Monday, December 24, 2007
The Syrian Embassy in Athens wouldn't give an American resident of Greece a visa except as part of an organized group tour. The flights from Athens to Damascus were all full, so joining a bus tour wasn't an option. But entering Lebanon is the easiest thing in the world. Less than two hours from Athens, no visas required, 30 days granted with no questions asked.
That first afternoon we took a walk through AUB – ID check at the gate – and enjoyed the fine sea view and beautiful landscaping. We witnessed the wonderful spectacle of a river of cats flowing past us. Perhaps sixty, all colors, trotted intently toward the back steps of College Hall (truck-bombed in 1991 but perfectly rebuilt soon after). The cats stared intently at three people wrestling with some equipment on the steps. Clearly they were expecting cat food. They began to wander off. Per the internet, the semi-feral AUB cats are famous – a student group feeds and spays them -- but there are draconian regulations forbidding them entry to university buildings. Given the usual treatment of animals in the Middle East, the transformational effect of AUB is striking -- probably the best thing the USA ever accomplished in Lebanon. (USAID tries to correct this wrong impression of mine with a billboard every five kilometers showing an inscrutably avuncular Lebanese man in a sweater, a squalling or maybe laughing baby, and something forgettable enough that I have forgotten it, all gifts of the American people.)
We then walked down to the shore road below AUB, and found one swanky sports club (alas, "askeriye", one of the few Arabic words I can still read, means "military"), a minor yacht harbor in desperate need of rehab, and a line of dubious-looking dives with hookahs out front. We walked west past a rather grimy Luna Park, then trudged uphill on a narrow dirt road shoulder past the run-down military post to the more glamorous part of the corniche we should have been on. There we downed a massive glass of arak (Lebanese firewater, like ouzo but 100-plus proof vice 70-odd) at one of the cafes above the Pigeon Rocks to celebrate surviving the lack of sidewalks. Then a taxi back to the hotel for a nap before finding a Christmas Eve service.
It turns out you can't take a taxi into the rebuilt Downtown known to taxi drivers as "Solidére" (from the construction consortium that built it). Since the latest wave of assassinations, the streets are closed by police checkpoints to protect the dignitaries who live or work there. But we were dropped off a couple of blocks away, and wandered up the new avenues, passed elegant but moribund shops, blundered into the Grand Café, just off the Place de l'Etoile, and ate excellent meze (Lebanese hors d'oeuvres) at 1100 pm while the place gradually filled up with well-dressed Lebanese of both sexes puffing away at narguilehs brought to them by young men in mock-Ottoman fez and baggy pants. A late-night nicotine culture here.
We then walked past the ruins of Roman Beirut to the rebuilt St. George's Maronite Catholic Cathedral. The Maronites are a Christian sect whose permanently bad relations with all their Lebanese neighbors caused most of them, from the Crusades or even before, to cut a series of deals with the Vatican, the French, the Israelis, or anyone else naïvely greedy enough. They dropped Monotheletism, tweaked their Syriac liturgy, and hired French-speaking nannies (gradually shifting to English-speaking Philippinas) for their children. But there weren't many children at this particular mass. Instead, it was short, bullet-headed men in leather coats, bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Karabakh freedom fighters I used to keep my distance from in Armenia. This is the Church Militant. A number of them were wearing orange scarves. One tough-looking woman wore an orange headband. This meant, we later learned, that they belong to the faction of Michel Aoun, one of the key Lebanese warlords. He badly wants to be president of Lebanon, and has cut a deal with Hezbollah (the Shiite group of which the USG intensely disapproves) to block the election of the less controversial Maronite general the USG has (vainly?) endorsed.
The music was beautiful, a fine mix of Eastern and Western sung by an invisible alto. We turned right outside the church. The first military checkpoint let us through, the soldiers confirming (in a mixture of inadequate French and inadequate English) that yes we could get out that way. We walked to the next rolls of razor wire to learn that no, we could not get out. The route down to the bright lights of the Grand Café was blocked by other barriers. There was a dark and ominous tent city in the other direction. We flailed around for a few minutes, went back to the church, and eventually followed someone to where the main highway became visible. Eventually a taxi passed and took us back to the hotel. But oddly enough, the almost deserted, heavily armed downtown was not particularly frightening. The machine guns and razor wire are there to protect us, and perhaps the bottle of very decent Lebanese red wine at dinner helped.
