November 2010: As part of a longer 2-week trip that included Libya, and Sudan, I spent three days in Lebanon with the family of one of my Lebanese American friends. I stayed in the childhood home of my friend with her elderly mother in the Christian area of Zahlé in the hills just outside of Beirut. My friend’s sister and friends who were about my age hosted me and showed me all around the country for my three days stay. Whenever I have a chance to stay with locals and learn about a country through their eyes, I seize the opportunity and I am glad I did in Lebanon because the family I stayed with treated me like an honored guest and at the end of my trip I found it extremely difficult to leave especially since the food in Lebanon is just so damn good.

 

The route I took

Lebanon is a small sliver of a country just to the north of Israel and west of Syria. It is one of the oldest civilizations and was once home to great maritime trading Phoenician civilization. It suffered a vicious civil war between Christian, Shiite and Sunni groups for control mostly in the 80s that saw over 100,000 deaths. The war ended with a power sharing agreement between the three groups and the Shiites are largely represented by the Islamic militant Hezbollah group considered a proxy of the Iranian military, which has been branded a terrorism organization and has been fighting Israel for years. The peace in Lebanon is fragile and is constantly tested. Terrorism attacks or assignations are the norm and tit for tat fighting between Isarel also a regular phenomenon. During my short stay I hoped to learn as much about Lebanon and its volatile history as possible through the eyes of my Christian hosts.

 

Meeting My friends in a Hezbollah Recruitment Center

When I landed in Beirut from Cairo, immigration scrutinized my every passport page looking for any sign of a visit to Israel, which would have had me deported if not arrested. From the airport I took a bus from the airport that my friends told me to take to the outside suburbs in order to make it easier for them to pick me up. The problem was that when I was dropped off the bus in a busy District, I couldn’t locate my friends and I didn’t have a phone to contact them. So, after waiting around for 20 minutes with no sight of my friends I decided to walk into one of the businesses on the street and ask to use their phone. I entered one building that appeared non-descript from the outside but once I walked in five or so young men all turned to make eye contact with me, and I noticed all kinds of martyr flags and Hezbollah murals. It was too late to turn back so I smiled and asked if I could use their phone because I am trying to reach some friends. They were very curious about me and asked where I was from and when I said USA, they sighed and introduced themselves as Hezbollah and not friendly with US government, but they said you are guest here and a friend of us, just not your government. I was relieved that they felt this. Then when they asked me about my friends and I told them they are girls coming from Zahlé, they all laughed and said you are a lucky man. Christian girls like sex very much. At this point they were happy to let me use their phone to contact my friends and when I first called the girls one of them introduced himself in Arabic on the phone and explained the directions to the business. I thanked the guys and shook their hands and wished them well. When the girls picked me up the Hezbollah guys were giggling and leering at the girls from around the window. The girls were shocked that of all places i ended up, it was in a Hezbollah recruitment center to borrow a phone. I knew that Hezbollah is a militant group and I asked if there was any danger and the girls said no, we have good relations with them, but we do not like them. They are small in their minds. From there, we drove to Zahlé 30 minutes away and the girls began an action-packed tour of Lebanon’s tourist attractions and restaurants and bars for the next 3 days.

 

 

Me and my new Lebanese friends at a night club playing rucous Arabic music and people dancing at table tops 

Smoking Shisha-tobacco waterpipe

Baaqa Valley-Hezbollah Territory

One of the most interesting places in Lebanon was Baaqa Valley because it the stronghold of Hezbollah, the armed Shia militia group labeled terrorists by the USA. There are martyr flags, murals of martyred soldiers and of Shia clerics including the Ayatollah of Iran everywhere. The people are also very conservative, and women wear mostly black hijabs. The girls drove me to Baqqa Valley in the car and when we stopped to visit the 2000-year-old Roman Temple of Baalbek, some local men saw the girls who were not wearing hijabs and in jeans and started to yell some things in Arabic and the girls turned around and yelled right back. I asked what was said and the girls told me the men called them Christian sluts, we know you are sleeping with that man and the girls responded with some insults of their own. This was the tone that was set for our trip in Baaka valley. We also stopped at the main Hezbollah Mosque, and I was allowed to enter but not the girls. 

Hezbollah Imam

Murals glorifying war

Me with the girls in  Baalbek Temple

 Baalbek Temple

 Baalbek Temple

 Baalbek Temple

Hezbollah Mosque

Hezbollah Mosque

We stopped at the old British colonial era hotel-Palmyra Hotel near the Syrian border. The hotel opened in 1874 and has been a luxury hotel where royalty, such as kings and queens have stayed. Agatha Christie wrote mystery novel here. Soldiers from both world wars stayed here and the hotel has seen the constant march of history pass outside its walls and today it is more of a museum to the past than a hotel but there are still rooms for guests to stay in, but they are modest and feel like time capsules to the late 1800s and early 1900s. There is also an antique bar and the manager of the hotel, an elderly man who has worked there for decades brought us drinks and we sat and chatted about the hotel’s history with him. We were sadly the only guests in the hotel. 

British Era Palmyra Hotel

My friends and I at the British Era Palmyra Hotel

My friends and I at the British Era Palmyra Hotel

We visited the mountains via a desolate road and stopped to eat in some Christian villages. We also stopped to visit some ancient groves of cedar trees, which Lebanon was famous for in the bible. Some of the cedars stood during the time of Jesus but most have been felled long ago, we toured Jeita cave in a boat in a subterranean river. Jeita cave is to this day one of the most beautiful caves I have ever visited. Sadly, no camera or phones are allowed inside.

Christian man we met when we stopped for snacks in a small mountain village

Driving across the mountains 

Ancient grove of cedar forests 

Christian church in the cedar forest

We also stopped by a 1000-year-old monastery and toured a cave where the monks make and store their beer. We taste tested different flavors of their beer.

 

Barrels of beer stored in the ancient cave

me and my friends touring the cave

One of my friends is a principle at a Christian school and we stopped to see a Halloween party where the kids celebrated Halloween in December and in a strange twist of different customs borrowed from different cultures around the world that isn’t traditional to Lebanon.

 

Kids celebrating halloween at school all dressed as spiderman, evidently a favorite custom- Hitting a pinata 

Kids celebrating halloween at school all dressed as spiderman, evidently a favorite custom- Hitting a pinata 

My friends were proud of their Lebanese food and rightfully so. They took me to try all their favorite dishes at their favorite restaurants and never did they once allow me to pay for anything despite my best efforts.

 

Me trying a Lebanese dish

Beirut was my last stop before flying back home but first we visited some of the neighborhoods bombed by the recent war with Israel and the mosque where the body of the ex-prime minister Rafiq Hariri was laid to rest after he was killed by a suicide bombing.

 

Tomb of hariri

My friends were proud of their Lebanese food and rightfully so. They took me to try all their favorite dishes at their favorite restaurants and never did they once allow me to pay for anything despite my best efforts.

 

8 + 6 =

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