If you aren’t used to the climate, Beirut can be unbearably hot even in October. The Mediterranean is a steam bath. Mount Lebanon, which normally dominates the view to the east, is obscured behind a thick humid haze. I feel like I’ve opened the oven when I step out of my air-conditioned hotel in the afternoon.
So when photojournalist Dan invited me to go hiking with him in the Chouf mountains, homeland of Walid Jumblatt and the Druze, I couldn’t resist.
Dan has been to Afghanistan. Dan has been to Darfur. Dan has been to Iraq. Dan cannot bring himself to feel that Beirut is dangerous.
We took a taxi down to the Cola intersection to pick up a bus. Cola is in south Beirut, which is nothing at all like the north. It’s poorer. Buildings are blocky, sand-colored, architectural zeroes. It feels hotter somehow down there, and more generically Middle Eastern. Cola could stand in for any number of Middle Eastern locales in a movie.
“Have you ever taken one of these cross-country busses?” I asked Dan.
“No,” he said.
“I wonder if they’re air-conditioned.”
“They have to be,” he said.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I took a ten-hour bus ride into the Tunisian Sahara in summer. No air-conditioning there.”
The bus driver waved us aboard and we found our seats near the back. The air-conditioning pumped hot air into our faces. So much for comfort. But at $1.33 a ride into the mountains, who can complain?
We rolled south past Hezbollahland along the Mediterranean coast. My shirt stuck to my skin. It felt like ants crawled down my back. Two Lebanese army soldiers, who looked almost like twins, slept open-mouthed in a row of seats behind me. They had a long hard day standing around in the heat with machine guns on corners.
The young man sitting in front of Dan turned around and faced him. Medium-length black hair curled under his ears. His beard and glasses made him look vaguely intellectual.
“Hello,” he said. “You are from America?”
“Yes,” Dan said.
The young man produced a sheet of paper from a language institute with some dates on it. “I have to take this test,” he said, “to certify that I speak English. Is it hard?”
“Is what hard?” Dan said.
“The test,” the man said.
“We don’t take that test,” Dan said.
“English is our first language,” I said.
“Yes, of course,” the young man said.
“The test is probably hard,” I said. “But you speak English well.”
After twenty minutes of slogging through heat, haze, and honking traffic, the bus driver turned toward the mountain. Sweet Jesus, it was hot as a bastard. It felt like East Texas there on that bus, and not a single window would open.
Lebanon is less than fifty miles wide, and a mountain range — which is covered with snow in the winter – runs right down the middle of it. It doesn’t take long at all to climb elevation after turning away from the sea.
The bus began the steep incline up the Chouf. Small clusters of apartment towers followed the road all the way up. The hills rioted green with small trees and Mediterranean scrub. It almost looked like the south of France, only with stranger trees and taller mountains.
The driver’s assistant ceremoniously threw open the back door of the bus. Crisp mountain air blew throughout, instantly replaced the atmosphere, and scrubbed the heat off my skin. The man deserved an applause. In a few short minutes we had traveled, in climate terms, from Texas to British Columbia.
The Druze villages kept coming, and every single one of them was tidy, modern, and prosperous. Lebanon is no Third World disaster zone. In fact, this is the first county I’ve been to where the countryside looks richer than the city.
It isn’t true. There is a great deal of money in Beirut. The city is the economic engine of Lebanon. The port, the financial services sector, the tourism industry, all generate tremendous amounts of wealth. (There is no oil here in this country, and few natural resources.) But Beirut is still heavily war-damaged. Bullet holes are ubiquitous. Shattered buildings are slung from one end to the other. Some of the worst are along the former Green Line that divided the Muslim west side of the city from the Christian east.
Vast empty spaces remain in the center where entire sectors were annihilated. You’ve seen pictures of the million-person demonstrations in Beirut in March? Buildings formerly filled up that space.
The countryside is genuinely prosperous, though, and visible war damage is not easy to come by. This is somewhat surprising. The Chouf was the site of a pitched war of ethnic-cleansing between Christians and Druze in the 1980s. Villages were burnt. Populations were transferred. Chains were hooked up to jeeps and used to pull captured soldiers around by the nose.
Christians and Druze get along much better now. They remember the past, but they don’t act on that past.
Hotels, news stands, snack bars, a wide variety of restaurants, and fully-stocked sleek modern stores are literally everywhere. The streets and sidewalks are swept clean. Most of the cars look brand new, though drivers still screech around corners. Plenty of uncovered women are out and about. “Village” is too quaint a term to describe these places, but the word choice is theirs and not mine.
“The homeland of the Druze,” Dan said.
“Druzistan!” I said.
“It does remind me of Kurdistan,” Dan said. “It’s modern, mountainous, and the people aren’t very religious.”
We came to the end of the bus line next to an amusement park. Soldiers with machine guns stood guard in front of the ferris wheel. Our destination — the Chouf Cedar Reserve, a 2000-year old forest that covers five percent of the country – was further down the road.
“Time to hitchhike,” Dan said.
We stuck out our thumbs. (Actually, we stuck out our fingers and waved toward the ground as cars approached on the road.) The tenth or twelfth car — a sky-blue beaten-up piece of crap with ripped interior — decided to stop for us. Those with the nice cars couldn’t be bothered.
Two Druze men, one who wore the traditional white knit hat, rode in the front. Dan and I hopped in the back.
“Marhaban!” I said. “Salam Aleikum.” The Druze guys, all smiles now, returned our greetings. Handshakes and introductions all around. They spoke no English or French, but it didn’t matter. Everyone trusts everyone here in the villages. You couldn’t find a safer place in this world if you tried.
And then we were off, cruising the Chouf with two mountain men who felt completely at ease with foreign strangers in the back.
They yammered at us in Arabic. Dan — to my surprise, since he had earlier told me he does not speak the language — yammered back at them in Arabic. This went on for some minutes, Dan occasionally laughing and nodding.
“How much of this are you understanding?” I said.
“About six percent,” he said.
My own comprehension was less than two.
We passed a sign that — we thought — said the Cedar Reserve was somewhere near where we were at the outskirts of a village. Dan signaled the driver to stop, and we were out.
Now what? I thought. Into the village, I guessed, to figure out where we were supposed to go next.
(More to follow.)