Lebanon: The Eternal Battleground That is Paradise
For many years, before the term "failed state" began to be applied on countries such as Somalia and the Congo, Lebanon has become synonymous with anarchy, warlords, massacres and chaos in general. During the period 1975-1990, the country plunged into a terrible civil war that destroyed what used to be known as the Paris of the Middle East and a regional financial centre, safe heaven and tourism hub. Many of Lebanon's eighteen official religious communities and myriad political persuasions formed their own militia to fight for scarce resources and territory. Foreign troops marched into the land on various pretext, further deepening the already stretched religious and ethnic fault-lines of this country.
Even today, Lebanon appears to be on the edge. In May 2008, the country's rival factions – pro-Western Sunni Muslim and Maronite Christian on one side versus a coalition of pro-Iranian and pro-Syrian Shia Muslim groups on the other - fought on the streets of Beirut, almost tipping the country into a renewed civil war. An agreement has since been signed among the factions to agree on a new president – Lebanon has had no president for seven months - and to attempt to resolve the issues dividing the country. It remains to be seen if the agreement would eventually work out, for it does not, this beautiful nation might just be pushed to the brink again.
Since the mid 1990s, I have been wanting to visit Lebanon but political events and various mishaps have conspired to prevent that. Once the May 2008 fighting was over and interim peace agreement was signed, I booked my air ticket from Tehran to Beirut. I reckon, there's probably a window of opportunity before further disagreement threatens to pull the country apart again.
The flight to Beirut was full of Nepali women probably on their way to become domestic maids in Beirut. I was to discover that despite all the political and economic miseries Lebanon has been suffering from, there is enough wealth flowing around to employ domestic workers and all sorts of foreign manual labour. During my stay in Lebanon, I was to also come across many Indian and Syrian construction workers and road cleaners. Is it the massive inward remittances – estimated to be US$5 billion a year or US$1200 per person - and easy access to such transfers that create a structural employment issue here? In a country with huge unemployment and underemployment issues, perhaps the ready inflow of diaspora cash allows Lebanese to live comfortably without getting their hands dirty.
I sat beside Mona, a young Lebanese undergraduate living (with her parents) and studying in Damman, Saudi Arabia. Her family hails from Baalbek and are probably quite well-off – she spoke a bit about holidays in Europe and buying the right cologne for her boyfriend. Although she is Sunni-Muslim, she was dressed in a bright summer dress with bare shoulders and cutting that most Middle Eastern mullahs would disapprove. Welcome to Lebanon, the petite France of the Middle East.
Mona spoke English with an American accent, and through her I had my first exposure to the sophisticated, cosmopolitan and Westernised Lebanese bourgeoisie, with their extended diaspora. But I was to discover later that there is a wide divide in the country. Beirut and the Christian heartland to the northeast of Beirut are clean, fashionable, well-organised and very European in outlook, while towns of the poor Shiite south looks like typical messy Arab Third World oversized villages complete with wet, dirty and crowded souks (which look rather exotic and picturesque to many tourists). This is but a mere symptom of the political fault-line this country has always lived and suffered from since time immemorial.
Talal Hotel picked me up at the airport and I was driven through the sprawl of Beirut across the city's impressive highways and flyovers that one hardly sees in other Middle Eastern cities that haven't gone through the destruction Beirut had gone through. The assassinated former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri had definitely done a fantastic job rebuilding the country.
Talal Hotel –Located on Ave Charles Helou opposite the Port and close to the Martyrs Square, Talal Hotel must have been on the Green Line, the frontline between rival Muslim and Christian militia forces of West and East Beirut respectively during the Lebanese Civil War from 1975 to 1990. Indeed, traces of devastation remain obvious from the shell holes and glassless windows of the building next to this hotel. Not sure whether these were the result of the 1975-1990 Civil War, the many Israeli invasions and bombings, or the recent fighting between government or the opposition.
Across the road was the home of a Catholic politician. The walls of this huge mansion had posters of the politician with the Lebanese cedar flag in the background. There were anti-bomb or anti-truck barriers all around the heavily guarded building – I would pass a few of such buildings across Beirut, all of them have heavy military guard or even armoured carriers around them. Beirut looked like what Singapore and HK would have looked like in war situation - soldiers and tanks around a landscape of malls and skyscrapers of steel and glass.
I walked around Downtown Beirut. There was a huge sea reclamation project ongoing and lots of huge skyscrapers and malls and hotels (including The Hilton) being built despite the political instability. I bet their owners were having a cold sweat during the recent disturbances. I wonder why anyone would dare to invest in anything here given the seemingly never-ending chain of war and broken peace agreements. I suspect the only people who would invest here are either the wealthy Diaspora who are emotionally bound to this land and thus could sustain greater investment risk and bear lower returns than a pure profit-motivated investor; or the Gulf States and Iran, all of whom have vested interests in Lebanon's various parties and factions, and would need to commit money to rebuild Lebanon after every conflict so that these factions would continue to act as proxies for them in this eternal battleground between the pro-West Arab states and Iran, and between the Islamic World and Israel. That is why Lebanon, despite the many wars that were fought and continuing tensions, has a first class infrastructure and has impressive ongoing rebuilding and development programmes.
Many corners of the city garrisoned with soldiers and armoured carriers. The usefulness of these soldiers is a big question mark, as evidenced by the speed at which Hezbollah, the pro-Iranian Shiite militia, took over West Beirut during the recent disturbances and the hands-off neutrality stance adopted by the Army. There were a number of grand mansions built in an exuberant mix of pseudo-Moorish and Western styles, and heavily guarded by soldiers. These were probably the residence of important politicians and powerful political families that have long dominated Lebanese politics. During the May 2008 fighting, many of the pro-government politicians, such as Said Hariri, son of the Rafik Hariri, and Walid Jumblatt, had to be rescued by the Army as Hezbollah rapidly took over much of Beirut. If the takeover had occurred during the Civil War days, the winning party would have tried to capture and eliminate rival leaders.
I walked around the rebuilt downtown, including the Martyrs' Square and the mausoleum of Rafik Hariri to the west of the square. Many Lebanese regard Hariri, a billionaire who was credited with the reconstruction of Lebanon after the terrible Civil War of 1975-1990, almost as a god today. Hariri was born in a humble Sunni Muslim family in Saida and became very wealthy after he completed within record time the construction of a hotel for Saudi Arabia's King Khaled, thus winning the latter's trust and many other projects for his company. In 1992, he was appointed prime minister following the end of the civil war, when Sunni Muslims, guaranteed by the 1943 National Pact for the candidate of prime ministership, lacked any credible and neutral candidate. In 2005, amidst serious disagreement with Syria over the extension of term by President Lahoud, Hariri was killed in a bomb explosion together with 21 others.
