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Frances GuyAmbassador to the Republic of Lebanon, Beirut
I got a Christmas card which said in French "the cedars create unanimity". Well maybe it was a political point but it made me think. The Cedars of Lebanon as symbol is poignant. It is an indigenous species that is listed as endangered. Quite - where do so many different confessional groups live in relative harmony? It takes a long time to grow, growing initially at less than 10 inches a year but reaching over 20 metres. The oldest trees in Lebanon are over 1,000 years old but there are oh so few of them. I took a visitor to the Barouk cedar reserve this holiday. Cold, snowy, stark and stunning. We went back to the plantation of new trees planted about 5 years ago. "But they have hardly grown!" said my guest. So all those who have planted a tree and put their name to it are investing in a future that is far away. Combine that with the fact that it is difficult to propagate; a Lebanese cedar can only be produced from a seed from a female cone and that can take up to 30 years for a tree to produce.
The Cedar of Lebanon likes deep soil in slopes facing the sea. It needs light and moisture. It grows to be majestic and it has contributed to so many different civilisations; the Phoenicians used it for ships; the Egyptians for ships and its resin for mummification; the Ottomans and the British were more prosaic but the railways benefitted. There are few cedars left in Lebanon but they are magnificent and could yet really be a symbol of unity, hope and strength. But that strength needs nurturing and it needs a commitment now to that future for the generations far in the future who will share our gaze on this ancient symbol.
Don't you love Arabic cartoons? One of the guards in front of the Embassy this morning greeted me by asking if I had seen the cartoon that did the round of the TV channels last night. Pierre Sadek on al Mustaqbal had me in front of a Union Jack making the case for holding municipal elections on time, and making a play on the spelling of my name. But besides that the cartoon that caught my eye this morning was the one in An-Nahar of a bomb ticking in the pupil of the eye of Ain el Helweh (pretty eye - in Arabic - the name of the most notorious Palestinian camp in Lebanon). How well to sum up the irony of the position and the difficulty of dealing with the problems in the camps.
I do genuinely love the expressiveness of Arabic cartoons. I had one on my wall for a long time of an egg timer on its side - time blocked waiting for the national dialogue. I took it down when the national dialogue started again after President Sleiman was elected. I wonder if I should be putting it back up... but I am sure some cartoonist will express that particular frustration soon much better than I can in words.
There are only a few countries left in the world who do not allow 18 year olds to vote. It seems a reasonable gesture to the modern state that Lebanon strives to become to agree this step. But nothing in Lebanon is straightforward. To reduce the voting age requires an amendment to the constitution. So its agreement has been tied (if informally) to the introduction of overseas voting. A long debate is likely to continue.
The British Lebanese Association celebrates its 25th anniversary this year 2010. Amongst other endeavours it runs a small scholarship programme for Lebanese seeking to do specialist subjects in the UK. I join them on 10 February for a small celebration in the House of Lords. I am struck by how this community is passionate both about being British and about being Lebanese.
The plane back is once again full of Lebanese flying back from the UK and Canada for a week or two or less to visit grandparents, aunts and uncles. The ties of this large very disparate diaspora are strong and many of them send important remittances back home regularly. I ask my neighbours on the plane if they would vote if they got the vote. All of them would. And yet, Lebanon is not home anymore, these people have all built their lives elsewhere 30years on from the civil war, very few will return. Lebanon’s loss, the rest of the world’s gain.
Nine ambassadors accredited to Beirut are women. WE get together now and again to compare notes. We share our concern about this get out clause. Our Pakistani colleague reminds us that when Pakistan introduced a 33% quota for women in both parliamentary and district elections, they made it conditional that all places reserved for women were filled by women. If no women were available the places would remain vacant. This ensured that women were found!
I get a chance later in the day to ask the Prime Minister about it. The Minister of Interior is present too. He assures me (and others listening) not to worry. Women will stand and if parties don't put up women candidates, then there will always be enough independent women to put themselves forward. He is right. Why should we doubt the willingness of women to seize this opportunity. Oh independent Lebanese women prove us right! Still why always make it difficult? Surely the Pakistan example is worth considering...
It is that time of year. Those who have heard me speak about the subject know that I am a fan of former Prime Minister John Major's aims to ensure that Honours are given to those who truly deserve it and to ensure that unsung heroes are as equally deserving as top majors. In my time in Beirut it has been my great privilege to convey an Honorary MBE to one of the members of my staff, Paul Khawaja, for services to British export. And I have been pleased to see the award of two other MBEs for services to the British community during the 2006 evacuation.
In this year's New Year's honors list, the strength of Lebanese/British relations is recognised in the award to Dr Claude Serhal for services to archaeology. For me Claude is a living symbol of the strength of British/Lebanese relations and the devotion of expat Lebanese for their home country. This award is a just recognition of that dedication. Reading the announcement, it doesn't say much "Dr Claude Doumet Serhal for services to archaeology". Let's elaborate... for 15 years of services to British Lebanese archaeology...for keeping the excavation at Sidon alive, for helping demonstrate to the people of Sidon and Lebanon (and the UK) the extraordinary history of this eastern edge of the Mediterranean.
Anyone who has met Claude, especially if you have gone to the dig in Sidon one summer in the heat and the dust and walked around the layers from the Bronze Age on, will know that her enthusiasm and her dedication have kept this site going and helped lead us all to understand better our forefathers. I am pleased that the British Embassy played its own part in awareness raising about this project more than a year ago, helping Claude and her team show a film about their work and raise funds to continue the excavation.
The good news is that there is money now to build an onsite museum and with Claude's help and that of the British Museum as well as the people of Sidon, this future museum will make the history of the Mediterranean accessible to visitors. And it will continue the transformation of historic Sidon. If you have never visited. Do. There is a wonderful day trip to do taking in the two crusader castles, the old souks, the soap museum and the archaeological site for which Claude has been justly recognised.
And then on Monday, a lecture at the Isam Fares Institute at the American University of Beirut. In English this time, but an academic environment is always very challenging. What is the UK getting out of being a back seat driver to the US? I like the symbolism. Back seat drivers don't often control the vehicle although they do usually make their voice heard ! Isam Fares are doing a good job focussing on some very clear policy debates, like climate change and its effect in the Arab world. I hope my volunteering to speak can help us develop a useful exchange and maybe look at ways of bringing in British academics.
NB still no President. Yet another parliamentary session scheduled for tomorrow. Time to get out of this void.