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From Golden Age to Ruin – Lebanon in Turmoil as It Turns 100

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From Golden Age to Ruin

Lebanon in Turmoil as It Turns 100

The Mideast nation marked its centennial just after a massive explosion at Beirut’s port. Ever since, political instability has threatened to bring the nation to its knees.

Learn the why behind the headlines.

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I’ve had a recurrent nightmare ever since I was a kid: A tsunami takes over and all I can do is look for my sister to rescue her,” Karen Madi, a resident of Lebanon’s capital city, stated in a NPR interview. “I worried about her because I never thought I’d have to go through such a nightmare all alone.”

“And that I did, on August 4,” she said, referring to the day in 2020 that more than 3,000 tons of ammonium nitrate caught fire in a Beirut port warehouse, causing an explosion that killed at least 180 people, injured 6,000 and devastated a swath of the city. The blast was large enough for people 150 miles away on the island of Cyprus to report hearing noise and their windows rattling.

“A minute before the explosion, I needed to use the bathroom [at an art gallery],” Ms. Madi explained. “The shaking blue painted walls echoed the tsunami waves from my nightmares. ‘No, not like this,’ I said to myself, as I threw myself on the floor and tried to protect my head under the toilet. I can’t even remember the sound of the blast, similar to the silence you feel when you’re under a crashing wave.”

“When I got out of that bathroom, I realized that the world I built in this country came crashing down.”

For the hundreds of thousands of Beirut residents directly or indirectly affected by the blast, the realization was the same. The city’s mayor told Agence France-Presse that half of the city was damaged and it would cost up to $15 billion for repairs. He said 300,000 people were unable to return to their homes.

Explosions are not out of the ordinary in the coastal city, where car-bomb blasts have occurred almost monthly since 2005. But the latest explosion was so devastating, it triggered new reflection on the country’s troubled history and deepened worry for the future. Thousands took to the streets, demanding government reform. For them, the catastrophe was a continuation of the past, with crisis after crisis caused in one way or another by the sectarian elite putting factions and self-interest ahead of state and nation.

The blast also came amid economic upheaval. An unprecedented financial meltdown has devastated the economy, fueling poverty and a new wave of emigration.

Then came the centennial on September 1, which marked 100 years since the establishment of the State of Greater Lebanon, proclaimed by France in an imperial carve-up with Britain after World War I. It was the precursor to the modern state of Lebanon. Facing potential bankruptcy and total collapse, many Lebanese marked the 100-year anniversary with a feeling that their experiment as a nation has failed and questioning their willingness to stay in the crises-riddled country.

“I am 53 years old and I don’t feel I had one stable year in this country,” said prominent Lebanese writer Alexandre Najjar.

When the August 4 explosion occurred, it was, as Mr. Najjar characterized, the “peak of a failed state”—proof that authorities cannot even provide basic public safety.

It was never supposed to be that way.

The nation, which had been under the Ottoman Empire since the 16th century, was given semi-independence under France in 1920. By the time it was granted full independence, Lebanon was intended to showcase that three religions—Christianity, Sunni and Shiite Islam—could coexist in both government and within the general population.

The experiment initially seemed to be a success. At its peak, Lebanon was hailed as a model of multiculturalism. In its heyday in the 1960s, the country became a regional center for the rich and famous who flew from around the world to gamble at the Casino Du Liban, or to attend concerts in the ancient northeastern city of Baalbek by international artists such as the Berlin Philharmonic, Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev, American jazz singer Ella Fitzgerald, as well as famous Arab singers like Egypt’s Umm Kalthoum and Lebanon’s own Fairuz.

Yet even during its golden age—and prior to its inception 100 years ago—the seeds of division and turmoil had already been sown.

“Thrown Together”

Looking back on his childhood in the newly declared state of Lebanon, Salah Tizani said the country was set on course for calamity from the start by colonial powers and sectarian overlords.

Mr. Tizani, better known in Lebanon as Abou Salim, was one of Lebanon’s first TV celebrities. He shot to fame in the 1960s with a weekly comedy show that offered a political and social critique of the nascent state.

Now age 92, he lucidly traces the crises that have beset Lebanon—wars, invasions, assassinations and, most recently, the devastating chemical explosion—back to the days when France carved its borders out of the Ottoman Empire in 1920 and sectarian politicians known as “the zuama” emerged as its masters.

For Lebanon’s biggest Christian community, known as the Maronites, the proclamation of the state by French General Henri Gouraud was a welcome step toward independence.

