Lebanon: Paradise Lost

Lebanon: Paradise Lost

Arab Image Foundation
Arab Image Foundation
At one time Lebanon's mountain resorts were a magnet for much of the Middle East.In the hills above Beirut, Muslims, Christians, and Jews gathered for afternoonteas, alpine hikes, and dinners served by white-gloved waiters. Here, Edward W. Said reflects on the cosmopolitan world of his boyhood — and why it disappeared

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.

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.

The hotels themselves were large establishments, some with as many as 75 rooms, several dining rooms, a banquet hall, gaming and billiard rooms, and, because of the mountain setting, immense terraces with colorful umbrellas, metal tables, and wicker chairs interspersed with languorously extended deck chairs. Size was everywhere used to impress, if not awe, the visitor. In the Kassouf, for example, an enormously long and steep staircase swept up from the driveway into the front terrace and reception area: it was like something out of Hollywood's Technicolor version of The Three Musketeers. Sofar's Grand Hotel had two majestic staircases just inside the entrance; they appeared to dare you (if you weren't a guest) to mount them. On the occasion of a big event like a wedding reception, a floor show—usually made up of a celebrated magician, medium, and singer—or a banquet, the huge hulk of the Beit Mery Grand Hotel would be thrown open almost recklessly, one felt, its great terraces, eating areas, salons exposed to public view as if to say, Isn't all this so much grander, so unlike anything you've seen anywhere before?

The remarkable thing about all the grand hotels was that they were only passably comfortable and not at all luxurious. Compared with today's notion of comfort—telephones, electronic equipment, super-abundant bathrooms, fancy furniture, thick towels, room service—the Lebanese summer palaces were actually austere. Water was always a problem, so bathrooms were both scarce and quite minimal. You couldn't take a bath, so half the rooms were equipped only with a basin and a toilet, perhaps a shower, plus all the necessities for a sponge bath. Menus varied from a Lebanese dish such as stuffed zucchini and grape leaves one night to an international (and rather tough) roast lamb with potatoes the next. Hotel furniture was of the rudimentary summer category: pine cabinets and tables, steel-frame beds, wicker chairs, and large brown or burgundy wool or velvet sofas and armchairs. Overhead lights, direct and brutally bright, were everywhere. Soft, indirect lighting was unknown. And that was about it, so far as décor and atmosphere were concerned. It was the appearance, location, and reputation of the hotels that gave them their status, not what was in them.

Faster cars allied with rapid, easy plane travel and the idea of a quick weekend was what first began to erode the grand hotels' haughty glamour. Air-conditioning completed the process. If you didn't need to be in one of them for a minimum of six weeks—they were terribly hard to get to, and that was an essential aspect of their hauteur—and if you could go to Cyprus, then later Greece, Italy, Turkey, in a few hours and if, most important of all, distance and social status were no longer the domain of a few people, there weren't many customers left to spend an unexciting period of time at sleepy places like Sofar or Dhour. Why leave the city at all if the heat could be held at bay by refrigerated air, or forgotten in a more and more varied array of fashionable beaches and yachts?I doubt that with the advent of television, for instance, the sedate, cloistered world of perennial regulars could have survived. The region's numerous political upheavals also slowly drained the old hotels of their relaxed and cosmopolitan clientele.

A MORE CRUEL FATE THAN TELEVISION AND AIR-CONDITIONING overtook Lebanon's mountain resorts in 1975—civil war. In Beirut, for instance, the ponderously big seafront hotels like the Phoenicia and Holiday Inn, built during the 1960's and 70's oil boom, were ideal locations for artillery posts set up by the strenuously competing factions, and choice targets as well, none sadder than the legendary St. Georges Hotel, Beirut's most distinguished hostelry (now being rebuilt). By the end of the seventies and the early eighties, after seven to nine years of furious shelling that engulfed first the city, then the mountains, the Kassouf was knocked out, as well as the Grand Hotel Sofar; and then the big palaces of Aley, Bhamdoun, Beit Mery, and Brummana were either gutted or made uninhabitable. The summer mountains became refuges for city people fleeing the Israeli invasion of 1982 as well as the 1985 war of the Palestinian refugee camps and General Awn's random bombing of the city a few years later, or they became outposts of one or another military force.

Dhour today is still a Syrian army redoubt, most of its bombed-out houses still unrepaired and unpeopled, the great old Kassouf a sprawling shambles of what it once was, the noble front staircase crumbling and useless, a pathetic reminder of great days all but forgotten under the indifferent sun. The big hotels and houses of Aley, Bhamdoun, Souk el Gharb were demolished in the fighting, their cavernously empty interiors turned into barracks or arms depots. So far as I can tell no faction refrained from this pointless vandalism. To the fighters themselves a place like the Grand Hotel Kassouf could have meant nothing except temporary protection or a target; to the warlords these summer castles were convenient stopping places for the armed forces who, like so many minor employees, were paid to do a messy job. Certainly none of these people had any memory of what once had been.

