Ali Khan: Dispatches from Damascus and Lebanon

A few bits of news before getting to the main attraction of Ali Khan.

Al-Hayat is back!

al-Hayat is returns to the streets of Syria now that Saudi-Syrian tensions have eased. This is good news for us because the indominable Ibrahim al-Hamidi is back on the beat bringing us everything that is fit to be print.

al-Hayat returns to the streets of Syria now that Saudi-Syrian tensions have eased. This is good news for us because the indomitable Ibrahim Hamidi is back on the beat bringing us everything that is fit to be print.

See the review of Rashid Khalidi’s new book, Sowing Crisis, by by Basil Hakki at the “Middle East Open Forum.” The previous post about Morocco is interesting and passionate.

Correction:The “American” school does not have a date for reopening, as reported on FLC. It is the Cultural Center and American Language Center that are scheduled to open.

Earlier report: Damascus will soon reopen “American” school and Cultural Center, reports Friday Lunch Club. Info comes from Syrian officials in Washington.

The flap over Israel’s military conduct during the assault on Gaza continues in Haaretz here (the better article) and the Guardian here.

The flap over America’s torture techniques continues in Newsweek: Coming Soon: Declassified Bush-Era Torture Memos

From Bitter Lemons:
The good, the bad and the ugly by Elias Samo. Syria has lived without the Golan and it can continue to do so.

The China syndrome by Mark Perry. Can we talk to Iran, but not to its ally? Will we shake hands with Avigdor Lieberman, but not with Khalid Meshaal?

Washington and Damascus: a new strategic alignment? by Moshe Maoz. Syria will insist on two conditions for joining the US-led alignment: the Golan and Lebanon.

Will Obama go beyond the superficial? by Karim Makdisi. What Syria is prepared to do does not particularly interest an Iran-obsessed Obama administration.

Daily Mail (GB): Syria: Stunning sights, sparkling sun, lovely: [charming]

….I hope that I am not naive about the nastiness of some Middle Eastern societies. I last visited Syria with the Israeli Army 35 years ago. But this time, with my wife and two friends, we basked in a highly rewarding holiday experience….

Ali Khan has been traveling for a month to Lebanon and Yemen. He has been prolific during these travels and his reports wonderful. I have been remiss in not publishing them. I am publishing his Damascus home coming as well as two earlier reports from Lebanon. Ali writes to say:

Since you put my Dispatches on your website, a lot of people have written to me and have been encouraging about my writing. Some people even wrote to me over the last month asking why I had stopped writing the dispatches. Obviously, they did not know I was traveling. As you can see from the new Dispatch even the teacher knew of me!!Anyway, thank you again.

Dispatch from Damascus-18 (22/03/09)

Damascus by Ketan Gajria

Damascus skyline by Ketan Gajria

I thought one months traveling was a lot until I met an Australian who had been traveling for fifteen consecutive months. I got back to Damascus at night and unfortunately the first contact I had with a Syrian was with a taxi driver. Firstly he tried to find out all about my life in the first five minutes and even though I normally humour them, I was in no mood to chat! Then he tried to tell me a shortcut which involved a half an hour detour and when I told him that I would get off unless he went my way, he became grumpy, put on a cassette of the Quran and started to chain smoke. My whole street was draped in coloured lights and banners to celebrate the birth of the Prophet. It had been raining and so the streets were empty and walking up The Straight Street towards my house, with the puddles on the road reflecting the coloured lights, I felt like I had walked into a painting; that is until an insane servees driver decided to drag race down the road without any headlights.

The next day I woke up late, or rather I was woken up by the smell of fattayeh, meat with pine nuts and raisins in a Mielle Feuille pastry, wafting in from the ovens in the courtyard. I poked up head out of the window to see Abu Bashir hard at work, singing to himself. He looked up and before I could say anything, he screamed ‘Alloosh’ and then went to the stairs to tell the others and shouted ‘Alloosh has returned.’ I am sure he succeeded in informing the whole street. I went down to say hello and I was handed a large fresh fattayeh for breakfast. Later when I went down to the shop, I was handed Ma’amool by Mumtaz who insisted that I had lost too much weight. It was wonderful to be home!

