Interlude: In The Beginning

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Eight years before I found myself in an old yellow taxi cab, driving across the Beka’a Valley during the 2006 War, in the company of a fearless, if hygienically-challenged driver, I arrived in Lebanon in exactly the same way; by cab from Damascus. 

I was on my way overland from England to China, where I had grand visions of becoming a journalist by blagging my way into one of the foreign news bureaus that were just opening in Beijing, while I spent my nights studying Mandarin. Lebanon was intended as a side trip.

Back then, it seemed the future was (and possibly still is) Chinese, so getting a head start on learning the national language of the next world hegemon seemed like a clever idea, and besides, I’d nursed a desire to study Mandarin ever since I’d spent three years in Taiwan as a child.

For me, Asia in all its diversity, felt like home. In addition to Taiwan, I’d lived in Pakistan and had spent several years traipsing around India in search of Enlightenment, or at least a (spiritual) high and after college, where I studied Hindi and Urdu – neither of which are, in fact Mandarin, but then anyone who has read this far will already suspect that I make a habit of allowing life take me in unexpected directions - I found myself teaching English to high-school students in Japan.

As much as I loved Japan, I hated my job. I was a poor excuse for a teacher, which nagged on my conscience, and I also didn’t like the town in which I had been placed by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Takasaki was a former agricultural town that was now on the edge of Tokyo’s sleeper belt, even though it was about an hour and half north west of the sprawling megacity of 35 million people by train. While it was far enough away not to be in Tokyo’s suburbs, it wasn’t far enough away to be rural, so I ended up in a town that offered me the benefits of neither. Still, the money was easy and so I’d continued, ignobly, to take it until I finally got tired of hearing myself complain, and decided to kick my addiction to the steady drip of Yen and move to China.

In the summer of 1997, I left Takasaki to make what I thought would be a brief return to England, and enrolled in a language course in Beijing that was due to begin the following May. With time in hand, and an accommodating friend looking after my belongings in Tokyo, I decided to travel overland to China, through Turkey and possibly Iran, to Central Asia and then into the wilds of western China, and on east to the capital.

For a variety of largely uninteresting reasons, including sloth, indecision and a raft of illicit temptations, by the time I finally left London, I was several months behind schedule. I pottered around Turkey for a couple of months as planned, enjoying the last of the summer’s warmth on the coast and had just plunged into the more bracing climes of eastern Anatolia, when I was dealt a curveball in the form of an invitation to spend Christmas with a close friend near Athens. Naturally, I accepted, even though I was deep in eastern Turkey by then.

After a cracking Christmas and New Year in Greece, I headed back east again. As I had been denied an Iranian visa for the third time, I rerouted to Georgia, from where I planned to travel into Azerbaijan and then across the Caspian to Central Asia, but by the time I got the Turkish-Georgian border in mid-January, it was so bitterly cold that the idea of soldiering across Central Asia on a budget in the depths of winter didn’t appeal, so I turned south and headed for Syria instead, thinking that I could always make the trip to Beijing once the weather warmed up a little in March or April.

I spent January and February of 1998 visiting ruins in southern Turkey and northern and eastern Syria, including a number of sites that have subsequently been plundered, damaged or even entirely destroyed by the Islamic State, and I was staying in a musty hotel in Deir-el-Zor - the kind of establishment less punctilious travel writers might call ‘interesting’ or ‘charming’ when what they really mean is ‘decrepit’ or ‘flea-ridden’ – on my way down to the ruins of Doura Europos, when I had a very peculiar dream.

I was standing alone on a stage. A man I didn’t recognise but who seemed familiar, walked towards me, stopped, held his hands out with his palms upwards and in a firm voice said: “Go to Lebanon.” After delivering this peculiar message, he disappeared. I woke with the sound of his voice still ringing in my ears. 

I thought no more of the dream until a week later, when it occurred again. This time, I was in a darkened street rather than on a stage, and the man was now a woman, even though in my dream, I knew she was the same he as before. They grabbed me by the arm, and in a slightly louder voice urged me to go to Lebanon. Once again, I woke with the sound of their voice in my ear.

Naturally, this made more of an impression and when, a couple of weeks later, towards the beginning of March, I was staying at another dive in Damascus, one just as ‘interesting’ as my lodgings in Deir el-Zor but marginally more bearable for being covered in the most impressive wisteria I have ever seen, and I had the dream again, I knew the universe was trying to tell me something. That, or I was finally paying the price of my extensive exploration of the psychedelic underworld whilst at college.

