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An Introduction to Lebanon

For those who do not know, or who are fuzzy on such matters, Lebanon is situated at the eastern extremity of the Mediterranean. It is home to a population of approximately four million and bordered by Syria to the north and the east and Israel to the south. Its recent history has been inextricably linked to the Middle East conflict, which has raged for over half a century. It is a situation that has overshadowed its more illustrious reputation as the site of one of the world’s oldest civilizations, Phoenicia, and which bequeathed modern Lebanon some of the most magnificently preserved ruins from antiquity.

It is also a crucible of the three great monotheist religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – and is home to 18 state-recognized faiths. (It might surprise many to learn that there is still a tiny Jewish community, although its numbers have understandably dwindled in recent decades.) This condition is reflected in the constitution, which in 1943, the year Lebanon became an independent nation, distributed political representation according to this confessional dynamic and its demographic spread. Today, based on an admittedly outdated 1932 census, the president is drawn from the ranks of the Maronite Christian community, the speaker of parliament a Shia Muslim and the prime minister a Sunni Muslim. Other religious communities – Greek Orthodox, Druze, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, and Protestant, to name a few – are also represented.

The years following Lebanon’s independence allowed it to thrive while other nations in the region struggled to cope with the twin ructions of the creation of the state of Israel and the phenomenon of Arab nationalism. It styled itself a regional refuge for bankers, émigrés, diplomats, spies, traders and the like, acquiring along the way a patina of sophistication and intrigue.

But patina it was. The lead-up to the 1975-90 civil war revealed a flaw in Lebanon’s proud multi-confessional make-up as the country was forced to take sides in an ever-widening struggle with the Palestinians, Israel, Syria and each other. It became a country divided. War brought with it mass emigration, infrastructural destruction, confessional suspicion and volcanic inflation.

In 1989, Lebanon lurched, punch-drunk, into a peace process that saw significant constitutional adjustments that were designed to end the war, which eventually ended in October 1990. Seventeen years on, Lebanon has succeeded in rescuing some of its pre-war glamour, even if it is still affected by the tiresome realities of the region.

Since 2005, Lebanon has been gripped by instability. A string of yet-unsolved assassinations and bombings, beginning with the murder of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri, plunged the country into uncertainty. A devastating war with Israel followed in July 2006, crippling the country’s infrastructure and claiming over 1,000 lives – mostly civilian. These tragedies were compounded by ongoing domestic political divisions.

However, there have been some rays of light through this gloomy period, including the unprecedented popular movement in the spring of 2005 that brought an end to a long period of Syrian occupation. 

So this is Lebanon: a country with rippling, snow-capped mountains that rise steeply off the coast, deep, thunderous valleys and ports that once served as the commercial hub of the civilized world.

It is a country where waiters speak three languages and where secretaries dress like film stars. Its doctors are among the best in the region and its engineers can lay credible claim to have built the modern Gulf nations. It singers and musicians are feted around the Arab world, while many of its writers have gained prominence in languages other than Arabic. Among the Arab nations, it has the best food and wine, the best schools and the freest press.

It should be one of the most dynamic countries in the world. And yet it remains an intriguing contradiction: a pleasure dome for vacationing Gulf Arabs who come for the liberal milieu, the $3 million penthouses and the beautiful women, it is nonetheless an emerging economy with a creaking infrastructure and an outmoded political class. At times, it serves as a stark reminder of the dangers of sectarian divisions; at others, it is a beacon for coexistence in the Middle East and the world at large.

Taken from “Wines of Lebanon” by Michael Karam (Saqi 2005) and updated with the kind permission and collaboration of the author for this website.