I had arrived back in Syria just in time for registration for the university classes. Unfortunately the fees have been hiked yet again and if they continue going at this rate, a lot of people will be unable to attend the classes. I am not sure whether the fees are so high because the university authorities want to squeeze ‘wealthy Westerners’ but I do know that a lot of people who attended the courses a few years ago who say they cannot afford it anymore. I have managed to make my way to Level 6 and showed up to the first day of class a bit early. It seemed like I had been away for much longer because all the faces that I become used had gone and new, slightly more eager looking faces had replaced them. However I did notice that the Italians were still smoking in the same corner while the other Europeans hovered outside Abu Muhammad’s tuck shop. What really made me step back was the amount of bling on display amongst the Syrian students. ! The shabaab, I think ‘lads’ would be a good translation, had even more gel in their hair and their T-Shirts seemed to bring a whole new meaning to ‘skin tight.’ As far as the ladies are concerned, it seemed like their clothes too had shrunk even more, their jeans had become tighter and the make up even more garish! I soon realised that nothing had changed and my reaction was basically because I had only seen women with the full hijab, an all black robe with the headscarf just revealing the eyes, for the past couple of weeks and so seeing someone who might as well have been a walking advertisement for Revlon was a bit of a shock!

The teacher entered the class at nine exactly. She is a young, elegant Palestinian woman and she proudly wears the demi-hijab, as I call it, with her hair and neck covered by a scarf but wearing normal clothes, jeans most often. Much to the chagrin and surprise of some of the other students in the class, the first thing she announced was that people who were late, even by a few minutes, would have to wait outside class until the next break. For those who thought that she was all talk, she made an example of a Turkish girl and a gigantic Palestinian from Germany. I find the class much more productive than some of my previous courses and it is good to have a teacher who insists on pushing the students because all too often there are people on their study abroad programs from Europe or America who seem to moan and groan more than study Arabic. During the introductions amongst the class, when I told the teacher I preferred being called Ali, she asked if I was the same Ali Khan who wrote on SyriaComment. I nodded my head as nonchalantly as possible but I must admit I was rather flattered. Later, she told me that her husband had been reading some of the Dispatches and had asked her whether she knew me from the university!

While traveling I tried to follow the news in the Syria and thought that a lot might have changed in the month that I was away. The BBC website informed me that a Syrian stock exchange was about to open. It was of course an entirely different matter that only 6 companies would be traded on it, 4 of them banks. The Al-Jazeera website kept me abreast of the developments vis-à-vis America and Syria, the initial rumblings of a potential dialogue and the Syrians President’s offer to act as a mediator between Iran and America. Some people are saying that these new discussions are a ruse to get Syria to abandon its ties to Iran, a country that it has been an ally with for nearly three decades, because in the scenario that Mr. Netanyahu’s government decides to take military action against Iran, Syria would not take Iran’s side. However, nothing much has really changed and nearly everything is as I left it!

I was hoping that the weather would have changed by the time I came back but unfortunately it is still cold at night and often windy too. In many of the houses in the old city, the wind finds all kinds of nooks and crannies through which it can create irritating sounds and make one feel cold. Spring is a bit late.

Until next week Ma’as Salaam!

Dispatch from Lebanon- Tripoli!

Tripoli, Lebanon as seen from the Citadel

Tripoli, Lebanon as seen from the Citadel

When I walked out of the cafe after finishing the last dispatch, my friend and I heard sporadic gunfire coming from nearly all directions but it seemed to be far from us. I turned back to look at the reaction of my fellow game-laying shabab in the cafe and no-one seemed to be bothered at all. After a minute or two someone volunteered that the sound might be og Dabkay, a traditional Arabic dance, another said that children might be playing and someone finally said, ‘no it is the sound of rifles.’ I still have not figured out what the reason for the random gunfire was, children playing with assault rifles at eleven thirty at night seems a bit rich for me. I suppose it could be something to do with the elections or the fact that the anniversary of the murder of Rafiq Hariri was two days away. Anyway, we wandered into the main square to find taxi drivers congregated around the clock tower and young men munching shawarma. Obviously this was nothing out of the ordinary. After walking towards Al-Mina, the port, we spotted soldeirs piling into a truck and decided it would be best to go back to the hotel.

