Monday, July 28, 2008

Travelogue 6: Detour Lebanon

Welcome to the Hezbollah Valley

During the first week of my stay in the Levant, I slowly worked my way south from Aleppo to Damascus. According to the maps, it looked just as easy to loop through eastern Lebanon, which of course was always a part of Syria anyway, until the French decided to make a state for the Maronite Catholics. (As I was to learn, relying too much on maps in the Middle East can be a tricky thing.) My plan was to leave the area around Krac des Chevaliers and St. George's Monastery and drive down through the Bekaa Valley, between the Mt. Lebanon Range and the Anti-Lebanon Range. I would stay in Baalbek, visit the ruins there, and then cut across to Damascus.

The whole Lebanese leg of the journey was in doubt, however, until I arrived in Aleppo and confirmed the itinerary. Two weeks earlier, the border had been closed due to a new outbreak in fighting between Hezbollah and the government forces. By the time I reached Syria, the situation had calmed, for a bit, and the border was open again. My agent in Aleppo was able to arrange for a driver that could cross over into Lebanon.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

I understand that many parts of Lebanon are quite beautiful, but I did not find the Bekaa Valley to be so. The valley was brown and it did not strike me as being as agriculturally productive as the similar valleys I had just left in Syria. The towns were scruffier than in Syria, though somewhat incongruously, nearly everyone seemed to be driving a Mercedes Benz. Perhaps this a holdover from the bad old days when the valley's most noted export was cannabis. The towns were mixed Christian--seemingly Maronite Catholic--and Muslim, chock-a-block with churches and mosques. You quickly sensed that you were now in a militarized zone as soon as you crossed the border. Every few miles, we would pass through a military checkpoint, the soldiers would look us over and then wave us on.

The ruins at Baalbek are truly extraordinary. I visited more Greco-Roman ruins this trip than is usually the case. After a while, these sites can start running together in your mind and you can come down with "ruin fatigue." I enjoyed Apamea, in northern Syria, which had the most spectacular setting (and the most persistent and annoying touts hawking their fake antiquities). Bosra, in southern Syria, has the most impressive Roman theater that I have seen anywhere, including Ephesus and Aphrodiasias. Jerash, in Jordan, has the most varied ruins and best overall presentation. That said, Baalbek is still in a class by itself, due to the sheer magnitude of the surviving ruins. The problem is not with the ruins, but with the noisy, bustling market town pressing against the site.

Muslim family at prayer, Temple of Jupiter, Baalbek

Tourism has taken a beating with Lebanon's on-again-off-again troubles. A fair amount of people were milling about the site, but by and large they were school children on field trips, and not tourists who had come to spend money. The touts around the entrance of the site seemed more desperate than usual to sell their wares, which here included not only the usual postcards, souvenir books and caps, but also....Hezbollah t-shirts. For I quickly figured out, that I was deep in Hezbollah territory. Their bright yellow banners and placards were festooned all over the place. Most had pictures of Sheik Hassan Nasrallah. Later, in talking with a fellow traveler in the Temple of Bacchus, I was to learn than the valley was now nicknamed "the Hezbollah Valley." I can't say that I was particularly bothered by this, but rather a little annoyed with myself that I had not researched enough to know this beforehand. I associated Hezbollah with southern Lebanon and the Beirut suburbs, not the northeastern quarter of the country.

Mullahs and Mercedes were not the only contrasts I witnessed. As I was arriving, a minibus unloaded a group of young people--perhaps just out of high school, or early college age. They were thoroughly Westernized in both dress and behavior, and I assume they were on a day trip out of Beirut, which is just on the other side of the moutains. These young Lebanese could be "Exhibit A" for the complaint that Muslim traditionalists have with Western culture. For one young man in the midst of this boistrous group was wearing a white t-shirt with bold, black letters proclaiming (in English, of course): THIS IS ONE F*****G OFFENSIVE T-SHIRT. This contrasts sharply with a scene I witnessed inside the ruins, not 15 minutes later. One rarely sees any public displays of Muslim worship in the Middle East, outside of the mosques themselves. I was privileged to observe one young family within the ruins, however, during their prayers. The man, his wife, and their 2 children were in the center of what was once the Temple of Jupiter. They faced Mecca, and then began performing their prostrations. Such is the dichotomy that is Lebanon.

