“This country is like a cake. On the top it is cream. Underneath it is fire.” So a Hezbollah spokesman told me last June, speaking in the shabby Beirut apartment that served as the party’s press office until an avalanche of Israeli ordnance leveled the building, along with the surrounding neighborhood, in the war that flared a few weeks later. Intimated as a bit of finger-wagging local wisdom, the clumsy metaphor seemed hackneyed at the time.
Yet it is true that while Lebanon whets appetites with its gorgeous landscapes, clement weather, energetic people, and wonderful food, trying to consume too much of it tends to bring on heartburn. Just ask the Ottoman Turks, the imperialist French, the US Marine Corps, the Palestinians, the Israelis, the Syrians, or any number of Lebanese would-be overlords. The country’s infernally complex ingredients seem chemically incapable of melding into a digestible dish.
This wedge of Mediterranean littoral may be densely crowded, yet close neighbors manage to live in very different worlds. A Beirut socialite’s calendar this past season might, for instance, have taken in the abundance of pink cheeks daringly displayed at the annual catwalk for fancy lingerie on the ski slopes of Faraya, or the opening at Surface, a chic gallery in Christian East Beirut, of a startling exhibition by two young women artists titled “Erotika.” Another must would have been the funeral of Alia Solh, the eldest daughter of Riad Solh, the first prime minister of Lebanon after it gained independence in 1943. One of five glamorous sisters who married well during the halcyon years before the 1975–1990 civil war, her obsequies, at the Solh mansion in Sunni West Beirut, drew a crush of luminaries from as far afield as New York, Paris, Riyadh, and Rabat, including Walid bin Talal, the billionaire Saudi prince, and Moulay Hisham, a cousin of the Moroccan king known for his liberal views.
Of course, should one not be part of Beirut’s hedonistic and dauntingly branché elite, the calendar might have looked rather different. Bombed out of your cramped walk-up in the Shia southern suburbs during last summer’s war, you may have moved into the sprawling tent city at Riad Solh Square in downtown Beirut. Erected in December by Hezbollah and its allies to shame the “collaborationist” government of Prime Minister Fouad Siniora into quitting, the squalid encampment remains defiantly in place. You may have marched in the fervid, self-flagellating Ashura parades that on January 30 commemorated the martyrdom of the Shia hero-figure Hussein, or attended the angry funerals of the more recent Shia “martyrs” who were gunned down—not far from the Solh mansion—by suspected Sunni snipers during sectarian clashes earlier that month. (Or if you were Sunni, you might have joined the equally emotive memorial for two Sunni youths held in May, after they were kidnapped and executed in apparent vengeance.) But perhaps, if you have the misfortune to be one of 400,000 registered Palestinian refugees, you merely sit, jobless and anyhow barred, under Lebanese law,…
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