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.