Hariri's assassination spurred the Lebanese people into mass protests now known as the Cedar Revolution, which led to the withdrawal of Syrian forces from Lebanon. Investigation into the assassination by the UN is still ongoing and many people believe it would point to the involvement of Syria. In fact, a number of sources said that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad had threatened Hariri and Walid Jumblatt, Lebanon's leader of the Druze, that "Lahoud is me. ... If you and Chirac want me out of Lebanon, I will break Lebanon." Hariri was already wildly popular after a few terms in office, due to his successful revival and rebuilding of Lebanon. His assassination transformed him into almost a god, revered by all except the pro-Syrian and pro-Iranian Shiites across Lebanon. Posters and billboards bearing his likeness can be found all over the nation.
The downtown area of Beirut has been rebuilt very nicely by Solidere, the company set up for this purpose by Hariri. By agreement with the government, Solidere (Société libanaise pour le développement et la reconstruction de Beyrouth, French for "The Lebanese Company for the Development and Reconstruction of Beirut."), set up in 1994, enjoys special powers of eminent domain as well as a limited regulatory authority codified in law, making the company a unique form of public-private partnership.
Solidere has the unusual distinction of being openly set up by the head of government of a country to develop so prime a property. I recall reading about this with skepticism at that time, and wondered if the maverick businessman-turned-politician was a fraud. In many countries, this would be denounced as corruption. However, the Lebanon of 1994 was a bankrupt country totally devastated by 15 years of civil war. No one but Hariri was willing to put money in. With his own money in, Hariri gave credence to this project critical for the revival of the Lebanese nation. Hence, Solidere's very success won Hariri the hearts of the vast majority of the Lebanese people.
According to Wikipedia, "Solidere's shares are listed on the Beirut and Kuwait Stock Exchange, and its Global Depository Receipts trade on the London, Frankfurt and Luxembourg Stock Exchanges. Its share price on the Beirut exchange has risen sharply in recent years, from about US$5 in early 2004 to a high of US$26 in February 2006. In June 2006, Solidere approved a US$100M dividends payout to its shareholders." As on 13 June 2008, the share price was US$20.95, which is quite good considering the continuing instability of Lebanon.
I visited the National Museum. Its most interesting exhibits included the sarcophagus of King Hiram of Tyre and a number of intricately carved Roman sarcophagus and beautiful mosaics. There was also an interesting video about how the museum was restored after the end of the Civil War. The National Museum lies at a major crossroads on the Green Line during the Israeli invasion in the midst of the Civil War and there were six armies, some of them rivals, garrisoned at that junction, ready to shoot one another any time.
I went to Tripoli, Lebanon's second largest city, by a smart little Tripoli Express bus. We sped along the trendy central Lebanese coast and its many beach resorts, brand-name malls and glass tower apartments. This extended fashionable sprawl of Christian Mt Lebanon faded into smaller villas and bare wild rocky shore some distance north of Byblos. The bus reached Downtown Tripoli in 1 ¼ hour. This was a busy, bustling city of 500,000 inhabitants. If Beirut and its northern environs are Hong Kong or Miami, then Tripoli is a mini version of Cairo – busy streets crowded with vehicles and vendors. Loud, lively Arabic music competed with horning of vehicles, whereas Western pop is more likely to be heard in Beirut. Even then, Tripoli is quite different from Shiite Saida and Tyre, which are downright depressed towns with lots of politics and little economics.
Posters of the late Hariri senior and his son, as well as other Sunni politicians were hung everywhere. This is clearly their political heartland. Hezbollah has no place here, unlike parts of southern Beirut. In fact, during the May 2008 disturbances, Hezbollah supporters and pro-Syrian parties were attacked by supporters of the Future Movement. I saw a few burnt out buildings in the Old City guarded by soldiers. As usual in Lebanon, it was difficult to figure out the damage was caused by the latest conflict, or by the many others in this country over the last three decades.
I visited the dilapidated Citadel of Tripoli, from where you could see the crowded apartment blocks of Tripoli, closely clamped up against one another, plus the piles of rubbish in many places and a number of war-ruined buildings. I walked around the souk, and took some photos with local supporters of Hariri who posed in front of posters of Hariri and his son, plus an ominous sign that read "The Truth". Will the truth of Hariri's assassination ever been known? Or would the truth behind his death be disputed forever, like a Lebanese version of the conspiracies relating to the assassination of John F Kennedy?
From Tripoli, I got onto another bus, this time for Bsharre in Qadisha Valley, or Holy Valley. The bus was full and all except three passengers (including me) were Lebanese soldiers on their way to the training camp at The Cedars, where the tallest cedars, known as Arb el Rab, or Cedars of the Lord, are found. These soldiers, bulky and burly they might be, were like overgrown school kids, joked non-stop throughout the journey in Arabic. A few even tried to speak to me but unfortunately I could not speak Arabic and those attempts did not go very far.
Qadisha is one of the most sacred places in the world of the Maronite Christians and the patriarch of the Maronite Church used to reside in a monastery here, before the Patriarchate moved to a location nearer Beirut. The Maronites are the largest Christian community in Lebanon, and was until the Civil War, the most powerful community in Lebanon. The Maronite Church is an Eastern Catholic Church, i.e., a church that preserve the traditions and rituals of the ancient churches of the Middle East and Eastern Europe, but recognizes the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome, i.e., the Pope. St Maron, an aesthetic monk who lived in Syria, founded the Maronite Church in the 5th century. The church continues to use the ancient Syriac language in its rituals and prayers, although its followers have been speaking predominantly in Arabic since the 15th century.
The Maronites have always been the predominant community in Qadisha and Mount Lebanon, to which the great European powers added additional Sunni and Shiite Muslim territories (to the north and south of Beirut respectively) to form the State of Greater Lebanon in 1920. (Even to this day, Syria has never recognized the independence of Lebanon which was carved out of the old Ottoman province of Syria.) Maronite Christians accounted for over 50% of the population of the enlarged Lebanese state, according to the population census of 1932, the last ever officially conducted, and accordingly, the 1943 National Pact was drawn up.
