The land of milk and honey

Date: 25 November 2018

Location: the most beautifully decorated AirBnb flat, up above, Gemayzeh, Beirut.

“Like all cities, Beirut has many layers, and I had been familiar with one or two. What I was introduced to that day with Ali and Kamal was the Beirut of its people. You take different groups, put them on top of each other, simmer for a thousand years, keep adding more and more strange tribes, simmer for another few thousand years, salt and pepper with religion, and what you get is a delightful mess of a stew that still tastes delectable and exotic, no matter how many times you partake of it.

― Rabih Alameddine, The Hakawati

“When I arrived in Beirut from Europe, I felt the oppressive, damp heat, saw the unkempt palm trees and smelt the Arabic coffee, the fruit stalls and the over-spiced meat. It was the beginning of the Orient. And when I flew back to Beirut from Iran, I could pick up the British papers, ask for a gin and tonic at any bar, choose a French, Italian, or German restaurant for dinner. It was the beginning of the West. All things to all people, the Lebanese rarely questioned their own identity.”

― Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation: The Abduction of Lebanon

A little hand reaches under the door of the toilet stall.

The hand is proffering toilet paper. Something of which I, then, realise this very basic stall has none.

“Pour vous, madame.”

Although I’m not thrilled to have been boosted from mademoiselle to madam, I’m very grateful for the paper and so accept and tip the little girl on the way out.

We are in Baalbek, a small town in north eastern Lebanon. It’s just William From The Invetweeners and I, the others in our weekend gang having declined this particular trip — which was fair enough. To travel up here from cosmopolitan Beirut was not a decision I took lightly. The UK travel website instructs you to ‘avoid all but essential travel’. On the Australian website the area is shaded red, ‘do not travel’. I speak to the locals who all agree: it is a volatile area, but currently safe. I read up on the web and it’s the same thing. In the end, I can’t resist. Agatha Christie went and loved it. I needed to see it too.

The drive up is suitably sketchy, Lebanon doing all it can to make me doubt this decision. It’s raining and the mountains over which we drive are smothered in oppressive fog. There a number of signs directing you to the Frontiere Syrienne — the Syrian border. We come within a few kilometres and at one point my phone vibrates (a surprise, we’ve had no data since we arrived and who texts these days?) and it’s a message from the Syrian Ministry of a Tourism, wishing me a pleasant stay in Syria. Eep. There are checkpoints every twenty minutes or so and they’re guarded by a cluster of Lebanese soliders, heavily armed. We’re waved through each of them so readily that I’m prompted to ask our guide what they’re looking for. He talks to me about the regional licence plates (B for Beirut is high risk, as is T for Tripoli) and how the soldiers are trained to read passenger body language. Apparently our sleepy, vaguely hungover stupor in the back seat did not raise any alarm bells because we’re waved through every single checkpoint.

When we arrive in Baalbek the sun finally comes out and it’s glorious.

First we go to see the worlds largest carved stone. It’s epic — and the story of her how it was discovered in modern times (little old man, rubbish tip, patience, years of work, cats) is lovely, but it’s still just a rock. It is primarily interesting because of what it augers. The stone was carved from this quarry to form part of the Roman temple precinct just down the road. It never made it, and the temple was never finished, because at some stage during the years of construction the Christians arrived and convinced these Romans out of their pagan ways.

Our driver points and finally we see what should have been hard to miss: a few hundred metres away, behind some houses, a mosque and a forest of electricity poles, is a giant Temple of Venus. It looks ridiculous, all tall and majestic in its dusty sands stone, popping up behind a peeling sign advertising mattresses.

We meander over the ruins complex proper. Best we can tell, we’re the the only non-Lebanese tourists here. In fact, being a weekday, the place is mobbed by tiny girl guides and boy scouts all armed with little Lebanese flags.

You ascend the wide steps into the outer foyer, the hexagonal room, the grand temple proper and, on one side, the temple to Bacchus. The temples of Venus are Bacchus next to one another. Our guide cocks an eyebrow: a place to worship the God of Wine alongside the place township the God of Love? Sounds like the first nightclub.

I cannot do Baalbek justice here. You’ll need to look at the photos and Google images. It’s gorgeous.

The drive home to Beirut is as notable. First, we stop at what looks like a prettily station bug is actually the outpost for a local farm, serving the best Lebanese food I’ve had in my life. A platter of cucumber, tomato, parsley is brought our. Hummus. Flatbread. Kofta. Sausages. Second, we pass some of the UN camps for Syrian refugees. It’s horrible. I press our driver for the local story but all he’ll tell me is that he has a lot of friends who make money picking up Syrians in bordertowns and dropping them at the edge of the montano range between Syria and Lebanon before picking them up again in a Lebanese border town. If they make it. Which most of them don’t — and those that do have often lost limbs to landmines. It’s a sad state of affairs. Finally, and on a very different note, we venture into the Bekka valley and go wine tasting at Chateau Ksara. It’s surreal to stand in a winery drinking a Bordeau-style cabinet given what our morning held. I buy some wine, not quite sure how I plan to get it home (please see previous post on placing skills.)

Lebanon put a little heart-shaped hole-punch in my heart and I’ll be back.



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