Public buildings are closed for the major holidays of Lebanon's many sects. Therefore, we walked back to Solidere, looking for the Roman bath marked prominently on our free tourist map. We hit barbed wire. I asked the guards about the bath, which I calculated was less than a hundred meters away. Most of the soldiers hadn't heard of it. And no, we couldn't get there from here.
After some consultation they reluctantly divulged that the Prime Minister's office was nearby. We tried a long circumnavigation. Though gaps in the buildings we could see a beautiful new pedestrian mall fronting the bath, but every access to it is blocked by tank razor wire. So we wandered happily around Downtown. In the central circle with the Rolex clock tower we drank cappuccino while stylish hyphenated-Lebanese moms let their kids play with their new scooters on the empty streets. Then we walked up to Achrafieh, a well-heeled Christian neighborhood, for late Christmas lunch at Relais de l'Entrecote, a Paris-Beirut chain serving an adequate filet with secret sauce. We then holed up at the hotel for a very long Christmas nap.
Wednesday, December 26
We took a cab to the National Museum. Sizewise, it's modest, but immaculately restored after being shot up pretty badly owing to its position athwart the Green Line. The finds from the 19th c. BCE royal shaft graves at Byblos are impressive (finer work than that from the Mycenae grave circles), including royal gifts from Egypt such as an obsidian and gold snuffbox with pharaoh's monogram in hieroglyphics. Nice marbles showing odd cultural mixtures. A wonderfully squat Egyptianizing god-pharaoh in weathered limestone is the centerpiece of the left hall. In the center a floor mosaic of the seven sages of Greek antiquity complete with their famous sayings (I wasn't aware until then – Plato for some reason neglects to mention it – that the Socratic maxim "Know thyself" is attributed to Chilon, an eminent Spartan predecessor).
We walked back to the hotel via a rather dubious Muslim neighborhood. The window shopping was interesting. The commercial philosophy seems to be faith that if one keeps the stock dusted for long enough, eventually some wealthy and obtuse Gulf Arab will wander in looking to furnish his seraglio with enormous imitation Meissen urns in pink and green with nipple-less appliqué nymphets. Of such wares Lebanon abounds.
Afterwards we had coffee in his office with an old client/friend of Regina's, part of a Beirut publishing family. He gave us his very downbeat Maronite take on the political situation and advised us not to travel in the Bekaa or the south except as part of a group. We nodded politely, but by then it was too late to stop us.
We next took a long cab ride up to the Brazilian ambassador's elegantly chilly residence in Baabda in the foothills above the empty Lebanese presidential palace. A friend of the Brazilian Chargé in Athens, he gave us a more diplomatic but equally cynical version of politics here.
Brazil's population includes some eight million citizens with some claim to Lebanese descent, almost twice the current population of Lebanon, from migrations dating back to 1876, when peripatetic Brazilian Emperor Pedro II invited surplus survivors of the Maronite-Druze civil war of 1860 to move to Brazil, but continuing even now. Some of them return to Lebanon and still speak Portuguese (Regina bumped into two Brazilians in 10 minutes doing some quick shopping a couple of nights later). So the ambassador has lots of sources, though mostly from the Christian factions. After two hours, his drivers took us down the mountain and dropped us at the Abdelwahab restaurant for a superb Lebanese dinner.
Thursday, December 27
Our driver Marwan Fakhreddine was waiting outside the hotel promptly at 8:30 a.m. with a Mercedes van. He's a non-observant Sunni who spent most of the civil war in Germany, Switzerland, Tunisia, and Libya. We were delighted to discover his English was much better than advertised. We drove over the mountain toward the huge north-south Bekaa Valley (choked with haze, alas), passing many ugly billboards and ruins, including of a new highway bridge casually destroyed by an Israeli smart bomb in July 2006. After seeing the Ummayyad walled palace/trading post of Anjaar and chatting briefly with the Armenians who live there (they're more recent migrants and speak something close to Yerevan dialect – other Lebanese Armenians were incomprehensible) we drove up the hill to a Roman-period ruined temple on a hilltop above Majdel Anjaar. Huge eroded blocks of stone, massive broken granite columns, much less delicate than Greek work but undeniably impressive. Our request impressed Marwan. None of his clients had ever asked to see it before.