The National Pact of 1943, drawn up between the key ethnic-religious communities of Lebanon to spell out the division of powers after independence, according to Wikipedia, sets out the following key rules:
- the Maronites to not seek foreign intervention and accept Lebanon as an "Arab" affiliated country, instead of a "Western" one;
- the Muslims to abandon their aspirations to unite with Syria;
- the President of the Republic to always be Maronite, the President of the Council of Ministers (prime minister) to always be Sunni; the President of the Parliament to always be Shia; the deputy speaker of the Parliament has to always be a Greek Orthodox; and
- Parliament members to be in a ratio of 6:5 in favour of Christians to Muslims (this was later changed to 5:5 as a result of the Taif Agreement of 1990 that ended the Civil War).
The pact also gave the Christians command of the armed forces and the then Christian majority in the population gave the community a parliamentary majority. However, with higher Muslim birth rate and high Christian emigration, it has long been an open secret that the Shia Muslims are probably the largest community in Lebanon, with about 30% of the population, followed by the Sunni Muslims with possibly 25% and Maronite Christians only 22% of the population. It was the dissatisfaction over a pro-Christian political system based on outdated population proportions, as well as the influx of predominantly Muslim Palestinian refugees that drastically upsets the country's delicate population structure, that led to the Civil War.
Even today, many Maronites would still regard Lebanon as a Christian country, an oddity in an ocean of Muslims in the Middle East. Maronites resent the fact that they are no longer the majority – some even deny the fact outrightly, and they saw the Shias as foreign, the Iranian "Fifth Column" out to destroy Lebanon, the Christian land. Michel, a Maronite from Bsharre, said, "the dirtiest people in Lebanon are the Shia, and wherever they moved in huge numbers, everyone would want to move out of that area, which forms part of the Shiite plan to capture strategic parts of Lebanon for Iran." He said the Beqaa Valley used to be more Christian but many Christians have moved out since more and more Shia people moved in." I would later have to admit that the Shia regions did indeed looked dirty and the contrast was particularly glaring when I walked into the Christian quarter of Tyre.
Michel added, "To hell with Hezbollah. All everybody wants is to work and feed the family. Who cares about liberation of Jerusalem and Palestine? Why mess the whole country up by fighting Israel when Israel is no longer occupying Lebanese land?" This is a sentiment I would hear many times as I traveled through Lebanon." When asked when Lebanon's tourism season is, Michel said, "The whole year used to be tourism season but with the industry screwed up since Hezbollah's war with Israel. Businesses are happy whenever they see a few tourists."
The bus went uphill and then entered a canyon. For most of the journey, we were on a winding but good road along the top eastern edge of the valley. What a scenic view! Monasteries and churches scattered in different parts of the valley. The Maronite Christians, after the defeat of the Crusaders, retreated to these remote mountains where they could defend themselves against the Muslim lowlanders. Here, religious men also built monasteries where they lived secluded lives mediating and contemplating God. Today, the valley and its monasteries have become a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
I got off the bus at Cedars. According to Wikipedia, the forest at Cedars "is said to contain 375 individual trees, two claimed to be over 3000 years old, ten over 1000 years, and the remainder at least centuries-old." The Cedars were really cold because of the altitude, which I didn't expect and was only wearing a T-shirt. I had quick overpriced lunch and then took photos of the cedar trees from the outside. No point paying to go in when you could see the trees from outside. Enquired about taxis going 6km downhill to Bsharre but the local taxi mafia said it cost US$10, a rip-off. I decided to walk instead.
Three hundred meters downhill and a young Lebanese named Paulo drove past and stopped to ask if I wanted a lift. OK, and he even offered to bring me to a panoramic viewpoint overlooking the Holy Valley. Qadisha, he said, is his favourite part of Lebanon. He comes here every few months, to relax and to breathe the fresh air here. I asked him about the huge portraits of a bald man with moustache hung everywhere in Bsharre region. That's Samir Geagea, former head of a Maronite Christian militia called Lebanese Forces which was a major participant in the Lebanese Civil War. Geagea is a local son here, and according to Paulo, unfairly put in prison for alleged war crimes when all the other politicians got away with major human rights violation. The real reason, to many people, was his opposition to Syrian control and manipulation of the Lebanese government. Geagea was held in prison for 11 years in solitary confinement and released after the Cedar Revolution of 2005. He is now a leader of the March 14 Alliance that opposes Syria and Hezbollah.
During winter, the whole Bsharre region becomes a ski resort. The Lebanese are fond of saying Lebanon is the only country in the Mediterranean where one can swim in the morning and ski in the same afternoon. However, as Robert Fisk had commented in his book "Pity the Nation", he had never actually known any one who had achieved such a feat.
"Half of what I say is meaningless, but I say it so that the other half may reach you'"
Paulo drove me to Bsharre's Gibran Museum and Mausoleum. Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) was Lebanon's greatest poet though he spent most of his life in the US and wrote his greatest work, The Prophet, as well as various other poetic inspirational works, in English. An article in The New Yorker claimed that The Prophet is the third best selling poet in history, after William Shakespeare and Lao Tse. According to Wikipedia, "In the book, the prophet Almustafa who has lived in the foreign city of Orphalese for 12 years is about to board a ship which will carry him home. He is stopped by a group of people, with whom he discusses many issues of life and the human condition. The book is divided into chapters dealing with love, marriage, children, giving, eating and drinking, work, joy and sorrow, houses, clothes, buying and selling, crime and punishment, laws, freedom, reason and passion, pain, self-knowledge, teaching, friendship, talking, time, good and evil, prayer, pleasure, beauty, religion, and death."
Set on a cliffside just outside Bsharre, the Gibran Museum was a moving, dignified and serene place where personal belongings of Gibran and his paintings, mostly nudes, were displayed. I've never heard of Gibran but am now interested in find out more.
Interestingly, from the Wikipedia, this is noted about Gibran: "Gibran was a prominent Syrian nationalist. In a political statement he drafted in 1911, he expresses his loyality to Greater Syria and to the safeguarding of Syria's national territorial integrity. He also calls for the adoption of Arabic as a national language of Syria and the application of Arabic at all school levels."
I wonder how this sits in with those Lebanese who are non-Christian, but people and politics change with time and history. Even the Lebanese national identity did not exist in 1911. The boundary of today's Lebanon was only drawn up in 1920 and if Gibran were alive today, he might have been an ardent anti-Syrian Lebanese nationalist.
I walked around Bsharre briefly. It's early afternoon and the whole place looked shut for siesta. The Holy Valley might be nice but it kind of looked like a larger version of the Chouf Mountains, and I was not in the mood of doing much climbing up and down the valley. So I hopped onto a bus back to Tripoli.
