Beirut was never one of the great Arab cities; as a historic center it could never have competed even with such a city as Aleppo, still less with Damascus and Cairo. But for almost thirty years after the end of the Second World War, which was also the first period of Lebanese independence, it was a city with its own brash charm. In a manner that still managed to beguile the visitor, it mixed the French provincialism inherited from the earlier French colonial mandate with the cosmopolitanism of new hotels, nightclubs, banks, and a casino put up by entrepreneurs without any urban plan in mind. Its natural setting, as a little port flanked on two sides by terraced hills, one of which led to the Cedars of Lebanon, was Mediterranean in a way that could recall Naples, though that is perhaps too grand a comparison. Some of the smaller ports of Sicily also come to mind. The large westernized element among Beirut’s businessmen and intellectuals reinforced the impression of a town only lightly Middle Eastern.
The peak years of Beirut’s prosperity and confidence were the late 1960s, when the new oil magnates of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf had not yet figured out how to deal with Western financial institutions or got their children through business school or Harvard; the Lebanese bankers were able to act for them in a way that they found culturally and linguistically comfortable. Beirut was also enterprising in showing them how to spend their money. I remember from those days a flamboyant Beiruti uncle of mine inviting a prim academic colleague to “Come to Beirut: we’ll show you a lot of flesh!”
Lebanon is tiny: its population in 1932 was not much more than three quarters of a million, and it is now something like 3.4 million. Its northern and southern frontiers are only eighty or ninety miles from Beirut; its eastern frontier with Syria is half this distance. When the French created a separate Lebanon under their mandate following World War I they found a rationale for doing so in the privileged status that the Ottoman Empire had granted, under pressure from the European powers, to “the Christians of Mount Lebanon,” an enclave of Maronites native to the region who had been in communion with the Roman Catholic Church since the Middle Ages.
The zone actually occupied by these Christians was very much smaller than the present Lebanese state; French diplomats separated Lebanon administratively from Syria and expanded it into a region considered to be the minimum size necessary for autonomous status. Their success lies behind the relative splendor of Lebanon’s past, as well as the misfortunes of its present. The Christians, though at the start a majority, were themselves divided into sectarian groups, of which the Maronites were the largest and had the closest links with the French mandate power. The Muslims were also divided into Sunni and Shi’ah communities, while the Druse, an ancient dissident Muslim …