Chapter 11: Wild Honey and Sinking Ships

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We cross the small square at the top of the souk and wind our way through the tail-end of Rashaya, which peters out in a sprinkling of old homes with wild, overgrown gardens, to emerge on a low bluff on the outskirts of town.

From here, the trail leads down steeply through a small crevasse, into bright, flower-filled fields but after a picturesque start, we spend the next hour and a half walking past a succession of villages that are difficult to describe as anything but depressing, despite the magnificence of their surroundings. The trail leads through open fields, but we’re too close to the busy cross-valley road, so the soundtrack of wind and birdsong we’d walked to the day before, is supplanted by the swoosh of passing cars and the low rumble of trucks. It's also surprisingly hot and for now, the best views are all behind us. It isn’t long before my lack of sleep begins to take its toll. 

As the last of the fly-blown villages recedes from view, we hike past a rusting roadside fair that exudes all the cheer of a bout of dysentery. A faded billboard nearby advertises a glitzy new hospital offered to ‘the honourable people’ of Lebanon by ‘brotherly’ Iran. From the looks of it, the sign has been there for years but the hospital hasn’t materialised. What has is a bunker-like branch campus of the Lebanese University (Sixth Division), which is apparently dedicated to the pursuit of business administration. It looks like the kind of place that will serve as the headquarters of a cabal of cannibal bikers after the Zombie Apocalypse.

An Eternity, or three kilometres later - you choose - the trail finally veers away from the road and, allahu akbar, we begin to wind our way uphill through the gentle beauty of vineyards and cherry orchards beginning to bloom. Spring has not yet sprung up in the mountains and down here on the valley floor, which is some 1000 metres above sea level, the full fandango is still a couple of days away, but this little tease of What Is To Come, is heady.

At the top of the hill, we pass through the outskirts of a small village. The inhabitants are hard at work in their fields, but as we pass, they take a break to stare, evidently puzzled by the sight of a bunch of strangers walking through these parts, so we smile, wave and offer warm ‘hellos’ to those nearest. Eventually, a couple wave back hesitantly, though I get the sense this is less a welcome, than concern we might stop for a chat. Between the bleak villages below and the chain gang welcome in the foothills, it’s almost as though we’ve stumbled into a parallel Lebanon, where all the normal (saving) graces don’t apply.

An hour later, the much more welcoming village of Kawkaba Bu Arab lurches into view. It’s perched on top of a rocky outcrop, part hill, part ridge, that dominates the rolling farmlands on the valley floor. From a distance, the dense cluster of houses looks a bit like a dreamy, medieval citadel. It’s somewhat less attractive closer up. The few graceful sandstone homes that haven’t been ‘modernised’, have been overwhelmed by a froth of concrete boxes, most of which stand empty and unfinished, but Lebanese hospitality is back in full(on) effect and our ‘good mornings’ are returned with warm invitations to come in and have a cup of coffee. We don’t, of course. Though genuinely meant, such invitations are a ritual welcome, usually said in the understanding that you will decline with a polite ‘no’ or perhaps a ‘killak zo’, an essential Levantine phrase that literally translates as ‘you are all good taste’ but which can also serve as the equivalent of a ‘you’re too kind’. It’s apparently a holdover from the formalised greetings of Ottoman times. 

Though otherwise unremarkable, Kawkaba Bu Arab is the location of the tomb of a 17th Century Druze hermit called Sheikh el-Fadel. The holy man is famous for performing a number of modest miracle, and like Francis of Assisi, is said to have had a way with wild animals.

He lived for most of his life in a small cave on the outskirts of the village and is buried a short walk away from where we have arrived, in a maqam built later in his honour. Like most words in Arabic, maqam has a number of different meanings. It is the word the Druze use to describe their shrines and in Sufism, to describe the stages the soul must go through in its quest for God, but its literal meaning is ‘place’. Rather more delightfully, maqam is also used to describe the modal structures of classical Arabic music and Sephardic Jewish temple songs. So in addition to physical location, the word carries connotation of transcendence and tone.

The maqam turns out to be a large compound containing the sheikh’s original grave site, his new shrine, a simple sandstone cube with arcades topped by a crisply whitewashed dome, a few administrative buildings and a prayer hall. One end of the compound is shaded by two of the largest oak trees I’ve seen in Lebanon, absolute monsters that have been saved from the axe because Sheikh el-Fadel liked to sit under them and read. The new, cupolaed shrine bears an inscription dating it to 1321. For a while there’s a brief but animated discussion between a couple of the hikers as to whether the date is Gregorian or Islamic until Robin ambles over and explains that the Sheikh died in the 17th Century, so the date is Anno Hijrah, not Domini, which means that the new tomb was built in 1903.

It is a quiet, meditative place during the week. The only visitors apart from us are a young Druze couple, who have come with their newborn to pay their respects but the guardian tells us that at weekends and especially on feast days, the maqam fills up with visitors from all over Lebanon and, in quieter times, Syria. From somewhere, I can hear the trickle of water, and as the trees sway in the breeze, it sound like their shadows are play music across the flagstones. 

Like any self-respecting hermit, Sheikh el-Fadel survived on a combination of charity and self-sufficiency, receiving modest offerings of food from villagers and foraging for anything else. As evidence of his blessed nature, wild animals are said to have brought him morsels of food, and if his supplies ran perilously low, the hive of wild bees nesting in the cleft near his cave would produce extra honey to feed him, which would ooze down the rock face in sticky, golden rivulets. 

A profound respect for Nature is one of the principal tenets of the Druze faith and it was the Sheikh’s close relationship with wild animals that earned him his saintly reputation. Of course, there are always doubters. One day, a local man turned up at the cave one day with a group of friends and challenged the sheikh to feed them all, if he could. At this point, the saintly gentleman had nothing but a little stale bread to offer but he asked them to sit – an invitation that was not politely declined - went out to the cleft, and returned with bowl of honey. When it was finished, he went out and got them more, and more, and more. Their doubt banished by bulging bellies, the men left and never bothered the Sheikh, or his bees, again.

The cave where this modest Lebanese remake of the Feeding of the Five Thousand took place, is now part of the maqam (though the bees are conspicuously absent) and the view it commands is magnificent. Clearly the Sheikh knew the importance of location, and here at the tip of the promontory, the ground plunges precipitously to the valley a hundred or so metres below. Flanking us in the distance on either side are the snow-capped mountain ranges of the Anti-Lebanon and the Lebanon, and the luminous pale blue sky is stippled with tiny cottony puffs of cloud, which drift by in the breeze casting their shadows on the wine-coloured earth, striped yellow and green with crops and pasturelands.

On the hills opposite, we can make out the similarly citadel-esque outlines of Kfar Meshki. The soil may be rich and the landscapes magnificent, but prospects in the Beka’a are limited and so like nearly all of its neighbours, this tiny, mostly Christian village has been emptied by a century and half of emigration. As improbable as it seems, there are are people in Sydney, Montreal, São Paulo and Caracas who can trace their roots to this beautiful, unloved and overlooked part of the country.

It was this pursuit of a better life that briefly earned Kfar Miski a place in global headlines, when in 1912, at least 10 and possibly 14 - the figures are disputed - of its inhabitants ended up going down on the Titanic. 

Despite its size, the Lebanese made up a significant enough swathe of the ill-fated ship’s passengers that during the evacuation scenes in the James Cameron film, a brief snatch of Arabic can be heard in the background. Watching the film in Beirut when it came out, this was greeted by a explosion of clapping, hooting and whistling that somehow managed to outdo the adolescent appreciation of Kate Winslet’s breasts a few scenes earlier. 

The exact number of Lebanese passengers on the Titantic depends on which account of the tragedy you read. There were definitely 93, most of whom joined the ship at Cherbourg, and so Kfar Mishki isn’t the only Lebanese village to have lost inhabitants that cold April night, but it is possible that there were as many as 125 on board. 

There are several reasons for the confusion. Census records from the Ottoman Era are unreliable because in the more remote parts of the country, which in those days meant anywhere more than a day’s journey from the nearest regional capital, many people never bothered to get documented. Even in cities, it wasn’t uncommon for people to live their entire lives without leaving a single official record of their existence.

The Titanic’s passenger logs are more accurate, but when it comes to accounting for Lebanese passengers, they are still unhelpful. Many emigrants, on their way to new and better lives abroad, gave Anglicised versions of their names – ‘Butros’ became ‘Peter’, for example – while others were mis-registered, so that in one case, the Lebanese family name ‘Badr’ was written down as the more Germanic-sounding ‘Badt’.

However many Lebanese there were on board, they accounted for nearly all of the Titanic’s Middle Eastern passengers. The only other confirmed Arab passenger was an Egyptian called Hammad Hassab, but thanks to the largesse of his American patron, who had paid for his passage, he was not only travelling First Class, he also survived. The Lebanese, most of whom were in Third Class, weren’t as lucky and whether there were 93 or 125 of them, only 23 lived to tell the tale.

As we begin to thread our way down the hill, Robin tells us the story of one of those that did not, Fares Shehab, an accomplished oud-player who was on his way to New York to become a professional musician. In another one of those moments of delicious irony Lebanon does so well, Shehab was a scion of the princely family whose palace we have only just visited in Hasbaya.

Like most early 20th Century aristocrats, the Emir was titled but broke, and so and along with his compatriots, he was travelling below decks and was trapped when the crew locked the gates, in an attempt to allow the Upper Deck passengers evacuate first.

As people panicked, he pulled out his oud, the only possession he had tried to rescue, and attempted to calm the situation. The gambit worked just long enough for the crew to briefly reopen the gates and let some of the women and children through, before locking them again. According to survivors, they could hear the Emir’s oud  above the shouting and pleading as they fled. Perhaps like the orchestra on the upper deck, which was halfway through Nearer My God to Thee when the Titanic sank, Fares Shehab also continued to play until the end, and if so, perhaps the haunting sound of the oud provided some those who died with him a final moment of solace before the cold, cold waters of the North Atlantic flooded in and took their lives.

Chapter 10: The Sleep Thief

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I have my first sleepless night. 

Just after midnight, I’m awoken by a peculiar noise, halfway between a whistle and a rumble. Slowly, I realise that someone is snoring. The sound is so loud that were it not preventing me from going back to sleep, it would almost be comical. 

At first, I assume it must be one of my roommates and from the decibel level, I’m thinking it must be the woman in the bunk above. But then I realise that somehow, this incredible noise is coming from down the hall. I ease out of bed and pad over to the door. I can now hear that it is coming from a room two doors down, and is being amplified by the bare walls and high ceilings of the narrow corridor.

I creep towards the room and peek inside. Incredibly, everyone looks like they are asleep. Trying not to disturb them – although I could have marched a herd of elephants down the hall at this point, and no one would have heard - I gently close the door, slip back to our room and close our door. The payoff is meagre. I can still hear the snoring. It’s still loud enough that I’m surprised the windows aren’t rattling. 

Shortly before dawn, when our sleep thief has either rolled over into their pillow or else expired (and as no one in our now reduced group is due to leave for the next four days, I find myself rooting grumpily for the latter eventuality), I manage to fall asleep, only to be woken 30 minutes later by a fresh round of rumbling. By now, the sun is rising, so I surrender to the inevitable and lie in bed dazed, too tired to yawn. My roommates are all awake, too, rubbing their eyes blearily. 

