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'Our friends' in Beirut


British diplomacy at its best
John Julius Norwich Writer
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Well, the work was very varied. It wasn't so much distressed British subjects – we had a consulate to look after tourists who'd lost their passports or got drunk and got into trouble or something like that; thank God we didn't have to worry about... What we were doing, well, it was two things: it was reporting first of all, what was going on in the country; I mean, regular despatches to London saying what was happening, how the political situation was changing all the time, which, of course, it did; Lebanon's relations with the rest of the world and, particularly, her fellow Arab countries; always the Israeli problem was causing trouble. When I arrived there, almost the first thing my boss said to me was, 'Oh, incidentally, don't get involved in discussing Israel.' And I said, 'I thought that was really what I was here for.' And they said, 'No, the thing is so fraught with emotion; nobody listens to reason; that's not the point. The Israelis know they're right, and the Arabs know they're right, and there's nothing to be done. And if you get into arguments, you just lose friends, so stay off the subject', which, to the best of my ability, I always did.

But there was a lot to be done. I mean, not only on the reporting side, but there was a lot to be done about sort of keeping the Lebanese happy, organising for ministerial visits, that sort of thing; or the Navy would come to Beirut, and that would always be a... take a lot of work, you know. And then there'd be the sort of ceremonial things like... there were 11 different religions in Beirut, and the entire political system was based on religion. There weren't political parties as such, but there were 11 religions and therefore there everything was an exact multiple of 11: the Cabinet was of 11 people, the president was always a Maronite Christian, because, in theory, they were the majority. In fact, they weren't by then – the Muslims, who had far more children, were. But it was sort of agreed, the president was a Maronite. The prime minister was a Sunni Muslim; the foreign secretary was a Shi'a Muslim. Then there were two Armenians: Armenian Catholic and Armenian Orthodox; Greek Catholic, Greek Orthodox; Druze, and I don't know how many that is, but, I mean, that's how it worked. And 11 in the Cabinet, 99 in the Parliament, everything exactly organised so that every religion should have its say. And then, of course, on the religious days, you had to go and congratulate the bishop or the patriarch or the archimandrite or whatever he happened to be, which involved sitting there, as usual rather – well, usually they spoke French, but not quite always – and sitting on a sofa next to an enormous black-robed, bearded, huge man with a great whiffling beard and pectoral crosses on the stomach going quietly up and down, you know, and usually holding his hand. One sat on the sofa, holding hands, for five, six minutes, making what conversation it was possible to make. And then one got up, bowed politely and went home. But all that was very important.

John Julius Norwich (1929-2018) was an English popular historian, travel writer and television personality. He was educated at Upper Canada College, Toronto, at Eton, at the University of Strasbourg and on the lower deck of the Royal Navy before taking a degree in French and Russian at New College, Oxford. He then spent twelve years in H.M. Foreign Service, with posts at the Embassies in Belgrade and Beirut and at the Disarmament Conference in Geneva. In 1964 he resigned to become a writer. He is the author of histories of Norman Sicily, the Republic of Venice, the Byzantine Empire and, most recently, 'The Popes: A History'. He also wrote on architecture, music and the history plays of Shakespeare, and presented some thirty historical documentaries on BBC Television.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: Lebanon, Israel

Duration: 4 minutes, 5 seconds

Date story recorded: 2017

Date story went live: 03 October 2018