American, Canadian and German backpackers, Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

I met up with some other travelers--Matthew, Victor and Raymond--as we all rested on the altar of the old Temple of Bacchus. These three young men had met up in Damascus, and went in together on a taxi to Baalbek. They were not staying over in Lebanon, but were returning to Damascus later in the afternoon. Matthew, a recent college graduate from South Carolina, had traveled extensively--China, Mongolia, across Siberia to Moscow, etc. On this particular journey, he had spent a month in India, worked his way across the Middle East to Damascus, and was planning to decamp to Istanbul from there. I have to admit I was a bit envious of him. In my day, I thought I was supposed to graduate from college as soon as possible and then get . a . job. My travels have all come much later in life. Victor was a college student from Canada, bumming around the Middle East. Raymond, a German backpacker, was nearer my age.

Kaiser Bill and the lobby of the Palmyra, Baalbek

I was staying the night at the old Palmyra Hotel, right in the center of town. This is one of those grand old colonial hotels which used to dot the Levant--not as well known as Aleppo's Baron Hotel, but in the same class. The Palmyra, much more so than the Baron, seems to be on its last legs. A dapper little man with a pencil-thin moustache, complete with white jacket, carried on valiantly, the best he could. I eventually figured out that he was doorman, bellhop, receptionist, cook and janitor. We conducted our business in French, more or less. The formal drawing room remained empty and forlorn. Furniture throughout the hotel dated to the early 30s, it appeared. Photographs of famous guests lined the walls. I couldn't help but notice a large poster on an easel in the lobby, commemorating the 100th anniversary of the 1898 visit of Kaiser Wilhelm II to the hotel. Electricity was sporadic and spotty, though assured we would have power "in an hour or two." It suddenly dawned on me that I was the only guest in this 44 room hotel--just me and Kaiser Bill, in the dark. Later, another American would check in, and the two of us would become acquainted at the meager breakfast served up in the grand dining room the following morning. The little man in the white coat conducted me to my room upstairs. The second floor had its own expansive lobby, complete 14 ft. ceilings, 30s decor and balcony. My room overlooked the ruins, and (unfortunately I was to learn) the traffic circle immediately below. There was no air conditioning, though this was unnecessary given the thick stone walls and the french doors onto the balcony. For just that surreal touch, the room was decorated in framed Jean Cocteau etchings (of the milder variety). The dapper little man asked me if I wanted hot water that night or in the morning. I chose the morning. This too was a polite fiction, as there was no hot water in the morning either. I asked for restaurant recommendations and I was advised to go to the Sherazade. This restaurant was several blocks away in a relatively modern seven-story modern retail center. The establishment was on the top floor, which at one time could have been reached by an elevator, now out of commission. As I walked up the stairs I had a chance to inspect the shops on each floor. About the only going concerns were on the lower two floors--a few clothing stores selling men's suits and a bridal shop. Many of the floors were completely dark, with no shops at all. The Sherazade occupied the entire top floor, with banquet rooms and a spectacular view over the ruins. A young Muslim man and his girlfriend sat over in the corner, smoking and watching TV. (A Western misconception is that Muslim women dressed traditionally in the hajib would not smoke. They do.) I was the only guest, and from the look of things, I was the only customer who had showed up that night. I realized I hadn't eaten since early that morning. I ordered my favorite--lamb stuffed in eggplant, along with a salad, a meze, some french fries and a Lebanese beer. While it was an enjoyable meal, this is where I may have picked up some food poisoning, or bacteria of some sort, as I was to become intimately acquainted with bathrooms along the way for the next week or so. Walking back to the hotel, I stopped in a small shop to buy a bottle of water. It turned out to be, by and large, a discreet liquor store. The proprietor, no Hezbolllah supporter he, had a framed portrait of one of the Lebanese Christian political leaders. With Hezbollah on the ascendancy here, I wonder how long he will be permitted to stay in business. I was to learn something else about the Lebanese before the night was over. The traffic circle underneath my window handled Beirut traffic from the west and Damascus traffic from the east and Bekaa Valley traffic from the north. It seems the Lebanese are physiologically incapable of driving without honking. I lay in my bed that night with the ruins of Baalbek laid out before me in the moonlight, and Jean Cocteau on the walls, listening to the incessant beep-beeps of the Mercedes and BMWs zipping around the traffic circle until the wee hours of the morning. I don't think they ever stopped, really. I finally fell asleep from exhaustion, in spite of them.

Upstairs lobby, Palmyra Hotel, Baalbek

The next morning, I enjoyed conversation with the other hotel guest--an American linguistics professor who had started a consulting business for student visa applicants from the Middle East. After breakfast, I said goodbye to the dapper little man and Kaiser Wilhelm and headed for Damascus. It would be presumptious of me to judge Lebanon from one night's stay and without ever setting foot in Beirut. I will just say that I found Lebanon a sad place, and was anxious to return to Syria. Lebanon was on edge, and you could feel the tension in the air.

A bit of Jean Cocteau

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