Lebanon: The Bohemia of the Middle East
Written by Malek   

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.

Throughout 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.

In 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 order.

It was France, undoubtedly, that left the biggest footprint on the country.

Over 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.

France 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.

Today, the 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.

An 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 umbrella.

These photos are now posted throughout neighbourhoods that highlight encounters and celebrate Beirut’s cultural diversity.

Also, 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.

Even 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 country.

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.