Beirut, a compacted version of the world
Gulgun Gunal | 28 August 2019, updated on 01 October 2022.
Lebanon: A Country of Emigration and Immigration
“Lebanon is a multi-confessional republic. It is characterized by a sectarian power-sharing structure that arose as a result of its history, which is filled with sectarian and communal power struggles. Consequently, Lebanon has struggled for years on end to deal with human loss and brain drain as a consequence of continual emigration, in addition to an influx of refugees and asylum seekers resulting from Lebanon’s location in a region riddled with conflict and war.”¹
“The population of Lebanon is 6.7 million in 2021.” ²
“However, the population of the Lebanese people who went abroad is at least three times the country’s population.” ³
Therefore, it is estimated that the number of the Lebanese people living throughout the world is about 25 million.
This inspired some graffiti to – turn off the lights last person to leave the country –.
The number of Lebanese citizens living abroad is much higher than the population in the country. Let’s take a look at some history to understand this:
Throughout modern history, Lebanon has experienced waves of emigration. For more than a century and a half Lebanon has sent inhabitants abroad to seek better fortunes.
A second wave of emigration came as a result of the emancipation of the peasants in 1860 and the integration of the local economy into the European capitalist market. This phase was characterized by major growth in the population.
By World War I, a third of the population of Mount Lebanon had left. Due to the severe depression that hit the world economy in 1929, Lebanese emigration decreased. However, it resumed after 1945, increased considerably in the 1960s, and picked up even more after the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in June 1967. The period starting in 1945 and ending in April 1975 constituted a third wave of emigration from Lebanon.
Impact of the Israeli war
“At the same time, on a domestic level, the Lebanese economy was greatly affected by the outbreak of the 1967 war with Israel, and its repercussions on the political stability in the country. As political divisions among the Lebanese people became more acute around political and economic reforms and Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) usage of Lebanon as a military operations base against Israel, people increasingly felt the need to leave the country.
It is important to note that no official statistics on migration in Lebanon are available. More remarkable is the fact that no official census of the Lebanese population has been conducted since 1943, the year in which Lebanon gained political independence from France. Data on recent Lebanese migration has to be extrapolated from different sources, including, but not restricted to, individual studies and census data in the countries of destination.” [4,5]
A long list of tragedies…
Every generation living in Lebanon has been traumatized and every newborn bears the scars of old wounds. There is a long list of tragedies in this land: Wars, civil wars, conflicts, ruined cities, political crises, social discord, occupations, attacks, massacres, bombings, assassinations, riots, uprisings, terrorism…
“Most recent, on August 4, 2020, Beirut once again burned with a Hiroshima-like explosion at the Port.”  The explosion at the Port of Beirut has exacerbated the devastating impact of Lebanon’s worst economic crisis in recent history, with environmental, social and profound psychological consequences. The explosion has reignited anger among Lebanese who have been exhausted by a year of protests and economic turmoil over the past year.
Beirut and Lebanon before and after independence from France in 1943 mirrored culture of tolerance and altruism among 18 religious affiliations and groups. Though the civil war 1975–1990 shattered the tiny and nice state, the value of coexistence eventually dominant among Lebanese. The French taste and culture affected style of life, behavior, language, schools, universities, art and literature. Till the eruption of civil war in 1975, Beirut was a center of enlightenment and culture. Most Arab authors, thinkers and publishers headed to the metropolitan city where freedom of press and expression were at their zenith.
Thus, Beirut, known as the Paris of the Middle East, was always in the center of my attention. Imagine a city that tries to save itself from the ring of fire by turning to the Mediterranean and a magnificent city that has suffered a lot throughout history!
Beirut as a capital is the beating heart of Lebanon that never stops. The resilience over the years is or was evident and a reflection of its people.
My personal impressions and images of Beirut on my next visit will probably be very different from the ones I took in May 2019…
Beirut, the city of rich history, sadness, delicious foods, chaos and beautiful people has always achieved to be reborn from its ashes. The Romans, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes, Ottomans and French. Each culture, each race and each religion has left a track on these lands. This secular country where people from 18 sects of different religions live together, is also a place where thousands of people died only because of belief differences for 15 years a futile, bloody civil war occurred. For this reason, some of the structures bearing the scars of the war are preserved in different parts of the city, reminding everyone the pains of the past as an example. Briefly, you will witness the present and the past, the Christians and the Muslims, the pleasure and the suffering on these lands…
The city’s architecture is in a state of flux. The buildings with bullet holes and the new generation of skyscrapers and residences are next to each other. Due to the French effect, the architectural structure and luxurious shopping malls in some areas of Beirut resemble the streets of Paris. On the other hand, take a few steps and then you can see some buildings that are not repaired after the civil war.
