Being an omnivore of nations I’m not short of favourite countries, but the Lebanon is towards the top of my list. I’ve spent some weeks there each summer for the past few years and we’re hoping to return this July (God willing). Friday night B. invited a few of us round for an impromptu supper and in the kitchen I happened to mention that I had met his ambassador the day before — the Lebanese ambassador.
This provoked a lament on B’s part as he relayed the history of his family’s service in the diplomatic corps and of Lebanon in the old days: black-tie dinners, summer in the mountains, the casinos and the glamour of the Beirut he was born too late to experience.
It’s become a cliché for foreigners to cite Beirut’s former glory as ‘the Paris of the Orient’ and Lebanon ‘the Switzerland of the Middle East’. Civil war wreaked its devastation on the country but its revival in more recent years has still been remarkable. Everything, of course, is exceptionally tenuous, but despite the clouds of uncertainty there remains a lot for which to be grateful.
We both wished, however, that today’s ordinary culture in Lebanon was a bit more informed by the style of the past. While old buildings are often restored, far too many of the new buildings are horrendously bland or offensively modern. Perhaps most unfortunately, a large proportion of Lebanon’s women — already endowed with a natural beauty unparalleled in the Middle East — are too mimicking of American styles: nosejobs and dyed blonde hair.
For my part, however, the conversation provoked a little dip into the photographic archives, seeking out some images of Lebanon in its halcyon days.
The topmost photo is M Hamid Frangieh with Gen Fouad Chehab. Meanwhile above Gen Chehab receives the standard of the nation from President Bechara el Khoury. Chehab later became president himself.
Men in tarbouches smoke hookahs and sip coffee in a Beirut café.
The view from the American University in the 1960s, looking out towards Saint George’s Bay.
A dinner at the Presidential Palace.
President Camille Chamoun and his family.
The Maronite Catholic Patriarch of Antioch and All the East (later Cardinal Meouchi) gives a press conference.
Below: A picnic overlooking the harbour of Byblos (Jbeil), a beautiful port first settled 9,000 years ago.