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BandA’s Travel Diary

Wednesday, 10 Dec 2003

Location: Lebanon


Chapter 5 – Lebanon

Wednesday December 10, 2003
As we drove from the Syrian border towards Beirut we were quite excited to find we were to pass through the Bekaar Valley. We were so accustomed to hearing of this Valley during the 15-year civil war that to actually see it now meant so much more. In fact, wherever we went in Lebanon, we were continually reminded of the civil war that devastated the country from 1975 to 1990. Despite this and in contrast to Syria, we found the general economic standards in Lebanon much higher; this was reflected in a much greater concern for public cleanliness. For example, on the highways—at least near the cities—workers went along picking up any blowing plastic bags and other litter.

We arrived in Beirut about lunchtime at a big but rather ugly bus terminal and endeavoured to achieve our first task, to phone our contact, Maria Ange Mamabarchi , to see when we might meet her. She is not a member of Servas but we had been put in touch with her through a French Servas Host with whom A had stayed in France in 1996 and who had visited us at Tanjam in 2001. Quite a roundabout acquaintance but we were glad to have at least one personal contact in Lebanon, as there were no Servas Hosts there. We had become accustomed to being “greeted” by taxi drivers wanting to take us wherever we wanted to go–or even where we didn’t want to go. In this case before we could find a phone to ring up an aggressive taxi driver had already put our packs in the boot of his taxi. Eventually we were able to explain that we didn’t yet know where we wanted to go. He was apparently very co-operative and with his mobile phone rang Maria Ange for us. Initially there was no response but after some time she answered. She is a teacher and apparently had been in class. We learned that she would be free after school in a couple of hours and he offered to leave us at “a nice, moderately priced restaurant” near the city centre where we could wait and arrange to meet Maria Ange. On the way we stopped at an ATM to draw out some Lebanese money.

The ”a nice restaurant” to our surprise turned out to be a McDonald’s. His kind action in ringing up earlier for us turned out to be a bit of robbery as he charged $10 for that short mobile phone call. He asked 15,000 Lebanese pounds (about $13) for the taxi fare, which was also rather excessive. As we had only just got our first Lebanese money from the ATM, A was not too familiar with the various denominations. Anyway he got out what he thought was 15,000 pounds and gave it to B to check which she did before A handed it over to the taxi driver. It was only after we settled down inside McDonalds that A realized he had gives the taxi driver 150,000 pounds the equivalent of $130, and not 15,000 pounds. We were naturally rather upset, not just at the loss of the money but also at the blatant dishonesty of the taxi driver not drawing our attention to our mistake. A little more to add to our travel experience!

However, before we actually got inside McDonald’s we had an interesting introduction to life in Lebanon. On the footpath in front of McDonald’s there were two young soldiers each brandishing a sub machine gun. We just smiled at them! As we went to enter the restaurant we were stopped by a young female security officer whose job it was to check our packs–presumably for bombs. Despite our innocent appearance she did a thorough job! The reason for all this attention was that some months earlier there had been a terrorist bomb blast at another McDonald’s store in Beirut and they were not keen for a repetition. Neither were we.

A few people have asked us whether we ever felt in danger on our travels. The answer really is: No! But during our 2-hour sojourn in McDonald’s B commented that we were in what was probably the most dangerous spot in Beirut.

You can see the armed soldiers on the right.

After we had had a bite or two to eat, and a regular McDonald’s ice cream (They did not provide free coffee for Seniors as in Australia!) B went to find a phone to ring Maria Ange and make arrangements for meeting her. All public phones here and elsewhere on our travels required cards to operate them. Here the minimum cost of a card was about $30 and we didn’t expect to have much use for one so, fortunately, B found a little kiosk where she could make a call simply using cash on a private phone for about $1.00. Each trip to this phone necessitated another security check on re-entry to the restaurant.