All along the road to Baalbek we passed posters of Khomeini, of kidnapped/murdered Shiite imam Mousa Sadr, of current Hezbollah leader Nasrullah and his deputy, and of dozens of Hezbollah fighters killed fighting the Israelis in 2006. But no politics intruded on the temple complex. Enormous, relatively well preserved, a triumph of religious politics preserved by being turned into an Islamic fortress, Baalbek deserves the same armies of tour groups the Acropolis gets. We were not completely alone – a trickle of Lebanese, plus two brave Boston liberals accompanying a Lebanese-Canadian woman with a language school in Cairo. And the mayor of Baalbek. He was a clean old man in a dark suit standing in the "Temple of Bacchus." I came perilously close to waving him off -- I thought he was a tour guide -- but he identified himself in time and was cordial. Regina (concerned with my survival) told him I was Canadian. I felt very sheepish afterwards (identifying myself as a Californian was the compromise I adopted afterwards. It seemed to work. Everyone has a cousin there). The souvenir-sellers of Baalbek are pretty desperate. I bought a Hezbollah tee-shirt in yellow and green but explained that buying ancient coins was against my principles (all the nice ones were clearly fake in any case). No trace of animosity, and no tension in the air that day in Baalbek.
We caught three more temples on the way home, two at Niha and one on a dirt track in the hills a kilometer or so further up the same road. Tantalizing country, but we had no time to explore. Lunch at the Monte Alberto, a hotel-restaurant perched on a huge rock overlooking the mostly Christian town of Zahle, the capital of the Bekaa. Zahle is full of temporary-Brazilians, and the main drag is Brazil Street. Back to Beirut in the dark (Lebanon is the same time zone as Greece, Pacific Time +10, though considerably further east, so it gets light and dark early…).
Friday, December 28
On the way to Byblos (Jbail), we stopped in Antelias, a Beirut suburb, to see the HQ of the Armenian Katholikos of the ex-Ottoman See of Cilicia in southern Turkey as opposed to the ex-Persian, then ex-Russian one based at Echmiatsin near Yerevan. It's a very tidy compound, with a cathedral church, Genocide commemoration chapel, tombs of previous Katholikoi, and museum/library. The lineage is ancient, but the facilities are new. They don't get many visitors and were quite friendly, but Armenian ecclesiastical art has limited appeal. The prize relic, the right hand of Gregory the Illuminator, is kept in the Katholikos's safe, after it was stolen and retrieved a few decades ago. It is needed to stir the holy oil the Katholikos brews up for consecrating bishops etc. Brandished from the battlements in crucial moments it miraculously daunts the foe, though seldom enough to change the outcome.
We then drove briefly up to the U.S. Embassy. It is on a hillside in the remote suburb of Awkar (a much more central embassy was destroyed by an Islamic Jihad truck bomb in 1983 – the new site was hit the next year, less badly). Marwan had to keep asking for directions, but I could tell we were on the right track because the weapons at the check points got bigger and bigger and the troops manning them got more and more tense. It was not just my guilty conscience – Regina was begging us to turn around – but we got a glimpse. Bizarrely, this compound fails to meet basic set-back standards for an embassy, but at least any truckdriver that approaches it is in for trouble. (Earlier I tried calling the embassy to see if anyone was willing to talk. It was the holidays, and the only person available was a stressed junior political officer who referred me tersely to the web site. An old friend was the DCM, but he left for better things in Brussels a few months ago).
