Though Lebanon’s 18 official religions have fought quite consistently since the country’s creation in 1943, one of the central paradoxes of the Lebanese psyche is the country’s collective and overriding national pride in its tolerance of others. You’re sure to hear this repeated throughout your trip, even when there’s sectarian fighting going on just up the road.
You’ll likely also experience the strange collective amnesia that seems to descend on the population if the country’s civil war is brought up in conversation. A painful memory for most, reticence to talk about it (despite the physical scars that still pepper the landscape) is common. You usually won’t encounter the same problem, however, if you mention current politics: everyone is keen to share an opinion on the political issue of the day or the dire state of the country's economy and infrastructure.
Though it’s hard to generalise about such a traditionally factionalised country, family life, as in most Middle Eastern destinations, is vitally important to every Lebanese. Extended families often live close together, and many children live at home until married, either to save money for their own home or simply because they prefer it that way. Social life, too, is both close-knit and gregarious: everyone within a small community tends to know everything there is to know about everyone else.
Marriage is a second crucial factor throughout Lebanon, and members of all religions tend to marry young. An unmarried woman in her 30s will raise eyebrows, though a man still single at 30, as in most parts of the Middle East, is usually thought to be simply waiting for the right girl. Though there has traditionally been an expectation that people will marry within their religion, this barrier is slowly being broken down.
The position of women in society is not as advanced as in most Western societies. Though a draft law was passed in 2017 that sought to prevent child marriage, persistent in rural communities, polygamy is legal and violence against women is common. In the 2009 parliamentary elections, only 3.1% of the seats were won by women and no women were given seats in cabinet.
A university education is highly valued in Lebanon but is becoming increasingly expensive. Many young people study with a view to emigrating overseas, lured by higher salaries and the promise of a safer, calmer lifestyle away from the unrest.
As you’ll notice from the pace of Beirut nightlife, young Christians – both male and female – usually have far greater social freedom than Muslims or members of other religions. But while these freedoms may at first appear similar to their Western counterparts, there are definite limits to acceptable behaviour. Drinking heavily, sleeping around and taking drugs are generally frowned upon in Lebanese society – not that you’d necessarily know it on a night out at Beirut’s nightclubs. And while party-central Beirut seems, on the surface, no different from any European capital city, venture just a few dozen kilometres north or south and you’ll find people in traditional villages living and farming almost exactly as they did a century or more ago. Add to this a substantial population of refugees and migrant workers almost entirely cut off from the mainstream – and rarely referred to in conversation by the Lebanese themselves – and you’ll find that daily life in this tiny country is incredibly complex, and often wildly contrasting.
Lebanon’s official population of just over four million people is boosted by its resident Palestinian refugees, officially numbered at around 450,000 but unofficially acknowledged to be much higher. Some million and a half Syrian refugees were also in Lebanon at time of last research.
It’s a largely urban population, with nearly 90% of people living in cities, of which Beirut is the most highly populated, followed by Tripoli, Saida and Tyre. Just over a quarter of the population is under 14 years of age.
Lebanon hosts 18 ‘official’ religious sects, which are Muslim (Shiite, Alawite, Ismaili and Sunni), Christian (Maronite, Greek Orthodox, Greek Catholic, Armenian Catholic, Gregorian, Syrian Orthodox, Jacobite, Nestorian, Chaldean, Copt, Evangelical and Roman Catholic), Druze and Jewish. There are also small populations of Baha’is, Mormons, Buddhists and Hindus.
Muslims are today estimated to comprise around 54% of the population, though before the civil war unofficial statistics put the Muslim to Christian ratio closer to 50:50. The shift is attributed to the mass emigration of Christians during and since the civil war, and to higher birth rates among Muslims. Christians comprise 40.5% of the overall population and Druze 5.6%.
Traditionally, Muslim Shiites have largely inhabited the south of the country, the Bekaa Valley and southern suburbs of Beirut. Sunnis, meanwhile, have been concentrated in Beirut, Tripoli and Saida; the Druze in the Chouf Mountains; and Maronite Christians (the largest Christian group) in the Mt Lebanon region. Though recent years have seen geographical population shifts, particularly in Beirut, this still largely holds true today.
In summer, many Lebanese towns and villages hold dance and music festivals, which are well worth looking out for. Those in Baalbek, Beiteddine and Byblos are particularly well known. The nation’s capital hosts its own lively arts scene and is well equipped with theatres, cinemas and venues for the visual and performing arts.
