As Fayruz says….. bhebak ya lebnan
“Ahla wa sahla saadet el safir” said my welcoming team at the airport – “shoukran, please call me Chris, and do speak to me in Arabic” I said back. That was only 5 weeks ago – it seems much further back.
Lebanon has a reputation for outstanding hospitality, stunning beauty and great food. I now know it deserves every accolade. I can see why in the 19th Century Lady Hester Stanhope never left, why some of the British citizens I met a few weeks ago in Achrafieh stayed throughout the 1980s, and why many of the Embassy’s British employees stay or regularly return. Lebanon is a beguiling place.
My family and I have settled into your wonderful country very well. My wife and I had visited Lebanon before, and have wanted to live here for many years – our hopes are becoming fulfilled. The beauty of the Shouf, the wonder of the Bekaa, and the allure of the Mediterranean coast are unrivalled.
We have all taken something different from our first weeks. But there has been a common theme in the family: the Arabic language. The children have learned their first songs (“Fi Saba3at Ayam” is a particular favourite), my wife has just started a course to get to the next level, and I took my exams in the British Council (no results yet!).
I’m only struggling with two things. Firstly, the pace of socialising. Everyone has been so kind and welcoming (thanks to you all) that most nights there are competing functions, and many nights there are 2 dinners. They are stimulating occasions – and I’m learning that if it rains at an opening event, that’s good luck. I’m becoming relieved to get 6.5 hours sleep – Mrs Thatcher famously lived off 4 hours, but I’m afraid that’s not me. And I’m quite pleased to have added only 2 kg in 5 weeks. Though my maths is good enough to know that that rate spells trouble.
And secondly, I have not yet seen as much outside Beirut as I would have liked. That is a priority for the coming weeks, and I look forward to meeting many of you on my travels. As Khalil Gibran wrote, “Forget not that the earth delights to feel your bare feet and the winds long to play with your hair”.
My priority since arrival has been to listen and learn. There is so much to hear and to discuss, and everyone is so ready to do so. Listening is a skill to perfect in Lebanon: of all the countries I have ever lived in, here seems to be where you need to explore the issues from the most angles.
One of the great privileges as British Ambassador is to have a wonderful team and programmes that allow us to work with and talk to so many Lebanese people and so much of your State. Visiting Hamat to congratulate the 10,000th LAF soldier we had trained, and to see the effect of our training, was an honour. No less impressive is the impact Embassy, DFID and British Council programmes are having in Education, Service Delivery and in improving the lives of the most vulnerable. With others, we are clearing mines in the Bekaa and the south, and in doing so saving lives. We will continue doing all this.
And as I look at the future, I know that the UK and Lebanon will become more closely connected. I have met brilliant applicants for our Chevening programme (deadline 6 Nov: get applying!), who are the change-makers of the future and hope to pursue their Masters in the UK on a fully-funded scholarship. More and more Lebanese students are attending British Universities.
I have chatted too to senior businessmen and women about the potential for developing trade and will next week meet the Beirut Chamber of Commerce and the Association of Banks of Lebanon, the backbone of Lebanon’s economy. We are also working with the Lebanese Embassy in the UK to make the UK-Lebanon Business and Investment Forum in London in December as powerful as it can be. We hope a new Government will be formed soon – we have done our work on how we can support it, and are ready as soon as required.
So, both personally and professionally, I’m grateful to all who have helped me and my family in these early weeks, and offered the wisdom of their insights. I look forward to meeting many, many more of you over the coming weeks, months and years. And to joining you in celebrating your 75th Independence Day next month.