Monday, June 17, 2013

Kidnap This!

[Originally posted at NOW, co-written with Anthony Elghossain, with interactive map]

To the outsider, Lebanon may not sound like an obvious tourist destination at this exact point in time. There’s no government; deadly gun battles are a near-daily occurrence, some of them in major city centers; and the entire eastern border zone seems to have voluntarily thrown itself into Syria’s civil war.

Yet Lebanon is still Lebanon – a snow-capped Mediterranean jewel whose majesty has confounded poets since the days of Homer. Defying the rockets, the embassies’ travel advice, and the non-remote possibility of kidnapping, two NOW writers set out on Thursday, 6 June, to scale the twin peaks of Mount Lebanon and discover nine hidden treasures scattered among them.

Anthony – 10:06 am

“You’re crazy,” the soldier says, casually rummaging through my satchel. “This trip won’t work. And the situation in Lebanon is sensitive right now. It’s sunny… Just go to the beach, brother.”

“Thanks for the warning.”

We’re late… Of course we’re late. Having planned to leave at 8:30 a.m., more than an hour ago, we haven’t even left Beirut. Alex—a gargantuan Englishman blessed with a fetish for all things Arabia—is waiting near an Applebee’s on stretch of highway just north of the capital. Meanwhile, Anthony—that’s me, a diminutive Lebanese-American with a healthy Napoleonic complex—is chatting with a troublesomely curious soldier. “OK,” he nods. “Get going.”

Racing onto the highway at 10:06 a.m., we can’t resist the Starbucks a mere twelve minutes down the road. Lebanon, you see, is in the midst of another of its periodic, seemingly perpetual, convulsions. To conquer the place—its terrain, microclimates, and peoples—we must first conquer our hangovers. Armed with coffee and contempt for those who’d doubt us or stand in our way we roar: “Kidnap this!”


Our journey starts like any other: a highway, thinly veiled excitement, and music. Chris Malinchak and Daft Punk blare on the radio, but we’ll soon lose signal. Fortunately, Alex of Arabia has brought some tunes. Unfortunately, he’s chosen some obscure Iraqi artist—Ilham, the great ones need no surnames—to serenade us with incessant wails about “the apples of Syria” and the “dates of Basra.” Meanwhile, we’re ascending the northern reaches of a Mount Lebanon rich in purportedly Syrian apples and villagers who’d distrust accents from across the valley—let alone the deserts of Iraq.

Searching for Balou Balaa, a gorge sandwiched between two Cedar forests in the heights above Jbeil and Batroun, we seem to have taken the “scenic route”—local parlance for a wrong turn. We’ve now been careening up and down the mountain for nearly two hours. Racing from promising road to promising road, we’re unable to find it. “You passed the turn,” a helpful soldier explains. “Drive back and slow down… Watch for a sign.”

Imagine that... a sign.

We park at the end of a narrow gravel path and descend the stone-cut stairs. A minute later, we see it in the distance. “Beautiful,” observes Alex, with English understatement. “You could spend a whole day up here… Maybe have a picnic.”

“Or an evening,” I volunteer. “With different company?”

Soon, we’re at a deceptively majestic gorge—perhaps touched by the quality of roads leading here, the Ministry of Tourism calls it a “pothole”—marked by three natural bridges, a waterfall, orange rock, stubborn bands of greenery, and a portal to the skies.

Thinking of the fierce mountain warriors in my blood, I venture to the other side—and nearly fall twice. No matter… Alex has presciently collected my car keys. “Just in case.” We snap pictures, answer nature’s call, and scale the steps back to the road. The mountain, though cool and shaded, makes us sweat.


“Turn up the mountain and just follow the road,” says Tanious, smiling in the sun. “And drive me to the next village, if you please.”

“Yalla,” we offer, smirking helplessly. “Hop in.” We’re late, ever so late, but Tanious has been helpful and has invited us to lunch about four times. More importantly, our new friend is as old as salt—and we’d have felt horrible leaving him by the road.

Besides, Lebanon isn’t going anywhere. The lands ahead of us have survived conquest, war, intrigue, and—no small feat—the Lebanese themselves. Declining lunch, we resume our journey.


Alex – 11:45 a.m

For all his contemptuous talk of the mighty Ilham’s “obscurity”, I begin to wonder if I can’t detect a reluctant affection for the smoke-tarred, whisky-soaked Voice of Iraq stirring somewhere in Anthony as we roar skyward to Bsharre, in pursuit of the resting place-turned-museum of the distinctly non-obscure poet, Khalil Gibran.