The Nahr el Kalb (Dog River) was a disappointment. Too much modern construction and land fill have made the strategic importance of the place almost unrecognizable. Various large 20th century plaques obliterate most of the Roman and previous inscriptions, but there are four thousand years of superimposed foreign boasts at successfully liberating Lebanon from the turbulence of its natives. Generally, the north coast is horrifyingly overbuilt, with half-finished or half-inhabited high-rises mushrooming from the shoreline up to the mountain crest without any noticeable planning or even economic calculation. The Lebanese make much of their living selling worthless pieces of mountain to their migrant cousins and persuading them to build huge multi-generational houses they (and particularly their offspring) would seriously regret retiring to. The beaches are indifferent, from the limited glimpses we got.
Byblos is a fine site. It was warm and sunny. The crusader castle is compact but interesting, and the ruins are mysterious but evocative. We had a beer at the Byblos Fishing Club, home of a seriously superannuated ex-Mexican cultivator of Eurotrash, Pepe the Pirate, but ate instead at Bab el Mina, the restaurant next door. Food was decent. There we spotted an old acquaintance of Regina's (and Phyllis's) from Athens, and I was spotted by an EU expat I had met in Thessaloniki. A small world. We escaped to buy Regina some extremely elegant earrings in the little souk, then drove back along the coast, fighting horrible traffic from Jounieh (site of the famous Casino du Liban) and on into Beirut.
Saturday, December 29
Marwan drove us up into the Chouf mountains, past banana and guava plantations along the coast. The main town, Christian-populated Deir el Qamar, has some modestly interesting medieval buildings plus a wonderfully hideous wax museum in the emir's old palace with a grab-bag of Lebanese and Catholic celebrities. The tickets seemed excessively expensive, so I went in solo to take pictures and admire the plexiglas plaque commemorating a recent visit by King Symeon of Bulgaria (no, Bulgaria isn't a monarchy any more, but VIPs are sparse in Lebanon these days).
Beit ed Dine, an emir's palace across the valley, is amazing. During the war, it was protected by Kamal Jumblatt and his son Walid, the hereditary (and Jesuit-educated) Druze warlords of the Chouf. Walid had the inspiration to rescue the mosaics from most of the early Christian churches on the coast (at least that part he controlled) and turn the stables into a superb museum. The palace baths and reception areas are reasonably interesting, but the mosaics and the adjoining gardens are superb.
On the way back, Marwan stopped at his flat in a building next to the family's guava orchard to introduce his wife Rania and their five impeccable kids. The older ones attend an English-language private school. All very sweet. Though I feebly volunteered, he was too polite to make us take off our boots as every civilized person does entering a house. Instead, his kids all went and put on their shoes too…
Sunday, December 30
We drove past the banana trees and guavas to Eshmun, the battered and almost unreadable Phoenician temple site, then to Sidon. Sidon is Sunni, and most of the posters are of the late PM Rafik Hariri and his son. Hariri left Sidon as a penniless young man for Saudi Arabia. He returned fabulously wealthy only a few years later. A large new mosque with gold leaf on the doors on the north entrance of Sidon celebrates Hariri's father. Per gossip we heard, not he but rather Saudi King Fahd would have been Rafik's biological father. Lebanese insist there is a strong resemblance, and in pre-DNA days perhaps Rafik exploited it to make his first fortune. As prime minister he let the contract for rebuilding Beirut to a company he owned. Even his assassination doesn't really inspire people to speak glowingly of him. Not a good sign…
We visited the sea castle and then very well-tended soap museum in Sidon sponsored by the Audi banking family. The covered streets of the souk are lively. We saw many banners spread over doorways welcoming the newly returned participants in the Haj to Mecca. South of Sidon, the local branch of the Islamic Brotherhoods in Egypt, Jema'a Islamiye, was celebrating its martyrs in a series of posters.
Toward Tyre things become Shiite. We passed a big, crowded, tense-seeming Palestinian refugee camp on the right crowned with a huge poster of Sheikh Yassine, the Hamas leader. Tyre itself is dominated by the old Shiite militia Amal, with photos of Nabih Berri and missing imam Moussa Sadr, or occasionally of Berri and Nasrullah shaking hands to signal they are now working together. Outside town, Hezbollah posters are much in evidence, but no t-shirts. We passed the occasional Khomeini or Mousa Sadr banner, along with signs "Lebanon forever" sponsored by an Iranian relief agency.
