A confusion of impressions

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Middle East » Lebanon
May 31st 2010
Published: July 6th 2010
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I tried very hard with Lebanon. I really did. And I’m not used to having to try at all: brand new territory for me mentally as well as geographically. But I never quite got there. And somehow that conclusion - reluctant as I have been since my return to voice it even to myself - makes me feel as if I failed.

The history is mind-blowing, I’ll readily admit: from fossils millions of years old to the most incredible Stone Age, Greek, Roman, Phoenician, Arab and Crusader ruins, often all piled on top of each other like a giant four-dimensional jigsaw puzzle. The wine is delicious, the beer perfectly palatable, and I never quite managed to tire of hummus and tabbouleh.

But something didn’t click for me.

Maybe I never quite got over the traffic, and the hillsides coated in identikit ugly concrete high-rises, and the should-be-scenic views of the Bekaa Valley punctuated by ever-present billboards.

Maybe I was more disconcerted than I’d anticipated by the continuing evidence of recent conflict and the almost tangible, barely latent, tension embodied by street-corner tanks and ubiquitous camouflage, weapons always to the ready.

Maybe I never conquered a self-consciousness sharpened by knowing I was a woman on my own in a country where Islam plays a dominant role in many areas, where I was fearful of causing offence and uncertain of the rules, yet resolutely determined not to let this hinder me.

This isn’t a country for countryside, nature and wildlife. This is a country that has struggled every step of the way throughout its monumental history for the right to be left alone, taking the chance in rare intervals of peace to rebuild and prepare for the next inevitable altercation. That puts the natural world right at the bottom of the priority list.

All that made it, for me, a somewhat uncomfortable place, much as I tried to get to grips with it, to enjoy it, even to like it. (After all, I’ve liked - at the very least - pretty much every other place I’ve visited.) Maybe it was about time I found somewhere with which I didn’t fall head over heels. (No gushing and easy flow of prose this time: this has been a hard blog to write.) Maybe it was about time I was confronted with the reality of human conflict and its all too brutal, practical, unromantic aftermath. Even in East Africa - Rwanda, where the Genocide is all too evident in survivors’ stories, trials and memorials; Burundi, where the guns are barely silent; Goma, uneasily peaceful with endless acronym-ed vehicles patrolling the streets; Kenya, where still-nervous friends wind up car windows when stopped by men in police uniforms - I didn’t see this as vividly as I did in Lebanon. But, inadvertently glancing up on my way into Beirut my last evening, I found myself looking into a heavily shelled building and caught my breath, physically sickened by the vast, raw-edged, gaping holes in its external walls, blasted through to its internal organs. As if the building itself had been raped, and could no longer protect its modesty, its wounds open to the elements. For this to be near the centre of the capital where, for the most part, an enormous amount of reconstruction is clinically creating a new future for the city, was all the more shocking. And this was at the end of my trip, when I thought I was getting used to seeing pockmarked buildings, statues peppered by crossfire intense enough to blow off a cast iron limb or two, beautiful terraces of balconied houses ripped apart, now lying empty next to the inevitable building site.

But focussing on this aspect of Lebanon is not fair on her people and their unquenchable spirit. In the middle of Israel’s 2006 shelling of the capital, Beirutis went to the beach and continued to party. It is a country with huge potential as a tourist destination, to attract once again the cosmopolitan glamour-set that once frequented its restaurants and clubs, to reap the benefit of its unique position between the West and the Arab worlds.

I only went there accidentally. Not a birthday this time, but the wedding of a daughter-of-a-friend-of-a-friend. Engaged to a Hindu, she couldn’t, being Muslim, marry him in Dubai where they both lived, so they plumped for the land of her mother’s ancestors. This in itself is ironic. Many Lebanese, wanting only the civil ceremony which unavailable in their own country, hop on a ’plane to Cyprus to do the deed, and, in fact, this particular bride and groom had had to do exactly that to get the civil marriage certificate which Dubai required. But they weren’t going to pass up the chance for a jolly good party - or, indeed, three days of partying, in the course of which they would take part in a Muslim wedding ceremony and a Hindu one. This was going to be one very well married couple at the end of the weekend!

