I spent my earliest years in Beirut before my family returned to the UK, and when I was at school here in the 1980s, the phrase “it’s like Beirut” was bandied around.
The Lebanese capital, once called the Paris of the Middle East, became synonymous with a brutal civil war, the kidnapping of Terry Waite and bullet-scarred buildings.
And now the phrase is sadly relevant again after a blast last week killed more than 150, injured 5,000 and left 300,000 homeless.
How much heartache can one nation take?
Rubber bullets and tear gas were used on Beirutis who took to the streets at the weekend to voice their anger at the corruption and incompetence of the political ruling class that let 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate sit unguarded at the port for six years, despite warnings.
Yesterday, all members of the Government – an uneasy alliance between Lebanon’s largest Christian-majority party, the Free Patriotic Movement and the Iranian-backed Shia militia Hezbollah –stepped down.
PM Hassan Diab, who is a Sunni Muslim but is backed by Hezbollah, said his cabinet now assumes a caretaker role until a new government is formed. Sweeping away the regime may appease public anger but it will not rebuild this shattered and battered country or stave off impending bankruptcy.
Lebanon needs at least £4billion to repair the blast’s damage. But it needs more to stabilise its currency, reform its bureaucracy and make modern business possible again.
What happens now for Lebanon relies on the efforts of President Emmanuel Macron of France, a country with close ties to its former colony, to help it navigate this political vacuum and ensure the days of civil war, clashes with Israel and interference by Iran, Saudi Arabia and Syria are kept at bay.
And what happens later this month at the UN Special Tribunal to find those behind the 2005 suicide bombing that killed Sunni billionaire and former PM Rafik Hariri is also incredibly important for loosening Hezbolllah’s grip on the country.
Four alleged members are on trial in absentia after leader Hassan Nasrallah refused to hand them over. “Hezbollah is putting its hands on the whole country,” protester Zeina Jaffar, 34, said. “We don’t want it any more. We hate Hezbollah. We just want peace, food, jobs.”
Macron is also overseeing fundraising. Britain has pledged £25million with the total raised so far topping £190million.
Tens of thousands also back a petition calling for Lebanon to be returned to French control.
It is hard to pinpoint where it all went wrong, particularly as the country was thriving in recent years. To understand this tragedy, you need to start with a brief history of the country’s tumultuous past.
Beirut’s glamour and glitz was turned on its head in 1975, when a 15-year civil war broke out, creating divisions that would linger for years.
I was born in 1981, in Bedford, after my Lebanese dad met my mum at a nightclub in the town. I was three weeks old when we moved to Beirut.
It is a complicated place where bikinis and hijabs coexist, and tempers and passion can collide. But it has a tremendous heart.
It is a place where dollars are accepted everywhere and nearly everybody speaks English, as well as French. It is a frenetic place with constant horn-honking from everything from battered old Mercedes taxis to blinged-up sports cars. If you don’t fall in love with it, you’ve failed to let the place get under your skin.
When my uncle Sami became a casualty of the war in 1984, my family returned to Bedford. Lebanon finally stumbled out of that brutal civil war but two Israeli invasions and bombing campaigns followed. Political assassinations decimated the progressives, notably Hariri, the man credited with ending the civil war and the architect of rebuilding downtown Beirut.
His death in 2005 sparked the Cedar Revolution in which a million took to the streets, leading to the end of 30 years of Syrian occupation.
Lebanon started to recover, marketed globally again as a place where you can ski in the morning and sunbathe on Mediterranean beaches in the afternoon.
Tourist numbers were up and the middle classes seemed more comfortable than ever. But then, Syria exploded into war, sending 1.5 million refugees its way, adding to 500,000 Palestinians. The country weathered this storm but was then walloped with another last year.
The corrupt warlords who have governed the country since the end of the civil war in 1990, in a precarious power-sharing agreement which balances political control between the 18 different sects, put Lebanon in debt up to its eyeballs.
An economic crisis hit, plunging most of the country into poverty after the Lebanese Lira lost 80% of its value. Power cuts were frequent, rubbish piled up in streets. Savings were wiped out and ordinary people were hungry. Then Covid-19 hit.
Even before the blast, the UN said a million people in Lebanon lived beneath the poverty line.
Now, I fear last week’s disaster is more than the famously resilient Lebanese people can take.
After the civil war, thousands flocked abroad, resulting in a diaspora bigger than the country’s population. The largest communities are in Salvador, Brazil and Sydney, Australia.
I’m hoping the brave Lebanese who stay will dig deep to find the last reserves of their famous resilience, so Beirut can be rebuilt again. But this time for good, without its rotten foundations.