Thursday, November 30, 2006

North And South

Thanks to the small size of the country I've been able to use Beirut as a base to explore both the north south of the country. Tripoli is the second city of Lebanon as well as an ancient Phoenician port (actually, all the major towns here in Lebanon were Phoenician towns originally). It has the standard neat, little old quarter, khans and citadel, although a fair number of buildings in the city centre are still gutted and empty after the war. Not the recent Israeli conflict, but the civil war when Syrian forces shelled PLO forces that had fortified themselves in the old town. Trying to understand the Lebanese civil war is causing me a bit of a headache due to the many different factions and their constant changing of allegiances. But for me Tripoli was just a stepping stone on the way to the gorgeous Qadisha valley. The fairytale canyon with its picturesque villages and many churches and monasteries have made the impregnable gorge the stronghold for the powerful Maronite community. At the head of the gorge is a stand of old Lebanese cedars, the emblem of the nation, and one of the few that are left after widespread logging in ancient times (just goes to show that deforestation isn't a new phenomenon). Beside the cedars is one of Lebanon's prime ski resorts, and possibly one of the only places in the world where the pistes have a sea view. But once you get down into the valley proper then you are away from the roads and cars, and apart from a solitary electricity line that snakes through the valley it's almost as if the last thousand years never happened. The few farms that dot the vertiginous slopes eke out their living on thin strips of terraced land and the monasteries are usually cut into natural grottos in the cliff faces. But the most magical for me was the lack of people that allowed me to see the changing of colours as the coming Autumn harvests another crop of leaves from the trees.

In the south, balancing Tripoli to the north, lies the city of Tyre. Also a Phoenician port and boasting the world's largest and best-preserved Roman hippodrome in the world (though, frankly, there must not be much competition). Partly thanks to its Roman ruins that confer it UNESCO status, and partly thanks to the human shield effect of the many journalists that were staying there, Tyre was largely spared in the recent conflict. The same could not be said of the surrounding locale. Many bridges and motorways, with no obvious military importance, were targetted making transport between regions difficult (work has begun on reconstruction but transport is still disrupted), raising the thought that the aim of Israeli army could certainly be improved. That sentiment would certainly be echoed by the residents of Qana. 10 years ago 102 civilians sheltering in a UN camp were killed by Israeli tank shells, the site has become a memorial and one of the buildings that was hit has been left exactly as it was after the attack (though minus the randomly scattered body-parts). There's even a man who seems to permanently loiter around the site to guide people around, show them a truly gruesome collection of photos from the event and sell CDs of other "Israeli massacres" (I drew the line there though). And now this year the unlucky village was struck again by a precision bomb that killed at least 28 people in a single building. Though what I found odd whilst travelling through the south (though admittedly I didn't see that much) was the fact that, despite this being the Hezbollah heartland, there were far fewer posters of Nasrallah or yellow flags on display than in Syria (though they were still there, along with the odd picture of Khomeini as well). Maybe most ordinary Lebanese are tired of war and would perhaps like a little peace for a change? And that made me think of a famous saying here: "Syria will fight Israel until the very last Lebanese."

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