Lebanon
Adrian Guerin

From Beirut to the Syrian border

Although small in landmass, Lebanon is huge when measured in terms of its diversity. Politically, culturally and religiously, it is a land of infinite juxtapositions. Cosmopolitan cafes in one town, sectarian skirmishes the next. A mosque on one corner, a vibrant gay scene up the road. Politically polarised yet somehow relatively stable, the sectarian balancing act of Lebanese politics is enshrined in the country’s constitution: the president must be Christian; the prime minister Sunni Muslim; and speaker of parliament Shia Muslim. Rather than separate these photos into albums based on region and subject, I have decided to present them as a single body of work, emphasising the juxtapositions of this fascinating country. A significant portion of the album is devoted to refugees, as almost a quarter of Lebanon’s population is dispossessed from neighbouring wars.

Local fishermen try their luck in one of the few remaining public spaces along the Mediterranean in Beirut. Over development has resulted in Lebanon’s entire 220km coastline being filled with private resorts and marinas, creating an existential threat to Lebanon’s fishing industry. Depleted fish sources and pollution have exacerbated the threat; indiscriminate illegal nets have decimated the local fish population, while industrial waste dumped into the sea has polluted the waters.

Kids on the seashore esplanade in Beirut. This is where bikers, walkers, joggers, families and friends come for some respite from the frenetic pace of Beirut.

A child prepares to take the plunge into a rock pool in Dalieh, Beirut. Dalieh is a natural peninsula of sand dunes, lush soil and sedimentary rock cliffs that gradually fold into tide pools. It’s one of the few remaining stretches of coastline open to the public and its future remains uncertain due to a proposed luxury resort.

Juxtapositions are a plenty in Beirut. While large sections of the coast hosts beach clubs, poolside parties and DJs, the southern part of the city hosts refugee camps and occasional car bombings. The central district is like another city altogether; this is the place for history and culture; mosques and churches; parks and squares, not to mention the myriad of shops, cafes and restaurants. It’s so plush that private contractors are employed to not only maintain clean streets, but also to dust poles.

A child listens to his father, whose reflection can be seen in the background, in south Beirut. The neighbourhoods of south Beirut have a colourful reputation. With around half a million inhabitants, the area struggles with poverty and sporadic violence. During the July War in 2006, the area was heavily bombed by Israel, resulting in several areas being largely destroyed. It has also suffered from a raft of terrorist attacks as the war in Syria threatens to spill over. Despite the challenges, I found the locals to be welcoming and the streets lively. 75 new cafes have opened since 2000, and while I would stop short of comparing the café-culture of the city’s south to that of the north, there is certainly much more to the area than violence and poverty.

A boy hones his technique at the Beirut Municipal Stadium. Located in the heart of one of the city’s most densely populated districts, Mala’ab, the stadium provides rare open space for locals to exercise and escape the traffic fumes nearby. Not only is it home to two local clubs, Al-Ansar and Shabab Al-Sahel, it also plays host to a number of lively kids matches on any given day.

A Palestinian carpenter in his workshop in the Shatila refugee camp in south Beirut. The camp is home to nearly 10,000 registered Palestinian refugees, many of whom are descendants of those who fled to Lebanon when the state of Israel was created in 1948. According to the UNRWA, there are nearly 5 million registered descendants of Palestinian refugees throughout the Middle East. Nearly one-third live in camps in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem. Unless Palestine achieves statehood, they will remain stateless and stripped of their basic human rights.

A Palestinian refugee plays on the back of a truck in south Beirut. Beirut is a city that has offered shelter to displaced people throughout history. Palestinians, Iraqis, Assyrians, Sudanese and, most recently, Syrians, have all sought refuge in the sprawling Mediterranean city. However, the dramatic influx of Syrian refugees fleeing the civil war has resulted in Beirut’s refugee camps being completely overwhelmed. As a percentage of its population, Lebanon has the most refugees in the world.

A Palestinian refugee attempts to climb the side of a truck while playing with his friends in Shatila refugee camp in south Beirut. Palestinian refugees remain a marginalised community in Lebanon. Not only are they are not allowed Lebanese citizenship, they are also banned from accessing state healthcare, owning property and seeking work on the same terms as Lebanese citizens. The division extends to children who are denied access to Lebanese public schools. NGOs offer free education though the School dropout rate for Palestinian children 10 years and older is 39%, ten times higher than for Lebanese children.

Less than one square kilometre in size, Shatila camp in south Beirut houses thousands of Palestinian refugees in damp and overcrowded shelters. There is no greenery in the camp, and the only running water is unsuitable for drinking. The tangled wires that hang overhead electrocute several people each year. Garbage, rubble and puddles line the streets. Despite the bleak conditions, the Palestinians I met did not invite pity, instead choosing to make the best of their situation. Many seemed astonishingly upbeat, including this mechanic who added a little swagger to this photo.

A friendly shopkeeper in the ancient city of Baalbek in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley. Located just 7 miles from the Syrian border, residents in Baalbek live under the constant shadow of war. Violence from the Syrian conflict has spilled into the nearby town of Arsal on several occasions in the past few years. In 2014, Islamic State and Islamist group Nusra Front mounted a series of incursions and briefly took Arsal, before the Lebanese Army and Hezbollah reclaimed it.

Syrian refugees from Aleppo, Kobani and Damascus drink chai in Baalbek. Well over a million Syrians have sought refuge in Lebanon in the past 5 years. While Lebanon has arguably done more than any country to absorb this unfolding human tragedy, life for Syrians in Lebanon remains difficult. Lebanese law and ministerial decrees mean refugees have no automatic right to work or access social security. Despite the hardship, these Syrians were amazingly hospitable, offering food, drink and conversation.

A woman in her home in Baalbek. She is celebrating Eid al-Adha with her large and enthusiastic family. Eid al-Adha is an Islamic festival commemorating the willingness of Ibrahim to follow Allah’s command to sacrifice his son Ishmael.

Palestinian twins on their way to class in Wavel Refugee Camp in Baalbek. Originally an army barrack, the camp was formed in 1948 when hundreds of thousands of Palestinians were expelled from or forced to flee their homeland in the wake of the creation of the state of Israel. Many of the camp’s inhabitants are descendants of those who fled nearly 70 years ago. Living conditions at Wavel are particularly severe. Many refugees still live in the original army barracks, which lack daylight and ventilation.

A Syrian refugee in her makeshift tent in the Bekaa Valley in the east of Lebanon. At the height of the civil war in 2015, The UN registered nearly half a million refugees living in camps in the Bekaa Valley, many of whom had escaped the besieged Syrian city of Aleppo.

There are over one million Syrian refugees in Lebanon, three quarters of whom are women and children. Many have been forced to support their families alone for the first time in their lives. Although they are legally not allowed to work in Lebanon, accepting low paid work such as farming, house-work and jobs in customer service is the only way to survive.