I got into a service taxi to Kola station in the southern suburbs of Beirut – the word station is a misnomer. There was no bus station there, only lots of taxis, buses and mini-buses parked under a flyover. For a country that has impressive road infrastructure, Lebanon has no proper bus terminal that allow people to buy tickets at the right price from the right people, and no waiting or resting area and other amenities one normally associate with major urban bus terminals. Perhaps, Lebanon's Gulf donors do not find it glamorous to built bus terminals. I hated Kola, not just because of the lack of amenities, but also the taxi mafia who hung around there and lied blatantly that there was no bus to wherever you wanted to go. Only taxis go there, they would lie, so that one engaged them for an overpriced journey.
From Kola, I got into a mini-bus for Saida (Sidon), the large city to the south and once a great Phoenician city, passing the Shia southern suburbs of Beirut. The beach resort coastline typical of Beirut and the north came to an end some distance south of the city. We took about an hour to reach Saida. It was 8:45 and the Sea Castle, symbol of Saida, is yet to be opened. We took a few photos from this very pretty Crusader castle. Linked to the city by an ancient bridge, the Sea Castle was very picturesque indeed. We walked around the narrow lanes of the old city. Unlike Beirut which is very European, Saida is a very typical Middle Eastern city with much noise, dirt and dampness that appeals to those looking for the exotic.
We also visited the Khan el Franj, the impressively restored caravanserai that once played host to merchants of the Mediterranean. The Grand Mosque is similarly impressive, with its Crusader era stain glass and high church vaults – this was once a cathedral built by the Crusaders later converted to a mosque upon the city's reconquest by the Muslims. However, the nice young men who brought us around the mosque denied the Christian past of the building, and instead subject us to a painful lecture into the need for us to seek truth in Islam. "Do you know the meaning of life? Do you know who created us and what comes after death? Do you believe in that nonsensical Darwin talk about men descended from dinosaurs?"
These could well be the preaching of an equally annoying evangelical Christian either from the American South or in Singapore! They all say the same thing, totally devoid of scientific evidence and logic, and anxious to tell me I would burn in hell even if I have done good all my life. And this gentleman at Saida mosque declined to shake hands with Ding citing religious reasons, and seemed to display a condescending attitude towards her. Could he have realized that this very act is indicative of the attitude of many of the more extreme among them has for woman and their status in society in general?
We returned to the bus station and took another mini-bus to Sour (Tyre). We crossed the Litani River into the south, once the hot battleground between Palestinian and Shiite guerrillas of Amal and Hezbollah on one side, and Israel and its puppet South Lebanon Army on the other. There were more Lebanese army check points, increasingly supported by not just armoured carriers but also battle tanks. However, as recent events had shown, we were not certain how effective these Lebanese soldiers would be in defending their democracy when the Hezbollah next raise hell again.
Hezbollah forces were nowhere to be seen but they were certainly everywhere, on banners, billboards and posters. They showed Hezbollah secretary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and his boofy hat and Kim Jong-Il-like smile; the enigmatic Musa Sadr, the long missing spiritual leader of the Lebanese Shias; Ayatollahs Khomeini and Khamenei of Iran, Hezbollah's major backer; and Imad Fayez Mughniyah, senior Hezbollah military commander and alleged mastermind of a number of terrorist attacks (such as the attacks on US Embassy in Beirut in 1983 and on the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992) and kidnapping of Westerners, who was assassinated by Israel in Damascus in February 2008.
The yellow flags of Hezbollah, or the "Party of God", hung from many lamppost, perhaps as often as the Lebanese cedar flag. On the Hezbollah flag was the stylized form of the party's name in Arabic, with the first letter of "Allah" reaching up to grab a rifle, plus a globe, a book, a sword and a leafed branch. According to Wikipedia: The text above the logo reads in Arabic, "Then surely the party of God are they that shall be triumphant" (Quran 5:56). Underneath the logo are the words "The Islamic Resistance in Lebanon".
That is a fitting representation of the aims of the organization, which is to spread the Islamic revolution worldwide through armed struggle or otherwise. Unlike other armed groups in Lebanon, Hezbollah's declared objectives are not just the freedom of Lebanon but also to eliminate the State of Israel and reclaim Jerusalem and the Holy Land for Muslims. That is also why Hezbollah continues to attack Israel despite the departure of Israel from all of Lebanon except for a tiny piece of disputed land that is not really Lebanese but possibly Syrian. It is for this pan-Arabic objective of Hezbollah that the Lebanese people continue to suffer attacks from Israel.
Sour was known as Tyre in the ancient times. Tyre, then an island (now merged with the mainland) was one of the most important Phoenician trading ports and city states 3000 years ago. It was Tyre's traders that founded Carthage in what is today Tunisia, and from Carthage, capital of a new maritime empire that once rivaled the power of Rome, Phoenicians traders founded other cities and ports such as Leptis Magna and Sabratha.
The wealth of Tyre attracted many invaders, including Nebuchadnezzar, King of Babylon, who besieged the city for thirteen years, and Alexander the Great, who only conquered the city after a seven month siege and building a causeway across to the island fortress. The latter was so angered by the city's resistance that he not only destroyed half the city, but had the entire city's inhabitants massacred or sold into slavery.
Tyre's recent history has been less glorious but no less tragic. Tyre, or Sour as it is known in Arabic, is a smaller town than Saida, and it looked dirtier and more chaotic. Not surprising, for this ancient city has long been Lebanon's frontline town, and had suffered from numerous attacks not only from Israel; but the huge Palestinian military presence here even before the Civil War led to a "Wild South" scenario in which various Palestinian factions battle each other and others for control of the city, which for a time was even renamed by extreme left wing factions as the "People's Republic of Tyre".
Today, tourists visit Sour for the extensive ruins of old Tyre, which are an UNESCO World Heritage Site. We walked around the piles of stones, the ancient necropolis, the broken columns by the seaside and the huge hippodrome, all right at the city centre. We also walked into the city's Christian Quarter, marked by the much cleaner and wider streets, which seemed to manifest a degree of civic pride that a Christian we met said is lacking among the country's Shiite population. Throughout my stay in Lebanon, as much as I hate to admit that, the Christian areas of Lebanon resemble Northern Europe and the accompanying order and cleanliness, while the Muslim areas, in particular, the Shia areas, seemed to be more typical of the Third World and normally associated chaos and dirtiness.
