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Chapter 25: Young People, These Days!

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We take few last photos of Afqa, then slog uphill to the pickup point, passing an ancient Muslim tomb in the field next to a newer church, evidence of the region’s changing demographics over the centuries.

We’re spending the night at a delightful guesthouse run by the Germanos family in the nearby village of Majdel Aakoura , Guita’s Bed and Bloom.

Our hostess greets us old style with trays of sweets and jugs of icy rosewater flavoured lemonade, and as we sprawl in her garden regales us with family history. As the sun sets, the golden light turns the air to treacle, a Lebanese mountain speciality that is especially soothing today as we sprawl on woven straw mats on a lush lawn that is more daisies than grass. Fat bees buzz from flower to flower, occasionally stopping on noses or arms to determine whether we too can be mined for pollen, before realising we’re useless and buzzing on.

The talk turns vaguely political, as we perhaps prompted by a series of recent stand-offs between the Maronite Church and the Shi’ite villagers of nearby Afqa over land ownership, some of the group begin discussing Hezbollah’s involvement in the war in Syria, Assad’s future and the floods of refugees being driven across the border. Already in 2016, the number of arrivals was noticeable, any by the time I left Lebanon in a couple of years later, refugees had added 50% to the country’s population – so numerous were they, that separate queues for Syrians were eventually set up at government offices, embassies and at the airport. 

The evening is too lovely to spend on war talk and when we are summoned to dinner, an unbelievably lavish spread of incredible soups, freshly picked water meadow herb salad and heavenly dumplings in garlicky yoghurt sauce, it turns to more pleasant discussions of the region and its history. Afterwards, Guita, who comes from a princely family and so is a Sheikha, talks a bit about the profound social changes wrought by one of the militias during the civil war, which worked on existing cleavages to exacerbate divides in the region – the after effects of which are still reverberating through the area. Hence the land disputes in Afqa.

A group of walkers decide to spend the night on the roof to better see the stars, which are out in full splendour tonight. I decline and while I do mildly regret my decision later - a night under the stars would have been magnificent - I’m equally glad when I see their bleary eyes the next morning that I didn’t stay up until 4 in the morning carousing. 

We’ve a tough day ahead and after a bouncy high-speed ride in the back of a truck to the start of the trail, which begins by an old summer camp at the foot of the escarpment that towers over the area, we begin the long climb back up to the 1800 metre mark.

Guita has decided to walk with us for part of the way, as like the rest of the mountain, this is land that has belonged to her family for many generations, its purchase funded by the years her ancestors worked in San Salvador. She is very attached to her land, and takes her role as Sheikha quite seriously, so much so, that she's selling a plot of land she has elsewhere in order to be able to keep hold of the land in Majdel. Though it’s obviously good, as Mel Brooks once famously remarked, to be the king, being landed gentry apparently isn’t any easier here than anywhere else, these days. 

We assemble for the start our hike beside a rather jaded donkey, which has clearly seen more hikers than we’ve had hot dinners, then for the next three hours, it's a steady climb, for the most part on pretty decent farm roads. I talk a bit to Doctor Beatrice, who's also a member of the trail’s board of directors and she explains the association’s drive to encourage people to sponsor of segments of trail – a process that involves either donating money or time, as sponsors are responsible for regularly walking their section, to make sure it remains in good condition, paths aren’t overgrown (or abruptly fenced off) and litter is removed. 

I suggest that she use her position to persuade wealthy Lebanese to cough up cash by promising them that as long as they continue to pay for it, their section of the trail can be named after them. I’ve long though that playing on the vanity/ego of Lebanon’s wealthy, who think nothing of dropping $20,000 on a handbag and who build chalets the size of city apartment blocks, is something of a missed opportunity. There are so many projects in Lebanon that languish because the State cannot (or simply will not) fund them, and I’d much rather have a Roman Temple named after Omar Hammoudi or a public park named after Mouna Bseiso than go without. Think of the number of libraries, hospitals and other public facilities that are named after millionaires elsewhere.  

I can tell the good doctoura isn’t particularly impressed, nor does she seem especially keen to keep talking to me now that her message has been delivered, even though she was the one who first struck up conversation, so I take my leave and speed up, passing one of the day-trippers who is now, as he will be for much of the rest of the day, on his phone, doing business deals. I rather wonder why he’s bothered to come along at all.

Even though we’re on a farm road, parts of the walk are quite steep, but the sweeping views more than compensate. We rise up through swathes of twisted juniper, crushing berries under foot, releasing clouds of slightly bitter, resinous perfume. 

A little further on, we pass a spot where Joseph says he discovered a cave that had been sealed at some point in the past, possibly during the civil war, when it may have been used as an arms cache. Perhaps even earlier, as old caches dating back to WWI have been found closer to the coast. 

Winding ever upwards, we finally crest the mountain, where we are rewarded a jaw-dropping view over the villages of Qartaba, Aaqoura and the entire valley all the way down to the coast. We’ll be overnighting in Aaqoura, from here, a pretty swathe of red-roofed houses that washes up the walls of a distant cliff, and we can even make out part tomorrow's trail to the cedar reserve in Tannourine. Briefly, I understand what omniscience feels like. 

We pause for a while, before making our way to the small and curiously prehistoric-looking shrine of Saydet el-Sehta, a low, circular structure made of piled rock, on top of which a large illuminated cross and a statue of Mary gleam whitely against the intense blue of the sky. 

The sun is fierce and its quite windy, so when we stop here for lunch on the concrete terrace, I try to find somewhere sheltered to tuck into my food, which includes some of the dumplings from the night before – the yoghurt sauce warmed by the sun.

Afterwards, I climb on top of the stone structure and stand next to statue to get the best view yet of the villages and the valley below, then I take a short nap under a nearby tree, sunlight dappling my face.

Continuing onwards, we pass through a massive and rather pungent flock of goats, under the watchful gaze of a rather wild-looking guard dog, who wags his tail as he growls, frustrated perhaps because his owner has told him not to bark at us. The plateau undulates gently and as we follow the dips and rises, streaks of dust-covered snow begin to appear. The breeze has gone and it’s quite warm, so I stop periodically to grab handfuls, more ice than snow, to scrub my head and place handfuls on my hat to cool down, much to the collective amusement. The ground here is strewn with stone goat pens, topped with thorny branches, that remind me somewhat of the Neolithic huts of Skara Brae, though these face the (far-off) Mediterranean, rather than the Atlantic.

