Memoir

Chapter 18: Of Double Agents and Deceitful Weather

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Dinner gathers us together, but it’s a muted affair, as everyone is exhausted.

The day’s walk hasn’t been particularly tough, especially after the marathon slog that was Day One and Two of the walk, but the cumulative effect of hiking long distances every day is taking a toll. 

Apart from aching knees and a sore back and backside, which are all par for the course, my feet are a bloody mess and my toes have been pounded so often against the toecap of my boots during the long, rocky descents that five of my toenails have turned an ominous shade of black. Obviously, I am going to lose them at some point, but this worries me less than the fact that three of them are also as plump and puffy as a suckling pig on market day, and hurt to the touch. 

I consult Joseph, who confirms my suspicion that they are infected. It’s too late to pop out to the chemist, as the shops are all shut, but one of the other walkers, an older American woman in her 70s called Judy, kindly offers me a tube of antiseptic ointment, which I subsequently apply conscientiously morning and night, until the inflammation subsides and my nails drop off.

Quiet and self-possessed, Judy gives the impression of being rather shy but turns out to be one of the more interesting people I will meet on the trail, which she is hiking for the first ten days.

Although she now lives in Hawai’i and is obviously a graduate of the Flower Power generation, as we get to chatting, I discover that she briefly lived in Lebanon in the early 1970’s, just before the civil war. For reasons that she never fully explains, she was studying Arabic at the Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies, the infamous language school first opened by the British Army in Jerusalem in 1944 and later moved to the mixed Druze-Christian mountain town of Shemlan, which overlooks Beirut, by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in 1947.

Given its close ties to the British government and original mission of training army officers to speak Arabic, MECAS was known locally as the ‘School for Spies’, especially after Kamal Joumblatt, father of Druze chieftain Walid, accused the school of training MI6 and CIA agents. 

Whether or not this was true – and it seems unlikely that intelligence operatives would not have studied there with or without the school’s connivance, British spy, George Blake certainly did. 

Born George Behar - his father was an Egyptian Jew – Blake was summoned to London from his studies in Shemlan in 1961 to defend himself against the accusation that he was a Soviet double agent. Under interrogation, he confessed to having switched sides during the Korean War, during which he was captured by the Korean Peoples’ Army and detained for three years in Pyongyang. 

He had been passing the names of British and American agents to the Soviets for years. As many of them had been eliminated by the KGB as a result, he was sentenced to 42 years in prison, the longest ever handed down by a British court at the time.

But Blake wasn’t the only Soviet double agent working in Beirut during the 50’s and 60’s, which as an ‘open’ city was overflowing with single, double and who knows, maybe even triple agents of all kind and creed at the time, nor was he the most famous. 

That distinction belongs to Kim Philby, one of the key members of the Cambridge Five spy ring, who defected from Beirut on a Soviet ship bound for Odessa one stormy January night in 1963, two years after Blake’s arrest.

The son of St. John Philby, a Sri Lankan-born British colonial civil servant, who served in India and what was then known as Mesopotamia before converting to Islam and becoming advisor to Ibn Saud, the first king of Saudi Arabia, Philby had been living in Beirut since 1956, where he worked ostensibly as a correspondent for The Observer.

If his father had been a life-long Arabist and Orientalist, a term that had greater cachet before Edward Said turned it into a synonym for bigotry, and led a life that can only be described as ‘large’, Harold Adrian Russell (he was nicknamed ‘Kim’ after the famous Kipling character, a somewhat prescient choice), was drawn more towards the Communist World, and studied Russian at London’s School of Slavonic and East European Studies before becoming a spy. 

Philby had been a double agent almost from the start of his career in espionage in the 1930’s, although he doesn’t appear to have been especially highly regarded by the KGB as an agent. 

His career almost ended in the mid-50’s, when he was fingered in the investigation into fellow Cambridge Fivers, Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean. While Philby was exonerated, the taint of suspicion was enough for him to be cut loose by both MI6 and the KGB, and it was only after he moved to Beirut as a journalist that he eventually resumed working for MI6 before coming under renewed suspicion in 1962, and defecting to Moscow the following year.

Although he is largely unknown in Beirut these days, Philby rented an apartment on Rue Spears and had a beach hut in Saint Simon. While the hut (and the beach) are long gone, swallowed up by the growth of Beirut’s southern suburbs during the war, the apartment survived. Like much of the surrounding neighbourhood, it lay empty for decades after the war and intrigued by his story, I tried to visit it on several occasions but was always denied permission by the landlord, although I did see glimpses of it in surreptitious footage shot as part of a documentary about Philby produced by the BBC a few years back.

Never the most successful of spies, moving to the USSR must have been hard, as he traded life in the Middle East’s most freewheeling city for virtual imprisonment in a cramped apartment in Moscow, where he discovered that he was not, in fact, the high-ranking KGB officer he’d been led to believe but rather, was a bit of an embarrassment. 

He appears to have led a mostly desultory life in Moscow, convinced in his final years that his Russo-Polish wife was also reporting on him, but his reputation was somewhat rehabilitated after his death, enough at least for him to be honoured on a Soviet stamp shortly before the collapse of the USSR.

Judy could not have known either Blake or Philby. She arrived in Beirut almost a decade after Kim’s defection, and claimed that she only heard the rumours about her school after she had left, herself. Despite this, she seemed remarkably well-informed about MECAS’ association with espionage and the way she spoke about her time in Lebanon made me rather suspect there was much more to the determined septuagenarian than was permitted to meet the eye. 

Feet slathered in antiseptic and boots tied using a method I found on YouTube, which promised to minimise slippage inside the boot, we set off from Barouk to Ain Zhalta, home of a gallerist friend in Beirut, who together with his wife has been transforming his sleepy Shouf mountain village into an artistic retreat, complete with printing press, engraving centre and annual residencies for expatriate Lebanese painters.

The trail begins with a long, and in places, fairly steep climb out of town. We’ve begun at about 600 metres and the goal is to wend our way back up to about 1800 metres, where we will remain until the descent to Ain Zhalta later.

The trail meanders through patches of pine and young cedar forest but a couple of hours in, the skies darken ominously and as it begins to rain, the wind picks up. It seems we’re in for a storm and as not all of the Sunday hikers have brought appropriate clothing, Joseph and Robin decide that it will be safer to take a lower track, instead. 

As we are now three or four hundred metres above that track, we are forced to make a very steep descent along the very rocky bed of a river, which is dry, but slippery as a result of the rain. Never the steadiest person on my feet, I manage to fall three times, twisting my arm quite badly. 

There’s a lot of grumbling from some of the long-distance walkers and the more serious weekenders about ‘part-timers’ mucking up the trek. This discontent intensifies later when the storm fails to materialise, and so after another round of consultation, Joseph leads us back up to the original trail. 

The sun has now come out, so this early afternoon climb is hot and gruelling. Thankfully, our surroundings are delightful, a thick forest full of towering, centenarian trees, whose branches dapple the ground with shimmering patterns of light. As clouds scud across the sky at high speed, the air is heavy with the fragrance of cedar and pine, the silence underscored by birdsong and the crunch of boots on ground. 

Emerging from the forest weary and sweaty, we finally stop for lunch at nearly 3pm beside a camouflaged concrete box that is known rather whimsically as the ‘Japanese Room’. This small bird watch funded by the Japanese government overlooks a seasonal meltwater lake fringed in lush, waist-high flower meadows. Neither lake nor meadows last much more than a couple of months, a brief explosion of glory before the summer turns the grass to straw and the lake to a sun-baked expanse of thick mud.

But for now, it is paradise.

Long fingers of silvery-blue snow are nestled in the hollows around the lake, which glitters golden in the afternoon sun. Of Japanese and birds, there is nary a trace, though we do see signs of boar activity, with evidence of rooting around the trees. After a hard day’s climb, the pause is a welcome opportunity to shuck boots and shed socks and allow the warm sun, cool grass and gentle breeze to soothe battered feet and morale.

 

 

 

Interlude: In The Beginning

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Eight years before I found myself in an old yellow taxi cab, driving across the Beka’a Valley during the 2006 War, in the company of a fearless, if hygienically-challenged driver, I arrived in Lebanon in exactly the same way; by cab from Damascus. 

I was on my way overland from England to China, where I had grand visions of becoming a journalist by blagging my way into one of the foreign news bureaus that were just opening in Beijing, while I spent my nights studying Mandarin. Lebanon was intended as a side trip.

Back then, it seemed the future was (and possibly still is) Chinese, so getting a head start on learning the national language of the next world hegemon seemed like a clever idea, and besides, I’d nursed a desire to study Mandarin ever since I’d spent three years in Taiwan as a child.

For me, Asia in all its diversity, felt like home. In addition to Taiwan, I’d lived in Pakistan and had spent several years traipsing around India in search of Enlightenment, or at least a (spiritual) high and after college, where I studied Hindi and Urdu – neither of which are, in fact Mandarin, but then anyone who has read this far will already suspect that I make a habit of allowing life take me in unexpected directions - I found myself teaching English to high-school students in Japan.

As much as I loved Japan, I hated my job. I was a poor excuse for a teacher, which nagged on my conscience, and I also didn’t like the town in which I had been placed by the Japanese Ministry of Education. Takasaki was a former agricultural town that was now on the edge of Tokyo’s sleeper belt, even though it was about an hour and half north west of the sprawling megacity of 35 million people by train. While it was far enough away not to be in Tokyo’s suburbs, it wasn’t far enough away to be rural, so I ended up in a town that offered me the benefits of neither. Still, the money was easy and so I’d continued, ignobly, to take it until I finally got tired of hearing myself complain, and decided to kick my addiction to the steady drip of Yen and move to China.

In the summer of 1997, I left Takasaki to make what I thought would be a brief return to England, and enrolled in a language course in Beijing that was due to begin the following May. With time in hand, and an accommodating friend looking after my belongings in Tokyo, I decided to travel overland to China, through Turkey and possibly Iran, to Central Asia and then into the wilds of western China, and on east to the capital.

For a variety of largely uninteresting reasons, including sloth, indecision and a raft of illicit temptations, by the time I finally left London, I was several months behind schedule. I pottered around Turkey for a couple of months as planned, enjoying the last of the summer’s warmth on the coast and had just plunged into the more bracing climes of eastern Anatolia, when I was dealt a curveball in the form of an invitation to spend Christmas with a close friend near Athens. Naturally, I accepted, even though I was deep in eastern Turkey by then.