Vehicles bearing the sign "UN" are seen in many places in Sour. The United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) was created in 1978 to confirm Israeli withdrawal from Lebanon and restore Lebanese government authority in the south. However, three decades after the "interim" force arrived, their duties have remained uncompleted. Israeli forces had withdrawn but Hezbollah forces has remained a powerful presence here, and from time to time, launched attacks on Israel and provoked vigorous response from Israel as a result. The ones who suffered from such actions, inevitably, have always been innocent civilians. Isn't this the case anywhere in the world when armies clashed?
From Beirut, I traveled to Byblos and Dog River to the north on a sleepy Sunday morning. All of Beirut was almost dead because it was Sunday. Unlike the rest of the Middle East, which has its rest day on Friday, Lebanon, as it is nominally a "Christian country" (even though Christians probably do not account for more than 35% of the population – no one really knows as no population census has been held since 1932), has Sunday as rest day, like the rest of the world.
It took less than an hour to get to Byblos, 42km north of Beirut. The coastline, alternating between huge rocks and fine sandy beaches, was like the most beautiful of the Amazon warriors, the legendary women warriors of Colchis, armed with the quality of ruggedness as well as gorgeousness, which made them attractive as well as deadly. Behind all were the soaring heights of Mt Lebanon, green and inviting, so unlike the normally bleak, often dramatic and tortured rockface of mountains found across this part of the world. The moving clouds, pushed along gently by the cool breeze from the Mediterranean this time of the year, constantly painted and repainted the changing shades of green that characterized these mountains. It was no wonder that, for years, I have met Arabs, especially the Gulf Arabs, who told me that the most beautiful country in the Middle East was Lebanon.
The Lebanese, well known to be entrepreneurial as they once hailed from the Phoenicians, the world's first maritime traders, have crowded much of the coastline between Beirut and Byblos with beach resorts, clubs and entertainment complexes of any description. Many of them, at least when viewed from a distance, looked quite posh. And they were all full as well on this sunny Sunday morning. Mona, the Lebanese girl I met on the flight, had said that the moment the recent fighting ended, the Gulf Arabs and Lebanese Diaspora, were all rushing to Lebanon for summer vacations. Interestingly, the place looked more like a posh Mediterranean beach resort than a tacky Middle Eastern one. Despite all the political instability, it is remarkable that money still flows into the country; building all that infrastructure despite the edgy possibility that civil war could return any time.
Lebanon is a country with not much arable land and most of the coastline is full of skyscrapers – whether commercial or residential – squeezed in that narrow flat land between the sea and the mountains, and many buildings are built on terraces on rising slope.
Byblos itself is but a part of the almost continuous line of skyscrapers and resorts stretching north from Beirut. I alighted on the highway and walked to the old town. I visited the archaeological site which included a museum in the Crusader Castle. The site itself was just lots of stones, a few columns and lots of holes probably dug by archaeologists. One had to use a lot of imagination to figure out what used to be there. Whatever it is, one must not overlook the historical importance of Byblos.
Byblos was an ancient city-state, first inhabited 7000 years ago and many believed that this was the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. This was also where the Phoenicians invented the alphabet which was then adopted by the Greeks and the Romans, and then to most languages worldwide. The city supplied ancient Israel and Egypt with cedar wood, which were used to built the Temple of Jerusalem and many of the Pharaoh's temples and palaces. Ancient Byblos also supplied Egypt with papyrus, which was then sold to the Greeks. The first bibles were written by the Greeks on papyrus from Byblos, hence the corruption of Byblos into "bible".
Today, Byblos is a small prosperous Christian town thriving on tourism – not just the archaeological site but also as well as the fabulous beaches nearby. Here I found the greatest concentration of souvenir shops I have seen so far in Lebanon, some of them selling what they claimed as thousands of fish fossils supposedly chipped from quarry at a nearby mountain. I expressed surprise that so many fossils, rare in other parts of the world, are found here in a mountain. The shop owner, however, could not provide me with a satisfactory reply.
Another interesting attraction is the Persian fortress at Byblos, built by the Persians who ruled Byblos as a vessel state during 538-332 B.C. According to the plaque at the site, this made Byblos an important part of the Persian defence system. In a perverse sense, this remains the case today, as Iranian supported Hezbollah has in recent years emerged as the most powerful militia in Lebanon, and constantly attacks Israel from Lebanon. Critics say such battles are mere proxy war fought by the Iranians against pro-US Israel. I even read a report that describes the Hezbollah as Iran's aircraft carrier in the Mediterranean. If US deploys many warships and aircraft carriers to the Gulf region, why can't Iran do the same in Lebanon?
I got onto a bus towards Beirut but later got him to drop me off at Nahr El Kalb, or Dog River. Here, over 3000 years, conquerors and armies passing through Lebanon would leave inscriptions and stele on the rockface at the canyon near the mouth of Nahr El Kalb. Among them were: Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II, the one whose forces which according to the Bible, hurried after Moses into the parting Red Sea; Several Assyrian kings from what is today northern Iraq; Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II, who was mentioned in the Bible as the destructor of the Temple in Jerusalem and the builder of the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World; a Roman emperor; a Byzantine governor; a Mamluke Sultan; French Emperor Napoleon III's expedition and other French armies; various British military expeditions and lastly the Lebanese Republic on the evacuation of foreign military forces from Lebanon in 1946, which to the Lebanese marked the independence of the country, which sadly, remains unfulfilled in this country whose recent history, too, has long been marked by repeated foreign intervention even after independence.
Got into a service taxi to Airport Bridge in south Beirut to take bus to Baalbeck. The Airport Bridge is where a modern flyover used to stand but was destroyed by Israeli bombing in the 33-day 2006 Lebanon War. In 2006, the kidnap of a number of Israeli soldiers plus repeated bombing of Israel's northern frontier by Hezbollah, Lebanon's pro-Iranian Shia militia, led to an Israeli invasion and massive bombing of Lebanon. Israel did not achieve any of its objectives – destruction of Hezbollah and rescuing of its missing soldiers. Instead, not only did Israel had to withdraw from Lebanon with Hezbollah's military strength virtually intact, Hezbollah's is now seen as a rare military victor over Israel. The biggest loser, however, are the Lebanese people – more than 1000 killed, the nation's infrastructure, only recently rebuilt after the Civil War of the 1970s and 1980s, devastated and tourism industry ravaged during the peak summer season.