Tripoli is a largely conservative Muslim town and does not feel like the rest of Lebanon. I suppose nothing really is stereotypical about Lebanon, as one minute one drives through a mediterranean costal town that looks like it might be in Italy or Spain and then the next one passes through a town with posters of ‘La illaha illallah’, there is no God but God, everywhere, complemented with pictures of people from the Hariri clan. We had walked around Trablus, the Arabic name for Tripoli, earlier that night and the whole place was deserted by seven o’clock. Literally, there was not a soul in sight and apart from the odd soldier here and there. We had been to a sweet shop to buy some Arabic sweets for our drive into the mountains later in the week. Our hotel, situated in an alley off Tall Street, was clean and apart from an old Lebanese grandmother in a pink nighty who refused to get off the couch, it was quiet too. Once in a while she would shout at her son to bring her something but for the most part, she just smiled at us toothlessly everytime we came out of our room. The sweet shop was on Tall street and was called Hallab Brothers. Founded in 1861, there seemed to be a few different branches next to each other and on further inquiry it transpisred that there had been something of a feud in the family a few generations ago. I went in primarily to ask where the patisserie run by the Arja family had been. One of the young Arjas is a dear friend of mine in America and I knew that their business was famous in the region before they closed shop and left. The shopkeeper was surprised that I knew of the name and then pointed out where it was. We then started to sample various delicacies. My American friend, Ketan, was rather partial to Faisaliyya, Christoph liked the Baklava and I was rather keen on the Billouriyya. The only way to compromise on our different tastes was to get a bit of everything and we ended up buying a kilo of sweets. The gentleman was keen to make us taste some of the other sweets. Having a spoon of Jazairay M’aroufi shoved into my mouth was particuarly memorable. The actual sweet consists of a pile of Honey with every nut you can imagine embedded in it. Imagine a tray stacked with golden honey which in turn is embedded with emerald green pistachioues, red almonds, brown cashews and other equally colourful and delcious nuts. As we were leaving, we were also handed a large ma’amoul each and I must admit that the taste rivaled that of the ma’amoul in Damascus. In fact the ma’amoul in Trablus was slightly better as the pastry had a hint of orange blossom water which combined superbly with the Pistacheos inside. Before we were spoiled with anymore sweets we quickly exited and said our goodbyes.

The next day, despite promising to make an early start to the day, we emerged slightly late, wolfed down breakfast, packed up and left for the citadel. On the way we stopped off in the souks, which had been described to us as better than those in Damascus. I think I will disagree though the characters of the two are a world apart. The two main souks in Damascus are Medhat Pasha and Hamidiyya. They are both long, wide and spacious. The souk in Trablus is much smaller and narrower and is much more authentic in that it is not lined with shops for tourists like its counterparts in Damascus. The souk is being restored but is still mainly used by the locals and as soon as one enters, one is greeted by an orgy of colour. Bright yellow bananas hang from pegs, ravishingly red tomatoes glisten while all kinds of fershly washed green vegetables shine in the little shafts of light that break through the broken roof of the souks. Butchers advertise their meat as fresher than the others and stooped old women inspect pink, yellow and fluroscent green pickles while talking to the shopkeepers, softening them up for a solid bit of bargaining. I think if someone who is a bit overgrown, Christoph comes to mind, was to stand in the middle and spread his arms out then he would be able to touch the shops on either side. I suppose the souk is similar to the one near the end of Medhat Pasha in Damascus, outside the old city, called Bab Sarija! The souk had transformed from the night before. We had wandered through at about seven thirty thinking that the shops would be open. Apart from being shut, there was rubbish lying everywhere and there was no lighting. Thankfully, all this had changed by the morning and the continous flow of people hid the rubbish under a swirl of colourful hijabs and hurrying gallabiyas. Having traveled to the south as far as Sidon and obviously having seen Beirut and the coastal cities all the way to Tripoli, I had not seen men wearing gallabiyas or even men with long beards for that matter and neither had I seen the full hijab, until Tripoli. We squeezed our way past the shoppers and were temporarily waylaid by a loud patatoe seller who wanted Ketan to set up his tripod and take a picture of his shop. It was actually a cart with crates piled up on either side instead of walls. Ketan persuaded him that his tripod would take long to set up and that he would return later.

In order to get out of the souk we darted into The Grand Mosque which was built in the 13th century and parts of it incorporate Frankish architecture. Some people think that the Mosque tower actually used to be the bell tower. There was a frenzy of activity inside as renovations were being carried out but we managed to see a little bit.

