Ria is Back from South Lebanon
A British demining expert checks olive trees for potential remaining cluster bombs from the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah left in Zawtar Asharqia, southern Lebanon. Photograph: Marwan Naamani, AFP.
Happy New Year, every one of you!
I have just finished this year and what has been a particularly interesting month in my life so far - and to think about forcing a description of these heady weeks into a few, piddly paragraphs seems almost a task not worth attempting. I came to south Lebanon to work on my graduate thesis, which has to do with the topic of the South Lebanese Army (which broke off from the regular Lebanese Army and worked with Israel) during the Lebanese Civil War. To this end, I traveled to at least 40 towns and small villages in the UN Security Zone in the southernmost area of Lebanon. I cannot be bothered to think of how utterly ridiculous I must have looked – an American girl who speaks sort of passable Arabic, on the Israeli border, asking a bunch of former individuals who were tried as collaborators by the government, most put into prison, to give me information on how exactly they were recruited and what exactly they all did during and after the war.
I stayed in a town called Marjayoun, a primarily Christian hamlet a few miles or a vigorous olive’s tossing away from the Israeli border. Ensconsed atop a mountain ridge, I am surrounded by UN HQ to the north, Beaufort Castle to the west, Israel to the south, and Shebaa Farms and the Golan Heights to the east. A cease fire is still in effect here, one which I think of every morning when I wake up –please hold ceasefire, hold do! A certain aspect of calm prevailed, though, and Ill attempt to explain just why.
Dorothy Jabbour, a lovely Englishwoman I had met but only briefly in Beirut before she insisted that I take her summer mountain house for the month, was too kind to me and I am still almost in a state of shock that such a seemingly competent, in charge of all of her senses individual could look at me and think, yes, although I’ve only known her for oh, an hour or so, I somehow trust this gypsy American stranger to live in my beautiful old house, unsupervised, for weeks on end. Thank you, Dorothy.
Marjayoun is a very interesting town – the government electricity cuts out at 6pm, a few people still use outhouses, but you will not have trouble finding a jewelry store – yes, we live a highly politically unstable area with hundreds of peacekeeping forces patrolling the street, but far be it for the Lebanese to be too far away from their diamonds. I passed a crèche on the street a few weeks before Christmas and noticed that the plastic figure of Mary, cradling the baby Jesus, was adorned with both a large faux diamond and a pearl necklace. Virgin Mary, Lebanese style.
In the south, I barely buy a thing from the store, and neither does anyone else – my soap is from the olive trees nearby, as is the voluptuous and uncomprehendibly good olive oil we consume down here – I watched in awe as people who did not have running water, shoes or refrigerators , poured over their vegetables this velvet, golden elixir, olive oil so gorgeous we would pay hundreds of dollars a bottle for in America. In the garden of bayt Jabbour, trees proffering pine nuts, bushes of lavender, bushels of every type of citrus fruit lay before me, ready to be picked. The dear, fluffy chickens next door bequeathed to me their shelly bounty daily, if I express even the slightest bit of interest. I was surprised almost every other day to finally see the tree or bush from which a certain spice or food actually came. You know bay leaves, the large leaves that seem to hail historically from some older version of the modern day McCormick’s glass bottles? Those leaves come from bushes and now I know how they are meant to taste. Wow.
It is cold in Marjayoun in winter, and I sleep with a hot water bottle in gloves and a scarf and a hat. The general electricity goes out at 6pm and though I did have a generator, most of the towns would go dark. We would stand out on the main avenue, among the Christmas decorations, the life-size reindeer posed to look as if they were making a run over the fence toward Kiryat Shmona, the larger than life Santa and his sleigh whose lights had all been extinguished, and regard jealously the Shiia village of Khiam located in the valley who seemed somehow to have electricity ALL the time. Just beyond Khiam was the highest mountain around – jabal as-Sheikh (called Sheikh’s mountain because of the cap of snow almost always at the peak that resembled a sheikh’s neat white cap,) in English called Mt. Hermon, the place where the transfiguration of Jesus was meant to have occurred. I mean to climb this mountain in the spring.
