Lebanon is a small country at the eastern end of the Mediterranean Sea, wedged between Syria to the north and east, and Israel, to the south. It is a land that has witnessed centuries of history, some of which exposes humankind’s darkest side, the cavernous depths of brutality and savagery that we are capable of descending to. It is also a place of stunning beauty with a fascinating mix of cultures, friendly and courteous people and delectable food. The Phoenicians have been here, and the Romans, Umayyads, Ottomans and others too, and some months back, my husband and I were there to celebrate 30 years of being married.
Our decision to go to Lebanon elicited a range of responses: nervous joking, a fake-chuckled Oh, you are going there hoping that one of you will get blown up, heh heh; bemused incomprehension, as in, But there is nothing to see there, why don’t you go to a nice place like Paris or London?; outright condemnation - Are you crazy? Change your tickets and go to Paris or London!; and delighted excitement, How fabulous! I’ve always wanted to go there!
My life seems to be comprised of periods of intense activity interspersed with spans of profound torpidity. I rouse myself from this listless hebetude once I feel it has gone on for long enough, and write something. This time, however it has stretched to an alarmingly long span of time. Months have passed since our travels in Lebanon. My memories of the trip are pockmarked with holes. What this means, dear Reader, is that you will be spared an exhaustively detailed account and get, instead, a pastiche of recollections, observations and photographs (take a moment to count your blessings here). Naturally, South India will make an appearance. The more I read and study the story of humanity the more I marvel at how the fabric of history is woven from threads that have crisscrossed their way through many lands, the intertwining strands creating a narrative that is utterly fascinating.
Our holiday began in Beirut, Lebanon’s capital. It is a beautiful city, with the Mediterranean Sea lapping at its feet from where it sprawls up the gentle hillsides of the Lebanon Mountains. It has been called the Paris of the Mediterranean. I don’t know why we do this. We call Kashmir the Switzerland of India and Bangkok the Venice of the East, which is absurd and makes a mockery of the spirit of both places. Yet we love to make these comparisons (it is always to a place in the West) as if by doing this we somehow make the place more attractive and desirable. Let Beirut be Beirut and let Paris be Paris. Both have immeasurably unique qualities which is what they should be appreciated for.
There is evidence of Lebanon’s tragic civil war all over Beirut. Entire neighborhoods were razed to the ground and there is construction going on everywhere. If we return to Beirut a few years later, parts of it might be unrecognizable. But there is also a infectiously cheery spirit and it is heartwarming and inspiring to see how the Lebanese have picked themselves up after years of brutal bloodshed to rebuild their beautiful country.
The city was bustling with life at night, its famous cafes and restaurants filled with chattering families and clusters of lovers. Knots of men lounged outside little shops and tiny coffee bars, smoking and playing card games. Soft music drifted down the streets. The air was gently scented with the floral aromas of orange and mint from sheesha pipes. It is a relaxing communal pleasure, the sheesha pipe, passed around and shared among family and friends.
We spent hours strolling through Beirut. A walk one golden evening took us through the busy neighborhood of Hamra, its streets crammed with Beirutis going about their daily lives. A short distance away was the beautiful campus of the American University of Beirut that sloped down towards the Mediterranean. Students whizzed by on bikes; a few eagerly helpful ones showed us the way down to the Corniche, the beautiful palm tree lined broad seafront promenade that was full of strollers enjoying the balmy evening breeze. Further west were the trendier neighborhoods of Gemmayze and Mar Mikhael with their boutiques, galleries, coffee, wine and music bars and lively nightlife.
We walked late one evening around downtown Beirut. Gaping craters in the ground lay awaiting the foundations of the high rise apartments that would rise there. A thicket of construction cranes spiked the skyline, a distorted urban canopy of metal. The beautiful Mohammed Al-Amin mosque was the most prominent building here. Nearby was a large white tent, a memorial to Rafik Hariri, the Prime Minister of Lebanon who was brutally killed nearby in 2005. We walked in. All along the walls were giant portraits of a smiling Hariri; there were flower wreaths everywhere, and the coffins of Hariri and his many bodyguards who were killed with him. It was a sobering reminder of this country’s violent history.
Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, Beirut
Inside Mohammed Al-Amin Mosque, Beirut
Right across from the mosque were two lovely cathedrals, both dedicated to St. George, the lance-wielding, dragon-slaying saint whose guardianship covers an assortment of countries, ailments, professions and organizations. Modern Madras began in Fort St. George, a seaside settlement that was completed on April 23rd 1640, St. George’s Day.
We enjoyed a delicious dinner at a cozy restaurant recommended by a Lebanese friend in New York. We were the only tourists there, it was evident, and we were happy about that. We have eaten in enough tourist traps to be very wary of them. The food was very fresh, delicately spiced and delicious.
Lebanon is a tiny country and it is possible to cover a good part of it in a few days. We hired a car and driver with a few sights and places in mind. Our driver, Hamza, however had his own ideas about where we should go and smilingly refused to listen to any of our suggestions and instead insisted that we visit the Jeita Grotto, a system of limestone caves around 18 kilometers north of Beirut. The car climbed into the hills and we enjoyed the beautiful views all around. Suddenly, a couple of people ran out onto the road, waving at us to stop. With well-feigned surprise, Hamza brought the car to a screeching halt and before we could figure out what was going on we were charm-talked into a photography session, dressed in “traditional” attire.
We could not resist the enthusiasm and friendliness of the people. There was a boss, a secretary who, it was obvious from the way the boss could not take his eyes off her was having an affair with him, and a silent minion. Like a couple of excited school children we picked out costumes from a colorful assortment that hung in a corner of a little hut that was the photo studio. A commodious sack-like caftan was the only outfit that could accommodate my girth; my husband looked dashingly dapper in a harem pant and vest combo.
The photo shoot that followed was hilarious. The photographer, the minion in the setup, ordered us in deadpan tones to hold hands, kiss and hug each other. I was made to strike various alluring poses, shooting coy looks and jutting my hips out seductively. My husband had to flex his muscles and squat like a sumo warrior. We had no choice; the photographer had a script and we had to adhere to it to the letter. We were too busy laughing to follow any of her instructions to her satisfaction. The lovey-dovey scenes were followed by a violent fight routine. My husband was handed a shepherd’s crook and ordered, “Kill her!”. Never was murder committed with such mirth! Disapproval was writ large on the photographer’s face as she urged us to “look angry!” We were practically rolling on the ground laughing by then. There was more to come. My attempted murder had to be avenged; I was handed a terracotta amphora and instructed to bonk my husband on the head with it. And then, we were ordered to magically make up and the photo session came to a close! The whole thing was done with such good humored warmth that we did not mind one bit that we had been suckered into a tourist trap of which Hamza, who deftly pocketed something that the boss gave him, was clearly a part. It was a fun experience with some very unique photographs to show for it.
A short drive ahead was the Jeita Grotto. We were not terribly keen on going there, but once we entered the beautiful caves we were glad we did. With its cool, damp musty air, soaring ceilings, eerie silence and fantastically grotesque stalactites and stalagmites I imagined that it had been the underground lair of a mysterious giant of long, long ago.
To be continued.