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Volume 33, Number 5September/October 1982

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Paradise Lost

Memories of a Golden Age (Part 1)

Written by Paul F. Hoye and Jeanne Mullin
Additional reporting by John K. Cooley and William Tracy

To those who were there, Lebanon from the mid 50s to the mid 70’s was -and is - unforgettable. As the Arabs said of the Golden Age it was a time "when the world was young."

Most visitors to Beirut, and many of the foreign residents tended to think of Lebanon as Beirut and understandably so; it is a memorable city. But there was much more to Lebanon than Beirut. Standing astride the crossroads of Europe, Africa and Asia -its green hills and snowcapped peaks both oasis and barrier between a sea of water and a sea of sand - this small country holds incomparable riches of climate, geography, architecture, and of course, history.

Down by the waterfront, for example, there was an old, quite charming hotel called the Normandy. With its mirrors and staircase, the Normandy looked like something out of an MGM musical, but it's chief claim to fame in the 1960's was Kim Philby, KGB agent and spy. Possibly the most famous traitor since Benedict Arnold, Kim Philby had made the Normandy his headquarters until, on the verge of arrest in 1963, he fled to Moscow. It was a quick departure and in 1965 one reporter chatting with the room clerk learned the results. "You see", the clerk said, holding up a mail order catalog, addressed to Philby, "they still send his mail here."

Further on, but not much further, there was the harbor where in the 60's the U.S. Sixth Fleet would anchor and send its sailors ashore for a week of riotous leave. For a time, Beirut also played host to cruise ships, including, once, the Queen Elizabeth II. A flotilla of Greek, Turkish and Italian vessels almost always seemed to be going to Venice.

Beyond the harbor area was a huge Armenian quarter, reflecting the presence of the 100,000 or so Armenians who escaped to Lebanon to avoid the 1914 massacre that sent 1,750,000 fleeing into "Syria", a region that then included Lebanon. An estimated 600,000 died en route but some of the survivors found refuge in Lebanon - as did the Palestinians in later years.

Past the Armenian section, the coast road widened into a new expressway that swept north toward Tripoli with exits along the way for a series of small, picturesque - and sometimes historic - towns and villages. One of the first was Jounieh, now an important center in the Christian dominated area of Lebanon, and once one of the jewels of the Lebanese coast: a village of small stone houses with traditional arched windows and red tile roofs opposite a soaring cliff 610 meters (2,000 feet) high with a great white statue on the summit - Our Lady of Lebanon - and, directly in front of it, a shimmering bay. Jounieh's key attraction was its natural beauty, but astute entrepreneurs had added a télépherique, a one-and-a-half-kilometer (one mile) long cable car to the summit, and on a high bluff at the end of the bay, a complex of theaters and restaurants: the famous Casino du Liban, modeled, in every way, after the Folies Bérgéres in Paris, and, in that early period, one of the highlights of virtually every tour of the country.

Further north still, there is Byblos, possibly the oldest city in the world, with a Roman port and a castle built by the Crusaders. Turn left on any one of a number of roads in that general area and you would find what in the 1960s was a novel - and tremendously popular - attraction: the ski resort of Faraya which offered above-the-timberline skiing and elegant year round villas with access to a pool. En route, burrowing into the cliffs, were the fairyland wonders of the caves of Jeita -which you could row a boat through. Trips in any direction in Lebanon disclosed a similar mix of modern development and ancient artistry. Toward the east, for instance, climbing the sheer, hairpin highways that lead to Syria, you would see off to the right the tracks of a cog railway that still hauled trains up into the mountains and off to Damascus, and on the left one of the many French casernes, or forts, that France put up during the Mandate period. Like the military highways and the fine lycees, these casernes suggest why Beirut and Mount Lebanon have had such a distinctly French character.

Toward the summit were orchards that grew, one Lebanese photographer would unfailingly point out, "the finest apples in the world," and a sign pointing toward the Ksara wine cellars, another legacy from the long French presence in Lebanon.

