Monday, October 12, 2009


Entering Lebanon was just like any other day in the life of a traveller: get in the queue. Wait. Step. Wait. Step. Wait. Smile at facetious official. Fill in pointless form. Pay money to corrupt government. Smile. Stamp. Welcome to Lebanon.
We got back in our waiting shared taxi and continued on our short journey from the border to Beirut. Our vintage American taxi wound up and down the mountain range surrounding the city, along the increasingly urbanized highway until finally coming to a stop at a concrete yard. We only had the name of a hotel suggested to us which was supposedly only a few minutes walk from this 'bus station.'

Talal's was not easy to find; hidden up a few flights of stairs in an otherwise unremarkable grey apartment block off a main road. The tiny reception also functioned as a lounge, which was to become the site of many cramped but enjoyable evenings spent drinking cold beer with an eccentric mix of travellers.

Once we were settled in at the hotel we took an afternoon walk around Gemmazye, the nearby bar hub famous for its western themed nightlife and restaurants. Beirut is indeed the party capital of the Middle East, and it was obvious from the first encounters with locals that we had strayed far from the conservative culture of Syria. Everyone is just so damn cool. Girls giggling over Cosmopolitans in a lounge bar; guys reclining with a Heineken listening to jazz- and even at a whopping seven dollars a drink, who's counting? The locals switch effortlessly between Arabic, French and English in a country where its universities bear names such as the American University of Beirut; Lebanese Canadian University; and the Ecole Superieure des Affaires.

Beirut is a dazzling city, surrounded by verdant mountains on one side and the jade waters of the Mediterranean on the other. Construction is ongoing and rapid, and for every pile of war ravaged rubble there seems to be a new sushi bar, gelato shop or glittering hotel looking on. The energy and optimism is palpable as the city undergoes yet another reincarnation, and the feeling of being witness to this re-birth was electrifying. Any preconceptions I had faded into the dusk and I was overcome with child-like excitement.

Our trip was organised at such last minute that I hadn't had a chance to let my family know I was even going to Lebanon. I sent off a quick email to my parents that night:
Hi guys, great to hear from you. We are in Beirut now! Not nearly as scary as it sounds.''
I had an email from my father not long after:
''This trip has certainly taken you to places that you hadn’t necessarily intended to visit. Have you witnessed any live shelling yet?''

There was no shelling for us on that trip, although we heard our share of horror travel stories from other backpackers from our hotel. One evening, while meeting up for a drink and water pipe at a clifftop restaurant, we caught up with two dazed looking young travellers- one from Northern Ireland and the other from Canada. They had been walking around the Hezbollah dominated refugee camps that day, merrily taking photos of their surroundings, when they were forced into a car and taken to Hezbollah headquarters.

Their interrogation lasted a couple of hours and took much ego boosting along the lines of ''Hezbollah good. Israel bad. Canada likes Hezbollah'' (two thumbs up). In the end, ''the guys,'' they said, ''were kinda friendly, and offered to drop us back at the hotel.'' We were more concerned about the power cuts, however- each day, for several hours at a time. Nothing can really prepare you for a cold shower in the early morning, no matter how much you try to rationalise it in the context of a war-ravaged developing country.

Back at the hotel we were lucky to meet a journalist who offered to take us on a three day tour of the rest of Lebanon. We rustled together a group consisting of myself, Kristin, a kiwi mechanic named Kerry and Torry, an American girl who had just finished working in Jordan. We piled ourselves into the car and headed south along the coast towards the border with Israel. Driving through the quaint fishing villages of Tyre and Sidon, past the sparkling (though predictably polluted) waters of the Mediterranean, it's easy to miss the war-shattered buildings, sandbag checkpoints and martyr posters honoring those who have killed and been killed.

Along with Beirut, southern Lebanon has seen its fair share of bombings, gunfire and landmines, often due to its close proximity to the Israeli border. Standing right next to the fence between Lebanon and the border, in a seemingly tranquil spot, I asked our journalist guide what would happen if I tried to jump the fence to the Israel side. ''Well'', he started, ''Firstly you would have to get past the landmines in the strip below. Once you got through those you would have to dodge fire from Israeli snipers hiding in the the hills above us, who are watching us as we speak. There will also be people hiding in the grass below. All follow a shoot to kill policy.''

Recent Lebanese history is violent and complicated. Following independence from France in 1943, Lebanon maintained a largely calm, stable and prosperous economy. However, when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1975, 15 years of violent warfare followed with an estimated 150,000 killed, 200,000 injured and up to 900,000 internally displaced. Despite extensive rebuilding in the country, violence again broke out in 2006.

This is a country where the state, rather than distance itself from religion, has instead used it to define its political makeup. In a bizarre attempt to minimize sectarian violence and correct ideological religious imbalances in parliament, the Lebanese government has embraced a system called Confessionalism whereby the government is strictly divided on religious lines. The President, for example, must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim and the Speaker of Parliament a Shi'a Muslim. While guaranteeing representation from all of the major religions in the country, it's easy to imagine the paradox effects of such a system.

