Precarious Lebanon

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

Beirut, from an apartment damaged by Hezbollah shelling
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

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."

Beneath the still-alluring facade, however, Beirut was a mess: the government was barely functioning; the Hezbollah-led opposition was boycotting Parliament; downtown was nearly deserted. Many parliamentary representatives were hunkered down at home or in fancy hotels in fear of assassination, and the Executive Mansion had been sitting empty for four months because Parliament couldn't convene to select a president. The political standoff would come to a head two months later, when the Sunni-led government banned a private fiber-optic communications network that Hezbollah operated and also fired the Hezbollah-backed airport security chief, claiming that he was acting as an agent of Syria and Iran. Hezbollah's Nasrallah called the moves a "declaration of war." His fighters took to the streets, overrunning Sunni militias loyal to Saad Hariri. Fighting spread throughout the country; by the time the government backed down and Hezbollah withdrew, dozens had died. Now a fragile truce is in place, protected by the relatively weak Lebanese Army.

"Lebanon is a failing state," Goksel said, between narghile puffs. With the administration effectively paralyzed, most Beirutis had fallen back on a kind of traditional feudalism, taking their problems to powerful local families. "In Hariri's time, these [feudal] families lowered their profile," Goksel told me. "But in the absence of the state, in the vacuum, we went back to our good old ways. The country is really running by itself."

That afternoon I went to see Bernard Khoury, Lebanon's internationally renowned architect, who works out of loft space in Beirut's Quarantine—a run-down neighborhood near the port. Khoury's studio could have been in Manhattan's Tribeca, were it not for sweeping views of the Hezbollah-dominated southern suburbs from his floor-to-ceiling windows. An austere figure who dresses exclusively in black, Khoury has designed buildings from Berlin to New York City. But it is Beirut, he says, that remains the source of his inspiration. His output here has been prodigious: sushi bars, nightclubs, office buildings and apartment blocks.The city, Khoury told me, has always been a place of contradictory realities compressed into a tiny space, but the juxtapositions had taken on a surreal cast in the past three years. "At the end of the 2006 war, I could sit here watching the fireworks at night over the southern suburbs," he recalls. "It was seven minutes away by taxi, and it was a radically different world."

This bizarre collision of realities is perhaps most visible in the "martyr" billboards and other memorials that seem to rise on every corner of the city. When I arrived, the highway from Beirut's international airport—Hezbollah territory—was lined with yellow placards of Imad Mugniyah, the just-assassinated (in Damascus) chief of Hezbollah's military wing. Mugniyah allegedly had engineered the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983, where 241 Americans were killed. A ten-minute drive away, in the heart of the downtown area that Hariri had rebuilt, the martyred pro-Western leader's image was everywhere: on giant posters on the sides of buildings, on billboards and on dozens of hagiographic photographs looming inside the huge mosque where his body lies entombed. (Hezbollah would overrun this neighborhood two months after my visit.) On the very spot where Hariri died, a metal sculpture erupts in symbolic flame every afternoon at five minutes past one—the moment when the car bomb detonated.

"Losing Hariri was a massive blow," Paul Salem told me. "He could have stitched together a stronger Lebanese coalition than anyone else. He was a master dealmaker, and when he died, the chances for reconciliation fell apart." We were sitting in Salem's office just off Martyrs Square, where a million-strong crowd had assembled a month after Hariri's assassination to demand Syria's military withdrawal. The demonstrations, along with mounting international pressure, forced Syria's dictator, Bashar Assad, to remove his 14,000 troops that May. This so-called Cedar Revolution also spawned a pro-Western governing coalition in Lebanon known as the March 14 movement. The Assad regime, however, is widely believed to be working to neutralize the March 14 movement and regain its footing in the country: since Hariri's death, car bombings in and around Beirut have claimed the life of a young investigator looking into the murder, as well as those of a dozen journalists and politicians opposed to Syrian dominance. Not one of the killings has been solved. Salem, for one, has little doubt that high-ranking Syrian officials are behind the terror. "Syria is a very scared regime," Salem told me. "If you live in Damascus, you see the Lebanese mountains to the west, and if you don't control them, you imagine the CIA peering down on you. With the United States in Iraq, and the Golan Heights in Israel's hands, it all adds up to paranoia."

I drove into the hills of the Christian eastern half of Beirut to meet May Chidiac, a talk-show host and former anchorwoman for a Maronite-run television station. For years, Chidiac had used her TV pulpit to lash out at Syria and Hezbollah and to agitate for withdrawal of the Syrian troops. After Hariri's death, her criticism grew more vociferous. On September 25, 2005, as Chidiac stepped into her Range Rover, after a Sunday morning visit to a monastery near Mount Lebanon, explosives attached underneath her vehicle detonated.

"At first I just wondered: What is happening?" she told me, as we sat in the living room of her guarded hillside condominium. "I started seeing something like black snow falling all over my head. I lost consciousness. I heard a voice calling ÔWake up, my girl'; maybe it was my late father speaking to me from the sky. Then I found myself lying on the back seat, trying to pull myself out of the car, because I was afraid that a fire would start and I would burn alive."

