From Golden Age to War and Ruin: Lebanon at 100

30 August 2020

At the age of 92, Salah Tizani is almost as old as Lebanon. The country was founded in 1920.

He believes his country never had a chance. He thinks back to the days when France set the country's borders.

Tizani told Reuters, "people went to bed one day thinking they were Syrians or Ottomans... and the next day they woke up to find themselves in the Lebanese state."

After years of wars, bombings and killings, Lebanon's latest disaster was the August 4 Beirut port explosion that killed some 180 people, injured 6,000 and destroyed a large part of the city.

People throw stones during a protest following the explosion that killed many and devastated the city, in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 11, 2020.
People throw stones during a protest following the explosion that killed many and devastated the city, in Beirut, Lebanon, Aug. 11, 2020.

On September 1, the country marks its 100 anniversary. It comes at a difficult time. The economy has collapsed. There is great poverty. And people are leaving Lebanon in large numbers.

For Lebanon's biggest Christian community, the Maronites, the creation of Greater Lebanon was a welcome move towards independence. But many Muslims found themselves cut off from Syria and Palestine.

Growing up in the northern city of Tripoli, Tizani saw the sectarian divisions everywhere. He recalls the census of 1932, Lebanon's last. Many refused to take part.

"They told them ‘we don't want to be Lebanese'," he said.

From the earliest days, people were forced to ask religious or ethnic leaders if they needed a job or if they ran into trouble with the law.

When Lebanon declared independence in 1943, the French tried to stop the move by arresting its new government. The arrests started protests that became a rare moment of national unity.

The country created a National Pact. It was agreed the president must be a Maronite, the prime minister a Sunni Muslim and the speaker of parliament a Shi'ite Muslim.

The 1960s are widely seen as a golden age. Tourists came from the Arab world. Beirut was often compared to Paris for its beauty. Theater, poetry, cinema and music were everywhere.

But sectarian politics left many parts of Lebanon poor and forgotten. There was widespread discontent and the 1975 to 1990 civil war broke out, said Nadya Sbaiti. She is an assistant professor of Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut.

"The other side of the 1960s is not just Hollywood actors... but includes guerrilla training of the country," she said.

Also, the creation of Israel in 1948 sent 100,000 Palestinian refugees into Lebanon where they lived in extreme poverty.

In 1968, Israeli soldiers destroyed 12 passenger planes at Beirut airport. It came after an attack on an Israeli airliner by a Lebanon-based Palestinian group.

The Israeli attack "showed us we are not a state. We are an international playground," Salim Haidar, a member of parliament, said at the time.

Disaster came in 1975 with a civil war that began as a conflict between Christian militias and Palestinian groups allied with Lebanese Muslim factions. It was followed by many other conflicts. Some of those were fought among Christian groups and among Muslim groups.

The United States, Russia and Syria were pulled into the conflicts. Israel invaded twice and occupied Beirut in 1982. Hundreds of thousands of people lost their homes. When peace finally arrived in 1990, there were about 150,000 dead and more than 17,000 missing.

In the post-war period, Rafik al-Hariri took the lead in rebuilding Beirut's devastated city center. A Saudi-backed billionaire, Hariri was one of the only Lebanese post-war leaders who had not fought in the conflict. He announced a general amnesty.

Nayla Hamadeh, president of the Lebanese Association for History, said Hariri was saying, "...Let's forget and move (on)."

But many could not forget. A car bomb explosion killed Hariri in 2005. Many believe the Iran-backed Shi'ite group Hezbollah was responsible. But the group denies it.

For many, the port explosion is a continuation of the past. They blamed the same sectarian rulers that have led the country from crisis to crisis since its birth.

"You live between a war and another, and you rebuild and then everything is destroyed and then you rebuild again," said theater director Nidal Al Achkar. "That's why I lost hope."

I'm John Russell.

The Reuters News Agency reported this story. Susan Shand adapted it for Learning English. Hai Do was the editor.


Words in This Story

sectarian - adj. to group people based on their ethnicity, faith or beliefs

census - n. a counting of citizens, their ages, backgrounds, jobs etc.

golden age - n. a time when everything seems to be of high quality and happiness

guerrilla -.n. militiamen, not regular army

devastate - v. to destroy

amnesty - n. a decision to forgive