But many Muslims who found themselves cut off from Syria and Palestine were dismayed by the new borders.

Some like Mr. Tizani saw early division between Christians and Muslims. As a young boy, he remembers being ordered home by the police to be registered in a census in 1932, the last such survey Lebanon conducted. His neighbors refused to take part.

From the earliest days, people were forced into the arms of politicians of one sectarian stripe or another if they needed a job, to get their children into school, or if they ran into trouble with the law.

Pointing to Catastrophe

When Lebanon declared independence in 1943, the French tried to thwart the move by incarcerating its new government, provoking an uprising that proved to be a rare moment of national unity.

Under Lebanon’s National Pact, it was agreed the president must be a Maronite (part of the Catholic Church), the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shiite Muslim.

The post-independence years brought signs of promise.

Women gained suffrage in 1952. Salim Haidar, a minister at the time, took pride in the fact that Lebanon was only a few years behind France in granting women the right to vote, his son, Hayyan, recalls.

Salim Haidar, with a doctorate from the Sorbonne, drafted Lebanon’s first anti-corruption law in 1953.

“This was the mentality…that Lebanon is really leading the way, even in the legal and constitutional matters. But then he didn’t know that all of these laws that he worked on would not be properly applied, or would not be applied at all, like the anti-corruption law,” Hayyan Haidar said.

The 1960s are widely seen as a golden age. Tourism boomed, much of it from the Arab world. A cultural scene of theatre, poetry, cinema and music flourished. The arts were celebrated each year at the famous Baalbeck International Festival. Famous visitors included Brigitte Bardot. Casino du Liban hosted the Miss Europe beauty pageant in 1964. Water skiers showed off their skills in the bay by Beirut’s Saint George Hotel.

Visitors left the capital with “a misleadingly idyllic picture of the city, deaf to the antagonisms that now rumbled beneath the surface and blind to the dangers that were beginning to gather on the horizon,” Samir Kassir, the late historian and journalist, wrote in his book Beirut.

Kassir was assassinated by a car bomb in Beirut in 2005.

For all the glitz and glamour, sectarian politics left many parts of Lebanon marginalized and impoverished, providing fertile ground for the 1975-90 civil war, said Nadya Sbaiti, assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

“The other side of the 1960s is not just Hollywood actors and Baalbeck festivals, but includes guerrilla training in rural parts of the country,” she said.

Lebanon was also buffeted by the aftershocks of Israel’s creation in 1948, which sent some 100,000 Palestinian refugees fleeing over the border.

In 1968, Israeli commandos destroyed a dozen passenger planes at the Beirut airport, a response to an attack on an Israeli airliner by a Lebanon-based Palestinian group.

The attack “showed us we are not a state. We are an international playground,” Salim Haidar, serving as an MP, said in an address to parliament at the time. Lebanon had not moved on in a quarter of a century, he said.

Time Bomb

Lebanon’s brewing troubles were reflected in its art.

The 1970 play “Carte Blanche” portrayed the country as a brothel run by government ministers and ended with the lights off and the sound of a ticking bomb.

Nidal Al Achkar, the co-director, recalls the Beirut of her youth as a vibrant melting pot that never slept.

A pioneer of Lebanese theatre, Ms. Achkar graduated in the 1950s from one of a handful of Lebanese schools founded on a secular rather than religious basis, Ahliah, in the city’s former Jewish quarter. Beirut was in the 1960s a city of “little secrets…full of cinemas, full of theatres,” she said.

“Beside people coming from the West, you had people coming from all over the Arab world, from Iraq, from Jordan, from Syria, from Palestine meeting in these cafes, living here, feeling free,” she recalled. “But in our activity as artists…all our plays were pointing to a catastrophe.”

It came in 1975 with the eruption of the civil war that began as a conflict between Christian militias and Palestinian groups allied with Lebanese Muslim factions.

Known as the “two-year war,” it was followed by many other conflicts. Some of those were fought among Christian groups and among Muslim groups.

The United States, Russia and Syria were drawn in. Lebanon was splintered. Hundreds of thousands of people were uprooted.

The guns fell silent in 1990 with some 150,000 dead and more than 17,000 people missing.

The Taif peace agreement diluted Maronite power in government. Militia leaders turned in their weapons and took seats in government. Hayyan Haidar, a civil engineer and close aide to Selim Hoss, prime minister at the end of the war, expressed his concern.

“My comment was they are going to become the state and we are on our way out,” he said.

