Skandar Keynes: Week 5

This week, SKANDAR ponders the Syrian conflict and how it affects life in neighbouring Lebanon.

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skandar2In England, I am generally forgiving of people’s misconceptions and ignorance of Lebanon and its issues. It would be too much to expect everybody to know all about a small coastal country on the eastern Mediterranean. I try to put people at ease when they tentatively ask questions, scared of coming across as ignorant.

I maintain that the only stupid question I’ve ever been asked was by a PPS student who inquired, in total earnestness, why I was studying a dead language like Arabic. If you don’t know what’s going on in Syria though, get off The Tab and go look it up.

For two years now, Lebanon has been right next door to an ongoing and bloody conflict, much to the discomfort of the Lebanese and concerned relatives of year abroad students.

Life here is bizarre in many ways: like listening in on an argument raging in the next room, the sound of bombing over the border is unsettling. Damascus is just fifteen miles from the border, while Beirut is only another thirty-five.

Economically, times are hard. Tourism is a big industry in Lebanon – a big industry that has dried up. Many journalists are covering Syria from Lebanon. Signing off with “from Beirut” at the end of every report about the most recent massacre isn’t exactly an ideal situation for the tourism minister.

But it’s not just the jittery whities who are being put off. As a more cosmopolitan city than many of its counterparts in the Middle East, while remaining culturally accessible, Beirut was a top holiday destination for many wealthy Arabs eager to get away from the stifling heat and conservatism of Saudi Arabia or the Gulf. They too are staying well away from Lebanon, keeping their money with them.

If the thought of not having Cindies to get you through a Wednesday night is too much to bear, Beirut has been touted to year abroad students as the best alternative in the Middle East. While the party scene isn’t dead, foreigners are notably thinner on the ground – and sometimes it can feel a bit like being a fresher in Life in the depths of exam term.

Being a salmon swimming against the current has its pros and cons. Without many takers, language tuition is easy to find at relatively good rates. On the other hand, a car bombing in October threatened to derail my year abroad plans when the faculty sent me a rather alarmist email, simply entitled, “You need to get out!”

Although I have spoken about the relative safety of Lebanon, the Syrian crisis has given anxious aunts another reason to worry. Spend enough time stuck in a traffic jam and you’ll soon notice that Syrian number plates are getting more and more frequent on Lebanon’s roads. While lacking in tourists, the streets of Beirut have no shortage of those living off Lebanese alms.

The fear that surrounds incoming Syrians savaged by war and thirsting for respite has seeped into the minds of many. Relatives are sent into fits of panic. Without a car, and with the traffic making it too dangerous to cycle, I’ve been instructed not to take any public transport from the street. Making my daily trip into town is now somewhat akin to living in Girton and only having Panther Taxis to get around…

The idea that there’s a horrific event raging next door, ripping apart life as it once was for millions of people while you’re thinking about getting a good deal on your tuition, can all be rather sobering.