Over the summit, in a purplish haze, was the great fertile plateau between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges: the Bekaa Valley, with the incredible ruins of Baalbek at the northern end, and the vital Litani Dam at the other - both symbols of the agricultural riches of this 120 kilometer (75 miles) long valley nearly a kilometer (half a mile) above sea level.

The Bekaa Valley is a wonder in itself. Driving east you used to see, first, the vineyards and then, among the cliffs, the marvellous "casinos" of Zahle - open air restaurants along streams and waterfalls pouring out of the heights. Further on there are the ruins of Anjar, a beautifully preserved Umayyad city, and then north, the experimental farm of the American University of Beirut (AUB) agricultural school and, at the tip of the valley, the ruins of Baalbek.

The construction of Baalbek went on through the reigns of eight emperors -three centuries - and includes one of the largest temples in the world: the Temple of Jupiter whose enormous corinthian columns have become as much a symbol of Lebanon as its cedar trees.

In modern times Baalbek won additional fame as the site of a well-known musical festival; it drew such regional greats as the late Umm Kalthum, the most famous Arab singer of modern times, Lebanon's own Fayrouz (See Aramco World January-February 1982) and such international greats as Dame Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev and, on one unforgettable evening, America's Ella Fitzgerald.

Baalbek is only one of the monuments left by the Romans in Lebanon. At almost every point there are traces of the Roman period, as the 1960s construction boom proved: every time the bulldozers bit deep they found another temple. This applies even to the deserted reaches of the mountains where, in the vicinity of Mrouj on the limestone shoulder of Mount Sannin, there are 100 or so Latin inscriptions incised on the cliffs and flat stones. This was the "Boundary of the Forests of Emperor Hadrian Augustus."

Driving south in the Bekaa Valley, it is immediately obvious that this area is dominated by the small but important river called the Litani which ends, abruptly, at the Litani Dam in the shadow of a great peak that straddles the Lebanese border. From there an old, cracked track winds up into the mountains and then down again through places like Jezzine with its umbrella pines and its famous cutlery, to the coast. South there is Tyre where, they say, divers still find coins in the sea from the time of Alexander the Great to that of Napoleon.

As you wind down from Jezzine you can also see on the shore the outskirts of Sidon, with still more traces of outsiders who came to Lebanon. One is the ruins of a Crusader castle; another is the complex of berths and oil tanks that marks the end of the terminal of the Trans-Arabian pipeline, Tapline.

One of the factors in the growth of Lebanon in the 1950's, Tapline was then the largest oil pipeline in the world: 1720 kilometers, in all (1069 miles). At its peak, it was delivering some 465,000 barrels a day from more than 20 storage tanks on the hills above the loading berths and buoys to as many as 900 tankers a year. Reduced in importance by economic and political changes in the area, Tapline, at the time of the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, was delivering only 73,000 barrels of crude oil a day to refineries in Jordan and Lebanon, and this summer, because of war damage to the Tapline facilities and rherefinery, deliveries to Lebanon stopped.

North of Sidon there were dozens of small charming areas and, as always, points of historical interest. One, little known, was the Damour River, where the forces of the Free French and Vichy France fought a battle in World War II.

Not far from Damour there was a curve in the road from which drivers on their way to work could catch a glimpse of Beirut just as the sun cleared the mountains and touched the towers of the new buildings with the special light of the eastern Mediterranean. It was a fleeting glance, but for one writer it captured what Beirut seemed to be: the heart of what then seemed to be a Golden Age-Beirut, to be sure, could not really compare with Baghdad in the real Golden Age - the 200 years of brilliant Islamic achievement in science, literature, agriculture and trade. But there were parallels. Like Baghdad, Beirut for 20 years was a hub of international trade and regional finance, a center of education, communication, shipping and transportation, a focus for entertainment, art and fashion, and the home of a special, perhaps unique, multinational society.

As late as 1947, Jeanne Mullin recalls, Beirut was no more than a quiet, picturesque port, known mostly for its American University, which by then sprawled across 75 acres on the slopes above the sea. In the 1950s, however, a series of developments in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Europe and elsewhere began to affect and then transform Lebanon. One such development was the construction of the Trans-Arabian Pipeline and its terminal in Sidon. Another was the overthrow in Egypt of a line of kings going back to Muhammad Ali and the establishment of a new government under Gamal Abdel Nasser. Last there was the beginning of Europe's post war "economic miracle."