After a cracking Christmas and New Year in Greece, I headed back east again. As I had been denied an Iranian visa for the third time, I rerouted to Georgia, from where I planned to travel into Azerbaijan and then across the Caspian to Central Asia, but by the time I got the Turkish-Georgian border in mid-January, it was so bitterly cold that the idea of soldiering across Central Asia on a budget in the depths of winter didn’t appeal, so I turned south and headed for Syria instead, thinking that I could always make the trip to Beijing once the weather warmed up a little in March or April.

I spent January and February of 1998 visiting ruins in southern Turkey and northern and eastern Syria, including a number of sites that have subsequently been plundered, damaged or even entirely destroyed by the Islamic State, and I was staying in a musty hotel in Deir-el-Zor - the kind of establishment less punctilious travel writers might call ‘interesting’ or ‘charming’ when what they really mean is ‘decrepit’ or ‘flea-ridden’ – on my way down to the ruins of Doura Europos, when I had a very peculiar dream.

I was standing alone on a stage. A man I didn’t recognise but who seemed familiar, walked towards me, stopped, held his hands out with his palms upwards and in a firm voice said: “Go to Lebanon.” After delivering this peculiar message, he disappeared. I woke with the sound of his voice still ringing in my ears. 

I thought no more of the dream until a week later, when it occurred again. This time, I was in a darkened street rather than on a stage, and the man was now a woman, even though in my dream, I knew she was the same he as before. They grabbed me by the arm, and in a slightly louder voice urged me to go to Lebanon. Once again, I woke with the sound of their voice in my ear.

Naturally, this made more of an impression and when, a couple of weeks later, towards the beginning of March, I was staying at another dive in Damascus, one just as ‘interesting’ as my lodgings in Deir el-Zor but marginally more bearable for being covered in the most impressive wisteria I have ever seen, and I had the dream again, I knew the universe was trying to tell me something. That, or I was finally paying the price of my extensive exploration of the psychedelic underworld whilst at college.

This time, I was standing in the dark, and the person - I no longer remember if they were male or female - marched towards me, grabbed me by both shoulders, pulled me close and with their face inches from mine bellowed the now familiar injunction. Obviously, the only way to stop these dreams, which were becoming increasingly stressful, was to do as I was being instructed.

I had been planning to leave Damascus the following afternoon anyway. Winter was winding down, and it seemed like a good time to start heading north, back into Turkey and then on through Central Asia into China and my language course in Beijing. But as Beirut was only a couple of hours drive, and as I was never going to come back to this part of the world ever again, I decided that I might as well pay a quick visit to Lebanon, while I was in the neighbourhood, if only to put an end to these dreams.

I hatched a plan to see the three B’s: Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, Byblos, one of the oldest cities on earth and Baalbek, either the remains of the largest temple complex ever built by the Romans, or a landing site for ancient aliens, depending on whether you prefer your hats made of tin-foil, or not. 

It was to be a minor incursion, I would be in and out in three days, four at the most, and back en route to my new future in China. I told myself that if nothing else, after two months in Syria, the change of scenery would be welcome. 

The idea of visiting Lebanon had never crossed my mind. I was vaguely aware of its unfortunate past because as child in the 1970’s and 80’s, Lebanon was a regular feature on the nine o’clock news. I also remember reading a somewhat tongue-in-cheek travel feature written shortly after the war was officially ended, an account of a walk around Beirut’s derelict, bullet-riddled city centre, written by someone who had known the city before the war, which made pre-wars Beirut sound unbelievably glamorous, but even that hadn’t been enough to make me want to hop on plane. My destiny, I was sure, lay further to the east.

There was no Lebanese embassy in Syria, but after asking around the hostel, the consensus was that I could probably get a visa at the border, so I bought a seat in a shared cab and set off for Beirut. 

The ride out to the Syrian border was idyllic. It was a beautiful March day, soft blue skies and brilliant, golden sunshine, which took the chill out of the air. As we drove through gently rolling hills towards the frontier, the only fly in my ointment was that everyone in the cab was smoking, including the driver, and they complained loudly every time I tried to crack open the window for a little air, so I resigned myself to being pickled in smoke, for a few hours.

As we left Syria for Lebanon, the weather turned. Dramatic black clouds rolled in, obscuring the sun and as we pulled in at the Lebanese border post, it began to rain.

My first sight of my future home was not pretty. The border post still bore the scars of war and there were soldiers and heavily armed policemen everywhere. The Syrian border post had been comparatively organised but here, the immigration office was packed full of people, all waving their passports in the air and shouting at the same time, none of whom appeared to be getting served by the border guards.. It felt like a scene from a crass, pre-PC parody of a developing world nation.

After waiting for a while, I realised that politeness would get me nowhere and I managed to wiggle my way to the front, where the official pointed towards a counter on the other side of the room, and told me in French that the man I needed to see about the visa was at lunch, so I’d have to wait.

I went back to the cab and tried to explain the situation. The other passengers, who’d already been processed, looked distinctly unimpressed, but as our passport numbers had been registered when the taxi drove in, the driver couldn’t leave without me, like me, they had no choice but to wait.

I went back in to the chaotic immigration hall. Through a door behind the counter I’d been told to wait at, I could see someone tucking into a roast chicken with obvious relish. He noticed me watching him and pushed the door shut with his other hand. Twenty minutes later, he emerged, wiping his mouth with a napkin and then seeing that I was the only one at the counter, sauntered over to the other side of the hall, where he had a long, friendly chat with some other officers. Obviously, he was intent on ignoring me, but there didn’t seem like much I could do.  So I continued to wait.

Eventually, one of the other officers took pity. He walked over to Mr. Visa Guy, and pointing towards me, must have told him to do his damn job. He sauntered back casually, picking his teeth. At this point, I half expected him to scratch his balls and belch. Instead, he held out his hand for my passport, thumbed through it, peered at the photo and then, stamp in hand, asked me why I wanted to come to Lebanon.

As introductions to countries go, this wasn’t the greatest, and I was beginning to wonder myself, but I told him that I was a tourist, and had heard Lebanon was beautiful, so I’d come to see the sights for a couple of days.

He seemed to find that amusing but after flipping through the pages a few more times and finding no obvious reason to deny me entry, he finally stamped my passport and with a nod, tossed it back to me.

I was on my way back to the cab when I ran into the driver. He’d been in to check up on me three or four times already. Clearly the other passengers were getting restless, because with every visit, he was more and more agitated. Back in the cab, I was greeted with muttering and smouldering looks, and found that even though I had paid extra to sit in the front, I was now to sit the back, where I was wedged between a statuesque woman with sharp elbows, and the juddering cab door that threatened to pop off its hinges at any moment.

As we passed through the checkpoint, the heavens opened and it began to pour in earnest, with such vigour that I might have applauded the drama had the other passengers not all rolled up the windows and on cue, begun furiously and in unison, to smoke.

We drove across the Beka’a Valley through what looked to me like a war zone. Buildings shredded by gunfire, pockmarked with mortar blasts, Lebanese soldiers at checkpoints sitting on tanks or shivering in sandbagged, barbed wire outposts, Syrian soldiers in checkpoints of their own, and then more random-looking checkpoints where sullen, unshaven men dressed in plain-clothes but carrying a machine guns over one shoulder, would appear out of nowhere and demand to see papers. The latter lot inspired a degree of fear, for cigarettes would be stubbed out and dark looks replaced by blank gazes, and as I was later to learn, these men were members of Syria’s ever-present and much-feared secret police.

The countryside we drove through looked every bit as morose as the people we passed. It was still pouring and as we crossed the valley, the temperature dropped precipitously. Not that it was much warmer in the cab. The other passengers still hadn’t forgiven me for making them wait, and my foreign passport inevitably lengthened our transit through the many and assorted checkpoints, so they either studiously ignored me or else stared stonily whenever I caught their gaze. 

By the time we stopped for coffee in the grim, grey and charmless market town of Shtoura, I was certain I had made a huge mistake coming to Lebanon, and considered staying in the cab and returning with the driver to to Damascus, once he’d dropped off the others.

A few kilometres on, warmed by shots of bitter, cardamom-scented coffee, as well as prices that were shockingly European after Syria, we began the long climb up and over Mount Lebanon to the coast. Within minutes, we were enveloped in thick cloud, which did help obscure the ugly buildings we passed, but also made the tank outposts, checkpoints and blown-up buildings even more sinister. Patches of snow began to appear and as the taxi wheezed over the pass at the top, there were icy grey mounds of it piled around the checkpoint, where cold, inadequately-dressed soldiers, both Lebanese and Syrian, shivered pitifully in the downpour.

As we began our decent to the coast, clouds still obscured the view. I’d read that seen from the mountains, the Mediterranean was a particularly beautiful sight, but as the rain was now falling even harder, it didn’t appear that was something I was going to see for myself. 

Slowly, towns and villages began to appear, but with the exception of the occasional shop, most of the buildings visible from the road were badly damaged, their doors and windows gone and gaping holes blown through what once must have been lovely sandstone walls. Some had collapsed almost completely, their floors sandwiched together, hanging by rusting steel rebar at odd angles.

My impression of Lebanon wasn’t improving. Maybe in better weather, maybe after 20 years of rebuilding it might be worth visiting. But now? If the towns in the Beka’a and the mountains looked this bad, I wondered what kind of mess Beirut would be in, after all, that was where the heaviest fighting had taken place. Dreams be damned, I told myself, Lebanon was a terrible mistake. I’d go straight back to Damascus and begin making my way to China in the morning.

Then, just as we arrived on the outskirts of the old mountain resort town of Aley, which was marginally more intact than the towns we’d driven through higher up, everything changed.

As the cab rounded a bend, we broke through the clouds. A thousand or so metres below us, Beirut cae into view, a triangular peninsula of towers that thrust out into the grey, wind-flecked waters of the Mediterranean. 

The rain, which had been battering the cab relentlessly all the way from the border, stopped so abruptly, it was as if God had turned off a tap. The clouds parted, and a beam of intense sunlight burst through the gloom and struck Beirut and the Mediterranean, turning the sea into a shimmering sheet of silver and glittering off the rain-wet windows of the city, which was transformed into a dramatic blaze of golden, fiery lights. 

My mouth dropped. My heart stopped. And there, on the road from Damascus, I fell in love, at very first sight.

 

Chapter 17: Lamartine's Cedar and the Lost Lady of Joun

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We wake to the dizygotic delights of a breakfast of fresh, crisp manqoushe oozing cheese and za’atar and cool, cloudy skies.

The first two hours of the walk present the unappetising prospect of a gruelling vertical climb from Ma’asser to the Cedar reserve on the peaks above, and honestly, I can’t be bothered. 