Breakfast is an unusually silent affair, although as the herbal tea kicks in, a more jocular mood begins to surface. Halfway through, the source of our night-time torture emerges looking sheepish but annoyingly, as fresh as a daisy. At least one of us has slept well. 

Because the guesthouse the LMTA normally uses in the next stop is closed for refurbishment, our walk today is going to be another marathon. Our goal for the evening is the village of Aitanit, which lies on the western side of the Beka’a Valley. All in, it should be a 25-kilometre walk, though thankfully, more downhill than yesterday.

We gear up but before we leave, Joseph informs us that our host, Mahdi, whose delectable produce was so rapturously received the previous night that his charming wife, Amal, was constantly ferrying back and forth to the kitchen to keep up with our appetites, wants to give a short talk.  

From the conversation over dinner, I’ve come to understand that Mehdi is an agricultural evangelist. He and Amal are slowly converting their fellow farmers to organic methods, and are also trying to protect Lebanese crop diversity. Amongst other things, I now know that there are 61 varieties of grains indigenous to Lebanon, which seems impressive for such a small country. In fact, the bread we had for dinner, served fresh from the oven, had been made with a particularly old variety that only he grew anymore.

“It’s not really as difficult as people say,” Mehdi explained, “but this variety isn’t as resistant to some pests and diseases, so you have be more careful with it, which is why it’s fallen out of favour, but really it’s just a bit more time-consuming, nothing more.”

I can understand why farmers would choose to grow a less demanding variety of grain, theirs is not the easiest of jobs, so why not reduce the workload where possible? But its sweet, nutty smokiness got me thinking about the trade-offs modern life encourages us to make, and whether the loss of a unique flavour like this is really a price worth paying for greater convenience.

Naturally, I assume we’re in for another disquisition on the value of preserving heritage foods, but instead, Mahdi wants to share his take on his hometown’s reputation for sectarian harmony.

Like most Lebanese villages, Rashaya is home to a mixed population. In this case, a Druze-Greek Orthodox/Catholic blend, with a smattering of Syriac Christians for fun. During the civil war, it managed to avoid the massacres and population transfers that took place in other parts of Lebanon and it's clear that to our host, this is a source of great pride.

“Rashaya is the citadel of freedom and independence,” he tells us, alluding to the village’s role as the epicentre of the 1925 Great Druze Revolt against the French Mandate, and later as the birthplace of the Republic, “but it is also the village of co-existence. It doesn’t matter if you pray in a church and I do not, we are all one. Rashaya welcomes you. Rashaya welcomes everyone.”

I look over at our guide, Robin. He’s in the background, studying the ground tactfully. Rashaya is his ancestral home and until the mid-1970’s, he and his family lived here. His old house is a couple of streets away but no one has lived there since they, and the village’s other Christian residents, were driven out by Palestinian Fedayeen fighters at the start of the civil war.

As with so many instances of mass expulsion, the logic behind this episode was the desire to create a population that would not present future complications. The Fedayeen roamed southern Lebanon freely throughout the 1970’s, and before the war broke out, they effectively controlled large swathes of the country. With Lebanon’s Christians officially ranged against them and politically and militarily opposed to any Palestinian use of Lebanon to fight Israel, for the Fedayeen, Rashaya’s Christians were a potential Fifth Column. 

When the attack came, most of the families fled to Beirut and although Rashaya’s Druze didn’t have a hand in their expulsion, they didn’t prevent them, either. 

When the Fedayeen left, Rashaya was occupied by the Syrian army, which requisitioned the house. After the Syrians came the Israelis, and when they pulled back to the south of Hasbaya, the Syrians returned. So it wasn’t until the mid-2000s, when Syria finally left Lebanon, that Robin’s family was able to get their house back, and by then, they had grown used to living elsewhere.

But the civil war wasn’t the first time Rashaya’s Christians had been attacked. In 1860, a time of wide-scale sectarian slaughter that led to the deaths of over 20,000 people in Lebanon and Syria and lent European powers the excuse they had long sought to intervene in what was then the Ottoman Empire, Christians, Druze and other religious minorities were slaughtered, mostly by Sunni Muslims and during the Revolt of 1925, hundreds of Christians in the Rashaya district were again slaughtered by their neighbours.

Of course, no one mentioned any of this. Lebanon’s long history of sectarian violence, which sadly often masks its even longer history of sectarian harmony, complicates discussions of previous atrocities. If the victims of 1860 and 1925 were mostly Christians and Druze, the massacres perpetrated during the Civil War had not just affected nearly every one of Lebanon’s communities, they had been carried out by nearly all of them, too. 

Because of the horrendous slaughter of unarmed Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, Tell al-Zaatar and Qarantina, the impression many foreign visitors tend to get is that the civil war massacres had been one-sided and this notion that Christian militias had been particularly savage was a pillar of the dominant post-war narrative shaped under the Syrian occupation.

But many other massacres had taken place. Palestinians had killed Christians. Syrians had killed Palestinians and Christians. Shi’ites had killed Palestinians. Druze had killed Christians. Christians had killed Druze. Alawites and Sunnis had killed one another in Tripoli, Christians had killed one another in Beirut. And the Israelis had killed everyone indiscriminately, ending the lives of 22,000 civilians in the two weeks it took them to invade Beirut in 1982, alone.

Most Lebanese had been affected in some way. Everyone knew who had issued the orders and in many cases, the people who had carried those orders out, some might now even live only a few streets away from the families of their victims, others ruled the country, all seemingly untouchable, because of the Faustian bargain Lebanon had made to end its long conflict.

In public, people tried not to dwell on the suffering, they would smile and nod when a member of another sect spoke of harmony, of being one great family, even when they knew, perhaps even first hand, that this had not always been the case.

Unlike the end of the Second World War, the dismantling of Apartheid, the Rwandan Genocide or the Balkan War trials, instances when formal structures were put in place to force the issue of accountability (even if that accountability was one-sided), Lebanon had gone from 15 years of war to an instant peace under the aegis of occupation by two of the foreign military forces instrument in its destruction. With a few notable exceptions, amongst them Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea, no one had even apologised fro their role in Lebanon’s war.

This was why some spoke of ‘war amnesia’. The term was thrown around a lot, especially by those who lived the war out abroad, were just children when it ended, or who were born afterwards, and who could not understand why their parents and grandparents would not talk about their experiences. They pointed to post-war Lebanon’s pursuit of hedonism as further proof that everything had just been forgotten. 

Though it sounded sexy, especially as a headline, I’d never found the claim to be accurate, and in almost 20 years of living in the country, I never met anyone old enough to have experienced the civil war who has forgotten a single moment of it. On the contrary, many people continued to relive the horror on a daily basis, and for many years, it was possible to walk into any pharmacy and buy heavy-duty tranquillisers over the counter.

So everyone listened and nodded. Satisfied that he has done all he can to leave us with the best impression of Rashaya, Mehdi accompanies us back to the souk. 

On the way, Robin takes us on a short detour so that he can pass by his old home, where he stops to take a couple of photos and mentions that he remembers playing in the street here as a child. 

Neither man talks about why Robin and his family no longer live in Rashaya or why their house is shuttered, but I get the impression that neither is under any illusion as to why. 

As we reached the main street, Madhi leaves us. With smile and a wave, he invites us to come back again, anytime. “Beyti, beitak,” he tells us all, gripping Robin’s hand in a firm shake. “My house is your house.”

And like that, we are all, once again, family.

 

Chapter 9: I’m Fine, Tante. But Thanks For Asking.

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The cool forests and lush pasturelands we have walked through until now are beginning to give way to the harsh, karstic landscape of Jabal al-Sheikh.

Geologically, most of Lebanon is composed of different kinds of limestone and where it lies exposed, it has been weathered into fantastical shapes by aeons of wind and rain, some of them so neatly sculpted, you wonder whether their appearance is entirely natural. 

Anywhere else, sites like this would be protected, turned into national parks. The uplands between Faqra and Kfardebian, for example, are every bit as impressive as the stone forests of China’s Shilin or the Tsingy de Bemaraha in Madagascar, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, but as with so much of Lebanon’s archaeological, cultural and natural heritage, the countryside has been patchily protected and post-war, even areas that ought to be parks are rapidly being ruined by the construction of holiday homes and seasonal hotels that ultimately destroy the very places that make the location desirable enough to build in to begin with.

I would come to understand over the course of the next 28 days that the Lebanon Mountain Trail is a perfect microcosm of the country; a potent blend of the great, the ghastly, the unbelievable and the unexpected. It’s a world where you can walk through oak forests planted by the Romans and follow tracks through flower-filled grasslands, only to suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a brand new road, an ugly housing development, a ski resort or more unfortunately, a Syrian refugee camp and then just as quickly lose yourself again in almond orchards, leafy river valleys or ghostly, Karstic uplands, where rocks seem sculpted into eagle heads, crouching tigers, protective deities, even huddles of elephants.

As we continue the tough and seemingly never-ending ascent, my knees begin to protest but any discomfort is overwhelmed by the meditative solitude of Jabal al-Sheikh, which seeps slowly but surely into our world. Here, we are walking through rock-strewn highlands, punctuated by the occasional, wind-stressed tree and thorny stands of gorse and prickly zaaroor, or hawthorn, some of which still sport the previous year’s berries, now dried and burnished, transformed from fire-engine red to a chocolately scarlet by the kiss of winter.

The thin layer of cloud that had greyed the sky from Hasbaya has dissipated and the winter sun is at its zenith, chasing shadows back under rocks and huddling into crevices, where they will wait until the late afternoon once again sets them free. At this altitude and in such desiccated surroundings, this would normally be the most washed-out time of day, especially in the summer, but today, the landscape is ablaze. It has taken on a vivid, almost polarised look, so that we walk through a tapestry of dazzling whites, deep blues and rich greys, broken up by streaks of rust-coloured soil and banks of short, springy grass, dusted with diaphanous clouds of small yellow flowers, that sway gently in the freezing cold breeze that flows down from the peaks above. 

As we rise onto a small plateau, we encounter the only signs of human life that we will see for the next four hours, a couple of small stone shepherds’ huts with rusting metal doors and a walled orchard and as soon as we pass then, the hypnotising desolation of this wild little corner of Lebanon once again rushes in, and within a few minutes, it’s as if the huts and the orchard never existed. 

In the end, it takes us ten hours to reach our goal. Our long, slow climb up to the plateau at 1400 metres, from where it seems almost possible to touch the snow on the flanks of Hermon, is followed about an hour later by an equally long, slow descent down to about 1100 metres, before the trail rises gently back up again to Rashaya. 

We stumble into this little town, neatly tucked into a side valley nestled in the flanks of Jabal al-Sheikh, just in time to catch the last golden rays of the day. Rashaya is home to a famous souk and has the reputation of being one of the few Lebanese villages to have retained its traditional charm. Certainly our first sight is of a sea of graceful, red-tiled pyramid-roofed Levantine houses and the only indication that we are still in the 21st Century are the cars parked along the street.

