I lived in Beirut, Lebanon for 10 years between the ages of 7 and 17, those formative years when personhood is being built. When I left at the beginning of World War II, life was about to change drastically, both for me and for the country. I never returned.
Those days are gone forever. Everything I knew has been erased by years of conflict, civil war, the birth of religious dogmatism and terrorism, and its attending chaos and hatreds. The whole Middle East has exploded and Beirut has not been spared.
Are my recollections tinted by nostalgia for those Golden Years? Of course they are.
This is what I remember. I remember a sparkling and tranquil indigo blue sea bordered by a sunny esplanade and many fashionable hotels. I remember a public square called “Place des Canons.” I remember at least four movie houses called Roxy, Empire, Majestic and Rialto where we went to watch classic French and American films on Saturday mornings. Some of the films were serials continued on the following week. Such was the case for “Les Miserables.” Jean Valjean, Inspector Javert and Cosette were played by the best French actors. American films were all dubbed, so Gary Cooper, Loretta Young and Clark Gable all spoke perfect French.
I remember streetcars crisscrossing the whole city and the conductor ding-ding-dinging to clear the way of cars and pedestrians. I remember a policeman perched on a pedestal at an intersection gesticulating and shouting: “Tarraverrrsez” when it was pedestrian crossing time.
Lebanon in those days was ruled by the French under a Mandate given to them by the League of Nations. Before that it had been a part of the Ottoman Empire.
Many foreigners like us lived in Beirut in relative harmony and mutual tolerance: Russian emigres, Armenians, Turks, Jews and other mixed race people.
The native population was divided into Muslims and Christians (Maronites.) Both tended towards secularism and their relative religions were more an attribute like curly or straight hair, blue or brown eyes than a sword to brandish. Everyone wanted only to be “modern.” Even my father’s engineering business was called: “La Technique Moderne.” Women were stylish and fashion conscious. The city had many hair salons and nail parlors.
Muslim women wore thin transparent veils which added mystery to their appearance. Nobody in those days had ever heard of garments called niqabs, hijabs or burkas. Had any women in such attire been seen promenading on the Corniche the sight would have been as jarring as crows at a wedding.
Those peaceful, easy-going days are gone forever. Now I can only remember them, perhaps even embellishing them in my mind.