Monday, April 23, 2012

Rich man's game in a poor man's neighbourhood

[Originally posted at NOW Lebanon, with italics restored]

Golf, it’s often said, is a rich man’s game, and in few places is that more apparent than the Golf Club of Lebanon, the 18-hole course built in 1923 in what was at the time a spectacular, untouched coastal plain, and what is now the heart of Ouza’i, one of the city’s most wretched slums. As a non-rich man, I’ve never been much use at the game, but when a visiting friend suggested a round yesterday, sheer morbid curiosity got the better of me, and after handing over the $45 green fee (and declining the outrageous further $45 for a cart), I found myself staring down the first fairway.

In ‘From Beirut to Jerusalem’, Thomas Friedman wrote of this hole that it wasn’t called “a “dangerous par-5” for nothing. Several members were hit by bullets in their backswings there, because the 460-yard hole ran perpendicular to a PLO firing range […] When the Israeli army invaded Beirut in the summer of ’82, a convoy of Israeli armored personnel carriers drove right up the first fairway.” While things have certainly improved since those days, the course remains quite the disaster: manhole-sized craters dotting the fairways; greens like bunkers; and bunkers like marshes. (Incidentally, we did find a spent bullet cartridge too.)

Not that the experience was unpleasant: indeed, like much of Beirut, if you could ignore the unidentified loud bangs, the ubiquitous men on scooters and the abysmal poverty surrounding you on all sides, you could be convinced you were in a place of real tranquility and beauty. After a while, though, the poverty could no longer be ignored, as the breeze-block shanties spilled over onto the grass.

These appalling living conditions are all the more pronounced by the fact that the Club’s owners pay a mere $1 a year in rent to the government as per a legally-very-questionable contract, according to an Al Akhbar report. To rip off wealthy customers is one thing, but to rip off the state in a crushingly poor neighbourhood takes a special kind of contempt. How fascinating to learn, therefore, that the current Cabinet – which makes very large claims to financial rectitude – saw fit to extend this arrangement last December for – how long? – seven years. Oh my (Party of) God!

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