Tag browsing: history

By Richard Hooper

During the 1960s, the US and the Soviet Union competed for supremacy in space. But there was another contestant in the race – the Lebanese Rocket Society, a science club from a university in Beirut and the subject of a recently released film.

“My vision was to explore space – Lebanon could have done that.”

Manoug Manougian’s boast may sound unlikely, but 50 years ago he and a group of students found themselves as space pioneers of the Arab world. Despite a shoestring budget, they developed a rocket capable of reaching the edge of space.

“Here was tiny Lebanon, able to do what the rest of the Arab world hadn’t done,” Manougian says. “We were young kids, in our early 20s, doing something incredible.”


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Who could have believed the Lebanese would stop smoking? Law 174 is actually being obeyed. No smoking in any restaurants or cafes. Even the blessed nargile is banned, the glorious water pipe that originated in early 16th century India. There may be a civil war next door and 336,000 Syrian refugees in Lebanon but a nation famed for its smokers appears to be giving it all up. It doesn’t hurt that Michael Bloomberg, the New York city mayor, has sent £400,000 to Lebanon’s anti-smoking campaign. But what’s amazing is that smoking a pipe was one of Lebanon’s – and Syria’s – longest lasting habits.

I am indebted here to Christian Sassmannshausen, a PhD student in Islamic Studies at the Freie Universitat of Berlin whose wonderful article “The Stuff of History: Everyday Objects, the Construction of Ambiguous Meanings and the ‘Afterlife’ of Social Things” appears in an equally wonderful book on Islamic Art in museums and who traces the history of popular smoking in the Levant. The consumption of tobacco, he writes – and let’s call him Christian and be done with it – started as a luxury for the affluent, but by the late nineteenth century just about everyone was smoking.

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By Deborah L. Jacobs

One of the first places I visited after moving to Beirut was the Medawar Building. It was a perfect example of art deco architecture that typified Beirut during the French Mandate period from 1930 to 1940. Despite months of protests by cultural heritage activists, on January 4, the developer Kettaneh Group began bulldozing it to make way for a 22-story building.

Upper portion of the Medawar building, before it was bulldozed. Photo: Association for the Preservation of Lebanese Heritage

Also known as the Amin Maalouf house, it was the residence of the famous Lebanese author Amin Maalouf, who lived there as a child. The celebrated author writes in French and was the first Lebanese to be inducted to l’Académie Française in June 2011.  Some of his books include Leo the African, Samarkand and Rock of the Tanios, for which he was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 1993. Maalouf’s mother lived in the house until 2011, when it was purchased by the Kettaneh Group, a Middle Eastern company that distributes automotive, pharmaceutical, energy, medical and baby products.  The importance of preserving Maalouf’s house for Lebanese history and culture has been a rallying cry.

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By Justin Salhani

Lebanon’s most prominent Christian group, the Maronites, used to be so influential that the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat quipped that “The road to Jerusalem passes through Jounieh,” referring to a town north of Beirut that was a stronghold for Lebanese Christian militias.

The quote has a certain poignancy – and nostalgia – more than 30 years later, with Maronites increasingly afraid they will be marginalized. Their population and political power have waned as their numbers dwindle – a result of emigration during the country’s civil war – and birth rates rise in the Muslim community.

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By Ian Henderson

Out of my Beirut hotel window the jumble of history is everywhere. A ruined Ottoman fort and an exquisite Maronite chapel are immediately outside. Concrete blocks from the infamous Green Line which used to divide the city are scattered among fallen Roman columns. On the skyline, mosques and churches – there are around 18 official religions in Lebanon – frame the skeleton of the old Holiday Inn, a favourite target for anyone with a rocket launcher during the civil war which ended 11 years ago.

When friends knew I was going to Beirut, the reaction was split between those who see it as the most thrilling place to be right now – the Next Big Thing; and those who haven’t got past seeing it as a war zone where well-meaning travellers end up chained to radiators. Both have a point. Style pundits are noisily buying up apartments and rightly singing the praises of Lebanese musicians and designers while Hizbollah and Israel’s jets still fight it out around them. The Green Line is rapidly being built over in the shiny new Downtown district, and it’s often hard to tell which is a shelled building and which is a construction site.

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Lebanon’s capital, Beirut, is best known for its brutal history, but it’s also party central for the region’s beautiful young things.

