty strange conclusion to make. He’s lived through multiple wars, including the Israeli invasion when a couple of thousand people were killed. The most notable thing about the current problems for Lebanon is how limited the problems have been. The trouble makers have been amongst Alawite groups, a very small minority in Lebanon. Not amongst Shia muslims in general, who are the largest sect in Lebanon. The failure of Hezbollah to condemn the Assad regime’s behaviour in Syria is shameful, but it hardly indicates a desire to start a civil war in Lebanon. Quite the opposite – it suggests that they are very risk averse.They have a vested interest in the status quo and will do everything they can to stay out of Syria’s civil war, let alone starting one in Lebanon.

    • marok

      The locals may well be risk averse and still seared by the experience of the civil war, but once Assad starts to manufacture a conflict in Lebanon, all bets would be off.

  • nobodyissmart

    If I didn’t have all my family here, I would probably leave. But I just cant leave them. And the thing is, like you said, when things are good in Lebanon, it’s wonderful. sigh :'(

  • Rima

    Your attitude is exactly the reaction the violence we saw in Achrafieh thrives on. I understand your apathy, but leaving means they’re eating us, those who do not open and close our eyes everyday thinking of the next murder.

  • http://twitter.com/kabalissima Boleslaw Bierut

    and now think Israel. none of this happening there yet all media attention is directed there. wonder why’s that.;)

  • Eddy

    Time to leave…
    I am still young and full of energy and ambition.
    Lebanon won’t let me reach my goals.
    I am leaving to a place where I can “Live”

  • Rita H

    you can choose not to be part of it, but can you really get away of not being Lebanese!!! if we all choose to back up and escape what will happen to our country!? who will fight and put it on the good track? i lived abroad and i can assure you there is nothing better then living in your OWN country where you have the same rights like your fellow citizen.
    Hang on and i am sure that our country will rise again as our people are intelligent, educated and ambitious! just hang on there and i have Faith that we will rise again from this dark long tunnel we entered…..
    if you go! who will remain to make a difference!

  • Jay Sinclair

    In all honesty, the only hope Lebanon has is that if AUB students take over the country. They are the most open minded people, and this new generation wouldn’t be what it is if it weren’t for western culture and rationalization.

    • BS

      I don’t how true this is; look at student elections at AUB. They are strictly divided along national lines and are viewed as litmus test for broader political tendencies. Furthermore, those students who seem to have the most potential to change the political mindset in Lebanon are also those who are most likely to seek employment abroad. AUB has always been a beacon of free thought and activism, and I hope that what you say is true.

  • sm

    very clear ! Bravo

  • Vreny Huizer

    I lived in the Lebanon from 1967 until 1971 – it was my favorite place in this crazy world ever since, I was crying reading this.The optimim from the Lebanese friends (who not here anymore) always astonished me! May God save this beautiful Lebanon !

  • R Z

    What a confusion!! Most of us which to leave Lebanon looking for a better life that is peaceful and prosperous. Many of us can do it having foreign passports and money, but can we really do it?? Lebanon is too dear to us, we LOVE it!!! We love living here despite everything hoping that in the future God can help us to live the life we deserve in our country..

  • Hestia

    It is true when someone has a family and children to bring up he will try to look for the best environment for their upbringing but imagine if everyone decides to leave, what happens to Lebanon? Lebanon needs people that believe in it, and if we all lose faith who will be left to bring it back to the glory it once enjoyed? Keep your faith and be always optimistic, believe in lebanon and do not leave and keep hoping, without hope humanity doesn’t have a chance of survival.

  • Paca

    What is Lebanon like right now? I am italian and a friend of mine will go to Lebanon with the NATO ARMY for ‘peace keeping’. What do people think about european and american army “help”?

  • El Capitan

    Since equality before the law results in the claim that people have a share in making the law, democratic methods tend to accompany liberty.

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