But Rashaya is famous for more than its market. It was here that the French Mandate authorities banished the five leaders of Lebanon’s independence movement, in the hopes that out of sight would mean out of mind. But the imprisonment of Bechara El Khoury (Lebanon’s first post-independence President), Riad El-Solh (its first post-independence Prime Minister), Adel Osseiran, Pierre Gemayel and Camille Chamoun (who would later serve as President) in the town’s citadel raised an international outcry and after only 11 days in jail, they were released. November 22nd, the day of their liberation, is now commemorated as Lebanon’s Independence Day, although in recent decades, that independence has felt like more of a formality, than anything else.

Like the one in Hasbaya, the citadel in Rashaya has been around in one form or another since Canaanite times, but it was given its current shape in the 18th Century by the Shehabs, who transformed it into a palace. Today, it’s a national monument and a military barracks, which it’s possible to visit. Not that we have the energy for that. It’s as much as most of us can do to hobble down the cobbled streets of its famous souk, though we’re not making much headway on that front, either. Both Joseph and Robin, who I learn the following morning is a local boy, are known in the town, as are a number of the other hikers, and so we are repeatedly stopped as people come over to say hello or to congratulate us on our walk. Such pleasantries are not uncommon in a country where, due to size and intermarriage, the usual degree of separation seems to have been reduced from six to one. 

While this is enormously helpful when you are trying to meet someone new, for someone you know will invariably know or at least know of someone else who knows the person you want to contact, it does mean that getting things done involves a great deal of greeting, and the repeated exchange of pleasantries, which can sometimes feel onerous. As it does now. 

“Raghid?,” a woman calls, as she bustles across the road. “Yii, you’re here? I didn’t know! How are you?”

 “I'm fine thanks, Tante,” Raghid replies, using the French for ‘aunt’, even though they’re probably not related and he looks old enough to be her husband. They kiss three times on the cheek. “How are you?”

“Oh I’m fine, fine. You’re well? And how is your mother?”

“Yes, thanks. Mama’s fine, too. She sends you her best.”

“And your father? Is he feeling better now?”

“Yes, thank you, tante. He’s been home from the hospital now for a few weeks. Tell me, how is Marwa? Is she still enjoying the garden?”

“Oh, I’m glad to hear that. Do send him my regards. Yes, Marwa is busy with the roses, getting everything ready for the spring. And you, you’re well? Tell your mother I say ‘hello’.”

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” Raghid replies, this third affirmation of his fine health apparently settling the matter. “I’ll tell her. I’m really happy I saw you again, Tante. Come and have a coffee one day. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, no, thank you, habibi,” Tante replies, moving in to kiss Raghid once more. “Just take care of yourself. And your mother. Bye, ya qalbi.”

“Bye, Tante. Say hello to Marwa for us.”

Tante flashes a warm smile and waves as she bustles off down the street.

I grew up with enormous revulsion for this kind of protracted and seemingly pointless exchange. I love words and the English ability to use them to endlessly discuss nothing important, like the weather or some other anodyne topic, used to strike me as a total waste of time. 

The one day at college, stoned out of my mind and trying not to think about the long essay I was supposed to be writing instead, I wandered into the microscopic cinema in the old Swiss Centre on Leicester Square and there, on the third floor, I discovered a director by the name of Yasujiro Ozu. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Ozu had directed a series of powerful films, social observations set in post-war Japan, in which nothing seems to happen and yet everything is said. The one I saw that day was one of his most famous. It was called Tokyo Story and it changed my life. 

Slow to the point of inaction and so light on dialogue that by rights, I ought to have fallen asleep in the first twenty minutes, it was utterly enthralling. It might have been the hashish, but the film was so beautiful and so intricate, that it forced me to reconsider my until then absolutist position on the nature of meaningful social interaction, chiefly the belief that one had to say something meaningful to achieve something meaningful. Moving to Japan a few months later, I was able to observe what remained of Ozu’s world in action, and gradually developed a deep admiration for the Japanese ability to express profound emotion and meaning without saying a lot. 

When, three years later, I moved to Lebanon - which was a little like moving from Minimalism to the Baroque - I encountered a world in which people never, ever stopped talking and yet, the most meaningful and profound exchanges, in public, at least, were also its most trivial. As I came to understand the social lubrication it provided, as well as the invisible network of connection knit together by the endless rounds of “Hi, how are you, all well?”, I came to admire the underestimated power of small talk. The unhurried, smiling exchanges of nothingness were so powerful, that I sometimes think it’s this willingness to surrender a couple of minutes to an encounter that most contemporary Westerners would probably be tempted to rush through or even avoid with a wave and smile from a distance, that keeps Lebanon’s complicated social fabric so supple.

Right now, though, I’m too exhausted to appreciate this moment of social magic, and not even the warm secondary welcomes and momentary celebrity to which I am now subject can compensate for the fact that what should have been a five minute walk is inexorably heading towards thirty.

At last, it’s over and we reach our home for the night. Nabil is waiting with the LMTA bus in the square and honks as we trail into view. It’s Sunday night and so all the weekend walkers are heading back home for work tomorrow. Of the thirty-seven who arrive in Rashaya, only nine will be going on tomorrow and while another influx will arrive the following weekend and we’ll pick up the odd walker during the week, in 10 days’ time, we will be down to a party of four. 

 

Chapter 8: The Wise and the Tall

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I’m not sure that it ever really became easy to hike on Mount Hermon.

Eventually, tensions in the Shebaa Farms subsided, even though the Israelis remained in place, but flare-ups could, and did happen without warning, so the mountain remained off most radars. After a few years, parts of it became accessible to casual visitors but by then, life had become busy. I read occasional accounts of powder junkies trekking up to ski down the virgin slopes and of overnight hikes to the top, where it was possible to get permission to camp beside the UN post on the Lebanese side of the buffer zone between the three nations. 

The view was apparently magnificent. A close friend of mine once told me that his father had been force-marched up Hermon during the 1930’s, when he had served in the French Mandate Army of the Levant. He told his son that from the top, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean had been visible, from Jerusalem and Jaffa to Homs, Damascus and Beirut. He’d even claimed to have spotted Cyprus. That last part might have been hyperbole - even without smog, there’s usually quite a bit of dust in the air blowing in off the deserts to the east - but it sounded magical. It was also a stark reminder that this region, which generates so many headlines, where so many different outrages and atrocities take place and where the gulf between the sides seems so wide, is actually very small. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese all live cheek-by-jowl, practically in each others’ laps.

Every year, I promised I’d make time to hike up Hermon but then work, a new flare-up, heightened political tensions on the border or good old mañana-ism would get in the way until eventually, the 2006 War once again made the hike impossible.

I keep calling it ‘Hermon’, the mountain’s Old Testament name, but in Arabic, it’s known as Jabal al-Sheikh. This roughly translates as the ‘Mountain of the Chief’ but ‘sheikh’ also conveys meanings of venerability, wisdom, age and mastery. Supposedly, it has this name because of the snow that graces it for much of the year, much like white hair or a taqiyah, the Muslim skullcap. But as is so often the case in a part of the world as old as this, it might also have something to do with Hermon’s ancient associations as a sacred site, for it is a place where according to legend, the gods and their offspring once resided.

For the Greeks, it was where Pan liked to frolic with his nymphs, while for Philo of Byblos, the 12th Century antiquarian and author of a lost history of the Phoenicians, it was home to four giants, who lived there with their human wives, but the mountain has been sacred since at least the Bronze Age. Two thousand years before Philo, the Canaanites knew the mountain as Baal-Hermon, the abode of the Lord of Hermon, and built the earliest of the 30-odd Phoenician, Greek and Roman shrines that still exist on the mountain’s flanks.

I’d visited one of them near the village of Deir el-Aashayer in the early 2000’s. It had once been used as a chapel by disciples of Saint Simeon Stylite, an early Christian ascetic who chose to get away from earthly distraction by spending 37 years on top of a pillar in a monastery in the hinterlands of Aleppo, but originally, it had been dedicated to an unknown group of local deities, the gods of Kiboreia, whose only surviving mention was a 3rd Century Greek inscription found on a bench in the temple, which dedicated the seat to Beeliabos, the son of the high priest of these Kiboreian gods.

Like its 29 siblings, the temple of Deir el-Aashayer is oriented towards the highest of Hermon’s three peaks, where at an altitude of 2,814 metres, lie the scattered remains of the most important temple of them all, the Qasr Antar, presumably the abode of the Lord of Hermon.

I’d seen one of the stele removed from the temple in the 1860’s on display at the British Museum when I studied at SOAS in the late ‘80’s. As a life-long reader of fantasy and scifi, I particularly enjoyed reading the Chariots of the Gods-style ‘alternative history’ that attempted to link the ruins of the highest known temple of the Ancient World with a story from The Book of Enoch (the Apocrypha were a particular teenage weakness) about the host of angels who were supposed to have descended from Heaven to Hermon, to take human wives. The fruit of their union, the Nephilim, were a race of giant demigods that the Flood had been sent in part to erase from the world.

The mountain is mentioned in the Old Testament as home to a variety of supernatural beings, including the Rephaim, spirits that spoke in buzzing voices and who could intercede on behalf of the living, and as home to the descendants of Gog, grandson of Noah, who like his grandfather, was a literal giant and whose people will apparently play an integral role in the Endtimes. Known in Islam as Ya’juj, Gog and his descendants are said to be confined behind a metal wall built by the ‘Two-Horned One’ (an epithet often given to Alexander the Great) and when it is removed, Ya’juj and his brother Ma’juj will lead their people forth to rain destruction on the world.

Not all of Hermon’s monotheistic associations are quite as chilling. It pops up in the Song of Songs, in which Solomon, himself no stranger to all things supernatural, entreats his spouse to “come with him from Lebanon'“ and in the New Testament, is claimed as the Mount of Transfiguration, site of Jesus’ first miracle, where the disciples witnessed his transformation into a being whose “face did shine as the sun, and [whose] raiment was white as the light”. It was up there, as he spoke with the spirits of Moses and Elijah, that a voice from the skies was heard to call Jesus ‘son’, which in the Christian tradition effectively makes Hermon the place where the Flesh first became Divine. 

 Lebanese Christians and Druze, who accept Christ as one of ten incarnations of the Divine in flesh but believe that Jesus and Christ were two separate people, used to observe the Feast of the Transfiguration each year on August the 6th by climbing up to Qasr Antar, where the Christians would celebrate mass. At the moment, that is no longer possible. In 2014, an Al Qaeda affiliate involved in Syria’s Civil War, the Jabhat al-Nusra, kidnapped the soldiers at the UN post on the Lebanese side. The soldiers eventually escaped but the post has been abandoned and while al-Nusra aren’t supposed to be present on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese Army does not permit trekking into the upper levels of Hermon, just in case. And so again, Qasr Antar is out of bounds, standing silent and alone, as it has for millennia, silent witness to conflict and upheaval.

Not that you’d know any of that from two thousand-plus metres below. As our hike began, we rolled gently through a patchwork of woodland and orchards for the first five kilometres until, on the outskirts of Ain Tinta, less a hamlet and more a cluster of houses on a hilltop, we began the long, slow climb that would eventually take us up from where we started at 700 metres, to today’s highest point of 1400 metres.