This time, I was standing in the dark, and the person - I no longer remember if they were male or female - marched towards me, grabbed me by both shoulders, pulled me close and with their face inches from mine bellowed the now familiar injunction. Obviously, the only way to stop these dreams, which were becoming increasingly stressful, was to do as I was being instructed.

I had been planning to leave Damascus the following afternoon anyway. Winter was winding down, and it seemed like a good time to start heading north, back into Turkey and then on through Central Asia into China and my language course in Beijing. But as Beirut was only a couple of hours drive, and as I was never going to come back to this part of the world ever again, I decided that I might as well pay a quick visit to Lebanon, while I was in the neighbourhood, if only to put an end to these dreams.

I hatched a plan to see the three B’s: Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, Byblos, one of the oldest cities on earth and Baalbek, either the remains of the largest temple complex ever built by the Romans, or a landing site for ancient aliens, depending on whether you prefer your hats made of tin-foil, or not. 

It was to be a minor incursion, I would be in and out in three days, four at the most, and back en route to my new future in China. I told myself that if nothing else, after two months in Syria, the change of scenery would be welcome. 

The idea of visiting Lebanon had never crossed my mind. I was vaguely aware of its unfortunate past because as child in the 1970’s and 80’s, Lebanon was a regular feature on the nine o’clock news. I also remember reading a somewhat tongue-in-cheek travel feature written shortly after the war was officially ended, an account of a walk around Beirut’s derelict, bullet-riddled city centre, written by someone who had known the city before the war, which made pre-wars Beirut sound unbelievably glamorous, but even that hadn’t been enough to make me want to hop on plane. My destiny, I was sure, lay further to the east.

There was no Lebanese embassy in Syria, but after asking around the hostel, the consensus was that I could probably get a visa at the border, so I bought a seat in a shared cab and set off for Beirut. 

The ride out to the Syrian border was idyllic. It was a beautiful March day, soft blue skies and brilliant, golden sunshine, which took the chill out of the air. As we drove through gently rolling hills towards the frontier, the only fly in my ointment was that everyone in the cab was smoking, including the driver, and they complained loudly every time I tried to crack open the window for a little air, so I resigned myself to being pickled in smoke, for a few hours.

As we left Syria for Lebanon, the weather turned. Dramatic black clouds rolled in, obscuring the sun and as we pulled in at the Lebanese border post, it began to rain.

My first sight of my future home was not pretty. The border post still bore the scars of war and there were soldiers and heavily armed policemen everywhere. The Syrian border post had been comparatively organised but here, the immigration office was packed full of people, all waving their passports in the air and shouting at the same time, none of whom appeared to be getting served by the border guards.. It felt like a scene from a crass, pre-PC parody of a developing world nation.

After waiting for a while, I realised that politeness would get me nowhere and I managed to wiggle my way to the front, where the official pointed towards a counter on the other side of the room, and told me in French that the man I needed to see about the visa was at lunch, so I’d have to wait.

I went back to the cab and tried to explain the situation. The other passengers, who’d already been processed, looked distinctly unimpressed, but as our passport numbers had been registered when the taxi drove in, the driver couldn’t leave without me, like me, they had no choice but to wait.

I went back in to the chaotic immigration hall. Through a door behind the counter I’d been told to wait at, I could see someone tucking into a roast chicken with obvious relish. He noticed me watching him and pushed the door shut with his other hand. Twenty minutes later, he emerged, wiping his mouth with a napkin and then seeing that I was the only one at the counter, sauntered over to the other side of the hall, where he had a long, friendly chat with some other officers. Obviously, he was intent on ignoring me, but there didn’t seem like much I could do.  So I continued to wait.

Eventually, one of the other officers took pity. He walked over to Mr. Visa Guy, and pointing towards me, must have told him to do his damn job. He sauntered back casually, picking his teeth. At this point, I half expected him to scratch his balls and belch. Instead, he held out his hand for my passport, thumbed through it, peered at the photo and then, stamp in hand, asked me why I wanted to come to Lebanon.

As introductions to countries go, this wasn’t the greatest, and I was beginning to wonder myself, but I told him that I was a tourist, and had heard Lebanon was beautiful, so I’d come to see the sights for a couple of days.

