Beauty

Chapter 17: Lamartine's Cedar and the Lost Lady of Joun

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We wake to the dizygotic delights of a breakfast of fresh, crisp manqoushe oozing cheese and za’atar and cool, cloudy skies.

The first two hours of the walk present the unappetising prospect of a gruelling vertical climb from Ma’asser to the Cedar reserve on the peaks above, and honestly, I can’t be bothered. 

As the weekend walkers hit the slopes with all the pent-up energy and eagerness accumulated by their week as wage slaves, I thumb my nose at gratuitous torture and decide to save my knees for a more worthy goal – like making it to the end of this 480-km long walk - so I hop on a minibus and arrange to meet the rest of the gang in the reserve.

The Shouf Cedar Reserve is home to some very distinguished trees. The oldest amongst them are as much as three thousand years old, which means that when they first sprouted, the Assyrians still ruled Phoenicia, but most are much younger, barely a few hundred years old.

Although the ancient copse of cedars up in Al Arz gets more attention - largely for its cinematic sexiness - the Shouf Reserve is a proper forest and has far more trees. Reforestation began here in earnest during the civil war, when this swathe of the mountains was under the control of Druze clan leader, Walid Joumblatt, who for all his manifest faults and bloody complicity in massacres, at least cared enough about his fiefdom’s environment to legislate its preservation – something the rest of the country is still happy to ignore.

By the time I get off the bus, which has coughed and chugged its way up to the road-head outside the main entrance to the reserve, the clouds have lowered and it's absolutely freezing. Shrouded in mist, the trees are magnificent, their vast horizontal planes and solid bulk softened, dissolving and rematerialising in the swirling clouds. 

For some reason best known to God, the reserve shop is closed and so I can’t even buy a cup of tea to keep the chill from my bone, so by the time the first walkers stagger into view, wearing the kind of expressions that confirm to me that taking the bus was the correct choice, I feel like I am on the verge of pneumonia. After a short pause, to allow stragglers to limp their way to the top, we set off into the trees. 

Extolled for its scent in the Song of Songs and valued by the Pharaohs for its longevity and resistance to pests, Cedrus Libani has been considered a sacred tree since ginger-locked Gilgamesh travelled from the sun-baked plains of Uruk to the snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh in search of its resin, for the Sumerian demigod had been told the cedar was the Tree of Life. 

Interestingly, the cedar is also sacred in India, where it is known as the deodar, and it has been associated with Shiva, Lord of Time, Destruction and Dance, for thousands of years. Clearly, there is something about this particular tree that inspires universal reverence - perhaps its size or the fact that it can survive for thousands of years. 

I had learned the previous day during our introduction to the Biosphere, that the cedar is a monoecious species, a kind of botanical hermaphrodite, which means that each one possesses male and female reproductive systems, and they are able to reproduce by pollinating their own cones, effectively cloning themselves. Once pollinated, cones mature on the branch for three years, changing in colour from green, to striped, to brown, at which point they release their seeds on the wind. 

Lebanon’s forests were already under attack by Roman times. Scattered all over Mount Lebanon you can find stone edicts erected on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian, that prohibit the felling of trees between altitudes of 350 and 2000 metres. But it was during the Ottoman period, that Lebanon’s forests were really put to the torch – quite literally - as trees were cut down to warm homes all over the empire.

Today, pollution, rising temperatures and decreased snowfall has weakened many of the older trees, making them vulnerable to a fairly common arboreal virus. It has wrought havoc in one of the larger reserve to the north, Tannourine, although Joseph tells us that the situation is slightly better now than it was 10 years ago, largely thanks to the aggressive pruning of infected boughs. 

We stop for a quick talk by the cedar that French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine apparently liked to sit under and stare out over the valleys below to the coast. Lamartine was rather taken with Lebanon, despite the fact that his daughter died in Beirut, and it features prominently in the account he wrote of his travels in the near east, the Voyage en Orient

His love was reciprocated, for today, he not only has a cedar and a school named after him, he’s got an entire valley, too. All that for spending a couple of months wandering about composing verse. 

