In this blog post by Matthew Gerth we hear from the author of a recent University of London Press publication, Anti-communism in Britain during the Early Cold War, published as part of the New Historical Perspectives series, in association with the IHR and the Royal Historical Society.

One would think that writing history while historic events break around you daily would be every historian’s dream.  But sometimes, history-making is chaotic and dangerous.  Such is the case here in Lebanon, my home for the last two years.  

Tragically this post-conflict country has been torn by strife and armed struggle for the past five decades.  Everyone is exhausted by the bloodletting and the economic ruin the tiny nation has endured throughout the contemporary era.  Here, people long for recovery and normalcy. Yet they are all too familiar with the sentiments of Leon Trotsky’s warning. No matter what interests them, if the events in the region keep spiralling out of control, war’s interest in Lebanon might not remain unrequited.

How I came to live and work in Lebanon is a question I’m still asked here almost daily. With this extensive practice, it’s an easy tale to relay.

While graduating with a PhD in British History from Queen’s University Belfast during the summer of 2021, I thought the future lay in my new adopted homeland.  I’m originally from Kentucky but had lived in the United Kingdom for the past four years.  Not really wanting to go back to the States, my post-graduation plan was simple. I had a year to secure a junior lectureship or post-doctoral position to obtain a work visa for UK residency.  As I discovered, simple plans are not always the easiest ones.    

After seven months of constantly searching, I became aware of the dim prospects for an academic position in the current British job market.  As readers of this article can surely attest, I wasn’t the first to come to this realisation.  Back then most of my fellow graduates were having similar luck.  However, a notable exception was Dominik, a close friend with an adventurous streak. He had already secured an assistant professorship at a top-ranked prestigious university. Well, it just so happens the university was located on the distant  outskirts of Beirut.

When describing to Dominik my unsuccessful job-hunting endeavours during a long-distance phone call from Manchester, I joked: ‘Hey, can you get me a job over there?’  To my surprise, the question was taken seriously. He told me to send my CV and he would then contact the dean regarding an interview.  Flabbergasted, I responded ‘Mate, I research British Cold War anti-communism, why would they ever want me?’   As my friend, and now my boss, explained ‘Both the university and our students would love to have you. With the situation we need qualified professors desperately’.

It wasn’t an exaggeration; the situation was desperate indeed. In 2020 the government defaulted on its $31 billion-dollar national debt. Two years later Lebanon’s unemployment rate had rocketed to 30 percent; its currency had lost 98 percent of its value; and inflation reached 170 percent. All this amounted to one of the worst world’s economic meltdowns in the past 200 years, resulting in 70 percent of the population living under the poverty level.

Following the financial collapse came a massive brain-drain within most employment sectors.  Higher education was especially hard hit. Virtually all international professors had left their posts and fled the country. It seemed like a tragic irony.

The Global South, subaltern communities, and particularly crisis-level Lebanon were increasingly popular topics for western scholars to research.  However, as many Lebanese later said to me, few of these same academics would ever contemplate living and teaching in the places that they eagerly publish on. One of my colleagues rationalised from her perspective, ‘Orientalism is alive and well today, it has just taken on a more hypocritical dimension. Once I see these “sabbatical experts” here actually educating students and engaging in our communities then I would say it’s truly dying.’

The one phone call with Dominik sealed the decision for me. It simply came down to human nature: everybody wants to be wanted. If they needed professors and were willing to have me, I would go. Three months later I landed in Beirut. It marked my first time in Lebanon and the Middle East.

Though now a western scholar in Lebanon, I was then, and still am, a British historian. For instance, here is where I completed my first book Anti-communism in Britain during the Early Cold War.  Having signed the publishing contract while living in the UK, the monograph’s authorship was one of the rare constants for me after moving to this new destination. It proved a most valued commitment; I have found when living through stressful situations it is best to keep your mind busy.

To my great relief, but as promised, the university and my students were more than welcoming and happy to have me. Still, my new life took time to adjust to.  As I often quip, nobody has ever moved to Lebanon for the money.  To illustrate the point, my first monthly payslip amounted to approximately $300 (£230). They were not being cheap; it was all the university could afford. However, they generously provided me with accommodations in a shared twelve-bedroom guesthouse on the university grounds.  As I quickly found out, after the complete meltdown of the banking sector, credit and debit cards had become entirely useless. Everything in Lebanon then and now is paid in cash. American dollars are now preferred since the Lebanese Lira is virtually worthless.  Finally, due to massive energy shortages, there would be no electricity, running water, or internet for hours and, on occasions, entire days.    

Surprisingly, the political state of affairs didn’t take too long to get used to.  When first travelling through Lebanon I was a bit shocked to see massive murals depicting some of the West’s greatest enemies. Shortly afterwards, I used them as simple landmarks to get around. A friendly taxi driver once described his hatred for the US government while proudly displaying the handgun under his seat. He even let me hold it. Military checkpoints were everywhere, but they were friendly too, the soldiers manning them even chatty. In less than a week of arriving I had grown accustomed to the rumbling sound of low-flying Israeli fighters darting overhead to hit targets in Syria. As things currently stand, we now see them during the day bearing in all directions, but with much closer targets.  Only three weeks ago a bomb landed less than ten kilometres from the university. Thankfully it was a dud; however, most hitting further south are not. In October 2023, the US embassy frantically began daily contacting all Americans to flee the country post haste. They finally gave up on contacting me back in late January; haven’t heard from them since. 

Since working here, I am fortunate to write, my academic career has flourished.  I am now a tenured associate professor and, alongside Anti-communism in Britain during the Early Cold War, I have published four journal articles related to Cold War Britain, none of them even mentioning the word ‘Lebanon’.  As people come to realise, Lebanon is my home, not my subject of research.   

When visiting Beirut, I occasionally drop into the same historic bars another expat who arrived from Britain frequented. I am well acquainted with him. He factors significantly in Anti-communism in Britain during the Early Cold War. Following his de facto exile from Britain, Kim Philby resurfaced in Lebanon, becoming one of its most infamous denizens.  Though a self-described traitor, after fleeing to the Soviet Union, Philby confessed to still holding a deep love for all things British. He often, too, recalled the affinity he felt for life in Lebanon.  With both these sentiments I can wholeheartedly relate.       

Bio: Matthew Gerth is an associate professor in school of law and political science at the Holy Spirit University of Kaslik (USEK).  He holds an associate teaching fellowship from the British Higher Education Academy and has been awarded a fellowship by the Royal History Society.