Hiking

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. 

 

 

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 8: The Wise and the Tall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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.