Archive for lebanon
The Levant: Part Five
It is hard to make plans when there’s nothing you really want to do. When I drove into the gas station in Furn al-Shebbak before heading off to Baalbek, I was sick of the traffic and of looking at maps, and I was leaning further and further towards driving to a beach in the south, sticking my head in the sand, and hiring the first shared taxi out of the country in the morning. But more happened at that gas station than I let on about in my last post —it wasn’t so important then — and in the hour and a half I spent parked not buying any petrol, I filled up on ideas and got back into the traveling spirit.
The air force cadet, around my age and dressed in camouflage, did tell me not to go to east towards Baalbek, but he told me not to go south towards Sur (also called Tyre) either. Go tomorrow morning, he told me, and I’ll go with you: fish for lunch, jet skis, the beach. The cadet, his name was Marwan, was from there. “And nargila?” he asked. “Of course.” Huge smiles. This dude was speaking my language.
But if I didn’t go to Baalbek, I really had fuckall to do. I tried to explain that, but I couldn’t quite get it across in Arabic. “Do you know people in Lebanon?” Marwan and the pump manager asked. No. “What are you trying to see?” Nothing. Anything, something different. “Where are you staying?” Nowhere.
Their faces grew more and more incredulous with my every hopeless shrug. I truly had no good reasons to do anything at all — no sights to see, no people to meet, and an unfaltering confidence that my rental insurance would cover robberies.
“Meet me outside Melek al-Tawwous at 8:30,” Marwan repeated, unknowingly accepting as his all of my stresses about filling time. I had few wants but I wanted to, I felt I needed to want — but with the air force in charge, I could take the passenger seat and throw my baggage in the back.
And so I asked for directions to Zahle and went to Baalbek, and I came back and crashed in the one pension I knew, and I picked up Marwan outside the breakfast place just as he said. “Let me drive.”
The day started so right. We shortcut through side streets and raced onto the highway, stopping to pick up two pirated CDs of Lebanese Pop from a shack on the road; by the end of the day we’d listen to the good one about 40 times — and the bad one 65. We learned little about each other: he fixed planes for the air force, I wandered around countries. “You have a good heart,” Marwan would say to me. I tried to live up to his assessments, based on my willingness to travel alone or with a very new friend, by trusting in his plans for fun à la libanaise.
We had unbelievable foul (he paid) and pepsi in his town, Ghaziyeh (he wasn’t from Sur), and he ran in to his house (which he never let me see) to change out of his army uniform. “When I come back I will be a real person.” He came back in a sleeveless muscle shirt with his hair gelled. We were going to the beach. “Do you have any cologne?” Tolerance, I told myself.
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. Read the rest of this entry »
The Levant: Part 3
A young man on a Vespa drove towards me with the slumped and bloody carcass of a dolphin slung over the floorboard, its nose and tail nearly dragging on the rough pavement. It was probably just a big fish, but the children playing outside the few shops on the seaside street stopped to tag along excitedly behind the motorbike. I followed in my rearview mirror as the group turned off the street to make their next move.
* * *
This was the rural road that ran parallel to the North-South highway; not far behind were the ruins of Byblos, in the near distance was the broad, flat profile of urban Tripoli. Many Lebanese would give the impression with their tone that it was all still a ways away: “Yes, far: twenty kilometers maybe.” In a small country where lifestyles and landscapes change at every few mile-markers, far is never so far. Russians and Australians, I imagine, would give very different answers to those sorts of questions — “It’s easy, just six timezones west. After the bridge.”
But minutes after leaving Tripoli, I was driving through the dark clouds above the Wadi Qadisha seeking shelter in the only places I knew to look. Aramaic for “Holy Valley,” the area and its many caves have for millennia been a site of Christian hermitage; painted signs for deir dot the side of the road, sometimes appearing not to point to anything in particular. These are the modern markers of ancient monasteries, still inhabited and many still offering friendly lodging to retreaters. But to find even the largest complex, you may need to believe (in the side-roads); the signs on the main route are about all you can get for advertisement. As loud as Tripoli is with blasting car horns and old engines grumbling, the crest of the valley is silent. Read the rest of this entry »
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.)
The day after the United States began to evacuate “non-essential” staff from its Embassy in Damascus, I too bought a ticket out of Syria. Except to use that ticket I’d first have to fly in the other direction — I wasn’t even there yet.
I spoke to my parents from the 3:00 am bus leaving Abu Dhabi for an airport three hours away in the north of the UAE. “Do you hear the birds?” they asked. It was May in the suburbs. “Do you hear the air conditioning?” I asked back. While the next week never ceased to the vacation I needed it to be, it felt at first and at moments like a sprint towards a fire. I flew to the Levant to thaw from the sterility of the Emirates. Sure, fire can burn, but it warms until the bite.
So there I was, heading to the places my mother had never wanted me to go, at the times when the world said it was worst to go to them. And it was two days before Mothers’ Day.