Tyre has a fantastic paved Roman road lined with tombs. Just inside (actually, part of) the town perimeter is a massive hippodrome, the best preserved chariot-racing track in the Roman world they say. Some rows of seats preserved, an Egyptian obelisk for the start/finish line, and foundations for turning posts. But the town itself is nothing to write home about. We were overcharged for a fish lunch at the port, but it was tasty enough. The Roman downtown is lots of restored columns but not a lot of information. Regina put her foot down about not going further south toward the Israeli border. This was sensible. Sigh…
Monday, December 31
Marwan drove us to Bcharre, a Maronite village overlooking the Qadisha Valley in north-central Lebanon. We were booked into the Chbat Hotel. That afternoon we walked to the Khalil Gibran museum (closed Mondays, alas) and inspected the miraculous healing grotto/spring with ghastly French-style Madonnas and the Phoenician monumental tomb above. Some pious idiot, inspired by Lourdes, plundered the poor box and started to build a huge hospital on the rock near the grotto. Wiser heads intervened too late, when the building was already complete enough to glue a huge marble Madonna on top. Now they are wondering what to do with the empty shell of a structure large enough to give every man, woman, and child of Bcharre a private hospital room, had they the decency to fall ill of some lingering disease at the same time. Then we rested for the ordeal ahead.
As we hoped, the New Year's Eve party at the Chbat was a blast – sumptuous buffet, silly hats, and a room full of young, wealthy Maronites shimmying to a DJ. I studied the next table, with blurry-faced young mafiosi swigging Jack Daniels while their designer-bagged girl friends sent text messages. We enjoyed ourselves but were in bed by 1 am.
Tuesday, January 1, 2008
Got up at the crack of dawn (9 am), had breakfast, and loaded our gear in a taxi. Mr. Chbat, the jolly mountaineer, had arranged for us to be dropped at a convenient point above the Qadisha valley and then met a few miles away. So we toured a series of fine Maronite monasteries built into caves in the cliffs of this deep, striking river gorge. (We highly recommend Dalrymple's From the Holy Mountain for a more detailed and lurid version of a similar walk).
Weather was perfect, and at the Saidet Hawqa hermitage we met a friendly group of young archaeologists led by Professor Hani Abdul-Nour, an entomologist-spelunker who has studied the local caves for decades and found lots of neat stuff, including a cache of mummified medieval abbesses. The hermit, alas, was at prayer, but Regina stole a look at him in the back of the chapel. Unlike his medieval predecessors he has a flush toilet and several square meals a day (to judge from his bulk). Apparently such amenities are required to attract reliable hermits in today's sinfully prosperous age. This one was imported from Colombia. The walk up the gorge included Mar Qanoubine, ancestral seat of the Maronite patriarchs, and lovely scenery. Then to Tripoli.
The Quality Inn Tripoli is a large, modernish motel with stained carpeting at the edge of the Tripoli International Fair. This in turn was designed by Brazilian super-architect Oscar Niemeyer in 1966 and then promptly swallowed by civil war. His cement mushrooms have not aged well. From our window we could see, under a huge concrete roof, neat rows of white canvas tents, a Lebanese Army platoon guarding the UN team that has reinforced the hotel's threadbare client base since the Palestinian refugee camp war in mid-2007. But everyone says they still hold events at the Fair.
Wednesday, January 2
We woke Wednesday morning to a thunderstorm lasting until 11 am. I emailed my Athens News column from the business center next to the UN radio room. Rain stopped just as we left the hotel. The air was washed clean but the old city of Tripoli was slimy with long uncollected garbage. A dead cat glowered at us from the gutter outside the vegetable market.
We took a cab to the citadel and braved an unrailed stair to stare at the river flowing brown between garbage-strewn concrete banks far below. The fortress was built (or maybe rebuilt) by the crusaders, but most of it is later. Some stone cannonballs, random early sarcophagi (no Tripoli museum yet despite years of promises), and lots of damp, vaulted rooms. At the back of one large, empty hall we saw foam mattresses, rumpled blankets, and two untended assault rifles leaning against the wall. Not good military discipline, but I refrained from borrowing one to embarrass them. Perhaps this is where they park surplus mujaheddin. We crept out the back way, and thus failed to tip the guard who had opened two unnecessarily locked gates for us. He almost caught up but by then we were in the crowd of police outside Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent's gateway.
