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Archive for the category “Lebanon”

Lessons from Lebanon’s Tyre: waiting for a parallel miracle in Syria

IMG_20170120_120631Lebanon’s southernmost city of Tyre once drew crowds of tourists to visit its magnificent marble Roman remains. Today, sitting on the grandstand steps of its colossal World Heritage status hippodrome, there is only the Shi’a call to prayer for company.

IMG_20170120_111905Wars and inter-communal battles between Muslims, Christians and Jews over the border in Israel meant it was for decades a no-go area, off-limits even for most Lebanese. The Foreign Office coloured it “red” on their Travel Advice website. But now it has turned green.

The fame of the ancient port, birthplace of Queen Dido, was built on colour – a royal dye, known as Tyrian purple, made from local murex shells. Its native Phoenicians, astute navigators and merchants, set sail in their celebrated cedar wood boats in search of fortune, founding new colonies like Carthage and Cadiz on the Mediterranean and Atlantic shores, just as today’s Lebanese have left in droves to seek more stable commercial opportunities abroad, often in America.

There are four times as many Lebanese outside the country as there are inside. Most have retained strong ties through frequent visits and remittances. The offices of money transfer companies like Western Union and OMT are everywhere.

Now the new Lebanese government wants to lure them, their brains and their investment back. Adverts have been running on US TV aimed at top Lebanese businessmen, telling them: “Lebanon is calling, I’m back on my feet again. Home is waiting.” Some are answering the call, and in Tyre a handful of boutique hotels have opened, anticipating new arrivals.

So what has changed in Lebanon’s mood music, and why? The answer is simple – the various communities have tired of war and decided to focus instead on rebuilding their economy together.

Tyre, known in Arabic as Sour, feels calm these days. A tangible cooperation has grown up between its Christian and Muslim residents. Last year a dazzling white statue of the Virgin Mary was erected in the picturesque harbour. She rises above the wooden boats and nets, arms outstretched as if to bless the city’s predominantly Muslim fishermen.

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Christmas is celebrated for 40 days, so a huge Christmas tree still stands on the corniche. and festive red poinsettias hang from porches.

IMG_20170120_130019Alcohol is freely available in restaurants and grocery stores; scarlet underwear hugs lurid female mannequins in shop windows, alongside fashion outlets selling full-length loose black Islamic gowns and headscarves.

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The Christian Evangelical School includes Muslim staff and pupils, while across the street a Shi’a mosque is under construction. Muslim charity boxes on the main street invite donations for orphans, the poor and disabled. The enthusiastic congregation at the cathedral of the Maronite Archbishopric sings melodically in Syriac, ending each prayer with “Aameen”. The pews are strewn with colourful cards marking a week of prayer for church unity, saying in Arabic “Our Beloved Messiah urges us towards reconciliation.”

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Heaven knows Lebanon desperately needs reconciliation. In its complex 15-year civil war nearly every faction allied with and subsequently betrayed every other faction at least once. There are 18 officially recognised sects, five of them Muslim, 13 of them Christian, making Lebanon the most religiously diverse country in the Middle East.

But after a dangerous political vacuum of nearly three years, Lebanon has now formed a national unity government, where all the communities are represented – and the former warlords, too. An anti-corruption minister has been appointed. The top priority is to decide a budget, the first since 2005. All parties have realised that to prosper, they need each other.

And anyway genetic studies have shown that the populations of Syria and Lebanon – Muslim and Christian alike – mostly share the same Phoenician DNA.

A short drive into the hills above Tyre the village of Qana – 83% Shi’ite – is claimed as the site of Christ’s first miracle, the Marriage at Cana, where the water was turned into wine. It has a pristine pilgrimage grotto complete with souvenir shop and vast car park, opened jointly by the Christian President and the Shi’ite leader.

IMG_20170121_094002But there is also a reminder of recent conflict. Nearby, a well-tended Shi’a cemetery marks the spot where 28 people, many of them children, were killed in an Israeli airstrike in July 2006. The photos of the dead are still displayed.

