Known to many as the Paris of the Middle East and the birthplace of the Alphabet, Beirut is a bastion of Arab culture. Night life, good food, plastic surgery offices and fast cars epitomise this city. It is hard to imagine that this hustling, bustling city, with its crazy drivers and soldiers dotted around key points, has a long, unbroken connection, with Greece. I say unbroken as there has been a Greek presence here since before Megas Alexandros and his all conquering military captured Tyre in 332 BC.
On my first night here, I was invited by Ms Marilena Caponis and her family to dine with them at a Lebanese restaurant on the outskirts of Beirut. It was a night I won’t forget. After hours of Arabic dancing, shisha and never ending food, the band whose singer spoke Greek, played a number of Greek tunes. As the entire restaurant stopped to watch as my hosts put on a show of Greek dancing, it hit me…. that the Greek culture in this Arabic heartland is still evident and going strong. Lebanon, like many countries in the Middle East has long been associated with conflict and foreign occupiers. It seems though this has failed to stop the Greek culture for being maintained in one form or another.
In classical times when the Greeks were conquering territories in Europe, Asia and Africa, Lebanon was overlooked. It was the domain of the Phoenicians, the people who gave us the Alphabet and purple dye. I have no doubt that the Lebanese are drawn from many different people, and it is hard to argue that some are not the descendents of the Phoenicians. Whilst the Greeks had a trading presence in Lebanon, mainly through Athens and the Ionians, it wasn’t until Alexander that the Hellenes gained control of this region; the gateway to Asia.
After the death of Alexander, his general Seleucis established the Seleucid (Hellenistic) Kingdom out of Syria, lasting until the First Century BC when the Romans took control. The Greek speaking Byzantine Empire regained control by the 4th Century AD and for the next 500 years, they fought with the medieval Persians and then the emerging Arab tribes for control of Lebanon.
The last time that Byzantium held any real power in Lebanon was under Basil II during the 11th Century for a brief period. Looking over the Byzantine period, and indeed as far back as that of Alexander, the Greek language was arguably the lingua franca of Lebanon and the local administration. What is harder to determine is when the Greek language was superseded by Arabic. It may have been overtaken by the 800’s, certainly, the Greek Orthodox religion remained strong here until well after the Crusaders came and went by the 13th Century.
The invasion of the Ottomans in the 15th Century added a new twist. Greek was the second
language of the Ottoman Empire and the Greek Orthodox religion for most of Sultans’ rule was tolerated (at least until the 19th Century). Greek Orthodox followers were ruled as a ‘millet’ (nation) by the Patriarch from Constantinople, which meant that Greek as a language played a strong role in a region with almost half the population adhering to the Greek Orthodox faith.
With its history of conflict, not many people outside of the Middle East and Europe make the visit here, though when you do, it really is worth the trip. Beirut (Byrito), traditionally being a strong trading port on the Mediterranean and close to Cyprus, has naturally attracted many Hellenes.
The Ottomans did not undertake trading, hence this became dominated by Greeks, with many
finding their way to the Arab world. Even after the end of Ottoman rule, the Greek presence in Beirut remained.
Throughout the 20th Century, you could find Greek shops, tavernas, Greek bars and even a
Greek newspaper, in a sense bringing Athens to Beirut. In 1975 that all changed. According to Mr Dimitris Fellas, an active member of the Greek Community. The Civil War wasn’t just a disaster for Lebanon, it was a disaster for the Greek Community. He told me that most the Greeks were forced to leave to go to Greece or Cyprus. The once thriving Greek community of perhaps 50,000 had dwindled to just a small number by 1990 when hostilities ended. In the years that followed,the number of Greeks decreased even further. Today there are approximately 3,500, with many of them married to native Arab speakers, which may make it difficult to sustain the Greek culture in future generations.
I met a number of people in Beirut that shine like a beacon of hope in maintaining the Greek culture. In fact, if you listen to Yorghos and Eleny, you will think that Beirut is another Athens and nothing will ever erode Hellenism in this city.
Since 1945 there has been one constant for local Greek speakers, that of the Greek Community and also the Greek Community Club which is located opposite the port. I met with the former President of the Greek Community, Mr Takis Papadopoulos, committee member, Mr Costas Photiades, who was born in Beirut, and the Secretary, Ms Ariane Kodjabachi at the Club. They gave me an insight into the work they do. At its peak, there was a Greek School as part of the Community, however, it closed during the Civil War, which they described as the ‘katastrophe tis Elliniki Glossa.’
With no regular school, it was hard for the next generation of Greek children and youth to learn Greek, a fundamental element of maintaining the Greek culture. The Community does offer a teacher from Greece, Antypas Kyriacos, a man who has spent 13 years teaching Greek in Arab countries, including Egypt, Jordan, Dubai, and also in Germany. I met some of the children in his class and was impressed to see how young these kids were making an effort to learn Greek. In total there are 120 students of various levels.
The representatives of the Community indicated that 8 – 10% of Lebanese adhere to the Greek Orthodox faith, though it must be pointed that whilst many may have Greek origins, they are essentially Lebanese. Their view was that unless a new Greek school was built soon, it will be hard to ensure the survival of the Greek culture and language, especially as there is limited support from the Greek and Cypriot governments.
