Monday, 13 May 2013

Beirut Off Limits?

Lebanon Mosque
(Photo credit: Côte d’Azur)
I wonder if Gulf News gave Beirut's Phoenicia Hotel the option of dropping its quarter page colour ad in today's edition, given the paper carries the news of  the UAE Foreign Ministry's clear warning to Emiratis not to travel to Lebanon?

The warning comes as Lebanon struggles to cope with the effects of the Syrian conflict on its border (which makes a change from a Syrian conflict within its borders, which has also been known to happen), with a large and fast-growing refugee problem and myriad economic woes hanging on the conflict's coattails.

It's a pretty bleak warning as the Ministry is making travellers sign a pledge to take responsibility when they travel to Lebanon. A few days ago the Lebanese government asked Gulf governments to drop their travel warnings - intra-regional tourism is an important revenue earner for Lebanon, particularly as we go into the summer and the Gulf's favourite playground comes into its own.

This year, it's going to be a desolate little playground, methinks, filled with the sound of people playing with that brittle, manic gaiety born of desperation.

Even the UK's FCO has joined in with its own travel warnings. Given, as I pointed out (admittedly using the voice of anti-hero Paul Stokes) in Olives - A Violent Romance, the FCO is usually sensible...
"Scanning email got me a travel warning from the Yanks for Jordan: present danger despite the peace deal, terrorist threats against US and other allied nationals, extreme caution, yadayada. Great. Looking up the Foreign Office resulted in, as usual, the suggestion that Brits might like to wear a hat if walking through Gaza at midday as the sun can be tiresome."
...its warnings against travel in the Bekaa, Saida, South of the Litani and anywhere close to the Syrian border are slightly more nuanced than the Gulf's blanket warnings, but are all the more concerning for all that.

Given the Lebanese embassy to the UK (nice website for fans of the 1990s school of web design, BTW) advises travellers to "Leave a copy of your trip itinerary with a friend or relative at home and maintain regular contact with family and friends while in Lebanon." You'd perhaps begin to sense a pattern. Increasing lawlessness, sectarian violence and the re-emergence of kidnapping as a pastime have all contributed to a general feeling that perhaps the place is a tad less secure than it was, say, this time last year.

The Israelis have, of course, been lending a helping hand by conducting low-level bombing runs over Beirut, an old but much beloved pastime of theirs, breaking the sound barrier above the city and smashing much glass in the process.

Of course, 'the West' or 'the allies' - or whatever epithet the people tacitly supporting the American bid to engineer regime change in Syria wish to use to describe themselves - aren't really terribly concerned about the growing instability in the pretty little country next door.

Having just finished writing a book set in part in Beirut back in 1978, I feel terribly conscious of the echoes coming to us from a terrible age ago. And yet I can't bear to lose all hope...
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