Years before, the Arabian American Oil Company (Aramco) had decided to build a long oil pipeline from Saudi Arabia to a port in Palestine. By the time construction got underway, however, war had broken out in that area and the pipeline went to southern Lebanon instead. On December 2, 1950, consequently, the first oil from Saudi Arabia began to flow into the tanks at Sidon, 50 kilometers (30 miles) south of Beirut. For the same reason, the Iraq Petroleum Company, in 1948, chose Tripoli, Lebanon's second city, as a replacement for Haifa and by the early 50s, as a result, Lebanon unexpectedly found itself with two important oil terminals.

Not long after, in 1952, a group of young army officers in Egypt overthrew King Farouk and instituted a form of centralized government that resulted in the exodus of many of the country's foremost businessmen, industrialists and bankers - both Egyptian and foreign. Some went to Athens to relocate, others to Amman, but most chose Beirut because of its potentially fine harbor and airport, its schools and universities, its commercially astute people and - a key factor - a government eager to welcome what turned out to be an extraordinary influx of the world's corporate and financial representatives. Simultaneously, booming economies in Europe and the United States were developing a new interest in Middle East markets. The result, for Lebanon, was still another wave of immigrants added to the already extensive AUB group, the relatively new Tapline crews, the exiles from Egypt and hundreds of surgeons, engineers, accountants, architects, and nurses - from Palestine, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Iraq. These newcomers from the west-bankers, diplomats, sales representatives, geophysicists, educators, airline captains, photographers, and writers - helped create, for a poignantly short time, a dynamic multinational society. Paths crossed commercially in places like Cairo, Amman, Damascus, Teheran and Dhahran - and socially at the endless circle of business receptions, balcony parties and elegant dinners in Beirut.

To some observers, this unending round of parties, receptions and dances - faithfully, if sometimes haphazardly reported by such indefatigable Daily Star social columnists as Genevieve Maxwell and Peggy Johnson - seemed useless, and possibly decadent. In fact, they were usually a quick, efficient way for, say, IBM's new man in Beirut to penetrate necessary commercial and governmental circles, or for a Time I correspondent to start the network of contacts and sources he needs. "In one night," said a correspondent, after one of Time's famous receptions at the Phoenicia, "I met half the people I needed to know in Beirut for the next three years."

Not all correspondents could afford receptions at the Phoenicia Hotel; that was oil company territory, they'd say, a reference to the fact that the Phoenicia was a favorite with Aramco and Tapline. They didn't object, of course, to the lounge downstairs from which, over a cold lemonade, you could observe - while observed - underwater swimmers in the Phoenicia's pool. Mostly though, correspondents while not travelling spent lunchtime across the road at the Hotel Saint-George s. Famous the world over, the Saint-Georges offered a superb cuisine served on a lovely terrace overlooking Saint-Georges Bay - but was also the journalist's best listening post, as well as his post office and bulletin board.

This apparently posh life style was deceptive. First, it was quite in keeping with the leisurely, open-air way of life that the Lebanese themselves expected and encouraged; foreign expense accounts may have helped, but Lebanon's life style existed long before the expatriates settled in.

Second, it concealed, for the newspaper crowd, demanding jobs; coverage of the shifting patterns of intricate Middle East politics could be one of the hardest newspaper beats in the world.

As a result, Beirut, became the press center; by the 1950's Beirut's press corps had swollen to 124 correspondents and stringers, a total that would wax and wane over the years until, in the late 1970s, the Civil War forced most of the resident reporters to move to places like Athens and Cyprus.