Chidiac, 44, lost her left arm and left leg in the explosion. Hundreds of pieces of shrapnel penetrated her body; she suffered third-degree burns over her torso and remaining arm. (She says the bombers had laced the dynamite with C-4 flammable explosive, because "they wanted me to burn.") She spent ten months undergoing physical therapy in a hospital in Paris, learning to walk with a prosthesis—arriving back in Lebanon the day before the Israeli-Hezbollah war began. Chidiac moves around her apartment in a motorized wheelchair, using the artificial leg only when she ventures outside. She says that it would have been easier to accept her injuries if the "sacrifice" had helped to bring about "the Lebanon that I believe in. But it's no closer to coming true. Maybe it's better for everyone to have his own piece of land and rule it the way he wants," she says. "Then [Hezbollah's] Nasrallah can continue his war against Israel on his own land, and Israel will respond on his land, not on mine."

Early on a Saturday morning, I headed east out of Beirut to visit one of the country's most powerful feudal leaders: Walid Jumblatt, the chieftain of the Druse, adherents of a secretive religious sect related to Islam and found primarily in Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Jumblatt was to play a critical role in the events leading to the fighting in May: the Druse leader alleged that Hezbollah had set up cameras near Beirut international airport to monitor the movement of anti-Syrian politicians—and possibly to plan their assassinations. As a result, the government demanded the ouster of the Hezbollah-backed airport security chief, Brig. Gen. Wafik Shoukair, one of the moves that touched off the explosion of violence. I drove up a winding road that led high into the snow-dappled Shouf Mountains, passing ancient, stone-walled Christian and Druse villages still scarred by fighting from Lebanon's civil war. Hundreds of Druse men, many wearing traditional white skullcaps, were gathered around the gated entrance of Jumblatt's ancestral palace, while Kalashnikov-toting guards checked every visitor. I found Jumblatt, a scarecrow-like figure with a wild fringe of graying hair and world-weary demeanor, in the crowded drawing room of his 300-year-old palace, a turreted sandstone chateau. He was seated in an armchair, patiently listening to constituents' concerns—legal problems, marital woes, access to civil service jobs. "I can't please them all, but I do my best," he told me with a shrug, during a break between one-on-one sessions.

Jumblatt's life story reflects the byzantine and bloody politics of the region. When war broke out in 1975, his father, Kamal, was a Socialist politician allied with the Palestinians and their Lebanese Muslim partners against the Maronite Christians. Kamal Jumblatt begged then-Syrian president Hafez al-Assad to keep Syrian troops out, but in 1976 Syria moved in, initially backing the Maronites. Kamal continued to criticize Assad; the next year he was shot dead in an ambush on a mountain road, allegedly by Syrian agents. Twenty-seven-year-old Walid, then something of a playboy, found himself in charge of the Druse. (Walid keeps his father's bullet-riddled identification card on display in his office.)

Despite the killing of his father, Jumblatt stayed loyal to Syria for the next two decades—it was a question of "survival," he says—while he remained in Lebanon to protect the small Druse community against sporadic violence. But in 2003, following the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the cooling of U.S. relations with Syria, Jumblatt felt sufficiently emboldened to call for an end to Syrian occupation—and publicly accused Syria of murdering his father. That defiant act put him high on a Syrian death list, according to Lebanese intelligence officials, and forced him to beef up his protection and curtail his movements. After the Hariri assassination, he became even more cautious. "They could be waiting for me at any checkpoint in Beirut," he told me. "They are able to fix up a car bomb anywhere, anytime."

Jumblatt led me through the palace's labyrinthine corridors, across a garden to the private wing of his house. His office, where a loaded Glock pistol was in plain view, was filled with souvenirs: Soviet flags from his days as a supplicant to the Communists in Moscow; photographs of him with President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice during a 2006 visit to Washington to enlist support for the March 14 movement. We stepped into the garden and gazed across a gorge toward the domain of his nemesis, Syrian president Bashar Assad. Jumblatt told me that he had met the Syrian leader several times, most recently in 2003, when Hariri brokered a reconciliation attempt that went nowhere. "At the beginning, Assad convinced people that he was in favor of reforms in Syria," Jumblatt told me. "He spoke English fluently, he fooled a lot of people. But [he had] the same archaic, brutal approach as his father." I asked if Jumblatt had any regrets about turning away from his former protectors after 29 years. He shook his head. "Now my conscience is clear, finally, and that is good. I think my father would be approving." Jumblatt has pushed for the U. N. to investigate Syria's role in the Hariri murder. "It's not easy. It's going to be very long road, until we get rid of Bashar, until we get rid of Nasrallah, until we bury them like they buried us."