“I Lost Hope”

After the war, old fault lines persisted and new ones emerged.

According to BBC, Lebanon’s religious diversity “makes the country an easy target for interference by external powers, as seen with Iran’s backing of the Shia Hezbollah movement, widely seen as the most powerful military and political group in Lebanon.”

Since the end of the war, “political leaders from each sect have maintained their power and influence through a system of patronage networks—protecting the interests of the religious communities they represent, and offering—both legal and illegal—financial incentives.”

Sunni and Shiite Muslims fell out following the 2005 assassination of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri, who was credited for a role in putting together the agreement that ended the 15-year civil war. A UN-backed tribunal recently convicted a member of the Iran-backed Shiite group Hezbollah of conspiring to kill Hariri.

Since then, the last 15 years have been punctuated by political slayings, a war between Hezbollah and Israel and a brush with civil conflict in 2008.

But for some, the bitter division never really ended.

Political conflict persists in government even at a time when people are desperate for solutions to the financial crisis and support in the aftermath of the port explosion.

While some refuse to lose faith in a better Lebanon, for others, the blast was the final straw. Some are leaving or planning to.

“You live between a war and another, and you rebuild and then everything is destroyed and then you rebuild again,” said theatre director Ms. Achkar. “That’s why I lost hope.”

Mr. Najjar offered a more hopeful conclusion.

“There is no doubt we were expecting the 100th anniversary to be different. We did not expect this year to be catastrophic to this level,” he said.

“There is still hope,” he said. “We have hit rock bottom and things cannot get worse.”

Seeking Stability

The former MP Salim Haidar’s words—“We are an international playground”—not only describes Lebanon’s past 100 years, it could also apply to millennia of Lebanon’s history. The region has hosted a tug of war between Christianity and Islam, Arab and European empires, throughout the last 1,500 years.

The diversity of the population today reflects a confluence of cultures and religions: about 60 percent identify with Islam, with equal parts Sunni and Shiite, while about 40 percent are Christians. Rather than dominating any large part of the nation, the religious groups exist in isolated pockets.

Another emblem has literally depicted Lebanon’s changing tides of rulership: its flag. Each entity that ruled over the mountainous region placed a unique symbol at the center of the flag to feel represented.

Under the dominance of Christian empires after the Crusades, for instance, a large gold cross with three smaller crosses was the flag’s center feature. A dynasty of Druze rulers adopted a laurel wreath at the flag’s main object. Various forms of the crescent moon were used under the control of the Ottoman Empire and various Islamic rulers from the 1500s onward.

It was not until independence in 1920 that the green cedar was introduced. It has remained Lebanon’s centerpiece of the flag and emblem for the past 100 years.

For independent Lebanese, the tree speaks volumes on their identity—and their hopes for the nation’s future.

The tree depicted on the flag is the Mountain of Lebanon Cedar, evergreens that were coveted for construction projects in ancient times and they are a main source of tourism and interest in the region today.

Lebanon’s anthem includes the line: “The cedars are his [Lebanon’s] pride, his immortality’s symbol.” The song also invokes that “God preserve [Lebanon] until the end of time.”

In the Bible, God has a lot to say about the cedar. It is mentioned in Scripture 77 times, and is used as a symbol of prosperity and strength. A psalmist wrote: “The righteous shall flourish like the palm tree: he shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (Psa. 92:12). The prophet Isaiah referenced the “glory of Lebanon,” followed by a list of trees the area was famous for: “the fir tree, the pine tree, and the box [cedar] together” (60:13).

Today, although the nation has a Christian minority, its war- and crises-weary citizens continue to look to the tree as an emblem of longevity, political stability and lasting peace—all for which they desperately desire.

The good news for all those living with such hope is that the Bible is more than a book of symbols and poetry. It is also an authority on prophecy: and much of it is good news.

The same book that discusses the cedar shows that Lebanon’s hopes will turn into reality. Note another prophecy in Isaiah: “Is it not yet a very little while, and Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field, and the fruitful field shall be esteemed as a forest?” (29:17).

This sounds like awesome prosperity—which would have to also include political stability! Both would be welcome news to a nation now going through its worst crisis in recent times.

This little-known prophecy is part of a larger plan made by the God who declares events before they occur. Overall, it is a plan of “peace” on Earth, and “good will toward men” (Luke 2:14).

For more on the way God plans to bring peace to Lebanon and all nations of the world, read our free booklet How World Peace Will Come!

 This article contains information from Reuters and The Associated Press. 


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