It has been a long time since the French left Lebanon, but there are many signboards in Arabic and French in the government offices. This is also seen on streets.
The people of Beirut
You can feel ‘‘the order of the disorder” in the city and it seems everyone is accustomed to it. Porsches and luxurious jeeps parking next to the piles of garbage, security forces with long barreled weapons standing on the streets, street food sellers next to luxurious cafes, ever-lengthening political arguments and “guns ready to be drawn” with a slightest spark. A hard-to understand chemical, where you can see a mixture of the local and global, the traditional and modern, the rich and poor, war and peace.
Discovering an Abandoned Building
As I wandered the streets, thinking that history was synonymous with the city and that the city wanted to forget history, the image of Beirut in my mind quickly changed when I saw this building with almost every part shot or bombed…
As the taxi driver tells me, this is a building that was bombed during the civil war. Entrance to such buildings is forbidden for security reasons. As a matter of fact, the armed soldiers are staying in small huts in front of them to avoid people to enter these buildings and take photos.
Most of the time, police officers who see me taking photos stare at me to see what my intentions are. Tourists are tolerated but not photographers. Somehow I dared to enter this building with some hesitation and fear. As I got closer inside the building, I felt like I was in the middle of a war: bullet-riddled walls, collapsed walls, collapsed ceilings, stairs… My mood turned upside down when I thought about what had happened in this building. History shows us that we never learn from history! As I was taking photos of the building with these thoughts in my mind, this famous sentence came to my mind: “If we could learn from history, history would not repeat itself”.
As I walked inside the building, I looked through the viewfinder and realized that the superior power of nature, which no power can resist, had also manifested itself here. Mother Nature is quiet and calm, not exploiting like humans but protecting itself. The plants sprouting out of the windows of bombed houses or the green plants that suddenly appear in the backyard of the building where the spirits of the dead roam… While mankind destroys itself with senseless wars, nature stays, waits and then responds as it is exploited…
I left the building with complicated, different emotions and intense feelings.
St. George Cathedral
Located next to the Parliament building, St. George’s Cathedral is Beirut’s oldest church. Despite being badly damaged in the Lebanese civil war, this church, which has been extensively repaired like other parts of the city, has preserved its splendor for hundreds of years.
The Roman antiquities are among the best preserved structures in Beirut. Although they came to light about 50 years ago, they are in very good condition.
Blue Mosque of Beirut: Mohammed al-Amin Mosque
Each corner of Beirut hides a history. You can see the traces of the Ottoman period and bullet holes from the civil war. When you step into Martyrs’ Square, you will see a familiar structure. Even though it was built in 2002, the Muhammad al-Amin Mosque deserves to be one of the must-see places in Beirut with its resemblance to the Blue Mosque.
Electricity provided by the state is sufficient only for about three hours a day. You may imagine how hard it is to live in this hot country without a generator.
Another thing that surprises me is that it is possible to drink alcoholic beverages even in areas controlled by Hezbollah, women are in social life, etc. to be.
My visit to Beirut coincided with the month of Ramadan. That’s why I’m not exaggerating when I say I was a little worried. Then I was ashamed to think how biased I was. In other words, when breaking the fast at a restaurant in Ramadan, the people at the next table could drink alcoholic beverages. And people in Beirut don’t find that strange.
Beirut is not only home to traditional Lebanese cuisine restaurants, but also has some modern restaurants where you can enjoy international cuisine.
Beirut has always been famous for its nightlife. So much so that even the 15-year civil war could not stop the people of Beirut. The B-018 club, with the slogan “Entertain even during war”, has been named one of the most popular nightclubs in the world three times in a row by Wallpaper magazine.
Beirut’s jazz and rock music center Music Hall, Hole in the Wall, is the place for quality music with its dim lights and red covers. It is one of the clubs that appeals to those who want to have fun all night long.
There is no limit to the fun! A city that never sleeps: Beirut
Beyond any description, the beauty of Beirut could be compared only to itself. It is ruined, magnificent and mysterious in a way only Beirut could be.
Last but not least
War: an art of destruction; there is no winner. And the civil war is the worst version of it.
If a civil war breaks out in a country, it means that that country has begun to collapse, it has turned into something else as there is no winner in a civil war. The clearest answer to the question “How does a country collapse” is civil war! Civil war means “this country, this state is over. Now a new state is being established”. In other words, Beirut/Lebanon is recreating itself in another form on the brink of a civil war.
This is what I felt when I left Beirut: People are alive and well but the scars of the civil war are still deeply felt!
Beirut is the world’s largest museum of surrealist artworks and what’s more, admission is free. But is there a way out!!!
This is a place that you must visit and see before the fire in the Middle East reaches Lebanon again.
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