Maybe because it was a Sunday there more people out and about than the day before, amongst them a trio of Druze uqqal, who were standing by the path chatting as we emerged from a particularly fragrant grove of umbrella pines. The Druze are divided into two communities. The majority are juhhal - the Ignorant - Druze by birth but with only a minimal understanding of their faith, the intricacies of which are kept secret from both the juhhal and non-Druze. 

The uqqal are initiates. They dress distinctively, to denote their status, with the men wearing long black shirts, baggy sherwal trousers and a white taqiyah, the women a full-length black or dark blue dress and a long, gauzy white head scarf that can be wrapped around the face to serve as a veil, if necessary. The more learned uqqal are referred to as sheikhs and usually wear a fez wrapped in a white scarf, so from the look of it, our trio was composed of two younger uqqal and a sheikh.

One of the uqqal, who sported a particularly impressive moustache, hailed us and with a twinkle in his eye, asked why we were wandering through the uplands of Mount Hermon and when he learned we were planning to spend the night in Rashaya, his surprise was almost comical.

“But that’s 20 kilometres, at least,” he said, eyeing our boots and backpacks with a concern that suggests he thinks we may have lost our collective minds. “It’s a very, very long walk, are you sure it’s worth it?”

“Where? They’re going to where? To Rashaya? What? Why don’t they just take a taxi?” the sheikh ventured helpfully, as we waved goodbye. His two companions beam broadly as though it’s the funniest thing they’ve heard all month.

Still climbing, we followed goat trails across rocky hillsides dotted with small, scrubby patches of wind-twisted trees. Although we could see the peaks of Mount Lebanon on the horizon to the left, we’d lost sight of the Beka’a Valley itself, which is hidden below rolling waves of orchard-covered hills, a sea of green studded with small clusters of red-roofed houses for as far as the eye can see.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Ain Aata, the view was panoramic. Stopping for an early lunch in the concrete shell of an unfinished house a couple of kilometres outside the village, we discover that Nabil, the bus driver who ferries our bags between overnight halts, was waiting. He’d driven up to deliver a crate of ice-cold beers, which was greeted enthusiastically by the group. Short and rather tubby, Nabil is quite musical, an accomplished oud player and always singing some song or another. Today was no exception, and as he handed out the beers, he managed to get an impromptu singalong going.

The sun was brutal. I don’t drink beer and I’m not one for campfire songs, especially when it’s midday and there is no campfire, so I found a shady spot at the rear of the house and tucked into my lunch, an assortment of lukewarm items scavenged from the morning’s breakfast. This is to be the way from here on. The families we stay with provide two meals, dinner and breakfast, and we’re free to pop anything we fancy from either into our lunch boxes, so that we aren’t forced to find a village to eat in at lunchtime.  

Large and sporting what will be a massive roof terrace once it is finished, the house is a clunky breezeblock box with small window openings. It’s more engineering than architecture but as far as location goes, it’s unbeatable. To the front, it looks out over a boulder-strewn slope behind which the snow-streaked peak of Mount Hermon rise, and to the rear it has an uninterrupted view across the Beka’a to the peaks of Mount Lebanon beyond. 

Winter hadn’t been especially good and the snowfall, which provides Lebanon with much of its fresh water, had been scant. Normally, the wall of Mount Lebanon would be one long band of white. This April, it was only the tallest peaks that still had any snow left but that made it possible to make out the gleaming peaks of Mount Sannine and further north, Jabal Makmel and the peaks around The Cedars, in the hazy distance. Both seemed impossibly far away but our walk would take up and past both places before it came to an end.

 

Chapter 7: Flashback - A Lucky Coincidence and a Close Call.

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In fact, I had been to Shebaa a couple of times as a reporter but I had only ever seen the Farms from a distance.

I had, however, visited neighbouring Bastara, a rather desolate pocket of land home to a rundown farm belonging to the Zohra family. Though no one disputed Bastara’s Lebanese appurtenance, it existed in a weird geopolitical bubble, cut off from Lebanon by the vagaries of topography, politics and land mines. The farm had been handed back to official Lebanese control after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 but a fence put up during the Occupation still separated the farm from the rest of the country.

Getting there meant taking what passed for a road from Kfar Shuba, the nearest village. More rut than road, the track was a car-killer. It wound across the lower slopes of Jabal al-Sheikh through untended fields strewn with piles of gravel and rocks the size of small children. Israeli army outposts capped the crests of several peaks higher up. The view from the track was breathtaking, you could see down into the Houla Valley and almost over the hills of Upper Galilee to the coast. From higher up in the outposts, it must have been possible to see Haifa and possibly beyond. No wonder the Israelis refused to relinquish this part of Lebanon.

After about twenty dusty minutes of bumping along the track, the ‘border’ appeared. On the other side, a well-maintained Israeli army patrol road followed the fence, both uphill to the outposts and down onto the plateau below. 

Turn left and it would be an easy drive to the Shebaa Farms. Not that you’d get there before being shot. Turn right and a short drive led to the Bastara Bubble. In those first months after the withdrawal, it was still possible to drive along this patrol road to the farm, passing the remains of the outpost, blown up during the withdrawal. Beyond it, the road continued down to where one day, the borders of Lebanon and Syria might meet again, but which for now remained occupied land. 

The most important thing to remember about navigating this road, after getting the necessary UNIFIL and military permissions of course, was to drive slowly and visibly. This let the Israeli soldiers in the outposts, as well as any militias hidden in the hills, know you were not up to anything sneaky, though you still chanced one or both sides shooting or shelling you anyway.

The Zohras were a family of goat-herders. They’d remained on their farm throughout the Occupation because firstly, the land was theirs and secondly, because without it, they had no way to make a living. Mohammad Zohra, his brother Qassem and Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima had clung onto their farm even after Israeli soldiers razed their olive groves and fruit orchards, temporarily confiscated their goats, even after Mohammad’s wife, unable to get to hospital because the soldiers refused to open the gate to let them through until it was too late, had died. 

I never got to see Mohammad Zohra on his land. On my first visit, a few weeks after the withdrawal, he’d gone down into Marjayoun to get supplies and so, we had tea with Qassem and Fatima. On my second, a few months later, he’d finally been driven out of Bastara under a vicious barrage of tank and mortar fire that had killed his entire flock of 250 goats in a matter of moments. When I found him, he was hunched over a stove in a friend’s home in Kfar Shuba, crying. For the first time in his 75 years, he told me between sobs, he had nothing and nowhere to go. 

“What is this war to me? I’m just a goat-keeper,” he said, twisting a glass of tea mournfully in his hands. “It’s always the small, unimportant people like us, never the big players, that suffer.”

Driving slowly to Bastara afterwards, we had taped the word ‘press’ along the side of the car and the roof and were flying large white flags from both windows. It was fair to say that we were nervous.

As we drew into the Zohra's farm, the stench of death was pervasive. A couple of Mohammad’s guard dogs, who had run off during the shelling, barked half-heartedly at us but stayed crouched in the grass by the road, unwilling to enter the charnel house their farm had become.

I was travelling with a Jordanian colleague, Lara, who worked with me at the Daily Star in Beirut. She’d volunteered to help me search the house, document the attack and try to find a stack of documents Mohammad Zohra had asked us to bring back, if we could find them.

There was a large hole in the roof of the house created by a shell, which had landed without exploding, so the living room was a mess of rubble and dust. We didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary, so Lara volunteered to keep looking for the documents, while I headed to the goat pens, source of the stench, to make notes and take photos. 

Charging around a corner, camera in hand, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a very scruffy and very startled-looking young man in camouflage gear. The encounter caught us both off guard and so it took me a few seconds to register that he had a machine-gun, angled up at my chest.

I’d only been in Lebanon for a couple of years at that point and my Arabic wasn’t great, but I was freaked out and he was speaking far too quickly for me to understand, anyway. Or rather, shouting. Slowly putting my hands up, letting my camera fall around my neck and trying not to do anything stupid, I replied with the only words I could still remember. 

Inglizi. Sahafi. Biktoub muqallet an al hadath. ” I said, continuing in English and pointing at myself, the farm and up towards the outposts and back to the shelled remains of the house. “I’m a British, a journalist. I’m writing an article, about what happened.”

My new companion looked every bit as freaked out as I felt. I have no idea how that conversation might have ended had Lara not been with me. Not terribly well, I imagine, for he was growing increasingly flustered but just then, Lara stepped out of the house. Without missing a beat, she also raised her hands and began to slowly walk over, speaking loudly in Arabic, saying her name was Lara and asking if everything was alright. Even in my fright, I understood that she was speaking in Arabic so that the man could hear that at least one of us wasn’t a foreigner.

Without lowering his gun, he beckoned Lara forwards, asking her why we were at the farm and where she was from. She told him that she was a journalist, that she’d come to report on the shelling and that we’d spoken to Mohammad Zohra that morning in Kfar Shuba. She also added that although she was Jordanian, she was of Palestinian origin and her family originally came from Nablus. We both agreed afterwards that this lucky coincidence defused a very dangerous situation. It certainly saved us a lot of complications.

As she drew near, two more men emerged from behind the house and followed behind her. We now had three machine guns trained on us. Reaching my side, Lara and the scruffy man began a short but very intense conversation.

I didn’t follow much of it but I heard the word ‘Nablus’ a couple of times, so it sounded like they were talking about Palestine. Whatever Lara said seemed to reassure the man, at least enough that he decided it was better to let us go rather than detain us for questioning. Or worse. Waving his machine-gun towards the car, he barked at us to leave. We didn’t need telling twice. Thanking them all profusely and waving like idiot tourists, we got in the car and drove back up the patrol road as slowly as we could. It must have taken Lara every ounce of her resolve to not hit the accelerator but we both understood that any sudden move now could easily get us shot, either by the three men, other militias or the Israelis.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally drove through the fence and ‘back’ into Lebanon. Hearts pounding out of our chests, we began to laugh hysterically as relief flooded our systems. Once our nerves had settled, I asked Lara what she and the man had been talking about. She confirmed my suspicion that we had stumbled into a trio of Palestinian fedayeen, guerrillas, most probably members of the PFLP, a radical and rather violent faction supported by Syria. It was likely they were scouts and had taken up position in Bastara after the Zohras had been driven out. 

The rapid fire conversation had mostly been about determining whether Lara really was from Nablus, as she claimed. It was sheer luck that the man’s mother was from Nablus, so he’d quizzed Lara about places, people and street names, and had even tried to trick her by asking about a bakery in the town, but pretending to get its name and location wrong. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated gambit, but it was only after Lara had politely corrected him that he’d finally relaxed enough to decide it was less hassle to let us go. As our hysteria subsided and we drove back to Kfar Shuba across a rocky, unforgiving landscape made beautiful by a rush of endorphins and the golden caress of the setting sun, I imagine we were both thanking serendipity for saving our skins.

 

Chapter 6: A World of Pain

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The following morning, a decade and half of eating too much and barely exercising makes itself felt, as I awake to a world of pain.

It’s not just that my knees ache, my feet are so comprehensively tenderised that standing upright is going to be agony and despite liberally slathering myself in sunblock, I must have missed a few spots, because patches of my forearms look like they’ve been lightly broiled. 

Heaving my protesting body out of bed, I feel my back and thighs spasm and nearly lose my balance. In all my 47 years, I’ve never felt less fit than I do at this moment, and that includes the two months I spent in bed after mangling my knee in a childhood bicycle accident in Taiwan. 