Mention of Lamartine reminds me of poor old Lady Hester Stanhope. Archaeologist, adventurer, shipwreck survivor and probably the only woman to propose to Ibn Saud, she lived in Lebanon decades longer than the poet, spoke Arabic, wore men’s clothing and became a formidable political force in the Shouf mountains, but today, not even the ruins of her palace in Joun bear her name. A case of classic sexism? Or did the Lebanese feel more comfortable commemorating a Frenchman who wrote a book about Lebanon and left, than they did commemorating an Englishwoman who played politics, and stayed?

For obvious reasons, I’ve always found Stanhope’s story far more compelling than Lamartine’s - Nineteenth Century male Orientalists are ten a penny,but you can count on one hand the number of Nineteenth Century European women who became powerbrokers in the Middle East - though I have to admit that when it came to picking a pretty view, Lamartine knew what he was doing. Not that we can see the coast, today, between the dense canopy and the louring skies, we’re lucky to be able to see the valley floor below.

As we head off through the trees, I get chatting with one of the weekend walkers. Despite his youth, Rabih is a judge in Beirut, a job I cannot say I envy him, for between overt threats (four judges were shot in court by a gunman who is still on the lose, just weeks after I arrived) and political corruption, Lebanon’s judiciary is anything but safe. Or independent. 

Naturally, I don’t find out that he’s a judge until we’ve had a lengthy conversation that amongst other things, involves confessions of my drug-fuelled youth.

Rabih tells me that his job involves fighting absolutely everyone, from the criminals and their clans and political supporters, to the police and the politicians. This constant uphill battle became so overwhelming, that a few years earlier, he had considered giving up his position and briefly tendered his resignation. 

Turning him down, his superiors suggested that he reconsider, so he was given 2 years’ leave, and took up a position as a legal advisor in Abu Dhabi. The environment in the emirate was completely different and although he says that he appreciated the opportunity, he also found it frustrating. As he read it, Abu Dhabi had the desire to change but didn’t always have the means, because the push for reform was constantly hamstrung by the pushback from tradition. 

It was this that prompted his return to Beirut, for while Lebanese officialdom may not seek change, as things are working perfectly well for the oligarchs and kleptocrats, the country’s more liberal environment and history of progressive politics means that it has the means to do so.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Rabih’s experience abroad reinvigorated his belief in the necessity of enacting change at the judicial level, and of tackling Lebanon’s post-war miasma in earnest. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he nevertheless describes himself as an ‘angry man’, and says that there is something wrong with anyone who sees the world as it is and is not angry, themselves. 

He’s curious to know why, as a journalist in Lebanon, I don’t write about politics, adding that some of the most influential political writers in the region are foreigners - but as he mentions Bernard Lewis, I suspect he's talking more about influence on US foreign policy, than internal Lebanese politics. He’s also curious about my reasons for leaving Lebanon after such a long time, especially as I share much of his passion for his country, and he asks if in deciding to leave, I feel like I am giving up. 

I have often wondered as much, myself. 

For almost two decades, Lebanon has been my personal cause, fought culturally, rather than politically. I can’t say that I don’t feel a twinge at the thought of going, but I have reached a point where I want to leave while I am still in love with the country, before my relationship sours permanently. 

As I tell Rabih this, I can’t help but think again of Lady Hester. In her final years, she was a shadow of her former self, increasingly destitute and so isolated that towards the end, she only received visitors by night, and never allowed them to see her fully. Did she look back on her years in the region with regret? Or did she die knowing that she had lived her life even more fully than most men of her generation? 

It strikes me that Lebanon is no country for old anyones, for although families are much closer and thus far more likely to take care of an elderly relative, age is still perceived as a diminishment. Fifty is old, sixty is ancient, seventy, well you might as well be dead, whereas in the less family-oriented parts of the Developed World, old age has now become an opportunity to start over and become someone new, though whether this is more evidence of implacable Calvinism or a more humane approach that recognises that not every senior citizen believes their lives should revolve around grandchildren, I’m not sure.

The walk continues through the Biosphere, alternating between open grassland and swathes of thick, lush forest. The clouds still limit the view, but it is a more enjoyable walk than the previous day, if only because of the beauty of the immediate landscape. We stop for a leisurely lunch in a copse of cedars, many of which, sadly, seem to be ailing. 

Not long after we resume walking, we begin a lengthy descent to our stop for the night in the town of Barouk, following a rocky and at times quite treacherous path. 