Two days later, I'm catching my breath atop the Beaufort Castle in southern Lebanon, a Crusades-era ruin perched on a 2,000-foot cliff just north of the Litani River. The deep gorges of the Shiite-dominated south extend toward the red-tile-rooftops of Metulla, an Israeli border town just eight miles away. Israel used this medieval fortress as a battalion headquarters during its 18-year occupation; it overran much of the area again when it invaded in July 2006. The flags of Hezbollah and Amal (the Lebanese Shiite political party) flutter from the top of the cliff face, which was scaled 167 times by Hezbollah guerrillas during the first occupation; the fighters killed 19 Israeli troops during those assaults. Today, Israeli fighter jets scream overhead in the direction of Beirut on near-daily demonstrations of military might.

If Hezbollah and Israel go to war again, Muslim towns and villages lying south of Beaufort will undoubtedly bear the brunt of the assault in Lebanon, as they did during Israel's 34-day incursion in 2006. (The war was touched off after Hezbollah seized two Israeli soldiers and killed eight others near a disputed border zone.) Despite Nasrallah's bluster, most observers don't think that another war is imminent: the people of the south are exhausted, still trying to rebuild their bombed-out infrastructure two years later. An 18,000-man U.N. peacekeeping force patrols a buffer zone between the Litani River and Israeli border, restricting Hezbollah's movements and making smuggling of weaponry into the area difficult. "I can never see Hezbollah initiating anything. It would be suicidal," Goksel had told me earlier, in Beirut. "Israel can't live with those rockets raining on their territory. Hezbollah knows that the next time, the Israelis will turn south Lebanon into a parking lot."

But as I tour Hezbollah strongholds in the south and in the Bekaa Valley, I get the sense that few Lebanese consider the confrontation between Hezbollah and Israel resolved. "I hope there is another war," says Ahmed Matloum, a 26-year-old Shiite in the Bekaa village of Vritel, targeted by Israeli bombers four times during the 2006 conflict because nearby foothills are rife with Hezbollah training camps. Standing with two younger brothers in a "Martyrs Cemetery" on the outskirts of town, Matloum points out the marble slabs beneath which 12 cousins, all Hezbollah fighters, lie buried, killed during the 1982-2000 Israeli occupation. Beyond them are five granite tombs, the graves of a family blown to pieces by an errant Israeli missile two years ago. "What do you think?" he asks me. "Is there going to be another war?"

"I hope not," I say.

"Inshallah [God willing]," he replies. "But we are ready to fight."

In fact, these days, the more likely threat of full-scale war comes from another quarter: in mounting tensions between Hezbollah and the many factions that make up the current Lebanese government, including Sunnis, Druse and some Christians. Hezbollah loyalists aren't the only Lebanese who relish the prospect of further fighting. Not far from Ramzi Ghosn's vineyard, I visited another entrepreneur who makes his living from the soil. Nuah Zayitir is one of Lebanon's biggest cannabis cultivators, grossing, he told me, about $5 million a year. A pony-tailed 36-year-old, he lives with his wife and three children in a half-finished villa at the end of a remote dirt road, guarded by security men armed with automatic weapons and rocket-propelled grenade launchers. Zayitir said he had just had his most profitable year ever. In early 2007, Sunni militants affiliated with Al Qaeda gained control of a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli; after months of laying siege, the Lebanese Army wiped out hundreds of fighters and leveled the camp. With the Lebanese Army distracted by the Sunni extremists and the government in Beirut paralyzed, cannabis growers had been left to cultivate their crops in peace. "We hope there is never any government in Lebanon," he told me. "As long as there is war and chaos, it's great for people like me."

For the moment, it's hard to predict what kind of Lebanon may prevail. Will it be a Hezbollah-dominated state planted squarely in the Syria-Iran camp, a pro-Western democracy or the every-man-for-himself free-for-all that Zayitir finds so lucrative? The Carnegie Middle East Center's Salem believes that Lebanon will likely emerge as a new kind of Middle Eastern entity, "a country with both a strong American presence and a strong Iran presence—like Iraq," he says. "It will be less black and white, more nuanced, more Middle Eastern."

On May 25, after Lebanon's warring factions had met in Qatar to seek a compromise that would quell the violence, the stalemate ended with the election of Michel Suleiman, a Maronite, as president. In these negotiations, Hezbollah emerged with a major victory: it achieved parliamentary veto authority. If this complex power-sharing agreement works, says Salem, "Things will stumble along toward calm." But, of course, Lebanon remains one of the world's most fractious countries and similar deals have collapsed before.

Back at the Massaya Winery, Ramzi Ghosn takes another sip of arak and marvels at Lebanon's ability to embrace the good life during the darkest of days. "Even if you're a Sunni or a Shia in Lebanon, you always knew that your neighbor might be a Christian and would be consuming wine," he says. "We're not so good at producing airplanes or tanks, but in terms of food and drink, we surpass everyone in the world."

Writer Joshua Hammer is based in Berlin.
Photographer Kate Brooks has lived in Beirut for three years.