When we were accepted by Jusoor, we were slightly nervous about coming to the Middle East, not having visited the region before. We thought Lebanon would be conservative, Islamic, war-ravaged, yet we found it to be liberal and secular, with Beirut in particular a modern, vibrant city, very much up for partying. The fact that in recent memory it has endured both a civil war and an invasion might have something to do with its modern appearance: bombed buildings need to be torn down and replaced. (Though occasionally one comes across wonderful old colonial buildings, usually in a state of disrepair.)
Lebanon still appears to be going through a building boom; wherever you are in the country, you cannot travel more than a hundred yards or so without seeing buildings under construction, more often than not still a concrete shell, complete with staircases, but clearly destined to become comfortable middle-class dwellings and shops.
This is a country of huge contrasts, even more than most. There are some wonderful family homes to be seen on the road to Bekaa, with pillared porticoes and grand windows, sculptured topiary and ornate pavilions in the gardens. And there are ever more ornate mansions and palaces under construction. Yet within a few hundred yards are the homes of refugees, some just a few clustered in a field, others small towns, with lanes and alleys, homes made of rough timber frames covered in canvas and sacking, weighed down with old car tyres.
We are outsiders, of course we are, yet it seems to us that the thing uniting the people of this wonderful country, Muslim and Christian, rich and poor, aspirational middle class and displaced refugee, is that they are getting on with their lives, raising their children and sending them to school. Unless, of course, you are parents of the 2.8m Syrian children who don’t have a school to go to.
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