We headed out of town, south, past the Hezbollah controlled suburbs. Driving past them on the motorway gave me the same feeling previously felt when going past South American shanty towns, or actually come to think of it a bit like scooting past South-Central Los Angeles in the same fashion. These southern suburbs have been subjected to various kinds of attacks from Sunni extremists over the past couple of years, mostly out of a desire to draw Hezbollah into direct conflict with ISIS, thus initiating the big Sunni-Shia war these types hope for and that the rest of us fear.
We were headed for an area that rests about twenty-five miles out of the capital, a place which constitutes the main resort area of Lebanon. As we arrived and decamped to our various pine cabins, it was amazing to think of the part of the world we were in and its proximity to real danger. Fifteen miles from the Golan Heights, about the same distance in another direction to being right in the thick of the Syrian Civil War, looking out at the gently swaying pines you too would have thought this an impossibility.
Outside of Beirut you get a much clearer sense of certain aspects of Lebanese life, as you do in every country when you escape from its main city. The obsession with weddings for a start, every shop in every village seeming to exist off a never ending flow of matrimony. The part that hunting plays in everyday, male life. When out for a walk in the woods, I was slightly alarmed by the sound of rifle shots in the near distance. I was assured that this was not the Sunni- Shia war arriving early, but merely some of the locals hunting. There are no real restrictions on where you can do it and what you can shoot apart from people, so it is ubiquitous.
Moussa Castle, a place just outside of Deir El Qamar, is an absolute must visit should your ever find yourself in Lebanon. Built in the 1950’s to resemble something from the Middle Ages, it’s still breathing creator aparrently set to work on its construction when a woman he was trying to woo told him she would marry him if he built her a castle. Given that context, it is strange that he then filled his little love nest with what is a fairly random collection of mannequins (you go from stuffed people weaving, to scenes from Moussa’s childhood, to the Last Supper, to cavemen, all without seeming narrative link), antique weapons, and prison bars. It is one of the weirdest places I’ve ever been. I loved it.
That evening, it rained so hard, harder than I’ve every experienced anywhere, ever, that I was slightly scared by its severity. Describing the weather as Biblical seems especially apropos given our geographical location. The little balcony where we had drank Lebanese white wine and stared out into the dark of the forest had transformed into a wading pool come the morning.
We had lunch in Jezzine, a town noted for two things: one, producing famous cutlery; two, for being one of the few Lebanese towns with any old buildings left in it. It really brings home just how devastating the Civil War was when you consider how new almost every man made object is in the county, and particularly when you price into the equation the fact this is one of the oldest most continuously inhabited bits of the planet.
Speaking of the old-new building problem in Lebanon, the place that really makes it hit home is the burnt out yet still erect Holiday Inn that stands near the waterfront in the very heart of Beirut. Upon returning to town, we drove past the famous place. Having been finished just before the Civil War commenced, when Beirut was still one of the most swinging towns in the world, the Paris of the Middle East, the kind of destination that the Rat Pack would show up in for a weekend jolly, the old Holiday Inn stands as a monument to how that which we can take as solid, unchangable, eternal, can change completely in an instant. No one in early ’70’s Beirut would have thought that anything other than champagne and cocktail parties were going to exist anytime soon, and yet within only a few years the city was a war zone divided literally between East and West.
There is feeling in Lebanon, borne out of a history of constantly being conquered, that if fighting is happening five miles away, it may as well be happening five thousand miles away. It is of no concern until it lands on your doorstep. As we drove past the old Holiday Inn, no windows, really just a large, shelled, grey slab of stone, with the sky still overcast, the place gave off a vibe of immense sadness. Luckily, respite is never far away in Beirut, for soon we found ourselves inside the Marina, a string of restaurants and western food outlets, including a Paul and a chain Fro Yo joint, where English is the first language, Arabic second, and were it not for Beirut’s unmistabke skyline hovering over you, one could convince themselves they were absolutely anywhere in the world.