It was Friday and some old men had started to congregate in the corner under the turquoise coloured domes. One rather venerable looking gentleman with a snowwhite beard and a skull cap that looked like it would slide off any minute, stared down the end of his spectacles and read out bits of news to his fellow octagenarians. We left after a man with a plastic bag full of tour guides decided to accost us and tell us about how he had lived in Europe most of his life. He insisted on speaking in English and perhaps if he had spoken Arabic, we might have stayed and listened. As prayers were about to start we went off to the Soap Souk. Again like countless other cities, Aleppo being prominent amongst them, Tripoli claims to have the oldest tradition of handmade natural soap.

The souk is an old Khan, big house where caravans would stop, and is being renovated as part of an effor to promote tourism. I went in and sat next to the gate when suddenly a bold young lady appeared and asked us if we might want to see her soap shop. I saw no harm and so off we went into the corner and while we stook there patiently she explained the uses of various soaps. At the end she triumphantly took us to a shelf from which she took down a box and declared gleefully that this particular sample was an aphrodisiac. She then proceeded to take off a spray from the same shelf and after spraying it onto my hands, she massaged it in and kept saying very good, very good. I must say that after not having spoken to a hijabi girls in Damascus for the past six months, apart from saying hello, getting massage oil rubbed into my hands was a bit alarming. We made excuses about buying the amative soap, and instead opted for a less intrepid variety, claiming that it was for our mothers. As we left we were given little samples of other products which we stuffed into the bag.

We followed a winding staircase and went to the citadel which still towers above the old city. It was orignally built by Esendemir al-Kurji who was the governor of Tripoli in the 14th century and was constructed over the remains of the castle of Saint Gilles after the Mamliks captured the city. Many buildings here have a layercake of history as they passed from one ruler to the next. Today the citadel is just a skeleton of its former self and the insides are just a maze of arches and empty rooms, though the top of the citadel affords a fantastic view of the old city and the sea. On the way in we had been stopped by a soldier who checked our bags and then cheerfully waved us in. At the ticket counter, I told the man that I lived in Syria and so he charged me five thousand lira instead of the five dollars that he charged Christoph and Ketan. As he gave me my stub he said; I do this because Syrians and Lebanese people are brothers. Christoph was understandably a bit peeved at this situation and later asked how can he (the ticket seller) call the people who have f$%&ed his country brothers!!! Having wandered around the remains for a while we went back to our car and set off east towards the Qadisha valley!

Until the next Dispatch Ma’as Salaam!

Lebanon Dispatch #3 Qadisha Valley,  2/16/2009

Qadisha Valley

Qadisha Valley

As we drove towards the Qadisha valley, we passed through a couple of villages where the signs were all in either French or English with the Arabic written as an afterthought! We stopped at a small supermarket to stock up on some water and snacks and I obviously bought my supply of Kinder Bueno! We had seen the snow capped mountains from the citadel in Tripoli and as we drove towards them we could not help but notice how the air was so much cleaner than it had been near the coastal areas. In fact since moving to Damascus, it was so wonderful to be able to breathe fresh, cool crisp air without worrying about inhaling the air from a half broken old Mercedes 240E. The whole area is refreshingly green, particularly if one comes from Syria and the roads are well made. In India, people often complain about the abundance of roadside shrines and how they often take up more space than is safe on winding mountain roads. I was happy to see that we are not the only nation that constructs pit-stop shrines and as we snaked our way towards the top of the mountain we passed lots of niches and mock creches, carved into the rock with a figurine of Jesus or the Virgin Mary. Every couple of kilometers there were also crosses painted high onto the rocks so that oncoming traffic could see them. Most of these were blood red and a few were white with red outlines.



Eventually we reached a village called Ehden and upon entering it , we were greeted by a sign that said: “This area is a WiFi zone! Beinvenue” I had not brought my laptop but it seemed absurd to me that the whole village was covered by wireless internet. This was made all the more unbelievable because there was not a single person in the entire town. We drove through and all I could see was an endless amount of construction and empty houses. As the village curled around the side of the mountain we followed a small narrow road up to the top where there was a church. I was already beginning to get the feeling that we had mistakenly wandered onto the set of a horror movie but then I saw that the church was not built in a normal way. It was a pyramid with a huge statue of Our Lady, hands spread out, on top.

There was something very sinister about the whole place and as I wandered in, I caught myself being glared at by a bust of the man who built the church. Behind him too was a small pyramid. Next to the new church is an ancient chapel that is built in the more comforting traditional style and was open unlike the bigger modern Church that was bolted shut from all sides. Ketan decided that he wanted to take photos of the panoramic views but Christoph and I thought it would be better to wait in the car. Apparently, the village is occupied in the summer when its wealthy inhabitants return to get away from the ‘blistering’ heat of Beirut!

