During a five-day tour of the city and several comedy performances, I discovered that the Lebanese have to be the most optimistic and hopeful people in the region.
Smothered by violence
Even though reminders of violence and turmoil smother them, no one, it seems, wants peace and justice more than the diverse people I encountered in this ancient city which seems to have risen from its past ashes.
It is so encouraging to the lingering pessimism that has become a way of life in Israel and Palestine to the south.
“We love life more than anyone,” Hala, a Lebanese woman who loves to travel back and forth to Paris explains. “We have to. We survive by insisting that peace and justice must always go hand in hand. We don’t always get it, but we always insist on it. We won’t let the fanaticism of the rest of the region discourage us from life.”
Lot to learn
I wish the Palestinians and Israelis were more like the Lebanese. They don’t seem to be judgmental. Nor do they point fingers of blame at others. They accept the violence and the threats, but they do so with optimism that makes Beirut glow with life.
You see that dedication to hope in every aspect of Lebanese life. Extremism is forced to take a backseat as the Lebanese crowd the restaurants and clubs amidst the clutter of turmoil that surrounds them.
The charred building of the Danish Embassy where thousands of Lebanese Muslims protested against Denmark’s racism is a reminder of that as well as the ironies.
The outside of the building has been badly burned, but luckily, Denmark’s 6th floor embassy remain undamaged, something media reports did not seem to capture.
Neighboring buildings in a one block radius were also damaged during the protests that took place more than a week ago. Even an ATM cash machine was assaulted and windows were broken in all of the nearby buildings, including a church, although the church windows were quickly replaced.
Everybody, it seems, even Christians, are judgmental against the racist cartoons that have offended the Islamic world and sparked protests of outrage throughout the world. The assaulted building that houses the Danish embassy is located in the mainly Christian neighborhoods of East Beirut.
This week is also a reminder that the violence the see is often imposed on them by outsiders, and will not easily disappear.
A year ago on Valentine’s Day, Lebanon’s popular Sunni ex-Prime Minister Rafik Hariri was assassinated. His pictures adorn hundreds of billboards, posted by the political party led by his son, Saad, who maintains a tenuous political link to the Saudi royal family. Wahhabiism seems close among his supporters.
Valentine’s Day, February 14, has been officially canceled in deference to the one year anniversary of the killing. Most Lebanese businesses, instead, started celebrating the “day of love” in the days preceding the traditional holiday date.
Contradictions abound, though.
Disco, which died many years ago in most other world cities, is alive and well in Beirut. The fast-paced music seems to be the music of choice, pushing the vibrancy of the city’s nightlife.
The Lebanese seem fearless in refusing to surrender to the face of fanaticism and violence that confronts them everyday.
It’s not just that the clubs and restaurants are packed with people. It’s the diversity of businesses that seem to succeed that gives one the real sense of hope. You would think that most places would have abandoned conflict regions. But not in Beirut.
Arabian restaurants abound, but nestled among them are many crowded Western themed establishments. Chinese and French restaurants. Irish pubs. Even sushi bars. They are all packed making it difficult to make reservations.
At one crowded little bar on one of the many nightlife drag strips, Rue Monot, the bartender serves up a specially made Cuban concoction of rum mixed with crushed mint leaves, brown sugar and sprite called “The Mohito.”
The name of the bar is “Lila Braun” that party-goers insist is dedicated to the “lost sister” of Eva Braun. Whether it is or not, I am not sure. But it is all bizarre.
Another dance and food bar reminds partygoers of the violent civil war and Israeli invasion of their country. Called “1975,” celebrants inside dance to traditional and pop Arabian music, mingling between walls of sandbags, posters of past conflicts and disabled AK-47s that hang high on the walls.
Syria gone, challenges remain
Reminders of the dangers that lurk in the world around them challenge the feeling of hope that Lebanese greedily embrace.
Although the Syrian Army was ousted following Hariri’s murder, police dressed in military uniforms and carrying automatic weapons maintain “soft roadblocks” at key intersections with large cement blocks painted in many colors.
At entrances to many of the exclusive hangouts preferred by the wealthy, like the yacht club in Junieh just north of Beirut, a joke-telling guard casually moves a small hand-held gadget with a long chrome antenna up and down the car sensing for explosives.
No other people in the Middle East seem to appreciate humor more than the Lebanese crowds I meet. They have a boisterous and enthusiastic embrace of laughter that is addictive.
With hope seemingly lost in Palestine and Israel where events tend to spiral in collapse at the drop of a hat, Beirut remains a badly needed dose of optimism that re-charges the spirit.
Seeing the Lebanese so easily stand up to despair, I wish Palestinians and Israelis were not so quick to abandon hope.
Ray Hanania is an award winning Palestinian American columnist, author and standup comedian. He writes regularly for Ynetnews and can be reached at www.hanania.com