Touring the country

With all the political strife and impending wars, you could easily forget that Lebanon is actually a dream of a country with a near-perfect climate and gorgeous landscapes that offer surprising variation on a relatively small surface (Lebanon is only one third the size of Belgium). This variation is echoed in the people too: within the space of an hour or two, you can drive from a sunni coastal city via a druze mountain village and a Saudi holiday resort to a shia valley town, passing a few pockets of maronites, armenian orthodox and greek catholics on the way. The variety also shows in the ‘urban planning’ or ‘landscaping’: whereas in most of the country, construction is completely haphazard and unregulated, with no thought for the environment or even the touristic value of the landscape, I was surprised to find out that the Chouf mountains, home primarily to the druze and ruled by the feudal landlord family of the Jumblatts, is an exception to the rule. Turns out ol’ Walid is something of an ecologist and displays in this field exactly the kind of wisdom and longterm vision so sorely lacking in his political behaviour. The Chouf features the only real (i.e. actually enforced and protected) nature reserve of the country – Jumblatt even goes so far as to pay the farmers to keep their goats out of these pine forests. No building is allowed along the roads in between towns and villages, so you actually get a real, classic countryside feel driving around the Chouf, as opposed to the uninterrupted suburban overcrowdedness that is so prevalent in the rest of the Lebanese ‘countryside’. People also seem to avoid throwing their empty cans and packagings out of the car window as they drive, so you don’t even have the garbage-lining that characterizes mountain roads all over the rest of the country. In addition, in places like Deir al-Qamar, a real effort has been made to preserve the historic architecture intact, and not just in an artificial reconstructed 150 m² around the actual tourist attraction (like in Jbeil/Byblos), but the actual original stuff, and throughout the entire town. Contrast this with places like Bcharre in the northern part of Mount Lebanon, also a gorgeous little mountain town, located in a breathtaking spot on the cliff edge of the steep Qadisha valley. Bcharre is still pretty beautiful (at least from a distance) but well on the way to being ruined by concrete flat blocks and out-of-style, out-of-place random constructions, not to mention the ubiquitous sand quarries eating away at the mountains around. By the way, a bizarre feature of Bcharre which has been fascinating me since my first visit there, is that someone or some people there are evidently obsessed with original VW Beetles, which are scattered throughout the town in various states of decomposition and restoration. I haven’t worked out yet why this is so, and why only in Bcharre, although it is tempting to consider a link between Hitler’s car and Geagea’s town… All tips are welcome. In the Baalbek region of the equally gorgeous Beqaa valley – beautifully lush and green right now in early spring, in between the snow-covered peaks of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges – the obsession is rather with picture-taking. It is literally impossible to get out of your car and take a picture of anything anywhere without immediately attracting some local Hezbollah representatives (and virtually everybody there seems to consider themselves as such). If they find you sufficiently ‘interesting’ (i.e. if you’re a potential spy) there then follows the well-known ritual (‘bass ijra’a routine’) where you are taken to the nearest house, and offered tea, coffee and cigarettes while being thoroughly interrogated by the (real) local Hezbollah official who also copies your passport, while his subordinates search your car. The man even bothers to give you the official line about how they know they don’t have the right to do this, ‘but hey, the state doesn’t protect our people here in the Biqaa (or in Dahiyyeh or in Bint Jbeil, or wherever you are when you’re being ‘arrested’) and so we have to protect ourselves. And anyway, it’s for your own safety too.’ It all remains very polite and correct throughout, even friendly, as usual with the disciplined men of god, but it’s still vaguely disturbing. And annoying: you’ve lost half a day by the time they’re through with you, so our original plan of going to see the source of the Orontes had to be shelved.
Drive on for another 15 minutes, though, and just one checkpoint later you enter Zahle, a greek-catholic town where the posters of Mughniyeh and other martyrs, so omnipresent in the Baalbek region, suddenly disappear, together with the veiled women, and where a large section of the town’s riverside is dedicated to bars and various other forms of rather un-islamic entertainment. It never ceases to amaze me how people can live such wildly different lives just a few miles from each other and hardly get influenced by each other’s way of life. Killna bi’l hawa sawa wille la?

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