POPULATION: 3.1 million
LANGUAGE: Arabic (official); English; French
RELIGION: Islam; Christianity; Druze; Alawi; Baha'i
Lebanon is a small, war-torn country on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. Located on fertile territory at the crossroads of three continents—Africa, Asia, and Europe—it is a valuable and highly desired territory. Throughout its history, it has been the stage for conflicts between local tribes-people and world powers. After being ruled by the Ottoman Empire and by the French, Lebanon gained full independence in 1943.
The presence of Palestinian refugees and guerrilla bases, and tensions between Christians and Muslims, have led to continuing political instability and warfare in recent decades. However, the Lebanese people have continued to survive in the face of repeated disruptions of their economy and day-to-day life. From 1975 until 1991, civil war ruined Lebanon. Since the early 1990s, the government has gradually regained power but there are still incidents of political violence, especially in the south near Israel.
Lebanon is a tiny country. Its area is only a little more than 4,000 square miles (10,400 square kilometers)—about the size of the state of Connecticut. Lebanon has two mountain ranges, a coastal strip, and an inland plain. In former times it was famous for its cedars. However, due to centuries of deforestation, very few cedars are left. Those that remain are now protected.
The population of Lebanon is as varied as its terrain. The official population of Lebanon, excluding Palestinian refugees, is about 3.1 million. Most Lebanese are Arabs.
Arabic is the official language of Lebanon, but many Lebanese also speak English. For some, the French language still has the greatest prestige.
"Hello" in Arabic is marhaba or ahlan, to which one replies, marhabtayn or ahlayn. Other common greetings are as-salam alaykum ("peace be with you"), with the reply of walaykum as-salam ("and to you peace"). Ma'assalama means "goodbye." "Thank you" is shukran, and "you're welcome" is afwan. "Yes" is na'am and "no" is la'a. The numbers one to ten in Arabic are: wahad , itnin , talata , arba'a , khamsa , sitta , saba'a , tamania , tisa'a , and ashara .
One of the most popular characters in Arab folklore is Jeha the Fool. He figures in many stories, from teaching tales to purely humorous anecdotes. Also popular are the real-life lovers, Ablah and Antar. Antar was a sixth-century Arab who was born a slave but became a heroic warrior and a poet. Antar and Ablah, the chief's daughter, fell in love. But of course a slave could not marry the chief's daughter. Eventually, after many tragic struggles, Antar was given his freedom, and he and Ablah married.
The story of the Greek hero Adonis takes place at Byblos, in Lebanon. Also, Saint George, who later became the patron saint of England, lived in Lebanon. He fought the famous sea-dragon at the mouth of a river near Beirut. Most likely, the Christian Crusaders took Saint George's tale back with them to the West.
The Lebanese are very fond of proverbs and can quote one for almost any situation. Examples include "Better blind eyes than a closed mind," and "The one who took the donkey up to the roof should be the one who brings it down."
Christianity arrived in Lebanon during the Byzantine Roman era (AD 4–636). Its followers have since divided into a variety of sects including Maronite, Roman Catholic, Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox, Armenian Catholic, Armenian Orthodox, and Protestant. Islam was introduced in the seventh century ad. Muslims are now divided into Sunnis, several types of Shi'ites (including Ismaeli), and Sufis (Muslim mystics).
The Lebanese government keeps a record of every citizen's religious affiliation. A person may belong to any religion, but each person must belong to one. It is estimated that a little more than half of the Lebanese population is Muslim. The rest are mostly Christian. Seats in the government are based on religious representation.
The Lebanese celebrate both the Christian and Muslim holy days, plus a couple of secular public holidays. The major Muslim holidays are Ramadan, celebrated by complete fasting from dawn until dusk for an entire month; Eid al-Fitr, a three-day festival at the end of Ramadan; Eid al-Adha, a feast at the end of the hajj (the pilgrimage month to Mecca); the First of Muharram, the Muslim New Year; Ashura, a Shi'ite commemoration and day of mourning; and the Prophet Muhammad's birthday.
Two Easters are celebrated in Lebanon (both in late March or early April)—the Greek Orthodox date, and the date for the rest of the Christian population. Other Christian holidays include New Year's Day (January 1); St. Maroun's Day (the patron saint of Maronite Christians, February 9); the Day of the Ascension (May 15); the Feast of the Assumption (August 15); and Christmas and Boxing Day (December 25 and 26).
Three secular public holidays in Lebanon are: Labor Day (May 1); Martyrs' Day, which honors patriots killed by the Turks during World War I (May 6); and Independence Day (November 22).
The Christian New Year's Day (January 1) is celebrated in Beirut by shooting tracer bullets out over the Mediterranean Sea. It is also customary to go "strolling" along the coast road in one's car after midnight on New Year's. Such "strolling" is a Lebanese tradition for almost any festival.
Both Muslim and Christian children play a game with colored (hard-boiled) eggs at Easter time. One child taps the tip of his or her egg against the tip of another child's egg. The child whose egg stays intact while cracking everyone else's eggs wins the game. The children then eat their eggs.
Most Lebanese mark major life events, such as birth, marriage, and death, within the Islamic or Christian religious traditions.
The Lebanese lifestyle is relaxed, but by no means lazy. Opinions are strongly held and fiercely defended with vigorous gestures in heated discussions. At the market, the same vigor is used to haggle prices, something the average Lebanese is quite good at doing. A favorite Lebanese pastime is to sit and discuss politics or other hot topics—loudly. The same attitude prevails on the road, where there are few (if any) traffic signals or stop signs, and drivers simply "get ahead" as they need to. Pedestrians also cross the road whenever and wherever they choose, leaving it to drivers to stop for them.