Stepping inside the former monastery overlooking the breathtaking Qadisha Valley, with the “Cedars of God” just a few hundred meters above us, we proceed to browse the few dozen oil paintings and paper scribblings that are what remain of his original output.

I’m relieved to find he’s a finer painter than poet (though I’ll take Samir Kassir’s word for it that he was “above all other things a master of the Arabic language – and only secondarily of English”). My decision to share this finding with Anthony, whose state of reverence resembles that of an Orthodox Jew squaring up to the Western Wall, leads him to not talk to me for a very long time.

Anthony – 1:00 p.m

Turning away from the Lebanon of imagination—a sweeping landscape of mountains, stark red-tile roofs, and soothing seas—we’re suddenly at, or above, the gates of Arabia.

Just a hairpin turn away from the Mediterranean, the mountains drop into the Beqaa Valley, named after its patchy farmland. Over centuries, innumerable tribes rose and fell here. Saladin was born dozens of kilometers away, in Baalbek, where Hezbollah and assorted cartel kings now hold court. The Phoenicians, and the seas they sailed, fade from memory. We’re with the clans now.

And we’re certainly with Hezbollah. Having scarcely reached the plain, we spot a group of armed men—perhaps twenty—draped in fatigues, black shirts, and the bright yellow of the Party of God. “It’s probably another funeral,” I say, ever the expert.

“Maybe,” Alex ponders. “Or maybe they’re deploying in the area. That man looks ready to stop some people.” As if on cue, a scrawny man struts across the highway with an AK-47 slung across his torso.

“We could always ask,” I offer, with only some confidence.



We pass village after village, martyr after martyr, shrine after shrine. In the last few decades, the Beqaa has morphed from a pristine plain into a collection of shantytowns, mansions, and political posters—quite boring, for a brief moment. “The Hermel Pyramid is well worth the trip,” Alex notes. “And we’ll get to see Qusayr.”

Shockingly, we’ve been driving through the Beqaa for hours and not a single soldier has asked us why we’re heading north. In fact, most checkpoints are unmanned.

At the pyramid, now tarred by graffiti, we glimpse Qusayr. Just past the foothills of the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the town is exposed; little wonder it has been pummeled by conflict over the past few months.

A plume of smoke rises in the distance—is it a bomb or rocket? We take pictures but, for once, aren’t particularly eager to explore. Time to head south. Ilham’s singing about insomnia; we join him.

Alex – 3:30 p.m

Having hastily vacated the Hermel vicinity—successfully losing, in the process, the plateless, tinted-windowed jeep that had just happened to be driving behind us—we point ourselves south, aiming next for Riyaq, site of a long-defunct train station that, in happier times, would take the Lebanese to Palestine, Syria, and even Istanbul.

Getting there would involve navigating the 80km stretch of dusty tarmac that functions as the spine of the Beqaa. It’s effectively lawless terrain—though we were blissfully unaware at the time, a man was kidnapped that very afternoon in the adjacent town of Ras Baalbek—but Anthony, seemingly abandoning his staunchly agnostic inclinations and reverting to a primal clan-warrior state, invokes the God of his childhood and nods confidently. “I got my reasons,” he growls by way of explanation.

Divine intervention or not, we make it to the Riyaq station unscathed, where the first sign of human life is a crudely spray-painted Syrian flag at the entrance—left over from the occupation that forced the station’s closure in 1976. This sets the tone well for what is to come, as we tread the overgrown grass around the rotting train cars—many still bearing the emblem of Chemin de Fer de l’Etat Libanais (CEL), the old state railway operator—trying not to trample on the shards of glass and clay, shattered by Syrian troops’ looting.

“They came and wouldn’t even let me sit here anymore,” croaks a bony, white-haired, leather-skinned man sitting on a plastic chair, ostensibly the security guard. “They wrecked it all.”

“But they got what they deserved now!” he adds with a wheezy chuckle. As we bid him thanks and walk away, he mutters, as though reciting a proverb: “Don’t oppress, or God will send you a worse oppressor…”


With the old man’s words sitting uncomfortably in our guts—which were already painful enough from having not eaten a thing all day—we make for nearby Zahle; capital of the Beqaa, fabled producer of araq, and also Anthony’s hometown.