As we begin our descent, we pass boulders composed entirely from the fossilised remains of marine worms and shellfish. Lebanon is home to some of the richest and most varied marine fossil beds in the world as 100 million years ago, most of the country was under water, its mountains formed when the African and Arabian plates collided with European and Asian plates – a process that politically-speaking, you might argue has been happening ever since.

Lebanon’s geological make-up gives the ‘Lebanon is not Arab’ school solid, if ironic support; for just as some Lebanese insist that they are not Arabs (which technically is correct, at least on the genetic level), the sliver of land that is now Mount Lebanon is not even part of the Arabian plate, which begins with the Beka’a Valley. Perhaps rather unfortunately for them - for there is a degree of racism in the way this particular theory is sometimes presented - tectonically speaking, Lebanon is African.

If you read Wikipedia, it will tell you that the earliest known account of Lebanese fossils is attributed to the Father of Lies, Herodotus himself. That said, as Mireille Gayet, Pierre Abi Saad and Olivier Gaudant point out in their lovely book, Fossils of Lebanon, that claim can’t be verified, for although the Greek historian does discuss fossils in his Histories, he doesn’t make specific reference to Lebanon’s.

As they explain, the earliest verifiable reference was made by Eusebius of Caesarea, the 3rd Century Bishop of Palestine, who in his Armenian Chronicles writes that “I have seen certain fishes, which were found in my lifetime on the highest peaks in Lebanon. They took stones from therefor construction, and discovered many kinds of sea fishes which were held together in the quarry with mud, and as if pickled in brine were preserved until our times, so that the mere sight of them should testify to the truth of Noah’s Flood.”

The sight similarly amazed Louis XI, who was given a fossil of a fish as he departed Sayette, today’s Saida, on his way back to France after the Seventh Crusade. Apparently, it “was the most marvellous in the world, for when a layer of [the stone] was lifted, there was found between the two pieces the form of a fish. The fish was of stone, but lacked nothing in form, eyes, bones, colour, or anything necessary to a living fish.” The description, which appears in de Joinville’s 1248 account Des Saintes Paroles et des Bonnes Actions, goes on to describe le roi as likening the fossil to a Tench, a freshwater fish, proving that while Louis may have been a king, and (if we ignore his zealous expansion of the Inquisition and eradication of the Cathars) possibly a saint (yes, he has been canonised), when it came to smarts, he was rather more lacking.

But back to the walk. The final descent takes ages. As we rattle our way down, I remember walking up this way a few years earlier and remember it being a hellacious climb. Going down isn't much better and hemmed in on either side by sheer rock walls, it’s hot and there’s no view. 

Eventually, we hit tarmac and walk up into Aaqoura, a tiny village that is famous for having 45 churches, practically one per family that used to live there. As we meander into the village, dusty, sweaty and weary, we pass four elderly widows, like elderly widows all around the Mediterranean, dressed completely in black, who are having very jolly coffee on the trellis-shaded terrace outside one of their houses. They invite us over for a cup as we pass, and can't believed we have just walked from Majdel and up and over the mountain to Aaqoura. Clearly, they think we might be missing a few marbles.

“Don’t they know there’s a road now?” the eldest of them stage whispers to her friend, as she surveys us with barely concealed alarm. “Wahiyet ‘aadra, I swear I don’t understand the young these days.”

Afqa to Aaqoura  Section 11 of the LMT.  Map/Image © Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

Afqa to Aaqoura

Section 11 of the LMT.

Map/Image ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

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.

 

Chapter 8: The Wise and the Tall

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I’m not sure that it ever really became easy to hike on Mount Hermon.

Eventually, tensions in the Shebaa Farms subsided, even though the Israelis remained in place, but flare-ups could, and did happen without warning, so the mountain remained off most radars. After a few years, parts of it became accessible to casual visitors but by then, life had become busy. I read occasional accounts of powder junkies trekking up to ski down the virgin slopes and of overnight hikes to the top, where it was possible to get permission to camp beside the UN post on the Lebanese side of the buffer zone between the three nations. 

The view was apparently magnificent. A close friend of mine once told me that his father had been force-marched up Hermon during the 1930’s, when he had served in the French Mandate Army of the Levant. He told his son that from the top, the whole of the eastern Mediterranean had been visible, from Jerusalem and Jaffa to Homs, Damascus and Beirut. He’d even claimed to have spotted Cyprus. That last part might have been hyperbole - even without smog, there’s usually quite a bit of dust in the air blowing in off the deserts to the east - but it sounded magical. It was also a stark reminder that this region, which generates so many headlines, where so many different outrages and atrocities take place and where the gulf between the sides seems so wide, is actually very small. Israelis, Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese all live cheek-by-jowl, practically in each others’ laps.

Every year, I promised I’d make time to hike up Hermon but then work, a new flare-up, heightened political tensions on the border or good old mañana-ism would get in the way until eventually, the 2006 War once again made the hike impossible.

I keep calling it ‘Hermon’, the mountain’s Old Testament name, but in Arabic, it’s known as Jabal al-Sheikh. This roughly translates as the ‘Mountain of the Chief’ but ‘sheikh’ also conveys meanings of venerability, wisdom, age and mastery. Supposedly, it has this name because of the snow that graces it for much of the year, much like white hair or a taqiyah, the Muslim skullcap. But as is so often the case in a part of the world as old as this, it might also have something to do with Hermon’s ancient associations as a sacred site, for it is a place where according to legend, the gods and their offspring once resided.

For the Greeks, it was where Pan liked to frolic with his nymphs, while for Philo of Byblos, the 12th Century antiquarian and author of a lost history of the Phoenicians, it was home to four giants, who lived there with their human wives, but the mountain has been sacred since at least the Bronze Age. Two thousand years before Philo, the Canaanites knew the mountain as Baal-Hermon, the abode of the Lord of Hermon, and built the earliest of the 30-odd Phoenician, Greek and Roman shrines that still exist on the mountain’s flanks.

I’d visited one of them near the village of Deir el-Aashayer in the early 2000’s. It had once been used as a chapel by disciples of Saint Simeon Stylite, an early Christian ascetic who chose to get away from earthly distraction by spending 37 years on top of a pillar in a monastery in the hinterlands of Aleppo, but originally, it had been dedicated to an unknown group of local deities, the gods of Kiboreia, whose only surviving mention was a 3rd Century Greek inscription found on a bench in the temple, which dedicated the seat to Beeliabos, the son of the high priest of these Kiboreian gods.

Like its 29 siblings, the temple of Deir el-Aashayer is oriented towards the highest of Hermon’s three peaks, where at an altitude of 2,814 metres, lie the scattered remains of the most important temple of them all, the Qasr Antar, presumably the abode of the Lord of Hermon.