It was also, without doubt, the most international wedding I have ever attended. After the first evening, I counted a dozen nationalities amongst the guests without overly exercising my little grey cells. This was the UN with its party clothes on. And it was done in style. From rose-strewn bowers, flower-bedecked steps, henna hand-painting and fresh masala dosas around the pool of one of Beirut’s top hotels, to the pop and rock groove of the groom’s brothers’ band on stage in the hotel’s night club, to the drums and tumblers and dancers and fire-breathers throughout the grounds of a chichi out-of-town beach club, this was a wedding with more panache, spangles and glitter than I would have thought possible outside Bollywood. If the average Western bride struggles to choose one dress for her big day, this bride looked divine in each of the five she sported over the weekend. I pinched myself from time to time. This was another world.

On Monday morning, I came down to earth with a thump. Checking out of the five star hotel with the ludicrously large suite and stunning views that we’d enjoyed over the weekend, I caught a cab into town and went in search of a guest house that was a little more “me”. Beirut isn’t cheap - Lebanon isn’t - but at least the US$45 room in the Pension al-Nazih was more my kind of scene: twin beds and not much else, a balcony hung with the establishment’s laundry, views over the dual carriageway, a/c that didn’t work, and a bathroom you couldn’t swing a cat in, but which did provide a hot shower, albeit an open plan one (watch out for soaking the toilet roll!)… I grinned at the contrast. This was better.

Beirut is a mishmash, and that’s an understatement. Solidere - the central business district - is a showcase for modern architecture. It might not all co-ordinate and it might not all be everyone’s cup of tea, but there are some stunning and dramatic developments going on. (Facetiously I scribbled in my diary, “Beirut’ll be great when it’s finished.”) There are wonders of steel and glass reminiscent of Hong Kong; Parisian-style boulevards, as yet lacking the buzz of people to enjoy the open-air dining; pretty churches and a mosque that looks so new I half-expected to find bubble-wrap still round a minaret or two, right next to the excavated remains of an old Roman market. The “tree-lined tranquillity” of the upmarket Achrafiye area was, unfortunately, shattered by an overdose of construction noise of every sort, but, down the hill, bohemian Gemmayze is re-emerging. Many of its beautiful wrought-iron balconied buildings have survived the war, and its main street, Rue Gouraud, is lined with an eclectic collection of eateries and drinkeries, from cosy to trendy, from local to international. In one, I found an incredible range of whisky - Laphroaig (in duplicate, both cask and ten-year-old), Glenmorangie, Ardmore, Macallan and Glenfiddich (both twelve- and fifteen-year-old) - when all I wanted was an extra shot of caffeine. Hamra felt similarly buzzing, although my stay there was too brief to explore this university district in any detail.

Yet the very shelled Holiday Inn still stands, windows gapingly open to the elements, painfully incongruous beside the decadence of the very twenty-first century InterContinental Phoenicia,
the problems of the Middle East in a snapshotthe problems of the Middle East in a snapshotthe problems of the Middle East in a snapshot

Christianity and Islam - uneasy neighbours
an inadvertent memorial to the fifteen years of civil war that ravaged this country so soon after the hotel was opened. Lest we forget… The monument at the centre of Place des Martyrs, if you can make your way safely across the traffic-filled lanes of the Rue Bshara el-Khoury, is badly battle-scarred. Daylight is visible through holes in the female martyr’s hand and one of the male statues has had an arm blown off. Retracing the route of the old “Green Line” which divided Muslim West Beirut from Christian East Beirut during the war, I found that buildings on either side became more dilapidated as I headed away from the centre of town (though I was wryly amused to see that the name lives on, adopted, appropriately enough, by a construction company). Security intensified as I approached the ominously blank and soviet-esque façade of the General Security Office. You’re never far away from evidence of, or preparation for, conflict here.

Tripoli, effectively the capital of northern Lebanon, is very different. (I knew it would appeal to me when the nth well-dressed Beiruti asked incredulously, in manner akin to my Delhi friends’ reaction to my visiting Varanasi, “What do you want to go there for?”) The old town is a delightful hodge-podge of crumbling low buildings, narrow lanes and souqs, flat concrete roofs occasionally interrupted by Mediterranean tiling, laundry hanging from balconies, World Cup flags strung across the street, and tempting aromas wafting up from stalls. Old stone buildings and monuments marked with often-hard-to-find blue memorial plaques entertain the enterprising tourist like an oversized treasure hunt, and I had a lovely time scrambling round the Crusader Castle which dominates the town from its position on the hilly bank of the river, giving commanding views across the old town to the modern high-rises of Al-Mina.