The bridge is being rebuilt at the moment, with funding from the Gulf and Iran. Lebanon, even after the end of the Civil War in 1990, had to endure several rounds of invasion and devastation from Israel. Every time, the Gulf States and Iran would pump in cash to rebuild what has been destroyed. In a perverse manner, I suspect the fact that the other Middle Eastern states do not have to bear Lebanon's burden as the frontline state actually encourages them to adopt the most belligerent stand towards Israel. After all, they just need to pay up for Lebanon's losses. Any damage that is not human live is always cheap, especially at current oil price levels.
I got onto a mini-bus for Baalbeck, Lebanon's famous monument in the Neqaa Valley. The bus first got onto a winding road up the heights of Mount Lebanon – beautiful panoramic view of Greater Beirut and its skyscrapers. Pine trees everywhere. Initially there were many buildings, some of which looked hotels but most were residential. Many, however, looked unoccupied and I wonder if they belonged to absent Overseas Lebanese. It is interesting that rather tall buildings are built even up in the mountains.
Eventually, the skyscrapers disappeared and we began to see more military posts and communication towers. There were also half destroyed bunkers, by which of the many wars in previous decades I do not know, and fortified buildings, which like many structures across Lebanon of a military nature, painted in bright national colours and the cedar. Sometimes, I suspect it is countries that have weak or disputed national identities that put up their national flags more often than those confident owho they are.
After passing the peak of the Mount-Lebanese Range, the road began its downward descent. A new highway with bridges across mountain crests and ridges is being built and will no doubt enable Syrian tanks to reach Beirut in record speed. Before long, the bus reached the famous Beqaa Valley, a very fertile valley once controlled by the Syrian Army and now garrisoned by Hezbollah.
This fertile valley in eastern Lebanon has 40% of the country's arable land. It used to be occupied by the Syrian Army between 1977 and 2005, and currently a major base of the Hezbollah militia. This was the scene of many battles between Israel and Palestinians and Syrians, and between Syrians and the Palestinians. The Greek Orthodox city of Zahle at the heart of the Beqaa Valley (often nicknamed "Bribe of Beqaa"), which the bus also passed, was during the Civil War the subject of a bitter half year siege by Syria, which led to a brief Israeli attack on the Syrians in support for the Christians, thus triggered a major international crisis which potentially could lead to an all out of war between US-backed Israel and Soviet-backed Syria. Only the panic meditating efforts of Ronald Reagan produced a temporary truce between the two sides and preserved the Great Powers' desire not to fight each other in this valley was only up to recently unknown to most people.
Today, Zahle is better known for its wine and good food of its river-side restaurants. Away in the horizon were mountains – the Mount Lebanon range to the west – parts of which has remained snowcapped even on this day in June - and the Anti-Lebanon range which forms the Syrian-Lebanese border to the east.
Upon reaching Baalbeck, I walked around this famous site. It's huge but unfortunately, its enormous size was partially obstructed by the modern city just next to it. It could have been a magnificent sight if the complex stood unobstructed on the plains, as it once probably was. The site was guarded by many young soldiers who seemed to be having fun in the shade, joking and laughing away. A few Syrian labourers were clearing weeds and cleaning the site. A number of local people wore the typical kerrifya, common throughout the Arab World but the first time I ever saw any in Westernised Lebanon.
I had roast chicken for lunch and then hopped for another bus to the road junction town of Chtaura where the road to Baalbeck branches off from the Beirut-Damascus highway. Chtaura was also where the Syrian Army once had its Lebanese headquarters. Today, it is a sleepy junction town with predatory taxi drivers all fighting for the chance to tell the dumb foreigner that there was no bus to wherever they wanted and that they should take their over-priced taxi.
From Chtaura, I got a taxi to go to the old Umayyad city of Aanjar, located close to the Syrian border. The taxi driver, an unshaven Shiite man in his fifties, was a keen supporter of the Hezbollah. As we passed a huge billboard of Hezbollah's Nasrallah, he turned to me with his right hand, thumb upwards with an approval sign, "Hezbollah, Good!" I asked, "Hariri?" The taxi driver laughed scornfully, "No good," then drew a line across his throat, then tweak his thumb downwards. The mischievous soul in me probed further, "Syria? Bashar Assad?" He raised his dark eyebrow, "Very good! Allahu Akbar!"
Built in the 7th century by the Umayyad Dynasty, the first of the Islamic empires in the Middle East, Aanjar is an important regional centre renowned for its many symmetric arches and unique red-white stones that were used to build many of its structures. I love the emptiness of the place, which despite its UNESCO World Heritage status, is hardly visited by the many tourists who also visit Baalbeck an hour away.
The modern Aanjar of today is an ethnic Armenian town, whose inhabitants are descendants of Armenian refugees from Musa Dagh ("Mountain of Moses") in southern Turkey's Hatay Province, who were relocated to Aanjar with the help of the French when Hatay, originally a French Mandate territory, was annexed to Turkey, historical enemies of the Armenians, in 1939. Aanjar has six villages, each named after the six Armenian villages of Musa Dagh, immortalized in the Hollywood movie "Forty Days of Musa Dagh", which dramatized the forty days resistance of Musa Dagh's Armenians in 1915 against the Turkish Army order to massacre its inhabitants and deport any survivors. The relocation of Musa Dagh's Armenians saved them from slaughter by the Turks but did not spare one-tenth of them from death from the malaria of Aanjar's swamps. It took many years before the swamps were drained and the land turned into a fertile land of milk and honey it is today. Today, there are altogether 150,000 ethnic Armenians in Lebanon representing more than 5% of the population and Lebanese-Armenians are guaranteed 6 seats in the Parliament.
During the Civil War, Lebanon's Armenians formed the Armenian Secret Army for the Liberation of Armenia (ASALA), which took the opportunity of those lawless days to train and launch terrorist attacks on Turkish diplomats worldwide, with the objective of, as stated in a US government document, compelling "the Turkish Government to acknowledge publicly its alleged responsibility for the deaths of 1.5 million Armenians in 1915, pay reparations, and cede territory for an Armenian homeland". Altogether, ASALA launched 84 attacks in which 46 died. The group only lost much of its organization and impetus when the Israelis invaded Lebanon in 1982, which forced the withdrawal of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, which was one of ASALA's major backers.
Due to the close proximity of Aanjar to the Syrian border, it was once the headquarters of the once fierced Syrian intelligence in Lebanon and it was said that Rustum Ghazzali, head of the Syrian intelligence in Lebanon, was at that time the most feared person in all Lebanon. Aanjar once played host to many Syrian mukhabarat, or secret agents, who accounted as many as half the local population, that is, until April 2005, when all Syrian forces were forced to withdraw as a result of the Cedar Revolution following the assassination of Hariri. Beyond the bare brown mountains to the east, to which Aanjar was nestled against, is Syria, where the Syrian Mukhabarat is probably waiting to return to Lebanon at the slightest provocation.