Maria Ange kindly offered to come when school finished to meet us where we were so we had only a wait of an hour or so gazing out onto the blue Mediterranean. When she arrived she drove us to her apartment for afternoon tea. Relying again on the Lonely Planet Guidebook, we had selected a moderately priced hotel where we planned to stay. Maria Ange agreed that this was a reasonable hotel but then added that if we were prepared to “put up with” her simple accommodation we were welcome to stay the night with her. Naturally we were very grateful for the offer.

Her apartment on the first floor was spacious and well appointed. Our twin bedroom was at the back and had its own balcony which was sheltered by a large tree. There was a larger balcony at the front looking down on to the tree-lined street and this provided a pleasant outdoor living area. We had the pleasure of sitting out there for coffee one day and greeting people as they passed in the street below. That first evening, after we had eaten, a friend arrived and we all went for a walk round the streets. This was a nightly ritual for both of them. Fortunately the friend spoke good English so we were able to understand and take part in the conversation. Arabic is not one of our specialties but we can limp along in French!

During our stay we also learned of life during the civil war. As Marie Ange and her mother were living in the same apartment we were now staying in we were able to visualise conditions very well. All the rooms, except the bathroom and passageway, had windows and were very dangerous so, during the worst 6 months of the war, they were confined to the passage and bathroom. Because it was dangerous to go out a friend occasionally brought food. Water too was a problem. Her story contrasted dramatically with the peaceful home and area we were now in. It is horrifying to realize that her experiences were shared by all the other people in the city at that time.

For the following two days we had arranged to visit projects sponsored by World Vision. We rang them this evening and they kindly offered to pick us up at Maria Ange’s apartment the following morning at 0800. We also tried to contact our Lebanese “friend” (Mohammad Masri) whom we had met in Syria and who had offered accommodation for us at the weekend. Apparently the number was incorrect even though he had actually written it down for us.

Thursday December 11
We were collected as arranged by Samia Vania, who was the Assistant to the Director of World Vision Lebanon. The Director himself was an American from San Diego, Bruce Menser. We arrived half way through a “devotional session” which they hold each morning before work commences and in which all staff members participate. In Lebanon there are some 17 different religions: Sunni, Shiite and Sufi Muslims, Catholic, Maronite, Armenian, Greek Orthodox, Syrian Orthodox, Anglicans, Protestants, etc., although rather more than half the population are Muslims . World Vision is very much a Christian Ecumenical group with workers from all the Christian Communities but no Muslims. There are, in Lebanon, a total of 75 staff and their activities are supported by 8000 sponsors of local needy children, mainly from the US, Canada and Australia.

Our guide for the day was Wajdi Khater. Once out of the crowded, chaotic streets of the city we drove down the beautiful coast road towards Southern Lebanon. We had so often heard of Tyre and Sidon both in the Gospel stories and during the civil war that it was an eye-opener to actually visit them. Southern Lebanon had been occupied by Israel until a few years previously and even now was something of a war zone. In fact we had to get special Government permission to visit the area.

Our first stop was at a village called Cana. Of course we had read in the gospels of a village called Cana where Jesus changed water into wine, but always assumed this to have been in Israel rather than in Lebanon. In fact A visited a Cana in Israel in 1996. It so happens that both villages claim to be the location of Jesus’ first miracle. Unfortunately the Lebanese Cana is also famous for another reason. Back in April 1996, in retaliation for an attack by the Hezballah on Northern Israel, the Israelis bombed this village of Cana. The local residents, fearing such an attack, had all sought refuge in a UN compound in the village but this was (deliberately or otherwise?) hit by the bombing and 106 civilians were killed. Now there is a museum erected to commemorate the disaster and another monument to a number of Fijian soldiers attached to the UN who were killed in action at the time.