The Lebanese civil war ended officially a decade ago. Under the premiership of Rafik Hariri, a Croesus-like Lebanese contractor who made his endless supply of money in Saudi Arabia and ran the country between 1992 and 1998, rebuilding began—but it was a rebuilding unlike any other. Central Beirut, completely ravaged during the war, was redesigned as a spanking oversized postmodern commercial headquarters for the region, startlingly unlike the beehive of small buildings and narrow casbah streets that had stood there for centuries. A few luxury apartments were built and a souk or two restored, though not before a public outcry about the threat to the mainly Roman and Phoenician archaeological remains forced a change in the original plans. There was much regret expressed about the passing of old Beirut with surprisingly little said about the disappeared mountain resorts, which have been left in ruins like the old Kassouf, or—much more disturbing—buried under a heap of new, unplanned, unzoned, unrestricted housing and commercial areas that have completely defaced, indeed massacred, the physical setting for which Lebanon had once been famous. Lebanon's wealthy have retreated to new gated summer colonies like Faqra in the north or to overseas pleasure palaces in Super Cannes and Marbella, leaving the exhausted middle class in frantic search of a foothold outside Beirut.

The result in once placid, leafy places like Brummana and Beit Mery is garishly dreadful. (Dhour and Sofar are still largely barren and unrebuilt.) The old hotels have simply disappeared. The once quiet and largely pedestrian streets have become horn-blaring single-lane nightmares with cars at a standstill for long periods at a stretch. Village grocers and butchers who lived off the summer trade from beneath white canvas awnings have given way to a mishmash of shops with multicultural signs that scream at you: Henny Penny, Cheyenne Western Store, Nokia, Pretty Woman, Edelweiss Tapis-Antiquités, Speedy-Foto, Super Superette, Better Clothing, Bonny Shoes & Socks. And dozens upon dozens of restaurants and fast-food stalls, each of them completely and surprisingly appetizing. (One mustn't forget that Beirut's branch of McDonald's has valet parking and is no ordinary hamburger joint.)

The sedate old Printania Palace Hotel in Brummana, damaged during the war, still stands but is now obscured by a fancy modern hotel with the same name, clearly designed with the Hyatt and Inter-Continental trade in mind. At the other end of town, the Park Hotel—in its day a smaller, more refined, and exclusive hotel that rivaled its Sofar and Dhour counterparts while lacking their monumental presence—has also disappeared, as has most of the little hill overlooking the valley on which it perched. An enormous multilevel condo project has come into being, 10 times too big for the site, grotesquely misnamed the Grand Hills Village. Made of mountain stone and not quite ready for its prospective tenants as I drove by in early July, it seemed to have been dragged out of a Bela Lugosi—meets—Wyatt Earp movie, with perhaps equally confusing results. The Grand Hotel Beit Mery has been replaced by a tastefully modern hotel, the Bustan.

The Grand Hotel in Sofar still stands—somber, bombed out, ragged, and yet a quietly dignified, even majestic, ruin. The terraces and gardens on its northern and southern sides are a riot of bramble and charred building fragments. In a distant corner of the northern garden is a large shack; inside the hotel, nestled beneath the dark arches that were still standing on one side, I found several half-gutted cars, basically chassis without tires or interiors. It was impossible to tell whether they were being repaired or had been put there pending further deconstruction. As a pair of open-faced young men approached me from a corner of the untended garden, I tried to disarm them. "I used to come here many years ago. Do you live here?" I asked, nodding toward the shack. They were immediately friendly, even welcoming. Their father had been the customer service manager but as the hotel was damaged and the owners had no money to pay employees, the old man had been given the right to live on the property and shelter his family from the ongoing war. He had since died, however, and as there seemed no prospect of the tourist industry reviving, his sons had gone into the car repair business. What had been a temporary abode had become a permanent one, though at a vast social remove from its original purpose.

LAST SUMMER I MANAGED TO TRAVERSE THE EASTERN Mediterranean littoral from Tripoli and Beirut in the north to Port Said and Alexandria in the south. Gone was the graceful arc of pleasant ports, citrus groves, fishing villages, small beachfront resorts. In its place was an almost continuous wall of concrete. Polluted water was everywhere, and commercialized seafront properties, all of them (and regardless of whether in Israel or an Arab country) the result of unrestricted development that seemed to be battling for a foothold at the water's edge and beyond. In each country the reasons for the new ugliness were different. Yet this wave of crowded and decidedly aggressive construction had effectively throttled what had once been a welcoming environment, relatively small in scale, that E. M. Forster had contrasted favorably with the overwhelming vastness of India. All that had changed.

In Lebanon, the summer mountain peaks that seemed like a last outpost of rest and natural pleasure were erased during the civil war—itself a symptom of the tenuousness and fragility of the social fabric that had once given Lebanon its unique blend of individuality and collective anarchy—leaving behind nothing very lasting or attractive. In its scramble to reemerge as a regional financial and cultural center, Lebanon has become a frantic new place, beset with overcrowding and a floundering economy, in addition to the region's political volatility. Relatively unencumbered by puritanical laws, it remains the Arab world's most exciting country but, except for its immensely energetic citizens, its mountains are minus a summer vocation.

Promoted Stories
Explore More
More from T+L