Groaning, I hobble towards the bathroom, passing one of the more seasoned hikers in the hall. I’d observed him sourly the day before, bounding up and down hillsides like a demented gazelle, as I wheezed and creaked along like a ninety year-old.  

“Hurts, n’est-ce pas?” His cheery grin and faux conspiratorial wink are like a red flag to a bull. “Just take a couple of aspirin tonight. They’ll keep the swelling down and you’ll feel much better in the morning.” 

He bounds off down the hall, whistling.

“See you at breakfast!”

Stifling a blinding urge to wring his neck, or at least trip him up, I stagger into the bathroom, lock the door and take a shower. I’m running late, it’s already six-fifteen, we’re due to set off at seven and I haven’t even filled my water bottles yet.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The farm only has four bathrooms and there are 35 of us, so by the time I get to the table twenty minutes later, most people are only just beginning to eat.

Optimistically, breakfast has been laid out on the terrace. It’s quite chilly but the view across the Beka’a is sublime. The place we’ve spent the night is a three-minute drive from Hasbaya, so we’re still up in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon. Below us, the fields are hidden beneath an early spring mist, which swirls gently in the breeze, and the snow-streaked upper slopes of Mount Lebanon on the far side of valley still bear the rosé tinge of sunrise. Colours have become polarised, making the trees and rocks pop against the backdrop of neatly furrowed, chocolate-brown fields.

Our hosts clearly live by the maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and ours is a lavish affair; acres of small dishes containing olives, fresh vegetables, mountain herbs, homemade yoghurts, cheeses and jams, eggs of various descriptions and tangy za’atar dip, supplemented by several trays of piping hot, cheese-stuffed bread balls covered in sesame seeds and overflowing bowls of the creamiest fuul that I have ever eaten. Eating in Lebanon is always an excessive affair, but the cornucopia this morning redefines abundance.

“Listen gang,” Joseph begins, as he briefs us on the walk ahead, “we have a longer trail than yesterday, probably about 22 or 23 kilometres and we’re going to climb up to around 1400 metres before dropping down to Rashaya. There won’t be many fresh water springs along the way, so don’t forget to fill up before we go.”

Truth be told, I’m rather dreading today’s walk. 

Our first day had been tough enough for me and at the LMTA offices in Beirut, we’d been told that the Hasbaya-Rashaya section was one of the trail’s most taxing. My mindset hadn’t been helped when, before dinner the previous evening, we’d been introduced to Wael, a local guide who was to accompany us as part of his LMTA training. 

He’d peppered his trail overview with multiple references to potential sources of injury, danger and a dispiriting focus on how gruelling some of the ascents were going to be. He’d probably been trying to be encouraging, in a reverse psychology kind of way but if so, his presentation of the Trail of Tears that lay ahead had misfired, as our increasingly gloomy expressions evinced. Joseph’s face clouded on a couple of occasions as Wael spoke, and when he disappeared off to one side with him afterwards, I assumed our senior guide intended to give his trainee a dressing down. 

By the time breakfast is done and we’re ready to leave, Wael still hasn’t materialised. As Robin sets off up the road, Joseph informs us that he won’t be coming. Apparently, he isn’t feeling well. I notice that a couple of the other walkers are smiling quietly and I guess that like me, they suspect from the way Joseph breaks the news, that our guide-in-training has been told his services today aren’t required.

Despite my trepidation aside, I’m eager to get going for today, we will be hiking high up along the flanks of Mount Hermon. I’ve wanted to come up to this part of Lebanon since I first read about the dozens of Canaanite, Greek and Roman temples that dot the mountain’s slopes as a teenager, but in 18 years living here, Hermon had become an enduring regret, a place I would gazing at longingly each time I made the journey over Mount Lebanon to the Beka’a.

During the first few years I lived in Lebanon, getting there was impossible. Located astride the Lebanese, Syrian and since the 1967 War, Israeli borders, Hermon was off-limits to hikers during the Occupation and thanks to an area called the Shebaa Farms, which Israel retained when it withdrew from the South, it remained that way for a number of years afterwards.

Israel said that Shebaa was Syrian territory, because when they invaded in 1967, the only official they’d found had been Syrian. Lebanon said that it was Lebanese territory, because the land was owned and farmed by the inhabitants of the village of Shebaa, which was quite firmly in Lebanon. 

The Lebanese government used Shebaa to dispute Israel’s claim that it had fully withdrawn from Lebanon and so in the mid-2000’s, Resistance operations had shifted their focus from the southern borderlands to this vertiginous pocket of land.

Initially, the government in Damascus remained quiet on the matter. The border between Lebanon and Syria has never formally been ratified, largely because Syria, the larger and more heavily armed of the two, has never believed there should be one. Officially, it paid lip service to the notion that Lebanon was a separate country, but it still clung to the notion that it had ‘lost’ Lebanon when the Levant was divided up by the British and the French after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. 

There’s no disputing that the border, like many others in the Middle East, is the result of European imperialism, but what is often lost in the on-going polemic over Messrs. Sykes and Picot, is that both Lebanon and Syria were cut out of a much larger Ottoman administrative entity, the Bilad al-Sham or the Country of Sham. Because Sham is an old name for Damascus – it’s a corruption of Shem, the eldest son of Noah, who is claimed as the city’s founder – most Syrian governments since have used this as proof that Lebanon is really theirs. 

During visits to Damascus as a journalist, which always began with an obligatory courtesy call to the Ministry of Information, I had been treated to regular expositions on the ‘essential unity’ of the Lebanese and Syrians, how they were ‘one people in two countries’ and how, insha’allah, the two would ‘one day’ be united again. 

As a post-colonial argument, it sounded convincing except for the fact that Bilad al-Sham had also included what is now Jordan, Palestine/Israel, a sliver of south-eastern Turkey and part of western Iraq. In calling for a return to its pre-colonial dimensions, Syria did not claim the return of those other ‘lost’ lands, only smaller, weaker Lebanon. 

So while the border existed on paper and there were official crossing points between the two countries, it frequently felt as though the Syrian government regarded this as a nicety, and in the more remote parts of Lebanon, like Shebaa, it was a nicety that had sometimes been ignored in the past. This, Beirut said, was why there had been a Syrian official in the Farms the day Israel invaded.

But Shebaa wasn’t the only piece of Lebanese territory Israel still occupied. Over the years, Tel Aviv had unilaterally altered the 1948 Demarcation Line in a number of places and so to all intents and purposes, that frontier too, was open to question. In fact, the only border the country had that wasn’t, was with the Mediterranean.

Israel claimed the Shebaa Farms were Syrian and so they had withdrawn from Lebanon in compliance with International Law. Lebanon and Syria said the Farms were Lebanese and so Israel was still in violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty. As a result, most of the resistance operations carried out by groups like Hezbollah and the handful of Palestinian groups backed by Syria and therefore permitted during the Syrian control of Lebanon to do as they pleased, increasingly took place there and Shebaa became the perfect post-withdrawal casus belli, a convenient way for everyone to keep hostilities at a bubble. 

This worked for Israel, because attacks on Israeli troops in the Farms bolstered its claim that it had the right to keep bombing Lebanon. It worked for Hezbollah, because it allowed it to burnish its credentials as the Resistance and supported its argument that alone of the wartime militias, it deserved to remain armed and beyond state control. It also worked for Syria, because it kept Lebanon unstable and thus safely within its orbit, while allowing Damascus to reap the rewards of its self-proclaimed status as the ‘beating heart’ of Arabism, without needing to fire a shot. The Farms were a dirty, if depressingly typical example of Levantine geopolitics in action, and as usual, it was the civilians of southern Lebanon who paid the price.

 

 

Chapter 5: The Devil in the Girl and the Old Man in the Tree

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After lunch, we hike into a forest and then uphill to Abou Qahma to visit the village’s small but seemingly unexceptional church.

A couple of hundred years old, it's a fairly standard Levantine Greek Orthodox number: a simple, sandstone cube with a discrete belfry, so brutally unadorned, that it might almost be a piece of Modernism. It’s dedicated to St George (yes, that one) and apart from a pleasant iconostasis, it has a couple of semi-decent icons of the saint killing his dragon, which according to Levantine tradition happened just outside Beirut’s old city walls. Just down the hill from my old flat, in fact.

Alia draws our attention to the iron grille over one of the small widows high above the nave. It looks like it has been violently bent outwards, as if something battered at it, trying to get out. An old lady hobbles over and as we relax under some trees, she tells us that when her grandmother was a child, one of the village girls, who had been behaving strangely, was locked inside the church because the villagers believed she was possessed by the Devil. Left without food and water, she began to starve. Not wanting to be trapped in her dying body, the Devil tried to flee. With the doors and windows locked, his only way out was through the small window, and such was his desperation to escape that he bent the iron grille on his way out.

The girl’s fate wasn’t part of the tale. When one of the walkers asked if she had survived, the old lady, who had taken some delight in recounting her chilling morality tale, didn’t seem to know. Or care. I couldn’t help suspecting that if the girl had been a boy, she would have featured in the story’s ending, but then I also couldn’t help suspecting that had she been a boy, the villagers probably wouldn’t have locked him up, regardless of how ‘strangely’ he had been behaving.

We continue on uphill, switch-backing through olive groves. The ground turns rocky and becomes tricky to navigate. There’s no shade and as we trudge onward, I belatedly realise that even if the air is cool, the sun is quite fierce. Naturally, I haven’t brought my hat. It’s packed into my overnight bag, which is on its way to the home we’ll be staying at this evening.

For a while, the trail takes us through rolling fields and orchards, pleasant if not spectacular. I’d noticed at lunch that my feet have begun to chafe, but for the moment, they don’t hurt. The day has been tough and although this is only my first day of walking, it is also only the first day of the trek. And it isn’t over, yet. I think about the long trail ahead. There are only two of us walking the whole way. Myself and Salam, a regular hike who has walked the trail once before in the other direction. She knows that she can make it to the end but the last time I hiked was seven years earlier, and the furthest I’ve ever hiked before was 220 kilometres. The LMT is more than twice that length but although I’ve often wondered if the through-walk is something I can do, I’ve chosen not to dwell on it. I want, no, I need to do this walk. Somehow, I’m convinced it will give me answers to my growing disillusion and the sneaking suspicion that the mistake I made all those years ago was not to forget my dreams of China and stay in Lebanon but rather, to have stayed in Lebanon this long. 

The fields give way to forest and our überguide Robin jogs by, telling us that we are about to reach Hasbaya, our destination for the night.

And then, we come across the most extraordinary sight of the day. 

Perched on what can only be called a tree-house throne in the boughs of an oak tree just off the path, a silver-haired Druze elder is sits, complete with baggy, black sherwal trousers, long black shirt and a gleaming white woollen cap. 

With a cheerful ‘welcome’, he hops down from his aerie, which has been cobbled together from old fruit crates and piled with cushions. He ambles over with a huge smile and asks us where we’ve come from. His eyebrows rise slightly when we tell him we’ve walked from Marjayoun and when Robin adds that some of us are walking all the way up to Aandqet, he guffaws with delight.

“Up to Akkar, is it? Well, you’ll be needing some tea, then. Come, take a glass of matté before you go.”