We soon set off again and eventually reached Bcharre, the village where we had planned to spend the night. The whole area is Maronite Christian and I thought it was quite amusing that I was planning to spend a night in the middle of what is called the “home and base of the right-wing Phalangists.” There is still a grave from Phoenician times from about 750 BC and now there is an abundance of small churches and monasteries. At lunch we stopped off at Cafe Makhlouf.



Ketan and Christoph went in and I was about to follow them in when a red-faced, balding man with a very aggressive looking paunch walked up to me and enquired whether I was Syrian. I said no and then made it known that I was Indian. Without blinking an eyelid, or saying hello, he said: ‘oh really, well i need three Indians to work for me.” I looked at him, waiting for him to finish his sentence and then realised that he was actually asking me a question. I told him that I could not help him neither did I know anyone who might be able to.

Before I could finish my sentence he had ambled off. Later, it turned out that he was the brother of the local parish priest. Inside, the man who was serving us turned out to be from Damascus. Syria is never far away! The owner of the cafe changed the channel to Polish pop music and it was surreal to sit in a Lebanese mountain village, that looked more like a Swiss ski resort, eating hommous and watching Dorota Rabcwezska, the lead singer of Virgin, a Polish pop group (Don’t ask how I know) prancing about in a two piece on a beach.

After Lunch we set off for the cedars at the top of the mountain. There was snow everywhere and we must have been at an altitude of about 2000 meters. When we reached the top we saw a small road with ski chalets on either side and a shop that had skis for rent. I don’t think that Indians are made to ski and having done it once, I do not fancy the idea of sliding down the side of a mountain with two sticks to help me balance and control by speed. The sun was setting as we drove down and little orange lights began to appear in the valley below the mountains. The view is absolutely incredible because from the top of the mountain, one can see the gorge and the Qadisha valley floor, both of which are incredibly green and dense. As we navigated our way past threatening looking SUVs, the darkness below was interrupted by the swarms of orange lights and the snow behind us emitted a comforting reddish light whilst catching the last rays of the sinking sun.

February is still not tourist season here, apart from backpacking Australians and New Zealanders and we managed to find a hotel room without any problems. The hotel was actually a house and the owner had converted some rooms into dormitories. As we entered the sitting room, we were greeted by a huge picture above the mantle piece, of the owner when he was younger wearing gigantic blue aviators, hugging his wife while lying in the snow. He looked like one of those Italian playboys from a bad seventies film. Nonetheless, Tiger House was going to be our home for the night and so we quickly dumped our bags and set off for town. There are two bigs churches in town, both relatively new. The local population are all Maronites and Becharre is also famous as the hometown of Khalil Gibran, the famous Lebanese poet. Gibran, perhaps most famous for his book ‘The Prophet’, migrated to America, and spent most of his life there but is buried, according to his will, in a monastery just outside the village. We walked into the bigger church and a large bumbling man greeted us and asked where we were from. Upon hearing that Ketan and I were Indian he began to address only Christoph, probably assuming that he was the only Christian amongst us. The interior of the church is not that special, though from outside it looks beautiful with its red-tiled dome and two bell towers providing a welcome bit of colour.

I wanted to check my email and so we went into a Billiards parlour that also advertised itself as a cafe and even though the connection was not working I managed to spend a little bit of time there talking to the girl who was watching the pool tables. Eventually she told me about another cafe further down the village. As I drove down, I noticed a group of Ethiopian women blocking the road and despite the fact that my headlights were on they refused to get out of the way.