Our route through Lebanon (shown in red)

From here, close to the border with Israel, we visited a poor village on a hilltop which we were told was a Christian village. It was something of an eye-opener–a sad one–to realize that nearly all the villages are exclusively Christian or Muslim. Where there are both groups, they tend to live in separate parts. How lucky we are in Australia to be able to live peacefully side by side with people of all races and creeds! In this first village we were told that nearly all the young people had left and only the “oldies” remained. As we passed through some of these very poor villages we were surprised to see how much money had been spent on erecting and maintaining street/road lights, much more extravagantly than we are used to in Australia. From the hilltop we were able to look across to Israel.

We could see the Israeli landscape just over the border

Apart from a very narrow strip of coastal plain, most of the country was VERY hilly with shallow calcareous soils, the native vegetation being largely oak and laurel. Annual rainfall is of the order of 600 mm. Average farm size was only about 0.5 ha and land was valued at about $5/m2! Tobacco is a very important and profitable crop supported by a Government subsidy. As a result many farmers have pulled out their vines and replaced them with tobacco. Faba beans are also widely grown. In many places there were quite attractive homes built on the rocky hills which were unsuitable for agriculture. Apparently these are the homes of people wanting to get out of the bigger towns.

During the Israeli occupation people in the occupied territory were comparatively prosperous because they had work in Israel but unfortunately neglected their farms. Since the Israelis have pulled out the locals have had to return to their farms and the whole economy has suffered. World Vision is therefore putting great emphasis on helping the farmers re-establish their farms and improve the marketing of their produce especially by growing organic produce.

Organic products sell for a slightly higher price but this does not compensate for the smaller output of organically produced crops. However, as buyers prefer to buy “organic” produce, farmers have a comparative advantage in selling their produce and this tends to balance things out. We were not very impressed with their emphasis on “organic farming” and as we were invited by the Director of WV in Lebanon to send them a report of our impressions of our visit we did so in our report which we have attached as an appendix to this Chapter. Part of the reason for the emphasis on organic farming was because there had been indiscriminate use of pesticides in the recent past with some consignments of agricultural produce dispatched to Europe being rejected because of excessive residues. There were also unconfirmed cases of cancer being blamed on pesticides. There has also been an over-reaction to the pollution crises. The Government intends to ban all diesel cars, not just new diesel cars; so many people are going to be left with diesel cars they will not be allowed to use.

The next place we visited was the moderately sized town of Rmeich where the Maronite Rite which dates back to the 5th century has just established a small private University with very well appointed new buildings. At this stage there were only 66 students. Although there were fees, in contrast to free Government Universities, students can receive a tertiary education without the necessity of travelling far from home so there was a saving on board and travel. It was interesting that a primary school had just been established and was attached to the University. This was starting with “prep” grade and was to add a new grade each year. Fees at the primary school were about $1000 a year.

Here we met Fr Bassam Habib who was the Deputy Director of the University. We don’t recall what order he belonged to but, currently, they have some 30 seminarians in training. He took us for a walk round the university, the primary classrooms and then the monastery and library where he presented us with the first volume of a beautifully bound History of the Maronite Church. By this time we were ready for lunch and were taken back to the local World Vision office where the staff had prepared a delicious hot lunch. Everyone enjoyed both the meal and the conversation. The building was not only for administrative purposes but also provided a fairly primitive packing shed which was about to be replaced.

After lunch we called in at a new three-storey community centre which catered for Scouts, Senior citizens, computer training, a modest cafeteria, a social centre, and even some accommodation for older students from more remote areas. We were rather surprised to see that the Senior Citizens were relegated to the top floor so we gently suggested that they might find it easier to take part in their proposed activities on a lower floor. This received a favourable reaction from our guides.

As mentioned earlier World Vision was putting special effort in improving marketing of horticultural produce (e.g., apricots and almonds) so they were in the process of building a new administrative centre complete with a substantial co-operative packing shed to handle local produce and this should give farmers better access to markets and presumably cut out potential losses to middlemen. It was in a magnificent position on a hilltop and we were amazed to see the local Council, or its equivalent, building a new sealed road to provide easy entry to the site.