I’m not a huge fan of the bitter South American herbal tea. I first came across it in Brazil as a teenager and have drunk it on a few occasions in Lebanon. It’s hugely popular with the Druze, many of whose ancestors emigrated to countries like Argentina and Brazil in the early 20th Century. One of the fun facts the Lebanese like to tell new arrivals to their country is that while there are only 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon, there are 18 million people of Lebanese descent in Latin America, amongst them Salma Hayek, Carlos Slim and Shakira. 

I really don’t fancy a glass but I don’t wish to be impolite. A kettle is bubbling away on a small wood fire and as he hands out glasses, he introduces himself as Abou Dahab and explains that he often comes out to his tree to escape the noise of Hasbaya, where he lives with son’s family. 

“I only feel alive in nature. The city kills me but my wife prefers town life so…,” he trails off as he examines our boots and walking sticks. “You know, if I was 10 years younger, I’d come with you.”

Though he looks like he’s probably in his early 80’s there’s an energy about Abou Dahab that makes me think he could. Robin asks him about his curious nickname, which translates as ‘Father of Gold’. These kinds of kunya, or epithets, are common in the Arab World, where parents are usually known as the father (or mother) of their firstborn child. It not only indicates parenthood but by shifting focus onto one’s children, of demonstrating a self-effacing pride. So the father of a boy named Marwan becomes known as Abou (Father of) Marwan, while the mother is known as Umm (Mother of) Marwan. Traditionally, parents take the name of their eldest male child but these days, you’re just as likely to come across an Abou Leila or an Umm Maria as you are an Abou George or an Umm Yousef.

Still, Dahab is the not a name most people would give a child, regardless of gender, so it must refer to something else. Gracefully ignoring Robin’s question, Abou Dahab launches into an impromptu discourse about the essential unity of all religions, promoted by his discovery that as a group, we are a multi-faith microcosm of Lebanon. His erudite, impassioned flow is peppered with bon mots about the wisdom of Buddha, Mohammad, Krishna, Hamza (the founder of the Druze faith) and Christ. It isn’t long before I begin to suspect that the ‘gold’ in question refers to the old man’s tongue. 

“This land is touched by God. Lebanon has been a land of prophets since before the Phoenicians,” he says, loudly sipping his tea. “The trouble is, we have never listened to what they tell us and so...” he trails off, gesturing unspecifically around him.

With his twinkling eyes, full, military moustache and impish smile, there’s something pixie-like about Abou Dahab, so when he tells us that he started out in the army and for a number of years, served Hasbaya’s chief of police, I’m surprised. Admittedly, for a man who barely comes up to my chin, he exudes great presence and does seem to carry himself with military bearing, but his playful demeanour and curious, lively mind doesn’t seem suited to either profession. Maybe its the fruit of hours spent meditating up in his tree.

With at least an hour’s walk ahead and the day drawing down, we decline the offer of a second round of matte and begin our goodbyes. Abou Dahab magics a small Lebanese flag out of somewhere and as we file off towards Hasbaya, stands at salute, serenading our backs with a rousing rendition of Lebanon’s national anthem, Kullina lil Watan

Our entry to Hasbaya requires another uphill hike but it’s thankfully gentle. After hiding for a while, Mount Hermon has once again popped into view and it looms whitely over the town. Our trail ends outside the old Shehab citadel, a massive sandstone fortress that for 800 years was the seat of the princely family. We’re spending the night at a farm some way outside Hasbaya, so as we wait for the minibus to pick us up, we take the opportunity to wander around inside. 

Once a very pretty town, the last 40 years have transformed Hasbaya. The regional instability has emptied many neighbouring villages, whose inhabitants chose the safety of numbers, so the sea of small sandstone house with red-tiled roofs that can still be seen on old postcards from the early 1970’s, has been overwhelmed by hasty concrete constructions of little charm.

Like much of Lebanon’s heritage, the citadel is in a crumbling state. A century ago, it was home to 36 families. Now, it’s still home to three and when I first visited Hasbaya in the early 2000’s, a few of its graceful vaults were still inhabited by the Shehabs and two others housed squatters, who washed up during the civil war and remained in situ under the protection of their political patrons.

I’d come down to write about the Shehab’s drive to find funding to restore the citadel, and as we wander around, there’s evidence of some recent restoration work but overall, it’s in worse shape than I remember. The Foundation I came to write about ran out of money a decade ago but because the citadel is still private property, the scant funds the State allocates to historic restoration projects is not available to them. In addition, and for largely incomprehensible reasons, the same local political party that is protecting the squatters is blocking restoration, so this 12th century citadel, which has played an outsized role in Lebanese history, continues to collapse. 

As with the Souk al-Khan, there has been a fortification of some kind in Hasbaya for milennia, and the citadel stands on the remains of a Roman, and possibly even a Phoenician, fortress. The town’s strategic position gives it control of the old trade routes east and south and easy access to Mount Hermon, which has been sacred site since early Canaanite times. 

The oldest standing parts, including the eastern wall, southwestern watchtower, main door and a small room that might once have served as a chapel, date back to the Crusaders, which is why a number of the blocks of stone scattered about the courtyard bear traces of the fleur-de-lys, heraldic symbol of the French Bourbons. The rest of it is newer, a jumble of different architectural styles; distinctive candy-striped Mamluk walls, Venetian widows and ornate Ottoman stonework and murals. The main portal is decorated with carved lions, the emblem of the Shehab family and some of the upper level rooms retain their original features, including brightly-painted roof beams that are three, perhaps four hundred years old. On one side of the uneven courtyard, there’s a large arcade, an outdoor diwan, where Emir Bashir’s wife liked to smoke arguileh and in addition to the three floors above ground, there are three Roman-era levels underground, though these are now too unsafe to excavate and have been blocked off to prevent further collapse.

The Shehabs, who aren’t around today, are a perfect example of the fluidity of Lebanese society. Originally Sunni Muslims, the family traces its origins to the Banu Makhzoum, one of the most influential families of the Quraysh, the mercantile tribe that controlled Mecca before Islam. Their progenitor, Hareth ibn Hisham, was one of the Prophet Mohammad’s Companions, making the Shebabs highly regarded descendants of the first converts. 

Instrumental in the Islamic conquest of Byzantine Syria, the family fought alongside Caliph Abu Bakr and as a reward, were made rulers of the Hawran, the southern border province of Syria through which the lucrative Frankincense trade routes from Arabia Felix - modern-day Yemen and Oman - ran.

After wresting Wadi Taym and its surroundings from Crusader control in the late 12th Century, the Shehabs moved from the Syrian desert to fertile Hasbaya, and over the centuries, extended their influence north into the Beka’a Valley and south into the Galilee. They remained in the town for 600 years, until they took control of Mount Lebanon from the Ma’ans. It was around then that some branches of the Shehabs converted to Christianity, probably for political reasons, and it is their descendants that now own the citadel. 

Freedom of religion is something that most people growing up in Europe take for granted, but in the Middle East, where religious law still governs personal status and is the point of reference for family matters like marriage and inheritance, conversion is more complicated. 

In some Arab and Muslim countries, conversion from Islam is a punishable offence, so where conversion does happen, whether through marriage or choice, it tends to be in one direction only. This is where Lebanon once again stands apart. Syria and Iraq can claim their share of polysectarian families but Lebanon is hip-deep in mixed families, different branches of which can be Sunni, Shi’a, Druze, Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant or Jewish. It’s sometimes said that this interconnection explains Lebanon’s reputation for openness and liberalism, it is more difficult to dislike or distrust an ‘other’, when they are related to you by blood. It’s not impossible, as the country’s many wars and smaller conflicts have shown, but it does explain why even after the worst outbursts of violence, Lebanon knits back together again, rather than breaking into fragments.

As if by way of illustration of that much-vaunted liberalism, a trio of flamboyant teenage boys arrive. Between the big bouffant hair, neon socks and skin-tight trousers, I assume they must be Retronauts, Twenty-somethings channelling the appalling fashions of my generation for purely ironic purposes. 

Whatever the explanation for their bold sartorial statement, they are here for a photo-shoot. One of them, to judge by his fringed, acid-wash jean jacket and Adam Ant pout, the leader of this pack, lounges indolently on a crumbling staircase while a cohort, sporting blue mirrored sunglasses, John Oates moustache and a shiny red suit with shoulder pads wide enough to land light planes on, flits about with his expensive looking camera. For his part, The Leader gazes seductively into the lens.

After about five minutes of this, the third member, who instantly reminds me of Duckie from Pretty in Pink and who has a daring blond stripe bleached through his rockabilly quiff, slouches off in his baggy neon sweater to smoke a cigarette in a corner. It’s all a bit Girls on Film meets Brideshead Revisited, less for the outfits, than for the languid attitude. I’m fairly certain that Duckie is wearing lip-gloss and eye shadow, though his John Lennon mirrored sunglasses make it difficult to be sure. The sartorial cherry picking of all that was most ghastly about the 1980’s is so perfectly pitched that for a moment, I’m tempted to ignore my own loathing of the era and offer the boys a round of applause, if only for not giving a fuck.

Obviously, they’ve paid absolutely no attention to us whatsoever but a few of the women in our group seem fascinated by the boys and particularly, by their lack of accompanying girlfriends. Two are so taken by the trio’s aesthetic tour-de-force, that they begin reminiscing animatedly about what they used to wear when they were young.

“They look great,” one coos to the other. “My kids are so boring, all they wear is sports gear. We had so much more fun back then.” 

“I love the classics. I had a huge crush on that Don guy, you know the one from Miami Vice. He was so cute,” her friend replies, drawing out the ‘u’ and then flicking her eyes towards Sweater Guy. “The one over there in corner is adorable. My daughter would love him. Bet all the girls are running after him.” 

I wonder if I should say that odds are slim Sweater Guy, Duckie or indeed The Leader would be interested in her daughter, but as we’ve just met and it’s really none of my business if a Beirut matron is matchmaking in Hasbaya, I decide that discretion is the better part of valour and remain silent. As they lounge off, I see that Sweater Guy is discretely eyeing up one of the walkers, whose figure-hugging t-shirt displays his well-muscled body to much advantage.  

Our triumphant dinner that night includes tabbouleh with fresh fava beans, a lavender-infused hommos moghrabieh (a kind of warm chickpea and semolina pasta salad) and hot rounds of freshly-baked wholewheat bread, made from one of the 61 varieties of wheat indigenous to Lebanon, now grown only by our hosts. Stuffed to bursting, I collapse into bed. 

We’ve only walked 16 kilometres, a relatively short section of the trail, but I’m dog-tired and ready to drop. Almost before my head hits the pillow, I’m fast asleep.

 

Chapter 4: Cool Feet, Crumbling Ruins

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Hilariously, almost immediately we were lost.

Winding through a cluster of houses and farms on a hilltop just past the outskirts of Marjayoun, we discovered that the trail had been completely effaced and all the markers removed. As I would discover, this isn’t uncommon along the LMT. Sometimes, the trail disappears as a result of illegal construction, but because there are no reliable maps of public and private property in Lebanon - a problem shared by many of the countries formerly part of the Ottoman Empire - it sometimes unwittingly crosses private property. Landowners usually just remove markers or put up a fence without letting the Association know and so re-blazing, or even rerouting the trail, is part of the annual walkthrough’s remit.

