To subscribers: this is the first travel writing I've put up on the site -- though the site was supposed to be dedicated to travel. Unpublished elsewhere so may be full of unedited junk.
As the sparse, scrubby fields of the Bekaa Valley and the misted out brownish smudge of mountains called the Anti-Lebanon Range that frame it to the east flow past the tour bus window, it occurs to me that this vehicle is on the road to Damascus, at least in theory.
Wasn’t there somebody in history or legend who’d had a change of heart on the “road to Damascus”? I rack my brains for the literary or Biblical reference—was it Paul or Saul? I ask around the bus if anyone can produce the reference, but no one can. I consider asking our voluble guide Abbas (“That’s like the Swedish popgroup ABBA with an S”) but he is far away at the front, delivering an unstoppable monologue.
“There are the tents of bedouins,” thunders Abbas in his amplified, already powerful voice. They are not Lebanese, he informs us, and had come to do the harvest.
Would I or anyone else have a great revelation or change of heart on this trip? In the event, I’d have to resign myself to something less--I couldn’t milk the Biblical metaphor at all! But that didn’t prevent me from experiencing a whole flurry of minor revelations about this oddly unbalanced but amiable place.
Taking advantage of a 10-day holiday break at the Muslim climax of Eid al Adha, I headed to the smallest, most complicated Arab country (recently described as “wartorn”) rather than the sunny in-season beaches within shooting distance--Sri Lanka, the Maldives and Kerala to name a few. Actually Lebanon has quite a few fine beaches as well, but I saw few swimmers cutting the turquoise in November. Why I went I can’t quite say but it had something to do with wanting to reduce the huge amount of ignorance I have about the broader context of the Middle East heretofore seen primarily from a sand-bound perspective.
In addition, since a gimpy back limits my heroics—I thought a small country – not more than 100 k in length --might suit me best. In any case, I found Lebanon to be manageable, stimulating and fun at least on the surface.
Some macro impressions. First the fear factor: Even though no major violence has happened in Lebanon for years, that is following the Hariri assassination and Syrian exit, peace and tranquility in this land, as Neil MacFarquhar points out in his recent book on the Middle East (in a title too long to quote) are rarely to be found. Indeed, the suggestion of a new crisis regarding the outcome of the UN sponsored Hariri Tribunal was in the news. Individual Lebanese I talked to seemed cautiously optimistic, but then again, as one said, “We have to be.”
No need, however, to worry about the weather. It was almost as blazing as the Gulf – downright summery, even up in the hills. But as a Lebanese citoyen told me, there’s a warming trend in Lebanon as everywhere else.
What’s next in importance for the tourist? Food! Here again no worries. Almost all the decent food in the Middle East is a spinoff from Lebanese or Syrian. So if you like lentil soup and shish taook in Dubai or Doha, you’re not going to be disappointed with the genuine article in Beirut. I expected to find schwarma stands all over the country, but in fact only saw one or two – I did have one superb chicken schwarma a la Libanaise though it cost double the Dubai price.
Some regional comparisons: Lebanon is roughly at the same level of economic development as Jordan though the country seems less dynamic than booming Turkey. Beirut is much livelier and cosmopolitan than safe, orderly Amman, less historically dense and atmospheric than Cairo but much easier to put up with than the Egyptian capital due to the latter’s wall-to-wall touts and incessant demands for baksheesh. Overall, Lebanon seems less “third world” than Egypt as well – though there are world-class slums in South Beirut and the Palestinian refugee camps. Though these contrast dramatically with the very wealthy quarters of the same town, Beirut still seems modern, upbeat and civilized. Prices in Lebanon are very reasonable ($77 per night at the Mayflower, a 4 star hotel), though services can seem expensive to the Gulf resident because unlike in the Gulf, Lebanese citizens themselves perform these services and not cheap foreign labor.
Lebanon is freer and more outspoken than any other Arab country I’ve seen (and indeed the Lebanese confirmed my impression and are proud of this freedom) though there is only one English-language newspaper, The Daily Star. The friendly welcome so typical of other Middle Eastern countries I’ve visited is very much out in force in Lebanon as well, as is a fair amount of price gouging and (unfortunately) good old fashioned chicanery. Overall, however, the Lebanese that I met were (with one exception, see below) reliable, trustworthy and articulate in a variety of languages.
