Assassinations and Amphibious Sports Cars

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Middle East » Lebanon » Beirut
May 24th 1964
Published: November 29th 2018
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1964 Diary Entry

"About 1/4 past twelve we boarded the plane and took off for Beirut. About two hours later I fell asleep in the plane and didn't awaken till about 1/4 of an hour before landing. When we landed we stepped out and went into the airport. By the way it was about 4 o'clock in the morning and as light as miday. Well then we went in and through the passport control, health and customs. After that we caught a bus to the St George's hotel. There we got our luggage together and were shown to our room. There Mum and Dad had a sleep while I looked out the window at the beautiful beach below. At half past seven Dad and Mum woke up and Dad took me down for a swim. It was beautiful in and when I'd finished we went back into the hotel for breakfast. After breakfast we went for a walk around the beach and then up into the city. When we came back I swum until it was lunchtime. At lunchtime we went down to the hotel grill room to have lunch. After lunch we all had a rest and at three
Saint Georges Hotel baggage stickerSaint Georges Hotel baggage stickerSaint Georges Hotel baggage sticker

I think you were supposed to stick this to your suitcase to prove to the world that you'd stayed there.....
o'clock Mum took me for a swim while Daddy rested. It was once again beautiful in and I was in sunbake almost all the afternoon. Finally at about half past four we went up to our room again. That evening we didn't have any dinner because I was sick so we just went to bed.

The next morning we up and had breakfast. After breakfast I went and had another swim. It was beautiful in as it always is. After swimming I sun-backed and I kept on doing this all morning. At lunchtime we went to a little waterfront café which looks out right over the very blue Mediterranean. For lunch Mum and Dad had fish and I had an asparagus salad. After lunch we went back to the hotel for a rest. Mum slept and Dad and I played footy. At about five o'clock Mum woke up. Then we got dressed and went to the Phoenicia Hotel. This is where we were to have dinner. I had a hamburger and Mum and Dad had a salad. After eating we went back to our hotel and got into bed."

I've never been entirely sure why we came to Beirut. Neither of my parents were really into beaches (I'm not sure I can ever remember seeing my Mum in a pair of bathers), yet I seem to have spent most of our time here swimming, and Mum and Dad seem to have spent most of their time taking it in turns to watch me. I never remember either of them mentioning Beirut or Lebanon before the trip, and it was only on the flight from Delhi that Mum started talking about the "Cedars of Lebanon". She spoke of them as if they were the country's primary tourist attraction, yet I think she'd only heard of them because they get several mentions in the Bible. She would have been very disappointed if she was expecting the Beirut waterfront to be lined with cedars, and I don't think we ever had any intention of moving more than a couple of hundred metres back from the seafront, let alone venturing beyond the city and up into the mountains where they do actually grow. It seems that at one time the mountains of Lebanon were covered in thick cedar forests, which were then progressively pillaged by a succession of invaders, mostly for boat building. The Bible makes mention of Solomon using cedar to build the Temple in Jerusalem. Concerns about the "Cedars of God" forest being harvested into extinction were raised by the British in Victorian times, and in 1876 a high stone wall was erected around one grove of more than 100 hectares. Conservation values then seem to have been cast aside when they became inconvenient, and the very same British rulers then started lopping the cedar forests for railway sleepers during World War I. The Cedars of God were UNESCO World Heritage listed in 1998; they are now vigorously protected, and visits are only allowed if accompanied by an authorised guide.

I don't think my parents had any idea what to expect of Beirut, and the spectacular beachfront with its luxury boats moored offshore was a very pleasant surprise for all of us. It felt to me just like visions I had of the French Riviera, and I remember being particularly impressed by a couple of very brightly coloured amphibious sports cars that drove off the beach in front of the hotel straight into the water. I read now that Lebanon became a French mandate after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire at the end of World War I, and up until the start of the civil war in 1975 it was apparently a very popular tourist destination with lots of French trimmings; the hotel guidebook which I found in the shoe box in the attic is largely in French. I think Mum and Dad's travel agent must have known it was a tourist hot spot, and pushed them to go there despite them not having any great love of beaches. I hope his motives were pure and that we weren’t only there because he was getting some sort of kickback from the hotel.

We only seem to have made one very brief foray into the streets behind the waterfront. I'm not sure whether this was because there wasn't too much to see, or because we were worried about getting kidnapped or blown up. The one thing I do remember is Dad taking me into a very old looking Catholic Church in the backstreets, which I'm sure must have been notable for some reason. Dad was Catholic and Mum was a Methodist, but it seems that when they were married in 1953 the Catholics were a bit less accepting of the Protestants than vice versa, so in order for the marriage to be recognised by both "sides" they had to get married in a Catholic Church.....well almost in a Catholic Church; because Mum was a Protestant, they were only allowed to get married in a side chapel, rather than the main arena. Mum was however more religious than Dad, so I was brought up as a Protestant. I only mention this because I think our visit to this church in the backstreets of Beirut was the first time I'd ever been into a Catholic Church, and I was a bit overawed by all the kneeling as everyone passed in front of the altar, and by the incense and holy water that was being flung around everywhere. I'm guessing that the church may have been the Saint Georges Maronite Cathedral, but this really is only a guess.

The Saint Georges Hotel was right on the waterfront overlooking the beach. It was apparently very much an icon in its day and was built in the late 1920s to a design by a Parisian architect. It was severely damaged during the civil war and then came into international prominence when the Lebanese Prime Minister Rafic Hariri was assassinated by a bomb blast very close to it in 1995. The hotel was being renovated at the time, but the blast caused yet more damage to the structure, as well as to a nearby statue of Mr Hariri. The renovation has been stalled since by various disputes, and the hotel has not been open now for more than a decade. I remember it being one of the tallest buildings in the vicinity when we were there, but it is apparently now dwarfed by other nearby buildings and marina developments.

Good to see that I thought to mention that I was sick, so forced all three of us to skip dinner. I was a fussy eater as a youngster, and had a bit of a sensitive stomach, so getting sick after eating something wasn't all that unusual. I'm glad that that all changed when I became a teenager and that I've never reverted. I suspect that we probably weren't all that adventurous in our food choices in exotic Beirut, and note that my parents opted for a salad for dinner in preference to the Lebanese feast of hummus and kebabs that would surely have been on offer. Also good to note that a night after being sick my parents saw fit to feed me a greasy hamburger. ... and to think that I used to wonder why I got sick so often...



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