The highly visible life styles of the foreign communities - Asian and Middle Eastern as well as European and American - also tended to obscure another important fact: that to a large extent the economic boom of the late 1950's was stimulated by Lebanon itself - primarily by its people's energy and commercial aptitudes and their ability to take advantage of the events that reshaped the economic patterns of the Eastern Mediterranean in that period - an ability that the Lebanese themselves vaguelly label "the Lebanese mentality/'

As Yusuf A Sayigh said in 1978, in The Economies of the Arab World, "Lebanon is not a typical Arab economy." By that, he meant that Lebanon's economy was not based on the extraction of petroleum, but on trade and, to a lesser extent, industry and agriculture. But Lebanon was atypical in other ways too. It was committed, to an unusual degree, to a flexible, free wheeling form of laissez faire capitalism; its literacy rate was 88 percent, its per capita income was high.

There were other characteristics of a sophisticated economy too. One was, quite simply, prosperity. With the exception, perhaps, of the Palestinian refugee camps and some areas in the south, Lebanon was, at least in regional terms, a prosperous country with a large, relatively successful, socially mobile middle class.

Like Baghdad's success in the Golden Age, this prosperity was based largely on trade and that, in turn, demanded and stimulated dramatic expansions in other sectors of the economy: banking, transportation and shipping.

Banking was particularly important, as development of oil production in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait began to generate the first of the huge oil revenues. By 1974, as a result, there were 38 Lebanese banks of various sizes, 18 jointly owned Lebanese-foreign banks and 18 foreign banks.

This, one banker explained, came about because Lebanese trade began to need financing just at the time that the oil-producing Arab countries began to look for already established banking facilities with which they felt comfortable. The resulting faith in Lebanon as a financial center came to be so strong that, according to an executive in one Beirut company, deposits in Lebanon's banks doubled between 1975 and 1980 - the years when the Civil War had not only torn the country apart, but had even triggered raids on such banks as the Bank of America and the British Bank of the Middle East.

Similarly, the 1950's saw an increase in, and improvement of, transport and shipping - partially because trade was increasing, but also because the Arab world, by then, was turning away from Palestinian ports like Haifa and Jaffa which had formerly provided important entry ports and trans-shipment points for the Middle East.

Another factor was newly introduced economic reforms in Egypt which interrupted normal patterns of transport. Benefiting from«this Beirut's harbor began to flourish - as did its trucking sector after the 1967 Arab-Israeli War closed the Suez Canal.

The most dramatic change was the transformation of Beirut's airport intoa key international crossroad and the growth of two small, heretofore unimportant airlines into international carriers: Middle East Airlines (MEA) and Trans-Mediterranean Airways (TMA).

In 1945, Middle East Airlines owned just three De Havilland bi-planes and its main route ran between Baghdad and Haifa. About the same time, a former Aramco employee named Munir Abu Haidar was converting two World War II bombers into cargo planes to ship vegetables to Dhahran, the headquarters of Aramco. Things were so bad that at one point executives at MEA seriously tried to barter Lebanese apples for British VC-10s.

Later, as a measure of what happened in Lebanon in the golden years, both these operations ballooned into big efficient, profitable industries. By 1974, for example, MEA employed 80 airline captains, 90 first officers and 70 flight engineers - part of MEA's total work force of 5,000 employees.

TMA also did well. In 1973, TMA was, in route mileage, the biggest air cargo carrier in the world and netted close to $15 million. By then TMA had also expanded its work force - to about 1,800 employees.

Those changes, moreover, were but part of the impact that burgeoning trade was to have on Lebanon. To service the airlines a catering company run by Albert Abela began to grow too; after expanding into catering for schools, hospitals and oil camps, Abela's firm wound up with 11,000 employees in 30 countries. To service MEA itself an adjacent maintenance operation expanded from one engineer and six mechanics into a $5.5 million complex of hangars and shops employing 1,400 or so skilled craftsmen able to totally renovate a Boeing 707 in six weeks.

Trade was still only one component in Lebanon's economic achievements. Other key factors were industry and agriculture.

