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Beirut flashback: Remembering Lebanon in a different time

Beirut flashback: Remembering Lebanon in a different time

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Beirut, Lebanon was pulverized on Aug. 4 by a catastrophic detonation of 2,750 tons of ammonium nitrate, commonly used for fertilizer and bombs.

Lots of finger pointing going on, but it destroyed the port, where 75% of everything comes into Beirut. The blast not only destroyed the port but the 3.5 blast on the earthquake scale was felt 150 miles away in Cypress, so you can imagine the damage it inflicted on the town itself, not just the 45-foot crater left at the explosion’s epicenter.

I know exactly where this bomb went off, because in 1964 I lived in Beirut with my family, while my dad was on a sabbatical leave from Brigham Young University teaching at the American University of Beirut. We lived in an apartment not one mile from the port.

At that time, the country was ruled by a 50% Christian 50% Muslim split, which seemed to work. Beirut was known as the Switzerland of the Middle East, where well-off Arabs, from surrounding countries had apartments and homes, where they came to relax, perhaps visit the well know Lebanese Casino, hit the beautiful beach resorts, go skiing, and frankly, live it up a bit out of their country’s perhaps more restrictive lifestyles.

Living there was interesting in so many ways. Next to beautiful and expensive apartment buildings would be abject squalor, with people living in the most appalling decadence. When we were there in the 1960s, there was no Hezbollah, terrorists, rampant corruption or Syrian influence; nor were there 1.5 million Syrian refugees in camps in Northern Lebanon due to the from the civil war raging since 2011. I remember that there were large refugee camps of Palestinians on Lebanon’s southern border. Since 1948, after the Arab-Israeli war, they were waiting to be repatriated, and they’re still waiting.

A side trip we took was up into the mountains to see the Cedars of Lebanon, trees that can live hundreds of years, having outlived empires and survived modern wars. Unfortunately, there are very few left, having been used for building boats, buildings, railroads and yes, even charcoal.

These trees are referenced in the bible several times, in Psalm 29:5: “The Lord breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon,” and in Ezekiel 31:3: “Behold, I will liken you to a cedar in Lebanon, with air branches and forest shade.” Symbols of power and longevity, they are represented on the Lebanese flag. I have a small one in my yard, at least when I bought it from the nursery, they said that’s what it was.

We loved going into the souks, shopping for a gold ring for my dad (very orange gold), rugs, giant brass trays and carpets. The bazaars are crowded, and my dad told us to stay close to him.

My sister was 15 and not really happy to be spending her sophomore year “out of country,” so she was determined to dress however she wanted: short shorts, blond hair, T-shirts, and she wondered why she was constantly pinched, touched and grabbed at.

One day in the souks she lagged back, and suddenly a guy came up and grabbed her from behind, clamped his hand over her mouth, and started dragging her back through the crowd. For some reason, my dad looked back and saw in horror what was going on. Bellowing like an enraged bull, he charged at the guy, who had the good sense to let my sister go and flee. Seems that she dressed more modestly after that!

Our littlest sister was around 7 and went to a British school, where she learned French and English. To this day, she still has a weird accent on many of her words.

My brother had a good ear, so while coming home from school or walking outside, he’d hear street vendors hawking their wares, screaming at each other from their donkey carts. When he’d come back to our apartment building he’d tell the concierge what he’d heard, only to be told, “We don’t say that, don’t say that,” which telling a 12-year-old kid that just reinforced everything he’d heard.

The sad part is that he can’t carry on even the shortest of polite conversations with somebody in Arabic, but he can, even to this day, swear in Arabic as well as anybody from the Middle East, and he’s still proud of it!

We loved to eat shawarma sandwiches from a shop on the corner of our block, much to the horror of our dad. He would rant and rave about not eating food on the street, especially meat of dubious origin, cooked on a vertical rotating spit. We loved them to the point where he brought home a movie from the school’s medical department that graphically depicted the diseases and worms — yes worms, that get lodged in your innards and create real havoc. The movie was barely over before we ran down to the corner and “snapped on the feedbag”, worms or no worms.

I was in Army basic training when my family went to Lebanon. So by the time I arrived, they had been to Egypt, Jordan and Petra, all of which I wanted to see. Petra, the famous archaeological site in Jordan’s southwestern desert, dates to around 300 B.C. It’s known as the Rose City, where you see tombs, temples and homes carved into pink sandstone cliffs.

I signed up for a tour with three Frenchmen, and off we went with a driver in a taxi. They smoked like fiends so I’d roll the windows down and they’d roll them up. They thought that if I smoked with them, that would take care of the problem. It was never resolved to anybody’s satisfaction, but Petra was everything it was cracked up to be. Coming home, we went to the border of Jordan/Israel. We could go into Bethlehem and visited the holy sites, but we couldn’t go into Israel from an Arab country. If we did, we’d have had to fly to Cypress and get our passports stamped before coming back into an Arab country. so we couldn’t visit Jerusalem.

Going home through Damascus it was the same drill. The closer we got to the border of Lebanon, the more roadblocks there were, really messing up the Frenchmen’s smoking habit. The reason for so much security was that the week before, some rebels had a firefight with the Syrian army who had them holed up in a mosque. They were finally caught and hung in the public square, so things were a bit tense.

Our dad loved to bargain, for anything, probably from living through the Depression, but my mom hated it. She would pay whatever asked, knowing she was getting ripped off but just couldn’t bring herself to dicker with them. In Beirut, there were taxis that had a fixed route. You would hail them, get in and out wherever you wanted for a very reasonable amount. They had regular taxis that cost much more.

One day, she and dad were in a store buying her some souvenir salt and pepper shakers. My dad was working the vendor over for a couple piastres, less than two cents, when finally mom snapped. She went out and got into a full-priced taxi and went home, much to the consternation of my dad, who had just saved her 10 piastres.

He had also shopped for a prayer rug and a big brass tray, and finally knew the shops he wanted them from. Then, every day, he’d have all of us (minus our mom) go to the shops, make them show us every tray they had, dicker some, and then go to the rug shop and make the vendor take every carpet off of the wall, have us tramp all over them, dicker and then leave. It was finally getting close to the time we were going to go home, so the bargaining became more serious. Finally, both shop owners, in total disgust, told him “Listen, Mr. Dean, I’ll sell this and ship it to you for your price IF YOU PROMISE TO NEVER COME BACK TO THE MIDDLE EAST!!”

I’ve never seen a happier nor pleased man in my life, then or now.

It is very distressing to see how the country has been destroyed by all the partisan fighting, corruption, civil war, and Hezbollah. It’s certainly different, and is not the Middle Eastern paradise that I remember.

Watch now: 6 Tips for a Safe Road Trip Amid COVID-19.

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