As the weekend walkers hit the slopes with all the pent-up energy and eagerness accumulated by their week as wage slaves, I thumb my nose at gratuitous torture and decide to save my knees for a more worthy goal – like making it to the end of this 480-km long walk - so I hop on a minibus and arrange to meet the rest of the gang in the reserve.

The Shouf Cedar Reserve is home to some very distinguished trees. The oldest amongst them are as much as three thousand years old, which means that when they first sprouted, the Assyrians still ruled Phoenicia, but most are much younger, barely a few hundred years old.

Although the ancient copse of cedars up in Al Arz gets more attention - largely for its cinematic sexiness - the Shouf Reserve is a proper forest and has far more trees. Reforestation began here in earnest during the civil war, when this swathe of the mountains was under the control of Druze clan leader, Walid Joumblatt, who for all his manifest faults and bloody complicity in massacres, at least cared enough about his fiefdom’s environment to legislate its preservation – something the rest of the country is still happy to ignore.

By the time I get off the bus, which has coughed and chugged its way up to the road-head outside the main entrance to the reserve, the clouds have lowered and it's absolutely freezing. Shrouded in mist, the trees are magnificent, their vast horizontal planes and solid bulk softened, dissolving and rematerialising in the swirling clouds. 

For some reason best known to God, the reserve shop is closed and so I can’t even buy a cup of tea to keep the chill from my bone, so by the time the first walkers stagger into view, wearing the kind of expressions that confirm to me that taking the bus was the correct choice, I feel like I am on the verge of pneumonia. After a short pause, to allow stragglers to limp their way to the top, we set off into the trees. 

Extolled for its scent in the Song of Songs and valued by the Pharaohs for its longevity and resistance to pests, Cedrus Libani has been considered a sacred tree since ginger-locked Gilgamesh travelled from the sun-baked plains of Uruk to the snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh in search of its resin, for the Sumerian demigod had been told the cedar was the Tree of Life. 

Interestingly, the cedar is also sacred in India, where it is known as the deodar, and it has been associated with Shiva, Lord of Time, Destruction and Dance, for thousands of years. Clearly, there is something about this particular tree that inspires universal reverence - perhaps its size or the fact that it can survive for thousands of years. 

I had learned the previous day during our introduction to the Biosphere, that the cedar is a monoecious species, a kind of botanical hermaphrodite, which means that each one possesses male and female reproductive systems, and they are able to reproduce by pollinating their own cones, effectively cloning themselves. Once pollinated, cones mature on the branch for three years, changing in colour from green, to striped, to brown, at which point they release their seeds on the wind. 

Lebanon’s forests were already under attack by Roman times. Scattered all over Mount Lebanon you can find stone edicts erected on the orders of the Emperor Hadrian, that prohibit the felling of trees between altitudes of 350 and 2000 metres. But it was during the Ottoman period, that Lebanon’s forests were really put to the torch – quite literally - as trees were cut down to warm homes all over the empire.

Today, pollution, rising temperatures and decreased snowfall has weakened many of the older trees, making them vulnerable to a fairly common arboreal virus. It has wrought havoc in one of the larger reserve to the north, Tannourine, although Joseph tells us that the situation is slightly better now than it was 10 years ago, largely thanks to the aggressive pruning of infected boughs. 

We stop for a quick talk by the cedar that French poet and politician Alphonse de Lamartine apparently liked to sit under and stare out over the valleys below to the coast. Lamartine was rather taken with Lebanon, despite the fact that his daughter died in Beirut, and it features prominently in the account he wrote of his travels in the near east, the Voyage en Orient

His love was reciprocated, for today, he not only has a cedar and a school named after him, he’s got an entire valley, too. All that for spending a couple of months wandering about composing verse. 

Mention of Lamartine reminds me of poor old Lady Hester Stanhope. Archaeologist, adventurer, shipwreck survivor and probably the only woman to propose to Ibn Saud, she lived in Lebanon decades longer than the poet, spoke Arabic, wore men’s clothing and became a formidable political force in the Shouf mountains, but today, not even the ruins of her palace in Joun bear her name. A case of classic sexism? Or did the Lebanese feel more comfortable commemorating a Frenchman who wrote a book about Lebanon and left, than they did commemorating an Englishwoman who played politics, and stayed?

For obvious reasons, I’ve always found Stanhope’s story far more compelling than Lamartine’s - Nineteenth Century male Orientalists are ten a penny,but you can count on one hand the number of Nineteenth Century European women who became powerbrokers in the Middle East - though I have to admit that when it came to picking a pretty view, Lamartine knew what he was doing. Not that we can see the coast, today, between the dense canopy and the louring skies, we’re lucky to be able to see the valley floor below.

As we head off through the trees, I get chatting with one of the weekend walkers. Despite his youth, Rabih is a judge in Beirut, a job I cannot say I envy him, for between overt threats (four judges were shot in court by a gunman who is still on the lose, just weeks after I arrived) and political corruption, Lebanon’s judiciary is anything but safe. Or independent. 

Naturally, I don’t find out that he’s a judge until we’ve had a lengthy conversation that amongst other things, involves confessions of my drug-fuelled youth.

Rabih tells me that his job involves fighting absolutely everyone, from the criminals and their clans and political supporters, to the police and the politicians. This constant uphill battle became so overwhelming, that a few years earlier, he had considered giving up his position and briefly tendered his resignation. 

Turning him down, his superiors suggested that he reconsider, so he was given 2 years’ leave, and took up a position as a legal advisor in Abu Dhabi. The environment in the emirate was completely different and although he says that he appreciated the opportunity, he also found it frustrating. As he read it, Abu Dhabi had the desire to change but didn’t always have the means, because the push for reform was constantly hamstrung by the pushback from tradition. 

It was this that prompted his return to Beirut, for while Lebanese officialdom may not seek change, as things are working perfectly well for the oligarchs and kleptocrats, the country’s more liberal environment and history of progressive politics means that it has the means to do so.

As we talk, it becomes clear that Rabih’s experience abroad reinvigorated his belief in the necessity of enacting change at the judicial level, and of tackling Lebanon’s post-war miasma in earnest. Soft-spoken and thoughtful, he nevertheless describes himself as an ‘angry man’, and says that there is something wrong with anyone who sees the world as it is and is not angry, themselves. 

He’s curious to know why, as a journalist in Lebanon, I don’t write about politics, adding that some of the most influential political writers in the region are foreigners - but as he mentions Bernard Lewis, I suspect he's talking more about influence on US foreign policy, than internal Lebanese politics. He’s also curious about my reasons for leaving Lebanon after such a long time, especially as I share much of his passion for his country, and he asks if in deciding to leave, I feel like I am giving up. 

I have often wondered as much, myself. 

For almost two decades, Lebanon has been my personal cause, fought culturally, rather than politically. I can’t say that I don’t feel a twinge at the thought of going, but I have reached a point where I want to leave while I am still in love with the country, before my relationship sours permanently. 

As I tell Rabih this, I can’t help but think again of Lady Hester. In her final years, she was a shadow of her former self, increasingly destitute and so isolated that towards the end, she only received visitors by night, and never allowed them to see her fully. Did she look back on her years in the region with regret? Or did she die knowing that she had lived her life even more fully than most men of her generation? 

It strikes me that Lebanon is no country for old anyones, for although families are much closer and thus far more likely to take care of an elderly relative, age is still perceived as a diminishment. Fifty is old, sixty is ancient, seventy, well you might as well be dead, whereas in the less family-oriented parts of the Developed World, old age has now become an opportunity to start over and become someone new, though whether this is more evidence of implacable Calvinism or a more humane approach that recognises that not every senior citizen believes their lives should revolve around grandchildren, I’m not sure.

The walk continues through the Biosphere, alternating between open grassland and swathes of thick, lush forest. The clouds still limit the view, but it is a more enjoyable walk than the previous day, if only because of the beauty of the immediate landscape. We stop for a leisurely lunch in a copse of cedars, many of which, sadly, seem to be ailing. 

Not long after we resume walking, we begin a lengthy descent to our stop for the night in the town of Barouk, following a rocky and at times quite treacherous path. 

After about an hour, we pass two couples as they emerge from a clump of bushes. Our presence is clearly unexpected and discombobulating. The men are Lebanese, but the two women are of eastern European origin, and are clad in short skirts and pencil-thin stilettos, the kind of clothing that doesn’t seem especially suited to hiking, especially not at the time of year.

Eastern European women suffer from an unfortunate stereotype in the Middle East, as many of the first to arrive came as ‘entertainers’, and while I have seen Lebanese women take to the hills (and even the swimming pool), in heels before, the way they are readjusting their clothing and smoothing their hair, as well as the faint trace of embarrassment the two men radiate, which gives them the air of randy teens caught in flagrante by their parents, does suggest that the only wildlife they have come here to appreciate walks on two legs. 

Because there are so many of us walking today, we have inevitably divided into smaller groups, and so rather than leave anyone behind, we stop and wait by the side of the trail until everyone catches up again. 

It takes the final arrivals almost thirty minutes to arrive, and it turns out they were waylaid on the trail by the Ambassador of Byelorussia and a US Ambassador-at-Large, who was also apparently wearing heels, and so after the couples we chanced across earlier, I wonder if they too weren’t busy playing geopolitics amongst the trees. 

 As we reach the outskirts of Barouk, we stop at a memorial to journalist and author, Rashid Nakhle, who was also the composer of Lebanon’s national anthem, which of course means an impromptu round of Kullina Lil Watan (All of Us for the Nation), and from there, we drop down into the meadows along the river and wend our way towards town.

 

 

Chapter 15: Stairways to Heaven

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Jezzine was a grand town, once.

Grown fat on trade, as well as remittances from its far-flung sons and daughters – amongst them the father of the man who for a while, was the wealthiest in the world, Carlos Slim – it filled up with gracious family homes, red-roofed, triple-arched windowed Levantine beauties, like the Kenaan Palace, which we walk past enviously on our way out of town.

Parked insouciantly, incongruously, in front of its graceful arcaded exterior was a lime-green 1970’s American muscle car. The disconnect between it and the house was so absolute, that for a second, I felt like I had wandered into a Tennessee Williams play, where the muscle car belonged to the equally muscular, but impecunious lover of the ageing chatelaine, or perhaps of her brother, the soft-spoken and never-married funny uncle the kids all loved and the adults all talked about in hushed voices at family gatherings.