Until the 1950s, agriculture was second in importance, after trade, to Lebanon's economic well being. As part of the famous "Fertile Crescent," and the Bible's "Land of Milk and Honey/' Lebanon's coastal plain and terraced hills, along with the fertile Bekaa Valley, have always played a key role in the economy. Palestine, it is true, made contributions to the food supplies of both Romans and Ottomans, but the Bekaa Valley to this day is far more productive and the coastal plains, until the civil war, were rich in oranges, bananas and other fruits. By 1978, Lebanon had in cultivation 106,000 acres of wheat, 19,768 acres of barley and 5,600 acres of corn. In addition, olive groves cover 69,200 acres, vineyards 40,700 acres, apples 34,500 acres, citrus 27,000 acres and tobacco 16,300 acres - a total of 966,000 planted acres.

Industry, began to grow in the 50s and 60s until in 1972, 100,000 workers or 20 percent of the labor force, were listed as industrial workers - a change that one economist called an important economic frontier. Most of it was small industry, but statistics suggest, nonetheless, that the country had made some impressive strides: $8 million worth of copper cable manufactured; 450 workers hired to assemble elevator cabs and controls for Otis Elevator; 14.5 million tons of fuel produced at the two refineries; $16 million worth of pharmaceuticals known to be exported; 1,000 people employed in a teak-furniture factory.

Figures from that period also show that Lebanon had two steel rolling mills, two aluminum extrusion plants and two glass makers, one affiliated with France's famous Saint Gobain. In addition, there were 140 publishing houses listed, and enough presses to put out 40 newspapers a day and 100 periodicals, both monthly and weekly.

That aspect of Lebanese industry also suggests another vital role that Lebanon played in those golden years - the role, in fact, that first turned Beirut into a world press center. Through those newspapers and publications, Arab countries, political parties, movements of every shade of the spectrum found an outlet, a forum, a platform from which countless factions from all corners of the Arab world took part in, and tried to influence, regional and international debates.

The variety of those opinions and the fierce manner in which they were aired suggests, that Lebanon was not a melting pot, but rather, as Daniel Moynihan and Nathan Glazer wrote of New York, "a mosaic," in which each group retained its own distinct coloring - political, religious and social.

To put it another way Lebanon may have declared a truce with history, but could not avoid it altogether: among Lebanon's two million inhabitants, after all, were well over a dozen religious groups: Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Greek Orthodox and Maronite Christians and other Christian sects, some dating back to the time of Jesus, small numbers of Protestants, converted by Western missionaries in modern times plus Druze, Kurds and Jews. In addition there were numerous ethnic groups; like the United States, Lebanon is largely a nation of immigrants, many of them exiles. Armenians, for example, and Palestinians, both of whom fled massacres and wars.

Since those communities brought with them all the fears and suspicions of the past, they quite naturally tended to guard their identities closely - maintaining their own hospitals, schools, civil codes and even cemeteries.

Nevertheless, Lebanon of the golden years did exist. Lebanon historically, was a haven for wave upon wave of immigrants who, despite differences, did rock along in friendship and peace for long periods of time. Lebanon was, undeniably, a sanctuary as well as a playground, and far more forum than arena.

Bill Tracy, for instance, lived for seven years in an apartment in a stately old building near the later famous Holiday Inn. It stood on a narrow twisting street in a neighborhood that underlines what Ras Beirut was like. His neighbors included two Armenian families, an elderly Jewish doctor and his wife, a Kurdish family, two Maronite Christian grocers - one with a wife from the Seychelles - an American photographer and an American newscaster from his home state of Illinois.. .all of whom were close friends and neighbors.

Nearby, furthermore, was a walled compound at the end of an alley in which stood six one-story tin-roofed cottages. Obviously the "villagers" who lived in them were of more modest means, but, Tracy once wrote "their solid homes and their fresh fruit trees and flower gardens lent the neighborhood charm without borrowing from its respectability^

This was not unique John Cooley says: In those happy, distant days, there were few, if any, physical barriers between Muslim and Christian areas. In much of Beirut, in fact, there weren't, really, too many clear-cut "areas". Invisible social barriers did separate what the news agencies, in their awkward, often inexact generalizations, called "predominantly Muslim West Beirut" and "mainly Christian East Beirut"-and those barriers grew stronger as tensions arose in the 70's. But the barriers had as much, or more, to do with the growing gap between rich and poor in Lebanon, as with sectarian disagreements. In the charming 'Ain al-Mraissi, for example, George the Maronite Christian grocer - and a member of the Phalange - remained the best of friends with his neighboring shopkeeper Muhammad, almost until the final sectarian division of the city in 1975; because both were modest merchants, George had far more in common with Muhammad than with his Christian cousins, Charles, Maurice or Pierre, in Ashrafiye, Sursock or Sinn al-Fil, the "Christian districts."

