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Lebanon: Paradise Lost

Down the Sofar road we usually stopped again for ice cream at Tanios's in Aley, or after visiting our Cairo friends the Dirliks in the town of Bhamdun, we would order sandwiches from a café adjacent to the town's Hôtel Ambassadeur. Different though each of these places was, they made up a core that basically gave Lebanon its prestige as a station d'estivage, and which—along with its splendid peaches, figs, mulberries, and plums, its legions of white-jacketed waiters with names like Édouard, Georges, Joseph, Pierre, and Nicola, its promenades, boutiques, pine forests, and steeply inclined roads—made Lebanon unique in the Arab world.

This part of Lebanon was essentially French in tone and vocabulary, full of thés dansants, table d'hôtes, matinées, numéros, and the like, replicas of an original none of us would see until much later in Europe. These little islands of imported gentility were among the nicer and certainly the more innocent legacies of the French political hold on Syria and Lebanon that originated with the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916, which divided what was one large Ottoman province into several new states under either British or French tutelage. Syria and Lebanon, with long histories of Gallic interest and intervention, went to France while Britain took Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, and most of the Gulf.

I don't think it's an irrelevant political comment to say that much of the trouble that has beset this region in the 75 subsequent years has had a great deal to do with the imperial policy of divide and later quit. New states that were formed when the British and the French departed, competing national majorities and minorities, and very different ideas about identity and alignment in the Cold War—to say nothing of meddling outside powers, various military coups, and wildly incompatible perceptions of what was in effect a common history—produced a highly combustible mix that left no life unchanged. The main change for the worse, I think, has been to isolate communities from one another. In the Lebanon of old, Jews, Armenians, and Greeks from Syria, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, and Iraq, as well as Christians of all denominations from those countries, plus of course Muslims (both Sunni and Shia) from all the Arab nations (as well as Cyprus, Afghanistan, and Iran) would sit at dinner together, shop, go for walks, frequent the same hotels and cafés—all without a second thought. For my generation that kind of polyglot mixing was the natural condition of being a Levantine, not the sullen segregation and the ideological narrowness that defeated our world in the end and reigns over the Middle East today.

CERTAINLY THE LEBANON OF QUASI-FRENCH SUMMER resorts and grand hotels has changed beyond recognition. Whatever else it is, this change isn't for the better, even though it is enough to say that the privilege, to say nothing of the often purely fictitious world of summer leisure on which that world depended and from which its structures were borrowed, was very precarious. What amazes me now is how readily those of us who knew that world accepted it and its customs, which in retrospect seem confected out of literature and films, especially in the grand hotels that were so central to the system of summertime and rarefied tourism.

Waiters were always male, uniformed, deferential; they used non-Arabic words like merci and monsieur without embarrassment; the female staff was also uniformed, only did the rooms, said very little. The tone and the sound of the Grand Hotel Sofar or of the Kassouf was hushed and understated, almost whispered, and dress codes required, demanded, an ample wardrobe of suits, evening wear, tasteful little dresses for the girls, gray shorts, white shirts, and single-color ties for the boys. Shoes were glisteningly shined, and sandals for the children were to be seen only before noon, always with socks. The very idea of sports clothes (except for impeccably white tennis outfits) such as the canvas shoes, colored T-shirts, jeans of today, had not even been dreamed of. Chairs and tables were for politely sitting at tea or playing games such as snakes and ladders, pick-up-sticks, Monopoly; cards were frowned on, as were rough games of any kind.

One couldn't just have a meal whenever one felt like it. There were appointed sittings, tables, waiters, and of course set menus, all of them designed for endurance rather than speed. An afternoon siesta was mandatory. Phones were rare, and the radio was for BBC news broadcasts only. An Armenian violinist and pianist were regularly in evidence for weekend meals, often accompanied by an accordionist, the convenient substitute for winds and brasses. If you wanted to you could recognize in all this something of Proust's Balbec (minus the sea) or, strangely transmuted into something quite different but arguably the same, the château setting of Marcel Carné's 1945 film Les Enfants du Paradis.


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