I scanned the street for more likely owners, as I really couldn’t imagine it belonging to the Kenaans – even if granddaddy Maroun had been a (political) tearaway during Lebanon’s push for independence in the 1940’s – but none of the neighbours jumped out at me, either.

As we left the town behind, following an old, beaten-up tarmacked road that reminded me of an advert I saw for Range Rovers when I first arrived in Lebanon, which had the tag-line “Because in Lebanon, all our roads are off-roads”, I saw that the hillsides were covered in terraces, most of them overgrown. 

Agricultural terracing isn’t exactly unusual in such a vertiginous country, but the terracing here was particularly extensive, and testified to a time when these slopes would have been a hive of activity. The big crop was wheat, apparently. It must have been backbreaking work, so I wasn’t surprised they’d been abandoned. Even people growing fruit trees in the mountains are becoming less keen, and they require less work, less water and are much more lucrative.

Robin explained that the reason these terraces were abandoned had a different cause and most of the higher altitude terraces in this part of the Shouf region were abandoned after the earthquake of 1956, which also destroyed 6,000 buildings, mostly in and around Sidon. 

The terraces remained abandoned, due to a succession of political earthquakes that followed – a minor civil war in 1958, political upheaval in the 1960’s and the growing destabilisation created by the presence of the Palestinian guerrilla forces, the Fedayeen, and the assorted political reactions to them. 

By the time the region settled again, times had changed. Agriculture was no longer desirable and terraces far away from towns were viewed as too much of an effort to farm. It seemed to me a great pity, not only because of the lost jobs each ruined terrace represented, but also for their impact, for where they were still in use, the intricate Escher-esque geometries they formed were mesmerising. 

How long Jezzine’s slopes had been terraced is anyone’s guess, but recent archaeological research suggests that Lebanon may be home to some of the oldest terracing in the Mediterranean, and some of those studied in the Batroun region, further to the north, may have been in use for up to 12,000 years.

I digest this food for thought as we stop to refill our canteens at a roadside spring. The water is pure and icy, as refreshing splashed on faces and necks as it is drunk. After years and years of drinking happily from Lebanon’s springs – drive through the mountains and you’ll see people filling up jerry cans all over the place - I’d become more cautious after people started getting sick and it was revealed that toxic waste had been leeching into many of the country’s aquifers for years, even into some of those that still produced bottled water. But the guides only permit us to all to fill up at springs that have been rigorously tested by the LMTA, the association running the trail, which also conducts regular check-up to make sure their recommended springs remain clean.

As I pop the cap on my camel pack, I see something moving in the ferns ringing the basin of the spring and to my utter astonishment, a tiny freshwater crab emerges, pincers waving uncertainly until, spooked by our presence, it scuttle off across the road to take refuge in a thicket of brambles.

I’ve seen bulbous land crabs in the Maldives, which live in the coconut palms and look like giant alien ticks, but they stick close to the coast, as they need to return to the sea periodically. I’d always assumed freshwater crabs actually lived in the water, but apparently they spend even more time on dry land than their land crab relatives. Even so, finding one so high up in the mountains was a bit of a surprise.

We smell a large goat farm before it comes into view. The unmistakable scent is borderline unpleasant in a playground ‘ewww’ kind of way, but it marks the point at which we will turn off the road and head up and into the wilds. The goats munch aimlessly as we wander past, observing us with their golden slitted hyphen eyes, and a large guard dog barks in the distance, warning us that we have been seen. A little further beyond, up a small valley, lie the picturesque remains of a tumbled-down farmhouse that perch precariously above a row of arcaded stables that are intact and still seem to be in use. It’s apparently another victim of the ’56 Earthquake and it sits in small bowl lined with the remains of terraces. 

Though we haven’t regained the height we were at the previous day, the views are spectacular, and as we climb along the valley wall, we look down and over the pine forests of Bkassine as we wend our way gently upwards towards the fortress at Niha. 

Lebanon is better known for its cedars, but it has far more Umbrella pines. They are grown here as a cash crop, prized for their soft, slightly sweet kernels, which are liberally used in Lebanese cuisine.

To me, they are the quintessential Mediterranean tree and their rounded canopies (hence the name) and soaring trunks make them look like lollipops, or drifts of green clouds supported on sticks. Seen from a distance, they coalesce into an undulating treescape that softens the unforgiving flanks of Mount Lebanon, covering the rocky slopes in fluff. 

That evening, as we chat over dinner, I discover that every part of the tree can be used. The cones and needles are sold for fires and its pollen produces a thick, dark honey, prized for its medicinal effects. The real star, though, remains the kernel, which has been traded for at least 6,000 years and can fetch upwards of $40 a kilo.

Umbrella pines require minimal tending and even a small copse can be a good little earner, but only as long as the trees remain alive, which explains how pines have, by and large, managed to avoid the fate suffered by their less ‘useful’ brethren – and a landowner trying to persuade me to purchase a plot of land up in the north of the country once explained that if I chopped down and sold all the trees on the land, I would be able to make my money back, and more.

The vast expanse of pines here, which cleans the air much like an oversized car freshener, is Lebanon’s largest forest. It’s also apparently the largest in the eastern Mediterranean. However true that may be, walking through it is a delight to all the senses; the dappled sunshine on the forest floor, the refreshing scent the needles release as they crunch underfoot, and the gentle buzzing of cicadas. It’s enough to make anyone want to sling up a hammock and drift off to sleep but as we’ve only just begun our day’s walk, it’s a bit premature to be thinking about slacking off. 

We reach the rocky outcrop that is the Niha Fortress a couple of hours later. No one knows for sure when people first began to tunnel into the rock here to expand on the network of natural caves, but it was first mentioned in 975AD, and was later captured and enlarged by the Crusaders, who used it to control the important Sidon-Beka’a Road. Badly damaged and then rebuilt in the 13thCentury, the fortress was used by successive conquerors, including the Abbasids, the Mamluks and the Ottomans. 

Now no more than series of enlarged caves, including storerooms, water reservoirs and a stable, linked by internal tunnels. Originally, the fortress would have been protected by a wood and stone façade, which not only made it secure but also created extra space, making it more capacious than it looks today, which rested on the shelf of rock that runs just below the lowest level of caves.

Walking along the shelf is a vertiginous experience and the first time I did it, back in the late 90’s, there were no barriers to prevent unwary explorers from taking the express route down to the valley floor below. 

Emir Fakhredddine, who spent years on the run from the Ottomans is said to have holed up here for, as he sought to escape the Pasha of Damascus, who was under orders from Sultan Murad IV to bring him to trial in Istanbul. Unable to dislodge him otherwise, his pursuers eventually discovered his water source and poisoned it with animal blood, forcing him to flee. He escaped by rappelling down the cliff, a feat that - as they say in Mexico- takes some cojones, even with modern equipment, none of which was available in the 17thCentury. Cojones seem to have run in the family though, for legend has it that his daughter, unwilling to be captured by ravening Turks, blindfolded herself and her horse and galloped off the cliff to her death. 

Parts of the fortress can be visited, although the upper levels can only be reached by climbing, and there is a labyrinth of rooms and corridors that have yet to be excavated on the other side of a small chasm. No one knows how extensive the network of caves may be, but the attempted plundering of a previously unknown cave just above the fort – by robbers wielding a bulldozer, no less - suggests there are plenty of secrets left to discover. 

It’s a popular place to visit and there are plans to increase access by bridging the chasm, to open the other half of the shelf to visitors, and building steps to the higher rooms to obviate Spiderman-style antics. 

Niha’s other claim to fame is that it is home to a troupe of hyrax – Marmot-esque creatures that are apparently more closely related to elephants than they are to rodents – which live and lounge on the rock shelves below the fort. Until the fortress was turned into a reserve and protected, people used to come up here and shoot them, but since then, their numbers have begun to increase and if you are quiet, they seem happy enough to allow you to watch, from a distance. 

After a quick tour and some hyrax-appreciation, we retire to a shaded rock shelf above the fort, kick off our shoes and have lunch under blossoming trees. The sun is hot, the air cool, and the ground carpeted in thick, lush new grass, and so naturally, we lay ourselves down and sleep.

 

Chapter 14: Death by Goat Tracks

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At first, the climb out of Ain Zibde is easier than I had expected, a fairly gentle meander along wide agricultural tracks, but then the fun begins.

The mountain suddenly becomes much more vertical, as the track peters out and we are confronted by an intimidating 45 degree incline, which we will have to navigate on barely discernable tracks, which Joseph says have been made by goats. 

The disadvantages of only having two feet, neither of which are hooved, quickly become apparent on this rocky mountainside, as toes are stubbed, ankles are twisted and tempers are tried. The climb is tortuous and our pace is immediately reduced to a plodding. Not exactly the fittest walker, my lungs go into overdrive, and I wheeze my way upward, following a trail that in places is barely wide enough for one foot at a time.

We have 600 vertical metres ahead of us before we will once again reach anything approximating flat ground. I’m ashamed to say that it doesn’t take long before early morning bounce gives way to vexation and I grump my way (silently, at least) up the slope, cursing fate, geography and plate tectonics.

Fortunately, the views over the vineyards of Kherbet Qanafar to the north and Lake Qaraoun to the east are absolutely amazing, even though the Beka’a is partially obscured by a hazy, silvery veil of mist mingled with smoke from winter fires. Magnificently, the snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh hover above it all in the distance. 

Although we have not reached the top of today’s walk, the panoramic views are god-like, and after an hour and a half of demoralising slog – which to my darkest delight has tired out even the hardiest amongst us - we stop for a quick break to give our screaming thighs a rest and summon energy for the remainder of the climb, allowing us to bask for a while, in the feeling that we have briefly become all-seeing, if not all-knowing.

A little later, the tracks widen into a trail and the climb becomes gentler as we rise the final 200 metres to the rolling uplands of this part of Mount Lebanon. We’ve reached the top of today’s walk, where we’re at around the 1750 metre-mark, and we will remain up here for a while, until we begin our decent to our stop for the night in the mountain resort of Jezzine. 

Today, we cross from the Beka’a Valley side of Mount Lebanon to the Mediterranean side, and it isn’t long before the coast comes into view for the first time. Lebanon’s narrow coastal strip is the most densely inhabited part of the country, and the location of its four largest cities, which also happen to be some of the longest continually-inhabited in the world - Tyre, for example, has been a city for over 5,000 years and inhabited for at least as long again.

The view from here is relatively more recent and our first sight of the coast includes the old French Mandate airfield at Ba’adaran, which Druze leader Walid Joumblatt used during the civil war, and two jumbles of red tiled roofs far below that are the villages of Mresti and Moukhtara, where the Joumblatt family has their feudal palace. 

