The Levant: Part Two
Old and new and old and ruined and new and destroyed and old and refurbished and new and under construction. Beirut’s one face is like a cubist painting, recognizable patterns (outdoor cafes, the waterfront boulevard, shelled and charred hotels) elicit memories of separate cities (Paris, Orange County, Kabul.)
Down the street from the new souks (Dolce & Gabana, Massimo Dutti, Quiksilver) that lead onto Ajami Square is one of the city’s many old churches, one that won’t attract tourists despite its age and simple beauty as much as it does a very few of the midday pious. An outlet was embedded in the stone wall, put there, I assume by Crusaders hoping to charge their Palm Sunday Pilots. (That joke was a stretch and I apologize.)
I continued walking the streets, leapfrogging in and out of eons. Roman columns grew inconspicuously in an overgrown plot as they tend to do in Lebanon, a cool two thousand years old and attracting no attention. I felt very small as I passed them, the symbol of how titanically vast the Empire stretched, how far some travelers must have traveled in a time when traveling actually meant something to more than the individual. But, I consoled myself, Romans probably never got to my town in suburban Pennsylvania (there’d probably be better Italian food if they had) — I bet that would’ve blown their minds. So I’ve still got them beat on one front.
My traveling was more me-centric than it ever had been, a stream of consciousness road trip in a rented Ibiza hatchback. I didn’t know what I was trying to see (north first), I wasn’t sure exactly how long I would stay, and my two phones combined to tell nothing but the time — and even that twelve minutes apart. With my companion stuck in Syria, I alone was slipped of my moorings, with no one to report to and no loyalties to any of Lebanon’s personalities.
A waiter commented at a Beirut cafe, affirming the beauty of the north. Then:
“You are alone?”
“But if you go alone… you’re not happy.”
That seemed to take all the pressure off. In new surroundings when thousands of years must be packed into three days, or four, overworked braincells demand the traveler does the country right. The Lebanese I asked for directions seemed ready and eager to lower my expectations, declaring my happiness on the road to be as unattainable as peace with Israel or life without hair gel or a visit to the Shia east. At a restaurant, these were certainly the kind of friends who would tell you how disgusting your food was mid-first bite, but these expressions of no confidence inspired exactly the opposite.
I sped up the coastal highway to Jeita, famous for its capacious grottos and itself one of twenty-eight finalists for the “New Seven Wonders of the World”. I drove up through the ruins of Byblos (Jbeil in Lebanese) where school tour groups traveled to the unfaltering beat of their own doumbek and a castle occupied by Ottomans and Greeks and the Crusaders and the French looks out onto Roman ruins and the bluest cove of the Mediterranean. I spun around in circles at a roundabout in Tripoli (Tarabulus, safer than its Libyan sister but for the traffic) and escaped without seeing anything but the backs of other cars. And then the road turned east and upwards and didn’t come down until the end of the road six-thousand feet higher, where snow and ice blocked any further passage.
It is impossible to drive through history and mingled customs and absorb much of anything. But minutes from the Tripoli coast, in the cold air high above the valley, engagement with the topical is boiled down to immersion in the topographical. This was the land of Lebanon, and I needed nothing but my own eyes.
More pictures from Lebanon right here.