IMG_20170121_102217IMG_20170121_102537Since then, 15,000 UN troops from 40 countries have helped keep the peace.

In some future miracle, maybe it could be Syria’s turn to change from “red” to “green”. All parties would surely say a heartfelt “Amen” – or “Aameen” – to that.

[All photos copyright Diana Darke 2017]

This article was first broadcast on BBC Radio 4’s From Our Own Correspondent on 16 February 2017:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b08dr5r2

(starts at 11.40 minutes in)

 

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#Syria – Sidon and Damascus, Theatre of the Absurd in a Tale of Two Cities

Sidon's Crusader Sea Castle guards what was once the port of Damascus [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s Crusader Sea Castle guards what was once the port for Damascus [DD, 2014]

Marwan, my chain-smoking Syrian lawyer, has left his war-torn country for the day to meet me in the Lebanese port of Sidon. He wants to complete some paperwork and tell me news from Damascus.

The Syrian accents at the tables all around us suggest he is not the only visitor. We sit with a view of Sidon’s Crusader Sea Castle and try hard to strike a holiday mood. He has brought magnificent gifts of Damascene produce – dried apricots, almonds and seed-covered biscuits.

 

Sidon's souks are just like Damascus's - even the doves are the same. [DD 2014]

Sidon’s souks are just like Damascus’s – even the doves are the same. [DD 2014]

He refuses a meal, even though the journey has just taken him six hours thanks to overcrowding on the border. His only appetite is for tea and cigarettes.

“What news of Abu Khalil?” I ask. Last time it was he, my elderly caretaker, who came out to meet me, so proudly braving the checkpoints from his village east of Damascus. But that was where the massive chemical attack took place last summer.

“He’s been blockaded in his village since October,” says Marwan. “It’s easy to get money to him. We give it to someone going in on the special buses. But food is impossible. The soldiers search the buses and throw away whatever they find.”

We almost laugh at the absurdity, but more absurdity follows.

Marwan asks me to sign the rental contracts for the refugees living in my Damascus house. They pay no rent, but this is vital documentation they must show when regime soldiers call round unannounced. Without it, arrest and imprisonment will follow. Each street is cordoned off in turn, each person’s papers checked, each room searched for weapons.

I ask about the checkpoints inside the Old City. “Are the lijaan sha’bia (peoples’ committees) still guarding the neighbourhood?”

“Yes,” he replies, “but now they are all either very old or very young. The young ones are easily recruited because of the salary. Their families are desperate for the income, so they agree to it, thinking their sons will be just round the corner. But sometimes the boys are transferred with no warning to the frontline, lambs to the slaughter. They come back to their families in a body-bag labelled ‘shaheed’ (martyr) with a pittance as compensation, but no one dares say anything.”

We cannot laugh, but both of us sense more absurdity, not least because of where we’re sitting. Sidon is in some ways a mini Damascus-on-Sea, a tinderbox just 40 minutes’ drive south from Beirut. There are photos all over town of one of Sidon’s most famous sons, the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Al-Hariri, who was blown up on Valentine’s Day 2005. Sidon’s buildings bear the scars of Lebanon’s own 15-year-long civil war.

Banner of Rafiq al-Hariri adorns the Khan al-Franj, caravanserai of the Franks, restored by Rafiq al-Hariri to be a craft centre and tourist office, now empty [DD, 2014]

Banner of Rafiq al-Hariri adorns the 17th C Khan al-Franj, Caravanserai of the Franks, restored by the Hariri Foundation to be a craft centre and tourist office, now empty [DD, 2014]

Sidon's Khan al-Franj, once seat of bustling commerce, sits empty [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s Khan al-Franj, once seat of bustling commerce, now languishes unused [DD, 2014]

 Like Damascus it has a Sunni Muslim majority, a sizeable Christian minority and Palestinian refugee camps incorporated in its suburbs. The same blend of church towers and minarets rises from its bustling bazaars. But it also shares the increasing sectarian flare-ups, like the arson attack on a Sidon mosque that happened the very next day. The highly combustible city is surrounded on all sides by Hizbullah, the well-disciplined Lebanese  Shi’ite militia led by the cleric Hassan Nasrallah. We joke grimly about how in Damascus Hizbullah is considered not the enemy but the ally, openly fighting alongside President Bashar Al-Assad to keep him in power.

