Lebanon’s Shining Island of Example Is Shrinking
A tolerant and diverse cosmopolitan center, Beirut is a reminder of what the Arab world could be again.
My favorite Beirut cafe is on a street corner opposite a large park, one of the few green spaces in the concrete jungle that is the city I still call home. The trees in the park, known as the Jesuit Garden because it was once a summer retreat for Jesuit priests living closer to the coast, shield the remains of a Byzantine church.
The waitress, Lea, a student of health and nutrition at a Beirut university, brings me an espresso as soon as I walk through the door. She grew up in Zahleh, a predominantly Christian town in the eastern Bekaa Valley. Jad, the cafe’s expert juicer, is a Syrian who has lived in Lebanon most of his life but is at home neither here nor there. He greets me with a cheerful “Bonjour!” whenever he sees me. Mohammed is in charge of preparing the Middle East’s smoke of choice — water pipes — for the evening clientele. At a table next to me, a family is having an animated conversation in Armenian.
Sometimes I cheat on my favorite spot and go to another cafe around the corner, Abu Dany’s, for a sickly sweet Nescafé with condensed milk, a Middle Eastern staple. A big picture of the Virgin Mary hangs on the wall next to a large gold plaque with the words “God” and “Mohammed” in Arabic calligraphy. The waiter sports a large cross on his chest, and the woman behind the register, who appears to be the owner, speaks with a recognizable accent from a nearby Sunni neighborhood.
I’m curious about how these worlds intersect, but I don’t pry. Instead, I try to relish what feels like a utopia of coexistence in a country that is a tinderbox, in a region where fanaticism seems to rule. This feels like the world my parents spoke of — the one I read about in books and that I often glimpsed during my life as a student on the campus of the American University of Beirut. But this small, protected island of diversity is a relic of the past, now besieged by those who push for religious and cultural homogeneity. And it is a past the younger generations have never known and that the older generations are starting to forget.
The Arab world is less varied today than it was a century ago. Back in the 19th century and up until the 1960s, the eastern Mediterranean was known as a hub for trade and for its vibrant literary and art scenes. It served as a refuge for minorities and was more tolerant and cosmopolitan than Europe had ever been.
In his book Levant, Philip Mansel writes about the “religious uniformity [that] continued to be enforced in most European countries with hysterical severity” until the early 20th century, while only the Levant had mosques, churches, and synagogues side by side for centuries, with no ghettos and no religious persecutions.
But after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, World War II, and decolonization, cosmopolitanism clashed with nationalism across the Arab world. The expulsions of minorities, who were often associated with the colonizing powers, led to increasing cultural and social homogenization. The demographic changes included the expulsion of the Greek community from Smyrna — known today as the Turkish port city of Izmir — in 1922 and continued in the 1950s with Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser kicking out thousands of French, Greeks, Italians, and Jews, putting an end to the golden age of Alexandria. The creation of Israel in 1948 provoked the exodus of several hundred thousand Palestinians, forever changing the land’s demographics, while Arab Jews left or were expelled from Arab countries.
When my father was a child, he could drive from Beirut through Palestine to Egypt. No longer. And the borders are becoming more impenetrable, closed shut by wars. Ten years ago, when I reported from the Middle East, I could drive from Beirut to Syria and into Iraq or Jordan, all the way to Kuwait. Those memories feel like a past life.
In the 19th and early 20th centuries, the tolerance and diversity of the Levant were unparalleled and unmatched. “There was no Levant for Muslims in Europe,” Mansel writes. No open arms, no acceptance of the other.
Today, Europe is layered with waves of immigrants, labor workers, and refugees. Yet despite its diversity, it frets over the recent arrival of refugees, describing them as a flood even when they represent less than 1 percent of the continent’s total population. This reaction is the result of Europeans’ own sense of insecurity about their identity and values, coupled with their paradoxical sense of superiority. It is a similarly toxic brew of insecurity and superiority that has been rising in the Middle East, driving some to increasingly enforce cultural and religious homogeneity.
Today, not only are we losing or killing our minorities — from Egypt’s Copts to Iraq’s Yazidis — but we are also witnessing dramatic demographic shifts that are reshaping the identity of whole areas. Iran and Saudi Arabia’s struggle for political primacy has driven much of this: In Syria, where Sunnis have been forced out of certain areas by violence, Iran is resettling Lebanese and Iraqi Shiites in their stead, pushing for full sectarian segregation.
In Lebanon, a country that had a population of 4.5 million in 2011, before the refugee crisis, and that strives to maintain a delicate balance among its Sunni, Shiite, and Christian minorities, many worry about the long-term impact of the influx in recent years of around a million mostly Sunni, mostly conservative Syrian refugees on the fabric of society.
Sipping an apple, carrot, and ginger juice on the terrace of my Beirut cafe, I know I am sitting on an island that is shrinking rapidly. But I persist in believing that it will expand again when the madness of war in the region ends. Call me nostalgic, but preserving memories of our diverse, cosmopolitan, not-so-distant, and of course imperfect past is a way of reminding us of who we once were. And it just may provide us with a blueprint for how to chart a better path forward.
This article originally appeared in the September/October 2017 issue of FP magazine.