x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Out of touch with the beat of Beirut

In a move that must surely add insult to economic injury, a report has suggested that Lebanon's struggling hotels be used to house Syrian exiles.

In a move that must surely add insult to economic injury, a report, jointly written by Oxfam, the International Rescue Committee, the Danish Refugee Council, Save the Children and UK Aid, has suggested that Lebanon's struggling hotels be used to house Syrian exiles. The move, the quartet concludes, "could provide very good opportunities, for both Lebanese owners and refugees".
Whoever wrote the report (and given the organisations involved, I can't help but picture a group of hot and tired but ultimately well-meaning Birkenstock-shod, NGO types) might as well have suggested Lebanese hoteliers open their doors to escapees from a leper colony.
It's not that we are heartless or shot through with xenophobia, nor is this an indicator that our much-trumpeted Lebanese hospitality is on the wane; it is simply that Lebanon's tourist industry, much of which lives from season to season on the custom of holidaymakers and commercial travellers, will not easily embrace the idea of housing entire extended families that have been traumatised by death squads and who have fled with only what they can carry.
This was not how it was meant to be, and I will wager that few, if any, hotels will recalibrate their marketing cross-hairs and start handing out flyers at the border crossings. Even if, as Lebanon's tourism minister suggested, the NGOs [non-governmental institutions] foot the bill, they will not risk ruining their brand for a bit of short-term income. Ironic given that this is essentially how the economy works.
Lebanese tourism, which in a good year contributes 20 per cent of GDP, is nonetheless on its knees. At this time of year, I would normally be reluctant to step outside my front door, wary not only of the oppressive humidity, but also the hordes of overexcited visitors. Now they have all gone.
We used to be rather snooty about this annual invasion. It was, we decided, a seasonal annoyance and we would always make a mental note not to be here when they next came back. But the truth is that the noise and energy was the haemoglobin in Lebanon's lifeblood. We are a small, fun-loving country and when we don't have the volume turned up full blast something is normally wrong.
And things are wrong. No one has formally announced it yet but businesses, not just in the tourism sector, are letting people go, not something we do easily, given the sectarian and regional affiliations that define many companies.
But some businesses are playing a long game. Last week I attended a dinner for "Positive People" hosted by the perennially upbeat British ambassador, Tom Fletcher.I found myself sitting next to a man whose family owns one of Lebanon's most famous hotels. "Occupancy is about 30 per cent," he admitted, "but we are holding on to our staff because we have invested in training and we know that if and when things pick up we will need to be at our best."
So I guess that's quite "positive".
Meanwhile in my village there is some, but not too much, curiosity over the whereabouts of Ali, my gardener and neighbourhood odd-job man. Ali, who is Syrian, went home at the beginning of June to find his family from whom he had not heard anything in several months. He promised, rather optimistically on reflection, to return with them in 10 days. No one has heard a word from him and I am getting concerned.
Normally whenever Ali goes to Syria, he brings me perfume so pungent that just carrying it from the front door to the bin (yes I'm ashamed to say I immediately throw it away but what else can I do? Wear it?) leaves a smell that can take up to 24 hours to dissipate.
Ali's absence is palpable. His room is as he left it. His bed neatly made and his teapot and glasses, stove, bowl and spoon stowed away. His frayed prayer mat, however, went with him.
I would gladly receive another bottle of cheap perfume just to learn he and is family are safe.
Who knows I might even put them up in a hotel.
 
Michael Karam is a freelance journalist based in Beirut