Marwan flicks his ash compulsively.

“God knows,” he says, “how Syria will ever get out of this swamp. Now the regime is preparing us for the June elections, being gentler with us at the checkpoints, announcing a policy of ‘musaalaha’ (reconciliation), freeing prisoners and doing deals to let people back into their homes in the suburbs. Their slogan is everywhere, ‘Bashar al-Assad ila al-Abad’ It’s a rhyme which means ‘Bashar al-Assad forever’.”

You realise,” Marwan continues, “that if he gets voted in a third time, like his father, the constitution says it is for life. Hafez Al-Assad was born in 1930 and ruled for 30 years; Qaddafi was born in 1942 and ruled for 42 years; Bashar was born in 1965 – so maybe he will rule for 65 years!”

We laugh uncontrollably.

“How do you feel about going back?” I ask, when I have recovered.

His laughter erupts again.

“I have the female Russian teachers to look forward to, now that Russian will become our first language. Farsi will soon become our second, there are so many Iranians on the streets. And Hassan Nasrallah is billed as our saviour, side by side with Bashar on the posters.

Damascus feels safer to me than Sidon!” Marwan insists. And he explains, “The regime’s control is so tight, nothing can happen there. Sidon might explode. Damascus cannot. The regime has taken out the fuse!”

First broadcast on Friday 28 March 2014:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/p01vzjqj/From_Our_Own_Correspondent_Cyprus_and_Lebanon/

Starts 4.12 mins in. Full text above. Identities changed.

Sidon's old souks are indistinguishable from the souks of Old Damascus [DD, 2014]

Sidon’s old souks are indistinguishable from the souks of Old Damascus [DD, 2014]

Interior of Sidon's Great Mosque, formerly Church of St John of the Hospitallers - Damascus's Great Mosque was formerly the Cathedral of Jhn the Baptist. [DD, 2014]

Interior of Sidon’s Great Mosque, formerly Church of St John of the Hospitallers. Damascus’s Great Mosque was formerly the Cathedral of John the Baptist. [DD, 2014]

Debbane Palace in Old Sidon, now restored as a museum. 200 refugees sheltered here for five years duing the Lebanese Civil War [DD, 2014]

18th C Debbane Palace in Old Sidon, now restored as a museum. Hundreds of refugees sheltered here for five years during the Lebanese Civil War [DD, 2014]

Entrance to Sidon's Great Mosque, once the Church of St John of the Knights Hospitaller, restored by Rafiq al-Hariri and winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture [DD, 2014]

Entrance to Sidon’s Great Mosque, once the Church of St John of the Knights Hospitaller, restored by the Hariri Foundation and winner of the 1989 Aga Khan Award for Architecture [DD, 2014]

Crusader vaulting in Sidon's Great Mosque [DD, 2014]

Crusader vaulting in Sidon’s Great Mosque [DD, 2014]

#Syria’s oil and gas potential in the Eastern Mediterranean is wasted, while Israel’s thrives

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: 'God is Syria's Protector'

Unintended irony in the caption beside Bashar: ‘God is Syria’s Protector’

No one mentions it much, but Syria, according to the specialist Oil & Gas Journal in Jan 2013, has the largest proved reserve of crude oil in the Eastern Mediterranean. Other lucky beneficiaries are Israel, Cyprus and Lebanon, all with large reserves of oil and gas. The gas reserves in this underwater Levant Basin are so huge the estimates say they would supply all of Europe’s gas demand for 7 years.

