by Joseph A. Kechichian, Senior Writer
Beirut: Lebanon has long stood out as the black sheep of the Middle
East, mainly because it absorbed rather than shunned Western cultural
values, at a time when the Middle East was being colonised by Britain
and France in the early part of the 20th century.
Beirut, its capital, was known in its golden age as “the Paris of the Middle East”. Both
Muslims and Christian Lebanese attended English and French schools and
universities. These institutions helped transform the small country’s
abilities to act as a window for both East and West.
But why exactly has Lebanon’s identity developed so drastically different from that of its Arab neighbours? First, Lebanon’s unique geographical position has placed it at the crossroads of civilisations.
Secondly, its people’s openness to outsiders.
its history, Beirut has been destroyed and rebuilt at least seven times
from the period of the Phoenicians 3,000 years ago, followed by the
Romans and, more recently, to Arab conquerors who first came to these
shores around 1400AD.
For thousands of years, the Lebanese adapted
to their evolving environments to survive as nations, as they accepted
both the East and the West.
Lebanese are known for their ability
to easily adapt to other cultures, as its people have migrated to nearly
every corner of the world and flourished.
It is because of their
receptiveness, observers point out, that they were able to evolve easier
into modernity than their Arab neighbours.
But apart from its ancient history, events of the 19th and 20th century have largely shaped the Lebanon of today.
1860, when Lebanon was part of the Ottoman Empire, Britain stepped in
during a peasant uprising which led to clashes between the country’s
Maronite and Druze communities.
The fighting began in 1840,
largely because the Ottomans wanted to divide the region into two
governorates to better control the population.
By the time that
civil war ended, around 20,000 Christians were killed by the Druze and
5,000 Druze died at the hands of Maronites, while 380 Christian villages
and 560 churches were destroyed.
London supported the Druze for
geopolitical reasons (to stand against the Ottomans), and landed several
thousand troops — up to 12,000 European soldiers, half of whom were
French arrived within a few months of the massacres — to re-establish
It was France, undoubtedly, that left the biggest footprint on the country.
the decades, hundreds of thousands of Lebanese learnt French,
frequently visited France, earned advanced diplomas in numerous
universities, and maintained unparalleled ties.
During Lebanon’s crippling 15-year civil war, thousands moved to France, where they established secondary homes.
encouraged Lebanon to be an active part of the International
Organisation of the Francophonie, which holds a biennial heads-of-state
summits, which was held in Beirut in 2002.
The Jeux de la
Francophonie [Francophone Games] that combine artistic and sporting
events every four years, was also held in Beirut in 2009 when 2,500
athletes representing the 57 member states, attended.
Institut Francais au Liban, which is present in nine cities — Baalback,
Beirut, Deir Al Qamar, Jounieh, Nabatiyyah, Sidon, Sour, Tripoli, and
Zahle — holds hundreds of cultural events and offers language courses.
art festival called Street Art 2016, for example, brought dozens of
Parisian artists between September 27 and October 1, 2016 to photograph
inhabitants of every generation, religion or social origin, under an
These photos are now posted throughout neighbourhoods that highlight encounters and celebrate Beirut’s cultural diversity.
given the importance of the English language, which in Lebanon gained
traction after American Protestant missionaries created the college that
eventually became the American University of Beirut in 1866, it was
natural that the British Council, a premier global institution, would
thrive here as well.
For over 80 years — the Council was formally
established in Lebanon in 1946 — many Lebanese benefited from rich
educational programmes and activities, estimated to have reached at
least half a million individuals.
Long before affordable travel,
and because Beirut was a pivotal station towards the Arab East,
thousands acquired language skills by sitting for examinations that
allowed them to pursue advanced degrees in the UK. Social action
projects followed as numerous artists shared innovative exchanges.
as Lebanon today is tangled in the geopolitical concerns of the region,
one would hardly be able to tell while visiting some areas of the
Despite war, political stagnation and sectarian tensions,
there is always an outlet for people to have fun, blow off steam and
forget their troubles.
-This is the second of a two-part series on the impact of Foreign institutes in Lebanon.