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Lebanon’s Culture

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248

Lebanon’s Culture
THE NATIONAL PSYCHE

Emily Nasrallah’s Flight
Against Time touches the
subject of emigration
from a slightly different
perspective, telling the
tale of rural parents
whose children have left
for new lives overseas.

Lebanon’s 18
official sects are Muslim
(Shiite, Alawite, Ismaili
and Sunni), Christian
(Maronite, Greek
Orthodox & Catholic,
Armenian Catholic,
Gregorian, Syrian
Orthodox, Jacobite,
Nestorian, Chaldean,
Copt, Evangelical and
Roman Catholic),
Druze and Jewish.

Like its neighbour Syria, hospitality in Lebanon is spelt with a capital
‘H’ and despite its multiple setbacks and political upheavals, Lebanon
remains one of the friendliest places in the world to visit. Beirut, in particular, welcomes visitors with open arms. Instead of being intimidated
by heavily armed soldiers perched atop tanks on street corners, you’ll
soon find that even a simple smile will generally get you a ‘welcome’ and
an enthusiastic wave. Moreover, the Lebanese diaspora is so widespread
that no matter where you come from, almost everyone you meet will
likely have a sibling, cousin or uncle living in your country – a link that
will win you instant friends.
Most Lebanese share three distinct characteristics: an immense pride
in their country and its diversity (you’ll probably hear the phrase ‘Lebanon has 18 official religions’ more times than you can count), a reluctance
to talk about the civil war – which most people would simply prefer to
forget – and an overriding optimism that ‘everything’s going to be all
right’, with the good times just around the corner. While each of these
things may seem a little paradoxical to a first-time visitor, you’ll soon
realise that each is essential to keeping the troubled country soldiering
on, no matter how bad life gets.
Though politics, unemployment and corruption are hot topics, guaranteed to ignite lengthy and animated discussion, the Lebanese certainly
don’t let these aspects of their culture get them down. The Lebanese
like to savour life, and most important is enjoying the good times with
family and friends.
Spend a little time getting to know some locals and they’ll soon consider you both.