To an extent, of course, th is tolerance was a mask, hiding the stresses. As correspondent Albion Ross once put it, Lebanon was "a cloak of many colours," meaning, as Cooley later wrote, "that every village, every patch, every bend in the road housed another family, another clan, another way of looking at the world."

This is true. Few, if any, Lebanese put country ahead of family or clan - or even neighborhood. As Edouard Saab, editor of Beirut's l'Orient-Le Jour put it,"None of us really ever thought he was fighting for a nation called Lebanon. Many of us fought only for selfish interests."

The formal and charming manners of the Lebanese were adopted as a way of easing the inevitable frictions in a crowded, competitive, multi-religious and multinational society. As small-town Americans have long been aware, small talk about the weather or football is a safe way to avoid serious discussion and argument.

As a result, therefore, the cracks in the foundations of Lebanon's unique society were ignored, or at least not detected, until the combination of overcrowding, inflation, urban sprawl and economic inequities -intersecting with the fears and conflicting interests among the different factions -ignited a deep and dangerous anger and triggered the series of tragic events from which came first civil war and, this year, what is not only the latest but the most destructive invasion in the country's long history.

This summer, as nightly television newscasts showed Beirut, Sidon and Tyre being reduced -by Israeli bombs and shells - to rubble, Lebanon's "Golden Age" seemed very remote, and its unique possibilities and pleasures gone forever. But for those who were there during its golden years the memories, at least, remain - to come flooding back with each air raid, artillery bombardment and street battle. Many of these memories are deeply personal. "Long drives in the mountains with my wife," recalls Tracy, "in search of the perfect spot with the perfect view for the house we would someday build (but now never will). Proud fathers, on Sundays, buying icecream on a stick for dark-eyed daughters in bright dresses... masses of dark thunderclouds sweeping suddenly in from the sea, and cloudbursts turning the streets into torrents and washing them clean and, so often, a rainbow..."

Now, however, as we watch the last throes of invasion by a foreign power the cold reality of the present is superimposed on these warm memories of the past.

Paul Hoye took over as editor of Aramco World Magazine in 1964, when the magazine's editorial offices were moved from New York to Beirut. John Cooley, formerly Middle East correspondent of The Christian Science Monitor, lived in Beirut from November 1965 until March 1976, and has returned regularly to Lebanon since. The author of four books and numerous articles and essays about the Middle East and North Africa, Cooley is now a staff correspondent for ABC News based in London. ]eanne Mullin, zoho lived in Beirut from 1947 to 1954, subsequently moved to Puerto Rico, then Pent, settling eventually in Garrison, New York, on the Hudson River where she writes, paints and sculpts.

Lebanon: Memories of a Golden Age

Lebanon: On Campus

Beirut, it has been said, educated the Middle East. Students flocked here from around the world to attend schools from kindergartens to universities. Many advanced students attended the American University of Beirut, founded in 1866 by Protestant missionaries. It has one of the most beautiful campuses in the world, with tree-shaded buildings overlooking the blue waters of the Mediterranean.

Lebanon at the Festival

The high point of the cultural year in Lebanon was the Festival of Baalbek, attended by the most consummate artists from all over the world. Here Fayrouz, the great Lebanese singer, stirred crowds of thousands, the Royal Ballet performed. Baalbek was built over a long period of time by a succession of Roman emperors, and its amazingly well-preserved ruins, dramatically highlighted with son et lumierc, provided the perfect setting for artists such as Joan Baez

This article appeared on pages 10-21 of the September/October 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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