The Levant: Part Four
They told me not to go to Baalbek, so I obviously wanted to go. I hadn’t heard of the town before, except for seeing it on a part of the map I hadn’t addressed, and it was off-putting how they spoke of this city in the east (the eighth largest in Lebanon) as a place of endless danger and lawlessness. But I was comforted by one thing, a glimmer of the logic that projected such fear: the word “Shia”. Poorly hidden at the heart of their reasoning was this sectarian prejudice — if I didn’t share it, I had no reason to be afraid at all.
The one road east from Tripoli reached the patch of thousand year-old cedars in the aptly named town of Ariz, “Cedars.” The national tree has survived only here and on Lebanon’s flag, but for an entrance fee of whatever-you’d-like-to-pay you can stand under them forever. The gatekeeper gently refused to offer suggestions for donations, so I slid him three green thousand-lira bills ($2). He handed me two official looking tickets and grinned, “That’s enough for two.” It’s an amazing kind of green.
And that’s where the road stops. Snow and ice block the way eight to ten months out of the year, and I’d have had to wait until July if I didn’t want to backtrack. So with a half-full tank of gas and an empty schedule, I turned back toward Tripoli, toward Beirut, heading counterclockwise from Lebanon’s Twelve to Two.
In Beirut again they balked at the mention of Baalbek. “They’ll put your car on blocks,” a young soldier in the air force offered instead of directions, joking with the manager at a gas station. “They’ll leave him with nothing but the steering wheel!” For me though, Baalbek’s Most Wanted would be the ATM that swallowed my debit card.
In short, what I heard from many Lebanese was: Don’t go to Baalbek. You’ll get robbed at gunpoint by Shias. They should have said, “There are Roman ruins. They are cool.” But wrapped up in these biases was a well-folded parental instinct directed toward a rather strange traveler with no real reason to go anywhere more than anywhere else. Like Layla and her motherly friends at the monastery, the air force mechanic and the pump attendant just wanted to offer what they felt they knew to someone they gathered knew almost nothing at all. And on the road I wore their concern like a sweater, taking it off when it grew too itchy.
I pushed the soldier once more for directions (and promised I’d only go as far as Zahle). “Right. And then straight all the way.”
And so I drove straight, yelling names of upcoming towns out the window for the endorsements of lolling shopkeepers. I sped past signs for things that might have been interesting listening to my favorite station (whichever fleeting frequency could be heard best through the static) ignoring the police siren horns of regular cars — somehow I never believed the red vegetable truck was part of The Force. Soon, billboards on the road sprang up with the faces of Shia clerics and I drove until I knew I was in Baalbek, and I turned off the radio and smelled horses.
Baalbek is ancient ruins and nice people and the self-appraised “Largest Rock in the World,” which is, in fact, a fantastically huge 800-ton slab of something-stone — known as “Hajr al-Hubla,” the Pregnant Stone — that found its way to a lot in Lebanon by some means still unfathomable to the modern engineer. Two little French children scampered up the incline chased by their mother. On the other side of town, a newlywed couple posed for pictures on the staircase in the center of Baalbek’s famous complex of Roman temples.
I bought a six-dollar keffiyeh from a grizzled trader delighted to make the sale. He lit a cigarette and brought me into his shop for coffee. “I drink 40 cups a day,” he said. “And five packs of these.” He tapped the pack. “It’s good for the stomach.”
A woman turned away from the dubbed Turkish drama on the television to wrap the scarf around my head. The man downed his coffee. Distracted by the cool composure of the place, I forgot to ask them what they thought of the many allegations about their town, or if they had the same stereotypes about the rest of the country. “Typical,” he might have laughed. “I bet they said all that in French.” Or: “No, we stopped stealing cars when we took up kidnapping. By the way, what’s your shackle size?” But more probably, just like everyone about their hometown (including fellow foreigners here in Abu Dhabi from Peshawar, or Khandahar, or from the heart of Waziristan): “It’s the safest place in the world.”
Later in the south of the country, comparably Shia and equally supportive of Hizbullah, I aired the notions to the man running a sandwich shop as I placed an order. He lit up. “Marwan, did you hear what people in Beirut say about Baalbek?” he shouted out the door. “‘Oooh, it’s Shia — it’s dangerous!’”
He turned back to me and the grilling sandwiches. “You want spicy?”
Slideshow from Lebanon here.