I met a middle age Lebanese-Brazilian at Aanjar and he drove me back to Chtaura, where I got onto a bus for Beirut. There are 8 million Brazilians of Lebanese-descent, much greater than the population of Lebanon of only 4 million. I have met a few of these Lebanese-Brazilians at Talal Hotel, and seen Brazilian flags hung from many Lebanese homes. The 15-million strong Lebanese Diaspora are found worldwide – from the supermarkets, grocery stores and restaurants across West Africa which I patronized a few months ago, to the fashionable suburbs of Paris and Bordeaux, where they are so important a part of the French national fabric that a young Frenchman told me that he thought the French public would support any involvement of the French Army to uphold the sovereignty of Lebanon.
I visited the Chouf Mountains with Brandon, a bright young Californian about to start his political science PhD, by hopping onto a bus which drove southwards onto the coastal plains of the Lebanese Mediterranean. Just before the bus turned inland into the Chouf Mountains, we passed Damour, site of a terrible Palestinian massacre of a few hundred Maronite Christian civilians in 1976 during the Civil War, which involved rape and murder of women, mutilation of the dead and desecrations of ancient tombs, described with shocking details in Robert Fisk in his book "Pity the Nation".
The Chouf Mountains are the historical heartland of the Druze in Lebanon, a religious community who sometime described themselves as a sub-sect of Sunni Islam, though some Muslims would not consider them Islamic at all. There are between 250,000 to 400,000 Druze in Lebanon and possibly up to 1 million in Syria. Persecuted by other major branches of Islam across the centuries, the Druze have always guarded their heritage and religious beliefs jealousy and often with great secrecy. Although the Druzes have maintained, at least officially, that they are also Muslims, their beliefs contain many non-Islamic elements. For instance, the Druzes believe in reincarnation, celebrate Noruz, the new year for Iranians and Kurds, and practice monogamy. They also believe in the divinity of the sixth Fatimid caliph, Al Hakim Hamzah, who declared himself the reincarnation of Allah. After the caliph was, according to other Muslim sources, murdered in 1021, Druzes believe that he had merely gone into hiding and would return in 1000 years' time. The Druzes are very secretive about their religions and only the formally initiated Druzes are given full access to the wisdom and knowledge of their faith.
I recall my conversation with Samir, a Druze businessman in Beirut, about his Druze faith and their belief in reincarnation: The Druze believe that the total number of Druze is the same throughout history and there is a secret Druze community in China. Every Druze that dies would be replaced by a Druze born at the same time. Reincarnation is kind of similar to that of Hinduism or Buddhism. If one has committed good deeds, one would be reborn in a better life, and vice versa. However, Druze believes that humans would only be reborn as humans, not animals or insects, which is possible for eastern religions. The whole rebirth process would end on judgment day when the al-Hakim would return together with the secret Druze community in China, to conquer and bring justice to the world.
Some Druze families have their own stories of reincarnation - of how individuals realized, often through dreams, that they were reincarnations of someone else who died, and that the two families involved would meet and become close through this strange link. Samir told me about his father's story of reincarnation: The previous life of Samir's late dad was his own elder brother, who died at 6 years old in an accident involving his sister. At the moment the elder brother died, Samir's grandmother gave birth to Samir's father, and he was given exactly the same name and simply took over the birth papers of the dead elder brother, as the family was aggrieved over the death of their eldest son.
Some years later when he was still a little boy, Samir's father suddenly "remembered" the accident that caused the death of his previous life and announced to the family he was actually the reincarnation of his dead elder brother. He even recalled that the death was caused by his sister and throughout the rest of his life, would refuse to speak to that sister. Strange, isn't it? Samir said there are a number of other stories of reincarnation among the Druzes but it is generally rare for people to "remember" their reincarnation but given the Druze belief in constant population size and the inherent small size of the entire community, stories like that do emerge from time to time.
Apart from the Druze, there are also huge Maronite Christian communities in the Chouf Mountains as well. Both communities have not always lived in peace, and it was the bitter civil war between them in the 19th century that led to European intervention and the resulting formation of the sanjak or autonomous state of Mount Lebanon within the Ottoman Empire, which eventually formed the nucleus of the Lebanese state of today after the fall of the Ottoman Empire. During the 1976-1990 Civil War, the Maronite Lebanese Forces and the predominantly Druze Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) led by the Jumblatt family (who were traditional tribal chieftains) fought bitterly in these mountains. More recently, during the clashes a few weeks ago in May 2008, Hezbollah attacked and captured villages controlled by Walid Jumblatt, current head of PSP, in the Chouf Mountains and forced PSP to surrender these villages to the Lebanese Army.
We took about one hour to reach Beiteddine, after walking through the splendid grounds of the luxurious Mir Amin Palace Hotel. From the high ground of the hotel, Beiteddine Palace is just below, a perfect sniper's position overlooking what is the Lebanese President's official summer palace. This might just be fine for the Prince of Liechtenstein, but certainly not a desirable hangout for any Lebanese president. Wikipedia.org has a special entry for "List of assassinated Lebanese people" which has 19 political figures from 1979 till now, including 1 president, 1 president-elect and 2 former prime ministers.
Whatever the case, the magnificent Beiteddine Palace remains the official summer residence of the Lebanese president, and is, as a result, very well-maintained. Built between 1788 and 1818 by Bashir Shihab II, the Maronite emir of Mount Lebanon, Beqaa Valley and Jebel Amil under the Ottomans, this is a magnificent example of mixed Moorish, Byzantine, Omayyad and European architectural styles, designed by, interestingly, Italian architects. The palace was severely damaged by the Israeli army during their invasion of 1982, and was later taken over by Druze forces who turned it over to the government in 1999 to be turned into a museum.
We walked through the complex, awed by the intricate carvings and Andalusian-Moorish aesthetics combining in a most tasteful and graceful manner the flow of water via the courtyard fountains and those on the inner walls. There was also an interesting mosaic museum here, with well preserved Byzantine and Roman mosaics from a church in Jiyyeh, a coastal town just south of Damour. According to Wikipedia, "The Prophet Jonah was said to have landed on its shores when he was spat out of the giant fish described in the Old Testament, and a temple was built which stands until today. It was known at the time of the Phoenicians as a thriving natural seaport. This natural seaport continued functioning and remains up to the present times. Many invaders passed through Porphyreon such as Tohomtmos the Egyptian who landed his soldiers on its natural seaport in order to fight the North. Alexander the Macedonian relaxed on its shore preparing for the attack on Tyre. St Peter and St Paul also walked through Jieh several times."