I’d seen one of the stele removed from the temple in the 1860’s on display at the British Museum when I studied at SOAS in the late ‘80’s. As a life-long reader of fantasy and scifi, I particularly enjoyed reading the Chariots of the Gods-style ‘alternative history’ that attempted to link the ruins of the highest known temple of the Ancient World with a story from The Book of Enoch (the Apocrypha were a particular teenage weakness) about the host of angels who were supposed to have descended from Heaven to Hermon, to take human wives. The fruit of their union, the Nephilim, were a race of giant demigods that the Flood had been sent in part to erase from the world.

The mountain is mentioned in the Old Testament as home to a variety of supernatural beings, including the Rephaim, spirits that spoke in buzzing voices and who could intercede on behalf of the living, and as home to the descendants of Gog, grandson of Noah, who like his grandfather, was a literal giant and whose people will apparently play an integral role in the Endtimes. Known in Islam as Ya’juj, Gog and his descendants are said to be confined behind a metal wall built by the ‘Two-Horned One’ (an epithet often given to Alexander the Great) and when it is removed, Ya’juj and his brother Ma’juj will lead their people forth to rain destruction on the world.

Not all of Hermon’s monotheistic associations are quite as chilling. It pops up in the Song of Songs, in which Solomon, himself no stranger to all things supernatural, entreats his spouse to “come with him from Lebanon'“ and in the New Testament, is claimed as the Mount of Transfiguration, site of Jesus’ first miracle, where the disciples witnessed his transformation into a being whose “face did shine as the sun, and [whose] raiment was white as the light”. It was up there, as he spoke with the spirits of Moses and Elijah, that a voice from the skies was heard to call Jesus ‘son’, which in the Christian tradition effectively makes Hermon the place where the Flesh first became Divine. 

 Lebanese Christians and Druze, who accept Christ as one of ten incarnations of the Divine in flesh but believe that Jesus and Christ were two separate people, used to observe the Feast of the Transfiguration each year on August the 6th by climbing up to Qasr Antar, where the Christians would celebrate mass. At the moment, that is no longer possible. In 2014, an Al Qaeda affiliate involved in Syria’s Civil War, the Jabhat al-Nusra, kidnapped the soldiers at the UN post on the Lebanese side. The soldiers eventually escaped but the post has been abandoned and while al-Nusra aren’t supposed to be present on Lebanese soil, the Lebanese Army does not permit trekking into the upper levels of Hermon, just in case. And so again, Qasr Antar is out of bounds, standing silent and alone, as it has for millennia, silent witness to conflict and upheaval.

Not that you’d know any of that from two thousand-plus metres below. As our hike began, we rolled gently through a patchwork of woodland and orchards for the first five kilometres until, on the outskirts of Ain Tinta, less a hamlet and more a cluster of houses on a hilltop, we began the long, slow climb that would eventually take us up from where we started at 700 metres, to today’s highest point of 1400 metres.

Maybe because it was a Sunday there more people out and about than the day before, amongst them a trio of Druze uqqal, who were standing by the path chatting as we emerged from a particularly fragrant grove of umbrella pines. The Druze are divided into two communities. The majority are juhhal - the Ignorant - Druze by birth but with only a minimal understanding of their faith, the intricacies of which are kept secret from both the juhhal and non-Druze. 

The uqqal are initiates. They dress distinctively, to denote their status, with the men wearing long black shirts, baggy sherwal trousers and a white taqiyah, the women a full-length black or dark blue dress and a long, gauzy white head scarf that can be wrapped around the face to serve as a veil, if necessary. The more learned uqqal are referred to as sheikhs and usually wear a fez wrapped in a white scarf, so from the look of it, our trio was composed of two younger uqqal and a sheikh.

One of the uqqal, who sported a particularly impressive moustache, hailed us and with a twinkle in his eye, asked why we were wandering through the uplands of Mount Hermon and when he learned we were planning to spend the night in Rashaya, his surprise was almost comical.

“But that’s 20 kilometres, at least,” he said, eyeing our boots and backpacks with a concern that suggests he thinks we may have lost our collective minds. “It’s a very, very long walk, are you sure it’s worth it?”

“Where? They’re going to where? To Rashaya? What? Why don’t they just take a taxi?” the sheikh ventured helpfully, as we waved goodbye. His two companions beam broadly as though it’s the funniest thing they’ve heard all month.

Still climbing, we followed goat trails across rocky hillsides dotted with small, scrubby patches of wind-twisted trees. Although we could see the peaks of Mount Lebanon on the horizon to the left, we’d lost sight of the Beka’a Valley itself, which is hidden below rolling waves of orchard-covered hills, a sea of green studded with small clusters of red-roofed houses for as far as the eye can see.

By the time we reached the outskirts of Ain Aata, the view was panoramic. Stopping for an early lunch in the concrete shell of an unfinished house a couple of kilometres outside the village, we discover that Nabil, the bus driver who ferries our bags between overnight halts, was waiting. He’d driven up to deliver a crate of ice-cold beers, which was greeted enthusiastically by the group. Short and rather tubby, Nabil is quite musical, an accomplished oud player and always singing some song or another. Today was no exception, and as he handed out the beers, he managed to get an impromptu singalong going.

The sun was brutal. I don’t drink beer and I’m not one for campfire songs, especially when it’s midday and there is no campfire, so I found a shady spot at the rear of the house and tucked into my lunch, an assortment of lukewarm items scavenged from the morning’s breakfast. This is to be the way from here on. The families we stay with provide two meals, dinner and breakfast, and we’re free to pop anything we fancy from either into our lunch boxes, so that we aren’t forced to find a village to eat in at lunchtime.  

Large and sporting what will be a massive roof terrace once it is finished, the house is a clunky breezeblock box with small window openings. It’s more engineering than architecture but as far as location goes, it’s unbeatable. To the front, it looks out over a boulder-strewn slope behind which the snow-streaked peak of Mount Hermon rise, and to the rear it has an uninterrupted view across the Beka’a to the peaks of Mount Lebanon beyond. 

Winter hadn’t been especially good and the snowfall, which provides Lebanon with much of its fresh water, had been scant. Normally, the wall of Mount Lebanon would be one long band of white. This April, it was only the tallest peaks that still had any snow left but that made it possible to make out the gleaming peaks of Mount Sannine and further north, Jabal Makmel and the peaks around The Cedars, in the hazy distance. Both seemed impossibly far away but our walk would take up and past both places before it came to an end.

Hasbaya to Rashaya

LMT Section 25

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

Chapter 6: A World of Pain

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The following morning, a decade and half of eating too much and barely exercising makes itself felt, as I awake to a world of pain.

