12 August 2008

Another Country


This is a smallish hardback with an unclipped dustjacket (21/-, i.e. £1.05) with a list of similar travel guides on the back including The Bernese Oberland, The Dalmation Coast, and Andalusia.

First thing on a random opening is a recipe for something called 'kibbeh', a dish of cubed lamb that is pounded for an hour in a mortar and mixed with salt, pepper and a kind of cracked wheat called 'burghal'. This can be eaten raw or cooked in a shallow tray. Apparently the dish is so popular that the sound of meat being bashed with a heavy pestle is just a part of the background noise of the Lebanon.

Leafthrough. This is neatly laid out in 12 sections interspersed with pages of black and white photographs. The first part runs through all the basics from visas to opening hours and medical services. Subsequent parts look at the major towns and areas including Beirut. The book is in such clean condition (no foxing here, or biro marks or dog-ears) that it's hard to imagine that it was ever stuffed into a suitcase or repeatedly pulled out of a traveller's pocket.

The front bits tell me that this is the first edition published by Alvin Redman of Fleet Street, London in 1965. Redman's publisher's emblem seems a little 'incorrect' to modern eyes being a profile drawing of a native American chief in full-feathered head dress. The author, Nina Nelson, has also produced a guide to Egypt for the same publisher.

Looking into it. It may seem obvious, but travel guides are written in the present tense. This gives an immediacy to the descriptions of people and places that whets the appetite of the prospective tourist. It is different from the genre known as travel writing where tales are told as recollection. This is functional writing designed to help the reader feel as if they are there, now.

This quality is given a particularly sharp focus in this book. For many Europeans and Americans who lived through the 70s and 80s, the Lebanon, and Beirut in particular, conjure images of rubble-strewn streets and layer upon layer of gutted concrete apartment blocks. And although the 15-year civil war that pinned those images into the Western consciousness has been over for quite a while now, the country still seems only a step away from further tragedy. Contemporary events like the killing of Prime Minister Hariri and the July 2006 war with Israel (from which the country's infrastructure has not yet recovered) mean that it still seems like a place locked in a volatile limbo.

But for anyone reading this book, the Lebanon is the land of milk and honey, with Beirut an exotic playground of casinos, sumptuous hotels and fine restaurants - the Paris of the Orient. Here you can book into the Hotel Bristol and sample the Diner Touristique prepared by master chef Nageeb who, if asked how he came to be one of the best cooks in the region, will simply pat his stomach and smile. You can flag down a service taxi with its red licence plate, jump in with whatever passengers he is already carrying and be whisked off to the Souk Tawile to buy tweeds from Scotland or sportswear from California. And you can round off the evening at one of the city's 20 or more cinemas or at Pepe Abad's Bacchus Caves night club with its celebrity wall signed by famous visitors and its authentic Roman columns.

The Lebanon described here is one that seems at ease with itself in a brief few years of apparent calm between the intrusions of the Turks, the French and the British and the late 20th-century horrors of civil war and persistent violence.

Travellers will always travel, whatever the risks or discomforts, and return to tell their tales. But there has also long been a species of tourist that has wanted to find something a little different from the usual. I'm sure it must still be true, as Nina Nelson notes, that the Lebanon is probably the only place in the world where you can sunbathe on a Mediterranean beach in the morning and go skiing in the afternoon. It is also packed with ancient sites that are of mind-boggling significance and it would be fun to take this modest guidebook and see how much of the author's Lebanese experience can still be had.