Perhaps it doesn’t strike you as surprising that I’m ending the night in a bomb shelter; this is Beirut, after all. To many a Western mind, a hedonistic holiday in the Lebanese capital makes about as much sense as a family break in Basra. But I’m hardly cowering from a campaign of destruction, nor have I braved a barrage of bullets on my way over. Instead, I’m watching the sunrise from B018, Beirut’s edgiest nightclub. Beneath a car park a few kilometres east of Downtown, this mock bomb shelter’s retractable roof peels back to reveal the oncoming dawn. But Beirut’s party crowd isn’t beaten yet; we won’t leave ‘til we’re chucked out at 7am.

The Lebanese capital may now be a world-class party town, but there are remnants of its brutal past. Tanks lurk on street corners, their forbidding air accessorised by barbed wire and sand bags; unsmiling soldiers patrol pedestrian thoroughfares, weighed down with weaponry. Don’t try taking their picture – a misunderstanding has one soldier pointing his machine gun into my taxi.

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We are all haunted by war.

The First and Second World Wars continue to hold us in their sticky embrace. The Lebanese are still trying to shake off the Christian-Druze massacres of 1860, let alone the 1975-1990 civil war. And there’s a fascinating view that the events which lead to war somehow enter our bloodstream, become part of us, a history that goes round and round inside our bodies for ever. Most Lebanese regard the start-line of their civil war as the Christian Maronite Phalangist attack on a bus-load of Palestinians in the Beirut suburb of Ain el-Remmaneh, a red and cream American school bus – actually made at Kew in England – that now lies rusting in a field in southern Lebanon, registration plate long torn off but bullet holes intact and ghosts still aboard.

In an article headlined “Ghost Generation”, the Lebanese writer Fifi Abou Dib has intriguingly recreated the last seconds of peace in Lebanon, the driver of the red and cream bus drawing on his cigarette – we don’t know if, indeed, he smoked – annoyed at the traffic jam in which he found himself. “The tragedy of the bus at Ain el-Remmaneh is written in our collective history, for sure. But more than anything else, it has infected our DNA.” It’s true. Art galleries in Beirut often carry symbols of the bus, red and cream, a 1960s Fargo, mass grave to 27 men and women.

Yet only this last October did the Lebanese hold their first seminar on the events of the Christian-Druze war which broke out in the Metn and Chouf mountains 115 years before the bus massacre at Ain el-Remmaneh. And it was Dima de Clerck, doctoral graduate of the University of Paris 1, who drew attention to the connections between 1860 and 1975. “We are in the presence of two traumatic histories which feed on each other,” she said. “…The recent war, which happened out of the blue but for clear socio-political reasons, resurrected the memory of 1860, brought it back to life… the history of that conflict, so badly neglected at the time, provoked Christians and Druze to take up arms in 1975, one side taking revenge for a past regarded as shameful, the other (wanting) to gain the political victory which their military success did not obtain for them in 1860.”

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The Royal College of Art in London has been host to an impressive collection of contemporary Lebanese art.

The Association for the Promotion and Exhibition of the Arts in Lebanon (APEAL) presented the first comprehensive exhibition of contemporary Lebanese art at the Royal College of Art.

Works were diverse, from a super-shiny stainless steel sculpture to photographs that captured the country’s war to art that depicted the essential amalgamation of loss and hope in Lebanon.

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By James Hipwell

Harvesting in vineyard of Chateau Musar at Aana in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. Photograph: Cephas Picture Library/Alamy

“When we started planting the vineyard, we found a cluster bomb on the ground that had been dropped on the village in 1983. The army said it would take two weeks to get here, but I had 1,000 vines that had to be in the ground immediately or else they’d die. So with a couple of brave young men, we decided to plant the vines. Thank God nobody got hurt.”

This isn’t the kind of commentary you get on most wine tours. But this is a vineyard in Lebanon, not the Loire. On a visit to Chateau Belle-Vue, high above the heat and hustle of Beirut on the top of Mount Lebanon, its irrepressible owner Naji Boutros gives us not only a lesson in viticulture but a first-hand account of his country’s troubled history, too.

Boutros grew up in the village of Bhamdoun but left when it became engulfed in heavy fighting during the early 1980s. After a career as an investment banker, he returned in 2000 with his family to set up the winery in what was left of his village, naming it Chateau Belle-Vue after the hotel his grandfather ran there.

