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.