Although it was getting late and dark we were taken along the border with Israel to a large development farm run by WV at Marjayoun where they were utilising spring water to irrigate horticultural crops in a series of terraces. This farm was adjacent to a very old deserted monastery. The local villagers however had restored the chapel there and obviously maintain it as a house of prayer. We now began to head north back home but, on the way, stopped at the World Vision office where those responsible for Marjayoun looked after the administrative details. As we climbed yet another flight of stairs we discovered a magnificent Christmas Crib. The Director of WV had set up a friendly competition for the best Crib. The results we saw in a number of places were quite spectacular.

Fortified by a hot cup of coffee we headed home stopping on the way at a Supermarket to buy some goodies for Marie Ange. On our arrival home, very late, we received the usual very warm welcome from Marie Ange who also insisted that we stay the night, as we were once again to spend the following day with World Vision.

Friday December 12
Yesterday we had arrived a little late for the devotional exercise at the World Vision Office but this morning we had been invited to lead the exercise which we gladly did. Between us we gave a little homily on the parable of the Sower from the Gospel. We found it a rather moving experience. Fifty years ago it would have been a group of missionary nuns and priests working in a similar situation but here we had a group of some 30 young Christian men and women doing the same sort of work. The missionary spirit was still going strong.

Our guide for this morning was Grace Dib . She was a Canadian but had a Lebanese mother and had lived much of her life in Lebanon. She took us around the central area of Beirut. The most devastated area–around the Greenline–has been thoroughly restored to its original state but other areas still show numerous scars of bullets and shell holes from the civil war. We were told that there had been very positive Government action after the war in terms of reconstruction but more recently progress had been retarded by lots of corruption at the political level.

In addition to the material scars what is apparently worse are the social scars–the ongoing friction or certainly strained relations between the Christian and Muslim communities. We were told that before the war Muslims were discriminated against by the Christian dominated bureaucracy. During the war Muslim youths would stop a car and if those in it were Christian they would slit their throats. Sad to say Christian gangs did the same. As one Christian Lebanese said, “The Muslims were bad but the Christians were worse as they should have known better given their precept to love one’s enemies.

In general the Christians put more emphasis on education–especially for the girls–while the Muslims have bigger families and so are economically worse off. Christians also consider that they (the Muslims) live in “dirty” conditions. Partly because of the difference in family sizes and partly because many wealthier Christians are migrating to the US, Canada and Australia, the proportion of Muslims is steadily increasing. One of the projects Grace was working on was to try and improve the social relationship between the Muslim and Christian women living in the same general neighbourhood (Ain El Remaneh, Bent Jbeil).

Just a taste of how life must have been in the civil war

Our visit to this project was very pleasant. Again it was housed in a multi-storey building but this one had a lift. There was a play area in the basement, classroom on all floors, a kitchen, activity areas and offices. The children were all pre-schoolers and were obviously being well taught and cared for. Their mothers and other local women could also use the centre for craft activities (e.g., patchwork) and were also able to take classes in Makeup and Hairdressing (good sources of income for women!). Once a month a group of women could raise money by cooking a meal and charging a fee for it.

Although there were lots of new cars on the roads there were also many, very old, battered ones. This was not surprising considering the traffic and lack of observance of traffic rules. We were told that the most important rule to remember when driving in Lebanon is: “Forget all the rules you have been used to”. One interesting incident we witnessed should suffice to illustrate this. A motorbike was travelling in our “lane” but a few cars in front of us. We were in the second “lane” from the centre of the road. Suddenly the motorcyclist decided to turn left cutting across the car travelling in the lane beside us and causing it to brake suddenly. A car travelling in the opposite direction also had to brake as the cyclist continued merrily on his way across the lines of traffic. When the drivers of the stopped cars abused him he was quite indignant. Having reached the other side he then proceeded to drive along the road against all the traffic. We became quite blasé when faced with cars coming straight at us on the wrong side of the road! It was interesting to see the exasperated expression of the Traffic Police on point duty. They were obviously powerless and just shrugged their shoulders at the motorists’ behaviour.

