How Beirut can shake off that ‘war-torn’ image

A woman from the north of England has described her socially blighted town as “like Beirut”, presumably to reinforce her conviction of just how much of a mess it is in. Her comment to Channel 4 News proved in one fell swoop that, even after periodic bouts of growth and glamour, the Lebanese capital still has an image problem. But if the Lebanese are smart she just might be part of the solution.

Isabel Roberts lives in Horden in Durham, a county in the north of England where the English accent ends its gradual, and at times tortured, metamorphosis from mad Geordie enunciation into soft Scottish border brogue. Once a thriving mining community, Horden now suffers from heartbreaking unemployment with nearly 200 once sought-after social housing units that are now boarded up and empty, unaffordable and unviable because of the government’s controversial bedroom tax.

Ms Roberts, who, according to the UK news programme, has lived in the area for 38 years, is at her wits’ end, appalled by the social decline that has gripped her town. “These were lovely houses,” she said. “People wanted these houses. They were lovely and clean …[now] It’s like Beirut. It’s absolutely disgraceful.”

Phew. Now it could be argued that Ms Roberts needs to update her historical references. If one wants to play the wag, and describe any site of destruction and decay by quipping, “it’s like add name of war-torn city” then Beirut surely dropped out of the running years ago. What about Sarajevo, Grozny, Baghdad, Gaza, Kabul, Aleppo or even Detroit? I could go on. But sadly, 20 years after the civil war, the Lebanese capital is clearly still a byword for misery.

It happens more often than you might think. Despite the efforts of CNN and the glossy travel publications, aimed admittedly at the chattering classes, I will often board a taxi laden with suitcases only for the driver to ask if I’ve “been somewhere nice”. I tell him “yes actually; Beirut” causing him to nearly crash his cab he is laughing so hard.

“You’re ‘aving a larf mate! Beirut? You’re joking aren’t you?” I tell him I’m deadly serious and that it is (well, was) a thriving tourist hub with a seafront skyline that, in places, rivals Hong Kong. I also tell him that, were she to fancy it, he and the wife might enjoy a pleasant mini- break there.

Normally he then admits that its been a while since he read anything about Lebanon and fesses up to lumping the country in the with the “whole Middle East thing”. In short, from Beirut to Kabul it’s all the same mess, and I’m sure it is this mindset that prompted Ms Roberts to draw her unfair comparison.

What to do? Well, if I were Michel Pharaon, the Lebanese tourism minister, I would contact Ms Roberts and fly her out to Beirut first class on Middle East Airlines, put her up in a suite at one of the swankier hotels – the Phoenicia or the Four Seasons – and show her the new city and everything, whether we like it or not, that is shiny and bold and sexy. She will, of course, be thrilled but with the subsequent media coverage – it is essential that every major news outlet cover the story – maybe we can not only exorcise part of the ghost of the old, wait for it, “war-torn Beirut”, but also remind a new generation of the positives of the new city and create a fresh idea of Lebanon based on warmth, hospitality and generosity of spirit.

If it were done well, and with the world’s press really on board with the idea, then the outlay for showing Ms Roberts that were really aren’t Stalingrad 1943 would be tiny compared to the considerable rewards.

So Mr Pharaon, say you heard it here first. Invite Ms Roberts to Beirut. In fact take her across the country. Let the Lebanese show Ms Roberts what it’s all about.

The cooking alone will drive her northern taste buds wild.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton

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