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Home on Holiday, the Lebanese Say, What Turmoil?

There'll Always Be A Lebanon--Robert Worth, NYTimes-12/24/07

Home on Holiday, the Lebanese Say, What Turmoil?

By ROBERT F. WORTH
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/w/robert_f_worth/index.html?inline=nyt-per>

BEIRUT, Lebanon — Lebanon may seem an unlikely holiday spot: the
government has collapsed, car bombs go off periodically and foreign
envoys warn of an impending civil war.

And yet, so many people have been streaming into this tiny, embattled
country in recent days that the flights are all overbooked, and some
well-heeled travelers are driving 18 hours from the Persian Gulf.
Beirut’s restaurants, bars and malls are all packed with revelers.

And yet, so many people have been streaming into this tiny, embattled
country in recent days that the flights are all overbooked, and some
well-heeled travelers are driving 18 hours from the Persian Gulf.
Beirut’s restaurants, bars and malls are all packed with revelers.

Why? The answer is that the Lebanese diaspora reverses itself on
holidays, as the migrants who sustain the war-shattered Lebanese economy
all year return from jobs across the globe to spend time with their
families. Nothing will deter them — not bad weather, not interminable
flights and certainly not the Grinch-like mood of Lebanon’s endlessly
feuding politicians.

“My plane was full of Lebanese flying home, and when it landed we all
shouted ‘Beirut’ and clapped,” said George Elias, 23, who works for an
investment firm in Japan.

He and a dozen friends — mostly Lebanese who work abroad — were in the
midst of a pub crawl in Gemayze, a fashionably bohemian district. All of
them wore identical white T-shirts with “Free Hug” printed across the
front, and they were hugging everyone they saw, in a puckish campaign of
mass affection.

“Politics is causing problems in Lebanon, so we want people to think
about something else,” Mr. Elias said.

When a Lebanese Army soldier appeared on the street, the group besieged
him with free hugs. He obliged with a smile, his machine gun jostling at
his waist with each hug.

Across town in western Beirut, the malls were packed with glamorously
dressed shoppers, and even outdoor cafes were full, despite the
50-degree chill.

“Look at all these people — there’s a political crisis, but do they
care?” said Ali Hasbini, a burly 30-year-old sitting at a cafe table
with three other young Lebanese overseas workers in the Verdun district.
“Of course not.”

The table was a panorama of the diaspora: one of the men lived in
Singapore; one in Aden, Yemen; one in Jidda, Saudi Arabia; and one in
Dubai. All had come home to see the families they helped sustain.

The fact that Christmas almost coincided this year with the Muslim
holiday Id al-Adha may have prompted more emigrants to return. In other
ways, it is an ominous time: Lebanon has been without a president since
Nov. 23, when Émile Lahoud
<http://topics.nytimes.com/top/reference/timestopics/people/l/emile_lahoud/index.html?inline=nyt-per>
stepped down without any agreement on a successor. Since then,
Parliament has delayed voting on a new president 10 times, and
negotiations have grown steadily more rancorous.

Mr. Hasbini, who works for a television and film equipment company in
Jidda, waved it all aside. “We get fed up,” he said. “It’s like W.W.F.
or a soap opera, except here we get it live.

“Politics? Khalas, you’re home,” he added, using the Arabic word for
“enough.”

For some families, Lebanon has become little more than a reunion site.

“We’re all here for the holidays but none of us live here anymore,” said
Maria Pamoukian, 28, an urban planner based in Abu Dhabi who was born in
Beirut. There are 10 people in the family — seven adults and three
children — she added, all now scattered across the globe, though they
still maintain a big apartment here.

Like many others, Ms. Pamoukian said she struggled to find a plane
ticket, and succeeded only after pleading with the airline to give her a
break because a friend was getting married. They gave her a ticket to
Damascus, and she drove the rest of the way, she said. The trip took 16
hours.

Tarek Masri, 26, said he had almost given up on getting a flight from
Saudi Arabia, where he works, until a car bomb east of Beirut killed one
of Lebanon’s top army generals last week. That prompted a cancellation,
and he got his ticket home.

Beirutis like Mr. Masri are too hardened by years of civil war to be
intimidated by a bombing.

“It’s usually Gulfi tourists who cancel when that happens,” he said.
“It’s not the Lebanese. We’ve heard it all before, seen it all before.”

But there is a corollary to this ritual of return: much of the middle
class — including many of its best and brightest — no longer live in
Lebanon. The pace of emigration appears to have picked up after the
violence of the 2006 war with Israel and the political crisis that has
followed, said Guita Hourani, a sociologist at Notre Dame University in
Zouk Mosbeh, north of Beirut, who has studied migration patterns.

The oil wealth in the gulf region has also helped lure away more young
Lebanese. “It’s getting harder to find skilled people,” said Nassib
Ghobril, the head of research and analysis for Byblos Bank. “Gulf
companies come here and poach people from banks and other sectors. They
recruit whole classes of graduating seniors.”

These migrants supply Lebanon with about $1,400 per capita every year,
Mr. Ghobril said — one of the highest rates of remittances in the world.
Those transfers are one of the pillars sustaining the consumer economy,
he added, though they do not make up for the country’s soaring public
debt, the lack of long-term investment here, or the slow bleeding of the
country’s main natural resource — its people.

But there is another way of looking at it.

“Perhaps instead of talking about brain drain we should talk about brain
globalization,” Mr. Ghobril said with a mischievous grin. “The
globalization of Lebanon.”


Copyright 2007
<http://www.nytimes.com/ref/membercenter/help/copyright.html> The New
York Times Company <http://www.nytco.com/>
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