As we take another quick break, and possibly to make us feel better about out slog, Joseph relates a story about the historic links between Ain Zibde, where we’d spent the night, and Mresti, one of the villages below. It is about a bride in the 1950s, who travelled over the mountains to her wedding in Ain Zibde on a donkey, because there was no road linking the two villages, and travelling down to the coast, up to the main pass across the mountains and back down to Ain Zibde would have taken several days. Whether her hurry to be wed was driven by longing, or some other, growing concern, he did not say.

The path up here is a series of gentle rises and dips, and winds its way along the top of the mountain, switching between the Beka’a and the Mediterranean side. Though the peaks of Mount Lebanon are mostly bare as the result of ancient deforestation – which flocks of voracious goats have helped maintain, we do see a few low trees, bent almost double by the furious winds that howl over the peaks in the winter.  

Normally, there would still be a lot of snow up here at this time of the year, but it has been a poor winter and most of it has melted, leaving large pools of water fringed with lush, temporary meadows but after a while, we begin to come across thick swathes of snow, surfaces covered in the dust that blows out of the Syrian Desert, to the east. The sun is blazing and its quite hot, despite the nip in the air, so after scraping away the dust, we grab handfuls of snow, by now more ice than flake, and rub it over our faces and heads. The trickle of cool water down flushed faces and sweaty backs is invigorating. I scoop up a handful, form it into a ball and squash it onto the top of my floppy sun hat, where I leave it to melt, as a kind of air-conditioning for the head, it is extremely effective.

This part of the trail is mostly old military roads, cut through the earth during the civil war. In two places, it has been deliberately severed, forcing us to clamber up the hillside and around to continue onwards. These trenches are relics from 2008, when Lebanon experienced a short spasm of violence initiated by Hezbollah and its allies in retaliation for what was perceived as an attempt to shut them out of the political process. They were dug by Joumblatt's men to prevent Hezbollah fighters from using the old military roads to reach Moukhtara. A flash in the sky catches my eye and looking up, I can see a pair of contrails as two Israeli warplanes fly overhead on reconnaissance missions. Since moving here, I’ve become inured to the sight, as it’s an almost daily occurrence, but not only is it a flagrant breach of Lebanon’s sovereignty, it is also a violation of international law, but this rarely gets mentioned in discussions about tensions between the two countries in the press. 

As we are climbing up a large rise, Alfred, whose wife Salam is the only other person walking the entire trail, spots a fox on the far hill. He hands me a pair of binoculars but even so, I strain to see it, until it moves and then it suddenly becomes clearly visible. It’s the largest wild animal we've seen so far, apart from eagles, although there must be plenty around, as the ground is full of mole holes, and there are butterflies, lizards, spiders and large black glossy beetles all over the place.

We come to another break in the road, which looks more like it might be a bomb crater from 2006, and a little later, we walk through a desolate camp, that had been in use by Hezbollah fighters. It's empty now, but when she passed this way two years earlier, they had come out and offered Salam water and sweets. 

The camp may be scrappy, but the views from atop the surrounding rocks are spectacular and take in both sides of the mountain, which is clearly the reason the camp was built here, in the first place.

Especially compared to earlier, the walk has taken on the feel of a Sunday stroll in the park. It is hot, though, and when we stop for lunch in a wide bowl, half filled with snow, two of our companions, Nils and Nasser, both accomplished long-distance walkers, decide it’s time for a snow bath. With admirable Nordic élan, Nils strips off completely, while Nasser keeps on his underwear preserving his Middle Eastern modesty, and they roll around in the snow, heaping it on top of themselves and throwing it at each other like delighted children.

After the enforced cliquishness of the first two days, when we’d been accompanied by hordes of weekend walkers, the group dynamic has become more relaxed and as they walk, people are falling in and out of conversations, and lingering longer after dinner to talk. They are an interesting bunch and at 48, I’m no spring chicken but with a couple of exceptions, the other walkers are older than me. One, an American who normally lives in Hawai’i and who last visited Lebanon in its ‘Golden Age’ just before the Civil War, is in her late 70’s. They’re also in better shape than me, a realisation that is simultaneously inspiring and chastening. 

We meander along the top of Mount Lebanon for the next few hours and in mid-afternoon, begin our descent towards Jezzine. The bare slopes give way first to grassland and then to pine forests. 

Pines are a crop in Lebanon, prized for their nuts, which are used liberally in Lebanese cuisine and the trees are undergoing their spring trimming to encourage growth, so they look naked and a little sad, but also quite sculptural. They prefer sandy topsoil, which makes large swathes of the mountains ideal and for the next few days, we’ll be walking through the largest pine forests in the Eastern Mediterranean. Unfortunately, sand is also ideal for mining, so Lebanon’s mountains are being quarried, often illegally, for this resource, leaving enormous holes into mountainsides. As we pick through the trees, the ground is littered with brightly coloured plastic shell casings, evidence of the lethal and similarly illegal bird hunting that goes on, often with the connivance of local authorities. 

The mountains above Jezzine are striated by crests of rock forced up by earthquakes that run in curving ridges along their flanks. Bizarre rock formations begin to appear, wildly eroded sandstone sculptures in bright shades of pink, yellow, red and orange that contrast starkly with the greenery of the pines. It has a faintly alien appearance, as if instead of southern Lebanon, we are walking across the surface of Mars after centuries of terraforming. 

We descend towards a small river that we will follow almost all the way to Jezzine. We first encounter it just before it rushes through what, for lack of a better description, is a sandstone wadi, that looks for all the world like a piece of Saudi Arabia pinched off and dropped on Mount Lebanon. The river forms an inviting pool beneath a small waterfall. The water is clean, clear and green and on a warmer day and with a little more time, it would be the perfect place for a dip, or at least to cool aching feet. Today, with at least two hours walk ahead of us and the day drawing on, we content ourselves with admiring it longingly as we pass.  Then, as we wind up and out of the mini wadi, we pass into lush, flower-filled fields and knee-high grass. 

The change is so abrupt, it’s almost comical. In the space of five minutes, we’ve gone from Mediterranean pines and Martian landscapes, through the Arabian Desert to Switzerland. I half expect to find a blonde girl in a dirndl just around the next bend. It’s a reminder of how quickly the landscape changes in the mountains, and of the incredible natural diversity to which Lebanon, a land that boasts a dizzying range of micro-climates that range from the sub-arctic to the sub-tropical, is heir.

Our long descent follows the river, air alive with the sound of rushing water and, as the sun sinks, croaking frogs. Before the end, we wind our way up again, and exit on the broad plateau just above the town. Thankfully, it’s all downhill from here and as we enter the outskirts, the final stretch takes us onto the steep concrete staircase that winds between the houses and down towards Jezzine’s famous naba’a, a freshwater spring that flows out of a cave and into a large pool that might date back to Roman times, from where it flows into the town’s justifiably famous waterfall.

The town’s name apparently means ‘treasures’ in Syriac, possibly for its abundant water sources, but these days, its most precious commodity is tourism. Jezzine was a popular summer getaway for those down on the coast. The town’s star has waned in recent decades because until the turn of the millennium, it was occupied by Israel, and so it was cut off from cities like Sidon and Tyre, which historically provided it with most of its visitors. 

We've been walking for almost 9 hours and frankly, I’m shattered. We limp into a cafe and order drinks before heading to our accommodation for the night, which unusually, will be a hotel. 

The relatively greater comfort of the rooms this night is offset by a shockingly mediocre dinner, served to us reluctantly by maids. After our lovely breakfast on the terrace in Ain Zibde that morning, the incredible meal the night before, Antoinette’s cracking manquoshe and the delicious meals and warm hospitality we’ve enjoyed at homes so far, this sudden return to the commercial is jarring, and so as soon as dinner is done, I decide it’s better to retire and judging by the dampened atmosphere, I sense the sentiment is shared.

 

 

 

Chapter 13: A Gentle Stroll

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The following morning, we wake to the smell of freshly baked manqoushe and triangles of dough stuffed with spinach and sumac, a spice that lends a citrusy flavour, which are known as ftayer.

Out on the terrace of our overnight stop in Aitanit, one of the ladies from the village is hard at work. I’m ravenous, probably because I have a slight hangover. 

Our hosts in Aitanit pride themselves on their cooking and dinner the previous night had been an orgiastic affair, a massive spread of village specialities, including a couple of dishes that I’d only ever heard of before, like zingol, a simple but utterly delicious concoction of bulgur wheat balls and chickpeas served in in a tangy garlic-yoghurt sauce, which we washed down with copious quantities of arak baladi distilled in the village.

The meal had begun politely enough but then Maurice, one of the village elders, turned up hallway through. Tottering in on his cane, he deposited himself at one end of the table and proceeded to regale us with stories and zajal, an ancient semi-improvised, slightly sing-song form of poetry that still lives on in Lebanon, most of which I couldn’t follow, and had swiftly obliterated any notion that he was in any way feeble by making his way through at least a half bottle of arak while insisting that we match him, glass-for-glass.

As we had what our guide Joseph had described as a ‘short' day ahead of us, we’d taken Maurice up his challenge – some rather more gleefully than others – and we'd finally tottered to bed rather later than was probably good for ageing persons on a long-distance walk.

Consequently, breakfast is both lazy and subdued. The views made up for the absence of banter and from the terrace, we could see clear out over the steely waters of Lake Qaraoun, Lebanon’s largest dam. The sun is warm, hazy day, even if the air is still chilly, so we’re wrapped up in our fleeces, watching Antoinette, doyenne of griddle and oven, bake an endless stream of delights.

When we’d wobbled down to the dam the day before, at the end of what felt like a death march from Majdel Balhiss, the view had not been quite as inspiring. Several warm winters with relatively little rain and snow that was mostly gone by the end of February, even on Lebanon’s highest peaks, may have pleased Beirutis eager to resume weekends on the beach, but they'd played merry hell on water level. It was at least a dozen metres below where it should be, and several small islands of former valley floor could be seen poking through the water. Less appealing reveals included reefs of rubbish along the shores; tractor tyres, plastic bottles, mats of rotting vegetation washed into the lake and yes, shopping carts (though there can’t possibly be a supermarket within 30 kilometres ) and an expanse of pinkish scum, rainbow-tinted from oil and chemicals, that lapped gently against the massive retaining wall of the dam. This is a lake that much of southern Lebanon gets it water from, including the cities of Tyre and Sidon.

