Travel in music: Chapter 17 - 2001, Lebanon
2020, the world is in confinement because of a corona virus. I have used this time to reminisce on my past through a musical blog series. They will take you through my peregrinations on this tiny, unique earth, in chronological order. Click on the song, use it as soundtrack, and enjoy!
2001 – Chapter 17 | In the summer of 2001, Lebanon was at the onset of a beautiful resurgence. The brutal civil war had ended a decade before. Although its scars were still visible everywhere, entire parts of Beirut had been reconstructed, most notably the famous ‘Solidere’ quarter in the middle of the city. Syria kept a discrete military presence (it would last another four years) but Israel had finally vacated the South Lebanon security belt, which it had occupied since 1985. For the first time in a long time, youth from the populous Lebanese diaspora, who had grown up in Canada, the UAE, France, Scandinavia, and elsewhere harbored some faith in a peaceful and prosperous future. They planned to participate in the country’s renaissance and started returning to stay.
We were there to cover Lebanon’s preparations for the upcoming Summit of the Francophonie. Hosting it was sending a clear message that Lebanon had ambitions to regain its old status. Indeed, up until the mid-70s, when the neighborhood’s troubles spilled over the border and broke the fragile balance between its many communities, Lebanon was the meeting place in the Middle East. If Dubai has now usurped that status, it is in great part because scores of exiled Lebanese talent aided its meteoric rise.
All these optimistic factors, combined with the ‘regular’ ebullient atmosphere of a Lebanese summer was a guaranteed recipe for fun. The Lebanese have unmatched appetite for partying. Hospitality is not a vague concept; it literally oozes out of their every pore. They are refined, educated multi-linguists with infinite pride in their ancient heritage. To cap it all off, we represented a rather glamorous French gossip magazine, which spurred curiosity and stimulated vanity. Le poids des mots, le choc des photos. As a result, invitations literally rained down on us.
We dined in some of Beirut’s oldest villas, listening to tales of families who knew their genealogy back several centuries. We went straight from wild club-hopping nights to the beaches, to watch the sun rising over pumping electronic beats. More than once, people we had met only a few days before invited us for Sunday lunch with their extended families. On one occasion, it was in a restaurant in the old Byblos harbor (whence from the Phoenicians spread the alphabet), on another in a cypress-lined terrace, in the hills overlooking Beirut. Even our driver, a gruff, crazy character who had been an ambulance driver on the red line, a bouncer, and a debt collector for the Druze mob invited us everywhere. He invited us for tea and shisha with his cousins in his native village, to play poker and tabla with his mafia bosses and to drink arak after work in the narrow alleyways of Achrafieh.
The speaker of Parliament, Nabih Berri, organized a guided visit of South Lebanon for our team. We saw the ancient cities of Sidon and Tyr, of course, but we also saw the devastation 15 years of continuous occupation of the buffer zone had provoked. The bunkers were now empty of soldiers but machine gun bullet cases still littered the ground, barbed wire still surrounded the minefields, and all infrastructure was in total disrepair. In the distance, the lush, green orchards of the kibbutzim made for a disturbing contrast.
Walid Jumblatt, leader of the Druze community, was equally hospitable. He hosted us in his heavily guarded mansion and took us through the Chouf region to see the few remaining Lebanese cedars. It was wood from those majestic trees that built the boats on which the Phoenicians traded throughout the Mediterranean basin. In memoriam, a cedar adorns the national flag. His wife Nora was the curator of the Beiteddine Festival, an annual celebration of music hosted in the magnificent courtyard of the ornate Beiteddine palace. She facilitated us a meeting with Lebanon’s favorite diva, Fairuz, who was headlining that year alongside the Kronos Quartet and Elton John, among many others.
The other major music festival hosted every summer takes place in Baalbeck, the tiny village in the heart of the Beqaa valley where the Temples of Bacchus and Jupiter are located. Those two temples are some of the most beautifully preserved Roman temples in the world. As backdrop to the live performances, they add undeniable cachet. Sting was the main act that year. Invited by the organizers, we had dinner with him and his musicians the day after his gig. Whether it was flattery or sincerity, I will never know, but he raved about the scenery of Baalbeck all evening. Check out the backdrop for yourself in this reprise of 'Ne Me Quitte Pas' by Lebanese indie rock outfit, Mashrou' Leila.