Though it was the publishing powerhouse of the Middle East for much of the 20th century, Beirut suffered during the civil war and much of its recent literary output has been shaped by this long drawn-out and horrific event. Even today, a great deal of Lebanon’s literary output remains concerned with themes drawn from these 15 years of hardship.
Of the writers who remained in Lebanon during the civil war, Emily Nasrallah (b 1931) is a leading figure who is best known for her award-winning debut novel The Birds of September. Those who work overseas include Canada-based Rawi Hage (b 1964), whose Beirut-set debut novel De Niro's Game garnered strong international reviews; London-based Tony Hanania (b 1964), whose novel Unreal City is set in Beirut; and French-based Amin Maalouf (b 1949), two of whose novels are set in Lebanon: Balthasar's Odyssey in Jbail (Byblos), and The Rock of Tanios in a rural village. The latter was awarded the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1993.
Of other authors widely available in translation, Lebanon’s two major figures are Elias Khoury (b 1948) and London-based feminist author Hanan al-Shaykh (b 1945). Al-Shayk’s Story of Zahra is a harrowing account of the civil war, while her Beirut Blues is a series of long letters that contrast Beirut’s cosmopolitan past with the book’s war-torn present. Elias Khoury has published 10 novels, many available in translation: his 1998 novel Gate of the Sun has achieved particular international acclaim.
Up-and-coming Lebanese novelists include Rabee Jaber (b 1972), author of The Druze of Belgrade, which was awarded the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2012.
Poet Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) remains the celestial light in Lebanon’s poetry scene. Interestingly, today poetry is once again flourishing in the largely Shiite south, partly due to a movement known as Shu’ara Al Janub (Poets from the South), for whom poetry has become a means of expressing the frustrations and despair of life in that most war-ravaged of regions.
Cinema & TV
Lebanese cinema managed to survive the civil war years and the industry is currently buoyant, despite frequently difficult circumstances.
Modern classics to look out for are Nadine Labaki's Caramel (2007), which focuses on the intersecting lives of five Beiruti women; and her Where Do We Go Now? (2011), in which an isolated village can be seen as an allegory for the Lebanese nation; West Beirut (1998), directed by Ziad Doueiri (a former Tarantino cameraman), which tells the semi-autobiographical story of a teenager living in West Beirut during the first year of the civil war; and the award-winning documentary Children of Shatila, of the same year, which looks at the history of that refugee camp through children’s eyes.
With the 2014 death of the hugely popular singer and actress Sabah, Lebanon is left with two reigning divas: living legend Fayrouz (b 1934) and Najwa Karam (b 1966), known as the ‘Sun of Lebanese song’.
Fayrouz has enjoyed star status since her first recordings in Damascus in the 1950s, and later became an icon for Lebanon during the civil war (which she sat out in Paris). Now in her 80s, her most recent album is 2017's Bebalee.
Najwa Karam rose to stardom during the 1990s. With 19 albums under her belt, including the 2001 blockbuster Nedmaneh, she remains a driving force on the Lebanese music scene. Her most recent release is 2017's Menni Elak.
Mainstream pop artists include Nancy Ajram and Haifa Wehbe, both producing catchy tunes and raunchy videos. More interesting are alt-rock band Mashrou’ Leila, which specialises in satirical lyrics and themes; and oud (lute) player Marcel Khalife, who marries classical Arabic music with contemporary sounds.
In the bars and clubs of Beirut’s Hamra and Mar Mikhaël districts, contemporary fusions of oriental trip-hop, lounge, drum and bass and traditional Arabic music are popular, alongside Western retro, mainstream and indie tracks.
Ancient architecture in Lebanon can be found at Baalbek’s spectacular remains; at the remnants of the Phoenician Temple of Echmoun near Saida (Sidon); in the traces of the the Phoenicians and Romans in Byblos (Jbail); at the Roman sites at Tyre (Sour); and at the Umayyad ruins at Aanjar. Crusader structures can be admired in Saida and Byblos, and in Tripoli when safe to visit.
Much of Lebanon’s more recent heritage architecture has been damaged or destroyed over the last century by the combined effects of war and redevelopment; this is particularly apparent in Beirut. To the north, Tripoli’s old city souqs contain a wealth of medieval and Islamic architecture, while Deir Al Qamar, in the southern Chouf Mountains, is a well-preserved village with some beautiful 18th- and 19th-century villas and palaces. Beiteddine Palace, also in the Chouf Mountains, is a melange of Italian and traditional Arab architecture, more remarkable for its lavish interiors than any architectural innovation.