Still, it was an impressive sight and it reminded me of Ibrahim Abd el-Al, Lebanon’s maverick post-independence water engineer and Minister of Public Works, who was the driving force behind its construction. Abd el-Al had drawn up plans to proved the entire country with water and electricity through hydroelectric projects, which fell prey to the mighty clash between the public interest and the private sector that still bedevils the country, and many other countries around the world and had he been given free reign, it’s likely that Lebanon, the most water-rich country in the Levant, would not suffer the shortages that plague it today. 

In a region officially classified as arid or semi-arid, water is a major geopolitical issue and one of the key instigators of conflict in the Levant. The 1967 War, in which the Golan, the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai were annexed, for example, grew out of four years of disputes over water diversion projects and dams being built along the Banias and Jordan rivers and the recent war in Syria has its roots in the long drought and water mismanagement that eventually drove farmers in the east of the country to begin demanding political reform. 

Abd el-Al himself was keenly aware of water’s political dimension and had advocated effectively for Lebanon during the crafting of the Johnson Plan, the never ratified agreement drawn up by the Americans for the equitable sharing of regional water sources in the 1950’s. Qaraoun was not part of that particular controversy, as it dams the only water source Lebanon does not share with its neighbours, though that hasn’t stopped some of the more conspiracy-minded from speculating that the Minister’s untimely, and rather suspicious death in 1959, as payback for his activism. 

Whatever the reason, Abd el-Al’s death meant that he never got to see his plan through and with no one to champion it during the increasingly fractious decade and a half of political turmoil that precede Lebanon’s civil war, the plan fell apart completely. As we walked along the top of the barrage, I couldn’t help feeling that he would be simultaneously thrilled and appalled by the scene. 

The smell coming off the big convex griddle is mouth-watering. I’ve rarely met a manqoushe I don’t like but the ones being prepared for us this morning are extraordinary. The redoubtable Antoinette is churning them out by the dozen, flattening the balls of dough on the griddle and then slathering them with kishkza’atar, sojouk or cheese, as well as baking them plain. 

Even more impressively, all the ingredients, including the grain used to make the flour, have been grown on her farm - or in the case of the za’atar and some of the other herbs on the table, collected from the mountains nearby - and the manqoushe are being made from a proprietary blend of grains that she has ground at the village mill to her specifications. 

Antoinette bakes quietly but with ferocious intent and buzzes about, making sure no one’s plate is ever empty for more than a minute and that cheese, jam (both her own, of course) and honey (ditto) are never out of reach. Her energy finds it match in our bottomless appetites. 

But breads are only the Round One. On top, there are also bowls of a thick, steaming porridge-like soup made from the same kishk that in paste form and enlivened with tomato, garlic and bit of chilli, Antoinette is spreading on the manqoushe.

For me, kishk was love at first bite but because of its sour, vaguely vomity smell, it is recognised to be an acquired taste. In its raw form, kishk is a powder made from a combination of mildly fermented yoghurt and bulgur wheat, which is traditionally spread out on rooftops to dry in the sun. It is usually made into a paste and baked on a manqoushe, but in the winter, it is used to make a thick, porridge-like soup, to which chunks of meat can be added. There are as many ways of serving it as there are people in Lebanon, and personally, I like mine meatless and liberally dosed with garlic and toasted pine nuts. It is heavy, particularly if your eyes are bigger than your stomach and you have a second bowl, but it packs so much energy and is the perfect way to start a long day’s walk.

Suitably stuffed, we roll out of Aitanit, stopping by a small spring in the middle of the village to fill our water bottles. There’s a fountain nearby, above which a statue of the Virgin Mary has been placed. Next to it is a small, kiosk-like building that we are told was originally a musalla, a prayer room, although the last of Aitanit’s Muslim inhabitants moved out decades ago. 

 It reminded me of Majdel Balhiss with its prominent mosque, and little calligraphic plaques reading 'god' decorating many of its homes. Like Aitanit, it was once mixed, but its last Christians emigrated over 60 years ago, with most former residents now living in Canada, but the village church remains intact. 

At the risk of sounding preachy, it is examples like this - which are repeated in different forms all over the country - that make up the real Lebanon, the country not of eternal conflict and division, but the country of compromise and tolerance, if not necessarily of acceptance. 

This Lebanon is the only country in the world to observe a joint Islamo-Christian holiday, the March-time celebration of the Annunciation. It is where Muslims once attended Easter Mass, not to worship, but to enjoy the spectacle, where many Christians voluntarily observe the Ramadan fast and where, when there were still caravans, pilgrims departing on the long and hazardous journey to Mecca for Hajj were blessed by all the country’s religious leaders, Muslim, Christian and Jewish.

To me, these examples, domestic in their dimension, said far more about Lebanon than the dramatic headlines and shrieking stories of division and hatred and also explained why, despite the invasions, the occupations, the massacres, the detentions, the 17,000 Missing, the population exchanges and the (forced) emigration, this tiny country resisted the temptation to physically divide, in the end.

The rolling trail we follow is about halfway up the mountainside and passes through a series of high altitude pasturages, some of which contain traces of ruined buildings, and occasionally devolves into a tortuous, rocky track, one section of which curls around a cleft in the mountain so deep that navigating it feels suicidal. 

We’re accompanied for part of the way by Abu Jasseer, a local guide who is kitted out from head-to-toe in military gear a bit like a camouflage Christmas tree, his eyes hidden behind a pair of wraparound RayBans, de rigeur facewear for former soldiers (and hitmen) all over the region. 

Unfairly, I image that he’s what a grunt would look like if it took physical form, the kind of ‘guy’ the Greeks would call a pallikaras, one so self-consciously macho, he’s almost a cliché. When he starts regaling us with tales of hunting wild boar – the mountains here are full of them - and whips out a video of one he’s filmed squealing as it lay dying, my initial assessment feels slightly less uncharitable. 

The route isn’t especially interesting, but the views over the lake are magnificent in places, despite the thick silvery haze, which has completely hidden the mountains on the far side of the valley. 

Above Saghbine, we pass a man ploughing a series of tiny fields with a horse. It’s an incongruous sight, especially in an age of micro-sized Japanese farm machinery. We wave ‘hello’ and when he waves back, we stop to watch for a while. The sound the blade makes as it turns the furrows, the smell of freshly-ploughed earth, the gentle encouragements from the man and the way the horse’s mane catches the breeze transports me to another time, a much harder but also gentler time of callused hands and sun-burned necks, of rising at dawn and of glasses of lemonade at 10. I am returned to the world of today by the loud blast of a horn from the village far below. 

And then somehow, we have reached our destination, the village of Ain Zibde. Today’s walk has been comparatively short and relatively free of punishing altitude changes, more like a stroll in the (high altitude) park, than a trek. 

Perhaps to ensure we don’t feel too smug about ourselves, Joseph reminds us that that tomorrow’s walk will not be so accommodating, and will kick off with a punishing 800m ascent and end with an equally strained 800 metre descent, as we are about to leave the Beka’a Valley and cross over the top of Mount Lebanon for the slopes overlooking the coastal strip. 

It sounds ghastly, but showered, with the sun warm on our faces, plates of homemade cake and cool glasses of toot, sweet mulberry syrup, a holdover from the days when Mount Lebanon was one of the silk-making centres of the world, fourteen hours is too far into the future for most of us to contemplate seriously, and as our hosts bustle about, preparing what will turn out to be a stunning candle-lit dinner on the garden terrace, we even have time for a pre-prandial nap. 

Chapter 12: Mohammad the Walnut and the Seven Brothers

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I’m still debating whether I’d exhibit the kind of composure in the face of death that would allow me to calmly play my oud as the ship I was on sank, when we arrive at another reminder of mortality. Cut into the side of a small valley a kilometre or so beyond Kfar Mishki, is a tomb.

Robin and I slither in. There’s not much left, a handful of shelf tombs cut into the walls and a couple of larger, bed-style tombs carved out of the bedrock, and there’s no visible ornamentation, not even traces of paint but I notice with a start that there are bones scattered across the floor. At first, I think they are human remains but most of them are too small and strangely shaped, so unless they belonged to a deformed child, they’re probably animal remains. 

Robin explains that according to local legend, the tomb is one of seven cut into the hill and although only two have been opened up, we do walk over the sealed entrance of another a bit further along the slope. Seven tombs for seven brothers, I think to myself jokingly. I ask him how old they are and he says that judging by the style, they’re Graeco-Phoenician.

This means that they’re about 2300 years old and while it’s true that they are unremarkable, nothing like as impressive as the incredible painted tombs unearthed in the necropili of Sidon and Tyre, the fact that they just lie here, open, for anyone to poke about in, is mind-boggling. 

In England, somewhere like this would be a tourist site, roped off and signposted, complete with toilets, café and a small visitor’s centre. You’d probably be able to buy a t-shirt, or at least a postcard. Here, they’re just holes in the ground. There isn't even a plaque to tell you what you’re walking around. On the one hand, it’s testimony to the governmental neglect Lebanon’s ancient heritage suffers but on the other, to the country’s incredible cultural wealth.

Properly taken care of, historical remains like these would not only be a source of national pride, they’d be a source of tourist revenue and would go a long way towards changing the unfortunate reputation with which the country has been saddled, but when the government isn’t even capable of basics, like keeping the lights on and most ministers aren’t interested in history unless it lines their pockets, archaeology isn’t a top priority.

But then it isn’t for my fellow hikers either, most of whom are already on the other side of valley by the time we clamber out, brushing centuries off our clothes. I ask him why the tombs are here in this rural hillside. The valley is about as rural as it gets, and even 3,000 years ago, cutting tombs into rock was time-consuming and costly. Was this some kind of sacred site, then? He explains that the southern Beka’a was more developed in the past, and there were a number of large villages and several important temples nearby, none of which have survived into todat.

“It’s possible this valley had some special meaning, we don’t really know, but we haven’t discovered any temples or shrines here, which you’d expect if it was significant. It’s more likely this spot was equally close to all the villages and temples and that’s why it was chosen.”

I grew up watching Indiana Jones films, so naturally my next question is whether anyone has ever found any treasure. Robin laughs.

“That’s what the villagers around here say, there are all kinds of rumours but everyone thinks there’s gold in old places and if anyone really believed there was any here, they’d have dug up the hillside years ago. I doubt it. It’s more likely the tombs were robbed immediately by the workmen who sealed them - that used to happen all the time back then.”

