LEBANON: Watts up with all the Christmas lights?
It may or may not be the most joyous on record, but this Christmas in Beirut is definitely the brightest in recent years.
The country has returned to calm after an agreement in May put an end to a spur of civil violence. Tourists and Lebanese expatriates are flooding the country. Officials claim that many would-be visitors couldn't make it for the holidays here because hotels and flights are fully booked.
Lebanon’s tourism ministry announced this month that the number of visitors will reach 1.3 million people in 2008, which is its most since 2004, a stable year that preceded difficult times marked by a string of political assassinations, a war with Israel and internal fights.
Christmas is a special holiday in Lebanon, which boasts the largest Christian population in the Middle East. Streets teem with scintillating decorations and sparkling Christmas trees.
But despite the general jovial mood, Christmas is also a reminder of the chronic conundrums of the country. To many, for instance, the spurt of decorative lights seems absurd in a country suffering from serious energy shortages.
Power cuts are a daily routine in Lebanon. In some areas, cuts can last for up to 10 hours a day.
The state-owned electricity company says it can meet only two-thirds of peak demand, and more than a third of the power it does generate gets lost in distribution or is not paid for, a report carried by Reuters said earlier this month.
Despite that, the Lebanese don't spare any means to celebrate their holidays as lavishly as possible, especially with the country more peaceable.
At one mall in a Christian neighborhood in Beirut, shoppers interviewed by the local English-language newspaper, The Daily Star, voiced their relief about the lowering of political tensions this Christmas.
Joanna, 17, told the daily that her family was finally receiving relatives from Canada and France after they had postponed their coming for two years because of security concerns:
“My friends and I are motivated, active and generally in good spirits.... People are out and about, you can tell by the traffic and the huge lines at the mall. It wasn't like this maybe two years ago because of the war, but politically things are calming down now."
-- Raed Rafei in Beirut
Photo: Visitors stand near a large Christmas tree in Martyrs Square in downtown Beirut. Credit: Borzou Daragahi / Los Angeles Times