Precarious Lebanon

For decades, this tiny Mediterranean nation of four million has segued between two identities

Beirut, from an apartment damaged by Hezbollah shelling. As sectarian tensions flared this past May, hostilities escalated. The renewal of violence dashed hopes that Lebanon could soon become -- once again -- "a freewheeling place where everybody could live his own life.” (Kate Brooks / Getty Images)
Smithsonian Magazine | Subscribe

Ramzi Ghosn takes a bite of a bruschetta and a sip of red wine and gazes through the windows of his Provençal-style restaurant at the wintry vineyards and snow-blanketed mountains in the distance. Diners at rustic oak tables are sampling the winery's Sunday menu—lentil salad, fondue, quail, apple tarts and arak, a powerful anise-flavored liqueur. In the center of the room a trio of chefs slide baby lamb chops into a brick oven; a Chopin piano sonata plays softly in the background. "I started preparing meals for a few friends, and then it just grew," Ghosn says with more than a touch of pride.

It could be Tuscany. But this is the Bekaa Valley, a fertile, sun-drenched plateau wedged between 8,000-foot peaks in central Lebanon, one of the most volatile countries in the world. An hour to the west is Beirut, the seaside capital, where long-standing sectarian tensions flared up in May, killing at least 65 people—only weeks after I met with Ghosn. Across the valley lies Syria, whose troops occupied the country for 29 years and whose dictatorship, run by Bashar al-Assad, continues to wield a malign influence over Lebanon's affairs. The Bekaa itself is a no man's land, partly controlled by Hezbollah, the Shiite Muslim force supported by Syria and Iran (and which the U.S. State Department considers a terrorist organization), and partly by outlaw farmers who export more than 100 tons of hashish to Europe each year—and who defend their territory with heavily armed militias.

A Maronite Christian from east Beirut, Ghosn, 40, and his brother Sami opened the Massaya Winery in 1998, at a time when Lebanon seemed on the rebound after a devastating civil war. French investors provided most of the capital, and the Ghosn brothers built up production to 300,000 bottles a year. ("Of the Lebanon wineries, Massaya is the hippest," the New York Times declared in 2005.) Islamic fundamentalists in the area have never bothered him: "Wine has been part of the culture here since the Phoenicians 4,000 years ago," Ghosn says, lighting up a Toscana cigar.

But Lebanon's stability was short-lived. When war broke out between Israel and Hezbollah in July 2006, missiles struck guerrilla training camps up the road, damaging the vineyard's buildings and sending Ghosn's grape harvesters fleeing. Now, with the country facing an uncertain future, Ghosn isn't taking chances. In his wine cellar, hundreds of crates of chardonnays, syrahs and sauvignon blancs are stacked for transport to Beirut. "We're sending as much abroad as we can now," he tells me, "because we don't know what's going to happen next."

It is a common lament in Lebanon. For decades, this tiny Mediterranean nation of four million—carved by the French from the Ottoman Empire after World War I—has segued between two identities. There's the alluring, sensual Lebanon, renowned for its fine wines, culinary sophistication, Roman ruins and sybaritic beach scene. Generations of Arabs have flocked to Beirut to soak up the Rive Gauche atmosphere, stroll the seaside Corniche and revel in the city's cosmopolitanism and defiant secularism. Then there is the Lebanon riven by rivalries among its main sects—Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims and Shiite Muslims—exploited by stronger neighbors and seized periodically by armed conflict.

In 1975, a running feud between Christians and Yasser Arafat's Lebanon-based Palestinian guerrillas spiraled into war. In central Beirut, Christians and Muslims fought pitched battles. In 1976, Syria dispatched troops, first joining Christians in the fight against Palestinians, then battling alongside Muslims against Christians. According to New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman in his classic account From Beirut to Jerusalem, more than 40 militias were fighting in Lebanon during the early 1980s. By the time the exhausted foes signed the Taif agreement in 1989, most of the country lay in ruins, tens of thousands were dead and Lebanon was largely under foreign occupation. Israel, which had invaded in 1982, held on to a southern buffer zone to prevent attacks on northern Israeli towns. Syria kept tens of thousands of troops in Lebanon, maintaining a stranglehold over political and economic life.

Then, in the late 1990s, Lebanon began a remarkable turnaround, guided by its charismatic prime minister, Rafik Hariri. A Sunni Muslim who had made billions in construction in Saudi Arabia, Hariri "had a vision of Lebanon as Hong Kong, a freewheeling, easygoing place where everybody could live his own life," says Timur Goksel, a former spokesman for the United Nations peacekeeping force in the south who has lived here for 28 years. Hariri restored much of Beirut, cultivated political adversaries and began luring back investors. When I first visited Lebanon in 2001, the economy was booming, beach clubs were filled with tanned jet skiers and the opulent lobby of the Phoenicia Hotel was jammed with wealthy Gulf sheiks on holiday.

Hariri was assassinated three years ago by a car-bomb explosion near Beirut's Corniche, allegedly carried out by Syrian agents unhappy with his bold assertions of Lebanon's independence. Lebanon's darker identity took hold —with car bombs, political chaos and a 34-day war between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 that left at least 1,000 dead and billions of dollars in damage. Today Lebanon seems trapped between an economically vibrant, tourist-friendly democracy and Islamic radicalism and Arab-world intrigue. The population is split, grappling over whose voice will define the country: Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, the fiery, Israel-hating leader of Hezbollah, or Saad Hariri, son of the murdered ex-prime minister, a political novice who talks of reviving Lebanon's economy and bringing his father's killers to justice. (This past May, Lebanon's Parliament elected a compromise candidate, army commander Gen. Michel Suleiman, as president, ending six months of deadlock.)

A more democratic, moderate Lebanon, experts say, could provide a foothold for reform throughout the Middle East. A weak, chaotic Lebanon, however, means a haven for radical Islamists, a resurgent Hezbollah and an opportunity for Iran and Syria, America's principal adversaries, to make more mischief in a volatile region. The fighting that took place in May, when Hezbollah guerrillas overwhelmed Sunni and Druse forces and occupied west Beirut for three days, demonstrated that power rests with Shiite extremists. The geopolitical stakes are enormous, according to Paul Salem, the Lebanese political scientist who directs the Carnegie Middle East Center, a Beirut-based think tank. "You've got a standoff, with the United States and Saudi Arabia in one corner and Syria and Iran in the other." The outcome could shape the future of the Middle East.

When I visited Beirut this past March, the city seemed to have changed little since my last trip six years earlier, at the height of an economic boom. Joggers and in-line skaters still made their way along the Corniche, the promenade that hugs the coast, offering views of the snowy Mount Lebanon range—where Beirutis escape on ski getaways in the cooler months. At lunchtime on my first day in town, I met Timur Goksel at his favorite outdoor café, Rawda, a venerable institution that remained open through the civil war. The Turkish-born former U.N. staffer was holding court over a cup of Arabic coffee and a narghile, the water pipe popular throughout the Middle East. From this seaside perch, with blue water lapping at the shore and families eating mezze—a traditional platter of hummus, tabbouleh and other Lebanese specialties—it was easy to conjure up the Beirut of better times. Goksel gestured toward the apartment blocks lining the seafront, packed with condominiums that still fetch prices in the $4 million range. "They are sold to people from the Gulf who are looking for an escape," he told me. "They know they're getting ripped off, but they're getting ripped off in Arabic with a smile, instead of being ripped off in Europe and being looked down on."

About Joshua Hammer
Joshua Hammer

Joshua Hammer is a foreign freelance correspondent and frequent contributor to Smithsonian magazine.

Read more from this author

Comment on this Story

comments powered by Disqus