After about an hour, we pass two couples as they emerge from a clump of bushes. Our presence is clearly unexpected and discombobulating. The men are Lebanese, but the two women are of eastern European origin, and are clad in short skirts and pencil-thin stilettos, the kind of clothing that doesn’t seem especially suited to hiking, especially not at the time of year.

Eastern European women suffer from an unfortunate stereotype in the Middle East, as many of the first to arrive came as ‘entertainers’, and while I have seen Lebanese women take to the hills (and even the swimming pool), in heels before, the way they are readjusting their clothing and smoothing their hair, as well as the faint trace of embarrassment the two men radiate, which gives them the air of randy teens caught in flagrante by their parents, does suggest that the only wildlife they have come here to appreciate walks on two legs. 

Because there are so many of us walking today, we have inevitably divided into smaller groups, and so rather than leave anyone behind, we stop and wait by the side of the trail until everyone catches up again. 

It takes the final arrivals almost thirty minutes to arrive, and it turns out they were waylaid on the trail by the Ambassador of Byelorussia and a US Ambassador-at-Large, who was also apparently wearing heels, and so after the couples we chanced across earlier, I wonder if they too weren’t busy playing geopolitics amongst the trees. 

 As we reach the outskirts of Barouk, we stop at a memorial to journalist and author, Rashid Nakhle, who was also the composer of Lebanon’s national anthem, which of course means an impromptu round of Kullina Lil Watan (All of Us for the Nation), and from there, we drop down into the meadows along the river and wend our way towards town.

Ma’asser el-Shouf to Barouk

LMT Section 19

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

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. 

Chapter 12: Mohammad the Walnut and the Seven Brothers

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I’m still debating whether I’d exhibit the kind of composure in the face of death that would allow me to calmly play my oud as the ship I was on sank, when we arrive at another reminder of mortality. Cut into the side of a small valley a kilometre or so beyond Kfar Mishki, is a tomb.

Robin and I slither in. There’s not much left, a handful of shelf tombs cut into the walls and a couple of larger, bed-style tombs carved out of the bedrock, and there’s no visible ornamentation, not even traces of paint but I notice with a start that there are bones scattered across the floor. At first, I think they are human remains but most of them are too small and strangely shaped, so unless they belonged to a deformed child, they’re probably animal remains. 

Robin explains that according to local legend, the tomb is one of seven cut into the hill and although only two have been opened up, we do walk over the sealed entrance of another a bit further along the slope. Seven tombs for seven brothers, I think to myself jokingly. I ask him how old they are and he says that judging by the style, they’re Graeco-Phoenician.

This means that they’re about 2300 years old and while it’s true that they are unremarkable, nothing like as impressive as the incredible painted tombs unearthed in the necropili of Sidon and Tyre, the fact that they just lie here, open, for anyone to poke about in, is mind-boggling. 

In England, somewhere like this would be a tourist site, roped off and signposted, complete with toilets, café and a small visitor’s centre. You’d probably be able to buy a t-shirt, or at least a postcard. Here, they’re just holes in the ground. There isn't even a plaque to tell you what you’re walking around. On the one hand, it’s testimony to the governmental neglect Lebanon’s ancient heritage suffers but on the other, to the country’s incredible cultural wealth.

Properly taken care of, historical remains like these would not only be a source of national pride, they’d be a source of tourist revenue and would go a long way towards changing the unfortunate reputation with which the country has been saddled, but when the government isn’t even capable of basics, like keeping the lights on and most ministers aren’t interested in history unless it lines their pockets, archaeology isn’t a top priority.

But then it isn’t for my fellow hikers either, most of whom are already on the other side of valley by the time we clamber out, brushing centuries off our clothes. I ask him why the tombs are here in this rural hillside. The valley is about as rural as it gets, and even 3,000 years ago, cutting tombs into rock was time-consuming and costly. Was this some kind of sacred site, then? He explains that the southern Beka’a was more developed in the past, and there were a number of large villages and several important temples nearby, none of which have survived into todat.

“It’s possible this valley had some special meaning, we don’t really know, but we haven’t discovered any temples or shrines here, which you’d expect if it was significant. It’s more likely this spot was equally close to all the villages and temples and that’s why it was chosen.”

