Before I left for my trip to Lebanon this December, my 84-year-old neighbor told me about the fantastic nightlife in Beirut. She had visited the city after World War II, while her husband was stationed in Europe. She told me about Beirut's unique blend of European sophistication and liberal leanings in an Arab milieu. Just about 150 miles from Cyprus on the Mediterranean, Beirut served as a gateway to the Middle East.
Flash forward to today. A generation of Lebanese disenfranchised by 15 years of civil war, a technical state of war with Israel, the presence of the Hezbollah in Lebanon and the war in Syria have contributed to the decline of Beirut as a safe, reliable point of entry into the Middle East. As a result, the soul of Beirut's Western-leaning temperament was mimicked in Disney-esque style by the city of Dubai. And it's a crying shame.
It's sad because Dubai is now viewed as the preeminent, culturally westernized city in the region. Dubai, as an urban personification of the West, is the spoiled little boy who has to have the biggest piece of candy. It's a place with Texas-inspired adoration for the new, big and sparkly; a town with a New Yorker's greed to have more. Cops drive in Lamborghinis. Visitors party at nightclubs imported from Las Vegas, Amsterdam and... Beirut.
Yes, "Music Hall," Beirut's hippest nightclub, just opened this January in Dubai. And although Condé Nast travelers ranked Dubai's hotels and resorts as the best in the Middle East, Beirut was listed as the best city. In fact, the quaint but touristy town of Byblos in Lebanon was ranked ahead of Dubai. The city's pitiful score in the category of "culture" is what dragged it down in the rankings.
Why should Americans care? Because the continued chaos of the Middle East has frightened us away from visiting this pivotal region of the world. Like it or not, Americans are part of one global family. We need to know our brothers and sisters. Places like Lebanon, not Dubai, should serve as stepping stone to help us appreciate and experience some of what the Middle East has to offer. Putting the region's current military strife aside, what do Americans miss by traveling to Dubai instead of Lebanon?
The resiliency of Beirut, a city that's been destroyed and rebuilt seven times. A place that's been infused with an independent streak since Constantine turned the Roman Empire Christian, yet many still flocked to the pagan outpost of Baalbek to celebrate the gods of Jupiter and Bacchus. Yes, Bacchus. Because wine was first cultivated in the Beqaa Valley. Over a thousand years before Dubai is mentioned in historical record, the Phoenicians were trading shiploads of wine with Carthage. It's a country where you can ski in the morning and be on the beach in the afternoon. And that's right, the food and the nightlife are incredible.
Americans have the power to wield our military might on whomever we deem as terrorists, or friends of terrorists, or factions who might help terrorists. We've agreed that the War on Terror is a boundary-less fight; we're no longer fighting nations, but radical sects. Yet the presence of the Hezbollah in Lebanon has seemingly damned the entire nation as a country riddled with terrorists. It's a double standard, applied to one of our closest ally's enemies.
Yes, the Hezbollah has perpetrated horrible crimes against Americans, and their radical destructive approach is unacceptable. To the Lebanese, they are an accepted political party, holding 14 of the 128 seats in Lebanon's Parliament. They wield a fair amount of power for a variety of reasons. Lebanon's parliament operates in a delicate tension as its seats are pre-determined based on religious affiliation; however, the composition of those seats doesn't match the religious distribution of the populace. The infighting this construct creates enables other players, like the Hezbollah, more latitude than might be expected.
Importantly though, the Hezbollah provides support for a selected component of the Lebanese population in a way its government cannot. And their radical message is also, for whatever dark reason, attracting members. Without a stronger Lebanese government, supported by a more robust economy, power in factions such as this will continue to grow.
Lebanon needs our help. The majority of the Lebanese would prefer to stay out of the Syrian war next door, but the madness is seeping across its borders. Lebanon has yet to fully recover from its own civil war, and may very well be drawn into this one. This will only make it harder for Lebanon to build up the economic power it needs to reestablish its presence in the Levant.
Rather than invest in another rock star-themed restaurant in Dubai, I challenge an American coalition to help build a national railroad in Lebanon. This basic infrastructure will open the country to trade and tourism, and alleviate the miserable traffic that hampers the country's efficiency. A stronger economy will empower the government. The government's renewed strength can help control radical factions which seek to bring harm to members of our global society. Lebanon can reassert itself as a welcoming place for Americans. And Americans can learn to become citizens of the world, not just of our country.