Lebanon wasn't the holiday destination we were contemplating when we bought our plane tickets through Beirut. The Syrian Embassy, however, didn't feel safe giving a blue-eyed American ex-diplomat a visa to wander around loose along the Euphrates. I might be a spy trying to winkle out their secrets.
Lebanese authorities take a much more relaxed attitude. Lebanon is a democracy. A clear majority of its people would be grateful if some agent of a foreign power would figure out what is currently going on in their country and then explain it to them.
The Lebanese presidency is vacant, parliament does not meet, and politicians of proven lethality are making ominous declarations that the government is illegitimate. Most tourists think they are being sensible by staying away. We thus had Lebanon's superb archaeological sites almost to ourselves. We also had ten days to watch politics in the pure, primitive form still practiced in Lebanon -- the redistribution of society's resources by a small group of individuals empowered by God-given certainty of their right to do so.
Small, mountainous Lebanon became dangerously overpopulated centuries ago. To discourage predators, every village plasters itself with posters showing membership in a political/religious movement led by a local strongman who wields their ballots or bullets as the situation requires.
By Lebanon's power-sharing rules, the president must be a Maronite Christian.
High-stakes poker breeds paranoia. Every couple of days, a new delegation of well-meaning foreigners exhorts the Lebanese to put politics behind them and unite for the good of their country. Because this is the same language cynical Lebanese politicians use, it is taken as proof foreigners are pulling the strings. Lebanese assert their rivals are in the pocket of the Syrians, the Americans, the French, the Iranians, the Israelis or all of the above simultaneously. And every few weeks someone gets assassinated.
Foreign tourists are on no one's hit list. Ordinary Lebanese are also perfectly safe, apart from the economic slump the stalemate has caused. The fine restaurants, where rich Lebanese and their diaspora relatives drown their sorrows, are overbooked. But politicians cower behind truck-bomb barriers, armored personnel carriers, and enormous coils of razor-wire.
These security precautions have turned the swanky new Beirut downtown into a deserted movie set. We went there to catch the tail end of Christmas Eve midnight mass at St. George's Maronite cathedral. This was not American suburban parents imposing a sermon on their restless offspring as the price of Santa Claus. Nor was it the ring-tones and social chatter of a Greek service.
In Lebanon, religious devotion is part of deterrence. It signals potential foes or allies a willingness to escalate at a moment's notice to self-sacrificial collective violence. The church was full of short, pious, bullet-headed men with leather coats and leathery wives. Some wore orange scarves showing loyalty to Michel Aoun, a politician with a limitless yearning to be president. His and the other militias are now political parties, but I understood immediately why other Lebanese think camouflage uniforms still hang in the back of Maronite closets.
The music, however, was angelic. Uplifted, we took a wrong turn out of the church and bounced like a pinball from military checkpoint to military checkpoint. Finally, we found an alley bypassing an empty tent city, a relic of earlier massive protests, and found a main road and an ancient taxi. But lost and alone at 1:30 a.m. we felt no fear. The implied threat of violence is not directed at foreigners.
Later in the Bekaa Valley, we drove past kilometers of portrait posters spaced every 25 meters to remind visitors of Hezbollah's limitless supply of martyrs. Hezbollah has supplanted Amal as the leading Shiite movement. It owns Baalbek, site of the most impressive temple of classical antiquity. We found the mayor in the ruins graciously welcoming tourists. Hezbollah tee-shirts are on sale in a variety of colors.
Hezbollah has earned the grudging respect of most Lebanese as a rare faction that actually looks after the material welfare of its constituents. Were Hezbollah's religious zeal and Iranian funding understood objectively, as a close counterpart to Maronite piety and traditional dependence on France, then western governments would have a reasonable hope of buying its good behavior in the traditional Lebanese way. The abject failure of Israel's cluster bombs in 2006 is a lesson in the need to make the attempt.
Reading Lebanon's dire history inspires a desire to exterminate the human race and start over. Visiting the place sends a more optimistic message. Lebanon distills the virtues and vices of humanity, including paranoid sectarianism and generous joie de vivre, into a very palatable beverage. Arak is like ouzo, only much stronger. Regina and I had a wonderful visit. Ignore the machine guns and you will too.
Athens News of January 4, 2008.
* John Brady Kiesling, a former U.S. diplomat, is the author of "Diplomacy Lessons: Realism for an Unloved Superpower" (Potomac Books; Greek edition Livanis).