Adapted from Salloum, Mary. A Taste of Lebanon. New York: Interlink Books, 1988, p. 102.
Traditional Arab hospitality reigns in Lebanon. Hosts provide feasts for their guests, then smoke the nargile (a water pipe) after dinner. Visits are usually not planned in advance. Lebanese are very affectionate with friends and family. They touch each other often, hold hands, and men may kiss each other on the cheeks. An Arab will never ask personal questions, as that is considered rude.
Until recently, Lebanon was a war-torn nation. Much of the capital city of Beirut was in ruins. So was a great deal of the rest of the country. Rebuilding is now under way in order to address a lack of housing, as well as unreliable gas and water supplies.
In rural areas, farmhouses are made of stone or concrete with tile floors. They have only a few necessary pieces of furniture. A small wood-burning or kerosene stove is used for heat in the winter. Most rural houses have running water.
Most city families are small, averaging two children each. Children usually live with their parents until they get married. Most businesses are family-owned and -run. The revenue sent back by family members working abroad has kept the Lebanese economy afloat during the recent, difficult war years.
Rural families generally live on small farms. They have many children to provide help with the farmwork—often as many as ten or fifteen. Women on the farms have a very busy life. They do all the cooking, cleaning, and laundry (in old-fashioned washtubs, with no electric dryers). They also work in the fields when needed.
Western-style fashions are popular in Lebanon's cities. Urban women are very fashion-conscious. More-traditional clothes are still worn in some villages. These include long dresses for women, and black pants and jackets for men. Men's pants are full and baggy from the waist to the knee, then tightly fitted from the knee to the ankle. Their jackets have fancy, brightly colored, embroidered trim. Some older rural men continue to wear the traditional short, cone-shaped, brown felt hat. Most modern Lebanese men, however, have traded it in for a keffiya, the common Arab head scarf
Lunch is the big meal in Lebanon. Almost everything is eaten with bread. Two types of unleavened Lebanese bread are khub, which resembles pita bread, and marqouq, which is paper-thin. Lebanese do not eat fish and dairy in the same meal. Mezze are popular in Lebanon, as elsewhere in the Middle East. Similar to appetizers, mezze basically consist of any food served in small portions. An entire meal can consist solely of mezze. The Lebanese national dish is kibbeh (or kibbe), made of either lamb or beef and cracked wheat (bulghur, or birghol ).
Common ingredients in Lebanese cooking include laban (similar to yogurt), rice, lentils, grape leaves (which are served with various stuffings, such as rice or meat), pine nuts, rose water, sesame seeds, chickpeas, tahini (sesame paste), and mint.
Wine has been made in Lebanon for thousands of years. A unique Lebanese alcoholic creation is arak, a colorless, 100-percent-alcohol beverage flavored with anise. Other popular beverages are coffee served very thick, tea with lots of sugar and no milk, and locally bottled spring water from the mountains.
Education is highly valued in Lebanon. There are five years of required education, with an attendance rate of over 90 percent. A major problem in Lebanon is a lack of standard education across the nation. Many Lebanese send their children to private schools. Each school emphasizes a different type of learning, so children receive vastly different educations.
Lebanon has long been known for its high-quality book publishing. A flourishing film industry produces high-quality films. A revival of folk art, music, and dance began in the late 1960s. The national folk dance of Lebanon is the debki, a line dance. People hold hands and step and stomp to the beat of a small drum called a derbekki . Belly dancing is also popular.
Lebanon has a high proportion of skilled labor among its labor force. However, there is a shortage of jobs for them. Many work outside the country or are unemployed. Business dealings are based on friendship. A great deal of "wining and dining" is done to establish connections before any business is conducted.
Soccer, basketball, and volleyball are popular. Cross-country running, particularly in the mountains, and the martial arts are widely practiced. Skiing, rock-climbing, and cave exploration are also enjoyed in the mountains. Many Lebanese go swimming and fishing in the lakes, rivers, or Mediterranean Sea. In the city, pigeon-shooting is a favorite sport.
The Lebanese love television. There are over fifty television stations in Lebanon, all of them commercial. Lebanese cinemas tend to show violent, sexy American and European films. Live theater is popular, as are nightclubs and pubs. At home, besides watching television, Lebanese enjoy playing board games (especially Monopoly), chess, checkers, card games, and backgammon. The Lebanese enjoyment of good conversation is so great that talking could even be called the national pastime.
The social center of rural life is the foorn, the village bakery where women bake their loaves of bread.
Traditional Lebanese crafts include basketry, carpet weaving, ceramics and pottery, copper-and metalworking, embroidery, glass-blowing, and gold-and silversmithing. Lebanon is also known for its finely crafted church bells. Wine making can also be considered an art, one that dates back thousands of years.
Warfare has caused widespread destruction throughout the country. At least 120,000 people were killed in the recent civil war and 300,000 were wounded, most of them civilians. Another 800,000 or so left the country, mostly the wealthy and well-educated. As many as 1,200,000 Lebanese—almost half the population—had to move from their homes and neighborhoods during the war.
The "Green Line" dividing Muslim Beirut and Christian Beirut is now the center of major urban reconstruction.
Bleaney, C. H. Lebanon. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Clio Press, 1991.
Eshel, Isaac. Lebanon in Pictures. Minneapolis, Minn.: Lerner Publications Co., 1988.
Foster, Leila Merrell. Enchantment of the World: Lebanon. Chicago, Ill.: Children's Press, 1992.
Marston, Elsa. Lebanon: New Light in an Ancient Land . New York: Dillon Press, 1994.