It’s not just that my knees ache, my feet are so comprehensively tenderised that standing upright is going to be agony and despite liberally slathering myself in sunblock, I must have missed a few spots, because patches of my forearms look like they’ve been lightly broiled. 

Heaving my protesting body out of bed, I feel my back and thighs spasm and nearly lose my balance. In all my 47 years, I’ve never felt less fit than I do at this moment, and that includes the two months I spent in bed after mangling my knee in a childhood bicycle accident in Taiwan. 

Groaning, I hobble towards the bathroom, passing one of the more seasoned hikers in the hall. I’d observed him sourly the day before, bounding up and down hillsides like a demented gazelle, as I wheezed and creaked along like a ninety year-old.  

“Hurts, n’est-ce pas?” His cheery grin and faux conspiratorial wink are like a red flag to a bull. “Just take a couple of aspirin tonight. They’ll keep the swelling down and you’ll feel much better in the morning.” 

He bounds off down the hall, whistling.

“See you at breakfast!”

Stifling a blinding urge to wring his neck, or at least trip him up, I stagger into the bathroom, lock the door and take a shower. I’m running late, it’s already six-fifteen, we’re due to set off at seven and I haven’t even filled my water bottles yet.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The farm only has four bathrooms and there are 35 of us, so by the time I get to the table twenty minutes later, most people are only just beginning to eat.

Optimistically, breakfast has been laid out on the terrace. It’s quite chilly but the view across the Beka’a is sublime. The place we’ve spent the night is a three-minute drive from Hasbaya, so we’re still up in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon. Below us, the fields are hidden beneath an early spring mist, which swirls gently in the breeze, and the snow-streaked upper slopes of Mount Lebanon on the far side of valley still bear the rosé tinge of sunrise. Colours have become polarised, making the trees and rocks pop against the backdrop of neatly furrowed, chocolate-brown fields.

Our hosts clearly live by the maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and ours is a lavish affair; acres of small dishes containing olives, fresh vegetables, mountain herbs, homemade yoghurts, cheeses and jams, eggs of various descriptions and tangy za’atar dip, supplemented by several trays of piping hot, cheese-stuffed bread balls covered in sesame seeds and overflowing bowls of the creamiest fuul that I have ever eaten. Eating in Lebanon is always an excessive affair, but the cornucopia this morning redefines abundance.

“Listen gang,” Joseph begins, as he briefs us on the walk ahead, “we have a longer trail than yesterday, probably about 22 or 23 kilometres and we’re going to climb up to around 1400 metres before dropping down to Rashaya. There won’t be many fresh water springs along the way, so don’t forget to fill up before we go.”

Truth be told, I’m rather dreading today’s walk. 

Our first day had been tough enough for me and at the LMTA offices in Beirut, we’d been told that the Hasbaya-Rashaya section was one of the trail’s most taxing. My mindset hadn’t been helped when, before dinner the previous evening, we’d been introduced to Wael, a local guide who was to accompany us as part of his LMTA training. 

He’d peppered his trail overview with multiple references to potential sources of injury, danger and a dispiriting focus on how gruelling some of the ascents were going to be. He’d probably been trying to be encouraging, in a reverse psychology kind of way but if so, his presentation of the Trail of Tears that lay ahead had misfired, as our increasingly gloomy expressions evinced. Joseph’s face clouded on a couple of occasions as Wael spoke, and when he disappeared off to one side with him afterwards, I assumed our senior guide intended to give his trainee a dressing down. 

By the time breakfast is done and we’re ready to leave, Wael still hasn’t materialised. As Robin sets off up the road, Joseph informs us that he won’t be coming. Apparently, he isn’t feeling well. I notice that a couple of the other walkers are smiling quietly and I guess that like me, they suspect from the way Joseph breaks the news, that our guide-in-training has been told his services today aren’t required.

Despite my trepidation aside, I’m eager to get going for today, we will be hiking high up along the flanks of Mount Hermon. I’ve wanted to come up to this part of Lebanon since I first read about the dozens of Canaanite, Greek and Roman temples that dot the mountain’s slopes as a teenager, but in 18 years living here, Hermon had become an enduring regret, a place I would gazing at longingly each time I made the journey over Mount Lebanon to the Beka’a.

During the first few years I lived in Lebanon, getting there was impossible. Located astride the Lebanese, Syrian and since the 1967 War, Israeli borders, Hermon was off-limits to hikers during the Occupation and thanks to an area called the Shebaa Farms, which Israel retained when it withdrew from the South, it remained that way for a number of years afterwards.

Israel said that Shebaa was Syrian territory, because when they invaded in 1967, the only official they’d found had been Syrian. Lebanon said that it was Lebanese territory, because the land was owned and farmed by the inhabitants of the village of Shebaa, which was quite firmly in Lebanon. 

The Lebanese government used Shebaa to dispute Israel’s claim that it had fully withdrawn from Lebanon and so in the mid-2000’s, Resistance operations had shifted their focus from the southern borderlands to this vertiginous pocket of land.

Initially, the government in Damascus remained quiet on the matter. The border between Lebanon and Syria has never formally been ratified, largely because Syria, the larger and more heavily armed of the two, has never believed there should be one. Officially, it paid lip service to the notion that Lebanon was a separate country, but it still clung to the notion that it had ‘lost’ Lebanon when the Levant was divided up by the British and the French after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire. 

There’s no disputing that the border, like many others in the Middle East, is the result of European imperialism, but what is often lost in the on-going polemic over Messrs. Sykes and Picot, is that both Lebanon and Syria were cut out of a much larger Ottoman administrative entity, the Bilad al-Sham or the Country of Sham. Because Sham is an old name for Damascus – it’s a corruption of Shem, the eldest son of Noah, who is claimed as the city’s founder – most Syrian governments since have used this as proof that Lebanon is really theirs. 

During visits to Damascus as a journalist, which always began with an obligatory courtesy call to the Ministry of Information, I had been treated to regular expositions on the ‘essential unity’ of the Lebanese and Syrians, how they were ‘one people in two countries’ and how, insha’allah, the two would ‘one day’ be united again. 

As a post-colonial argument, it sounded convincing except for the fact that Bilad al-Sham had also included what is now Jordan, Palestine/Israel, a sliver of south-eastern Turkey and part of western Iraq. In calling for a return to its pre-colonial dimensions, Syria did not claim the return of those other ‘lost’ lands, only smaller, weaker Lebanon. 