Our head guide, Joseph, who seemed to know every square inch of the country, wasn’t fazed and so, for a kilometre or two, we improvised. We scrambled down the hill and ended up walking through a Syrian refugee camp that had not been there the year before. There are dozens of them now, dotted all over the Beka’a Valley, housing the poorest and most vulnerable of the 1 to 1.5 million refugees that have flooded into tiny, shaky and barely post-conflict Lebanon. 

Middle class refugees tended not to live in the camps. They had moved into rented rooms and homes all over in the country, often filling up previously empty neighbourhoods like my own in Beirut. Because the refugees were not properly registered, it was impossible to be sure exactly how many there were but officially, they accounted for at least one in every five people. Other surveys placed them at closer to 30 or even 40% of the country. Even at the lowest estimate, Lebanon’s ratio of refugee to resident was the highest in the world. 

Seeing us wind towards them, a gaggle of children came out to stare, waving warily after we smiled and waved at them. With the next marker now spotted, we emerged from the camp and briefly followed a desolate stretch of road before turning up a farming track through what would soon be fields of rippling wheat. Ahead of us, a young boy accompanied by a vigilant but well-trained dog, was herding his flock of goats towards pastureland.

For the next thirty or forty minutes, the path was fringed by low hills. It skirted a thicket of towering pine trees, above which a flock of Friesians were grazing, and then gracefully curved to the right. As we turned the corner, the hills parted like a theatre curtain, revealing a breath-taking panorama over the lush olive orchards and rich, red soiled farmlands of Wadi al-Taym, the snow-clad peaks of Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights beyond. 

As the group trailed along the path on a narrow, rocky ledge above the valley floor, I stopped to tighten my boots, which had already come loose. Carpeted in thick, springy grass, the path was sprinkled with a smattering of spring flowers, not quite the profusion they would be in a week or two but temptation enough to coax a few bees out to explore. Fat on the honey they’d survived on over the winter, they floated lazily through the air, settling briefly before moving on. I sat on a nearby rock, put on a second pair of socks and then laced my boots up again. Down in the valley, the olive trees stirred gently in the breeze, their silvery leaves catching the light. The faint sound of far-off farm machinery buzzed in the background and on the distant slopes, a flock of farm animals drifted across the emerald green fields like a fleet of cottony clouds. I could have stayed there forever.

Realising I was lagging behind, I hurried on, catching up with the group just as they reached the outskirts of Ibl es-Saqi, the village we’d stayed in the night before. Though we’d barely begun, a few of the walkers took the opportunity to grab a shot of pungent espresso-like Lebanese coffee and we were sat by the side of the road, faces turned up to the sun, when a convoy of UN soldiers - possibly Italian or Spanish - rolled up in white armoured cars. 

Covered in muscles and snappy in their blue felt berets, they were clad in battledress so tight that a couple of them appeared to have been poured into their clothes. As they sauntered past, sunglasses on, they looked more like naughty schoolboys bunking off to the shops, than heavily-armed UN troops on patrol.

Originally envisaged as an interim observer force to oversee Israel’s withdrawal after its first invasion of Lebanon in 1978, UNIFIL had been in southern Lebanon ever since. It was composed of battalions from all over the world, with Indonesia, India and Italy supplying the largest contingents. The civil war, Israel’s subsequent re-invasion and occupation in 1982, and the bumpy years after withdrawal had kept it in place, transforming its mission from one of observer to peacekeeper. In the 38 years since it arrived, UNIFIL had watched Israel invade Lebanon four more times. 

About a kilometre past the point on the Hasbani River where an LMT side-trail headed up a side valley to the mountain village of Sheba’a, we reached the ruins of an old caravanserai. 

There wasn’t a great deal left, mostly a row of tall arcades that would once have housed merchants and their animals, but as we explored the sagging vaults and courtyard it was just about possible to imagine it in its heyday, when it would have been filled with camel trains bringing merchants from Damascus to the Lebanese coast and from Aleppo to the markets of Haifa and Jerusalem. 

Located on the banks of the Hasbani River at a strategic regional crossroads that controlled the routes south, north and across the mountains to the east, the Souk was the location of a famous weekly market, held there for centuries and was in use up until the end of French Mandate era, when it served briefly as a WWII military base. 

Abandoned shortly afterwards, it began steadily to collapse. Parts of the walls had recently been shored up with concrete to prevent further collapse. The intention had been to clad the new foundations in sandstone, but work hadn’t been finished and the juxtaposition was jarring.

Known as the Souk al-Khan, the caravanserai dated back to at least 1350. It had been built by Emir Shehab, head of the princely Lebanese family that once administered a swathe of territory extending from the mid-Beka’a down to Safed, near Lake Galilee. 

One of the walkers, Alia, an archaeologist who planned to accompany us along the first half of the trail explained that the site was probably much older, and there was evidence it had been in use since Roman times.

In the early 17th Century, Ali Beg, the eldest son of Lebanon’s national hero, Emir Fakhereddine al-Ma’an, had been killed here. The head of a powerful Druze clan based in the Shouf Mountains just south of Beirut, Fakhereddine was a classic Mount Lebanon man, happy to play any side of the game that was to his advantage. He had been able to win partial independence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul, then rulers of the region, when his forces defeated the Sultan’s in combat and after pledging his loyalty in exchange for a series of political concessions, the Emir embarked on a project of nation-building. At its height, his principality extended across a broad swathe of the Levant, from Palmyra in modern-day Syria, to Tripoli in the north and Acre in the south. The greatest of the Ma’anid princes, Fakhereddine was credited with introducing the political, cultural and technological modernisations that centuries later paved the way for the creation of the modern Lebanese state. 

Eventually, Sultan Murad IV grew tired of the prince’s provocations and revoked his concessions. Fakhreddine was forced to flee and after a couple of years on the lam, during which he is rumoured to hidden in caves the length and breadth of the country, rather like a Levantine Robert the Bruce, he was captured and dragged off to Istanbul, where he was executed. In the end, only two of his five sons escaped death at the hands of the Turks and his much-reduced principality ultimately passed by way of marriage into the hands of the Shehabs. 

The story was a perfect example of the kind of historic irony in which Lebanon specialises, for Ali Beg was executed beside a khan built by a 14th Century ancestor of the man who would later take over his family’s principality.

The crumbling khan’s fortunes might be history, but its market wasn’t. Every Tuesday, the surrounding area still filled with traders from all over southern Lebanon, and outdoor cafés sprang up along the river serving homemade treats and gossip. The souks of Sidon, Byblos, Beirut and Tyre were far older, but as they hadn’t always been held in the same spot, the khan held the distinction of being the oldest continually functioning market in the country. 

Though still a lively mix of animal trading, farmer’s market, fabric souk and bric-a-brac, it was a shadow of what it once had been. On a major crossroad between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, the market’s star waned in 1948 when travel to and from Palestine stopped and again in 1967 when Israel annexed the Golan Heights and made it impossible for Syrian traders to cross into Lebanon along this ancient trade route. 

Still, tradition is difficult to kill. When the souk lost its international dimension and licit cross-border trade became impossible, contraband trade took its place. Even at the height of the Israeli occupation, arms and drugs - mostly hashish and cocaine, the latter grown in the Beka’a, the former shipped in from Lebanese connections in Colombia and processed there - were spirited across the borders to Syria and Israel. 

It was a risky game, so smugglers often strapped their parcels onto a donkey and set it on its way unaccompanied, with a slap to the rear. Incredibly, the gambit generally worked well. The donkey might take its time to reach its destination, but in the end, it got there, unless it was intercepted along the way, for until the occupation ended, you’d read about some poor donkey being shot by Israeli soldiers as a security threat, from time to time.

We crossed the river to break for lunch. The old wooden bridge had been swept away by winter storms a few years earlier, so we removed our shoes and waded through the water across a slippery concrete berm that had been laid in its place, just above a small waterfall. After our first morning of walking, the water was cold and refreshing and following a lunch of leftover manoushe, juicy cucumbers and tomatoes, which we left to chill for a while in the river, the sound of the water and the gentle buzz of insects lulled me into a short, but deeply contented asleep.

 

 

Chapter Three: On the Road, At Last

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I’m not sure when I first had the bright idea of walking from one end of Lebanon to the other.

I vaguely recall it surfacing during a rowdy, arak-fuelled conversation in late 2006, when getting up into the mountains, away from the daily ache of shattered dreams and lives seemed the best of all possible escapes. Like most other dreams that year, it was quickly forgotten, washed away by the gritty reality of daily life in a country picking up the pieces.

Around the same time, I began hearing of plans to create a national walking trail. The Lebanon Mountain Trail, as it was going to be called, would run the length of the country and was being funded by an American aid agency.

More than Lebanon’s first properly blazed long-distance walking trail, the LMT’s goal was to encourage people to explore the more remote parts of their country, to bring much-needed income to the long-neglected villages along the route and to show the world that Lebanon was more than a series of heart-rending headlines.

When the Trail finally opened a few years later, security issues (for which read Hezbollah positions along the southern border and Israeli position on the other side) meant that it couldn’t quite run border-to-border. It ran from Marjayoun, a sleepy town in formerly Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, which looks down over a vertiginous escarpment into the Galilee, to Aandqet, an even sleepier village in formerly Syrian-occupied northern Lebanon, these days just a hop and a skip from the war in Syria. Some 470 kilometres long, the Trail took 26 days to walk, non-stop.

With the exception of the first two sections, which snaked east up into the arid Anti-Lebanon and the foothills of Mount Hermon before turning west and crossing the southern Beka’a Valley, it ran for most of the way along the more lushly forested length of Mount Lebanon. Generally oscillating between 1200 and 1500 metres, it reached a maximum height of 2200 metres and a low of just over 500 metres and the 26 sections averaged between 16 and 20 kilometres in length.

The sections were conceived as a single day’s walk, starting and ending in a village, where overnight accommodation, breakfast and an evening meal could be arranged in local homes. This provided cash-strapped villages along the trail with extra revenue and the interaction between walkers, most of whom were urbanites, and villagers, many of whom felt abandoned by Brave New Lebanon’s focus on its cities, created a positive dialogue that gave villagers renewed pride in their fading culinary and cultural traditions and gave walkers an opportunity to see a side of the country’s cultural richness that many urbanites had no idea existed. 

Because it was cobbled together from ancient and often overgrown walking paths, including Roman roads, watercourses and goat tracks, the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. In couple of places, it led through mine fields, and while these were clearly signposted and a corridor of land on either side of the trail had been demined by the Lebanese army, the Association still recommended that first-time walkers hire local guides, just in case. 

I had signed up to join its annual spring walkthrough. In addition to inaugurating the hiking season, the walkthrough permitted the Association to make sure trail blazing was still visible and that paths hadn’t been swept away by landslides, avalanches, tarmacked or even built over, a constant threat in a country where land records were still somewhat chaotic.

So on the first Friday in April – ironically, April Fool’s Day in 2016 - I joined a small group of weekend walkers and hopped on a bus down to our starting point in Marjayoun.

