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Volume 33, Number 5September/October 1982

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Paradise Lost

Memories of a Golden Age (Part 2)

Written by William Tracy

As a student, a teacher and an editor I lived in Beirut for 18 years. I knew it well, loved it deeply and now, as the seemingly endless cycle of civil strife, war and invasion reaches another tragic climax, I mourn it with a deep sense of loss. Lebanon - at least the Lebanon I knew - is gone, and, I think, is irreplaceable.

I went to Beirut in the early years: in 1950 at the age of 15, when Beirut was little more than a village, and later returned, to teach English to Lebanese students and, later, to become assistant editor of this magazine.

At each stage - and age - I saw Lebanon differently, but always, I'm afraid, romantically, so that today my most vivid memories of Lebanon glow with beauty, with warmth, with abundance...

When I say I lived in Beirut, I mean "Ras" Beirut - a hilly, sun-drenched peninsula embraced by the Mediterranean. On the north was the small picturesque area called 'Ain al-Mraissi and, beyond, the seafront Avenue de Paris, the terraced green slopes of the American University campus and, above that, in several directions, the sprawl of old streets. To the south was the shape of Pigeon Rocks, the glittering new apartment towers, business blocks, hotels and, further out, the broad white beach sands of Ramlet al-Baida.

Ras Beirut was the prosperous, cosmopolitan quarter of the Lebanese capital where diplomats, educators, journalists and businessmen - foreign and Lebanese - enjoyed all the amenities and charms of a sophisticated Mediterranean city: restaurants of every description and price, international films and theater, concerts, lectures, art galeries, discoteques and, above all, the shops, where in an age of mass production and mass consumption, goldsmiths, cabinet makers, photo processors, picture framers, tailors and seamstresses, still offered personalized, customized craftsmanship.

In another sense, though, Ras Beirut was little more than a village. As late as 1975, when the Civil War drove many of us out, you could still find clusters of old stone houses with tiny gardens nestled among the tall concrete buildings - quiet neighborhoods where life continued on a human scale.

In Ras Beirut, in fact, it was hardly possible to venture outside without bumping into handfuls of friends or acquaintances. Sometimes it even seemed as though there was not a person there- or in all Lebanon -who would not invite me into his home if I met his friendliness and curiosity even halfway. "Baiti baitak" they said, "my house is your house," and meant it.

Beirut was an outdoor city: indeed, nine months of the year most people lived with their windows thrown open and spent hours on the balconies or patios which graced virtually every house or apartment. There they read the morning newspapers over Turkish coffee, grew geraniums and herbs in clay pots or tin cans, loudly beat dust out of Oriental carpets, lowered baskets on long ropes to fruit vendors on the street below, sipped licorice flavored arak, nibbling on sunflower seeds at sunset.

The breezy, sunny days following one another with perfect predictability, brought students outdoors to stroll, open books in hand, in the public garden; old men to smoke their waterpipes and click their backgammon pieces solidly on inlaid tables before their doorsteps; merchants to display their wares in the streets and office workers to tan themselves at nearby beaches during lunch breaks which often stretched into the afternoon.

In the evenings, it was much the same: thousands of men and women - or so it seemed - dressed in the latest fashion, crammed the sidewalks or packed the cafes of Hamra Street before and after the movies each night to eat American hamburgers, nibble on French pastries, sip a coffee and, most important, watch people parading past.

This need to be outdoors was particularly obvious in countless restaurants along the shore and in the mountains: at harbor-front cafes in Tyre, Sidon, Byblos and Tripoli, or in shaded "casinos" in the mountains beside fountains, springs and cascades in places like Antelias, Jezzine, 'Ain Zhalta, Wadi Zahle or by the Damour River.

The map of Lebanon, in fact, reads like a menu. On even short drives for example, you simply had to break your journeys in Chtaura for yoghurt, in Batroun for lemonade, and in Jounieh for sherbets. In Sidon you would stop for the delectable kanafih bil ju'bn, syrup-soaked layers of shredded wheat with melted goat cheese, served hot, and, in Chemlan you would savor superb Shish Ta'uk - grilled chicken -on the terrace of Cliff House.

In the 1960s, before traffic reached paralyzing proportions it was still possible to leave Beirut and within an hour - almost literally - be camped by an icy waterfall in the Damour Valley, stretched out on a secluded beach near Sidon, or, in winter, be skiing down an icy slope above the timber line at a resort called Faraya. Take two hours and you could be hiking under the cedar trees at Barouk, picnicking among the grassed-in ruins of Roman temples or lonely castles without a name, or skiing under the great branches of the famous cedars of Lebanon - some 1,000 years old.

Such excursions showed Lebanon at its best. Depending on the time of year you might find in the same trip oranges and bananas on the coast and peaches and apples on mountain terraces and, in springtime, a dazzling variety of flowers.

In Lebanon, the wild flowers were extraordinary: in the mountains beneath the olive trees and in pine-shaded valleys, we hiked on spring carpets of red anemones, violets and dwarf iris. Beside every tumbling stream you could find pink oleanders among the ancient ruins, hollyhocks in the city. Plants like purple bougainvillea and fiery hibiscus seemed able to survive with their roots squeezed into a narrow strip of earth in a paved courtyard - and still cascade gloriously across near-by walls.

This is the sort of beauty that lives in the mind-and the heart-but in the end it is the people you can't forget: the mountain family inviting me to share a meal when I simply paused before their door to ask directions; the farmer who picked a handful of apricots and plums from his trees and offered them to me as I hiked past his tiny orchard; the villager holding out a clay jug of cool water to quench my thirst; the village boys leading me along a riverside trail to their favorite swimming hole.

These same smiling, happy people- lets be honest-could enrage you too, of course, with their "Bukra! Bukra!" (Tomorrow! Tomorrow!") and their maddening "Ma'al-aish" ("Never mind) with its infuriating suggestion of indifference to just about everything. And yet, I miss it - as did a German friend, who wrote to me several years after she left Beirut. She sometimes ached to hear those words, she said, in her disciplined, highly structured life.

I used to get annoyed too, at a certain traffic light, when young entrepreneurs hoping to earn a coin gave my windshield a quick swipe with a grimy damp cloth, delaying me and smearing the windshield - but I also remember the same boys, one summer evening, pushing strands of sweet-smelling jasmine through the window with the words: "For your lady, Sir?" It was Lebanon in microcosm: for every grimy rag, a flower.

Sentiments, like these of course, provide endless poignant memories. There is one memory, however, that persists. A vacant lotnearmy house where, in my finalyearin Beirut, I used to take my dog Dune, after work. Because of the walls this lot was a secluded spot where I could let Dune run and just sit quietly and smoke in the shadow of an old stone house with arched windows - and the huge skyscraper of the Holiday Inn that had just opened.

After I left Beirut that house, as well as the hotel, were shelled and hit repeatedly and Dune was later killed. So when I think of that lot now, I think of past wars and other ruins: temples and palaces and forts, with time, rain and sunshine leaving a golden patina on the white limestone walls, and green blades of grass edging up through the crevices. Soon, I know, the stones in that lot will begin to weather too and the grass will begin to grow among them. I try, but I can see no dark-eyed children at play there.

This article appeared on pages 20-21 of the September/October 1982 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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