Eventually I had to honk at them. It was the most unexpected sight to see them in the middle of a Maronite village in Cedars. I found the internet cafe. At first it looked like a cross between a second hand electronics shop and a castle cellar. For a moment I wanted to imagine it as the apothecary shop run by Gibran’s father and also perhaps as the place where his father had gambled away his savings. Inside, there was an old chandelier with a white neon bulb hanging precariously from a stone arch and the darkness was broken by the hazy white glare of twenty computer monitors. Most of the young people there were playing online poker. This seems to be something of a craze in both Syria and Lebanon. I wandered further into the cafe and at the back was a large space that looked like it had not been used for ages. There were dusty pool table everywhere, a broken bar and a whole Austin had been snuggly fitted into a space between two arches. It seemed as if the cellar actually used to be a medieval store room, then became a nightclub and now is a space for young Maronites to hang out, play online games and smoke incessantly. Even more perplexingly, the patrons of the internet cafe also seemed to be fans of Polish Pop music and there was a big flatscreen TV that was blaring out the latest hits. As it happens the internet connection was also rather medieval and so after an agonsing fifteen minutes I decided to go back to Tiger House and call it a night. When we got back we discovered that there was someone else sleeping in the dormitory. On closer inspection it turned out to be another Ethiopian girl. She had fallen asleep while reading the bible. It seems a bit uncaring to not give the poor girl a room of her own and now I realised that the shouting we had hear earlier when we entered the house was because the lady of the house was screaming at this girl. I managed to secure a top bunk away from everyone and Ketan, after a lot of thinking, went to sleep too on the bunk next to hers, though not without complaining about how he had lived in Syria for nine months and was not comfortable sleeping in the same room as a girl. Poor chap!

The next day we got up later than we had planned to, though this is not really surprising anymore. Apart from a jeep that drove past blaring political music at six in the morning it had been a comfortable night. Christoph had had some problems fitting into his bed but that is what is to be expected if one is unnaturally tall. The day was glorious though the breakfast that had been promised to us turned out to be more of a disappointment with only tea and some cheese being handed to us by the girl who was sleeping in the dormitory. Over breakfast we had met two Australians who wondered in with their huge backpacks and proudly announced that they had slept in the apple orchard outside the village. They wanted to go skiing and so wanted to leave their backpacks at Tiger House. The younger one looked like a dozy version of Wallace from Wallace and Gromit, and had the same toothy smile. He sleepily said that ‘it was bewtiful autsaaide’ and then disappeared into the bathroom. Outside the valley looked breathtaking and the snow crowned the mountain magnificently while the sun poured onto the valley floor below, revealing the luscious greenery. We drove out of the town towards the monastery where Gibran is buried but it turned out to be closed because of Valentines Day! I wonder what the poet would have said about this. There were hoardes of Malaysian tourists everywhere and so we quickly left, following the winding road down to the valley floor!

Once we reached the bottom we were greeted by the only other people there. They looked a bit out of place. The lady was dressed as if she was about to go to a nightclub and the gentleman, with his blonde mop, brown patent leather shoes and expensive Italian suit looked rather lost amidst the green pine tress, cascading river and mud track. We kitted up and started to hike towards Deir Qannoubin. The guidebook did not really elaborate as to how far it was and after a while I started to have flashbacks of my trek up to Deir Mar Musa in Syria.

Only this time, we could not even see where we were eventually meant to reach whereas one can see Mar Musa at the end of the path, which is much more reassuring. I walked ahead of the other two hoping to be the first to come accross it and in my eagerness I took a wrong turn and managed to end up walking all the way to the valley floor. There was a cottage there but no monastery though I must admit, for a minute I thought i had found it. At the end of the near vertical incline was a river and a man, a lebanese lumberjack to be precise, chopping wood and loading it into his tractor. I asked him where the Deir was and he said back at the top and then another half an hour walk. Realising that he had nowhere to go but up, I asked him whether he could give me a ride in his tractor but he simply raised his eyebrows and then said too much weight. I am not sure if he was referring to the gigantic bits of tree trunk or me! Nonetheless I managed to crawl my way back up and saved the other two the trouble of going all the way down. The view from the track was incredible. The rocks are porous in this region and so there were small and bigger waterfalls at various points shooting out of the sides of the gorge.Towards the valley floor someone had created steppes in order to plant fruit trees and everywhere else there were all kinds of trees. Along the sides little yellow and purple flowers had boldy come out in eager anticipation of spring and gave the valley a tinge of colour that made it all the more beautiful. As we were trekking wearily, a servees that had Matam Abu Joseph written on the windscreen, rattled up to us and a white haired gentleman told us to get in. We piled in eagerly and asked the driver where the monastery was. He kept saying, “after a little while” and eventually after a fifteen minute drive we came to his restaurant. I must admit that I am impressed with the entrepreneurial spirit here but I suppose having ancestors like the Phonecians explains the success of Lebanese businessmen all around the world.