As I was staring outside the window overlooking the Port, Mr Photiades told me that the Greeks of Lebanon built what I was gazing upon, the port of Beirut. Indeed Greek engineers and workers have been involved in many such projects in Beirut over the years.
What can define an identity?
It can be difficult to provide an answer to that question. However, in Beirut, I found a simple answer. It is what is in your heart. I met with some of the Greek youth and their mentors, Marilena and Dimitris, who are both on the Committee of the Greek Club.
One such young person is Eleny Caponis who told me, ‘I couldn’t imagine myself not being
born Greek!’ Indeed, her mother Marilena is half Greek and half Lebanese, whilst her father is a Greek Diplomat born in Beirut. She was raised in a Greek environment as a child, however, after being enrolled at a French school, the Greek influences became less and less, having no Greek friends. It wasn’t until the age of 18 that she once again ‘woke up’ and re-discovered her Greek heritage. When she visits Greece with her younger sister, Andreana, she has a sense of belonging to Greece, a natural fit rather than a tourist visiting for their summer holiday. One of the first words Eleny learnt was ‘pandofles….’ for those Greek kids who were naughty, many a time
were the ‘pandofles’ brought out to good use. I also met Eleny’s partner who is half Lebanese and half Greek, indicative of a growing trend of local Hellenes having two cultures to draw upon.
Cousin Yorghos is an ever present with the Caponis family. When I met Yorghos, I felt I was staring at another Greek in Athens…. a relaxed demeanour, bearded, plate smashing, smoker who you will inevitably find dancing Zorba. I had an interesting conversation, one that gave me hope about the continued Greek presence and gave me a reality check at the same time. Over coffee he told that he ‘has high hopes for his children (one day)’ to maintain their Greek heritage and language. However, he felt that the future of local Hellenic culture is under threat and it could cease in the next two generations. To prevent this from happening, he believes that more young
people should be involved in the running of Hellenic affairs in Beirut, especially now that they have the will and determination to add value.
I was fortunate enough to meet a number of others from the youth group, whose ages range from their teens to the late 20’s, such as Anthony Semenoglou who found a connection to the culture through the youth group. They all meet once a week under the guidance of Marilena to learn Greek dancing. Many of the group had never learnt to dance as children. Marilena confided in me that Yorghos was shy initially, but now he is very much an extrovert and always happy to dance the night away!
Marilena is a real key to the maintenance of Hellenic culture in Beirut. Along with Dimitris, she is a mentor to the young people, and you can see not a mother figure or an aunt, rather she is someone who can engender the Greek ideals. Across Beirut she is known for her dedication to the Greek cause and as a dance choreographer/teacher. She is also the Coordinator of the internationally renown AUB (American University of Beirut) Folk Festival. I was amazed by the energy she has. True to her personality, she is a perfect fit for the Greek youth, in fact it is hard to separate her from the group as she is very much a friend. Marilena made the point, an obvious one, about how special Lebanon is and the fact she is proud of her beautiful country. She went
on to tell me that, ‘we are also Greek first.’ When you consider how difficult it is maintain a sense of Hellenism outside of Greece when your community is dwindling, it is somewhat an incredible statement and perhaps a sentiment that resonates across the Greek community here. In contrast, Dimitris tells me that he feels Greek, though, he believes he may be more Lebanese.
If you find the Greek youth on Facebook, you will be amazed at how active they have become. Regular Greek nights and reaching out to Hellenes across Beirut. The young people certainly appear to be leaders in the making. My hope is that the Greek and Cypriot governments and all members of the local community give them resources and support to help sustain Hellenism.
Another young man I met is George Eid. A product of the fusion of Greek and Arabic. His mother is Greek, tracing her ancestry back to Smyrna in Asia Minor (Turkey) and a great, grandmother from Samos. The uncle of his grandfather went to the US with Aristotle Onassis and wrote a letter to his friends about this ambitious young man!
George had a good understanding of Greek as a boy, with his grandparents speaking to him
in Greek and his cousins have held on to the language, making regular trips to Cyprus. He has spent a year in Cyprus though he confesses that his grasp of Greek is not what it should be these days. The first thing he said, which he reiterated after coffee, was that he feels Greek, as well as Lebanese. What was important for me is that he is 28 and a prominent political and social journalist. He told me something which was poignant to my story and that of the Greeks of the Diaspora, ‘You cannot destroy a history.’ And in Lebanon, the Greek history is there, for it was his grandfather who taught him the folk song, ‘Kounia Bella,’ something he will no doubt teach his
children one day. As we finished up he said to me, ‘Lebanon is a society of acceptance, no matter what the origins of people, it is a great place to be.’
Hellenism in Beirut has dealt with many obstacles over the past 2000 thousand years. Despite these obstacles it appears that the Greek spirit, matched by the Arabic tenacity, is ensuring that Hellenism remains a presence here. Its future depends now on the strength of the emerging young people, and when you think that a young Megas Alexandros spread Hellenism to these parts, I expect that the current generation will make a lasting contribution to Greek history. Beirut, may be the Paris of the Middle East, but it is also the Athens of this ancient region.