I grew up watching Indiana Jones films, so naturally my next question is whether anyone has ever found any treasure. Robin laughs.

“That’s what the villagers around here say, there are all kinds of rumours but everyone thinks there’s gold in old places and if anyone really believed there was any here, they’d have dug up the hillside years ago. I doubt it. It’s more likely the tombs were robbed immediately by the workmen who sealed them - that used to happen all the time back then.”

Not just back then, either. It happened all the time in Lebanon during the war, too. Militias and occupying armies looted dozens of historic sites to fill their coffers and their fill museums. I remember being shown video footage of Israeli helicopters flying massive stone sarcophagi across the border during the Occupation, a few years after I arrived. There’s a distant boom. Probably dynamiting in an illegal quarry somewhere nearby but it reminds me that there’s a war going on not far away. Over the border, the tradition of plundering tombs, and for that matter, old temples, ancient cities and modern museums, is very much alive in Syria and Iraq, and artefacts from both countries regularly turn up in Lebanon, which is a regional nexus for the stolen archaeological treasure.

As the French say, ‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’. 

Following a sheep track up a rocky hillside, we enter Majdel Balhiss, another hilltop redoubt, which has a prominent mosque with a minaret that soars above its surroundings, like the mast of a ship afloat on waves of earth. Little calligraphy signs emblazoned with religious motifs decorate the walls and the injunction 'izkar Allah' or ‘remember God’ hangs on an archway nearby. 

We’re deep in shepherding territory. On the way up, we came across one, a striking middle-aged man, tanned and thickly moustachioed, with deep, piercing eyes, leaning on his crook and watching over his flock as they grazed on the outskirts of the village. Clad in a thick brown jacket and a red keffiyah, he was a figure straight out of the past and awkwardly, I’d asked him if he minded me taking a photo. Without missing a beat, he told me that I was welcome and turned to face the camera. The snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh loomed in the background and his guard dog and the goats watched from the hill behind me.

As I took the shot, we chatted. He asked me my name and where I was from. I told him I was English, which seemed to confuse him a little, probably because I’d said ‘Inglizi’, a word sometimes used as a catch-all for anyone foreign, especially by the older generation. So I added that I was British, from London. Whether that made any more sense, I don’t know but at least he’d heard of both. In turn, he told me his name was Mohammad al-Jawz and that he was a Bedouin. 

He’d grown up between Lebanon and Syria and he’d been to Jordan once, many years earlier. His family moved with the seasons in search of farm work, though since the war in Syria, they’d mostly stayed in Lebanon. He didn’t use many words but once he started, he was unstoppable. He seemed quite happy to pose, so as I took a second shot, he explained that his family had been coming to Majdel Balhiss in early April every year since his great-great grandfather’s time and that they always work for the same family.

I found it a bit difficult to understand Mohammad. His accent was unfamiliar and he tended to swallow his words, but seeing him pose for me, one of the other hikers came over and began chatting, allowing me to listen and occasionally ask for translation. And so I learned that Mohammad liked being with the animals more than working in the orchards, which he left to his sisters unless there was really no other choice. He sometimes worked in the fields, too, though he was happier herding the animals because it allowed him to wander. But as long as he was outdoors, he was happy, especially after a long winter in the tent. 

Meanwhile, a couple of other walkers had stopped and some were also taking photos. If Mohammad minded, he didn’t say anything and continued to talk with the first walker. Spring was his favourite time of year, he said, because there was nothing more satisfying than watching the world slowly come back to life. Clearly, we were in the presence of a romantic.

Emboldened, I asked him how old he was. He said that he wasn’t sure but that he thought he was about thirty-seven. Despite his sparkling eyes and glowing complexion, he looked older to me, but I kept that thought to myself. 

I had my shot. Thanking him for his generosity and commending him to God, I turned to leave. 

“Tell me, why did you want to take my photo?” 

After chatting so easily earlier, Mohammad suddenly looked rather shy, not to mention decades younger. 

 “Honestly? Because I think you look really amazing standing there, especially in that red keffiyah. Very striking.” 

 With a little smile, he turned back to his flock and ambled down the hill. And probably instantly, Mohammad al-Jawz forgot that we had ever existed, at all.

Kawkaba to Aitanit

LMT Section 23

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter Three: On the Road, At Last

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I’m not sure when I first had the bright idea of walking from one end of Lebanon to the other.