I have never seen so many men in one place before. The southern border sometimes feels like towns full of older people and soldiers. Within about 48 hours of having arrived down south I became more popular with boys than I ever had before in my life entire. I only wished that I could speak Polish, Italian, Spanish, (more) French, Indonesian, Malay, or any of the many languages and dialects of Ghana or India so that I could speak to the UN soldiers. I was able, of course, almost competently to talk lots with all of the Lebanese soldiers. For the foreign ones, my own version of cultural outreach in these difficult circumstances was conducted in the form of a lot of smiling and waving. One morning, I was at my preferred kanafe (kanafe is a sweet cheese confection popular for breakfast) purveyor when a whole battalion of Indonesian UN soldiers pulled up in tanks, ostensibly to also get their morning kanafe. Not even one of them spoke a word of English, but it was expressed to me, utilizing hand gestures, that these soldiers, all 45 of them, wanted a picture with me – and not in a group, but each one wanted a picture of me and them, alone, I think so that when they go back to Indonesia they can tell their friends about their American girlfriend in Marjayoun. I literally stood there with each one of them, in turn, and tried to keep myself from laughing.
I had rented a car and drove all over the south for a month – bumping along roads in many places that could more appropriately be described as piles of rock which used to be a roads before the harb al timmuz (August war of 2006). I have gained new proficiency in how to perform a quick tire change.
I would be popping into these tiny villages, a few hundred people, inspecting olive trees, kissing babies, tripping over chickens, conducting interviews in the form of whispered conversations under old, crumbling stairs, hoping and hoping that a war would not break out, hoping and hoping that I was translating conversation correctly. At bayt Jabbour, I would interview and write all week and on the weekends, Dorothy and her relative and my friend Salam the poet, olive farmer and champion Scrabble player would come down and bring the sunshine from Beirut with them, and we would feast upon Dorothy’s baba ghannouj and irreplicable apple cake.
Every new town felt like an unopened gift – what would I find? Who would I meet?
I went to Hasabaya, a primarily Druze (the Druze are a religious grouping of individuals who split off from mainstream Shiism around the 11th century, all the history books always add though, and I will too, that only the Druzies actually know what their belief system is - shrouded as it is in complete secrecy, written in a book somewhere - I want to read that book that's locked in a golden cave or whatever) town. Walking along a tiny, steep winding back road I came upon a tall, silver haired man and asked him if he knew where the Saraya Chehabea, the main tourist attraction in Hasabaya, was. “I am a Chehab prince,” he said “And I will welcome you to my castle!”We turned a corner where a massive stone fortification stood before us. There literally could be hundreds of rooms in the place. I was given a tour of the incredible building – rooms of Arabic inscriptions written out in marble, large fountains and expansive diwans, and then brought down to the private family quarters, through a small tunnel into a room with soaring vaulted stone ceilings, where I met the mistress of the castle, who invited me to eat with them. The conversation was lovely, and it was at this dinner that I was introduced to the yerba mate drinking tradition in the mountains of Lebanon. Yerba mate is a type of drink, originating in Argentina, that was brought over to Lebanon. I drank so much yerba mate over this last month that my veins are pulsing with it.
I went to Khiam prison, which I wrote about when I visited in 2006 (see blog archives if interested), and which had been almost completely levelled in the 2006 war. The Hizbollah had neatly bulldozed tons of rubble into piles that seemed even taller than the buildings that used to stand there. Interspersed among the piles of rocks were little, bordered flower beds filled with small violets and little bursts of a yellow flower. In one corner, shells of missiles, some fragmented, some whole, had been set into a sort of arrangement, and painted upon the larger shells “Made in the USA.” Peeps, America's PR situation over here is not good, people, not good.
One day I wound up in Shebaa Farms -past rows of cabbage in fields leading up to the highest part of Shebaa, that were so green they appeared on the cusp of becoming blue. I saw what looked like what I imagined to be a gypsy encampment, and then a very tall, wizened man in a long, black gallabiya and a red and white kuffayah atop his head, gently stroking a small, cooing gray pigeon cupped in his hands. He first gave me a tour of all of his animals – pigeons, donkeys, chickens, dogs to guard the chickens from the wolves in the area and then invited me for tea in a dialect I could scarcely comprehend. I was ushered in through a maze of tents which brought me to his family, now clearly Bedouin, the women’s faces all tattooed, the tents covered on all walls and floors with rich and ancient carpets. Two very new babies were presented to me like gifts all wrapped up in wool blankets, and placed on my lap– one 24 and the other just 12 days old. I was asked to stay for dinner. There was a dish involving thick slabs of sheeps tallow, and an incredible, very thin flatbread that was at least 3 feet across and covered in attractive constellation of bubbles. Small hot peppers were eaten raw and whole and then a mountain of raw spinach was chopped roughly and placed into a very large piece of raw bread dough. This was wrapped up in a bundle and tied at the top, and then the ball was placed in a fire pit, on top of the embers of a fire several feet below the ground. There was no furniture in the tents, but rich blankets and cushions and rugs upon which at least a dozen family members were draped over, among pillows and thick wool coverings and I sat and drank mint tea and listened to stories late into the night. When it came time to leave, although I was asked repeatedly to sleep over, I was sent off with a massive bag of produce, approximately half of which was composed of fruit I had never seen before in my life.