Yet while Israel has already started production from its Tamar gas field, and the huge Leviathan field is on course to follow in 2016/2017, and while Cyprus is also gearing up for its share and discussing shared export arrangements with Israel so both countries can benefit, neither Lebanon nor Syria, locked in conflict, can make any headway with exploiting these potential riches.

Western oil companies abandoned exploration operations because of political stalemate, but even now, after two and a half years of war, Syria’s government was still in April 2013 (according to a Congressional Research Service report) in discussion with Russia and China over offshore oil exploration. Syria is also said to have oil shale reserves estimated up to 50 billion tons. Russia’s state-owned energy companies have a huge stake in the Damascus regime’s survival so they can continue to profit from Syria’s oil and gas reserves, so Russia’s interest in maintaining the status quo with Assad in charge is clear. There is too much to lose, and it also wants to thwart Israel’s plans to build an undersea pipeline to Turkey, the obvious way to export oil and gas to Turkey (and thence to Europe) while excluding Iran and Russia, the two current supplier’s of Turkey’s energy needs. This also explains Obama’s instruction to Israel in March 2013 to apologise to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident, so that diplomatic ties between Israel and Turkey could be restored. America wants its ally Israel to be able to export oil and gas to Turkey. The longer Lebanon and Syria take to sort themselves out vis-a vis oil exploration and production in the Eastern Mediterranean, the better, from the US point of view.

The conclusion?  There is no incentive for the US to end the Syrian war now that the chemical weapons issue is sorted, as they want no interference in Israel’s ability to export from its Eastern Mediterranean reserves. And there is no incentive for Russia to end the Syrian war while it can still benefit from Syria’s potential Eastern Mediterranean reserves in future, since Bashar is now solely dependent on Russia (and possibly China) for future exploration and production.

The Syrian people do not feature in this equation, as usual.

Related articles:

http://www.ibtimes.com/syria-losing-out-huge-reserves-oil-natural-gas-eastern-mediterranean-sea-while-cyprus-israel-get

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-middle-east-22509295

http://uk.reuters.com/article/2013/10/31/turkey-israel-gas-idUKL5N0IK3MF20131031

http://www.upi.com/Business_News/Energy-Resources/2013/10/02/Slow-progress-in-Israel-Turkey-talks-threatens-gas-pipeline-plan/UPI-65691380733010/

http://www.energy-pedia.com/news/israel/new-155694

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/earth-insight/2013/aug/30/syria-chemical-attack-war-intervention-oil-gas-energy-pipelines

Echoes of Syria in Sidon’s Eshmoun Temple?

English: Base of a column from a temple dedica...

English: Base of a column from a temple dedicated to Hadad at the Eshmun temple in Bustan esh Sheikh, near Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon

Sea castle in Sidon, Lebanon (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

English: Astarte's throne at the Eshmun temple.

English: Astarte’s throne at the Eshmun temple. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Half-buried in undergrowth beside  Lebanon’s Awali River lies the world’s best preserved Phoenician site, the Temple of Eshmoun. The guardian sits proudly in his hut, expecting anything but visitors – the FCO Travel Advice website has ringed Sidon in potentially dodgy ‘orange’ in recent months. Erratically signposted and hard to find,  the site sits on the northern outskirts of Sidon,  and a visit involves crossing the city’s first checkpoint. But everyone seemed friendly enough despite their guns, when I passed through a couple of weeks ago.

Known locally as Bustan Al-Shaikh, the Orchard of the Shaikh, the state of this 7th century BC site, surrounded by citrus groves, is shockingly neglected. A visit to the semi-swampy areas of the temple, with its ritual basins, bulls-head shrines and sacred pools, is like hacking your way through the Amazonian jungle. Your reward is to sit on the gigantic Throne of Astarte, Phoenician goddess of fertility,carved from one monumental piece of granite, flanked by sphinxes and hunting reliefs. Her consort, Eshmoun, was a Beirut hunter whom she transformed into a reborn healing god, later identified by the Greeks with Asklepios, god of Medicine. A gold plaque found here carried the snake coiled round a staff motif that still serves today as the symbol of the medical profession.