He pointed us in the right direction and we set off. What was meant to be two hundred meters turned out to be more like a kilometer but it was completely worth it. The old monastery still exists and is built into the side of the gorge. The gorge splits off into two and so the main building is perched precariously on the edge with a view of the valley floor, the two densely green gorges and on one side the snow of on what I presume was Qornet al-Sawda, Lebanon’s highest peak. There is some dispute as to who founded it. Some say Theodosius the Cenobite while others claim Emperor Theodosius the Great. It is about seventeen hundred years old and has been renovated in parts. However, when we arrived there was noone there except a very angry dog and three donkeys that the dog seemed to be guarding. After sitting around for a while we went back to Abu Joseph’s restaurant, hoping that if we ate lunch there, we would get a ride back. We sat on an open terrace and apart from the pylons dotted around the buildings, we had an uniterrupted view of the entire gorge. The food was hearty and delicious and we wolfed it down. The only other guests were two couples, one Lebanese and the other Italian. They were dressed in their Sunday best and I was wondering how they had managed to walk all the way here. As we found out on our walk back, Abu Joseph had guests to serve, they had driven to the monastery in a silver Volkswagen SUV.

The hike back was not as excruciating. On either side of the valley there were two villages precariously balanced on the side of the gorge. The buildings looked like they might slip off at any moment and their red tiled roofs made them seem like Alpine resorts, with the snow in the background. We eventually reached our car, I collapsed into the backseat and slowly fell asleep while we sped past signs that said ‘Beinvenue’ in different villages. I woke up again at a army checkpoint near the coast. We had not had any problems yet and the soldier peeked in and then nodded his head ever so slightly. Christoph, and I for that matter, try and avoid contact with uniforms as much as possible and in his nervousness to leave, we stalled. I had to prevent myself from laughing and as we zipped off. I turned around to see the soldiers face and there was a hint of a smile!

Back on the coast, we were attacked by advertisments from all sides. The most conspicuous one seemed to be from Smint, the mint company, and it boldly declared “Kiss Me Again!” There were also hoardings of processed meat, boxed wine and various Lebanese singers who all looked like they had been painted orange for the photoshoot. The other regular hoardings were from the Hariri party. The first one had pictures of the people who had been killed with Rafiq Hariri and stated: They are the martyrs and you are the witnesses. It sounds much better in Arabic as the root verb of martyr and witness is the same.

We drove south towards Beirut. Intially we were planning to spend the night in the Chouf mountains but because of the lack of accommodation there, we decided to stop in Beirut.

We drove to the Corniche to catch the setting sun and then I suggested that we drive to south Beirut since we had a car. When we got near Sabra, I saw that the streetside cafe where I had talked to young Yassir and his sister a few months ago was still open. We pulled in and I went to ask if there was any tea. The mother did not recognise but after a few minutes Yassir popped up and said hello. I think we were both equally surprised to see each other, though I was hoping that he would be there. Once we said hello, his mother recognised me too. Yassir’s whole family had congregated there and the older men were smoking nargileh while the women puffed away on cigarettes.

Behind them there were hoardings put up by Hizbollah. They had a yellow background, the colour of the Hizbollah flag, and then had pictures of different martyrs. The caption read: Our Martyrs. Our History! It was interesting to see how Hariri’s party and the Hizbollah, both use the same vocabulary and language even though ideologically they are diametrically opposite. It was getting dark and we said our goodbyes. I went over to Yassir and found that he was busy explaining to his sisters who we were. He turned around to ask me everyone’s name and then whispered to his giggling sisters. The drive back from Sabra back to Downtown for me is inevitably quiet.

We chose to eat Chinese for dinner because we assumed that no-one goes out to a meal on Valentines days for Chinese food. Unfortunately, apparently the Lebanese do and we had to sit, not only surrounded by doey eyed couples but also suffer from the fact that all the most beautiful ladies of that area had decided to eat Chinese food that night. Afterwards we wandered around Rue Gouraud, where many popular restaurants, cafes and clubs are and this too did not help our painful situation. To top it all up, the hostel that we had decided to stay in, Talal’s on Avenue Charles Helou did not have any rooms so sent us accross the street. Our room was above a nightclub and the music did not stop until nine the next morning, which I think would be a record anywhere in the world. In the morning, from my balcony, I saw two young ladies walk out of the club entrance and they looked perfectly made up, not at all as if they had spent the night in a dark, smoky, and might I add terribly antisocial nightclub. We had breakfast in Hamra at Costa Cafe, which seemed to have been taken over by the all the pensioners living in the area. Apparently, the young people of Hamra and Manara had not woken up from the previous night’s celebrations! Christoph was very reluctant to go because ‘Americans do not know how to make coffee’ and he was proven right when my cappucino arrived in a ghastly gargantuan cup that looked more like the prize trophy in a tennis tournament than a mug. He looked up from his newspaper and without even a hint of a smile said; ‘That is so inelegant.’ Afterwards, we set off for the Chouf mountains with a weary eye westwards on the threatening grey clouds that had started to collect over the Mediterranean.

