Former Australian Ambassador to Lebanon Reflects: ‘Lebanon is a Part of Me’

He has been held at gunpoint in Beirut, seen the brutal aftermath of war firsthand and even shakes his head at Lebanese disunity but as he reflects on his time as Australian Ambassador to Lebanon, Mr. Lex Bartlem OAM says he feels nothing but love for Lebanon and can’t wait to go back.

Queensland born Lex Bartlem always dreamed of traveling as a child, in his youth he backpacked around Europe and when he first landed a job in the Australian Foreign Affairs Department, he saw it as a great way to travel the world. But he soon developed a passion for his job and a deeper connection to the places he has been, in particular Lebanon.

Lex Bartlem

Lex Bartlem with the Maronite Patriarch

Bartlem has lived in Lebanon for over six years, ‘that’s ten per cent of my life,’ he notes. He spent two years in Lebanon during the early 1980’s where he was held at gunpoint whilst sitting at a restaurant in Beirut, and again in 2006 during the Israel and Hezbollah conflict where he was assisting in the largest ever Australian peacetime evacuation of citizens. ‘It was a big assignment, after bombs hit Lebanon we were sending people by road to Jordan for about three days and then the DFAT Crisis Team in Canberra were organising boats to go to Cyprus or Turkey where Australian officials were waiting to help Australians get home,’ he recalls.

His strong crisis management background is what earned Bartlem his next role as Consul General in Bali before he was appointed as Australia’s Ambassador to Lebanon in 2010.

[pull_quote_center]‘I have spent a large period of my life there,’ he says of Lebanon. ‘I am passionate about Lebanon and its people[/pull_quote_center]

Looking back at his time as Ambassador, Bartlem says he has witnessed too many incidents where Australians have found themselves in problematic circumstances after failing to adhere to the laws of other countries, referring to Andrew Chan and Myuran Sukumaran of the Bali Nine who are currently on death row in Bali. He met the young men in his time as Consul General in Bali and monitored the case of Mahassen Issa, the Sydney mother who was trapped in Lebanon after facing adultery charges raised by her husband in Australia.

‘Sadly, some Australians find themselves in life threatening situations overseas.  There is an extremely professional Consular service in Canberra and at our posts overseas that provide every possible assistance to Australians in need, but the bottom line is that Australians travelling overseas need to remember that they will be subject to the laws of the country they are visiting.’

Besides getting to know the Australian cases that he has had to assist with and report on, Bartlem sees getting to know a country and living in a place for an extended period of time as the best way to truly get to know the society.

‘I have spent a large period of my life there,’ he says of Lebanon. ‘I am passionate about Lebanon and its people. I have wonderful Lebanese friends and my job allowed me to meet people from all walks of life, from the highest positions in government, business and academia to the smallest villages in remote corners of the country.’

[pull_quote_center]I got to see the beauty of this amazing tiny country that’s ten percent the size of Tasmania and there’s something about it, there’s something about Lebanon that gets you[/pull_quote_center]

It is in these small villages that Bartlem says he was touched by ‘the famous Lebanese hospitality.’ Bartlem recalls meeting a group of old men in the Bekaa Valley in Zahle who invited him into their homes and told him stories about Australia and Lebanon’s history. ‘These elderly men were in their 90s and told me they had worked with Australian soldiers during the Second World War. There were around 18,000 Australian soldiers who fought in Lebanon and in 1941. They played a major part which led to Lebanon’s Independence, which happened in 1943.’

From the Australian flag that hangs on his luggage to his enthusiastic tone when speaking about Australia’s past, it is clear that Bartlem is a proud Australian. This is further illuminated by his use of plural when sharing his knowledge about Australia’s role in liberating Lebanon. ‘There are monuments at Naher El Kaleb where there is evidence of our soldiers being present in Lebanon in both the First and Second World War. There are 321 Australian soldiers buried in Lebanon, most of them at the Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery in Beirut, but also in Saida and Tripoli.  Each year we hold an Anzac Day ceremony and a Remembrance Day ceremony at the Cemetery.’

It’s clear that his professional assignment of collecting information about Lebanon and Australia’s history has had a personal impact on Bartlem, especially when he reveals that in 1941 an Australian of Lebanese descent was the first Australian casualty to die in Lebanon during the Second World War. ‘This young man from Queanbeyan in Canberra was shot in the early days of the invasion from Palestine to Lebanon. His name was Nicholas Khoury.’

Lex Bartlem

Lex Bartlem with the Mufti of North Lebanon, Sheikh Malek al-Shaar

Despite his appreciation of Lebanon, Bartlem has one criticism. He believes the nation needs to unite and find direction. ‘Given the right opportunities and the right environment, Lebanon has enormous potential. A good start for now would be for Lebanon to elect a President,’ he says.

In August of 2014, Bartlem decided to retire from government and moved back to Australia where he subsequently took up a position as a Director of the Bank of Sydney, a Lebanese owned bank. ‘The bank of Sydney came about through the largest ever Lebanese investment of Australia. The bank has a strong customer focus and I’m keen use my new role to continue my involvement in building the relationship between Australia and Lebanon.’

It seems even upon his return home and his retirement from government, Bartlem’s ties with Lebanon are still strong. ‘When you live in a country, it’s not like being a tourist. You get to live somewhere and understand the place and their customs,’ he explains. ‘I got to see the beauty of this amazing tiny country that’s ten percent the size of Tasmania and there’s something about it, there’s something about Lebanon that gets you… I think it’s one of those countries that you either hate or love and I love it.’

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