During the Civil War, Maronite Jiyyeh was repeatedly attacked by Israelis, Palestinians and Druze. Jumblatt's forces had captured it a few times and horrific massacres had occurred it. Jumblatt's Druze forces, in particular, had been accused of "taking no prisoners" (in Robert Fisk's book) and dynamiting churches in Jiyyeh. Interestingly, a commemorative plaque at the Mosaic Museum at Beiteddine Palace acknowledged the generous donation of Walid Jumblatt, respectable cabinet minister of public works, of all these exquisite mosaics. I wonder where he obtained these mosaics
From Beiteddine, we took a service taxi to Deir el Qamar, once the capital of the Emirate of Mount Lebanon and the long time residence of Emir Fakhreddine II the Great (1572-1635), an enlightened leader and reformist who brought much of what is today Lebanon under his rule, to the angst of the Ottomans who eventually executed him and his family. Nestled against the mountain slopes overlooking a deep picturesque valley, Deir el Qamar is a pretty if sleepy place, and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We strolled around for a while and had some difficulty finding transport out of town. The town is today Maronite Christian, hence our efforts to find any Druze house of worship didn't bear much fruit. In any case, a taxi driver told us that Druze houses of worship aren't open to outsiders, which is probably true considering their general secretive nature of their religion.
I joined Adrian, a friendly young French aspiring journalist on a visit to the dirty, messy slum that is the notorious Palestinian refugee camp, Shatilla. This was where, in 1982, Christian militias massacred thousands of unarmed Palestinian refugees, right under the nose of the Israeli army, shortly after the assassination of the baby-faced President-elect and Christian Phalange warlord Bashir Gemayel.
Walking through the squalor of the camp, I was amazed how people could live in such terrible conditions for 60 years. Shame on the Arab countries for not offering these Palestinians citizenship and allow them to work legally. Even the West, which the Arabs are fond of accusing of being racist, is a lot more accommodating to refugees. We took many photos of Fatah, Arafat, Hamas and other political groupings we were not familiar with. The people we met at the souk area of the camp were friendly and some even posed for us, pointing on a Palestinian map where they were originally from – Jaffa, Ramallah, Hebron, Jenin, Bethlehem, the list goes on, plus many villages whose houses and olive groves have long been flattened and whose names no longer exist on the road maps of Israel. The sad thing was, most of these people were probably born in the refugee camp, and even their grandparents who were born in Palestine, had only left Palestine as children.
The camp, as expected in places of this kind, was full of various factions and groups, with unmarked lines and boundaries. A little boy warned us, "Mafia, mafia", as we left the busy Palestinian souk area towards what appeared to be more residential areas of the camp. We found ourselves in an area with lots of green flags and photos of an Iranian mullah. A group of walkie-talkie men surrounded us and asked what we were doing. Just tourists, we replied. They made a few calls and told us we were no longer in Shatilla but in the Lebanese Amal territory. Amal is a Shia militia that once fought the Maronites then against the Hezbollah on the side of the Syrians during the Civil War. They are now allied with Hezbollah in a pro-Syrian, anti-Western alliance. As with Hezbollah, the icon of Amal is the Iranian-born cleric Musa Sadr who disappeared mysteriously in Libya in 1978. Many believed that Musa Sadr was killed by Libyan leader Qadaffi over disputed funds, though Libya claimed that Musa Sadr had left Libya safely for Italy. For many Shiites in southern Libya, Musa Sadr is akin to the mysterious 12th imam of the Shia faith, who would reappear on judgment day to bring justice to the world.
We had no choice but to leave that area – I did not fancy being taken hostage or kidnapped by a renegade faction – in such places, certain groups sometimes commit crimes and blame it on others. Too complicated, especially in places like Lebanon. We walked through the bazaar again, and once again, got stopped by yet another group of plainclothes men, probably as we yet again crossed another invisible boundary. At another location, just outside what appeared to be a party office of some kind, a young man furled himself on me as I snapped a photo of a political wall mural. "No photo," he shouted. Photos of Palestinian party offices could well be used for target practice planning by the Israeli Air Force.
As we left the area, we came across a friendly vehicle repair shop owner and his friends. They asked, "Palestine good?" We replied, "yes, Palestine good, very good." They were very happy and we took a few photos of them. They joked and played with each other, and called two among them "Yahud", meaning Jews. Looked like the word "Jews" have become a bad word. It is tragic that the longstanding political hatred of the Palestinians towards their loss of homeland had long transformed into racism and depredatory attitudes.
The Daily Star reported on the continuing efforts among all parties in Lebanon to form a cabinet in accordance to the Doha Accord that ended the recent fighting. The report referred to the various politicians by their current titles and positions, such as Speaker Berri, MP Walid Jumblatt and MP Michel Aoun, all of which sounded very respectable. Anyone who has read modern Lebanese history, would know that these men were once active participants of the Civil War, and whose forces had killed many people during the bitter 15 year conflict. Many journalists had, during those days, referred to them as warlords, which I supposed is a designation they would prefer to shake off. Whatever it is, as recent events had shown, these men, as well as the chief player in Lebanon today, Hezbollah, has retained considerable firepower, and could at any time, plunge the country into civil war again.
Even then, as a Lebanese has told me, if one really wanted peace, then one should give these guys the benefit of doubt and close one eyes to what happened during those years of conflict. One should always look ahead and hope for the best.
I like this country and wish it well, but its contradictions appear so huge that I wondered if there would ever be peace. Even in the Phoenician Golden Age of the past, this was never a united land. The Phoenician city-states were divided and mere pawns in the big game between the Egyptians, Persians, Assyrians and Babylonians. Other conquerors had looted this land and raped its women – Alexander the Great, Romans, French and many others. Today's Lebanon is divided – its 18 communities guard their turf jealously, switch their alliances at the blink of the eyes, and often sought external help to kick their rivals. Nothing seemed to have changed the last 4000 years.
I left Lebanon after 8 nights, for Singapore, and my 8 month-odyssey across South Asia, the Caribbean, Africa and the Middle East have come to an end. This journey, in particular, the West African leg, had been my most difficult journey to date, and I'm glad to have survived it. I have added another 41 countries and political entities to my list of been-to places, making it a total of 173 countries/political entities. I will say a bit more about my thoughts and conclusions of this journey, in my next dispatch.