So while the border existed on paper and there were official crossing points between the two countries, it frequently felt as though the Syrian government regarded this as a nicety, and in the more remote parts of Lebanon, like Shebaa, it was a nicety that had sometimes been ignored in the past. This, Beirut said, was why there had been a Syrian official in the Farms the day Israel invaded.

But Shebaa wasn’t the only piece of Lebanese territory Israel still occupied. Over the years, Tel Aviv had unilaterally altered the 1948 Demarcation Line in a number of places and so to all intents and purposes, that frontier too, was open to question. In fact, the only border the country had that wasn’t, was with the Mediterranean.

Israel claimed the Shebaa Farms were Syrian and so they had withdrawn from Lebanon in compliance with International Law. Lebanon and Syria said the Farms were Lebanese and so Israel was still in violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty. As a result, most of the resistance operations carried out by groups like Hezbollah and the handful of Palestinian groups backed by Syria and therefore permitted during the Syrian control of Lebanon to do as they pleased, increasingly took place there and Shebaa became the perfect post-withdrawal casus belli, a convenient way for everyone to keep hostilities at a bubble. 

This worked for Israel, because attacks on Israeli troops in the Farms bolstered its claim that it had the right to keep bombing Lebanon. It worked for Hezbollah, because it allowed it to burnish its credentials as the Resistance and supported its argument that alone of the wartime militias, it deserved to remain armed and beyond state control. It also worked for Syria, because it kept Lebanon unstable and thus safely within its orbit, while allowing Damascus to reap the rewards of its self-proclaimed status as the ‘beating heart’ of Arabism, without needing to fire a shot. The Farms were a dirty, if depressingly typical example of Levantine geopolitics in action, and as usual, it was the civilians of southern Lebanon who paid the price.

Hasbaya to Rashaya

LMT Section 25

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter One: Falling Out of Love

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In retrospect, that sticky Saturday night in July was the moment my love affair with Lebanon peaked.

Ours had been a love, if not quite at first sight, then certainly at second. In the eight years I lived there before the day I voluntarily drove into a warzone, I’d come to love it with a passion that still gives me pause. Never one to wave flags, the pride I took in a nation that was not my own surprised me as much as it delighted the Lebanese in my life, especially as it was never supposed to happen. 

Lebanon had not been not the culmination of some life-long dream. Nor for that matter, had the Middle East ever featured in my plans. Thanks to a father who was a civil engineer, I grew up around Asia, with stints in the UK and Brazil in between. Lebanon had happened while I was on my way to somewhere else and like all the best gifts in life, this one had been entirely unexpected.

I think in part, my instant attachment stemmed from my lifelong tendency to side with the underdogs and the misunderstood. Lebanon was both. Heir to 7,000 years of history and home to more of the longest continually inhabited cities than any other country but cursed with an easily manipulated political system and two of the worst neighbours a small, unstable nation could want, in the late ‘90s, the country was still often reduced to its last four decades of existence, which had been dominated by bloody episodes of civil and international war. 

Looking back now, I’m not sure what I expected Lebanon to be before I arrived there. My plan had been to stay three days, to see Beirut, Baalbak and Byblos, so I doubt I’d given it much consideration, anyway. But it didn’t take me long to understand that it was about so much more than war. Home to Christians, Muslims, Druze, Alawites and Jews, Armenians, Turkomen, Circassians, Kurds and Greeks, like Smyrna and Alexandria of the past, Beirut was a cosmopolitan city by dint of its own domestic diversity. 

Under assorted forms of Western rule for almost as long as it has been Arab, Beirut was and still is one of the last gasps of the Mediterranean mixity first created by the Greeks, a way of living that survived the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders and the Ottomans. Once, this cosmopolitanism had been shared by all the great Levantine entrepôts but the end of empire, wars (both world and civil), the drawing of borders and the advent of the nation state gradually brought three thousand years of glorious miscegenation to an end. 

Lebanon’s embrace of its diversity, awkwardly enshrined in a constitution and political make-up that divided power between its different groups, lent the country its creativity, dynamism and strength but also opened it up to division. Worse, in the remorselessly nationalistic politics of the post-Ottoman eastern Mediterranean, its size and penchant for playing both sides made it an anomaly and after its lengthy Civil War, an object of scorn.

While the wider levant could still claim to be diverse, only Lebanon was truly a nation of minorities, on that no one group could control alone. Riven by dissent and a frequent pawn in regional geopolitics, it was, as the Americans like to say, a ‘hot mess’ of divergent politics, cultures, traditions, histories and religions, an unpredictable, unstable kedgeree of minorities that could only effectively be governed by consensus. And then, only just. But this precariousness was also part of what made it so fascinating. It was the least likely of countries, improbable on paper, and yet somehow one that not only endured, but often managed to shine.

And so, Lebanon became my Cause. For years, I revelled in trying to set the record straight. When I arrived in 1998, Lebanon was still occupied by both its neighbours and Israel would bomb the south of the country almost daily and Beirut occasionally. But in place of hair-raising recollections of life in civil war Lebanon, a time and place that had ceased to exist eight years before I arrived, I wrote about the country’s architects and designers, its food, its culture and its amazing sights. Rather than seek out former fighters to interview about the atrocities they had committed, I sought out those who were trying to build a better country. Not because I believed documenting Lebanon’s civil war wasn’t important, but because I didn’t believe it was the only thing that was important. 

Compared to the civil war, which had raged on and off for 15 years, the 2006 War that I experienced, was a blip - 34 days from start to finish. Still, it was brutal, asymmetric and unfair. 

Fighting a guerrilla force that was impossible to target, Israel broke International law by inflicting collective punishment on the entire country. Its air force targeted roads, electricity and water infrastructure and bombed cities and towns all over the country, killing almost 1200 civilians and displacing a million more.

I was unprepared for how emotionally devastating those 34 days would prove but for the Lebanese, it was as if a nightmare had come to life. Many of those old enough to remember the wars of the ‘70’s and ‘80’s were already convinced that conflict would return. They were a generation that had watched the fighting that erupted in 1975 morph from a genuine civil war into a series of proxy wars, which often had little to do with Lebanon. By the time the conflict ended in 1990, the corrupt cabals that ran it had permitted the country to become a convenient battleground for regional powers to settle grudges, prove points and send ‘messages’.

Still, even the most pessimistic Lebanese were shocked by the 2006 war. In some ways, it was the country’s cruellest. Lebanon was mending. For the first time in 34 years, it was not occupied. Israel had departed in 2000 and though the Syrians had clung on for a while, a series of political blunders had forced them to withdraw in 2005.