Interior designers are doing wonderful work in Lebanon these days, and Beirut’s B 018 nightclub, designed by Bernard Khoury, is a top-notch example. Situated on the former Green Line, the club pays homage to the past at a site that was formerly a quarantine zone, a refugee camp and the site of an appalling massacre during the war – and is worth a visit as much for its appearance as for its DJs and crowd.
Lebanon’s first art school was established in 1937, and by the 1950s and '60s a number of galleries opened to showcase the country’s art, while the private Sursock Museum, in Beirut's Achrafiyeh neighbourhood, began to show new artists.
Though, like most of Lebanon’s cultural output, the visual arts suffered during the civil war, the scene re-established itself with vigour soon afterwards. Famous 20th-century artists include the painters Hassan Jouni, Moustafa Farroukh and Mohammed Rawas. Better-known contemporary artists include Adnan Hakani, Mahmoud Amhaz, Marwan Rechmaoui, Bassam Kahwaji, Amin Al Basha, Salwa Zeidan, Etel Adnan, Hind Al Soufi and Salwa Raodash Shkheir.
Though she doesn't identify as Lebanese, the internationally acclaimed installation and video artist Mona Hatoum was born in Beirut in 1952 to Palestinian parents. She now lives and works in London. Other expatriate artists of note include the late, US based, Helen Khal; Mireille Eid (Astore), a photomedia artist and filmmaker born in Beirut in 1961 but now living in Australia; and Palestinian-Lebanese painter Jeffar Khaldi, who is now based in Dubai.
The best places to investigate the current Lebanese visual-arts scene are Beirut's numerous small galleries around Hamra, Gemmayzeh and Mar Mikhaël.
Though Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the world, its terrain is surprisingly diverse. Four main geographical areas run almost parallel to each other from north to south. They are (from west to east): the coastal plain, the Mt Lebanon Range, the Bekaa Valley and the Jebel Libnan Ash Sharqiyya (Anti-Lebanon) range.
The Mt Lebanon Range includes Lebanon’s highest summit, Qornet As Sawda (3090m). Jebel Libnan Ash Sharqiyya marks the border between Lebanon and Syria. Its highest summit is Jebel Ash Sheikh (Mt Hermon), at 2814m.
Ravaged by more than two decades of war, unfettered construction, endemic corruption and weak state control, Lebanon’s environment remains very fragile, and some of the only areas to have escaped destruction are, ironically, the heavily landmined or cluster-bombed areas of the country still filled with unexploded ordnance.
Generally the country's waste-disposal systems are scandalously inadequate. In Beirut, for example, few locals swim in the local waters because of the high levels of untreated sewage that are pumped into the sea. Most other water sources are heavily polluted, leading to locals relying heavily on bottled water. Rubbish disposal is less than efficient, and recycling is still not common, leading to major problems with uncollected rubbish (especially plastic bottles) in public areas. Air pollution is another serious and ongoing problem, particularly in Beirut, with a couple of million cars (many of them ancient, spluttering wrecks or petrol-guzzling SUVs) plying the crowded roads.
Fortunately, some local and international NGOs are working to secure a better future for Lebanon’s environment. A good example is the Chouf Cedar Reserve (which makes up an incredible 5% of Lebanon’s landmass) which, though underfunded and overstretched, is working hard to protect and regenerate its flora and fauna.
Feature: Lebanon’s Cedars
The most famous of the world’s several species of cedar tree are the cedars of Lebanon, mentioned in the Old Testament, and once covering great swaths of the Mt Lebanon Range.
Jerusalem’s original Temple of Solomon was made from this sort of cedar wood, and the ancient Phoenicians, attracted by its fragrance and durability, also used it in their buildings. Unfortunately, a long history of deforestation has meant that today just a few pockets of cedars remain in Lebanon – despite the tree appearing proudly on the nation’s flag.
Cedrus libani is a beautiful evergreen of the conifer family with a very distinctive flat-branched shape. In Lebanon it grows mostly from 1200m to 1900m of elevation. Up in the mountains here there are some exceptionally ancient examples.
Of these remnants of a once-abundant arboreal past, the best places to view the remaining cedars of Lebanon are either at the Chouf Cedar Reserve, or at the small grove at the Cedars ski resort in the north of the country.
Feature: Mustn’t-miss Movies
If you get the chance, don’t miss some of these great Lebanese films.
