TRAVEL / Green light for the Green Line: Though ravaged by civil war, Lebanon is now being vigorously promoted as a destination for tourists, writes Matthew Gwyther

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
LEBANON is clearly on the mend. The newsagent aross the street from the Mayflower Hotel in West Beirut - where Brian Keenan stayed before he was kidnapped - has upped its order for Hello] magazine to four per week. At the Blue Note nightclub a few streets away, you have to queue for a table to listen to a five-piece ensemble rattling through Fifties bop numbers. Outside the American University on the Rue Bliss students lounge around making eyes at each other in front of the ice-cream parlours.

Even the Hizbollah of the southern suburbs have cleaned up their act: kidnapping is out, acquiring some political respectability is in. The hostage-takers of the Eighties won eight seats in last year's elections and now say that they 'care about justice and human rights'. Beirut's cockerels may be suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder - they begin crowing at half past midnight and fall silent at dawn - but there is an unmistakable confidence in the air.

Now most of the guns have disappeared from the streets, the Minister for Tourism, Nicholas Fattush, is bullish: 'Before the war Lebanon was attracting two million tourists a year,' he says. 'I am confident we can do that again, but everything depends on peace prevailing.' Potential visitors are going to need convincing that their two-week annual break will not turn into five years blindfolded and chained to a radiator.

Probably the scariest 10 minutes I experienced during a week-long stay in what used to be everyone's modern archetype of Armageddon was, in fact, on a ski-lift. In the old days when there were tourists, brochures enthused that Lebanon was a country where you could ski in the morning, take a dip in the Med after lunch and spend the evening in the casino. The skiing at Faraiya in the mountains overlooking the Bekaa Valley could be recommended to anyone sick of queuing for hours in the Alps, although watch out for the long chairlift on the left where some of the welds are coming loose - it makes for an uneasy 12-minute haul to the top. Once you are there, the view is splendid and whole hillsides of unblemished powder stretch back down the slope. (The Lebanese, for some reason, despite being good skiers with all the fashionable gear, seem to stick to the nursery slopes.)

The tourist is reliant on helpful advice from the locals when planning an itinerary, as there has not been much demand for guidebooks on Lebanon over recent years. The most up-to-date appears to be Touring Lebanon by Philip Ward, published by Faber and Faber in 1971. The slim volume confidently asserted that in this 'Land of milk and honey . . . absolute toleration between religious sects is written into the constitution, and is practised as a matter of course by the easy-going Lebanese.' The advent of one of the most vicious civil wars this century a mere three years later must have come as a bit of a shock to Mr Ward not to mention Faber's sales department. In 1971, incidentally, 3.27 Lebanese pounds bought you one US dollar. The same sum now fetches two- tenths of a cent and the currency of the Great Satan is preferred over the worthless local currency in most places.

Number One on everyone's current sight- seeing list is the Green Line area of Beirut which separated the Christian and Muslim militias. This was the site of some of the heaviest fighting during the civil war. If in Hollywood they ever make Hostages - A Story of Hope (as one fears they will) the production designer is going to have real problems with his Green Line set.

It really is a sorry mess. The colonial Place des Martyrs, once Beirut's Piccadilly, looks like Godzilla has run amok inside it. Small arms fire, mortars, howitzers, aerial bombardment, car bombs, rocket-propelled grenades - you name it, it went off around here. Yet people are still living in what is left of this area which, say hardened war hacks, far outstrips Sarajevo in the destruction stakes. Children play in the rubble and groups of men play extremely energetic table football.

A Shia man who looked right down on his luck said to me: 'Our government he don't know what he do now.' The action that most ordinary citizens want the government to take is to restore 24-hour electricity. The grid is massively overloaded due to the tens of thousands of households which have illegally wired themselves up to junction boxes at the end of each street. Great cobwebs of cable lead off in all directions and 12-hour power cuts are the result. There is a huge trade in diesel generators which drone all night across the city.

Many of the bombed-out ground floor shops around the Green Line have been taken over as garages where ageing BMWs and Mercedes are patched up before returning to the automotive war-zone: Beirut's roads have no traffic lights, no street lighting at night, no road signs and craters of frightening proportions. (It is, incidentally, one of life's spicier ironies that the favoured method of transport used by the Hasidic Jews of Stamford Hill in London - the Volvo - is also the chosen set of wheels of the average member of Hizbollah.)

The prime minister, Rafiq Hariri, has some big plans for the Green Line area. In a pounds 9bn redevelopment project he has devised, much of the existing rubble would simply be bulldozed into the sea to create a platform for a 'tourist island', offices, a 40-storey World Trade Centre, hotels and a marina. There is a good deal of opposition to Hariri's plans. One building due to be levelled has more than 1,000 people claiming tenancy rights and therefore in search of compensation.

Yvonne, Lady Cochrane, the president of the owners' and tenants' association, has described the plan as the 'dream of a retarded adolescent'. The archaeologists are also furious that a 17th-century Greek Orthodox monastery has already been pulled down and Beirut's remaining medieval walls are due to disappear under the concrete.