I vaguely recall it surfacing during a rowdy, arak-fuelled conversation in late 2006, when getting up into the mountains, away from the daily ache of shattered dreams and lives seemed the best of all possible escapes. Like most other dreams that year, it was quickly forgotten, washed away by the gritty reality of daily life in a country picking up the pieces.

Around the same time, I began hearing of plans to create a national walking trail. The Lebanon Mountain Trail, as it was going to be called, would run the length of the country and was being funded by an American aid agency.

More than Lebanon’s first properly blazed long-distance walking trail, the LMT’s goal was to encourage people to explore the more remote parts of their country, to bring much-needed income to the long-neglected villages along the route and to show the world that Lebanon was more than a series of heart-rending headlines.

When the Trail finally opened a few years later, security issues (for which read Hezbollah positions along the southern border and Israeli position on the other side) meant that it couldn’t quite run border-to-border. It ran from Marjayoun, a sleepy town in formerly Israeli-occupied southern Lebanon, which looks down over a vertiginous escarpment into the Galilee, to Aandqet, an even sleepier village in formerly Syrian-occupied northern Lebanon, these days just a hop and a skip from the war in Syria. Some 470 kilometres long, the Trail took 26 days to walk, non-stop.

With the exception of the first two sections, which snaked east up into the arid Anti-Lebanon and the foothills of Mount Hermon before turning west and crossing the southern Beka’a Valley, it ran for most of the way along the more lushly forested length of Mount Lebanon. Generally oscillating between 1200 and 1500 metres, it reached a maximum height of 2200 metres and a low of just over 500 metres and the 26 sections averaged between 16 and 20 kilometres in length.

The sections were conceived as a single day’s walk, starting and ending in a village, where overnight accommodation, breakfast and an evening meal could be arranged in local homes. This provided cash-strapped villages along the trail with extra revenue and the interaction between walkers, most of whom were urbanites, and villagers, many of whom felt abandoned by Brave New Lebanon’s focus on its cities, created a positive dialogue that gave villagers renewed pride in their fading culinary and cultural traditions and gave walkers an opportunity to see a side of the country’s cultural richness that many urbanites had no idea existed. 

Because it was cobbled together from ancient and often overgrown walking paths, including Roman roads, watercourses and goat tracks, the trail wasn’t always easy to follow. In couple of places, it led through mine fields, and while these were clearly signposted and a corridor of land on either side of the trail had been demined by the Lebanese army, the Association still recommended that first-time walkers hire local guides, just in case. 

I had signed up to join its annual spring walkthrough. In addition to inaugurating the hiking season, the walkthrough permitted the Association to make sure trail blazing was still visible and that paths hadn’t been swept away by landslides, avalanches, tarmacked or even built over, a constant threat in a country where land records were still somewhat chaotic.

So on the first Friday in April – ironically, April Fool’s Day in 2016 - I joined a small group of weekend walkers and hopped on a bus down to our starting point in Marjayoun.

I’d first visited this pretty southern village, with its cluster of traditional, red-roofed Lebanese houses, during the Israeli occupation when our accommodation for the night, the Dana Hotel in neighbouring Ibl es-Saki, had been a popular journalist hangout. That had been 17 years earlier. When Israel finally ended its occupation of southern Lebanon in 2000 (apart from a brief reinvasion in 2006, of course), the South had found peace and the journalists, for the most part, had departed. 

What it hadn’t really found was prosperity.

Though many expatriate Lebanese visited during the summer, here at the tail end of winter, we were the only guests. After a slap-up dinner in the cavernous dining room, graciously provided by a local housewife, eager to introduce us to her village’s most famous dishes, including an especially toothsome take on Kibbet Batata, a mashed potato and bulgur wheat concoction sandwiched around a layer of preserved meat that she served baked in a large round dish saniyye-style, we all bundled into bed, to get as much sleep as possible before our 5:30am start.

Although I’d been dreading it, rising at the crack of dawn turned out to be much less painful than feared and I practically bounced out of bed at 5am. Throwing open the curtains, I could see the sun was beginning to rising and the sky looked perfect and cloudless. After a quick shower, I threw on my clothes, laced up my boots for the first time and grabbed my bag.