- Ghadi (2013), directed by Amin Dora
- The Attack (2012), directed by Ziad Doueiri
- Where Do We Go Now? (2011), directed by Nadine Labaki
- Caramel (2007), directed by Nadine Labaki
- Bosta (2005), directed by Philippe Aractingi
- The Kite (2003), directed by Randa Chahal Sabag
- In the Shadows of the City (2000), directed by Jean Chamoun
- Around the Pink House (1999), directed by Joana Hadjithomas & Khalil Joreige
- West Beirut (1998), directed by Ziad Doueiri
- Little Wars (1982), directed by Maroun Baghdadi
- The Broken Wings (1962), directed by Yousef Malouf
Often described as a 'State within a State', Hezbollah (aka the Party of God or Party of Allah) is a Lebanese Shiite Islamist political party and militant group with an armed wing known as the Jihad Council. It wields enormous influence in the country – particularly in the south – and currently holds 12 seats in the national parliament, including two cabinet positions. It also has its own radio station, TV network and countrywide network of social services.
After the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, Iranian revolutionary guards began to preach to Lebanon's disaffected Shiites, who proved receptive to their message of overthrowing Western imperialism and the anti–Muslim Phalange. Hezbollah was formed at this time. Alongside suicide bombings, its ruthless armed wing also resorted to taking hostages, including CIA bureau chief William Buckley, who was kidnapped, tortured and killed in 1984–85. Other victims included Associated Press bureau chief Terry Anderson, kidnapped in 1985 and held until 1991; and UK envoy Terry Waite, kidnapped in 1987 and held until 1991.
Many in Lebanon and the Arab world credit Hezbollah with ending the Israeli occupation of Lebanon in 2000, an achievement celebrated at the Resistance Tourist Landmark in Mleeta near Nabitiyeh in the country's south. Their solid resistance to the Israeli invasion in 2006 also won them credit across the country, though it was their anti-Israel activity that arguably provoked that invasion in the first place.
Hezbollah's current leader and public face is Hassan Nasrallah (b 1960), whose base is in the village of Bazourieh, near Tyre. Nasrallah has studied Islamic theology in Lebanon, Iraq and Iran, and is known for his charismatic and evocative brand of rhetoric.
Admired for its welfare and education projects, and feared for its military capability and history of violence, Hezbollah is branded a terrorist organisation by a number of Western governments and is known for its rocket attacks on Israel, kidnap missions against that country's soldiers and attacks on Israeli citizens abroad. Hezbollah is heavily backed by the fellow Shiite Iranian government and has been intimately involved in the Syrian Civil War, fighting alongside government forces.
Feature: Palestinian Refugees
Most Palestinians who fled to Lebanon in 1948 during the Arab–Israeli War were relegated to refugee camps administered by the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA), and 12 of the original 16 camps still house most of Lebanon’s Palestinian population today. The area of land allocated for these camps has not increased since their establishment, despite significant population growth, leading to situations whereby families of up to 10 members are forced to live in a single room.
According to UNRWA, there are now about 450,000 registered Palestinian refugees in Lebanon. Amnesty International estimates that there are another 3000 to 5000 second-generation unregistered refugees living illegally and without rights. Other UN agencies place the total number of registered and unregistered refugees at 655,000.
Palestinian refugees in Lebanon suffer from a lack of opportunities, being prohibited from joining many professions, largely barred from owning or improving property and having only limited access to public health care, education and welfare programs. Most are still provided for by the UNRWA, which runs the camps’ schools, hospitals, women’s centres and vocational training programs.
For more information, see www.unrwa.org.
Feature: Syrian Refugees
The civil war in neighbouring Syria has had a huge impact on Lebanon. In 2017, the seventh year of the conflict, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) estimated that there were more than five million Syrian refugees in the region, nearly 1.5 million of whom were in Lebanon. This was an enormous burden to shoulder for a country with a native population of only four million, and though the UNHCR and other international aid organisations were in the country to assist, the task of housing, feeding, educating and providing health care for the refugees was placing a huge burden on Lebanon's weak economy and inadequate infrastructure.
At the time of writing, there are no official Syrian refugee camps in Lebanon – the Lebanese wouldn't countenance the possibility of hosting more Palestinian-style permanent refugee settlements – so many of the Syrian refugees are living in appalling conditions without proper housing, heating, running water or electricity. None are able to work legally (even illegal jobs are scarce) and only a small percentage of Syrian children attend school.
For more information, see www.unhcr.org.