They are also Francophones to a degree you wouldn’t believe. So ubiquitous is French in fact that I found myself speaking it nearly everywhere, in taxis, hotels, and on tours with French tourists. It was a nice unexpected linguistic bonus for this old student of French and onetime Francophile. The Lebanese seem to have adopted en masse a French cultural alter ego so that wherever you go you’re sure to see some vestige of France such as the blue & white street signs (“Rue de Hamra”), as well as patisseries , traiteurs, etc. and a marked preference for French over English in the names of restaurants and hotels. There is also a respectable effort at simulating one of ~France's greatest contributions to civilizaton--street cafe life. The reason for this? France has a long history of intervention in Lebanon, most recently after World War II. Alien invaders they might have been yet as Catholics their cultural affinities with the Christian segments of Lebanese society seem to have left a deep imprint. In addition, many Lebanese of all sects were educated in French schools that still exist. In any case, Lebanese francophony provided a pleasant cultural diversion for me and revived my interest in French literature as I browsed the shelves of French bookstores in Beirut. (The first one I went into had a copy of Houllebecque’s latest Goncourt-winning novel La Carte et Le Territoire plus a Le Clezio that I was looking for).
But what about the tours? What about the tourism? What about the fun? There was plenty of that to be had in Lebanon at a reasonable price and with moderate effort yet I only succeeded in booking one full day of tours to famous and great sites. My first tour to the coastal archetypal town Byblos was a disaster due to a taxi driver who was either insane or a total cheat. He told me I had only an hour in that incredibly ancient place, maybe the world’s first city. I was there long enough to understand very little—fortunately one hour among old stones is my limit anyway; the surrounding souks were more enticing, but alas! The lying crook tricked me back to Beirut (where we had a hell of an argument over how much I owed him. I actually won the argument yet lost a half day).
Next on the list was Balbec, not the fictional birthplace of Proust's alter ego Marcel in another book whose title is too long, but the legendary Roman ruins close to the Syrian border. I tried to sign up on the day of Eid itself – but it was fully booked, so I had to wait. In the meantime, I booked hotel taxis at exorbitant rates (since there are no city tours) to take me to Beirut legends such as the old Green Line and Palestinian refugee camps. The guidebooks warned against visiting the latter places (without a local contact of some kind) so although interested in them I remained cautious while being driven through Sabra and Shatila camps, scenes of the notorious massacres in 1982. I must admit that the human density of the camps, as revealed by a superficial drive through, exerted a strange kind of attraction--similar to the lurid squalor that had fascinated me in pre-Capitalist Shanghai in 1986. I walked around for a half hour or so in Shatila, accompanied by my driver, and found the place reasonably calm and orderly. No one rushed me—an obvious Yank in their midst--or cursed me out.
It took a half-day to get there, but Balbec was worth the trouble. Because I’d dropped my camera in a freak accident in my hotel room and smashed the telephoto lens, I have no ocular proof of my visit. We got, for 75 dollars, the truly charming Ummayid/Roman site of Anjar, a wine-tasting stop at Ksara, a a superb but rushed dinner at the “best restaurant in Lebanon” (the “Arabi Casino” perched in the mountains) and the beautiful, fantastically well-preserved ruins of the ancient Roman religious site of Balbec (which means “temple of Baal” the sun god). Featuring the remains of a temple to Jupiter and another to Bacchus, it is a small, very manageable ruin in a particularly scenic spot of the Bekaa Valley. The temple of Bacchus is the single best preserved Roman building I have ever seen (outside Rome’s Panteone) – like a miniature Parthenon. The whole site begs comparison with one other well-preserved Roman site--Ephesus in Turkey, which includes the contours of a whole city.
What I will remember perhaps even longer than the classic architecture of Balbec is the comraderie of the busload of tourists I travelled with to Balbec. Across the aisle from me was a young Pakistani couple from the Emirates – apparent strangers until, noticing the husband’s fluent American accent, I asked him where he went to school. His answer, “Madison, Wisconsin” placed him in a highly select group of only four in my whole experience of the Middle East. Though we probably wouldn’t have been great friends in Madison—the old hippy and the young business grad—we enjoyed the old school connection and present encounter. I also enjoyed the naïve but genuine interest of an Indian doctor (working in Saudi) in the religion of paganism, the real French of two authentic female French tourists, and the affable guide Abbas. I was also amazed to learn that an educated and attractive European pair—the husband of which was wielding a camera in a way I envied for obvious reasons—were retired int the Greek island of Leros. Leros? Let me see. Isn’t that the small lump we see, sitting in Bodrum, Turkey, every day on the horizon just north of Calymnos? A common alma mater, exchanged addresses and hopes for a visit in the future—such are the chancy miracles of travel.
So no major revelations or change of heart on the “road to Damascus” – just a few small insights. One of these was based on the fact that Lebanon draws an interesting bunch of travelers. The more special the country, it seems, the better quality the tourists and vice versa (the less special the country, the more riffraffish the people who come to its shores). And finally this modest observation: the more you travel, the more at home you feel not being at home. And, oh yes, it was both Saul & Paul since the former turned into the latter by converting from paganism to Christianity.
Vive le Liban libre!