Chapter 13: A Gentle Stroll

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The following morning, we wake to the smell of freshly baked manqoushe and triangles of dough stuffed with spinach and sumac, a spice that lends a citrusy flavour, which are known as ftayer.

Out on the terrace of our overnight stop in Aitanit, one of the ladies from the village is hard at work. I’m ravenous, probably because I have a slight hangover. 

Our hosts in Aitanit pride themselves on their cooking and dinner the previous night had been an orgiastic affair, a massive spread of village specialities, including a couple of dishes that I’d only ever heard of before, like zingol, a simple but utterly delicious concoction of bulgur wheat balls and chickpeas served in in a tangy garlic-yoghurt sauce, which we washed down with copious quantities of arak baladi distilled in the village.

The meal had begun politely enough but then Maurice, one of the village elders, turned up hallway through. Tottering in on his cane, he deposited himself at one end of the table and proceeded to regale us with stories and zajal, an ancient semi-improvised, slightly sing-song form of poetry that still lives on in Lebanon, most of which I couldn’t follow, and had swiftly obliterated any notion that he was in any way feeble by making his way through at least a half bottle of arak while insisting that we match him, glass-for-glass.

As we had what our guide Joseph had described as a ‘short' day ahead of us, we’d taken Maurice up his challenge – some rather more gleefully than others – and we'd finally tottered to bed rather later than was probably good for ageing persons on a long-distance walk.

Consequently, breakfast is both lazy and subdued. The views made up for the absence of banter and from the terrace, we could see clear out over the steely waters of Lake Qaraoun, Lebanon’s largest dam. The sun is warm, hazy day, even if the air is still chilly, so we’re wrapped up in our fleeces, watching Antoinette, doyenne of griddle and oven, bake an endless stream of delights.

When we’d wobbled down to the dam the day before, at the end of what felt like a death march from Majdel Balhiss, the view had not been quite as inspiring. Several warm winters with relatively little rain and snow that was mostly gone by the end of February, even on Lebanon’s highest peaks, may have pleased Beirutis eager to resume weekends on the beach, but they'd played merry hell on water level. It was at least a dozen metres below where it should be, and several small islands of former valley floor could be seen poking through the water. Less appealing reveals included reefs of rubbish along the shores; tractor tyres, plastic bottles, mats of rotting vegetation washed into the lake and yes, shopping carts (though there can’t possibly be a supermarket within 30 kilometres ) and an expanse of pinkish scum, rainbow-tinted from oil and chemicals, that lapped gently against the massive retaining wall of the dam. This is a lake that much of southern Lebanon gets it water from, including the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Still, it was an impressive sight and it reminded me of Ibrahim Abd el-Al, Lebanon’s maverick post-independence water engineer and Minister of Public Works, who was the driving force behind its construction. Abd el-Al had drawn up plans to proved the entire country with water and electricity through hydroelectric projects, which fell prey to the mighty clash between the public interest and the private sector that still bedevils the country, and many other countries around the world and had he been given free reign, it’s likely that Lebanon, the most water-rich country in the Levant, would not suffer the shortages that plague it today. 

In a region officially classified as arid or semi-arid, water is a major geopolitical issue and one of the key instigators of conflict in the Levant. The 1967 War, in which the Golan, the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai were annexed, for example, grew out of four years of disputes over water diversion projects and dams being built along the Banias and Jordan rivers and the recent war in Syria has its roots in the long drought and water mismanagement that eventually drove farmers in the east of the country to begin demanding political reform. 

Abd el-Al himself was keenly aware of water’s political dimension and had advocated effectively for Lebanon during the crafting of the Johnson Plan, the never ratified agreement drawn up by the Americans for the equitable sharing of regional water sources in the 1950’s. Qaraoun was not part of that particular controversy, as it dams the only water source Lebanon does not share with its neighbours, though that hasn’t stopped some of the more conspiracy-minded from speculating that the Minister’s untimely, and rather suspicious death in 1959, as payback for his activism. 

Whatever the reason, Abd el-Al’s death meant that he never got to see his plan through and with no one to champion it during the increasingly fractious decade and a half of political turmoil that precede Lebanon’s civil war, the plan fell apart completely. As we walked along the top of the barrage, I couldn’t help feeling that he would be simultaneously thrilled and appalled by the scene. 

The smell coming off the big convex griddle is mouth-watering. I’ve rarely met a manqoushe I don’t like but the ones being prepared for us this morning are extraordinary. The redoubtable Antoinette is churning them out by the dozen, flattening the balls of dough on the griddle and then slathering them with kishkza’atar, sojouk or cheese, as well as baking them plain. 

Even more impressively, all the ingredients, including the grain used to make the flour, have been grown on her farm - or in the case of the za’atar and some of the other herbs on the table, collected from the mountains nearby - and the manqoushe are being made from a proprietary blend of grains that she has ground at the village mill to her specifications. 

Antoinette bakes quietly but with ferocious intent and buzzes about, making sure no one’s plate is ever empty for more than a minute and that cheese, jam (both her own, of course) and honey (ditto) are never out of reach. Her energy finds it match in our bottomless appetites. 