Not just back then, either. It happened all the time in Lebanon during the war, too. Militias and occupying armies looted dozens of historic sites to fill their coffers and their fill museums. I remember being shown video footage of Israeli helicopters flying massive stone sarcophagi across the border during the Occupation, a few years after I arrived. There’s a distant boom. Probably dynamiting in an illegal quarry somewhere nearby but it reminds me that there’s a war going on not far away. Over the border, the tradition of plundering tombs, and for that matter, old temples, ancient cities and modern museums, is very much alive in Syria and Iraq, and artefacts from both countries regularly turn up in Lebanon, which is a regional nexus for the stolen archaeological treasure.

As the French say, ‘the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing’. 

Following a sheep track up a rocky hillside, we enter Majdel Balhiss, another hilltop redoubt, which has a prominent mosque with a minaret that soars above its surroundings, like the mast of a ship afloat on waves of earth. Little calligraphy signs emblazoned with religious motifs decorate the walls and the injunction 'izkar Allah' or ‘remember God’ hangs on an archway nearby. 

We’re deep in shepherding territory. On the way up, we came across one, a striking middle-aged man, tanned and thickly moustachioed, with deep, piercing eyes, leaning on his crook and watching over his flock as they grazed on the outskirts of the village. Clad in a thick brown jacket and a red keffiyah, he was a figure straight out of the past and awkwardly, I’d asked him if he minded me taking a photo. Without missing a beat, he told me that I was welcome and turned to face the camera. The snowy peaks of Jabal al-Sheikh loomed in the background and his guard dog and the goats watched from the hill behind me.

As I took the shot, we chatted. He asked me my name and where I was from. I told him I was English, which seemed to confuse him a little, probably because I’d said ‘Inglizi’, a word sometimes used as a catch-all for anyone foreign, especially by the older generation. So I added that I was British, from London. Whether that made any more sense, I don’t know but at least he’d heard of both. In turn, he told me his name was Mohammad al-Jawz and that he was a Bedouin. 

He’d grown up between Lebanon and Syria and he’d been to Jordan once, many years earlier. His family moved with the seasons in search of farm work, though since the war in Syria, they’d mostly stayed in Lebanon. He didn’t use many words but once he started, he was unstoppable. He seemed quite happy to pose, so as I took a second shot, he explained that his family had been coming to Majdel Balhiss in early April every year since his great-great grandfather’s time and that they always work for the same family.

I found it a bit difficult to understand Mohammad. His accent was unfamiliar and he tended to swallow his words, but seeing him pose for me, one of the other hikers came over and began chatting, allowing me to listen and occasionally ask for translation. And so I learned that Mohammad liked being with the animals more than working in the orchards, which he left to his sisters unless there was really no other choice. He sometimes worked in the fields, too, though he was happier herding the animals because it allowed him to wander. But as long as he was outdoors, he was happy, especially after a long winter in the tent. 

Meanwhile, a couple of other walkers had stopped and some were also taking photos. If Mohammad minded, he didn’t say anything and continued to talk with the first walker. Spring was his favourite time of year, he said, because there was nothing more satisfying than watching the world slowly come back to life. Clearly, we were in the presence of a romantic.

Emboldened, I asked him how old he was. He said that he wasn’t sure but that he thought he was about thirty-seven. Despite his sparkling eyes and glowing complexion, he looked older to me, but I kept that thought to myself. 

I had my shot. Thanking him for his generosity and commending him to God, I turned to leave. 

“Tell me, why did you want to take my photo?” 

After chatting so easily earlier, Mohammad suddenly looked rather shy, not to mention decades younger. 

 “Honestly? Because I think you look really amazing standing there, especially in that red keffiyah. Very striking.” 

 With a little smile, he turned back to his flock and ambled down the hill. And probably instantly, Mohammad al-Jawz forgot that we had ever existed, at all.

 

 

Chapter 11: Wild Honey and Sinking Ships

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We cross the small square at the top of the souk and wind our way through the tail-end of Rashaya, which peters out in a sprinkling of old homes with wild, overgrown gardens, to emerge on a low bluff on the outskirts of town.

From here, the trail leads down steeply through a small crevasse, into bright, flower-filled fields but after a picturesque start, we spend the next hour and a half walking past a succession of villages that are difficult to describe as anything but depressing, despite the magnificence of their surroundings. The trail leads through open fields, but we’re too close to the busy cross-valley road, so the soundtrack of wind and birdsong we’d walked to the day before, is supplanted by the swoosh of passing cars and the low rumble of trucks. It's also surprisingly hot and for now, the best views are all behind us. It isn’t long before my lack of sleep begins to take its toll. 

As the last of the fly-blown villages recedes from view, we hike past a rusting roadside fair that exudes all the cheer of a bout of dysentery. A faded billboard nearby advertises a glitzy new hospital offered to ‘the honourable people’ of Lebanon by ‘brotherly’ Iran. From the looks of it, the sign has been there for years but the hospital hasn’t materialised. What has is a bunker-like branch campus of the Lebanese University (Sixth Division), which is apparently dedicated to the pursuit of business administration. It looks like the kind of place that will serve as the headquarters of a cabal of cannibal bikers after the Zombie Apocalypse.

An Eternity, or three kilometres later - you choose - the trail finally veers away from the road and, allahu akbar, we begin to wind our way uphill through the gentle beauty of vineyards and cherry orchards beginning to bloom. Spring has not yet sprung up in the mountains and down here on the valley floor, which is some 1000 metres above sea level, the full fandango is still a couple of days away, but this little tease of What Is To Come, is heady.

At the top of the hill, we pass through the outskirts of a small village. The inhabitants are hard at work in their fields, but as we pass, they take a break to stare, evidently puzzled by the sight of a bunch of strangers walking through these parts, so we smile, wave and offer warm ‘hellos’ to those nearest. Eventually, a couple wave back hesitantly, though I get the sense this is less a welcome, than concern we might stop for a chat. Between the bleak villages below and the chain gang welcome in the foothills, it’s almost as though we’ve stumbled into a parallel Lebanon, where all the normal (saving) graces don’t apply.

An hour later, the much more welcoming village of Kawkaba Bu Arab lurches into view. It’s perched on top of a rocky outcrop, part hill, part ridge, that dominates the rolling farmlands on the valley floor. From a distance, the dense cluster of houses looks a bit like a dreamy, medieval citadel. It’s somewhat less attractive closer up. The few graceful sandstone homes that haven’t been ‘modernised’, have been overwhelmed by a froth of concrete boxes, most of which stand empty and unfinished, but Lebanese hospitality is back in full(on) effect and our ‘good mornings’ are returned with warm invitations to come in and have a cup of coffee. We don’t, of course. Though genuinely meant, such invitations are a ritual welcome, usually said in the understanding that you will decline with a polite ‘no’ or perhaps a ‘killak zo’, an essential Levantine phrase that literally translates as ‘you are all good taste’ but which can also serve as the equivalent of a ‘you’re too kind’. It’s apparently a holdover from the formalised greetings of Ottoman times. 

Though otherwise unremarkable, Kawkaba Bu Arab is the location of the tomb of a 17th Century Druze hermit called Sheikh el-Fadel. The holy man is famous for performing a number of modest miracle, and like Francis of Assisi, is said to have had a way with wild animals.

He lived for most of his life in a small cave on the outskirts of the village and is buried a short walk away from where we have arrived, in a maqam built later in his honour. Like most words in Arabic, maqam has a number of different meanings. It is the word the Druze use to describe their shrines and in Sufism, to describe the stages the soul must go through in its quest for God, but its literal meaning is ‘place’. Rather more delightfully, maqam is also used to describe the modal structures of classical Arabic music and Sephardic Jewish temple songs. So in addition to physical location, the word carries connotation of transcendence and tone.

The maqam turns out to be a large compound containing the sheikh’s original grave site, his new shrine, a simple sandstone cube with arcades topped by a crisply whitewashed dome, a few administrative buildings and a prayer hall. One end of the compound is shaded by two of the largest oak trees I’ve seen in Lebanon, absolute monsters that have been saved from the axe because Sheikh el-Fadel liked to sit under them and read. The new, cupolaed shrine bears an inscription dating it to 1321. For a while there’s a brief but animated discussion between a couple of the hikers as to whether the date is Gregorian or Islamic until Robin ambles over and explains that the Sheikh died in the 17th Century, so the date is Anno Hijrah, not Domini, which means that the new tomb was built in 1903.

It is a quiet, meditative place during the week. The only visitors apart from us are a young Druze couple, who have come with their newborn to pay their respects but the guardian tells us that at weekends and especially on feast days, the maqam fills up with visitors from all over Lebanon and, in quieter times, Syria. From somewhere, I can hear the trickle of water, and as the trees sway in the breeze, it sound like their shadows are play music across the flagstones. 

Like any self-respecting hermit, Sheikh el-Fadel survived on a combination of charity and self-sufficiency, receiving modest offerings of food from villagers and foraging for anything else. As evidence of his blessed nature, wild animals are said to have brought him morsels of food, and if his supplies ran perilously low, the hive of wild bees nesting in the cleft near his cave would produce extra honey to feed him, which would ooze down the rock face in sticky, golden rivulets. 

A profound respect for Nature is one of the principal tenets of the Druze faith and it was the Sheikh’s close relationship with wild animals that earned him his saintly reputation. Of course, there are always doubters. One day, a local man turned up at the cave one day with a group of friends and challenged the sheikh to feed them all, if he could. At this point, the saintly gentleman had nothing but a little stale bread to offer but he asked them to sit – an invitation that was not politely declined - went out to the cleft, and returned with bowl of honey. When it was finished, he went out and got them more, and more, and more. Their doubt banished by bulging bellies, the men left and never bothered the Sheikh, or his bees, again.

The cave where this modest Lebanese remake of the Feeding of the Five Thousand took place, is now part of the maqam (though the bees are conspicuously absent) and the view it commands is magnificent. Clearly the Sheikh knew the importance of location, and here at the tip of the promontory, the ground plunges precipitously to the valley a hundred or so metres below. Flanking us in the distance on either side are the snow-capped mountain ranges of the Anti-Lebanon and the Lebanon, and the luminous pale blue sky is stippled with tiny cottony puffs of cloud, which drift by in the breeze casting their shadows on the wine-coloured earth, striped yellow and green with crops and pasturelands.

On the hills opposite, we can make out the similarly citadel-esque outlines of Kfar Meshki. The soil may be rich and the landscapes magnificent, but prospects in the Beka’a are limited and so like nearly all of its neighbours, this tiny, mostly Christian village has been emptied by a century and half of emigration. As improbable as it seems, there are are people in Sydney, Montreal, São Paulo and Caracas who can trace their roots to this beautiful, unloved and overlooked part of the country.