He seemed to find that amusing but after flipping through the pages a few more times and finding no obvious reason to deny me entry, he finally stamped my passport and with a nod, tossed it back to me.

I was on my way back to the cab when I ran into the driver. He’d been in to check up on me three or four times already. Clearly the other passengers were getting restless, because with every visit, he was more and more agitated. Back in the cab, I was greeted with muttering and smouldering looks, and found that even though I had paid extra to sit in the front, I was now to sit the back, where I was wedged between a statuesque woman with sharp elbows, and the juddering cab door that threatened to pop off its hinges at any moment.

As we passed through the checkpoint, the heavens opened and it began to pour in earnest, with such vigour that I might have applauded the drama had the other passengers not all rolled up the windows and on cue, begun furiously and in unison, to smoke.

We drove across the Beka’a Valley through what looked to me like a war zone. Buildings shredded by gunfire, pockmarked with mortar blasts, Lebanese soldiers at checkpoints sitting on tanks or shivering in sandbagged, barbed wire outposts, Syrian soldiers in checkpoints of their own, and then more random-looking checkpoints where sullen, unshaven men dressed in plain-clothes but carrying a machine guns over one shoulder, would appear out of nowhere and demand to see papers. The latter lot inspired a degree of fear, for cigarettes would be stubbed out and dark looks replaced by blank gazes, and as I was later to learn, these men were members of Syria’s ever-present and much-feared secret police.

The countryside we drove through looked every bit as morose as the people we passed. It was still pouring and as we crossed the valley, the temperature dropped precipitously. Not that it was much warmer in the cab. The other passengers still hadn’t forgiven me for making them wait, and my foreign passport inevitably lengthened our transit through the many and assorted checkpoints, so they either studiously ignored me or else stared stonily whenever I caught their gaze. 

By the time we stopped for coffee in the grim, grey and charmless market town of Shtoura, I was certain I had made a huge mistake coming to Lebanon, and considered staying in the cab and returning with the driver to to Damascus, once he’d dropped off the others.

A few kilometres on, warmed by shots of bitter, cardamom-scented coffee, as well as prices that were shockingly European after Syria, we began the long climb up and over Mount Lebanon to the coast. Within minutes, we were enveloped in thick cloud, which did help obscure the ugly buildings we passed, but also made the tank outposts, checkpoints and blown-up buildings even more sinister. Patches of snow began to appear and as the taxi wheezed over the pass at the top, there were icy grey mounds of it piled around the checkpoint, where cold, inadequately-dressed soldiers, both Lebanese and Syrian, shivered pitifully in the downpour.

As we began our decent to the coast, clouds still obscured the view. I’d read that seen from the mountains, the Mediterranean was a particularly beautiful sight, but as the rain was now falling even harder, it didn’t appear that was something I was going to see for myself. 

Slowly, towns and villages began to appear, but with the exception of the occasional shop, most of the buildings visible from the road were badly damaged, their doors and windows gone and gaping holes blown through what once must have been lovely sandstone walls. Some had collapsed almost completely, their floors sandwiched together, hanging by rusting steel rebar at odd angles.

My impression of Lebanon wasn’t improving. Maybe in better weather, maybe after 20 years of rebuilding it might be worth visiting. But now? If the towns in the Beka’a and the mountains looked this bad, I wondered what kind of mess Beirut would be in, after all, that was where the heaviest fighting had taken place. Dreams be damned, I told myself, Lebanon was a terrible mistake. I’d go straight back to Damascus and begin making my way to China in the morning.

Then, just as we arrived on the outskirts of the old mountain resort town of Aley, which was marginally more intact than the towns we’d driven through higher up, everything changed.

As the cab rounded a bend, we broke through the clouds. A thousand or so metres below us, Beirut cae into view, a triangular peninsula of towers that thrust out into the grey, wind-flecked waters of the Mediterranean. 

The rain, which had been battering the cab relentlessly all the way from the border, stopped so abruptly, it was as if God had turned off a tap. The clouds parted, and a beam of intense sunlight burst through the gloom and struck Beirut and the Mediterranean, turning the sea into a shimmering sheet of silver and glittering off the rain-wet windows of the city, which was transformed into a dramatic blaze of golden, fiery lights. 

My mouth dropped. My heart stopped. And there, on the road from Damascus, I fell in love, at very first sight.