Sunday, July 18, 2010

Back to Lebanon - Another View

By Christopher Robbins

At the border


Arab border crossings are unusual, especially given my limited experience crossing borders at my own country. People here have not easily taken to the concept of lines – the border is a mob of traffic jams and crowds of people pressing against the counters, passports and customs documents in hand. Luckily we have a good guide and another fluent Arabic speaker with us or the crossing would be a terrible fiasco. As it stands the border crossing takes up the majority of our time in transit as we navigate the bureaucracy of Lebanon and Syria. Serious looking men in uniform, many with guns and handcuffs, are everywhere.


The men with handcuffs at the border into Syria are especially disconcerting, and all are watched over by a portrait of President Assad looking very serious. People cut in line, waving currency and passports to try to smooth the transition. Through it all the personnel work with a patient and non-exasperated diligence – our fate is entirely in their hands.


On the way back to Lebanon our guide is in an informal race with one of his peers, so we do what we can to smooth the transition and press on ahead of him on foot while he gets the car through customs – but we have difficulty finding the line for foreigners through immigration. In Lebanon and Syria, there are several lines for ‘all nationalities’ and generally one for ‘foreigners’ – the difference? All nationalities refers to Arabs of any origin, while foreigners refers to non-Arabs – the essence of institutional racism.


We are told not to take pictures here, not to make small-talk or tell jokes. My always jovial Austrian friend Ralph and I broke decorum by cutting up a little bit in the ‘line’ to get into Syria and faced pressing questions about our ‘business’ in Syria most likely as a result of our giggles. We did not repeat the mistake on the way back through the border. More proof that I am a stranger in a strange land.


In Zahle


On our return to the more familiar ground of Lebanon we changed back our Syrian currency at a fairly heavy loss (12% for me). From there it was a pleasant drive through the Beqaa valley, Hezbollah country. I didn’t have to be told – the green and yellow flags were enough, along with pictures of prominent Shia clerics and Hezbollah general secretary Hassan Nasrallah.


Zahle is a Christian enclave in the valley. We went straight to our hotel, a beautiful luxurious resort with beds as soft as clouds and amazing service. At dinner that night I began to feel ill, and my illness woke me up during the night despite the comfort of my bed and room.


The hotel was playing host to a huge Lebanese wedding party, over 1200 people attending. During our dinner that evening the bride arrived on the shoulders of her relatives with Arabic dance music blaring and a huge roar erupted from the crowd. We all wish we could have celebrated with them – Lebanese weddings are no simple affairs. For one thing the legalities of the wedding have to be arranged through the sectarian leaders of each religious community. For this reason it is impossible for inter-sectarian marriages to occur in Lebanon – there are no secular/civil marriages here, a subject of much recent dispute. In 2004 there was an attempt create civil marriages that was quashed by the religious communities and the late prime minister Rafic Hariri. The subject was again raised by large protests for secularism at the end of April, but little movement on the matter has been made in the government – the power of the religious leaders is just too strong.


In Balbeck


After a queasy breakfast (probably not a good idea), we were on the road to Balbeck, home to some of the most spectacular Roman ruins anywhere in their expansive empire’s wake. The temple of Jupiter, now just a few columns, was once the largest Roman temple ever built. The temple of Bacchus is considered the most intact Roman ruin left. At this time I was becoming woozy and dehydrated – stomach issues, warm weather, and direct sunlight do not mix well.


The shop we visited in Beirut was operated by men affiliated with Hezbollah – t-shirts blazoned with the party’s banner were available everywhere, as well as wood carvings, knickknacks and antiquities from all eras of the area’s history. Beautiful jewelry was sold there also and we freely indulged ourselves. The keepers offered us coffee and tea and treated us well, watching our purchases as we toured the site.


Also in Balbeck was a museum about Hezbollah’s struggle against Israel, a war they see as a defense against an aggressive foreign power. Implicit in their argument is that they are not a terrorist group – they attack military targets. If Israel were to attack Lebanon again, Hezbollah would attack Israel again, launching rockets once more into the Jewish state. As presented their argument did not seem anti-semitic, but it is clear that they have little love for Zionism or Judaism as a whole.


The Forest of the Cedars of God


Leaving the Roman ruins and the land of Hezbollah behind, we drove upon a narrow, winding road up into the Lebanese highlands. Zigzagging around tight switchbacks with little space for cars to pass, my stomach lurched with every bump, every turn. Only the stunning scenery compensated for my illness, the road offered incredible views of the Beqaa as we literally climbed into the clouds. The mountains here are so high that there are still patches of snow in the middle of July – and the valleys are so remote that sum farmers flaunt the law and continue to grow small fields of cannabis. At the top of the mountain were men selling roasted nuts – cashews, almonds, peanuts, pistachios. I had no stomach for such things.


Down the hill we stopped at al-Arz, the cedars of Lebanon – also known as the Forest of the Cedars of God. Here sat a small grove, barely a forest, that contained some of the few remaining mature Lebanese cedars. Trees thousands of years old towered above us, ancient symbols of this beautiful land. Legend has it that Solomon’s temple was built from these timbers. Our brief stroll through the forest was one of quiet awe.


The ride down the mountain, along the beautiful Kadisha Valley with it’s hermit caves and historic monastery, was one of semi-consciousness for me – I was awake enough to snap a few photos through the window of our van before we descended once more to the Mediterranean coast and a drive along the highway back to Beirut.


I like Beirut – strong drinks, smart and beautiful people, and not a dull moment, but these two days showed me that there is much more to Lebanon than this jewel of a city. The hinterlands of Lebanon contain peaceful, rustic beauty that is always tinged by the potential for another war.