Even more shocking is the evidence of looting that clearly took place during the 15-years of the Lebanese Civil War. Whole sections of later Roman mosaic floors, including the beautiful Four Seasons mosaic, have been stolen, the missing sections now replaced with a plaster mix. After hostilities ended, and Israel retreated from southern Lebanon, UNESCO in 1996 inscribed it on the World Heritage ‘Tentative’ list, a bit late, as everything small worth lifting has gone. Thankfully the Throne of Astarte is protected by its sheer size, as it would require a crane to lift it.

Echoes of Syria again? Its remarkable Phoenician site of Amrit south of Tartous has a similar sanctuary with  sacred pool and central altar. Beside it is a large rock-carved stadium, site of the world’s first competitive sports games, predating the Olympics by several centuries. What will Amrit look like by the time Syria’s civil war has ended?

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician Temple of Melqhart, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria

Phoenician rock-cut stadium, Amrit, Syria (2010, Diana Darke)

Echoes of Syria in Lebanon’s Beiteddine Palace

Mir Amin Palace Hotel, in Lebanon's Chouf Mountains

Mir Amin Palace Hotel, in Lebanon’s Chouf Mountains

Swimming pool terrace of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, Beiteddine, Lebanon

Swimming pool terrace of the Mir Amin Palace Hotel, Beiteddine, Lebanon

High in the Druze mountains of the Lebanese Chouf sits the magnificent palace of Beiteddine, where the Beiteddine Festival 2013 is currently in full swing. It is just a 40 minute drive south from Beirut, and people will be flocking out to see the Chinese National Acrobatic Circus performing over the next few days. Later fixtures include ‘Echoes from Syria’ with clarinette virtuoso.

Echoes from Syria resonate here in more ways than one. For a start the palace itself is like Damascus’s superb Azem Palace, dating from the same period, and composed likewise of its three courtyards – the largest public one for receiving guests, the inner private one for the women, always the most lavishly decorated, and the smaller servants courtyard. Today they are both museums open to the public, and in their heydays they were both residences for the ruler.

Built between 1788 and 1818 with the help of Damascus craftsmen, the Emir Bashir ‘the Great’, lived here till his death in 1840. Born a Sunni Muslim, he later converted to Maronite Christianity, and his palace boasts both a mosque and a chapel.

Beiteddine is a peaceful spot with beautiful, immaculately kept gardens and distant views of the sea, a spot that encourages lingering. When I was here the other week in a quiet patch before the Festival, we were almost the only guests in the Mir Amin Palace, a mini-version of Beiteddine built by Emir Bashir for one of his sons.

Admiring the quality of the restoration work, a subject dear to my heart after my experiences with my own Damascus ‘mini-palace’, my eye was caught by a series of plaques on the wall. The first announced that the President of the Republic Charles Helou undertook the restoration in 1969, and the second that the hotel was opened 21 July 1974 by Suleyman Franjieh – just months before the start of Lebanon’s civil war. What terrible timing.

The last plaque announced the re-restoration and re-opening of the palace in July 1987 under the auspices of the Minister of Tourism, one Walid Junblat. Bad timing again, as the war did not end till 1990.

When I asked the hotel manager if he was worried war might come once more to Lebanon, he laughed and shrugged his shoulders. “If it does, we have space for more plaques on the wall!”

The Lebanese are nothing if not resilient – more echoes of Syria, I hope.

English: Courtyward at the Beiteddine Palace i...

English: Courtyward at the Beiteddine Palace in Lebanon. Français : Une cour intérieure dans le Palais de Beiteddine au Liban. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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