Indeed, my companion’s rejuvenated faith is more congruous here, in the city once known (according to Kamal Salibi) as the “shield of the Christians, terror of the Druze”; a name derived from its unique status as the only Christian dwelling never to fall to Druze attackers in the infamous sectarian war of 1841, and the last one to do so in the even bloodier 1860 sequel. It’s also notable for lying on the former Ottoman border between the Mount Lebanon mutasarrifate and the sanjaq of Damascus: driving downhill toward the eastern part of the city, you can literally feel where one ended and the other began at the point the road abruptly turns horizontal.

Not that Anthony has time for any suggestion of Zahle being a “mid-way point” between Beirut and Damascus. “We’re going to meet my dad, we’re going to eat kibbeh neyye, and you’re going to shut your trap about the goddamn shared cultural values.” I bristle, though once we’re settled by the banks of the Berdawni river, and the araq sends a pulse of consoling warmth down my gums, I do as I’m told.

Anthony – 8:17 p.m

By Lebanese standards, we’re rushing through the end of our lunch-turned-dinner. My father looks at me, in his way, as if to suggest that Washington has changed me—heaven forbid we skip a third round of dessert and coffee. Alex, bursting with glee and fresh fruit, merely smiles. “Shall we?”

The sun has set. Our universe is now defined by the meager reach of our headlights: fresh asphalt, a coiling road, the twinkling lights of the once-virgin Beqaa and stars above, and lavender lining the way. It’s all quite enchanting—well, as enchanting as possible when a Lebanese-American and Englishman nearly drive off a cliff to the wails of an Iraqi man.

With the Beqaa fading in the rearview, we find ourselves—instantly, unsuspectingly—staring towards Lebanon’s coast, with city and sea shimmering in the night. As we fumble with our cameras, failing to capture what our eyes see, a soldier yells out: “What are you doing?” Emboldened by exhaustion, we ignore him. “What are you doing?” he repeats to us, the latest set of conquerors. “What do you want?”

“We may have unsettled him,” Alex suggests, with a hint of kindness. “Perhaps we should leave.”

Alex – 9:30 p.m

“Put that good one on.”

“I’m sorry?”

“The song, the good one. Put it on.”

“What song would that be?”

“You know, ‘Shlon anam al-leil’. That one.”

Well, well. It’s taken just under twelve hours for Anthony to go from dogmatically disparaging the Baghdad Beatle to singing his lyrics from memory—lyrics, moreover, written in what any other self-respecting cross-wielder would regard as a most uncouth dialect.

Then again, perhaps this spirit of tolerance has something to do with our next port of call being the synagogue of Deir al-Qamar, the Jerusalem of Lebanon in which a 17th-century Jewish prayer house sits yards from a 15th-century mosque, which is in turn surrounded by haggard but sturdy old churches. Bejeweling the green thickets of the Chouf mountain, this was the capital of Ottoman Lebanon, jointly administered by Christian and Druze notables in an arrangement that anticipated the sectarian power-sharing headache of today.

The Jews for whom the synagogue was built were in fact North Africans fleeing the Andalusian Inquisition in the early 1700s. But they were to fall foul of Christians again in 1848, and were forced to relocate to Sidon and Beirut, where they didn’t last especially long either. The building today, though in great shape, has had all religious markings removed from the exterior, and of course nobody actually uses it. Like the Riyaq station, it’s a mostly sorry sight, a testament to a vanished Levant in which Jew, Muslim, and Christian could freely visit and live in one another’s cities, unencumbered by the borders that would later become their barricades.

Anthony – 11:00 p.m

Cruising into Beirut, we feel the Levant reemerge: The humid air bustles with noise; crammed roads fill with people and scents both lovely and foul; and the city, rising in the distance, unfolds as a hodge-podge of architectures, styles, and tongues.

Sighing with relief, we bank from the highway and into the reconstructed city center, past a planned—and rather sterile—neighborhood that now divides Beirut like the Green Line never could. For a few blocks, a pattern emerges: restored mosque, restored church, ruins, restored office, restored hotel—all nice, all empty. Maneuvering past some idiot drivers, we land in Gemmayze and the burgeoning district of Mar Mikhael.

“Almaza,” one of us shouts above the din at Internazionale, a Mar Mikhael bar as layered with influences—chill, funk, hipster, Dragonfly, Kayan—as the city it calls home. The bartender obliges. Waiting for friends, with a voyage behind us and a night ahead, we grin. “You couldn’t see all of Lebanon in a lifetime,” Alex says, draining his beer.

True… but you can spend a day trying. And what a day it’ll be.


Someone – 3:15 a.m


Alex Rowell is a reporter at NOW. Anthony Elghossain is an attorney at a global law firm based in Washington, DC. Follow them on Twitter @aelghossain and @disgraceofgod

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