The following morning, a decade and half of eating too much and barely exercising makes itself felt, as I awake to a world of pain.
It’s not just that my knees ache, my feet are so comprehensively tenderised that standing upright is going to be agony and despite liberally slathering myself in sunblock, I must have missed a few spots, because patches of my forearms look like they’ve been lightly broiled.
Heaving my protesting body out of bed, I feel my back and thighs spasm and nearly lose my balance. In all my 47 years, I’ve never felt less fit than I do at this moment, and that includes the two months I spent in bed after mangling my knee in a childhood bicycle accident in Taiwan.
Groaning, I hobble towards the bathroom, passing one of the more seasoned hikers in the hall. I’d observed him sourly the day before, bounding up and down hillsides like a demented gazelle, as I wheezed and creaked along like a ninety year-old.
“Hurts, n’est-ce pas?” His cheery grin and faux conspiratorial wink are like a red flag to a bull. “Just take a couple of aspirin tonight. They’ll keep the swelling down and you’ll feel much better in the morning.”
He bounds off down the hall, whistling.
“See you at breakfast!”
Stifling a blinding urge to wring his neck, or at least trip him up, I stagger into the bathroom, lock the door and take a shower. I’m running late, it’s already six-fifteen, we’re due to set off at seven and I haven’t even filled my water bottles yet.
As it turns out, I needn’t have worried. The farm only has four bathrooms and there are 35 of us, so by the time I get to the table twenty minutes later, most people are only just beginning to eat.
Optimistically, breakfast has been laid out on the terrace. It’s quite chilly but the view across the Beka’a is sublime. The place we’ve spent the night is a three-minute drive from Hasbaya, so we’re still up in the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon. Below us, the fields are hidden beneath an early spring mist, which swirls gently in the breeze, and the snow-streaked upper slopes of Mount Lebanon on the far side of valley still bear the rosé tinge of sunrise. Colours have become polarised, making the trees and rocks pop against the backdrop of neatly furrowed, chocolate-brown fields.
Our hosts clearly live by the maxim that breakfast is the most important meal of the day and ours is a lavish affair; acres of small dishes containing olives, fresh vegetables, mountain herbs, homemade yoghurts, cheeses and jams, eggs of various descriptions and tangy za’atar dip, supplemented by several trays of piping hot, cheese-stuffed bread balls covered in sesame seeds and overflowing bowls of the creamiest fuul that I have ever eaten. Eating in Lebanon is always an excessive affair, but the cornucopia this morning redefines abundance.
“Listen gang,” Joseph begins, as he briefs us on the walk ahead, “we have a longer trail than yesterday, probably about 22 or 23 kilometres and we’re going to climb up to around 1400 metres before dropping down to Rashaya. There won’t be many fresh water springs along the way, so don’t forget to fill up before we go.”
Truth be told, I’m rather dreading today’s walk.
Our first day had been tough enough for me and at the LMTA offices in Beirut, we’d been told that the Hasbaya-Rashaya section was one of the trail’s most taxing. My mindset hadn’t been helped when, before dinner the previous evening, we’d been introduced to Wael, a local guide who was to accompany us as part of his LMTA training.
He’d peppered his trail overview with multiple references to potential sources of injury, danger and a dispiriting focus on how gruelling some of the ascents were going to be. He’d probably been trying to be encouraging, in a reverse psychology kind of way but if so, his presentation of the Trail of Tears that lay ahead had misfired, as our increasingly gloomy expressions evinced. Joseph’s face clouded on a couple of occasions as Wael spoke, and when he disappeared off to one side with him afterwards, I assumed our senior guide intended to give his trainee a dressing down.
By the time breakfast is done and we’re ready to leave, Wael still hasn’t materialised. As Robin sets off up the road, Joseph informs us that he won’t be coming. Apparently, he isn’t feeling well. I notice that a couple of the other walkers are smiling quietly and I guess that like me, they suspect from the way Joseph breaks the news, that our guide-in-training has been told his services today aren’t required.
Despite my trepidation aside, I’m eager to get going for today, we will be hiking high up along the flanks of Mount Hermon. I’ve wanted to come up to this part of Lebanon since I first read about the dozens of Canaanite, Greek and Roman temples that dot the mountain’s slopes as a teenager, but in 18 years living here, Hermon had become an enduring regret, a place I would gazing at longingly each time I made the journey over Mount Lebanon to the Beka’a.
