Sitting over lunch at the Massaya winery restaurant at Tanail, in the Bekaa Valley, winemaker Ramzi Ghosn swirled the stunning 2005 Silver Selection in his glass and asked us: “What has been your strongest impression of Lebanon?”
“The energy,” I said, “the sheer dynamism and determination to build something.” “The wonderful food and wine”, said someone else. “The friendliness and hospitality of the people” said another. “What did you think we would say?” I asked. Ramzi laughed: “I thought you would say the temples of Baalbek.”
And we had, only that morning, driven through the Hezbollah heartlands of the southern Bekaa to the breath-taking sight of the most complete Roman temples anywhere in the world. Under a bright blue sky, the ancient stones, their carved decorations as crisp in the pure, dry air as they must have been two thousand years ago, had been truly unforgettable. And we were the only people in the entire place. Imagine the Coliseum, Karnak and Chichen Itza laid end to end and all to yourself. Unbelievable.
So it’s saying something that the visit to Baalbek wasn’t the most memorable thing we would take away from our visit. But it’s true – the spirit of the people we met plotting a difficult and delicate course through this country’s many tribulations is the thing we will carry with us.
Watching the glamorous people party away a Wednesday night to a pounding sound system in an open rooftop bar overlooking the city lights, six of us being welcomed into the house of a friend of our host for coffee on a Saturday afternoon just because the door was open as we drove past, being assisted through the crush on the crowded stairway at Beirut’s live music venue by a dozen friendly unlascivious hands at 2.30am on a Sunday morning.
There may be a touch of the gladiatorial “morituri te salutamus” about the way the Lebanese grab life and enjoy it while they can. But that’s not a bad thing. Alongside the determination to have a good time is the understanding that it’s up to each individual to make that good time possible. Three and half thousand years ago the Phoenicians were the first great international merchant traders.
At their port of Byblos, they invented two things to help their commercial world go round: the alphabet and money. Pas mal. And the urge to trade and build is clearly as strong as ever. Despite the ever-present threat of war, either internal or involving one or more bellicose neighbours, people like Sami & Ramzi Ghosn are investing their lives in the country they love, making great wine and arak, trying to keep the fertile valley of the Bekaa from being entirely cemented over, using their own charismatic personalities to project a positive image of Lebanon out into the world.
There’s a lesson for us all, especially those of us who live in a free, liberal, stable country where the mood can be depressingly negative. Eat, drink & be merry…