The year that followed had felt incredibly optimistic. Diaspora Lebanese talked about visiting for the first time and many Lebanese expatriates, abroad for years if not decades, planned to return and had begun looking for work in the country. Not even a campaign of car-bombings targetting public figures known for their opposition to Syria’s former ‘presence’ in Lebanon, the new government’s obvious flaws or the rancorous dispute in Parliament over the country’s future political orientation, seemed able to dispel the heady sense of possibility. For the first time in decades, Lebanon was in charge of its own destiny. 

Then, we had a war. 

It was after the bombing stopped that things really began to go downhill.  As Lebanon struggled to recover, it was periodically roiled by a succession of events that appeared intended to keep it from getting back onto its feet. Political jockeying gave way to sterile retrenchment, which in turn gave way to economic stagnation. The optimism evaporated. Young Lebanese started to emigrate en masse and slowly, a bitterness began to grow. 

Gradually, my life as a freelancer became increasingly tenuous. Work came in dribs and drabs, never enough to save but never so little that I was penniless. In part, this was due to the local situation and later, the 2008 economic crisis, but in part it was also due to wider changes wreaking havoc in the global media. 

Unconsciously, I began to tighten my belt, cushioned at first from the full force of developments by choice foreign assignments. Eventually, these too began to dry up and as they did, so did my own optimism. I’d always believed, mostly due to the incredible people I’d been privileged to meet in my years in the country, that once Lebanon was free to do as it pleased, it would finally realise its full promise. Even hobbled, the country punched above its weight, especially culturally, it was a powerhouse of ideas and individual talent that had everything it needed to thrive. Except, perhaps, for a political class willing to put the country before themselves.

For whatever reason, whether internal or external, Lebanon seemed unable to rise above its own divisions. To grossly simplify a very complicated matter, voters were disillusioned, disenfranchised and apathetic. The ruling classes too interested in their own bottom lines and in pursuing the kind of fruitless, zero sum politics that to paraphrase Chairman Mao, were effectively war without the bloodshed.

By late 2015, I belatedly realised that I barely recognised the country I had come to love. Nearly everyone I had come to know over the years had emigrated in search of work or stability, and where once, public interactions had been characterised by a gentle humour, tensions defused with a smile or a joke, they had begun to take on a harsher, more aggressive edge. And everywhere you heard everyone voicing the same complaints. There’s no stability. I spent three hours in a traffic jam yesterday. My daughter can’t get into university because she doesn’t have influence. My son is moving to Dubai for a job. This is not a country!

If I’d been living anywhere else, I like to think I would have left. But Lebanon was a honey trap. Even under straitened conditions, it was still possible for me to live reasonably well on relatively little. There might not be much work and the government might be a basket case, but the mountains were beautiful, the food was fantastic and culturally and historically, the country still fascinated me.

And so, despite the tribulations, the daily power cuts, the summer water shortages, the sheer effort that getting even the simplest things done, between being unwilling to leave and not knowing where to go next, I allowed myself to drift.

Do come back on Friday December 14th for the next chapter

Prologue - My Saviour Arrives

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Two and a half hours later, just as I am beginning to think that I might be spending the night at the border, my saviour arrives.

A battered yellow Syrian taxicab draws in, flashes its headlights and drives towards me. 

Beaming, the driver rolls down the widow and asks if I am looking for a ride. Without even asking how much he wants, I grab my case, dump it into the trunk and hop into the front set before he can get away.

“I’m Warren,” I say, sticking out my hand, and pumping his with the excited relief of someone who has just been told he’s going to live. “I need to get to Beirut. Going all the way?”

As we coast towards the Lebanese border post at Masna’a, I ask the driver, whose name is Mahmoud, why he’s still making the trip. Isn’t he worried about the missile strikes?

“Of course,” he replies. “But there’s too much money to be made to worry. Anyway, our lives are in God’s hands. If it’s my time, there’s nothing I can do about it. Right now, I’m going to pick up a guy who called an hour ago. He’s promised $1500, if I’ll take him and his family from Beirut to Damascus.”

That’s quite a sum. Momentarily, I blanche. Mahmoud laughs. 

“Don’t worry, khaweja. You are a bonus. I thought maybe I would not have any passengers. People aren’t really travelling to Beirut these days, so you get a good price.” It’s the second time that day I’ve heard someone refer to me using the polite term for term for ‘foreigner’. I suppose I should ask what that ‘good price’ might be but as I’m already in the car and I really don’t have any other choice, I figure it’s best to leave any potential disagreements until we arrive. 

It may be old truism, but there’s definitely profit in war. Three days into this one, Mahmoud is making money hand over fist. A journey that cost $15 a head a few days ago now runs to a minimum of $100. 

“Yesterday when it got bad, one Kuwaiti guy offered me $2000 to take him, his wife and daughter to Damascus. I told him he had to pay up front and then I picked up four more people on the way.” Mahmoud’s eyes crinkle. “He started to shout and threaten but when I told him I’d be happy to return his money and leave him by the road to go with someone else, he quickly stopped yelling. That was a really good trip.” 

Not that the others have been bad, either. By cramming seven or eight passengers into the cab, he’s been making upwards of $1000 a run. Multiply that by the three or four runs he’s been making a day and it’s little wonder Mahmoud hasn’t had time to bathe. He’s making more in a day than he normally makes in a month, probably longer.

“That,” he says, nodding at his feet with a cheeky grin, “is the smell of money.”

On the edge of Masna’a, we pass the still smoking remains of the cars hit earlier that day, and the unshakable resolve I’ve felt since Thursday, wavers. Suddenly, I find myself to wondering why the hell I am going back to Beirut. I am a journalist, but I rarely write about politics or war. I’ve made my living from the lighter stuff; features on architecture, art, design, travel and the odd social issue from time to time. I have reported from conflict zones, southern Lebanon during the Israeli occupation, the West Bank and briefly, Iraq, but by no stretch of the imagination am I a war journalist. I’m not even sure whether I will cover this one, once I get back. Truth be told, I’m not really sure why I’m going back at all. I just know that watching the city I love being destroyed on television makes me feel like I am dying.

Mahmoud starts cracking jokes. They aren’t particularly funny but they keep me from thinking about what I’m doing. Him too, I imagine. My intestines, locked in stony constipation from the moment I’d seen those missiles slam into Beirut International on Thursday morning, begin to roil and my stomach feels like it’s trying to digest itself. 

By way of distraction, I run through the route home in my head. The Beirut-Damascus highway, which cuts straight across the Beka’a Valley and up over the mountains is closed because the new bridge at Mdeirej, the highest in the Middle East, was bombed earlier in the day. That leaves the old road, which zigzags across the valley, through the vineyards of Zahle and then up and over the mountains to the Mediterranean, a narrow, twisting ribbon of poorly-lit, pot-holed tarmac best navigated by day.

