I intended to publish this essay last year, but it got bumped and put into cold storage. Here it is after a too-long delay. — MJT
MOUNT LEBANON – Photojournalist Dan and I hitchhiked from the broiling and humid Mediterranean shore to the cool heights of the Mount Lebanon region where we could walk, breathe, and hang out in the sun without feeling like we had been dipped in a hot tub with our clothes on.
Dan wanted to go sight-seeing in comfort. I had other reasons for going. It would have been extraordinarily irresponsible to spend six months in Lebanon and get all my information from more or less like-minded people in the cosmopolitan core of Beirut. So I talked to random individuals on the street, in bars, and in cafes. I met with Hezbollah and attended one of their events. I spoke to people in the mountains and villages to get a read on the provinces.
It only takes one or two minutes to flag down a ride in Lebanon’s mountains, even if you’re an obvious foreigner. So Dan and I stuck out our thumbs (our open hands, actually) and hailed down two young mountain men in their convertible Jeep.
Roman bridge over the Dog River
“Get in the back, guys,” the driver said.
Dan and I hopped in the back and sat on a pile of guns.
“I’m Firas,” said the driver with the Che Guevara style beard.
“I’m Joe,” said his buddy in the passenger seat. (Joe? His name was Joe?) Both spoke English with Arabic accents.
Firas hit the gas and spun around hair-raising mountain turns as though he were playing bumper cars at an amusement park. I tried in vain to get comfortable while sitting on five or six rifles, and tried in vain to pretend Firas knew how to drive like an adult.
“No Taliban here,” Firas said. “Only Hezbollah, ha ha. Too bad for you…we’re going to kill you now.”
Dan and I laughed out loud and introduced ourselves.
“Okay,” Firas said. “We promise not to kill you.”
“We can’t, man,” Joe said. “They’re sitting on the guns.”
“Oh shit,” Firas said.
I pulled the notebook out of my pocket and did my best to write down the dialogue while Firas damn near careened us over cliffs and into the river.
His driving was ferociously bad even for Lebanon. I suspected he was trying to impress me and Dan. Like most Lebanese, he had ripped the seatbelts out of his car.
“Where are you from?” Firas said.
“We’re Americans,” Dan said.
“I’ve met lots of Americans,” Firas said. “I recently got back from Iraq.”
“You were in Iraq?” I said. “Doing what? Killing the infidel?”
“Ha ha, no,” he said. “Working in the Green Zone. I made a lot of money. A lot of money. But I’m glad to be back in Lebanon. It is beautiful here, yes? This is the Valley of Pain. Adonis was killed here and his blood made the river.”
I foolishly had forgotten my camera. Dan had his professional camera with him, but he rarely takes pictures of scenery. The pictures shown here were taken on similar roads on other trips.
“Show them the picture of the fish, dude,” Firas said.
Joe fished the digital camera out of his pocket and browsed through the photos. “Here it is,” he said and passed the camera to me and Dan in the back. Firas was shown holding a fish in his mouth by its head.
“You took this picture today?” I said.
“Yesterday,” Firas said. “We went camping. We’re on our way home now.”
“Man, I haven’t had a cigarette for two days!” Joe said.
“Do you go camping a lot?” Dan said.
“We do,” Joe said. “I want to meet an Americans woman who wants to go with me into the mountains to hunt. But American women never want to come with me. They think it is silly.”
“Nature is my religion,” Firas said. “I make love with the wolf and the sky.”
One of the real pleasures of traveling in the Middle East is the almost embarrassingly generous offers of friendship and hospitality from total strangers, especially in the small towns and villages.
Dan and I had spent most of the afternoon lolling around with a random family in the town of Yachouch. We had been trying to make our way to Aqfa, but we ended up on the wrong road and went far astray. A nice man dropped us off in Yachouch on his way home, and the instant we stepped out of the car a family having lunch in their front yard invited us to join them. We accepted, of course.
A Christian village, Metn region, Mount Lebanon
The oldest daughter, a Christian, had a Muslim boyfriend. She told us that every boyfriend she ever had was a Muslim and that her parents didn’t mind as long as she found a Christian to marry.
Her mother was addicted to politics, as most people in Lebanon are. She had her very own conspiracy theory revolving around American neoconservatives that would make an International ANSWER activist blush. As Dan and I left to head back to Beirut, she told me in no uncertain terms that I must bring my wife back to their house to celebrate Christmas.
So by the time Firas and Joe pulled the jeep into their village, the sun was going down and the air was getting cold.
“Time for beer!” Firas said and screeched the jeep to a halt in front of a grocery shack set back from the road. He opened the doors and gestured at a plastic table and four plastic chairs under a grand tree that was older than the republic. “Have a seat.”
Dan and I settled in two plastic chairs. What a relief to get off the guns.
Firas and Joe went into the store and rummaged through the refrigerator. They came back with four green bottles of locally brewed Almaza beer with the caps already popped.
“Cheers!” Firas said and we clinked our bottles and began to drink.
“Tell me something, guys,” Joe said. “Lots of Americans come here and think we like Hezbollah. Why? We hate Hezbollah!”