I’d first visited this pretty southern village, with its cluster of traditional, red-roofed Lebanese houses, during the Israeli occupation when our accommodation for the night, the Dana Hotel in neighbouring Ibl es-Saki, had been a popular journalist hangout. That had been 17 years earlier. When Israel finally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 (apart from a brief reinvasion in 2006, of course), the South had found peace and the journalists, for the most part, had departed. 

What it hadn’t really found was prosperity.

Though many expatriate Lebanese visited during the summer, here at the tail end of winter, we were the only guests. After a slap-up dinner in the cavernous dining room, graciously provided by a local housewife, eager to introduce us to her village’s most famous dishes, including an especially toothsome take on Kibbet Batata, a mashed potato and bulgur wheat concoction sandwiched around a layer of preserved meat that she served baked in a large round dish saniyye-style, we all bundled into bed, to get as much sleep as possible before our 5:30am start.

Although I’d been dreading it, rising at the crack of dawn turned out to be much less painful than feared and I practically bounced out of bed at 5am. Throwing open the curtains, I could see the sun was beginning to rising and the sky looked perfect and cloudless. After a quick shower, I threw on my clothes, laced up my boots for the first time and grabbed my bag.

Breakfast was a feast. Sumac-sprinkled fried eggs, fresh labneh, a tangy Lebanese yoghurt thick enough to spread, homemade jam, fuul, a hearty cumin-scented stew of fava beans and chickpeas lifted with a squeeze of lemon juice, and rounds of flat Lebanese bread, still warm from the oven.

Stuffed to bursting, we wasted another thirty minutes waiting for a couple of slug-a-beds who’d slept through their alarms, before piling into the bus for the ride back to the official starting point in Marjaayoun. As the collective energy overflowed, the 10-minute drive was all jokey camaraderie, shining eyes and raucous laughter. Our eagerness to get on the trail was tangible.

But just over two hours later, we were still in Marjayoun.

The last time I had spent this much time there had been in 2000, when I was covering the Israeli withdrawal. Then, the streets had been deserted and the shops shuttered. A pall of smoke drifted across the town from the smouldering ruins of the barracks, blown by the Israelis as they’d pulled out a few hours earlier. In this jittery interregnum between one order departing and the next one arriving, we stopped to interview the few inhabitants we could find, and their chest-thumping expressions of patriotism and relief at the end of the occupation had nevertheless been tinged with anxiety over who and what would follow. Then, we’d driven on towards Hasbaya, in pursuit of the last retreating Israeli troops and by the time we drove back later, night was falling and not one of the town’s lights had been on.

Today, the ancestral home of Michael DeBakey, the late American pioneer of open-heart surgery and Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer prize-winning late American journalist, was seething, knee-deep in reporters and television crews. 

It turned out they were there for us, for although this was the seventh time the LMTA had organised a walkthrough, we were still news. The mayor, clearly a master when it came to recognising a shot at national coverage, had organised an official send-off, complete with piping hot tea and an endless supply of some of the best manoushe I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Often, and to my mind, misleadingly described as a Lebanese pizza, this baked, savoury flatbread, which most often comes covered in cheese and a dried thyme mix called za’atar, is traditional breakfast fare, and a personal weakness. Even full of fuul, I couldn’t resist and ended up stuffing a couple into my bag for lunch.

This second breakfast helped take the edge off the inevitable speeches and the pressing of flesh that followed, but as we posed for photos and answered shouted questions, I could sense the collective patience fray. 

Just as it seemed like we might never leave, we were finally on our way.

Well, almost.

We raced off the second the handshakes ended but the camera crews still needed the perfect shot of us setting off. Our two guides, Joseph and Robin, were lumped with the unenviable task of marshalling us towards the old market square, so that we could set off in a more suitably telegenic phalanx. 

Getting a group of fidgety hikers to stand in one place for long is a bit like trying to herd cats. After fifteen minutes of frantic instructions to ‘stay’, ‘group together’ and ‘wave’, as passing cars honked their horns and beaming but bemused townspeople shouted hellos and welcomes, we were finally organised into a cohort tight enough to make a Centurion proud. 

After an eternity, the cameras began to roll and the signal was given to walk, but slowly enough to let the cameramen get their shots. Naturally, this request was ignored. At a pace approximating a controlled trot, we burst out of Marjayoun’s confines, swept past the golden sandstone homes and out into the southern Beka’a. 

The trail pulled us forwards. Open and rolling, our route that day would will take us across the plains and up into the foothills that broke like waves against the majestic flanks of Mount Hermon, passing through lush green valleys that purpled and faded into violet as they rose up, up towards the sky, to a mantle of thick snow sparkling brightly in the morning light. 

It was a perfect day. The sun was warm, the sky as flawless as a Sri Lankan sapphire. As the bees buzzed, a gentle breeze stirred the trees and sent a flock of small birds twittering overhead. Adrift in a landscape of soft greens, gentle purples and bright, floral splashes of colour, I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. 

 My shoulders softened and I exhaled in a long, steady stream. Just like that, an invisible weight I had been carrying unnoticed since at least January but also, I suspect, for years longer, melted away. 

Footloose, I was fancy-free. Smiling, I hurried to catch up with the others as we turned off the road and began to walk across the fields in a hubbub of animated chatter. 

 

Chapter Two: A Wake-up Call

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In the dying days of 2015, I was abruptly wrenched out of life as usual.

Somewhat perversely for someone who had made his life in the eastern Mediterranean, both my partner and I love the cold and the snow, so we’d decided that Iceland would be an excellent place to unwind, get a proper winter fix, and usher in the New Year. 

Arriving on the 24th of December to heavy snow and temperatures of -20C, we thought we’d stumbled into Paradise. Reykjavik was aglow, its narrow streets decorated for Christmas. Renting a car, we set about exploring the country, which for the most part, lay under a thick, white mantle. Shutterbugs both, we spent our days hopping in and out of the car, trudging along frozen shores and up icy hills, breath freezing in the air, cheeks burning, taking photos until our camera batteries seized up from the cold. Every day felt like a genuine discovery, as each bend in the road and every hill we crested seemed to reveal some new and breath-taking panorama. 

I had been checking my email intermittently since landing, but one afternoon in the wilds of eastern Iceland, my phone pinged. It was an email from my nephew telling me that my family had been trying to get hold of me for days. Because I’d been using a local SIM card and wanting to get away, hadn’t given anyone my temporary number, they’d been unable to reach me and so finally had resorted to email. It seemed my mother had fallen ill and had been hospitalised.

We hadn’t spoken for almost ten years. My mother and I had always had a very difficult relationship and finally, in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences, it had fallen apart in the raw, bruised months after the 2006 War. Still, this sounded serious, so I phoned my nephew to find out what had happened. We were driving through an area where the signal was spotty, but after a few dropped calls, I managed to get through. He didn’t have details, but he told me where my mother was being treated and gave me a number. This turned out to be for the hospital switchboard. After another series of dropped calls, running out of credit as I was finally being transferred and an equally fraught online recharge, by the time I got through to the ward where she was being treated, I was told that my mother had just been sedated. I had also missed her doctor, but he would be back later that afternoon. Could I call again in a couple of hours? 

Changing our plans, we headed back to Reykjavik, and as soon as I arrived, I called the hospital. The charge nurse was reluctant to tell me anything over the phone, as my mother hadn’t listed anyone as her next of kin. It was only when I explained that I was her only child, that I was not in the UK and that my parents were divorced that she relented. She explained that my mother was being treated for stomach cancer and that she was now awake but still sedated and so she wasn’t always coherent. With that, the nurse put my mother on the phone. 

The conversation that followed was disjointed and surreal. Often, my mother would get confused and forget who I was. Soon we were both crying and apologising, me for my stubbornness, she for hers, both of us for being too proud to make amends earlier. I told her it didn’t matter, that the past was the past. I promised I would get on the next flight and be with her as soon as possible. She said she was tired and in a great deal of pain. understandably, she sounded terrified. I told her to get some rest and regain her strength and that we could talk more comfortably once I got to the hospital. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last conversation of any length we would have.

Getting to England was easier said than done. I spent the next hour trying to change my return flight but it was December 30th and with New Year approaching, the airline had no seats in any class until the 7thof January. Once again, I decided to buy a new ticket, instead.

But flights out of Reykjavik were chock full. Everyone wanted to leave at the same time. I managed to find a ticket on a flight leaving on the 2nd that would have bounced me from Iceland to New York to Paris to London and then finally to Birmingham, but it was a 48-hour odyssey that would have landed me in Birmingham 2 hours before another direct flight on the 4th. So I waited. Better to arrive fresh.

When I got to the hospital in Birmingham that morning, the doctor was blunt. My mother was in the final stages. She wasn’t going home again. In fact, he thought she might well be dead by the end of the day.

“If you have anything you’d like her to know, now would be the time to tell her,” he explained, as gently as he could. “And it would be better it you try to prepare relatives and friends, as well.”

By now, Mum wasn’t speaking much. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she could manage a few words at a time, but the effort was visibly exhausting. The first thing we both did was to cry and apologise again and I spent the rest of the day at her bedside, listening to her breathing becoming more and more laboured, and her gaze unfocussed.

She didn’t die that night. In fact, she would hold on for almost four days. Pouring all her remaining energy into staying alive, she became increasingly unable to speak. I sat squeezing her hand, talking to her, without knowing if she could hear me or understand what I was saying.

If her silence was unsettling, so were Mum’s infrequent bouts of conversation, chiefly for their drugged incoherence. The bustling, lively woman I knew as an adult lay motionless, so thoroughly immobilised by pain and drugs that most of the time, she wasn’t even able to turn her head. Watching her disappear, our endless fights and disagreements, so real and so hurtful at the time, were now revealed for what they had been, empty and meaningless. How had we allowed words to tear us apart? We had both wasted so much time. 

Over the course of those last few days together, I think we managed to reach peace. Any grudges I still held had vanished the day I called from Reykjavik, and judging by the way my mother cried when I walked into her hospital room, hers had too.

There were other people who needed to make their own peace with Dorothy Mabel Eileen Singh, for in the course of our decade of estrangement, my proud, stubborn mother had managed to alienate everyone. None of her relatives or friends, with the exception of one dogged acquaintance in Birmingham and my nephew in Calcutta, were still talking to her. One by one, I called got those I could on the phone and holding the receiver to her ear, encouraged them make peace with a woman who was less able to respond with every passing hour. 

Just after 2am on January 8th, my mother died. Ironically, she had always hated the number 8, saying that it was her unlucky number. Once, she had even refused to move into a house my father had found in Carlisle because it was the 18th on the street. My first thought, though, indeed the one thought that had kept running through my mind over the course of those last four days with her, was that I needed to get moving. Metaphorically and literally.  

My life had been going nowhere for a long time. I’d known for years that I was locked in a holding pattern but I’d allowed my fear to hold me back. As I watched my mother fade, her restless, wandering spirit betrayed, trapped by a body that refused to play along, all I could think was that I needed to get up and go. I had to walk, to run, to move, to dance, to do anything, in fact, that affirmed my incredible good fortune to be both able and alive. 

And so once the necessary phone calls were made, family informed and the post-mortem procedures initiated, my first conscious act was to log onto the website of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association. 

Five minutes later, I was signed up for their month-long spring walkthrough along Lebanon’s first national hiking trail, the Darb al Jabal al Libnaniyye.