Waheed Pepsi, s'il vous plaît

Watching the glamorous, polyglot Lebanese enjoy the sun, I thought what an attractively sybaritic ra

Relief washed over us as we took our places in 'Église Notre-Dame de 'Annonciation for the wedding of our friends Jo and Georges. Our driver had taken us to the wrong church in the Maronite area of Ashrafiya, and Beirut was not the most comforting of places in which to get lost. Bombs had been going off in the city, while the north of the country had been plunged into chaos yet again by a new group claiming affiliation to al-Qaeda - Fatah al-Islam. The previous night, when the UN had been deciding whether to set up a tribunal to try those suspected of assassinating the former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq Hariri, we'd heard a series of sharp reports echoing in the distance. Farah, my fiancée, thought it was gunfire. I, more hopefully, said they were fireworks. In the morning, we found out we'd both been right.

There was a certain irony, I thought, that Farah, an Asian Muslim, was more worried about our safety in Beirut. As a blue-eyed European, I was the more obvious target for the kidnappings that Fatah al-Islam was threatening.

But a childhood in Saudi Arabia and frequent visits to the area since mean that I never feel a complete stranger in the Middle East. Neither can I take alarmist western coverage of the region at face value. When we lived in Riyadh, the PLO - then considered to be a terrorist organisation - had an office down the street from our flat. My father taught Yasser Arafat's nephew. Later, in Jeddah, my mother taught Idi Amin's daughters. Those we perceive as monsters can have human faces, too. Not that Amin, who greeted my mother cheerily every morning on the school run, was anything but. When one of his daughters failed to complete her homework, my mother sent a note home. Amin's little girl arrived at school afterwards bearing the marks of a vicious beating. No notes were sent home again.

"If only I'd had these T-shirts last week, I'd have sold out," said the proprietor of a shop round the corner from our hotel. I declined the purchase, explaining that garments bearing the logo of Hezbollah and script supporting the group were not likely to go down terribly well in north London, where I live.

"Hezbollah is now our friend," exclaimed Jo, as we sat by the pool of the Palm Beach Hotel the day after the wedding. The provocation last year of Israel, which in turn wreaked a terrible revenge on Lebanon, the terrorist group's mostly unwilling host, was in the past. After Fatah al-Islam began its attacks, the Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah denounced them on TV. "We are all Lebanese," he said.

Luxuriant hedonism

Party time continued in earnest at the Palm Beach, where the hotel's roof bar had just opened for the summer. Watching the glamorous, polyglot Lebanese enjoy the sun, I thought what an attractively sybaritic race they are. "Waheed [Arabic for one] Pepsi," began a request to a waiter, "et deux verres de rosé, s'il vous plaît." Long may they continue partying. Amid the destruction of a country that fundamentalists of all persuasions have treated as their playground for the past 30 years, such luxuriant hedonism serves as an expression of defiance.

The official Foreign Office advice had, needless to say, been not to go at all. But I've been unable to take FO warnings seriously since discovering they'd told tourists to steer clear of Malaysia during the Sars outbreak in south-east Asia a few years ago. I recall looking out over Kuala Lumpur from the balcony of a private house at a city that appeared to have forgotten to whip itself into the blind panic Whitehall was urging.

Strangely enough, the FO specialists and senior diplomats I've come across have all been more sensible about such matters, often so sympathetic to local nuances that the new, hardline liberals would probably accuse them of cultural relativism. That's a compliment, in my book. Cultural relativists don't go around telling other people what to do. They're also more open to embracing new friends, however strange they may initially seem. If Maronite Christians can welcome Hezbollah to their side, who are we to tell them they shouldn't?

In this age of mass travel, westerners experience more parts of the globe than ever before. It would be good if some of them managed to bring at least a little understanding - if not a Hezbollah T-shirt - back with them.

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 25 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Israel, Gaza and a summer of war?