I tried to explain that most Americans don’t know much about Lebanon, just as most Lebanese don’t know much about the U.S. Some Americans who do go to Lebanon can’t quite believe that Sunni Muslims and Druze have as hard a time with Hezbollah as the Christians. It just doesn’t compute.
“Do you guys want peace with Israel then?” I said.
“So the embassy sent you!” Joe only half-jokingly said.
“Making peace between states is not the same as making peace between people,” Firas said. “We may be sitting here as friends at this moment, but I am thinking of the time in the future when I will kill you.” Then he checked himself. “I am not talking about us, this is just a general example of what sometimes happens.”
“Why do we have to be at war with Israel all the time?” Joe said to Firas.
“Don’t say it, dude,” Firas said.
“I know people from the south who did very well under the Israeli occupation,” Joe said. “They made money, they were safe, and they were happy. Under Hezbollah it is hell.”
“Those are just personal stories,” Firas said.
“Don’t believe everything you read, dude,” Joe said.
Firas took off his shirt, walked over to the jeep, and pulled out a rifle.
“Shoot this gun,” he said and tried to hand it over to Dan.
“I don’t want to,” Dan said. “It’s dark and I can’t see.”
It was pretty dark now. And we were inside a village. It really wasn’t the best time and place to fire a rifle.
“He is afraid,” Joe said.
“Just shoot at the mountain, dude,” Firas said to Dan. “You won’t hit anybody.”
Dan is a nice liberal from the American Midwest with a low opinion of weapons. I’m from ideologically ambiguous Oregon, where Republicans smoke pot and liberals shoot guns.
“I’ll shoot it,” I said to Firas, “if you shoot it first.”
“I want Dan to shoot it,” Firas said.
They went round and round for several minutes.
“Come on!” Firas said. “Just point the rifle up and shoot at the mountain!”
“It’s night,” Dan said, getting annoyed. “And we’re in a town.”
Most Lebanese “villages” are actually small semi-vertical towns
Firas finally just pointed the thing at the night sky and BANG fired a round into the dark side the mountain.
“Hey!” someone yelled from a house down the street.
Firas wordlessly put his gun back in the jeep. Dan was off the hook, and I did not get to shoot it.
“There sure are a lot of guns in this country,” I said.
Firas, still shirtless, returned to his plastic chair. “We all have guns,” he said. “Lebanese women are tough, too. My mother can shoot any weapon at all with one hand.”
Joe and Firas invited me and Dan to go camping with them next weekend.
“If you come with us I’ll bring my M-16,” Joe said.
“You have an M-16?” I said.
“Yes,” Joe said. “It is normal.”
I asked him now normal it is for Christians and Muslims to date and to marry. I was slightly surprised a young Christian woman from higher up on the mountain had only dated young Muslim men.
“My girlfriend is Muslim,” Joe said. “We have no future. I don’t care about her religion. She doesn’t care about my religion. Only our parents care.”
“Have you met her parents?” I said.
Joe laughed. “What am I supposed to say? Hi I’m Joe and wait for her dad to get his gun?”
Inter-religious marriages are becoming slightly more common, mostly among the urban elite and middle class. But civil marriage doesn’t exist in Lebanon yet. If a Muslim wants to marry a Christian they have to go to Cyprus where secular marriage is legal — a real irony considering Muslim-Christian relations (actually Turkish-Greek relations) are far worse on Cyprus right now than they are in Lebanon.
“Why doesn’t Lebanon have civil marriage yet?” I said.
“It’s Lebanon, man,” Firas said. “We will have another war soon. Every 15 or 20 years we have to have a war.”
“Do you want a war?” I said.
“Lebanese people are always ready for anything,” Firas said. “If you lead us to peace, we are ready for peace. If you lead us to war, we are ready for war.”
Joe was more certain that he wanted peace. Many of his family members had been brutally massacred by Palestinian gunmen in Damour south of Beirut. Every Christian house in that town was destroyed on January 20, 1976. The inhabitants were murdered, mutilated, and raped.
Damour at the time of the massacre
Both Joe and Firas forgive their old Palestinian enemies as well as their old enemies the Druze in the Chouf mountains. Some of the worst rounds of fighting during the entire war were between Christians and Druze for control of the mountains.
“Why did you forgive the Druze but not the Israelis?” I said to Firas.
Leftover destruction from the war of the Chouf.
The Druze were the fiercest fighters of any nationality or sect during the war. They believe in reincarnation, and they believe they will be reborn as Druze. Druze don’t even think of surrender. No group of warriors terrified other Lebanese militias quite like the Druze. “Eat with the Druze, but sleep with the Christians,” is a Lebanese saying that persists to this day, based on the (not reasonable) fear that a Druze might cut your throat in your sleep.
West Beirut during the Israeli invasion in 1982
“I forgive the Druze because I don’t have any choice,” Firas said as he hardened the muscles in his jaw line. “Because…they live here.” His voice sounded anguished now as though he were remembering horrors I can only imagine, horrors that he tried not to think about but could never ever forget. “The Israelis don’t live here. The Israelis live over there so I don’t have to forgive them!”
Post-script: I’m trying to put together enough money for trips to Iran (if the mullahs let me in), Afghanistan, and Algeria — the most under-reported post-Islamist place in the world. Please hit the tip jar and make this all possible. And thanks so much for your help so far.