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.