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September 30th, 2011

FT: In the line of fire

A video still from Mounira Al Solh’s 'Double Burger and Two Metamorphoses' (2010)

 By Rachel Spence

Frieze Art Fair’s young galleries section Frame this year includes the Sfeir-Semler gallery from Beirut. Discover the realities of making and selling art in a troubled and war-torn land

On a humid September morning, I am standing on the east Beirut rooftop of 31-year-old Lebanese artist Mounira Al Solh, trying to get my bearings.

“So over there are the mountains where my grandmother hid out during the revolution,” says Al Solh, casting her arm eastwards towards a range of smog-veiled humps. Although her family are from a Muslim background, her grandmother took refuge in a Christian village after objecting to that community’s persecution in the 1950s. She remained there throughout the civil war that devastated Lebanon from 1975 to 1990, although the rest of the family stayed in west Beirut. As Al Solh explains bluntly: “If you leave your home during a war it gets squatted by the militia.”

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By Rachel Stevenson and James Hipwell

Lebanon’s wine-making tradition dates back more than 5,000 years. The vineyards of the Bekaa Valley have survived conflicts and religious divides, but now that the country is enjoying relative peace, its wine industry is flourishing. Many vineyards welcome visitors wanting to discover their history, landscape and people

To view video, click here

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Lebanese American University of Beirut alumni at a ceremony in July last year (AFP, Anwar Amro)


Prominent Lebanese historian Kamal Salibi, who taught at the American University of Beirut for more than half a century, died in Beirut on Thursday aged 82, the university announced.

Born a Protestant on May 2, 1929 in multi-confessional Lebanon, Salibi gained a reputation as the leading historian on his country, penning “The Modern History of Lebanon” and “A House of Many Mansions: The History of Lebanon Reconsidered.”

An avid pianist, Salibi earned a BA in history and political science from the American University of Beirut (AUB) and a PhD from London’s School of Oriental and African Studies, where he worked under the supervision of Bernard Lewis and focused on Christian Maronite historians in mediaeval Lebanon.

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By Hala Abdulmalak

While the remnants of 25 years of civil war clings to the urban fabric of Beirut, the city has managed to reinvent itself slowly.

Towards the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, Marshall McLuhan pointed out that television had brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. But while war was a mediated experience for millions, the people of Lebanon became engaged in their own conflict.

The Lebanon Civil War started in 1975 and lasted until 1990, but the people of Lebanon are still living in instability. As a Lebanese woman born during the civil war, I was brought up with an older generation’s nostalgia for what Beirut was and what it could have been.

I was a 14-year old adolescent when I first experienced downtown Beirut. But there was a vivid picture in my head of a vibrant city core, one steeped in history and culture. The reality was that, by the end of the war in 1990, Beirut Centre Ville (city centre) was afflicted with overwhelming destruction and total demolition of its infrastructure. Once the “Switzerland of the East” or the “Pearl of the Mediterranean”, Beirut was a bomb-stricken place. The Beirut that everybody reminisced about lived on solely in people’s minds and hearts.

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Future Cities travels to Beirut where the city centre has undergone a dramatic rebuild after years of civil war.

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A street scene in Sunni-dominated Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city.

to view full slideshow, click link


I’ve been circling the Mediterranean for 67 days, taking in more beautiful views, fabulous beaches and ancient monuments than any one person deserves in a summer. And maybe more than any one person can stand. Yes, I declare myself officially — though only temporarily — jaded.

So in Lebanon, my final stop, I figured I’d skip the country’s beautiful mountains and archaeological wonders and seek out its summer music festivals and picturesque souks. And I’d flee the flimsy mattresses of bleakly impersonal budget hotels and youth hostels and stay with families instead.

I booked two stays through L’Hôte Libanais, a Web site offering bed and breakfast accommodations in homes across Lebanon, limiting myself to “standard” rooms, which go for $60 a night for one person ($78 for two). (Dollars are accepted everywhere, as are Lebanese pounds, at 1,500 to the dollar.) Both homes were along the coast north of Beirut, a stretch that had several festivals I would try to catch. Since the coastal highway is heavily trafficked by cheap vans and buses that you can hail anywhere and hop off anywhere else, I wouldn’t need a car.

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L’Académie française a élu, jeudi 23 juin, le successeur de l’anthropologue Claude Lévi-Strauss, mort en octobre 2009. Les “Immortels” ont désigné, dès le premier tour de scrutin, l’écrivain franco-libanais Amin Maalouf.

