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The International Writers Magazine: Lebanon Vacation

I left my heart in Lebanon
Sophia Akram

‘Baksheesh’ 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 boy’s 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 day’s 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 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 didn’t 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 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.
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 civilian’s 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 wasn’t 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.

Our 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 don’t 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 trade.

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 country’s most beautiful people flock to the country’s capital. Women of latte complexion, tumbling curls, voluptuous plum lips and chic fashions saunter down Beirut’s roads attracting the envious eye of the passing visitor. I find the equivalent of MK One and decide that if I’m 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.

Not 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 long.

Leaving 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.
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.

© Sophia Akram November 2007

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