But breads are only the Round One. On top, there are also bowls of a thick, steaming porridge-like soup made from the same kishk that in paste form and enlivened with tomato, garlic and bit of chilli, Antoinette is spreading on the manqoushe.

For me, kishk was love at first bite but because of its sour, vaguely vomity smell, it is recognised to be an acquired taste. In its raw form, kishk is a powder made from a combination of mildly fermented yoghurt and bulgur wheat, which is traditionally spread out on rooftops to dry in the sun. It is usually made into a paste and baked on a manqoushe, but in the winter, it is used to make a thick, porridge-like soup, to which chunks of meat can be added. There are as many ways of serving it as there are people in Lebanon, and personally, I like mine meatless and liberally dosed with garlic and toasted pine nuts. It is heavy, particularly if your eyes are bigger than your stomach and you have a second bowl, but it packs so much energy and is the perfect way to start a long day’s walk.

Suitably stuffed, we roll out of Aitanit, stopping by a small spring in the middle of the village to fill our water bottles. There’s a fountain nearby, above which a statue of the Virgin Mary has been placed. Next to it is a small, kiosk-like building that we are told was originally a musalla, a prayer room, although the last of Aitanit’s Muslim inhabitants moved out decades ago. 

 It reminded me of Majdel Balhiss with its prominent mosque, and little calligraphic plaques reading 'god' decorating many of its homes. Like Aitanit, it was once mixed, but its last Christians emigrated over 60 years ago, with most former residents now living in Canada, but the village church remains intact. 

At the risk of sounding preachy, it is examples like this - which are repeated in different forms all over the country - that make up the real Lebanon, the country not of eternal conflict and division, but the country of compromise and tolerance, if not necessarily of acceptance. 

This Lebanon is the only country in the world to observe a joint Islamo-Christian holiday, the March-time celebration of the Annunciation. It is where Muslims once attended Easter Mass, not to worship, but to enjoy the spectacle, where many Christians voluntarily observe the Ramadan fast and where, when there were still caravans, pilgrims departing on the long and hazardous journey to Mecca for Hajj were blessed by all the country’s religious leaders, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.

To me, these examples, domestic in their dimension, said far more about Lebanon than the dramatic headlines and shrieking stories of division and hatred and also explained why, despite the invasions, the occupations, the massacres, the detentions, the 17,000 Missing, the population exchanges and the (forced) emigration, this tiny country resisted the temptation to physically divide, in the end.

The rolling trail we follow is about halfway up the mountainside and passes through a series of high altitude pasturages, some of which contain traces of ruined buildings, and occasionally devolves into a tortuous, rocky track, one section of which curls around a cleft in the mountain so deep that navigating it feels suicidal. 

We’re accompanied for part of the way by Abu Jasseer, a local guide who is kitted out from head-to-toe in military gear a bit like a camouflage Christmas tree, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound RayBans, de rigeur facewear for former soldiers (and hitmen) all over the region. 

Unfairly, I image that he’s what a grunt would look like if it took physical form, the kind of ‘guy’ the Greeks would call a pallikaras, one so self-consciously macho, he’s almost a cliché. When he starts regaling us with tales of hunting wild boar – the mountains here are full of them - and whips out a video of one he’s filmed squealing as it lay dying, my initial assessment feels slightly less uncharitable. 

The route isn’t especially interesting, but the views over the lake are magnificent in places, despite the thick silvery haze, which has completely hidden the mountains on the far side of the valley. 

Above Saghbine, we pass a man ploughing a series of tiny fields with a horse. It’s an incongruous sight, especially in an age of micro-sized Japanese farm machinery. We wave ‘hello’ and when he waves back, we stop to watch for a while. The sound the blade makes as it turns the furrows, the smell of freshly-ploughed earth, the gentle encouragements from the man and the way the horse’s mane catches the breeze transports me to another time, a much harder but also gentler time of callused hands and sun-burned necks, of rising at dawn and of glasses of lemonade at 10. I am returned to the world of today by the loud blast of a horn from the village far below. 

And then somehow, we have reached our destination, the village of Ain Zibde. Today’s walk has been comparatively short and relatively free of punishing altitude changes, more like a stroll in the (high altitude) park, than a trek. 

Perhaps to ensure we don’t feel too smug about ourselves, Joseph reminds us that that tomorrow’s walk will not be so accommodating, and will kick off with a punishing 800m ascent and end with an equally strained 800 metre descent, as we are about to leave the Beka’a Valley and cross over the top of Mount Lebanon for the slopes overlooking the coastal strip. 

It sounds ghastly, but showered, with the sun warm on our faces, plates of homemade cake and cool glasses of toot, sweet mulberry syrup, a holdover from the days when Mount Lebanon was one of the silk-making centres of the world, fourteen hours is too far into the future for most of us to contemplate seriously, and as our hosts bustle about, preparing what will turn out to be a stunning candle-lit dinner on the garden terrace, we even have time for a pre-prandial nap.