Approaching Debinne, a small Shiia village close to Marjayoun, I saw a small river of blood streaming down the steep sides of the road. Officials from the government had told me that 80% of the buildings in Debinne were completely destroyed in the 2006 war, but these had all been rebuilt, villagers told me, by the Hizbollah. Im not sure which stupid part of my brain always tends to make me walk TOWARD streaming blood, when I should want to walk the opposite way, but oh well. I walked up the street to the source of said blood and was invited to the sacrifice of a sheep and the relevant party for a villager who had just returned from the annual Hajj to Mecca. The house and garden were festooned in pastel covered streamers, and an attractive painting had been done on the façade of the family’s front door – a picture of a car, a plane, palm trees and Mecca, a visual representation of the gentleman’s journey to Hajj. The sheep were killed and some was cooked and passed out to guests and the rest distributed to villagers. I stared, agog at a small mountain of tabbouleh that was almost the size of a bathtub. Children danced in their sparkling and ruffle-laden dresses and new clothes and a good time was had by all.
An Interesting Gift from an Ex-Con in Ibl as-Saqi
In Ibl Saqi I interviewed many former SLA soldiers, each with a more interesting story than the last. I interviewed two cousins who had both been in prison during and after the war – one put in jail because he worked with the Israelis, and the other put in jail by the SLA for working against the Israelis for the resistance. One of them gave me a gift he had made while serving time in Khiam prison. It was a picture frame formed out of dozens of meticulously orgamied Winton’s Lights cigarette cartons.
There were so many other towns – Jarma and Blaat, Kfar Rouman and Nabatiye, Deir Mimas and Kfar Kila, Houla and Aytarun, Bint Jibayl and Rmeish, Mesa Jabal and other places I stopped in that even now seem a blur of identical gray houses, outsize pictures of Hassan Nasrallah, Fadlallah, Musa Sadr and the young soldiers of these towns who had been killed, huge olive presses, and piles of oranges the size of large trucks.
It came time to leave my lovely month in the south. I adored living in the mountains, getting my eggs still warm from the heat of their actual producer, breathing air so clean I wished that I could bottle it. I left the south with a much more profound understanding of Lebanon, and I also, of course left with many new friends, new friends who ran the gamut - soap makers and army sargeants, sheepherders and Sunni, Greek Orthodox and Shiia auto mechanics (I had several flat tires because of the condition of the roads,) peacekeeping forces and ex-cons, olive farmers and mukhabarat, Druze princes and kanafe experts. Oh south Lebanon, I have seen your charms and I will return soon with fondness and a gut ready for some seriously yummy victuals.
Its nice to be back in Beirut, though. I think its great that within a block of where I am currently staying I can go to a mosque OR get a Brazilian bikini wax. What a city. Sekina is still in Australia, and I am lucky to be staying with a dear girl called Lauren in Hamra until she returns. I talked to Sekina on the phone the other day, and she apologized that she isn’t back quite yet. The first question she asked though, was not how are you, Ria, how is school, how is your family. It was “ Ria, are you married yet, or please, at least engaged?” Oy vey. The communal attempts to get me married here, are really, beyond the pale.
I walked all over West Beirut early one morning – grand old, bullet-pocked houses are being knocked down and replaced at a steady clip with high rise condos that hold all of the allure for me of bottles of cheese that are dispensed from an aerosol can. My first apartment in Beirut from 2005, on Makhoul Street just next to the Blue Note Jazz Café, which boasted stunning views of the Med, is now a massive 50 foot deep hole in the ground where another set of condos will go up. The old parts of this city are disappearing, but I just try to look at the buildings while I can and I remain grateful that I can even be over here at all.
More on what has happened in the last few days in Beirut soon, promise.
A VERY happy new year to every one of you. Please keep in touch.