Thursday, February 08, 2007

First Adventures out of Beirut

This past weekend, I decided to take my first steps outside the city to explore the rest of Lebanon. I know I will have to go everywhere twice—once now to assuage my curiosity and again in the spring when the weather is warm and the towns are all open. A lot of places, I've learned, really go into hibernation for the winter. Saturday marked the first of four straight days of intense days we'd have. Undeterred, Steve (Groton class of '04, spending the semester traveling throughout the Middle East, in case you missed it from an earlier post) and I made our way down to the Cola bus station to head out to the Bekka Valley for the day.
The Bekka has always been number one on my list of places to go in Lebanon, and rather than wait and build up to it, I just decided to go straight away. The transport system in Lebanon is incredible. When I arrived at the bus terminal in Beirut, several men asked me where I wanted to go. I said I wanted to go to the village of Ksara in the Bekka. I was then shuttled to one of the many, many microbuses waiting at the terminal. Unlike any place I've been, there was no haggling over my business. There was order and reason to it all. I made it to Ksara, roughly an hour and a half ride, for three dollars only. To get to the Bekka Valley, which runs north to south on the eastern edge of Lebanon, we had to drive through the impressive Chouf mountains that made for really steep roads and some pretty intense snow.
By the time we got to Ksara, the snow had turned back to rain, and we were ready for the first stop on our daylong tour. We stopped in Ksara to go to the oldest and most famous winery in Lebanon, which is, surprisingly, supposed to make quite good wine. Of course, we were the only idiots to be visiting the winery on a rainy Saturday in the middle of winter at 9am, but we were excited nonetheless. A smart young Lebanese woman gave us a tour of the winery. The winery, back fifty years ago, had been owned by monks who made and sold wine, the profits form which would benefit the church. It is now owned by four private families. Our guide showed us the natural caves which are two miles in length, and because of their constant year-round temperature, are where the wine is aged. Barrels upon barrels of wine lined the corridors of the caves. Little alcoves on the right and left were used to keep wines from each year for the sake of history.
The tour concluded with a wine tasting in which our guide gave us all the information on the different wines and gave us different kinds of things, including Lebanon's national drink, Arak. When all was said and done, we went to the store in the winery and I bought a bottle of cognac, something I don't even drink, because production of it was stopped when the families bought the winery from the monks. The thought of owning fifty year old cognac made by monks in the heart of Lebanon was too much. Plus, it didn't cost a lot.
From west-central Bekka, we moved on to the south Bekka. The day before, while on assignment, I had met the mayor, named Kamal Harb, of a small city called il-Marjj. He invited me to come visit him anytime, and when I told him I was going to be in the Bekka the next day, he insisted I come by for coffee. To get down to his town, we took a taxi driven by a Palestinian who, when I asked him about his desire to return to the West Bank, got the most glazed over look in his eyes that I have ever seen. It was one of the purest moments of nostalgia I think I'll ever see. I bring it up only because at the mention of Palestine, it was startling how much he was transported to a different time and place.
We ended up staying and chatting with Kamal for almost two hours. We talked only politics, but of a scope that ranged from local to international. One thing we talked a lot about was a meeting he had just come from. He had been meeting with the director of the military in the Bekka region to express his displeasure on the previous week's events. His town, il-Marjj, is a bastion of Sunni authority in a region that is heavily, heavily Shi'a. When the Hezbollah protestors took over the country for a day two weeks ago, they also blocked the main street of his town with tires. He was furious because his town was Sunni and wanted nothing to do with these protests. His message to the military was that they had better take action if Hezbollah takes to the streets again because the alternative would be a violent uprising by the townsmen.
We chatted on and on at length over rotating cups of espressos, lattes, and teas. The trays of drinks kept coming, and I kept taking them as long as my host did. After a couple of hours, Kamal's brother, a dentist, arrived to take us on a driving tour of the town. He showed us everything from the town center to the agricultural fields. We saw farmland owned by the church, an unfinished library that was supposed to be built by the Syrians, and a factory that had been bombed out by the Israelis.
Kamal's brother then dropped us off at the Microbus hub and we caught one heading up to the town of Baalbek in north-central Bekka. Despite its major reputation, the town of Baalbek is actually quite small. It really has one major road with a side road that houses the souqs, or markets. The residential area expands modestly from this center, but it isn't much. What makes Baalbek so incredible are its expansive Roman ruins. When I entered the ruin complex, right next to the town, I saw some free standing wall structures with acres and acres of fallen columns and other giant pieces of marble and granite strewn across yard. The bits of wall still standing have varying degrees of carving and detail left on them.
The site only got really incredible towards the back. Near the end of the walk through the site I saw a giant temple on my left. Showing its age and soaked with rain, the temple now looks like a hollow remnant of its former self, but it still has the ability to amaze. Standing across from it is part of what must once have been a temple—five, or so, columns, standing lonely against the sky, supporting nothing, guarding nothing. Plus, they're on top of a major rise in the earth, so they really stand out in an unnaturally lonely way.
Drenched and tired, Steve and I headed back to Beirut to rest up for the next day. We were supposed to go skiing on Sunday, but I got an email from my friend Alex at 7:30am telling me that the snow had closed the mountain roads so we wouldn't be able to go that day. We slept in instead and got going closer to noon. Steve and I headed back to the bus station because I wanted to fulfill a serious desire I have to visit the Shebba Farms. Very briefly, the Shebba Farms are a group of farms right on the tri-border region between Syria, Lebanon, and Israel. These farms have geo-strategic benefits and are currently occupied by the Israelis. The controversy is that by UN decree, Israel is allowed to occupy parts of Syria, namely the Golan Heights, but it is unable to occupy any territory in Lebanon. Unfortunately, the ownership of the Shebba is in question. The Syrians and Lebanese say its Lebanese territory, therefore forbidden to the Israelis, while Israel claims that it's Syarian territory. Anyways, it's a really important issue in Lebanon right now and I wanted to go see it with my own two eyes.
When we got to the bus terminal, however, we learned that we'd need permission from the Lebanese army to go near the farms. Since it was Sunday, such permission was impossible to come by. Shelving my Shebba ambitions for a day, we decided to go to the port town of Sidon about an hour south of Beirut. The city itself is not much to brag about. It's a dirty collection of shops and markets in the middle of a greater residential area. The seafront is more interesting, though, lined with seafood restaurants and also with a Medieval castle that sits practically in the sea. The best parts of the city, though, are the covered markets. The old city is a collection of ratty old three story buildings. Within them, however, at ground level, are what can best be described as an endless series of tunnels, housing hundreds of small shops. From clothing to sweets to trinkets, this market had it all. Endless covered passageways that twisted and turned and forked held an immense amount of life in what otherwise would have been considered dingy and forgettable. Shopping is difficult for me because, right or wrong, I avoid giving business to any store that sells Hezbollah memorabilia. Because stores selling Nasrallah key chains or Hezbollah flags were so prevalent, my options were quite limited. I did walk out of one store, though, with a little bronze cedar tree on a wood stand that says "Lebanon" on it.
After wandering the tunnels for a while and grabbing a seaside seafood lunch, we boarded a bus and headed back to Beirut.
All the traveling this past weekend was extraordinary and has my mind wandering wildly as I begin to consider this weekend's possibilities. So stay tuned for the next installment.

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