A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

glamour & espionage: Vichy Lebanon

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on January 6, 2008

H’s dream of ordering a whiskey straight up at the old St. George Hotel Bar died in the mid 1970s – but Beirut was glamorous for decades before. During my flight home from Seattle, I entertained myself with Open House, a 2000 novel written by Nabil Saleh, a Lebanese-British lawyer perhaps better known for his writings on Islamic (la riba) investing.

Here’s what Open House‘s back cover had to say about the story inside:

Beirut in 1940-a carefree social whirl under the shadow of war, a city of torn allegiances, treason and love. After France’s crushing defeat by the German army, the pro-German Vichy French control Lebanon and Syria, while Britain tightens her grip over Palestine and Iraq. Diplomats and politicians manoeuvre as spies and agents intrigue in the narrow and deadly streets.

Commandant Robert Herve’s plotting to remove the Vichy High Commissioner, Nadine de Kebourg on a secret mission from France. Albert of the Jewish Agency and the socialite Odene Philips and Rashid Habib, a journalist caught in a tangle of greed and loyalty. These and many others are the actors in a tense and powerful drama, shot through with dark humor.

The writing gets a bit over-wrought, but the story is good and the texture of the setting is really wonderful. Its a great joy to read a book that gets the geography of Beirut right – and it also gives a sense of what kind of center Beirut’s downtown area used to be. The Vichy connection is also interesting – several characters are Lebanese Jews, not particularly interested in Zionism but very concerned about rumors that Vichy regulations regarding Jews will be implemented in Lebanon.

All in all, a delightful airplane read – although I’m still mystified by the Chinese lanterns on the cover:

open-house.jpg

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