During the first few years I lived in Lebanon, getting there was impossible. Located astride the Lebanese, Syrian and since the 1967 War, Israeli borders, Hermon was off-limits to hikers during the Occupation and thanks to an area called the Shebaa Farms, which Israel retained when it withdrew from the South, it remained that way for a number of years afterwards.
Israel said that Shebaa was Syrian territory, because when they invaded in 1967, the only official they’d found had been Syrian. Lebanon said that it was Lebanese territory, because the land was owned and farmed by the inhabitants of the village of Shebaa, which was quite firmly in Lebanon.
The Lebanese government used Shebaa to dispute Israel’s claim that it had fully withdrawn from Lebanon and so in the mid-2000’s, Resistance operations had shifted their focus from the southern borderlands to this vertiginous pocket of land.
Initially, the government in Damascus remained quiet on the matter. The border between Lebanon and Syria has never formally been ratified, largely because Syria, the larger and more heavily armed of the two, has never believed there should be one. Officially, it paid lip service to the notion that Lebanon was a separate country, but it still clung to the notion that it had ‘lost’ Lebanon when the Levant was divided up by the British and the French after the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire.
There’s no disputing that the border, like many others in the Middle East, is the result of European imperialism, but what is often lost in the on-going polemic over Messrs. Sykes and Picot, is that both Lebanon and Syria were cut out of a much larger Ottoman administrative entity, the Bilad al-Sham or the Country of Sham. Because Sham is an old name for Damascus – it’s a corruption of Shem, the eldest son of Noah, who is claimed as the city’s founder – most Syrian governments since have used this as proof that Lebanon is really theirs.
During visits to Damascus as a journalist, which always began with an obligatory courtesy call to the Ministry of Information, I had been treated to regular expositions on the ‘essential unity’ of the Lebanese and Syrians, how they were ‘one people in two countries’ and how, insha’allah, the two would ‘one day’ be united again.
As a post-colonial argument, it sounded convincing except for the fact that Bilad al-Sham had also included what is now Jordan, Palestine/Israel, a sliver of south-eastern Turkey and part of western Iraq. In calling for a return to its pre-colonial dimensions, Syria did not claim the return of those other ‘lost’ lands, only smaller, weaker Lebanon.
So while the border existed on paper and there were official crossing points between the two countries, it frequently felt as though the Syrian government regarded this as a nicety, and in the more remote parts of Lebanon, like Shebaa, it was a nicety that had sometimes been ignored in the past. This, Beirut said, was why there had been a Syrian official in the Farms the day Israel invaded.
But Shebaa wasn’t the only piece of Lebanese territory Israel still occupied. Over the years, Tel Aviv had unilaterally altered the 1948 Demarcation Line in a number of places and so to all intents and purposes, that frontier too, was open to question. In fact, the only border the country had that wasn’t, was with the Mediterranean.
Israel claimed the Shebaa Farms were Syrian and so they had withdrawn from Lebanon in compliance with International Law. Lebanon and Syria said the Farms were Lebanese and so Israel was still in violation of Lebanon’s sovereignty. As a result, most of the resistance operations carried out by groups like Hezbollah and the handful of Palestinian groups backed by Syria and therefore permitted during the Syrian control of Lebanon to do as they pleased, increasingly took place there and Shebaa became the perfect post-withdrawal casus belli, a convenient way for everyone to keep hostilities at a bubble.
This worked for Israel, because attacks on Israeli troops in the Farms bolstered its claim that it had the right to keep bombing Lebanon. It worked for Hezbollah, because it allowed it to burnish its credentials as the Resistance and supported its argument that alone of the wartime militias, it deserved to remain armed and beyond state control. It also worked for Syria, because it kept Lebanon unstable and thus safely within its orbit, while allowing Damascus to reap the rewards of its self-proclaimed status as the ‘beating heart’ of Arabism, without needing to fire a shot. The Farms were a dirty, if depressingly typical example of Levantine geopolitics in action, and as usual, it was the civilians of southern Lebanon who paid the price.