Magazine article The Spectator

Almost All against All

Magazine article The Spectator

Almost All against All

Article excerpt

BEWARE OF SMALL STATES: LEBANON, BATTLEGROUND OF THE MIDDLE EAST

by David Hirst

Faber and Faberr, £20, pp. 480

ISBN 9780571237418

£16 (plus £2.45 p&p) 0870 429 6655

Early one morning in September 1986 three gunmen patrolling Beirut's scarred Green Line came across what they believed would be easy pickings. David Hirst the diminutive, silver-haired and donnish veteran correspondent was stranded by the side of the road in one of the most notorious areas of the city. Scores of Westerners had already been seized by militant groups allied to Iran and Hirst was pushed at gunpoint into the back of a BMW for what should have been the start of several miserable years handcuffed to a radiator in Beirut's southern suburbs. To everyone's surprise, the Guardian correspondent lived to tell the tale that very night back at his home overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.

He explained that he had shouted, struggled, and kicked his way out of captivity. The bemused gunmen eventually had enough and let him go.

The story goes a long way to explain Hirst's tenacity and quiet courage, and why he was admired by so many of us who lived in Beirut at the time. The city may have been torn apart by a decade of civil war but the dwindling expatriate community of journalists, academics and aid workers held on stubbornly. We believed that Beirut, despite its crumbling appearance, was the heart of the Middle East, the best listening post for the region, the most sophisticated city in the Arab world and in spite of the violence the most attractive.

Hirst, a fluent Arabic speaker, is now more Lebanese than British, having lived in Beirut for 50 years. He is better qualified than anyone to write a sweeping modern history of the region from the perspective of this tiny, sliver of coastline that has seduced, infuriated and consumed one foreign invader after another.

Even those who follow the twists and turns of local politics will understandably be left dazed by the history of modern Lebanon.

Christians fight Muslims, Shia Muslims fight Israelis, the Druze fight the Maronites, Shias fight Sunnis, Christians fight Christians. The permutations are endless and the reasons for the fighting become less and less clear.

Palestinians are expelled by Israelis, who are replaced by Americans, who are forced out by the Syrians, who give way to the Iranians.

There are walk-on parts for the French, the Saudis and the United Nations. …

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