LIFESTYLE
It’s hard to generalise about a country that has traditionally experienced –
and continues to experience – sharply delineated differences in generation, income and religion. While party-central Beirut seems, on the
surface at least, no different from any European capital city, venture...
248 lonelyplanet.com
THE NATIONAL PSYCHE
Like its neighbour Syria, hospitality in Lebanon is spelt with a capital
‘H’ and despite its multiple setbacks and political upheavals, Lebanon
remains one of the friendliest places in the world to visit. Beirut, in par-
ticular, welcomes visitors with open arms. Instead of being intimidated
by heavily armed soldiers perched atop tanks on street corners, you’ll
soon find that even a simple smile will generally get you a ‘welcome’ and
an enthusiastic wave. Moreover, the Lebanese diaspora is so widespread
that no matter where you come from, almost everyone you meet will
likely have a sibling, cousin or uncle living in your country – a link that
will win you instant friends.
Most Lebanese share three distinct characteristics: an immense pride
in their country and its diversity (you’ll probably hear the phrase ‘Leba-
non has 18 official religions’ more times than you can count), a reluctance
to talk about the civil war – which most people would simply prefer to
forget – and an overriding optimism that ‘everything’s going to be all
right’, with the good times just around the corner. While each of these
things may seem a little paradoxical to a first-time visitor, you’ll soon
realise that each is essential to keeping the troubled country soldiering
on, no matter how bad life gets.
Though politics, unemployment and corruption are hot topics, guar-
anteed to ignite lengthy and animated discussion, the Lebanese certainly
don’t let these aspects of their culture get them down. The Lebanese
like to savour life, and most important is enjoying the good times with
family and friends.
Spend a little time getting to know some locals and they’ll soon con-
sider you both.
LIFESTYLE
It’s hard to generalise about a country that has traditionally experienced –
and continues to experience – sharply delineated differences in gen-
eration, income and religion. While party-central Beirut seems, on the
surface at least, no different from any European capital city, venture just
a few dozen miles north or south and you’ll find people in traditional
villages living and farming almost exactly as they did a century ago. Add
to this a substantial Palestinian population almost entirely cut off from
the mainstream – and rarely referred to in conversation by the Lebanese
themselves – and a complex picture begins to emerge.
One lifestyle factor that cuts across all boundaries is the crucial im-
portance of family life in Lebanon. Extended families often live in close
proximity, their social lives tightly bound together, and many children
live at home until married, either to save money for their own home or
simply because they prefer it that way. Social life, too, is both close-knit
and gregarious: everyone within a small community tends to know every-
one else, usually knowing as much about others’ lives and business as
they do about their own.
Marriage is the second factor of utmost importance throughout Leba-
non and members of all religions tend to marry young. For women to
remain unmarried into their 30s is rare and often raises eyebrows, though
a man still single at 30, like anywhere in the Middle East, is thought to
be waiting for the right girl. There’s generally an expectation that people
Lebanon’s Culture
will marry within their religion; however, like many social expectations,
this is slowly changing. Since Lebanon currently only legally recognises
civil marriages contracted overseas, many mixed-religion couples opt
for marriage in Cyprus or Greece, if one half of the couple (usually the
woman) doesn’t choose to convert.
For young Lebanese, Christians – both male and female – usually
have far greater social freedom than Muslims or members of other reli-
gions, evident in Beirut’s profusion of largely Christian-populated bars
and clubs. But while these freedoms may at first appear similar to their
counterparts in the West, there is a limit to what is deemed acceptable
behaviour.
Drinking heavily, sleeping around or taking drugs is frowned upon in
Lebanese society – not that you’d necessarily know it on a night out on
Beirut’s Rue Monot.
Christian and Muslim women in Lebanon are nowadays increasingly
accepted into most professions. Particularly in Beirut you’ll see a profu-
sion of Filipino, Thai and Indian housemaids – recognisable by their frilly
pink gingham aprons – who work full-time to cook, clean and look after
the children while the mother of the house is out at work.
A university education is highly valued in Lebanon and for those who
are not from a wealthy family this usually involves juggling a part-time
job of at least 20 hours a week alongside attending classes. Many study
with a view to emigrating overseas, lured by the promise of higher sala-
ries, a phenomenon commonly known as Lebanon’s ‘brain drain’: see
The Brain Drain, below .
Emily Nasrallah’s Flight
Against Time touches the
subject of emigration
from a slightly different
perspective, telling the
tale of rural parents
whose children have left
for new lives overseas.
Lebanon’s 18
official sects are Muslim
(Shiite, Alawite, Ismaili
and Sunni), Christian
(Maronite, Greek
Orthodox & Catholic,
Armenian Catholic,
Gregorian, Syrian
Orthodox, Jacobite,
Nestorian, Chaldean,
Copt, Evangelical and
Roman Catholic),
Druze and Jewish.
THE BRAIN DRAIN
A favourite Lebanese topic, which you’ll likely encounter several times on your travels, is the
country’s ‘brain drain’. Current unofficial estimates suggest that one in three educated Lebanese
citizens would like to live abroad, while a recent study by the Beirut Research and Development
Centre (BRDC) found that 22% of the Lebanese population is actively working on ways to leave
the country. Another survey of university students showed that as many as 60% are hoping to
leave Lebanon following graduation, to work abroad.
There are a number of reasons why so many of Lebanon’s bright young things are disap-
pearing elsewhere, not the least the climate of fear that has lingered after the Israel–Hezbollah
war of summer 2006. Terrorist attacks on Lebanese politicians, in which civilians are sometimes
caught up, have also sent young Lebanese, especially those with dual nationality and thus an
easy ‘escape route’, in pursuit of jobs overseas. Most popular tend to be the burgeoning Gulf
states, which have the advantage of high salaries and being fairly close to home, with the USA,
Canada and Europe all coming in close behind.
The second major reason for the mass exit is that salaries in Lebanon are often simply too
low to make for a comfortable, viable living. ‘I’ve got a great job, a car, a high salary,’ explains
Mirvat Melki, a software engineer originally from Beirut, on leave from a lucrative position in
Ghana. ‘All the things I could never dream of having here in Lebanon, even though I’m pretty
highly qualified. I earn about 10 times as much, per month, there as I would do here – if I could
get a job at all.’ Melki says that those who have managed to acquire good jobs – often through
family connections – hold tight to them and are reluctant to relinquish the security and move
on. Many younger, educated people, he continues, are afraid for the country’s future. ‘Politics
aren’t safe; taxes are high; economics are bad. It cost me US$100,000 to go to university. In
Lebanon, I’d have to work for a million years to pay that back. I miss home, but under these
conditions, what choice do I have?’ Perhaps one day, he says, he’ll come home – but until then,
like so many young Lebanese professionals, he’s enjoying the financial freedom of a life overseas
too much to really consider it.
LEBANON’S CULTURE •• Lifestyle 249
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