Memoir

Epilogue: Bhebbak Mouwt

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Twenty years is a long time to live anywhere, especially in a country as unpredictable as Lebanon.

I can honestly say that for the first ten, I felt like I was waking up to a new country every day thanks to the sheer adrenaline rush of living in a country that like Almodovar’s women, was perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown.

Lebanon had - and has – reason to feel unstable. Two ghastly neighbours, both of whom have repeatedly invaded and occupied it, both of whom still pose an existential threat. Political and religious schisms never properly healed and periodically exacerbated by external players seeking to stir the pot either for their own benefit or to keep the country off-balance. Irregular electricity, failing water supplies, terrible pollution, environmental catastrophes, the never-ending loss of built heritage, the relentless flow of the young and the talented to stabler, more promising countries, poorly-paid jobs, the extortionate cost of living, the selfish, corrupt, bloody and perhaps worst of all inept political class, stupid outdated laws, gross inequality, rising poverty and marginalisation - on paper, the country made absolutely no sense, which was why it was a miracle to me that it existed at all.

From time to time, and especially when the rest of the region became engulfed in the turmoil and wars that followed the Arab Spring, articles would appear in foreign, but also some Arab newspapers about when perennially-unstable, shaky Lebanon would be ‘next’, when it too would succumb to the weight of its own history and fall prey (again) to its sectarian and social demons.

On visits home, once I’d assimilated the convenience of 24-hour electricity, endless water and fast Internet – not to mention Amazon, PayPal and other modern conveniences - I’d quickly grow bored. The lack of real news, the stultifying boredom of security, the endless rules and regulations. In the UK, everything is permitted, but so tightly regulated, it becomes impossible. Or at least unpalatable.

In Lebanon, almost nothing is permitted, and yet everything is possible. Especially if you know the right people, or are adept at ignoring the rules, which seems to be a Levantine neccessity for getting through the day without loosing your mind entirely.

I do not seek to romanticise. Life in Beirut, especially these day, is hard and is getting harder with every passing day.  As a foreign resident and a freelance journalist, I was subject to much, much less of the day-to-day bullshit that sours Lebanese tempers and ultimately, enjoyed the luxury of knowing that whenever I wanted, I could pack up and leave said bullshit behind.

Living there made me appreciate the UK, at least my version of it, much more. For all its faults, Britain does at least attempt a semblance of caring about its citizens, seeks to deliver the services they pay for and, as has been proven in the past, will defend them when the country is threatened. Lebanon? Well, let’s just say that on the official level, none of that applies. When Israel invaded in 2006 - the fourth of perhaps fifth tim it has invaded Lebanon since 1968 - the State was nowhere to be seen and the military had been confined to barracks.

While I’ve never been bullish about Britain - the result of being called called too many unpleasant names as a child, not to mention brushes with the National Front as a teenager - with family in India and a childhood spent growing up in an assortment of Developing World countries, I have never taken for granted the many and important freedoms and rights that I enjoy as a result of being one of its citizens. If the price of safeguarding those privileges, hard-won through decades, sometimes centuries of struggle, is stultifying regulation, then it seems a small price to pay for security and services. But although I like my country, and often love it at times, even on my best days, that love pales beside the crazed obsession I felt for Lebanon every day, almost until I left. 

I say almost every day, because in the end, I stayed too long.

By my estimates, I overstayed by six years. I should have left in 2012, when it became clear that I was no longer able to overlook the daily assaults on dignity that living there entailed – the increasingly aggressive public sphere, the crumbling public services, the rising cost of living, the dire political drift – but I did not, because I did not want to leave on a low note.

Then I should have left immediately after finishing my walk in 2016, when fresh from 28 magnificent days in the mountains, I was abuzz and ablaze, head full of the incredible heritage, staggeringly beautiful landscapes and warm, generous if idiosyncratic people I encountered along the way. That walk, every painful, bloody step of it, rebuilt Lebanon for me, deepening my love for it but also reaffirming that it was time for me to leave. And yet, I did not.

In the end, I did not leave until February 2018, almost two years after I began my walk from Marjayoun. The delay - or so I told myself - was to permit me to finish this book. Writing it in Beirut would make more sense, I reasoned, for if I was in Lebanon, it would be easier to look things up, call people and find any information I suddenly found I needed. But of course, that did not happen. Sucked back into the miasma of everyday malaise, of power cuts and water shortages, of mounting piles of rubbish and simmering discontent, of angry taxi drivers and surly salespeople, the golden, glorious experience I had just had became slowly obscured, not dimming or diminishing, but disappearing into the distance.

I tried, half-heartedly to write, but not making any money, I spent most of my time chasing stories and trying to pitch to publications that particularly since the country’s association with refugees and the Syrian civil war, were no longer interested in the kind of Lebanon I wanted to write about, and I was damned if after almost 20 years of writing about the positives, I’d start writing the kind of doom-mongering features that still sold. And so when I did leave, I had the outline of the book, but I didn’t have a single chapter finished.

Even though I stayed, I did manage to leave before my love could sour, a fear that had begun to overwhelm me in my last years there. And for that, I am eternally relieved. To leave a country I had loved for so long with a bad taste in my mouth would, I think, have been one of the worst of all possible outcomes. I cannot tell you why it was so hard to leave. I am a past master of saying farewells. I have lived in and left many countries and have no doubt that I will continue to do so in the future, but leaving Lebanon was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Whether part of me didn’t want to, or I just couldn’t imagine what to do next or where, doesn’t matter. I hung on, even when every day gave me a reason to leave. For that, I lay the blame firmly on the endless charm of life in one of the most fucked-up, fascinating, irritating, intriguing, hopeful, hopeless and eternally seductive cities - and countries - on earth. 

So I miss you, Lebanon. I miss your charm and your ease. I miss your beautiful mountains, and bastardised coastline. I miss your laughter, your flirtatiousness, your surprise. I miss your people, who embody a little bit of everything and everywhere and perhaps as a result, are of no one and nowhere in particular, which for them makes them lost and for me makes them universal. I miss your fluidity, your flexibility, your guile.