Here, people are friendly and helpful and curious about the visitor in their midst. In search of a much-needed coffee shortly after I arrived, I found a wandering coffee-seller armed with a pair of large flasks, and we exchanged language-less gestures and grins as he dished up a sweet cardamom coffee in a tiny plastic cup, his by-foot personal service so reminiscent of chai-wallahs plying their trade around India’s markets. Several times when I was walking around the souqs on my plaque-quest getting happily lost, I was asked if I was all right, did I know where I was going? A pastry-seller beamingly told me that he “loves” London - even if this is only second-hand, on the basis of his brother’s experience. A young man started chatting to me as I sat diary-scribbling in the park, but swiftly exhausted his French and English, and, with Arabic being a non-starter from my point-of-view, brought conversation sweetly to a close with “Welcome in Lebanese”. A well-dressed elderly man approached me outside the Great Mosque to ask if I’d like to look around inside, and then pottered off to find me a strangely elfin-like cloak to ensure that my trousers and long-sleeved blouse didn’t offend anyone (the pointed hood blew off in the slightest draught: my own shawl would have been a more respectful head-covering), before showing me round this 700 year old mosque built on the ruins of a Crusader cathedral. He looked refreshingly surprised when I tried to pay him for his courteous troubles, and wished me “Bonne chance à vous”, a concluding salutation I’d encountered in Rwanda, forgotten until now.

Back down the coast, I looked longingly at a black-and-white photograph of 1940s Byblos, showing a small fishing village on the edge of farmland that gradually climbs the slopes of the Mount Lebanon Range. Little sign of that farmland now, with the “village” almost engulfed by the concrete urban sprawl creeping outwards from Beirut forty kilometres to the south. Yet down by the harbour, Pepe’s offers a glimpse of Lebanon’s brief heyday as the “Paris of the East”, the restaurant walls still lined with photographs of the 1960s’ rich and beautiful and famous. And just up the road is one of the finest - and there is hot competition for this title - four-dimensional jigsaw puzzles in Lebanon. Byblos lays claim to being the oldest continually inhabited town in the world, and the archaeological site south-east of the harbour contains ruins going back to the Neolithic times, as well as another dramatic Crusader castle, a Roman amphitheatre, vertically-cut tombs for local kings contemporaneous with Egypt’s Rameses II, and city ramparts and temples going back to the fourth millennium B.C. In some instances, later temples were built on the ruins of earlier ones, so they have been moved and reconstructed elsewhere on the site to allow the excavation of the earlier temples. Gazing around this vast area of still-scattered stonework, it is hard to see how anyone could make sense of it, and I felt a renewed sense of awe for the tireless and meticulous work of the archaeologists involved.

On my only foray south of Beirut, I stayed in the town of Saida. (Many Lebanese towns have two names, both Arab and Western. For the most part, I preferred the Western names - Byblos rather than Jbail, Tripoli rather than Treblous - but, here, the more romantic Arab “Saida” beat the glum-sounding “Sidon” into the proverbial cocked hat, so, consciously inconsistent, I adopted the Arab name in my scribbles.) I’d wanted to try and get to Tyre, although, with its proximity to the Israeli border and further Palestinian refugee camps, the Foreign Office was cautious about the area’s security. In any event, I ran out of time.

Here in Saida, it was a Friday. Despite years of reading the small print as a day job, I entirely failed to note little details in The Book such as opening times - which, without much leap of imagination, might make the reasonable-thinking traveller conclude that this particular day of the week would not be the best time to visit. Briefly happy in my ignorance, I settled into my gorgeous little hotel room overlooking the harbour and went off to explore… only working out some hours later why it might be that the “vaulted souqs” and “medieval alleyways ripe for the exploring” were singularly and boringly boarded up. Sadly, this realisation came to me a little late. Stomping round Saida’s Corniche, the coastal road, in search of “sights”, I found myself being gradually limpet-ed by a young man. Assuming that he was just trying to show me around in the hope of either direct financial remuneration or a commission for taking me to some shop or other, I continued walking, but made it increasingly clear - albeit through a total language barrier - that I preferred my own company. Eventually he got the point, and scampered off, but not before grabbing my butt on his way past. I whisked round and yelled at him - in language that would have had my grandmother spinning in her grave - but he simply leered at me from around a nearby corner. To my horror, he then re-emerged, walking towards me, and I didn’t need a degree in Arabic to work out what he meant as he groped his crotch and gesticulated. Suddenly, I became all too aware of how empty this area actually was, even though it was less than 500m from my hotel. With him between me and my hotel, and only further emptiness beyond, crossing the road seemed the best option… though I was glad of the first car’s brakes. It always does take me a while to re-learn how to cross the road in right-hand-drive countries… Somehow I shook him off. Whatever else untoward I might have been anticipating here, it wasn’t that.