The Lebanese border post is similarly deserted. I get out and walk towards Immigration. It’s so dark and so quiet that from the car park, I can hear the sound of some nearby television broadcasting details of the latest airstrikes. As if to underscore the news, the dull thud of explosions echoes across the Beka’a. 

On normal days, Masna’a is a circus of honking horns and people clamouring to get in or out but once again, I’m alone. There’s no one at Immigration, so I call out for assistance. A few seconds later, a trio of rather bemused border police pop their heads around a door. Adjusting his belt and smoothing his hair back into place, as though he’s just woken from a nap, one of them ambles over and takes my passport.

“Where did you fly from today? Dubai? Journalist? Ah, yes. Bien sûr. Hamdillah as-salemeh. Welcome home.”

With a flourish, he stamps me in and hands my passport back. He doesn’t even bother asking for my residency permit.  

“You know there’s a war, right? Yes? Well, OK then. Allah ma’ak.”

 Passport in hand, I get back into the cab. Mahmoud slaps the steering wheel.

“Ready?” he says, starting the engine.

I’m not, really. I peer out the window and up at the night sky. It’s cloudless, a carpet of gently twinkling lights. I check to see if any of them are moving. Or flashing. The way I imagine fighter planes would probably look from the ground at night. Thankfully, the heavens appear to be stationary. My head, however, feels like it is spinning. So, no bombers. Well, none I can see, anyway. 

We roll slowly towards the exit. Mahmoud turns off the headlights “so the planes won’t see us”. For a minute, I’m really impressed. Then I remember that modern missiles are heat-seeking. Even with the lights off, the car’s engine will probably be hot enough to home in on, especially if, as now seems likely, there is no other traffic on the road.

I squeeze my eyes shut and hope the Israeli air force won’t notice us. Or that if they do, they’ll leave us alone. Or that if they don’t, at least we don’t see the missiles coming.

I think of Joseph, a sweet, generous and kind-hearted man, my Lebanese brother, who is waiting anxiously (and angrily) for me in Beirut. He has packed his family off to his brother-in-law’s house in the mountains in the north of Lebanon and was preparing to leave himself, when I called him that morning to say I was on my way back. 

“What? Why in God’s name would you do that? ” Joseph had shouted after a moment of stunned silence, his voice rising by several decibels in the process. “Anyway, you can’t. There’s no airport. It’s blown up. How are you going to get in?”

I told him that I was about to get on a plane to Damascus, take a taxi across the Beka’a and that I’d be home by the evening. Even before I finished explaining, he’d begun swearing.

“Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! The Israelis are bombing everywhere. The Beka’a too. Do you want to die? Stay there. You don’t need to come back. I can’t believe it! Stay in stupid Dubai. It’s safe there. Do you hear me? Do not come back to Beirut! Ya Allah, is this boy stupid, or just crazy?”

We get cut off. I try to redial but I can’t get through. The lines are busy. Or down. Or blown-up. I wish I could have told Joseph that I am coming back because Beirut is my home, that it is the place where some of the people that matter the most to me live, that it is part of my heart and that I can’t bear to be away while the place and the people I care about are in danger, but his anger, born of concern, makes such rationalisation seem flimsy. Why was I going back to a country that hundreds of thousands of people were busy trying to flee? What the hell was I doing? Maybe I was mad.

The car stops. I must look a bit green because Mahmoud reaches over and taps me on the chest.

“Don’t worry, English. No planes,” he says, looking up and out of the window and then tapping himself on the chest. “Heart of iron, my friend, heart of iron.”

As the gate opens, I flash my passport at the guard. He couldn’t possibly be less interested. Abdicating any and all responsibility, he waves us through wearily. Mahmoud guns the engine. And then, at 160 kilometres an hour, we shoot across the border into darkness, straight into a war.

Next instalment Friday December 7th

Prologue - What Am I Doing Here?

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July 15, 2006. 

Mahmoud’s feet smell. 

A stale, sweaty fug fills the cab. It’s a sticky Saturday night in mid-July, so the windows are rolled up and the air-conditioning is blasting. It’s keeping us cool but only serves to circulate the smell. I tell him I’d rather have some fresh air and roll down the window. 

“It’s okay,” he says, turning off the A/C. “I stink, don’t I?” 

He sounds embarrassed but also unapologetic, which suggests that while he does care, there’s also nothing he can do about it right now. Briefly, I feel chastened. 

“Sorry about that,” he continues, “but it’s been so busy that I haven’t had time to shower since Wednesday.”

He hasn’t had time to sleep much, either. Ever since the war between Israel and Hezbollah broke out on Thursday morning - claiming Lebanon’s only international airport as its first victim - life has been frenetic for the taxi drivers plying the Beirut-Damascus route. Mahmoud’s been shuttling back and forth in his big yellow cab four, maybe five times a day.

“Thursday and Friday were crazy. I had Saudi tourists fighting to get a seat. They were offering me anything to get out. Some trips, I had 8 or 9 passengers at a time, sitting on top of each another. I haven’t even had time even to change my clothes.”

I tell him not to worry. I don’t really care and besides, I have much larger concerns. Like whether we will get to Beirut in one piece, what with the Israeli air force patrolling the skies, blowing up roads and bridges all over the country. Besides, without Mahmoud and his fragrant feet, I’d still be standing outside the Syrian border post at Jdeidet Yabous. 

Like the rest of the world, the July 2006 War caught me off-guard. When I’d left Beirut 10 days earlier on assignment to write a guidebook on Dubai for Wallpaper Magazine, the city had been in full summer season swing, chock full of Gulf tourists who come to summer in the cooler climes of Lebanon’s mountains. 

Small at the best of times, Beirut had been bursting at the seams. Bumper-to-bumper traffic and restaurants so crowded that even places that never asked for reservations had waiting lists. It was the city’s busiest tourist season since 1974, the year before Lebanon plunged into the decade and a half of civil and not-so-civil wars that turned it into a household word for urban hell.

This reputation was something Beirut still struggled to escape, even though by the time I first turned up in 1998, eight years after the fighting ended, it was already out of date. By 2006, the city had recovered most of its pre-war swing and if it was not entirely at peace with itself, it was only in the breathless opening paragraphs of nostalgic war correspondents who last visited in the 80’s (and their younger wannabe protégées), that it was still a dangerous place to be.