Breakfast was a feast. Sumac-sprinkled fried eggs, fresh labneh, a tangy Lebanese yoghurt thick enough to spread, homemade jam, fuul, a hearty cumin-scented stew of fava beans and chickpeas lifted with a squeeze of lemon juice, and rounds of flat Lebanese bread, still warm from the oven.

Stuffed to bursting, we wasted another thirty minutes waiting for a couple of slug-a-beds who’d slept through their alarms, before piling into the bus for the ride back to the official starting point in Marjaayoun. As the collective energy overflowed, the 10-minute drive was all jokey camaraderie, shining eyes and raucous laughter. Our eagerness to get on the trail was tangible.

But just over two hours later, we were still in Marjayoun.

The last time I had spent this much time there had been in 2000, when I was covering the Israeli withdrawal. Then, the streets had been deserted and the shops shuttered. A pall of smoke drifted across the town from the smouldering ruins of the barracks, blown by the Israelis as they’d pulled out a few hours earlier. In this jittery interregnum between one order departing and the next one arriving, we stopped to interview the few inhabitants we could find, and their chest-thumping expressions of patriotism and relief at the end of the occupation had nevertheless been tinged with anxiety over who and what would follow. Then, we’d driven on towards Hasbaya, in pursuit of the last retreating Israeli troops and by the time we drove back later, night was falling and not one of the town’s lights had been on.

Today, the ancestral home of Michael DeBakey, the late American pioneer of open-heart surgery and Anthony Shadid, the Pulitzer prize-winning late American journalist, was seething, knee-deep in reporters and television crews. 

It turned out they were there for us, for although this was the seventh time the LMTA had organised a walkthrough, we were still news. The mayor, clearly a master when it came to recognising a shot at national coverage, had organised an official send-off, complete with piping hot tea and an endless supply of some of the best manoushe I’ve ever had the pleasure of tasting. Often, and to my mind, misleadingly described as a Lebanese pizza, this baked, savoury flatbread, which most often comes covered in cheese and a dried thyme mix called za’atar, is traditional breakfast fare, and a personal weakness. Even full of fuul, I couldn’t resist and ended up stuffing a couple into my bag for lunch.

This second breakfast helped take the edge off the inevitable speeches and the pressing of flesh that followed, but as we posed for photos and answered shouted questions, I could sense the collective patience fray. 

Just as it seemed like we might never leave, we were finally on our way.

Well, almost.

We raced off the second the handshakes ended but the camera crews still needed the perfect shot of us setting off. Our two guides, Joseph and Robin, were lumped with the unenviable task of marshalling us towards the old market square, so that we could set off in a more suitably telegenic phalanx. 

Getting a group of fidgety hikers to stand in one place for long is a bit like trying to herd cats. After fifteen minutes of frantic instructions to ‘stay’, ‘group together’ and ‘wave’, as passing cars honked their horns and beaming but bemused townspeople shouted hellos and welcomes, we were finally organised into a cohort tight enough to make a Centurion proud. 

After an eternity, the cameras began to roll and the signal was given to walk, but slowly enough to let the cameramen get their shots. Naturally, this request was ignored. At a pace approximating a controlled trot, we burst out of Marjayoun’s confines, swept past the golden sandstone homes and out into the southern Beka’a. 

The trail pulled us forwards. Open and rolling, our route that day would will take us across the plains and up into the foothills that broke like waves against the majestic flanks of Mount Hermon, passing through lush green valleys that purpled and faded into violet as they rose up, up towards the sky, to a mantle of thick snow sparkling brightly in the morning light. 

It was a perfect day. The sun was warm, the sky as flawless as a Sri Lankan sapphire. As the bees buzzed, a gentle breeze stirred the trees and sent a flock of small birds twittering overhead. Adrift in a landscape of soft greens, gentle purples and bright, floral splashes of colour, I closed my eyes and turned my face to the sun. 

 My shoulders softened and I exhaled in a long, steady stream. Just like that, an invisible weight I had been carrying unnoticed since at least January but also, I suspect, for years longer, melted away. 

Footloose, I was fancy-free. Smiling, I hurried to catch up with the others as we turned off the road and began to walk across the fields in a hubbub of animated chatter. 

The 470km-long Lebanon Mountain Trail in sections.

Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association