Né le 25 février 1949 à Beyrouth, dans une famille chrétienne, Amin Maalouf, qui parle arabe et français, a consacré son œuvre au rapprochement des civilisations. Journaliste au principal quotidien de Beyrouth, An-Nahar, il est contraint à l’exil en France en 1976 alors que son pays est ravagé par la guerre civile.

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By Rachel Spence

‘Al Maw’oud’ by Ayman Baalbaki

A simple white sign on the Zattere waterfront in Venice points towards “Arabes” in four different directions. Dreamt up by Lebanese artist Ziad Abillama to mock western anxieties around the ubiquity of the Arab “other”, it functions a little less ironically than the artist intended.

For Arab artists are indeed more numerous than usual at this year’s Biennale. Five national pavilions include debutante Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, which first showed two years ago, Iraq, which returns after a 30-year absence, Syria and Egypt. Supplementing this group is the collateral exhibition The Future of a Promise. Billing itself as a “pan-Arab show” – apparently the largest of its kind ever – it brings together 22 artists from countries that range from Tunisia to Saudi Arabia under the curatorship of Sotheby’s specialist Lina Lazaar.

The recent turmoil in the Middle East bestows this efflorescence with particular poignancy and power. Indeed, the Arab presence would have been swelled further had political instability not forced Lebanon and Bahrain to pull out. Egypt (of which more later) chose an artist, Ahmed Basiony, who himself died in the uprising.

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April 29th, 2011

WSJ: On the Eastern Shore

By Michael Young

Levant By Philip Mansel

Vibrant cities along the Mediterranean that became known for cruelty and obtuseness in the 20th century.

‘The Alexandria telephone book reads like a Levantine requiem,” wrote the British journalist David Holden in 1963.

The word “Levant” comes from the French for “rising,” pointing European eyes toward the lands of the eastern Mediterranean, where the sun rises. To be a Levantine is to live in settings marked by myriad ethnic and religious identities, accentuated by commerce. As Philip Mansel writes in “Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean,” the Levant is “an area, a dialogue, and a quest,” a place of contact between East and West and between Christianity, Judaism and Islam.

Holden was longing for the days before Gamal Abdel Nasser’s military regime drove numerous expatriate Greeks, Italians, Lebanese, Syrians, French and others to abandon Egypt, where many had resided for generations. The foreigners exemplified a suave cosmopolitanism that sat poorly with the exclusive nationalism of the country’s new rulers—a nationalism that at times appeared to echo European imperialisms past.

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By A. O. Scott

Mélissa Désormeaux-Poulin as a daughter who travels from Canada to the Mideast, in Denis Villeneuve's “Incendies.”

Denis Villeneuve’s “Incendies,” a film very much occupied with some of the grisly realities of recent history, nonetheless has the structure, and some of the atmosphere, of an ancient folk tale. It is a quest narrative, about children searching out the mysteries of their parentage, and also the story of a resourceful heroine, the mother of those children, surviving an almost unimaginable series of ordeals.

These entwined plots unfurl in the recognizable, modern world — in Quebec and an unnamed country that closely resembles Lebanon — and at the same time in an allegorical universe governed by the tightly coiled logic of fate. Judged by strictly naturalistic standards, the flurry of revelations and coincidences that wrap up the double story may seem implausible. But strict verisimilitude would not serve the dramatic ends that “Incendies,” based on a play of the same name by Wajdi Mouawad, sets out to serve. The knotted destinies of its characters are like the family secrets in a Shakespearean or classical comedy but turned to a darker purpose.

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By Maya Mikdashi

Lebanese national dialogue table

It has been 21 years since the end of the Lebanese civil war. 21 years since the last spasms of violence reverberated through the country’s cities, towns and villages. More than two decades ago, a country torn apart, in ruins and in rubble, suddenly found itself at “peace.” Almost immediately, the reconstruction began. In these years, landmarks such as Nasser, Modca, Horshoe, and the Carlton were torn down and replaced with uniforms of the new global order; cheap clothing made in china, chain restaurants selling American fast food, and coffee houses selling the internet, caffeine, and a cosmopolitan varnish. Quickly after the war billboards began to cover gunfire riddled buildings, old buildings and houses were torn down in a frenzy, and the cracked roads of Beirut were pressed back into harmony.

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