International Writers Magazine: Lebanon Vacation
left my heart in Lebanon
The tall blonde lady turned her head round and down to spy the young
Lebanese lad trying to charge her for using the public convenience.
Baksheesh please came his small but demanding voice.
La (no in Arabic) I just want to use the toilet
she said in her distinct New Zealand accent.
Yes, 5 dollar please. She took a dollar out of her bag and
pushed it into the little boys hand to dismiss him, then carried
on into the Ladies toilet at the Syrian-Lebanese border.
Back at the mini-bus she joined me and the rest of our group on the Middle
Eastern tour and the day excursion to Lebanon from Damascus was apparently
a rare treat. This could be attributed to an unwillingness of holiday
makers to venture into this politically unstable country but also . .
well . . political instability (!). It was fortunate, however, that all
eight of us were willing and excited to get a snippet of this fascinating
nation and despite warnings of a car bomb the previous week, we got the
all clear to go.
After a rather long and tedious wait at the border while our visas were
arranged, we headed on the road to the Southern city of Baalbeck. The
drive was a beauteous scene: on the right a sea of deep green agricultural
land peppered with the triangular sun hats of the farm workers and pickers
earning their days keep; on the left a backdrop of rock with the
peaks of the snow-capped mountains of the Anti-Lebanon Range just visible
in the distance.
The ruins are a figure
of awe. Built on an ancient tell, little else is known about the origins
of the ruins, although it was renamed by the Greeks, who identified it
with the God of Baalbeck. For many centuries it remained under rubble
but restoration work began in the late 19th Century and it has been considered
one of the ancient wonders of the world.
road trip lasted a mere hour until we reached Baalbeck, located
in the Bekaa Valley and we were escorted to the famous Roman ruins
of the city. To the south of the town we were shown the largest
hewn stone in the world cut nearly 2,000 years ago. Yes, large
and old it was and at 1,000 tons I didnt want it landing on
my toes! But its enormity is the marvel to imagine that it
could be humanly possible for man to build something so large.
The privilege should be taken to be guided around the Great Temple; the
most prominent view as you enter is that of the six great pillars, built
on a podium making it a 22 meter reach into the sky. This should give
you an idea of the vastness of the original structure and struck me with
wonder for the great architecture of pre-biblical times.
Once the history lesson was over we had a chance for a tack
shop, looking for souvenirs to flaunt that we made it to Lebanon. The
small store next to the southern quarry had the usual little trinkets
and flags and of course the obligatory down with Israel merchandise.
With the rather sharp colour combination of yellow and green and machine
gun picture, it looked like it could belong on a contemporary urban designer
label and I could probably see myself in one of these. However, for the
sake of political correctness I thought better of it. But the green and
yellow emblem was everywhere: T-shirts, flags and posters; it was the
official motif of Hezbollah and showed their popularity in at least this
part of Lebanon. Speaking with our guide, Asad, on the way to lunch, he
talks a little about the tensions, history and political affairs of the
country. Other than the obvious distrust of Israel, notable tensions with
neighbouring Syria were evident as the resentful occupance of their country
by Syrian troops conflicted with the Lebanese desire for independence.
Hezbollah appeared to relate to the civilians defiance to those
who occupy their country which has often led to its destruction. Hezbollah
help us as he explains that as well as fighting for the people they
work to restore the country by acting as an aid to development projects:
so contrary to the media image in the West where we label them terrorists.
The Hezbollah memorabilia followed us to lunch as more souvenirs were
on sale where we dined at the Palmyra Hotel for a traditional Lebanese
fare. I have always been a keen fan of Lebanese cuisine, loving every
course from the mezze to the milky and sweet desserts. Therefore, seeing
traditional Lebanese lunch on the itinerary started my mouth
watering from the early morning. The feast started with an array of vegetables,
traditional mezze, hummus and the obligatory flatbread and needless to
say I helped myself generously on the primary course leaving little room
for the aubergine fatteh and rice served as main. I certainly had no room
for dessert but as it was fruit and baklava I transferred these to my
bag for later! Well I certainly wasnt going to let it go to waste.
Despite this hearty fell sending us all into a bit of a woken slumber,
everyone was excited to finally be leaving for Beirut. The expectations
were divided between those expecting a glamorous cosmopolitan metropolitan
and those expecting something that resembled the med trimmed with bullet
holes and camouflage. What we got was something in between. As we drove
up the highway to the capital, the backdrop was a sea of buildings with
a pastel and dirty hue. As we ascended onto the main road, we past the
Monument of Peace a sculpture of tanks trapped in concrete.
This itself defines Beirut and Lebanon: a testament to the turbulent past
along side a firm hope for a future of harmony. As the buildings to our
left and right get closer the scenery becomes even more distinctive as
the walls are ridden with bullet holes. Many buildings hold the trademarks
of being bombed as they stand blackened and crumbling.
minibus drops us off onto Hamra Street, a popular street for shopping,
café-ing and restaurantering. After a short brief about the
city we were asked to return after 4 hours at 8pm. Strangely enough
we dont head to the nearest Middle Eastern teahouse but straight
to Starbucks as none of us have seen one for several weeks. After
slurping on a much desired chocolate crème frappuccino, we
split up and arrange to meet at the Hard Rock Café for dinner.
For this is one of those few places in the Middle East where you
will find the West stand on an even keel with East and is part of
the reason why Lebanon is so attractive and excels in the tourist
The economy has boomed despite living under years of conflict as Beirut
acts as a trade junction between the Middle East and Europe with a productive
port. The shops boast higher prices than London, while the countrys
most beautiful people flock to the countrys capital. Women of latte
complexion, tumbling curls, voluptuous plum lips and chic fashions saunter
down Beiruts roads attracting the envious eye of the passing visitor.
I find the equivalent of MK One and decide that if Im going to buy
something on a budget from Beirut; it will have to be here. It may have
been quite the coincidence but I find the rest of the tour group in the
same shop. Seems that none of us can afford Beirut living.
only glamorous, the population boast a trendy crowd, keeping up
with western popular culture, the city would play host to 50 Cent
live in Concert. The youth of Beirut are streetwise, politically
savvy and multi-lingual: retaining French from when France held
mandate over Lebanon; and considered an Arab nation, they speak
Arabic as well as English. As we enter the Hard Rock Café,
No War stickers are plastered everywhere, almost as
if the nation is rejoicing that war is over (this is 6 weeks prior
to the 2006 conflict with Israel).
Before, heading to our minibus back to Damascus, we take in our last snapshots
of Beirut by the coastline. In contrast to the snow-capped mountains we
had spied in the distance that very morning, we were now watching scantily
clad sun worshippers enjoy the bay while street sellers of corn on the
cob and ice cream called out to us. And every now and then men so good
looking would pass by, with the same allure of the women with latte complexions,
and we would take a second look allowing our gaze to linger a moment too
Much will have changed
as the 2006 conflict caused much destruction: more buildings will have
crumbled while more sculptures of peace will have been erected. I hope
that when I go back, the familiar perseverance of this country will have
followed through to rebuild itself and stand up in defiance against its
aggressors returning as the Paris of the Middle East as it
was known. What I have taken with me is perhaps a little more understanding
of this bewitching country and its people.
Lebanon, even after such few hours, was sad. There was more I longed
to see and felt there was waiting as the sun started to fall and
the lights of Beirut night slowly lit up the skyline. I wanted to
reside longer to see this city at night, to get to know its political,
music and fashion savvy occupants. I wanted to ski and sunbathe
on the same day, brush up on my French and Arabic in the same place
and perhaps stay long enough to take one of those men for my husband.
© Sophia Akram November 2007
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