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Lebanon: Paradise Lost

For those of us who were children in the Middle East during World War II, the Lebanese mountains—but not Beirut, the capital—were an almost inevitable summer destination. This was especially true for residents of the urban al-Mashriq, or Arab east, whose large cities such as Cairo, Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem—and shortly after World War II, such newly prosperous Gulf towns as Jeddah and Kuwait—were intolerably hot in June, July, and August. For the solicitous and sufficiently well-off parents of growing children, the empty months required a mountain or seaside sojourn.

From today's perspective, those summer holidays seem very long indeed, with the private (in most instances missionary or colonial) schools pretty much closed from early June till the beginning of October. Since there were no camps or organized summer activities for children, it was taken for granted that the family should leave the sweltering, dusty metropolis for a cool, distant place. Many middle- and upper-class Lebanese families would also seek out a congenial place for their children to escape Beirut's oppressively humid heat. They, too, were part of the summer community that flourished for a while and is still remembered by many with a nostalgia that has had little to nourish it since the Lebanese civil war ended in 1990.

IT WAS IN 1943 THAT A LEBANESE MOUNTAIN VILLAGE called Dhour el Shweir became our summer home. Dhour was my parents' choice because some of my mother's relatives originated there, and it seemed like a logical destination for us as a family living intermittently in Jerusalem and Cairo. But there were several other, similar Lebanese villages and their hotels that attracted visitors from the Middle East, drawn to the prospect of comfort and coolness well before Greece, Italy, and France were holiday destinations. Indeed, Lebanon was the generic backdrop for many of the rustic quasi-alpine settings that were de rigueur in Arabic films of the time whenever the plot called for a honeymoon. The country had been reduced emblematically to its mountain resorts, and Beirut, later to become a worldwide symbol for horrendous violence, was scarcely mentioned and rarely so much as seen.

I vividly recall that Dhour's landscape was dominated by the Grand Hotel Kassouf, a fortress-like structure near the end of the single winding road built by the French along the spine of two mountains, 5,000 feet straight up and slightly to the north of the capital. This road, with its massive red-roofed houses, small hotels, and a few scattered shops on both sides, made up the long, stringy town that stretched for about two miles and overlooked Beirut from the east. We spent that first summer at the Kassouf, and then rented houses all over Dhour every year after. But for Dhour's residents, the hotel was the great social pinnacle of the village, just far enough away from the little shopping area and most of the summer rentals to represent a sophisticated, somewhat remote aerie that set it apart from the not always convincing rusticity of Dhour. Many families would return to Dhour year after year for the pure and usually dry mountain air, the misty afternoons and evenings, and the compelling views of the surrounding mountains, with Beirut's white houses and its blue bay shimmering in the sunset like a dream city without inhabitants.

In my young consciousness, the Kassouf was part of a constellation of mountain grands hôtels that we occasionally visited on the "outings" that my father planned for us as a family. This group of destinations included the Park and the Printania Palace hotels in nearby Brummana and, just a little farther away, down that town's southern slope, the Grand Hotel in Beit Mery, a small adjoining village. If the resort was near enough to Dhour we would go there for tea or lunch. The distant hotels were usually reserved for rest stops on the way back from some remote waterfall or spring that my parents thought would be amusing for us to sit at for a while.

The grandest of all the grand hotels in this category was in the small town of Sofar, about four hours away and across several stony valleys from Dhour. Aside from its hotel and its social eminence, Sofar's distinction was, first, that the French ambassador's summer residence was there, and, second, that the tiny rail station could be seen from the hotel terrace: it was the only one of its kind I knew in the mountains. That it was on the Damascus—Beirut line with incredibly steep inclines and many hairpin curves gave it an added mystique. Feeling (and probably looking) rather bedraggled and dusty, we would stop at the Grand Hotel Sofar for tea after having lunch at the neighboring Hammana's Shaghour Spring (or mountain rift, with its small cascade of water) and sit awkwardly in the elegant garden surrounded by all sorts of meticulously dressed, distinguished guests among whom my parents would point out an Egyptian pasha or two, a former Syrian cabinet minister, a super-wealthy Iraqi industrialist, a Jewish department store owner.


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