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.