The Times Saturday Magazine
Diplomatic activity in Beirut is not what it used to be. Far from the frantic negotiations over hostages that characterized the Eighties, recent British-Lebanese relations are tamer, if not altogether conventional. Of course, since September 11, the embassy has advised its citizens to remain alert, but, judging by the turn-out at Beirut’s pubs and bars for England’s World Cup qualifiers, no one is really worrying. In fact, the British ambassador in Beirut is more concerned about what to do with the remains of an old lady buried in his front garden.
No, he isn’t a serial killer; the lady is Hester Stanhope, famous adventurer and eccentric niece of William Pitt the Younger, who set off on her travels around the Middle East in 1810, and finally settled in Joun in Mount Lebanon. There, she quickly set about raising her own Druze militia and, like countless aristocrats before her, busied herself meddling in local politics, eventually earning the grudging respect of the region’s despot, Prince Bashir II, as well as a certain infamy back home thanks to European travellers who published accounts of her exploits.
By the time Lady Hester died in 1839, traditional clan alliances in Mount Lebanon had been subverted, both by Prince Bashir’s hunger for power and by rival British and French colonial interference. The British supported Druze clans, while the French backed the Maronite Christians, and war broke out between the two sects in 1860.
More than 100 years later, civil war broke out again, leaving Lady Hester’s house in ruins and her tomb desecrated. It was then that she was rescued by the embassy and buried in the garden of the ambassador’s summer home in nearby Abey, a hillside village above Beirut.
With the civil was now more than ten years in the past and the ex-combatants signaling a genuine desire for reconciliation, the house has been put up for sale as part of a worldwide scheme to sell off under-used Foreign Office property. Determined to see the tomb before the house was sold, I set off to Abey with Michael Karam, who is handling the sale.
Only a 45-minute drive from Beirut, Abey is a world away from the noisy, polluted and cosmopolitan city. We were guided around the property by a young Yugoslav woman, who, with her Lebanese husband and three Alsation dogs, looks after it in the ambassador’s absence. The 150-year-old Lebanese house is a beautiful example of its kind. With its stonework facades and vaulted ceilings, it gives one the distinct feeling of being in another era. Lady Hester’s tomb is placed discreetly on one side of the front garden where it enjoys breathtaking views over the mountains and Mediterranean.
“Fortunately,” said Karam, wrestling with an Alsatian, “business may be improving.” He explained that since the events in New York, some Lebanese families facing anti-Arab prejudice in America might soon return to Beirut. “Potential buyers have so far been an equal mix of Druze and Christians,” Karam revealed. “Most went abroad during the civil war and are now look to return, or at least to own a nice property here.”
Karam himself is an interesting Anglo-Lebanese character, born in England to Lebanese parents, and a product of what he describes as “a very minor public school.” Every Wednesday night he plays football with a team of British ex-pats called the British Bulldogs. “The name is really naff, but it keeps us in shape.”
This little patch of England is somewhat surprising, given that Lebanon has traditionally shared a special relationship with France. But while the International Francophone Summit is being held in Beirut this year, Britain has also declared Lebanon back in fashion. Wallpaper magazine has reviewed the beach clubs, designer boutiques and nightlife that have boomed since the end of the war, and this summer a number of famous Britons have also given Lebanon the thumbs up: Richard Branson opened the first Middle Eastern Virgin Megastore in Beirut, Sting performed at the Baalbek music festival and Elton John at the festival of Beiteddine in the 19th-century palace of Prince Bashir.
But what of Lady Hester? Adrian Bedford, deputy head of mission at the British embassy in Beirut, admits that there are two options: either she will be returned to her original resting place in Joun or she will be repatriated to the UK to be buried on the Chevening estate in Kent, where she was born (now the Foreign Secretary’s official home).
Although The Memoirs of Lady Hester, by her physician and travelling companion Charles Lewis Meryon, reveal her ardent desire never to leave Lebanon, Bedford is currently negotiating with Lady Hester’s distant relatives in England, as, under British law, her descendants have the ultimate say about the future of the grave. The house sale may already have taken place by the time the decision is made, so the embassy is relying on any new owner to allow Lady Hester to remain where she is until a solution is found.
It would be a shame to move her out of her adopted land. In a country that has seen enough digging up of bones, that is struggling to overcome sectarian differences and recovering from huge debts incurred through post-war reconstruction, Lady Hester’s tomb reminds us that at least British-Lebanese relations are jogging along in a benign fashion.