In these fractured times, I still find much to admire in you. You are the first truly post-nation, nation and your people, when they aren’t enmeshed in petty rivalry and threats, have for all of their existence and the last 40-odd years in particular, been asking, answering and where necessary, re-asking and re-answering the very issues that almost everywhere else in the region now finds itself asking; who are we, what do we want, where are we going, how important is diversity, how can we all live together equitably in difference, what is the meaning of freedom, tolerance or acceptance? And if they get those answers right, tiny Lebanon can be the archetype not just of the region’s future, but perhaps of the wider world’s, too. Cosmopolitan, creative, cultured, Levantine, where others see black or white, Lebanon sees endless shades of grey, and where they see a wall, it sees doors through it. Endlessly adaptable, willing to cross lines, to change shape, to be other, Lebanon follows the path of least resistance, of compromise and at its best, the hybrid, ambivalent, variegated culture that results is big enough to house all difference.

Ancient land, eternally in the Now, forever hung-up on the past, question, answer, cauldron of nearly all the 'isms' currently tearing the world to pieces, textbook example of the limits of private initiative and the need for central government, paean to the beauty and possibility of diversity, roadmap to chaos, blueprint of a better world, passionate friend, implacable enemy, heartless, headless and munificent, I miss you, sometimes painfully, but with this final chapter, we are done, you and I.

I love you.

I will visit.

But I am never coming back.

Chapter 16: Of God and Global Warming

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Refreshed and ready to take on the world, we return to the trail and continue on towards the shrine of Nabi Ayoub, the Prophet Job, which is perched on a hill, thickly forested in twisted, gnarled Mediterranean pine, just above the town of Niha.

Curiously, Niha is one of at least three towns to bear the same name in Lebanon – a fact that led to some confusion when I tried to visit the Roman temples of the Niha over in the northern Beka’a Valley shortly after I arrived in Lebanon, and found myself arguing with the taxi driver who insisted that the only Niha in Lebanon was the town in the Shouf. Back in 1998, with no cellphone, no Google and no guidebook to hand, it was hard to prove otherwise and the driver argued so convincingly that I thought I might have been mistaken, and so we’d ended up outside the decidedly un-Roman fortress we had walked past again the previous day, instead.

Nabi Ayoub is an important Druze shrine and the guides have arranged for us to be met by its guardian, a Druze elder, or uqqal, who regales us with the story of the much put-upon prophet, who according to the Druze, lived in Niha for seven years.

In the uqqal’s telling of the story, Job is a paragon of extremes, a man of unmatched wealth and poverty, happiness and sadness and, of course, health and sickness. He’s also a heavenly punching bag and is afflicted with a terrible ravaging of the skin, just to see if this will cause him to renounce his faith. To further encourage his defection, Job loses his wealth, his happiness and his children – the latter conceivably a blessing, as he apparently had ten of them – and ends up so badly ravaged that he cannot walk and is carted around in a basket, as parasites eat away at his flesh. 

In a further act of divine love, the parasites are prevented from eating away at his brain, because it is the seat of his spirit, and so Job remains lucid, and fully aware of his torment, which, as he is also immortal and so unable to die, threatens to continue until the end of time. Talk about the dangers of catching a deity’s eye.

Perhaps the only bright spot in Job’s tale of woe is that he somehow ends up on this mountaintop above Niha, and so as the prophet decays slowly in his basket, cared for by his long-suffering wife, he does at least have a cracking view.

Eventually, God tires of his little test, and sends Gabriel and Jesus to Job to deliver the good news that he' has passed. Announcing that his suffering is at an end, the Archangel strikes a rock with his sword, causing a spring to gush out of a rock. He instructs Job to bathe and instantly, the prophet is not only healed but is also transformed from an doddering old man into a strapping 20 year-old. For extra fun, Gabriel decides to test Job’s wife, who has probably had the life sucked out of her already by the loss of her family, her comfortable life and decades as a pariah as she carted her putrefying husband around in a basket, by asking her to pick the rejuvenated Job out of a crowd of people, if she can. When she does, presumably passing the ‘good girl’ test herself, she too is made young again. 

The kicker – well apart from the obvious disconnect between the God of mercy and love and this Old Testament sadist - and especially if, like me, you harbour aspirations to immortality, is that the water that makes Job young, also makes him mortal. Healthy and now free to die - no sense in having too much of a good thing, is there ? - he and his wife leave Niha and is the fact that both Iraq and Oman lay claim to his body is an indication, apparently begin wandering the region. 

The Druze version of the story an interesting take on the Biblical one and although the Archangel’s fountain of youth no longer flows (see above), there are a few massive oak trees nearby that legend has it were planted by Job as thanks for his deliverance.

As for Madame Job, whether she is also buried with her husband, or decided that as she was young again and no longer needed to carry that basket, it was time to break free and live her Very Best Life, well that is not part of the story, but I like to think she chose to settle on some nice beachfront in Byblos or perhaps retire to a life of perfumed indolence in a townhouse in Tyre, rather than traipse around the sun-baked wastelands of Arabia following hubbie. 

As the day draws to a close, we descend to the town through the forest. The path is steep, and rocky and after almost an hour of knee-knackering downhill walking, we reach Niha and climb onto the trail bus, which is taking us to our lodgings for the night over in the lovely, but very empty village of Ba’adaran, which like many villages in the mountains is a virtual ghost town during the week, as most inhabitants live and work in the coastal cities. 

The star of breakfast the following morning – apart from the irresistibly fluffy and very friendly dog – is an amazingly simple dish called emayche that is made of a mix of burghul and kishk, with chopped onions and a hint of cinnamon, that is drizzled in olive oil and eaten with tart, crumbling goat cheese and nutty, chewy rounds of marqook bread, which I consume in vast quantities. 

Shamefully stuffed – speaking for myself, anyway - we are driven back to the trailhead in Niha and set off for our evening destination in Ma’asser el-Shouf, a lovely village of traditional Levantine homes, with an unfortunate civil war past, that was once home to a mixed Christian-Druze population but which is now almost exclusively Druze.

We begin with a long and surprisingly taxing climb up and out of Niha, part of which follows a massive and impressively oriented vertical rock ridge that looks like a gargantuan, boulder-strewn stone dorsal fin cleaving the grassy waters of the hillside. It’s one of many in this part of the mountains, the remains of a once submerged layer of ancient seabed that tectonic forces have pushed out of the water and exposed in vertical folds that undulate across the slopes.

My healthy appreciation of breakfast probably hasn’t helped but the climb leaves me feeling wobbly and quite winded, so I’m grateful when the trail finally begins to level out again. 

As it turns out, this section of the trail is not the most interesting, especially after the visual drama of the first six days of the walk, but it does take us into start of the Shouf Biosphere, the largest of Lebanon’s (erratically) protected areas, through which we will walk for the next three days.

For the first time, I notice that Salam, the only other walker who is going all the way to the end the trail with me, and who is on the board of the Lebanon Mountain Trail Association, has attached a black bin bag to her backpack and as we walk, she picks up recyclable rubbish that she finds along the trail, which she drops off at the end of the day. It’s a reminder of how seriously the association takes their job, not only maintaining and reblazing the trail and forging links between walkers and local residents that benefit rural families financially, but also reporting issues of illegal dumping and deforestation to relevant local authorities. 

When I ask her a bit later how much good that does, she points out that even though most local authorities either lack the will, the organisation or, more frequently, the means to tackle such issues (the issue of funding for local authorities is a long and arcane subject better suited to another book), at least by letting them know that infractions are taking place, they cannot say they were unaware.

It also presents an opportunity for the Association to work with those authorities willing to step in, by raising money for specific projects, or helping them find foreign partners or funding they might not be aware exist. It’s a useful reminder of the overall ethos that the LMT is not just a walking trail, it’s part of a project to help regenerate rural communities in a country in which anywhere that is not Beirut or to a lesser extent, one of its other cities, is usually starved of funding. 

After a relatively short day, we reach Ma’asser in mid-afternoon, a couple of hours after lunch. We’re taken to the Biosphere Centre, a couple of beautiful old sandstone buildings on the main street that have been artfully converted, where we are given a short talk about the kind of flora and fauna we’ll see in the Biosphere and then watch a couple of short nature films, including one that is a compilation of hidden camera shots of wolves, which have begun to recover after decades of being hunted to near extinction. 

We also watch a short film about projects to reforest Mount Lebanon, site of the world’s first documented deforestation – referred in the Epic of Gilgamesh – and which has been famously bare since late Antiquity, which includes a million-tree corridor of Cedars that are currently being planted to link the two small existing forests in Tannourine and Al Arz, in northern Lebanon. Assuming, of course, that climate change, which has already caused many of the country’s trees at lower levels to sicken and die, doesn’t make it impossible for the giant beauties to grow here, at all.

Both impressed and heartened – for who does not like to know about things that are going right, for a change - we trundle off to spend the night in the dormitories of a church school in Ma’asser, where, because it is Friday, our little band of long-distance walkers is joined by a massive influx of weekenders, who will be with us again until Sunday night. Naturally the arak flows and soon, the singing and dancing begins, and while I join the festivities for a while, I’ve been walking for a week and still have three to go, so with a bit of a bah and a humbug, I try to get an earlyish night, but whether it is the dancing and clapping, the excessive but excellent dinner of dinner of potato and pumpkin kibbe and kishk soup, or the surprising heat, I am unable to sleep and so, after a great deal of grimacing, I give up and decamp to the library, where I open the windows, collapse dazed into an old, but extremely comfortable armchair, curl up and finally, blessedly, manage to get a little sleep. 

Niha to Ma’asser el-Shouf

LMT Section 20

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter 10: The Sleep Thief

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I have my first sleepless night. 

Just after midnight, I’m awoken by a peculiar noise, halfway between a whistle and a rumble. Slowly, I realise that someone is snoring. The sound is so loud that were it not preventing me from going back to sleep, it would almost be comical. 

At first, I assume it must be one of my roommates and from the decibel level, I’m thinking it must be the woman in the bunk above. But then I realise that somehow, this incredible noise is coming from down the hall. I ease out of bed and pad over to the door. I can now hear that it is coming from a room two doors down, and is being amplified by the bare walls and high ceilings of the narrow corridor.

I creep towards the room and peek inside. Incredibly, everyone looks like they are asleep. Trying not to disturb them – although I could have marched a herd of elephants down the hall at this point, and no one would have heard - I gently close the door, slip back to our room and close our door. The payoff is meagre. I can still hear the snoring. It’s still loud enough that I’m surprised the windows aren’t rattling. 

Shortly before dawn, when our sleep thief has either rolled over into their pillow or else expired (and as no one in our now reduced group is due to leave for the next four days, I find myself rooting grumpily for the latter eventuality), I manage to fall asleep, only to be woken 30 minutes later by a fresh round of rumbling. By now, the sun is rising, so I surrender to the inevitable and lie in bed dazed, too tired to yawn. My roommates are all awake, too, rubbing their eyes blearily. 

Breakfast is an unusually silent affair, although as the herbal tea kicks in, a more jocular mood begins to surface. Halfway through, the source of our night-time torture emerges looking sheepish but annoyingly, as fresh as a daisy. At least one of us has slept well. 

Because the guesthouse the LMTA normally uses in the next stop is closed for refurbishment, our walk today is going to be another marathon. Our goal for the evening is the village of Aitanit, which lies on the western side of the Beka’a Valley. All in, it should be a 25-kilometre walk, though thankfully, more downhill than yesterday.

We gear up but before we leave, Joseph informs us that our host, Mahdi, whose delectable produce was so rapturously received the previous night that his charming wife, Amal, was constantly ferrying back and forth to the kitchen to keep up with our appetites, wants to give a short talk.  

From the conversation over dinner, I’ve come to understand that Mehdi is an agricultural evangelist. He and Amal are slowly converting their fellow farmers to organic methods, and are also trying to protect Lebanese crop diversity. Amongst other things, I now know that there are 61 varieties of grains indigenous to Lebanon, which seems impressive for such a small country. In fact, the bread we had for dinner, served fresh from the oven, had been made with a particularly old variety that only he grew anymore.

“It’s not really as difficult as people say,” Mehdi explained, “but this variety isn’t as resistant to some pests and diseases, so you have be more careful with it, which is why it’s fallen out of favour, but really it’s just a bit more time-consuming, nothing more.”

I can understand why farmers would choose to grow a less demanding variety of grain, theirs is not the easiest of jobs, so why not reduce the workload where possible? But its sweet, nutty smokiness got me thinking about the trade-offs modern life encourages us to make, and whether the loss of a unique flavour like this is really a price worth paying for greater convenience.

Naturally, I assume we’re in for another disquisition on the value of preserving heritage foods, but instead, Mahdi wants to share his take on his hometown’s reputation for sectarian harmony.

Like most Lebanese villages, Rashaya is home to a mixed population. In this case, a Druze-Greek Orthodox/Catholic blend, with a smattering of Syriac Christians for fun. During the civil war, it managed to avoid the massacres and population transfers that took place in other parts of Lebanon and it's clear that to our host, this is a source of great pride.

“Rashaya is the citadel of freedom and independence,” he tells us, alluding to the village’s role as the epicentre of the 1925 Great Druze Revolt against the French Mandate, and later as the birthplace of the Republic, “but it is also the village of co-existence. It doesn’t matter if you pray in a church and I do not, we are all one. Rashaya welcomes you. Rashaya welcomes everyone.”

I look over at our guide, Robin. He’s in the background, studying the ground tactfully. Rashaya is his ancestral home and until the mid-1970’s, he and his family lived here. His old house is a couple of streets away but no one has lived there since they, and the village’s other Christian residents, were driven out by Palestinian Fedayeen fighters at the start of the civil war.

As with so many instances of mass expulsion, the logic behind this episode was the desire to create a population that would not present future complications. The Fedayeen roamed southern Lebanon freely throughout the 1970’s, and before the war broke out, they effectively controlled large swathes of the country. With Lebanon’s Christians officially ranged against them and politically and militarily opposed to any Palestinian use of Lebanon to fight Israel, for the Fedayeen, Rashaya’s Christians were a potential Fifth Column. 

When the attack came, most of the families fled to Beirut and although Rashaya’s Druze didn’t have a hand in their expulsion, they didn’t prevent them, either. 

When the Fedayeen left, Rashaya was occupied by the Syrian army, which requisitioned the house. After the Syrians came the Israelis, and when they pulled back to the south of Hasbaya, the Syrians returned. So it wasn’t until the mid-2000s, when Syria finally left Lebanon, that Robin’s family was able to get their house back, and by then, they had grown used to living elsewhere.

But the civil war wasn’t the first time Rashaya’s Christians had been attacked. In 1860, a time of wide-scale sectarian slaughter that led to the deaths of over 20,000 people in Lebanon and Syria and lent European powers the excuse they had long sought to intervene in what was then the Ottoman Empire, Christians, Druze and other religious minorities were slaughtered, mostly by Sunni Muslims and during the Revolt of 1925, hundreds of Christians in the Rashaya district were again slaughtered by their neighbours.

Of course, no one mentioned any of this. Lebanon’s long history of sectarian violence, which sadly often masks its even longer history of sectarian harmony, complicates discussions of previous atrocities. If the victims of 1860 and 1925 were mostly Christians and Druze, the massacres perpetrated during the Civil War had not just affected nearly every one of Lebanon’s communities, they had been carried out by nearly all of them, too. 

Because of the horrendous slaughter of unarmed Palestinians in the refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila, Tell al-Zaatar and Qarantina, the impression many foreign visitors tend to get is that the civil war massacres had been one-sided and this notion that Christian militias had been particularly savage was a pillar of the dominant post-war narrative shaped under the Syrian occupation.

But many other massacres had taken place. Palestinians had killed Christians. Syrians had killed Palestinians and Christians. Shi’ites had killed Palestinians. Druze had killed Christians. Christians had killed Druze. Alawites and Sunnis had killed one another in Tripoli, Christians had killed one another in Beirut. And the Israelis had killed everyone indiscriminately, ending the lives of 22,000 civilians in the two weeks it took them to invade Beirut in 1982, alone.

Most Lebanese had been affected in some way. Everyone knew who had issued the orders and in many cases, the people who had carried those orders out, some might now even live only a few streets away from the families of their victims, others ruled the country, all seemingly untouchable, because of the Faustian bargain Lebanon had made to end its long conflict.

In public, people tried not to dwell on the suffering, they would smile and nod when a member of another sect spoke of harmony, of being one great family, even when they knew, perhaps even first hand, that this had not always been the case.

Unlike the end of the Second World War, the dismantling of Apartheid, the Rwandan Genocide or the Balkan War trials, instances when formal structures were put in place to force the issue of accountability (even if that accountability was one-sided), Lebanon had gone from 15 years of war to an instant peace under the aegis of occupation by two of the foreign military forces instrument in its destruction. With a few notable exceptions, amongst them Walid Jumblatt and Samir Geagea, no one had even apologised fro their role in Lebanon’s war.

This was why some spoke of ‘war amnesia’. The term was thrown around a lot, especially by those who lived the war out abroad, were just children when it ended, or who were born afterwards, and who could not understand why their parents and grandparents would not talk about their experiences. They pointed to post-war Lebanon’s pursuit of hedonism as further proof that everything had just been forgotten. 

Though it sounded sexy, especially as a headline, I’d never found the claim to be accurate, and in almost 20 years of living in the country, I never met anyone old enough to have experienced the civil war who has forgotten a single moment of it. On the contrary, many people continued to relive the horror on a daily basis, and for many years, it was possible to walk into any pharmacy and buy heavy-duty tranquillisers over the counter.

So everyone listened and nodded. Satisfied that he has done all he can to leave us with the best impression of Rashaya, Mehdi accompanies us back to the souk. 

On the way, Robin takes us on a short detour so that he can pass by his old home, where he stops to take a couple of photos and mentions that he remembers playing in the street here as a child. 

Neither man talks about why Robin and his family no longer live in Rashaya or why their house is shuttered, but I get the impression that neither is under any illusion as to why. 

As we reached the main street, Madhi leaves us. With smile and a wave, he invites us to come back again, anytime. “Beyti, beitak,” he tells us all, gripping Robin’s hand in a firm shake. “My house is your house.”

And like that, we are all, once again, family.

 

Chapter 9: I’m Fine, Tante. But Thanks For Asking.

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The cool forests and lush pasturelands we have walked through until now are beginning to give way to the harsh, karstic landscape of Jabal al-Sheikh.

Geologically, most of Lebanon is composed of different kinds of limestone and where it lies exposed, it has been weathered into fantastical shapes by aeons of wind and rain, some of them so neatly sculpted, you wonder whether their appearance is entirely natural. 

Anywhere else, sites like this would be protected, turned into national parks. The uplands between Faqra and Kfardebian, for example, are every bit as impressive as the stone forests of China’s Shilin or the Tsingy de Bemaraha in Madagascar, both of which are UNESCO World Heritage sites, but as with so much of Lebanon’s archaeological, cultural and natural heritage, the countryside has been patchily protected and post-war, even areas that ought to be parks are rapidly being ruined by the construction of holiday homes and seasonal hotels that ultimately destroy the very places that make the location desirable enough to build in to begin with.

I would come to understand over the course of the next 28 days that the Lebanon Mountain Trail is a perfect microcosm of the country; a potent blend of the great, the ghastly, the unbelievable and the unexpected. It’s a world where you can walk through oak forests planted by the Romans and follow tracks through flower-filled grasslands, only to suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a brand new road, an ugly housing development, a ski resort or more unfortunately, a Syrian refugee camp and then just as quickly lose yourself again in almond orchards, leafy river valleys or ghostly, Karstic uplands, where rocks seem sculpted into eagle heads, crouching tigers, protective deities, even huddles of elephants.

As we continue the tough and seemingly never-ending ascent, my knees begin to protest but any discomfort is overwhelmed by the meditative solitude of Jabal al-Sheikh, which seeps slowly but surely into our world. Here, we are walking through rock-strewn highlands, punctuated by the occasional, wind-stressed tree and thorny stands of gorse and prickly zaaroor, or hawthorn, some of which still sport the previous year’s berries, now dried and burnished, transformed from fire-engine red to a chocolately scarlet by the kiss of winter.

The thin layer of cloud that had greyed the sky from Hasbaya has dissipated and the winter sun is at its zenith, chasing shadows back under rocks and huddling into crevices, where they will wait until the late afternoon once again sets them free. At this altitude and in such desiccated surroundings, this would normally be the most washed-out time of day, especially in the summer, but today, the landscape is ablaze. It has taken on a vivid, almost polarised look, so that we walk through a tapestry of dazzling whites, deep blues and rich greys, broken up by streaks of rust-coloured soil and banks of short, springy grass, dusted with diaphanous clouds of small yellow flowers, that sway gently in the freezing cold breeze that flows down from the peaks above. 

As we rise onto a small plateau, we encounter the only signs of human life that we will see for the next four hours, a couple of small stone shepherds’ huts with rusting metal doors and a walled orchard and as soon as we pass then, the hypnotising desolation of this wild little corner of Lebanon once again rushes in, and within a few minutes, it’s as if the huts and the orchard never existed. 

In the end, it takes us ten hours to reach our goal. Our long, slow climb up to the plateau at 1400 metres, from where it seems almost possible to touch the snow on the flanks of Hermon, is followed about an hour later by an equally long, slow descent down to about 1100 metres, before the trail rises gently back up again to Rashaya. 

We stumble into this little town, neatly tucked into a side valley nestled in the flanks of Jabal al-Sheikh, just in time to catch the last golden rays of the day. Rashaya is home to a famous souk and has the reputation of being one of the few Lebanese villages to have retained its traditional charm. Certainly our first sight is of a sea of graceful, red-tiled pyramid-roofed Levantine houses and the only indication that we are still in the 21st Century are the cars parked along the street.

But Rashaya is famous for more than its market. It was here that the French Mandate authorities banished the five leaders of Lebanon’s independence movement, in the hopes that out of sight would mean out of mind. But the imprisonment of Bechara El Khoury (Lebanon’s first post-independence President), Riad El-Solh (its first post-independence Prime Minister), Adel Osseiran, Pierre Gemayel and Camille Chamoun (who would later serve as President) in the town’s citadel raised an international outcry and after only 11 days in jail, they were released. November 22nd, the day of their liberation, is now commemorated as Lebanon’s Independence Day, although in recent decades, that independence has felt like more of a formality, than anything else.

Like the one in Hasbaya, the citadel in Rashaya has been around in one form or another since Canaanite times, but it was given its current shape in the 18th Century by the Shehabs, who transformed it into a palace. Today, it’s a national monument and a military barracks, which it’s possible to visit. Not that we have the energy for that. It’s as much as most of us can do to hobble down the cobbled streets of its famous souk, though we’re not making much headway on that front, either. Both Joseph and Robin, who I learn the following morning is a local boy, are known in the town, as are a number of the other hikers, and so we are repeatedly stopped as people come over to say hello or to congratulate us on our walk. Such pleasantries are not uncommon in a country where, due to size and intermarriage, the usual degree of separation seems to have been reduced from six to one. 

While this is enormously helpful when you are trying to meet someone new, for someone you know will invariably know or at least know of someone else who knows the person you want to contact, it does mean that getting things done involves a great deal of greeting, and the repeated exchange of pleasantries, which can sometimes feel onerous. As it does now. 

“Raghid?,” a woman calls, as she bustles across the road. “Yii, you’re here? I didn’t know! How are you?”

 “I'm fine thanks, Tante,” Raghid replies, using the French for ‘aunt’, even though they’re probably not related and he looks old enough to be her husband. They kiss three times on the cheek. “How are you?”

“Oh I’m fine, fine. You’re well? And how is your mother?”

“Yes, thanks. Mama’s fine, too. She sends you her best.”

“And your father? Is he feeling better now?”

“Yes, thank you, tante. He’s been home from the hospital now for a few weeks. Tell me, how is Marwa? Is she still enjoying the garden?”

“Oh, I’m glad to hear that. Do send him my regards. Yes, Marwa is busy with the roses, getting everything ready for the spring. And you, you’re well? Tell your mother I say ‘hello’.”

“Yes, I’m fine, thank you,” Raghid replies, this third affirmation of his fine health apparently settling the matter. “I’ll tell her. I’m really happy I saw you again, Tante. Come and have a coffee one day. Is there anything I can do for you?”

“No, no, thank you, habibi,” Tante replies, moving in to kiss Raghid once more. “Just take care of yourself. And your mother. Bye, ya qalbi.”

“Bye, Tante. Say hello to Marwa for us.”

Tante flashes a warm smile and waves as she bustles off down the street.

I grew up with enormous revulsion for this kind of protracted and seemingly pointless exchange. I love words and the English ability to use them to endlessly discuss nothing important, like the weather or some other anodyne topic, used to strike me as a total waste of time. 

The one day at college, stoned out of my mind and trying not to think about the long essay I was supposed to be writing instead, I wandered into the microscopic cinema in the old Swiss Centre on Leicester Square and there, on the third floor, I discovered a director by the name of Yasujiro Ozu. In the 1950’s and ‘60’s, Ozu had directed a series of powerful films, social observations set in post-war Japan, in which nothing seems to happen and yet everything is said. The one I saw that day was one of his most famous. It was called Tokyo Story and it changed my life. 

Slow to the point of inaction and so light on dialogue that by rights, I ought to have fallen asleep in the first twenty minutes, it was utterly enthralling. It might have been the hashish, but the film was so beautiful and so intricate, that it forced me to reconsider my until then absolutist position on the nature of meaningful social interaction, chiefly the belief that one had to say something meaningful to achieve something meaningful. Moving to Japan a few months later, I was able to observe what remained of Ozu’s world in action, and gradually developed a deep admiration for the Japanese ability to express profound emotion and meaning without saying a lot. 

When, three years later, I moved to Lebanon - which was a little like moving from Minimalism to the Baroque - I encountered a world in which people never, ever stopped talking and yet, the most meaningful and profound exchanges, in public, at least, were also its most trivial. As I came to understand the social lubrication it provided, as well as the invisible network of connection knit together by the endless rounds of “Hi, how are you, all well?”, I came to admire the underestimated power of small talk. The unhurried, smiling exchanges of nothingness were so powerful, that I sometimes think it’s this willingness to surrender a couple of minutes to an encounter that most contemporary Westerners would probably be tempted to rush through or even avoid with a wave and smile from a distance, that keeps Lebanon’s complicated social fabric so supple.

Right now, though, I’m too exhausted to appreciate this moment of social magic, and not even the warm secondary welcomes and momentary celebrity to which I am now subject can compensate for the fact that what should have been a five minute walk is inexorably heading towards thirty.

At last, it’s over and we reach our home for the night. Nabil is waiting with the LMTA bus in the square and honks as we trail into view. It’s Sunday night and so all the weekend walkers are heading back home for work tomorrow. Of the thirty-seven who arrive in Rashaya, only nine will be going on tomorrow and while another influx will arrive the following weekend and we’ll pick up the odd walker during the week, in 10 days’ time, we will be down to a party of four. 

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 4: Cool Feet, Crumbling Ruins

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Hilariously, almost immediately we were lost.

Winding through a cluster of houses and farms on a hilltop just past the outskirts of Marjayoun, we discovered that the trail had been completely effaced and all the markers removed. As I would discover, this isn’t uncommon along the LMT. Sometimes, the trail disappears as a result of illegal construction, but because there are no reliable maps of public and private property in Lebanon - a problem shared by many of the countries formerly part of the Ottoman Empire - it sometimes unwittingly crosses private property. Landowners usually just remove markers or put up a fence without letting the Association know and so re-blazing, or even rerouting the trail, is part of the annual walkthrough’s remit.

Our head guide, Joseph, who seemed to know every square inch of the country, wasn’t fazed and so, for a kilometre or two, we improvised. We scrambled down the hill and ended up walking through a Syrian refugee camp that had not been there the year before. There are dozens of them now, dotted all over the Beka’a Valley, housing the poorest and most vulnerable of the 1 to 1.5 million refugees that have flooded into tiny, shaky and barely post-conflict Lebanon. 

Middle class refugees tended not to live in the camps. They had moved into rented rooms and homes all over in the country, often filling up previously empty neighbourhoods like my own in Beirut. Because the refugees were not properly registered, it was impossible to be sure exactly how many there were but officially, they accounted for at least one in every five people. Other surveys placed them at closer to 30 or even 40% of the country. Even at the lowest estimate, Lebanon’s ratio of refugee to resident was the highest in the world. 

Seeing us wind towards them, a gaggle of children came out to stare, waving warily after we smiled and waved at them. With the next marker now spotted, we emerged from the camp and briefly followed a desolate stretch of road before turning up a farming track through what would soon be fields of rippling wheat. Ahead of us, a young boy accompanied by a vigilant but well-trained dog, was herding his flock of goats towards pastureland.

For the next thirty or forty minutes, the path was fringed by low hills. It skirted a thicket of towering pine trees, above which a flock of Friesians were grazing, and then gracefully curved to the right. As we turned the corner, the hills parted like a theatre curtain, revealing a breath-taking panorama over the lush olive orchards and rich, red soiled farmlands of Wadi al-Taym, the snow-clad peaks of Mount Hermon and the Golan Heights beyond. 

As the group trailed along the path on a narrow, rocky ledge above the valley floor, I stopped to tighten my boots, which had already come loose. Carpeted in thick, springy grass, the path was sprinkled with a smattering of spring flowers, not quite the profusion they would be in a week or two but temptation enough to coax a few bees out to explore. Fat on the honey they’d survived on over the winter, they floated lazily through the air, settling briefly before moving on. I sat on a nearby rock, put on a second pair of socks and then laced my boots up again. Down in the valley, the olive trees stirred gently in the breeze, their silvery leaves catching the light. The faint sound of far-off farm machinery buzzed in the background and on the distant slopes, a flock of farm animals drifted across the emerald green fields like a fleet of cottony clouds. I could have stayed there forever.

Realising I was lagging behind, I hurried on, catching up with the group just as they reached the outskirts of Ibl es-Saqi, the village we’d stayed in the night before. Though we’d barely begun, a few of the walkers took the opportunity to grab a shot of pungent espresso-like Lebanese coffee and we were sat by the side of the road, faces turned up to the sun, when a convoy of UN soldiers - possibly Italian or Spanish - rolled up in white armoured cars. 

Covered in muscles and snappy in their blue felt berets, they were clad in battledress so tight that a couple of them appeared to have been poured into their clothes. As they sauntered past, sunglasses on, they looked more like naughty schoolboys bunking off to the shops, than heavily-armed UN troops on patrol.

Originally envisaged as an interim observer force to oversee Israel’s withdrawal after its first invasion of Lebanon in 1978, UNIFIL had been in southern Lebanon ever since. It was composed of battalions from all over the world, with Indonesia, India and Italy supplying the largest contingents. The civil war, Israel’s subsequent re-invasion and occupation in 1982, and the bumpy years after withdrawal had kept it in place, transforming its mission from one of observer to peacekeeper. In the 38 years since it arrived, UNIFIL had watched Israel invade Lebanon four more times. 

About a kilometre past the point on the Hasbani River where an LMT side-trail headed up a side valley to the mountain village of Sheba’a, we reached the ruins of an old caravanserai. 

There wasn’t a great deal left, mostly a row of tall arcades that would once have housed merchants and their animals, but as we explored the sagging vaults and courtyard it was just about possible to imagine it in its heyday, when it would have been filled with camel trains bringing merchants from Damascus to the Lebanese coast and from Aleppo to the markets of Haifa and Jerusalem. 

Located on the banks of the Hasbani River at a strategic regional crossroads that controlled the routes south, north and across the mountains to the east, the Souk was the location of a famous weekly market, held there for centuries and was in use up until the end of French Mandate era, when it served briefly as a WWII military base. 

Abandoned shortly afterwards, it began steadily to collapse. Parts of the walls had recently been shored up with concrete to prevent further collapse. The intention had been to clad the new foundations in sandstone, but work hadn’t been finished and the juxtaposition was jarring.

Known as the Souk al-Khan, the caravanserai dated back to at least 1350. It had been built by Emir Shehab, head of the princely Lebanese family that once administered a swathe of territory extending from the mid-Beka’a down to Safed, near Lake Galilee. 

One of the walkers, Alia, an archaeologist who planned to accompany us along the first half of the trail explained that the site was probably much older, and there was evidence it had been in use since Roman times.

In the early 17th Century, Ali Beg, the eldest son of Lebanon’s national hero, Emir Fakhereddine al-Ma’an, had been killed here. The head of a powerful Druze clan based in the Shouf Mountains just south of Beirut, Fakhereddine was a classic Mount Lebanon man, happy to play any side of the game that was to his advantage. He had been able to win partial independence from the Ottoman court in Istanbul, then rulers of the region, when his forces defeated the Sultan’s in combat and after pledging his loyalty in exchange for a series of political concessions, the Emir embarked on a project of nation-building. At its height, his principality extended across a broad swathe of the Levant, from Palmyra in modern-day Syria, to Tripoli in the north and Acre in the south. The greatest of the Ma’anid princes, Fakhereddine was credited with introducing the political, cultural and technological modernisations that centuries later paved the way for the creation of the modern Lebanese state. 

Eventually, Sultan Murad IV grew tired of the prince’s provocations and revoked his concessions. Fakhreddine was forced to flee and after a couple of years on the lam, during which he is rumoured to hidden in caves the length and breadth of the country, rather like a Levantine Robert the Bruce, he was captured and dragged off to Istanbul, where he was executed. In the end, only two of his five sons escaped death at the hands of the Turks and his much-reduced principality ultimately passed by way of marriage into the hands of the Shehabs. 

The story was a perfect example of the kind of historic irony in which Lebanon specialises, for Ali Beg was executed beside a khan built by a 14th Century ancestor of the man who would later take over his family’s principality.

The crumbling khan’s fortunes might be history, but its market wasn’t. Every Tuesday, the surrounding area still filled with traders from all over southern Lebanon, and outdoor cafés sprang up along the river serving homemade treats and gossip. The souks of Sidon, Byblos, Beirut and Tyre were far older, but as they hadn’t always been held in the same spot, the khan held the distinction of being the oldest continually functioning market in the country. 

Though still a lively mix of animal trading, farmer’s market, fabric souk and bric-a-brac, it was a shadow of what it once had been. On a major crossroad between Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, the market’s star waned in 1948 when travel to and from Palestine stopped and again in 1967 when Israel annexed the Golan Heights and made it impossible for Syrian traders to cross into Lebanon along this ancient trade route. 

Still, tradition is difficult to kill. When the souk lost its international dimension and licit cross-border trade became impossible, contraband trade took its place. Even at the height of the Israeli occupation, arms and drugs - mostly hashish and cocaine, the latter grown in the Beka’a, the former shipped in from Lebanese connections in Colombia and processed there - were spirited across the borders to Syria and Israel. 

It was a risky game, so smugglers often strapped their parcels onto a donkey and set it on its way unaccompanied, with a slap to the rear. Incredibly, the gambit generally worked well. The donkey might take its time to reach its destination, but in the end, it got there, unless it was intercepted along the way, for until the occupation ended, you’d read about some poor donkey being shot by Israeli soldiers as a security threat, from time to time.

We crossed the river to break for lunch. The old wooden bridge had been swept away by winter storms a few years earlier, so we removed our shoes and waded through the water across a slippery concrete berm that had been laid in its place, just above a small waterfall. After our first morning of walking, the water was cold and refreshing and following a lunch of leftover manoushe, juicy cucumbers and tomatoes, which we left to chill for a while in the river, the sound of the water and the gentle buzz of insects lulled me into a short, but deeply contented asleep.

Marjayoun to Hasbaya

LMT Section 26

Image/Map ©Lebanon Mountain Trail Association

 

 

Chapter Two: A Wake-up Call

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In the dying days of 2015, I was abruptly wrenched out of life as usual.

Somewhat perversely for someone who had made his life in the eastern Mediterranean, both my partner and I love the cold and the snow, so we’d decided that Iceland would be an excellent place to unwind, get a proper winter fix, and usher in the New Year. 

Arriving on the 24th of December to heavy snow and temperatures of -20C, we thought we’d stumbled into Paradise. Reykjavik was aglow, its narrow streets decorated for Christmas. Renting a car, we set about exploring the country, which for the most part, lay under a thick, white mantle. Shutterbugs both, we spent our days hopping in and out of the car, trudging along frozen shores and up icy hills, breath freezing in the air, cheeks burning, taking photos until our camera batteries seized up from the cold. Every day felt like a genuine discovery, as each bend in the road and every hill we crested seemed to reveal some new and breath-taking panorama. 

I had been checking my email intermittently since landing, but one afternoon in the wilds of eastern Iceland, my phone pinged. It was an email from my nephew telling me that my family had been trying to get hold of me for days. Because I’d been using a local SIM card and wanting to get away, hadn’t given anyone my temporary number, they’d been unable to reach me and so finally had resorted to email. It seemed my mother had fallen ill and had been hospitalised.

We hadn’t spoken for almost ten years. My mother and I had always had a very difficult relationship and finally, in the face of seemingly irreconcilable differences, it had fallen apart in the raw, bruised months after the 2006 War. Still, this sounded serious, so I phoned my nephew to find out what had happened. We were driving through an area where the signal was spotty, but after a few dropped calls, I managed to get through. He didn’t have details, but he told me where my mother was being treated and gave me a number. This turned out to be for the hospital switchboard. After another series of dropped calls, running out of credit as I was finally being transferred and an equally fraught online recharge, by the time I got through to the ward where she was being treated, I was told that my mother had just been sedated. I had also missed her doctor, but he would be back later that afternoon. Could I call again in a couple of hours? 

Changing our plans, we headed back to Reykjavik, and as soon as I arrived, I called the hospital. The charge nurse was reluctant to tell me anything over the phone, as my mother hadn’t listed anyone as her next of kin. It was only when I explained that I was her only child, that I was not in the UK and that my parents were divorced that she relented. She explained that my mother was being treated for stomach cancer and that she was now awake but still sedated and so she wasn’t always coherent. With that, the nurse put my mother on the phone. 

The conversation that followed was disjointed and surreal. Often, my mother would get confused and forget who I was. Soon we were both crying and apologising, me for my stubbornness, she for hers, both of us for being too proud to make amends earlier. I told her it didn’t matter, that the past was the past. I promised I would get on the next flight and be with her as soon as possible. She said she was tired and in a great deal of pain. understandably, she sounded terrified. I told her to get some rest and regain her strength and that we could talk more comfortably once I got to the hospital. I didn’t know it then, but this would be the last conversation of any length we would have.

Getting to England was easier said than done. I spent the next hour trying to change my return flight but it was December 30th and with New Year approaching, the airline had no seats in any class until the 7thof January. Once again, I decided to buy a new ticket, instead.

But flights out of Reykjavik were chock full. Everyone wanted to leave at the same time. I managed to find a ticket on a flight leaving on the 2nd that would have bounced me from Iceland to New York to Paris to London and then finally to Birmingham, but it was a 48-hour odyssey that would have landed me in Birmingham 2 hours before another direct flight on the 4th. So I waited. Better to arrive fresh.

When I got to the hospital in Birmingham that morning, the doctor was blunt. My mother was in the final stages. She wasn’t going home again. In fact, he thought she might well be dead by the end of the day.

“If you have anything you’d like her to know, now would be the time to tell her,” he explained, as gently as he could. “And it would be better it you try to prepare relatives and friends, as well.”

By now, Mum wasn’t speaking much. Drifting in and out of consciousness, she could manage a few words at a time, but the effort was visibly exhausting. The first thing we both did was to cry and apologise again and I spent the rest of the day at her bedside, listening to her breathing becoming more and more laboured, and her gaze unfocussed.

She didn’t die that night. In fact, she would hold on for almost four days. Pouring all her remaining energy into staying alive, she became increasingly unable to speak. I sat squeezing her hand, talking to her, without knowing if she could hear me or understand what I was saying.

If her silence was unsettling, so were Mum’s infrequent bouts of conversation, chiefly for their drugged incoherence. The bustling, lively woman I knew as an adult lay motionless, so thoroughly immobilised by pain and drugs that most of the time, she wasn’t even able to turn her head. Watching her disappear, our endless fights and disagreements, so real and so hurtful at the time, were now revealed for what they had been, empty and meaningless. How had we allowed words to tear us apart? We had both wasted so much time. 

Over the course of those last few days together, I think we managed to reach peace. Any grudges I still held had vanished the day I called from Reykjavik, and judging by the way my mother cried when I walked into her hospital room, hers had too.

There were other people who needed to make their own peace with Dorothy Mabel Eileen Singh, for in the course of our decade of estrangement, my proud, stubborn mother had managed to alienate everyone. None of her relatives or friends, with the exception of one dogged acquaintance in Birmingham and my nephew in Calcutta, were still talking to her. One by one, I called got those I could on the phone and holding the receiver to her ear, encouraged them make peace with a woman who was less able to respond with every passing hour. 

Just after 2am on January 8th, my mother died. Ironically, she had always hated the number 8, saying that it was her unlucky number. Once, she had even refused to move into a house my father had found in Carlisle because it was the 18th on the street. My first thought, though, indeed the one thought that had kept running through my mind over the course of those last four days with her, was that I needed to get moving. Metaphorically and literally.  

My life had been going nowhere for a long time. I’d known for years that I was locked in a holding pattern but I’d allowed my fear to hold me back. As I watched my mother fade, her restless, wandering spirit betrayed, trapped by a body that refused to play along, all I could think was that I needed to get up and go. I had to walk, to run, to move, to dance, to do anything, in fact, that affirmed my incredible good fortune to be both able and alive. 

And so once the necessary phone calls were made, family informed and the post-mortem procedures initiated, my first conscious act was to log onto the website of the Lebanese Mountain Trail Association. 

Five minutes later, I was signed up for their month-long spring walkthrough along Lebanon’s first national hiking trail, the Darb al Jabal al Libnaniyye.

 

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.