Lebanese pride in Irish connection

So it turns out we Lebanese are related to the Irish; or to put it more accurately, the Irish are related to us. The boffins at Trinity College in Dublin recently ran DNA tests on millennia-old skeletons and concluded that much of the “dark” Irish population is descended from Stone Age farmers from what is now Lebanon and Syria who took part in a mass migration to the emerald isle 6,000 years ago. The red-headed, freckly lot are apparently descended from Scandinavians who didn’t arrive until much later.

It must have been a heck of a hike to be sure, but they apparently brought with them new agricultural techniques and knowledge of ceramics, as well as (apparently this is important) the ability to drink and digest milk.

When I was in Japan last year, I met Hani Debs, a third- generation Lebanese expat, whose eponymous family firm was established in the late 19th century in the southern city of Kobe. “The idea was to go as far east as possible,” he told me. They went where no one else had gone to find the better opportunities.” Was it this “go until you can go no further” philosophy that drove the intrepid Lebanese to reach the western edge of what we now know as Europe?

News of an alleged Irish connection didn’t really surprise me. I am not the only Lebanese who has felt an affinity with the country and its people, and I’m not just talking about the wonderful rapport established between the Lebanese and the 30,000 Irish UN troops who served in South Lebanon, between 1978 and 2001.

I would argue it is something a bit deeper, even if my conclusions are based on a one-hour conversation with a taxi driver in 2009 when I went to Ireland for my niece’s wedding. He and his brother (who also drove a cab) owned a cafe with a petrol station in the forecourt. He was also a local handyman and was building a home for both of their families. He could have come from my village.

Ireland, of course, is very much on the rebound after the so-called Celtic tiger was so brutally mauled in 2008. It is sharpening its claws. Exports are up, unemployment is down and property prices in Dublin are recovering.

Sadly the same cannot be said for Lebanon, whose government is making little or no effort to confront an increasingly rickety economy. The latest example of buffoonery is the “solution” to Lebanon’s nine-month rubbish problem by reopening the landfill at Naameh, south of Beirut, the closure of which sparked the crisis in the first place. Other proposals – putting the rubbish collection contract out to tender or exporting our trash to countries where it could be processed – foundered amid allegations of corruption and sectarian infighting.

Meanwhile, another admittedly less serious situation, but one that is nonetheless symptomatic of the Lebanese malaise of greed and incompetence, is the fate of the Beirut’s racecourse, or Hippodrome. The sand track course is one of the few remaining green areas in the city but it needs financial assistance if it is to survive. If it closes, more than 1,000 people will lose their livelihoods as the property developers who have been allowed to tear down what remained of Beirut’s heritage move in and build even more residential units.

If it were spruced up, the Hippodrome could be a massive tourist draw – just look at Dubai – but Beirut’s municipality simply doesn’t have the vision to see it and has refused to subsidise the historic institution, which celebrates its centenary this year, on the grounds that it is unwilling to back a venture that promotes gambling.

Even so, the council has a duty at the very least to provide a green space for its residents, and if it really wants to do away with a tradition that was created in the last years of the Ottoman Empire, then it should create a decent public park for the citizens of Beirut. My bet, as it were, is that the developers will win.

The Irish, of course, love their horses and last week thousands of “green” racing fans crossed the Irish Sea to attend the Cheltenham Festival, the biggest National Hunt meeting in the British racing calendar, further proof the organisers said that the Irish economy was in rude health.

I guess you could say they’ve done us proud.

Michael Karam is a freelance writer who lives between Beirut and Brighton


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