In my last post, I explored the “Switzerland of the Middle East” analogy, talking about the great skiing we’d found here, to our great surprise.
When my husband read that post he told me, “Lebanon was called the Switzerland of the Middle East because of the banking.”
It’s not about the beauty and romance of snow-capped mountains, but the banality of banking? Way to pop my balloon.
When we arrived to Lebanon and needed to open a bank account, it was recommended that we go with a bank that is entirely foreign-owned. For security, we were told. This bank has their debit cards issued from Dubai rather than here in Lebanon. For security, they said. Customer service there has been a nightmare – as it also was for me yesterday at a Lebanese bank, where I spent nearly one hour, just to deposit a check. (System was down. Sure, that can happen anywhere, but in five years banking in Honduras, and decades banking in the US, I’ve never had a wait like that.)
Switzerland = secure and convenient banking. If the Lebanese banks aren’t considered secure enough, and the convenience certainly seems to be missing, then where does the banking analogy come from?
When in doubt, I go to Google.
Apparently, there were once banking confidentiality laws in Lebanon that were similar to Switzerland’s. (I’m putting this in the past tense, because those laws may no longer be so attractive, since the new Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act (FACTA) requires foreign banks to disclose details to the IRS about U.S. account holders with $50,000 or more on deposit.)
Once I started to look, I found a whole bunch more similarities between Switzerland and Lebanon:
Closets full of gold. According to The Economist, Lebanon is second only to Switzerland in gold reserves per capita.
Why? Back to banking – the reserves were purchased in the 1960s and 70s when the country was the Middle East’s financial center. Legal restrictions kept them in the banks during the country’s civil war, not to mention legends of the Central Bank governor Edmond Naim sleeping in the bank to protect the stash. (Although it might just have been that the commute to work from the other side of town was too dangerous during the civil war.)
Pluralistic societies. A couple of years ago, there was an entire conference in Beirut on this topic, organized by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, and kicked off by the Swiss Ambassador to Lebanon. Both countries have been challenged by religious, linguistic, cultural, and socio-economic differences. Given other radical differences between the countries (say, levels of income inequality, just to name one), I’m curious how the conversation went.
My personal favorite: chocolate production.
Lebanon is the top producer in the Middle East for fine chocolates.
There are dozens of small boutique chocolatiers all around Beirut, as well as Patchi, a famed chocolatier with shops all around the city, production both here and in Saudi Arabia, and global distribution.
As a chocolate addict who has lived in Ecuador (a cacao-exporting country that now dabbles in chocolate production), Seattle (home to gourmet chocolate producers Theo, among others), and New York (global marketplace for fine chocolates), I consider myself a novice, but enthusiastic, chocolate gourmand. Swiss chocolate is famous. I’d never heard of Lebanese chocolate before arriving.
But we were welcomed to Lebanon by Patchi chocolates. Shortly after arriving, we went to a formal luncheon where Patchi chocolates were offered to guests on a silver platter. My kids grabbed handfuls. It was mortifying, but the Lebanese hosts lived up to their fame for hospitality, and simply insisted that the kids take even more. It was my motherly duty to confiscate some of the “extras” after we left, right? They were luscious, silky, and balanced. Delicious. I savored them for days.
Patchi began in 1974 – a year before Lebanon’s 15-year civil war. Terrible timing, but not only did it survive, it flourished (140 shops in 29 countries nowadays). A few months ago, I read a book about Beirut in which one of the scenes was about a girl sneaking out of her house during the war to go buy chocolates, because taking risks was a way to make life worth living. I don’t know that I’m that dedicated to chocolate, but I love the idea.
At the Mostly About Chocolate blog, they write that Patchi means kisses. I’m not sure how many kisses the Swiss give in greeting, but when the Lebanese say good-bye to their friends, they accompany it with three kisses. So as I say good-bye for today, I leave you with these: