British Embassy in Beirut distributed the blog by British Ambassador to Lebanon, Hugo Shorter, titled "Refelctions on Lebanon, 18 Months In", in which he said: "It was on a recent Saturday morning. We had had an interesting - and by my standards, rather technical - discussion on the Lebanese economy over a delicious breakfast of labneh, with zaatar, and poached eggs. Then my green tea was replaced by a piping hot espresso. So when the cigar box came round, I didn't hesitate. Time for one of my host's cigars. It was not yet 10 o'clock in the morning.
Perhaps this is a moment which, a couple of generations ago, would have been regarded as the first symptom of that dangerous diplomatic disease known as "going native". This ailment would strike a diplomat abroad, perhaps through an excess of empathy built up through long study of his host country's language, history and culture, but more likely through being seduced by the venal pleasures of an exotic but temporary posting. The key symptom of a diplomat who had "gone native" was to represent the hosts' (in this case Lebanon's) interests in London rather than vice versa. Needless to say, this condition was frowned upon - and perhaps secretly envied - by less fortunate colleagues caught up in the London rat-race and yearning for sunnier climes. But nowadays diplomats tend to worry about the reverse - whether they are getting out and about enough, not too much. They are torn between bulging inboxes and video conferences with their capitals, and the considerable investment of time and effort needed to get to know their host country and people.
Lebanon, from this perspective, is a dream. Even if, as an Ambassador, you were to spend your working day in front of a computer in the office, every evening you could enjoy the incredibly warm and generous hospitality of the Lebanese, meeting industrialists, bankers, journalists, ministers and media personalities. Not only do you meet Lebanese of all persuasions like this - and quickly appreciate their intellectual curiosity, energy, and sense of humour - but also you get to know, and love, the immense variety of Lebanese food you are fortunate enough to be offered.
One of my favourite dinner conversations is the rags-to-riches stories of Lebanese entrepreneurs who started as door-to-door salesmen of paper bags/pins/clothespegs etc, and how the companies they founded in Mexico/Nigeria/Iraq etc. now employ tens of thousands of people worldwide. These stories illustrate many Lebanese qualities: resilience and adaptability, a strong entrepreneurial spirit, and a readiness to take risks, often combined with strong technical skills.
But that spirit is alive in Lebanon too, not only further afield. I well remember meeting an entrepreneur in the Bekaa. Owner of a family business, the oldest 'Arabic Ice Cream' manufacturers in Lebanon, whose company suffering from modest brand identity, limited production line and packaging process. Through one of our programmes to support Small and Medium Enterprises, he was able to expand his business by increasing production, reducing waste, expanding their points of sales to 1500 and employing 7 new staff members. Another striking example of innovation and technical prowess is the way the LAF has adapted helicopters to give itself a ground-attack capability - in its own workshops, using its own staff, and recycling its own materiel (including - I am proud to say - the canon from the LAF's old British fighter-bombers). In fact Lebanon is full of unsung heroes: in the LAF and security forces protecting its borders and fighting terrorists, and others growing their businesses in a difficult economic environment, stretching their family budgets to give their children the best possible start in life, or working flat out - in schools, hospitals and NGOs - to educate, treat and support vulnerable Lebanese and Syrians alike. One of the huge privileges of being British ambassador here is the opportunity to help - and meet - so many people who are fighting to make their country a better place: be they farmers, fishermen, teachers, soldiers or tech whizzes. Having travelled across and flown above Lebanon from North to South, I am struck by Lebanon's always renewed ability to create talent, its uniqueness and its diversity .
As for going native? Well, I have to admit that I am an advocate for Lebanon - as is the UK, often at the forefront at international conferences, and talking to our friends and allies, lobbying for others to do more to support this country.
And I couldn't talk of my first 18 months without mentioning the culture too - the experience which makes you fall in love with this country. The generosity of its people, who have gone out of their way to make me, my wife and children feel welcome.
I know I still have more to learn, and more to do to get under the skin of this country. And that's why I've started Arabic classes, which have not turned me into a fluent speaker overnight but I hope will help me the next time I am visiting villages, farms and municipalities benefitting from UK support. After all, you know you're really settling in when you find yourself speaking at least two languages in one sentence - or lighting up a cigar after breakfast!"
Source: National News Agency