When we left the Centre we were met by another World Vision worker, Ruba de Silva. She drove us southwards again, to a poor rural area South of Sidon. The Government is trying to improve the lot of the rural people but progressing only slowly. They have kept their promise to have a primary school in every village but they had made no promises about having teachers for the schools. This reminded us of what we were told in Turkey where the Government promised to have a public phone in every village but did not promise that they would work!

Ruba was responsible for this large rural area and, once again, we found a strong emphasis on organic farming with the main crops being vegetables, olives, avocados, loquats and roses. Her office was in a large complex with extensive grounds which seemed to be a Teachers’ Training College/School. We were taken around the main areas including the library and saw, out the back, a well-equipped library bus that served six local schools. We also discovered that the complex provided accommodation for children from dysfunctional families.

Our guide seemed to have forgotten about lunch, as it was 1530 by the time we got back to Sidon where we had a light lunch on the sidewalk overlooking the blue Mediterranean. Ruba had, however, supplied us with biscuits and coffee in her large two-roomed office area which she shared with some more World vision workers.

Our final visit for the afternoon was to a village which mercifully had not been involved in the war, as it had been a Red Cross Centre. The purpose of the visit was for us to see a youth group in action. However, it did not quite work out as planned. On the way through the village we discovered that a funeral was taking place so the people we should have been meeting were not available. However, we were taken to a house and right royally welcomed by our hostess who plied us with mandarins and bananas. Because we had just finished lunch we really could not do justice to her hospitality. Once again there was a magnificent Christmas Scene with the whole mountainside, the village, animals standing on mountain ledges and, of course, the cave and crib. Almost all of this was made by hand from paper, wool, etc. The end result was incredibly realistic. During our stay there we met the local priest, his wife and children!

Finally we visited the church and saw the remnants of the youth group in action in the Narthex. The church building was comparatively new and beautifully decorated with icons, etc. We could not tell whether it was Orthodox or Eastern Rite Catholic!

Once again it was quite late when we returned to Maria Ange’s apartment. During our travels Ruba had told us of the hardships she had faced during the worst days of the Civil War. She and others from her apartment building had to stay in the basement. They were often without food and water and it was in these conditions that she gave birth to her first child. We found the fortitude and courage of these people very humbling.

Saturday December 13
This week end we had arranged to visit a Cistercian (Trappist) Monastery some 40 km North of Beirut for a bit of peaceful R & R after the past four weeks of hectic travelling. However, we were in no hurry to leave Maria Ange so had a leisurely morning coffee on her balcony overlooking the street, watching the local activity and listening to Marie Ange greet the passers by.

With our own personal guardian Angel as our “Tourist Guide” we didn’t have any trouble working out how to get to the monastery. Had we been on our own we would have looked for a local bus to the nearest town and then either walked, hitch hiked or taken a taxi to the monastery. As it was, Maria Ange drove us to a “taxi rank” where she was confident we would find a taxi that would take us directly to the monastery. We were fortunate she did this as the monastery was perched high up above the town of Dlepta and we would have had another climb even worse than the 342 steps up to the monastery at Deir Mar Musa. The location, overlooking the Mediterranean and with views south to the outskirts of Beirut and north up the coast, was magnificent. During the two days of our visit there we never had a breath of wind and, in conjunction with a strong inversion layer, the whole of the coastal plain was covered in smog. We were fortunately above this in a beautiful wooded area enhanced by the presence of some attractive eucalypts which made us feel at home.