Fortunately, this happened after I’d explored the jewel of Saida: the Sea Castle. Another of the castles built by the Crusaders, this one is on a tiny island at the end of a narrow causeway and, part-renovated, was great fun to scramble around. Not for the first - or the last - time in Lebanon, I was grateful for the local, more relaxed approach to health and safety. Guard rails and warning signs would have ruined the fun, never mind the aesthetics.

I was entertained by the Lebanese approach to public transport. Taxi fares are pretty non-negotiable, at least for solo rides. However, if you sign up for a shared ride, a “servees” (service) taxi, the rate can be very competitive, though it doesn’t guarantee that you stay in that form of transport all the way to your destination. I became increasingly converted to the idea of passenger-trading. So long as I didn’t have to pay more than one fare, I was more than happy for my first mode of transport to trade my custom if that meant I reached my destination sooner. On the way north from Beirut to Tripoli, the first bus driver clearly didn’t feel that completing the whole journey was cost-effective (or maybe he just wanted to knock off early that day), so he waved over another bus driver and told us all to change onto the second bus. We hadn’t paid him, but we paid the second bus driver in full: no problem. The driver of the “servees” who appeared to agree to take me to Baalbek from Beirut for LL10,000 (about £4) stopped at Chtaura where all my three co-passengers were disembarking, and paid a minibus driver to take me the rest of the distance. Given there is no added comfort in sharing the back seat of a taxi with two others,
chains for the insanechains for the insanechains for the insane

Grotto of St Anthony, Qadisha Valley
as opposed to taking a bus or a minibus, this was no problem for me, and got me there sooner and with less hassle than a disgruntled “servees” with only one passenger for the additional 40km would have done.

Even Lebanon has its moments of countryside, though it may not have been as uninterruptedly or prolonged-ly green as I might have wished. At my kooky but friendly guesthouse in Tripoli, I was hooked up with a French couple hiring a car and driver for a day’s trip around the spectacular Qadisha Valley. Scenically, it was stunning, an extraordinary green and spectacular slash in the northern Lebanese countryside, with blotches of snow still visible on the mountains beyond, although the profusion of Christian monasteries, hermitages and grottoes took me aback. While I am used to visiting remote shrines of other faiths, it was a little curious to encounter Christianity - the umbrella term for what is (or was) ostensibly my own faith - in what could almost be described as a pagan-influenced form. At St Anthony’s Grotto within the Deir (hermitage) Mar Antonios Qozhaya, we were bemused to find what appeared to be a pile of washing up at on
Pigeon RocksPigeon RocksPigeon Rocks

Beirut's only natural landscape feature
one side of the cave, but we were later furnished with an explanation: women wanting to conceive would leave a pot or pan in the cave with their prayers. When (not if - conviction rules here) their prayers were answered, the pot/pan would be upturned to let the gods know that no further time needed to be spent on their problem. The grotto also doubled as a madhouse: the insane or possessed would be left chained up in the hope that the saint would cure them - and the chains are still, gruesomely, here.

But I had left the highlight of Lebanon until the end. Remarkably unscathed by years of war across the aeons of time, this site stands tall - literally and figuratively - and worthy of comparison with anywhere in the Mediterranean and Middle East. And it was going to blow my mind.

Additional photos below
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a sixteenth century Mamluk zawiyaa sixteenth century Mamluk zawiya
a sixteenth century Mamluk zawiya

This has been left in its original location, notwithstanding the construction around it of central Beirut's very chichi Souqs Project, thanks to an apparent miracle preventing its destruction
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don't let a good name go to waste

The name of the erstwhile contentious dividing line between East and West Beirut has now been adopted by a construction company in the city

6th July 2010

Oh dear...your anxious godsister sends you a hug, you intrepid traveller. Hope this is going to be a book? PS Younger daughter getting married next year. I miss your Godmother..

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