Which is not to say that sometimes, bad old Beirut didn’t resurface. The previous 18 months had been extremely rough, even by Lebanese standards. On Valentine’s Day the year before, the former Prime Minister Rafic al-Hariri and 33 others had been murdered in a massive car-bomb attack on Beirut’s seafront. That act was so callous, it brought over a million Lebanese - a quarter of the population - out onto the streets, demanding justice and that the Syrian Army, which had been occupying the country for almost 30 years, go home. After months of protests, as well as counter protests by factions that profited from the status quo, the withdrawal had finally happened, much to everyone’s disbelief.

A string of car-bombings followed. As these were exclusively targeted at cultural and political figures known for their opposition to Syrian control of Lebanon, it was often assumed that these were Damascus’ parting gifts to the Lebanese. 

Despite this, in late June 2006, as I began to plan my trip to Dubai, the country seemed so buoyant that for the first time in eight years, I hadn’t felt the need to keep an eye on the news while I was away. 

On Thursday the 13th, the day before I was due to fly home, the friend I was staying with in Dubai mentioned something about a ‘flare-up’ along Lebanon’s southern border. There wasn’t much online, so I switched on the TV and tuned into a Lebanese satellite channel just in time to see Israeli fighter jets blow craters into both runways at Beirut International. 

For the next few hours, no one was sure whether this first round would escalate or if Israel, having instantly severed Lebanon’s only air bridge to the outside world, felt it had delivered its latest ‘message’. 

Almost immediately, repair crews were out trying to fill in the holes so that planes could resume landing. Just as they finished, Israeli jets returned and made even bigger holes. Tel Aviv obviously intended for Lebanon’s only international airport to stay shut. Then, they began bombing the rest of the country.

I spent most of the day on the phone, calling friends to make sure they were safe and trying to reach Lebanon’s national carrier, Middle East Airways, to find out how I was going to get home. By the evening, I still didn’t know. The following day, the start of the weekend in Dubai, the MEA offices were closed and the helpline at the airport in Beirut went straight to answer phone. I called the MEA office in Beirut only to get a pre-recorded message explaining that they were working on finding alternate ways of getting passengers home and that I should call again later.

The only real possibility was for MEA to re-route to Damascus but as I discovered when I finally got someone on the phone the following morning, for reasons best known to themselves and which possibly involved pique over having been forced out the previous year, the Syrians weren’t allowing this to happen. I was told apologetically that all MEA could do under the circumstance was to fly me to Cyprus or Jordan.

As the ferry services to Cyprus had not run since the 1980’s and landing in Amman would mean going overland through Syria anyway, the quickest way back into Lebanon was to fly directly to Damascus. 

If Syria decided to close the border at Jdeidet Yabous, which it might do if the Israelis followed up the airstrikes with an invasion, I would be cut off. If Israel extended its airstrikes to Syria, as it had threatened to do in the past in the event of renewed conflict with Lebanon, there would be no way back. I had no intention of sitting the conflict out in Dubai. I couldn’t afford to wait. I ditched the MEA ticket, booked a one-way flight with Emirates and a few hours later, was on my way.

The plane was practically empty, just three Syrian businessmen, a couple of ashen-faced Lebanese, a Kuwaiti on his way to find his brother, who had been summering in Lebanon but wasn’t answering his phone and a Saudi on his way to his villa in the mountains to rescue his terrified wife and children. Like me, they spent most of the time in the departure lounge making calls.

I still faced the issue of how I was going to get into Syria. Journalists are required to obtain special visas, regardless of their reason for visiting. Most came through in a couple of days but mine always seemed to take a bit longer.

As I couldn’t afford a delay, I took a gamble. Rather than follow procedure, I decided my best bet was to force the issue by presenting my arrival as a fait accompli. Calling the Syrian Ministry of Information just as I boarded, I told them that I was enroute to Damascus, that I wanted to back into Lebanon and would they please issue me permission to travel from the airport to the border?

“I arrive in four hours,” I told the poor, befuddled assistant. “I’ll need a transit visa on arrival.” 

Before she could protest, I hung up. My heart was pounding. There was no guarantee this would work. The Syrians were under no obligation to let me in to their country and legally, had the right to deport me but I was banking on the exceptional circumstances warranting an equally exceptional response.

By the time I landed, my visa was waiting. Coasting through Immigrations, I jumped into a cab and was at Jdeidet Yabous barely forty minutes later. I needn’t have hurried. It didn’t look like there was anyone here but us. 

I’d sensed on the drive out that the cabbie, who’d boldly informed me at the airport that he’d take me all the way to Tel Aviv if I wanted, was having second thoughts. When he asked for half the fare upfront as we pulled up at passport control, I had a feeling he might not be there when I came out. 

For the second time that day, Syrian officialdom was efficient and gracious. After a few questions, asked with a touching concern that nevertheless made it clear I must be entirely mad to voluntarily drive into a war, the border police stamped my passport and sent me on my way with an Allah ma’ak

God be with you. 

If ever there were a time to be a believer, it was now.

Leaving the building, my suspicion was confirmed.  The taxi had vanished. Thankfully, my bag hadn’t and was sat on the pavement. Waiting next to it was a rather embarrassed stranger. He apologised as I walked over and told me the driver had asked him to tell me that ‘something had come up’, so he’d had to rush back to Damascus. 

We both knew that was a big fat lie but honestly, who could blame the guy? Who in their right mind would drive into a war voluntarily, anyway? I briefly wondered if I’d finally lost mine. But there was no time for that now. I was already checked out of Syria.

Wishing me luck, the stranger ambled off in the direction of a nearby café. It looked like it was closed.

“Hey,” I yelled after him, “don’t suppose you’ve got a car and fancy a drive to Beirut, do you?”

He turned and gave me a goofy smile and a kind of Charlie Chaplin shrug, which made us both laugh.

“God be with you, khaweja,” he said, using an old word variously used as an honorific or as a polite term for a foreigner. “See you some day in Beirut, maybe.”

Maybe. But the border post at Masna’a was eight kilometres away and there wasn’t exactly a steady stream of traffic heading in that direction. Probably because one of the air strikes that morning had targeted a small convoy of cars at the Lebanese border post. They’d been incinerated. 

It was almost sunset. Briefly, I considered walking to Masna’a, but with night on its way, the idea of getting caught in the dark wandering around in the middle of a war in the strip of no-man’s land between the Lebanon and Syria, didn’t seem very clever. 

A warm wind blew up the road from Lebanon. But the air was the only thing that was moving. The highway was so deserted and dusty that if tumbleweeds had rolled by, I wouldn’t have blinked. I dug a warm bottle of water out of my backpack and sat on my case. There was no choice. I needed transportation of some kind, so I settled in and prepared to wait.

The story continues next Friday, 30th November.