Although we had let the Monastery know we were coming for the weekend we didn’t exactly get a very cordial reception. Not that this worried us as we were coming for the quiet and peace rather than a social encounter. The “Guest House” was very modern and provided en suite bathrooms to each room. Ours was a twin room and we were issued with a heater and plenty of blankets to keep us warm. When we arrived there was only one other guest, a lady, whom we gathered was a semi-permanent or at least a regular visitor.

The Monastery, known as Notre Dame de Sainte Sauveur, had a Prior, Fr. Joseph, and two other ordained priests but also 10 postulants, novices and scholastics. These were recruited either locally in Lebanon or from the Palestinian territories, as the Israeli authorities would not allow Palestinians to join the Cistercian monastery at Latroun in Israel.

The church attached to the monastery had originally been the local parish church but had subsequently been expanded and was a very pleasant building. We were pleased to attend the singing of the Divine office (eight times a day) but unfortunately it was all in Arabic so we were unable to follow it. Moreover they used the Maronite liturgy so the Mass we attended and the other ceremonies were quite unfamiliar to us. Nor were there any books in English, French or Latin. We would have like the opportunity to have access to the Library to do some quiet reading but that was not available to guests.

Sunday December 14
We had intended to rise early (0400hours) to join the early morning Office but did not hear the bell. We were told afterwards they only used the “little” bell at night so as not to disturb the neighbours. The principal Mass, which catered for the locals as well, was in late morning. It happened that, while we were there, the Abbot (Dom Joseph), from Lille in France and the Abbot (Dom Paul) from Latroun in Israel, were visiting. Dom Joseph was the principal celebrant at this Mass so gave the sermon, in French and used the Roman Rite. Although our French was not good it was certainly better than our Arabic. As most of the lay congregation spoke only Arabic one of the congregation translated the Abbot's sermon into Arabic for them. Everyone actively participated in all the hymn singing except for the two illiterate Australians.

After Mass we had the opportunity to talk with a number of the monks. We had fun practising our very basic French with one of them who had no English. The Guest Master who had been rather cool initially gradually thawed out. At lunch we had quite a large pleasant group—Dom Joseph, Dom Paul, and also a Lebanese couple from the US, so we were able to converse in a mixture of broken English and fractured French.

On our return to our quarters we discovered that our guest House was quite full as a group of about 10 “Friends of the Trappists” were making a day retreat at the monastery. They ate up in the Guest House. After lunch we went for a walk further up the road, a very steep hilly road. Given its location overlooking the coastal plain and the sea, this was obviously an elite area with very large houses. One in particular looked as if it catered for two families as well as two guest quarters and a concierge. (We gleaned this from the letterboxes!) Most of the windows were shuttered and we were told many of these houses are owned by Lebanese who normally live overseas and return only occasionally to Lebanon.

Monday December 15
We had considered returning to Damascus for the last phase of our holiday to Jordan via Baalbeck which would give us the possibility of seeing the famous “Cedars of Lebanon” but decided against this as we were enjoying our stay in this peaceful place and our hillside actually had some cedar trees. This meant we spent a second night at the Cistercian Monastery and planned to go directly back to Damascus via Beirut.

We were fortunate that after Mass and breakfast the Prior had to take the two visiting Abbots down the mountain to the main coastal road, and he offered to take us too. As usual, from there we would have gone back to Beirut by local bus but the Prior insisted on getting a “service taxi”, which we shared with several other passengers. On arriving at the Beirut bus depot we were besieged by taxis to take us back to Damascus for almost double the cost of a minibus. We stuck to the minibus which had only five passengers so there was no big hold up at the Syrian-Lebanese border. Actually we were the slowest of the passengers to go through Immigration and Customs.

On arriving back in Damascus, for a change, we felt quite at home as we walked to the Sultan Hotel where we had made a reservation before leaving there the previous Wednesday. For the rest of the day we collected emails, washed “our” hair, had a meal at a “donner kebab” (we couldn’t find anywhere in Damascus to get a Nescafé!), checked transport to Jordan for the following day and just relaxed.