The religious divisions are often obvious, with many grouping together geographically into majority towns or suburbs. On a simpler level, dress can be a clear indicator of religious affiliation, such as a headscarf or length of skirt on women, while Druze men tend to have moustaches and wear white hats. Bad feeling runs deep and in southern Lebanon, none is so obvious as hatred for Israel.

It was fitting, then, that we visit Al- Khiam Prison Museum. This former prison, once a Lebanese army base, was taken over by the South Lebanese Army (SLA) and purportedly used by the SLA and Israeli soldiers as a brutal prison camp until the Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon in 2000. Following the withdrawal, Hezbollah converter it into a museum, but it was destroyed by the Israeli airforce in 2006. It has been resurrected as a museum again, although it is now mostly just piles of very disturbing rubble. There is little doubt, though, that hideous torture was commonplace and included methods such as electrocution and long periods of solitary confinement.
Walking around the former prison, it feels more like a theme park from a horror movie. Tattered Hezbollah flags wave eerily in the breeze. Children, on an educational Sunday outing with their family, play on the disused tanks and peep at eachother through bullet holes. Old rockets have been shuffled around so that they all point in one direction: towards Israel, a blatant 'fuck you' to the neighbours.

But Lebanon is not all tanks and terror. After our day of political history in the south, we took in some highlights of the north and east, past the spectacular seaside ruins of Byblos and onto the cedar forests which Lebanon is famous for, despite extensive and badly managed deforestation. These woodland jewels rise out of dramatic hills dotted with wildflowers, ancient hermit caves and Christian monasteries. The fact that so few cedars remain somehow make them all the more beautiful.

It's also no secret that Lebanon has some of the best wine in the Middle East; its Mediterranean climate, French influences and liberal leanings lend itself to wine making. Heading east from Beirut, the natural landscape is interrupted now and then by grand vineyards and their accompanying restaurants.

On our final day in Beirut we headed to Sabra and Shatilla, open refugee camps housing mostly Palestinian refugees who fled the conflict in Israel. The camps are often remembered for the massacre that took place there in 1982, when up to 5,000 inhabitants were brutally slaughtered over three days. The massacre was led by a Christian Phalangist militia following the assassination of their leader, Bachir Gemayel, the recently elected President of Lebanon, and carried out with the knowledge and protection of the Israeli Defense Force.

The majority of camps' inhabitants have been refused citizenship by Lebanon. Unable to return to Israel or to integrate properly into Lebanese society, they remain as unwanted aliens with little chance of getting out. Access to property is severely limited due to a law which forbids those with no recognized state (such as Palestine) to own property outside the camps. It's of little surprise then that Islamic militias and terrorist organisations have moved in, using its inhabitants to further their religious and political causes.

The narrow streets of the camps are overshadowed with dilapidated apartments blocks and tyre weighted shanties. Pictures of fighters, martyrs and even Saddam Hussein are pasted on bare, sometimes bullet scarred walls. Children ride on rusted bicycles in the dust, or pack into darkened internet cafes to play outdated warfare games The local market is bustling, selling everything from freshly squeezed fruit juices to leather boots while a corner pizza shop churns out fresh and delicious treats.

As we were leaving the camps a group of men approached us to ask us the usual questions: where we were from; did we like Lebanon; what were we doing here? When they discovered Kristin was from Norway, one broke out into fluent Norwegian while the other, when he found out I had lived in Sweden, excitedly started speaking Swedish. It turned out that both had lived in Scandinavia but had returned for their family- they'd come home.

From the camps we headed to the public beach, to sunbathe, swim and try to make sense of our day. In many ways it had summed up the week we'd spent there. Lebanon is mad, maddening, sickening, friendly, disgusting and beautiful. It's familiar and alien all at once, and it doesn't take long before the checkpoints, guns, guards and bullet holes start to feel unexceptional; part of the routine of everyday life in Lebanon. Its bizarre contrasts give it an edge like no other, but by the end of the week I felt as educated as I did confused.

I left Lebanon on a Monday. Kristin was flying back to Norway and I was heading back to Turkey. As there is no practical way to reach Turkey by water, the only way to get there by land is to transit through Syria. So I packed myself into a shared taxi with Kerry the Kiwi and two Lebanese businessmen. Arriving at the border, Kerry and I were told that the free transit visa for Syria (which was promised at the Ministry of Immigration just four days earlier) no longer existed and we would have to pay US$85 for less than twelve hours in Syria. Two weeks earlier I had paid almost half of that for a 30 day visa.

One of the Lebanese men in my taxi who spoke both Arabic and English helped us to argue with immigration for an hour, but we were not successful. Despite this, our new translator-cum-engineer on his way to work in Syria reached into his wallet and paid for my visa, refusing any offer of compensation. 'Enjoy your travels', he said with a smile, and got out of the taxi to begin a new day of work.

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