Just back home in rainy Brighton after a week in Lebanon. By chance, I was booked on a mid-morning flight and I now know, after two decades of flying in and out of Beirut, this is the ideal time to get out of Dodge. By then, the early flights to Europe, most of which need to meet connections to the US, have left, and the scenes that make the American evacuation from Saigon look like a tai chi class have been replaced by a mausoleum-like calm.
The only downside was that, now that I no longer have access to the Cedar lounge (I was downgraded to Blue status – a rookie error of dividing loyalty between two carriers) I had to avail myself of one of the two CafÃ© Matiks in the departure area, a business that appears to make no apology over the fact that it has integrated daylight robbery into its business model: $7.50 for a double espresso in a paper cup. Seriously?
Still, I did have the good fortune to fly to London on one of Middle East Airlines’ (MEA) swanky new Airbus A330s. The in-flight experience is swisher; the complimentary earphones stay in your ears, and the cabin crew is slowly learning to smile. But to fully get what it means to deliver great in-flight service, MEA should take a leaf out the easyJet training manual. The UK-owned low-cost airline has easily the friendliest cabin crew I have encountered, even nudging the equally cheery BA staff into second place.
Maybe it’s a case of managing expectations. I met a British couple in Beirut on business, who told me they were pleasantly surprised by the MEA experience after expecting to share the plane with every worrying Arab clichÃ© their mind could muster. Instead they got the full-on Lebanese bling.
But did they like Beirut? They adored it, and I have a theory that Europeans love Lebanon because it dispenses with the sort of structure that runs their lives back home. OK, many Lebanese will roll their eyes and tap the sides of their heads, wondering why the very culture they are trying to eradicate in a bid to get some order in their lives should be so appealing to foreigners, but I would also wager there is no country like Lebanon – or a city like Beirut – that offers such an appealing blend of warmth, hospitality, generosity of spirit and exoticism, all at a decent price.
It is the Teflon nation. The civil war could not wholly eradicate its charm, while today there has been no president for two years, the economy is in tatters, ISIL lurks in the Syrian mountains and another rubbish crisis looms.
Then there was the lush feature in last week’s colour supplement of The International New York Times, which devoted a staggering 14 pages to the beautiful people of Beirut and their equally breathtaking homes. It gave Lebanon’s capital a grandeur and majesty that would send a shiver down the spine of anyone seeking a sense of otherness in an increasingly homogenised world.
I mentioned the piece at a Beirut dinner party in the company of a dozen foreign correspondents, many of whom had been witness to Lebanon’s less salubrious side over the years, and was immediately shot down with hoots of derision. The consensus was that it didn’t show the “real” Lebanon. The trouble is there is no “one” Lebanon. It did, however, show “a” Lebanon and will have done more to banish the negative and build a seductive image of Lebanon and the Lebanese than any of the well-meaning, but ultimately lacklustre and hackneyed efforts by the ministry of tourism over the past two-and-a-half decades.
What’s my point? Well, I guess it always comes back to the same place. That Lebanon aches with the potential – location, history, climate, people and even food – to be among the most fascinating, mysterious and glamorous (did I get enough adjectives in there?) destinations on the planet.
With the Arab tourists staying away, Lebanon needs to look to Europe. After all, MEA needs to fill those new aircraft.
Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton