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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. 

 

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.

 

 

Chapter Three: On the Road, At Last

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What it hadn’t really found was prosperity.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Well, almost.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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