On the coast 25 miles north of Beirut is Byblos, which lays claim to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. (The large white markings and numbering on the motorway date back to the war when the Lebanese air force had to use the road as a parking space and runway for its aircraft after they were run out of Beirut.)

There was a Neolithic settlement at Byblos in 4500 BC and those who have built on the site since include the Amorites, the Phoenicians, the Romans and the Crusaders. In the middle of the large archaeological site by the sea is

the fountain by which Isis sat weeping for her dead brother, Osiris. According to Plutarch, Osiris was locked up to die in a coffin by his

evil brother, Seth, and the coffin was tossed into the Nile. It was washed ashore at Byblos whither Isis, who was tipped-off by a divine wind, travelled to mourn. Such myths remind us that violence in Lebanon is no 20th-century phenomenon - the gorgeous hunk Adonis also met his end in the mountains above Byblos, gashed in the groin by a wild boar.

Nowadays the most impressive visible ruins here are the Crusader castle and Romanesque church dating back to 1215. Despite the misjudged addition of a bell tower, the church is a rare beauty. To be able to wander through such a place without a tour bus, Pentax or a pair of Reeboks in sight is a delight. In addition to the treats at Byblos, over in the Bekaa Valley at Baalbek are three huge Roman temples. The largest - the Temple of Jupiter - measures 310ft by 175ft and was originally enclosed by 54 Corinthian pillars, each 66ft high.

With all this on offer and some persuasive PRs and admen to help him out, Mr Fattush at the Tourist Board could welcome the more adventurous from Europe and the United States into Byblos and Baalbek by the 747-load (if the US State Department were to allow its citizens into Lebanon, which it does not). They could ski, swim and do ruins all day and drink Chateau Musar all night. (The famous Lebanese vineyard missed only one vintage during the whole civil war - in 1984, when the front line between the Christian and Muslim militias ran between the vines and the winery.)

Mr Fattush's job is as big and complex as one of Musar's wines and is likely to provide the same heavy-duty hangover. Lebanon is still occupied by two foreign armies - the Syrians and the Israelis. It sticks in the craw of many Lebanese that the first things you see on arrival at the airport are dozens of posters of an unconvincingly smiling President Hafez al-Assad of Syria. The Syrians have long regarded Lebanon as their backyard and show no sign of retreating back inside their homestead. And the Israelis continue to occupy a large chunk of southern Lebanon.

Israel's most recent contribution to Lebanon's recovery has been to dump more than 400 expelled Palestinians in Lebanon and shell them when they try to retrace their steps. The men are camped on a bare, rocky hillside near Marj al-Zohour and reaching them requires negotiating a dozen checkpoints along the road from Beirut.

The camp may be rough and ready but its occupants are well organised. On arrival journalists are met by the press officer, who used to run a PR and video business on the West Bank. 'What are your interview needs today?' he inquires, then starts organising camp members. The Dean of the School of Nursing in Gaza, Dr Mahmoud al-Zahar, has been performing minor surgery, setting limbs broken by the shelling and coping with outbreaks of dysentery as best he can with limited drugs. The men from Ramallah sit around outside their group of tents, as do those from Jericho and Hebron.

Dr Omar Ferwana, aged 37, is the father of five children under the age of eight and an expert in male reproductive dysfunction. He is one of 10 members of the medical profession among those turfed out last December. Ferwana did his PhD at 'Jimmy's', St James's University Hospital, in Leeds, and had only been back from Australia for 45 days when the Israeli army and secret police arrived at his house in Gaza at 11pm, blindfolded, handcuffed and took him away. He was not charged with any crime.

(Back in the UK I tracked down some of Ferwana's ex-colleagues who had worked with him in Leeds. Mr F T Lam, a renal transplant surgeon, had worked with Ferwana back in 1985 and got the surprise of his life when he popped up on the Nine O'Clock News shivering on a hillside in Lebanon. 'I'm really shocked. The sight of him in a huddle of tents was a real surprise,' said Mr Lam.)

'Lebanon - a land of surprises.' There's a potential, if unoriginal, marketing concept for Mr Fattush to consider. There was a little surprise at the Mayflower Hotel late one night when a group of four of us were in the lounge struggling to open a bottle of whisky with one of those strange plastic duty-free tops. The night manager, a taciturn, elderly man in a grandad pullover, looked up from his newspaper and found us a screwdriver. Despite extensive bashing and other manipulation we had no luck. We looked to him again for something heavy. A hammer, perhaps? He went to the drawer beneath the front desk and, without blinking, fished out a fully loaded rifle ammunition clip. We bashed our way through, and poured a generous finger each.-


MEA (071-493 5681) is the only carrier to fly direct from London, from pounds 360 return. Jasmin Tours (0628 531121) are recommencing organised trips from next year. (Speak to Jim Smith for advice.) Visas are required, obtainable from the Lebanese Consulate (071-229 7265).

Be careful with tap water - none of the country's six sewage plants is currently in operation. Check with your GP for vaccination requirements. To make sense of Lebanon's tangled recent history, there is no better primer than Pity the Nation. Lebanon at War by The Independent's Robert Fisk (OUP, pounds 6.99).

(Photographs and map omitted)