The grand mosque down the hill is being restored with money from Rafiq Hariri's son, but is currently a muddy mess. The hamam next door is a sad, junk-filled reminiscence of grand times in the bath. We would not have found it had not the sweetly multilingual guide Ali Khawaja found us staring nervously. (presumably everyone in the old city has orders to call him if they spot unattended gringos). For the next two hours he led us through Mameluke and miscellaneous souks, khans, medressahs, and mosques, and steered us away from the pro-Syria soap factory to the authentic one. The local population is touchy about religion, and Ali (who wouldn't mind a beer or two himself) tiptoed around them. I gave the white-bearded, white-robed imam my best assalaamu aleikum (with the obsolete classical case ending), and he was cordially high-flown and incomprehensible in return.
Tripoli is 700,000 or so, mostly Sunni, crowded and pretty poor. Women mostly in headscarves. Lots of religious dress. Posters of Hariri, late father and son-replacement, and of a couple of local boys, one the transportation minister. Ali blamed the filth and dreariness on migrants from the mountain villages plus 150,000 fairly recent Syrian migrants. His childhood memories are of a much more gracious city. He put us in a cab, and we were off to the hotel, where Marwan found us eating lunch. It was back to the Casa d'Or, only 90 minutes away.
Our last night in Beirut we celebrated by going out to a swanky French restaurant, Talleyrand in the L'Orient-Jour newspaper building, full of rich folks smoking large cigars. All the menu items were named after French diplomatic obfuscations, e.g. "Concertation de…" We split a paté de foie gras, the cheapest Bordeaux they offered, and duck (me) and beef filet (Regina). Took a taxi home, packed, and went to bed early for a 5:30 am wake-up. Regina was sick as a dog hours before the alarm went off, while I had merely a headache and general queasiness. Odd that we survived multiple meals in dicey local places with no ill effects, but were done in by haute cuisine… (Many hours later, shamed into solidarity with Western Civilization, we advanced an alternative hypothesis, that perhaps it was tainted dates from the Tripoli souk. The shrouded young woman who sold them to us had a fierce look about her. She softened, but only for a microsecond, when I deployed my "Kul sene w'enta b'kheir." The Casa d'Or front desk had armed us with the appropriate Arabic New Year's greeting, but all the Lebanese we saw were felicitating each other on their expensive mobile phones with "Happy New Year" in English.)
Thursday, January 3
We were a little bleary as Marwan drove us to the airport at 6:30 am. It is easy to enter Lebanon but hard to leave. Long, slow lines at every stage, worst being an anxious hour at passport control. Then a sprint to the plane, with no time to spend our surplus Lebanese pounds (interchangeable with and pegged firmly to the US dollar at 1500:1. The euro is heavily short-changed for the moment, but the Lebanese are no fools and will leap to euros once OPEC does).
An easy flight back, but Greek passport control was almost as nightmarishly slow as Lebanese. Waited seething for 50 minutes, unable to switch to a faster line because englobed by a family with eight children. Regina, who did an end-run brandishing her EU passport, waited stoically on the far side. My own passport is now shop-soiled enough to no longer be machine-readable, another delay. Then a taxi home to wade through accumulated emails.
Bottom Line: Lebanon is safe (unless you cross the street or demand to speak to a U.S. diplomat), the food is excellent, the weather is pleasant, the prices are reasonable, and Baalbek, Beit ed-Dine, and the National Museum are worth the long wait to get out of Lebanon again. Byblos is charming. The Qadisha valley is a nice hike though scarcely mythic. The political gossip is arguably the best in the world. One week is ample, however, for anyone but a maniac archeologist or assassination buff. There is probably excellent shopping at the malls, but in terms of local handicrafts we saw nothing very interesting. But I kept us walking fast enough that maybe we missed amazing treasures.