It was this pursuit of a better life that briefly earned Kfar Miski a place in global headlines, when in 1912, at least 10 and possibly 14 - the figures are disputed - of its inhabitants ended up going down on the Titanic. 

Despite its size, the Lebanese made up a significant enough swathe of the ill-fated ship’s passengers that during the evacuation scenes in the James Cameron film, a brief snatch of Arabic can be heard in the background. Watching the film in Beirut when it came out, this was greeted by a explosion of clapping, hooting and whistling that somehow managed to outdo the adolescent appreciation of Kate Winslet’s breasts a few scenes earlier. 

The exact number of Lebanese passengers on the Titantic depends on which account of the tragedy you read. There were definitely 93, most of whom joined the ship at Cherbourg, and so Kfar Mishki isn’t the only Lebanese village to have lost inhabitants that cold April night, but it is possible that there were as many as 125 on board. 

There are several reasons for the confusion. Census records from the Ottoman Era are unreliable because in the more remote parts of the country, which in those days meant anywhere more than a day’s journey from the nearest regional capital, many people never bothered to get documented. Even in cities, it wasn’t uncommon for people to live their entire lives without leaving a single official record of their existence.

The Titanic’s passenger logs are more accurate, but when it comes to accounting for Lebanese passengers, they are still unhelpful. Many emigrants, on their way to new and better lives abroad, gave Anglicised versions of their names – ‘Butros’ became ‘Peter’, for example – while others were mis-registered, so that in one case, the Lebanese family name ‘Badr’ was written down as the more Germanic-sounding ‘Badt’.

However many Lebanese there were on board, they accounted for nearly all of the Titanic’s Middle Eastern passengers. The only other confirmed Arab passenger was an Egyptian called Hammad Hassab, but thanks to the largesse of his American patron, who had paid for his passage, he was not only travelling First Class, he also survived. The Lebanese, most of whom were in Third Class, weren’t as lucky and whether there were 93 or 125 of them, only 23 lived to tell the tale.

As we begin to thread our way down the hill, Robin tells us the story of one of those that did not, Fares Shehab, an accomplished oud-player who was on his way to New York to become a professional musician. In another one of those moments of delicious irony Lebanon does so well, Shehab was a scion of the princely family whose palace we have only just visited in Hasbaya.

Like most early 20th Century aristocrats, the Emir was titled but broke, and so and along with his compatriots, he was travelling below decks and was trapped when the crew locked the gates, in an attempt to allow the Upper Deck passengers evacuate first.

As people panicked, he pulled out his oud, the only possession he had tried to rescue, and attempted to calm the situation. The gambit worked just long enough for the crew to briefly reopen the gates and let some of the women and children through, before locking them again. According to survivors, they could hear the Emir’s oud  above the shouting and pleading as they fled. Perhaps like the orchestra on the upper deck, which was halfway through Nearer My God to Thee when the Titanic sank, Fares Shehab also continued to play until the end, and if so, perhaps the haunting sound of the oud provided some those who died with him a final moment of solace before the cold, cold waters of the North Atlantic flooded in and took their lives.

Chapter 7: Flashback - A Lucky Coincidence and a Close Call.

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In fact, I had been to Shebaa a couple of times as a reporter but I had only ever seen the Farms from a distance.

I had, however, visited neighbouring Bastara, a rather desolate pocket of land home to a rundown farm belonging to the Zohra family. Though no one disputed Bastara’s Lebanese appurtenance, it existed in a weird geopolitical bubble, cut off from Lebanon by the vagaries of topography, politics and land mines. The farm had been handed back to official Lebanese control after Israel’s withdrawal in 2000 but a fence put up during the Occupation still separated the farm from the rest of the country.

Getting there meant taking what passed for a road from Kfar Shuba, the nearest village. More rut than road, the track was a car-killer. It wound across the lower slopes of Jabal al-Sheikh through untended fields strewn with piles of gravel and rocks the size of small children. Israeli army outposts capped the crests of several peaks higher up. The view from the track was breathtaking, you could see down into the Houla Valley and almost over the hills of Upper Galilee to the coast. From higher up in the outposts, it must have been possible to see Haifa and possibly beyond. No wonder the Israelis refused to relinquish this part of Lebanon.

After about twenty dusty minutes of bumping along the track, the ‘border’ appeared. On the other side, a well-maintained Israeli army patrol road followed the fence, both uphill to the outposts and down onto the plateau below. 

Turn left and it would be an easy drive to the Shebaa Farms. Not that you’d get there before being shot. Turn right and a short drive led to the Bastara Bubble. In those first months after the withdrawal, it was still possible to drive along this patrol road to the farm, passing the remains of the outpost, blown up during the withdrawal. Beyond it, the road continued down to where one day, the borders of Lebanon and Syria might meet again, but which for now remained occupied land. 

The most important thing to remember about navigating this road, after getting the necessary UNIFIL and military permissions of course, was to drive slowly and visibly. This let the Israeli soldiers in the outposts, as well as any militias hidden in the hills, know you were not up to anything sneaky, though you still chanced one or both sides shooting or shelling you anyway.

The Zohras were a family of goat-herders. They’d remained on their farm throughout the Occupation because firstly, the land was theirs and secondly, because without it, they had no way to make a living. Mohammad Zohra, his brother Qassem and Mohammad’s daughter, Fatima had clung onto their farm even after Israeli soldiers razed their olive groves and fruit orchards, temporarily confiscated their goats, even after Mohammad’s wife, unable to get to hospital because the soldiers refused to open the gate to let them through until it was too late, had died. 

I never got to see Mohammad Zohra on his land. On my first visit, a few weeks after the withdrawal, he’d gone down into Marjayoun to get supplies and so, we had tea with Qassem and Fatima. On my second, a few months later, he’d finally been driven out of Bastara under a vicious barrage of tank and mortar fire that had killed his entire flock of 250 goats in a matter of moments. When I found him, he was hunched over a stove in a friend’s home in Kfar Shuba, crying. For the first time in his 75 years, he told me between sobs, he had nothing and nowhere to go. 

“What is this war to me? I’m just a goat-keeper,” he said, twisting a glass of tea mournfully in his hands. “It’s always the small, unimportant people like us, never the big players, that suffer.”

Driving slowly to Bastara afterwards, we had taped the word ‘press’ along the side of the car and the roof and were flying large white flags from both windows. It was fair to say that we were nervous.

As we drew into the Zohra's farm, the stench of death was pervasive. A couple of Mohammad’s guard dogs, who had run off during the shelling, barked half-heartedly at us but stayed crouched in the grass by the road, unwilling to enter the charnel house their farm had become.

I was travelling with a Jordanian colleague, Lara, who worked with me at the Daily Star in Beirut. She’d volunteered to help me search the house, document the attack and try to find a stack of documents Mohammad Zohra had asked us to bring back, if we could find them.

There was a large hole in the roof of the house created by a shell, which had landed without exploding, so the living room was a mess of rubble and dust. We didn’t want to stay any longer than necessary, so Lara volunteered to keep looking for the documents, while I headed to the goat pens, source of the stench, to make notes and take photos. 

Charging around a corner, camera in hand, I suddenly found myself face-to-face with a very scruffy and very startled-looking young man in camouflage gear. The encounter caught us both off guard and so it took me a few seconds to register that he had a machine-gun, angled up at my chest.

I’d only been in Lebanon for a couple of years at that point and my Arabic wasn’t great, but I was freaked out and he was speaking far too quickly for me to understand, anyway. Or rather, shouting. Slowly putting my hands up, letting my camera fall around my neck and trying not to do anything stupid, I replied with the only words I could still remember. 

Inglizi. Sahafi. Biktoub muqallet an al hadath. ” I said, continuing in English and pointing at myself, the farm and up towards the outposts and back to the shelled remains of the house. “I’m a British, a journalist. I’m writing an article, about what happened.”

My new companion looked every bit as freaked out as I felt. I have no idea how that conversation might have ended had Lara not been with me. Not terribly well, I imagine, for he was growing increasingly flustered but just then, Lara stepped out of the house. Without missing a beat, she also raised her hands and began to slowly walk over, speaking loudly in Arabic, saying her name was Lara and asking if everything was alright. Even in my fright, I understood that she was speaking in Arabic so that the man could hear that at least one of us wasn’t a foreigner.

Without lowering his gun, he beckoned Lara forwards, asking her why we were at the farm and where she was from. She told him that she was a journalist, that she’d come to report on the shelling and that we’d spoken to Mohammad Zohra that morning in Kfar Shuba. She also added that although she was Jordanian, she was of Palestinian origin and her family originally came from Nablus. We both agreed afterwards that this lucky coincidence defused a very dangerous situation. It certainly saved us a lot of complications.

As she drew near, two more men emerged from behind the house and followed behind her. We now had three machine guns trained on us. Reaching my side, Lara and the scruffy man began a short but very intense conversation.

I didn’t follow much of it but I heard the word ‘Nablus’ a couple of times, so it sounded like they were talking about Palestine. Whatever Lara said seemed to reassure the man, at least enough that he decided it was better to let us go rather than detain us for questioning. Or worse. Waving his machine-gun towards the car, he barked at us to leave. We didn’t need telling twice. Thanking them all profusely and waving like idiot tourists, we got in the car and drove back up the patrol road as slowly as we could. It must have taken Lara every ounce of her resolve to not hit the accelerator but we both understood that any sudden move now could easily get us shot, either by the three men, other militias or the Israelis.

After what seemed like an eternity, we finally drove through the fence and ‘back’ into Lebanon. Hearts pounding out of our chests, we began to laugh hysterically as relief flooded our systems. Once our nerves had settled, I asked Lara what she and the man had been talking about. She confirmed my suspicion that we had stumbled into a trio of Palestinian fedayeen, guerrillas, most probably members of the PFLP, a radical and rather violent faction supported by Syria. It was likely they were scouts and had taken up position in Bastara after the Zohras had been driven out. 

The rapid fire conversation had mostly been about determining whether Lara really was from Nablus, as she claimed. It was sheer luck that the man’s mother was from Nablus, so he’d quizzed Lara about places, people and street names, and had even tried to trick her by asking about a bakery in the town, but pretending to get its name and location wrong. It wasn’t a particularly sophisticated gambit, but it was only after Lara had politely corrected him that he’d finally relaxed enough to decide it was less hassle to let us go. As our hysteria subsided and we drove back to Kfar Shuba across a rocky, unforgiving landscape made beautiful by a rush of endorphins and the golden caress of the setting sun, I imagine we were both thanking serendipity for saving our skins.