Comments (22)

Shami said:

Many Thanks Ali ,i’m waiting your report on Aleppo.

Indeed Tripoli is the most syrian of the Lebanese cities with Saida.
I also had the same impression.
The Qadisha Valley is impressive ,a gift from God.

March 23rd, 2009, 6:27 am


majid said:

Turkey scored today a diplomatic victory through a visit to Iraq by its President Mr. Ghul. The Iraqi President, Mr. Talibani, issued an ultimatum to the PKK to lay down arms or get out of Iraq in order to improve relations between the two countries, according to Mr. Talibani. This victory is reminiscent of another victory that Turkey scored when it issued an ultimatum, and actually moved its armed forces to the borders with Syria immediately, to then-strongman of Syria Mr. Hafez Assad to hand over Mr. Ocalan within 24 hours, who had political asylum in Syria. Mr. Assad speedily complied fearing an imminent demise to his rule. Later in a regional meeting to discuss economy in Damascus, Turkey was invited. In that meeting, the Syrians changed all the maps that show what they consider to be part of Syria not to show Iskenderun which they long maintained to be Syrian territory.
These are two diplomatic victories for Turkey that need to be examined very carefully and draw the lessons there from.

March 23rd, 2009, 6:20 pm


ugarit said:

New York’s Syrian Quarter — The New York Times; August 20, 1899 (pdf format)

March 23rd, 2009, 7:55 pm


trustquest said:

I think the aiming beyond of the State clout and beyond their realistic capability to achieve now and in the future is still the norm in Syria.
Majed, not only the Baath party and the regime maintained that Iskenderun belongs to Syria, but at some point of time they considered Iskenderun as valuable as the Golan. The military maneuver done by Turkey, could encourage Israel to do the same maneuver turkey had done before to force Syria to stop claiming Golan heights, do you think this is possible, especially with Netanyahu in control ?.

March 23rd, 2009, 8:40 pm


majid said:

TRUSQUEST said, “The military maneuver done by Turkey, could encourage Israel to do the same maneuver turkey had done before to force Syria to stop claiming Golan heights, do you think this is possible, especially with Netanyahu in control ?.”

I wouldn’t support such maneouvres in the Golan case. But I would support it in a different context such as continuing to harbor and support groups such as Hamas leaders, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah etc. by Damascus. I would also refrain from engaging in any dialog with Syria while it considers these groups as legitimate movements to be supoported by Syria militarily, politically or otherwise. Syria must come out crystal clear with its intentions and deeds, regardless which regime is ruling in Damascus, before it is reintegrated into the civilized community of nations. Ambiguity should be a non-starter.

March 23rd, 2009, 9:02 pm


SImoHurtta said:

Majid do you consider Israel as member of the civilized community of nations? If yes why?

By the way Majid do you see any problems that in Jerusalem is an office of a Sudanese rebel group? If not why?

March 23rd, 2009, 11:45 pm


majedkhaldoun said:

تراجع قيمة التداول في سوق دمشق للأوراق المالية إلى 159 ألف ليرة الاخبار الاقتصادية

بلغ حجم التداول في سوق دمشق للأوراق المالية اليوم الاثنين 800 سهما، بقيمة 159 ألف ليرة سورية، متراجعا عنه

This is less than $3500

March 24th, 2009, 1:28 am


majid said:

SimoHurtta said “Majid do you consider Israel as member of the civilized community of nations? If yes why?”

Before I answer your question, let’s be clear on one thing. Your question is obviously referring to my comment #5 where I said “Syria must come out crystal clear with its intentions and deeds, regardless which regime is ruling in Damascus, before it is reintegrated into the civilized community of nations. Ambiguity should be a non-starter.” The context of my statement is the Syrian regime. Do I consider the Syrian regime civilized? The answer is no. Why? Because the Syrian regime is not representative of its people and it does not serve the national interests of the Syrians – their well-being, aspirations, prosperity, etc…. The Syrians are perhaps the only people in the area who have progressively regressed since independence and particularly under Hafez and his son for very well known reasons – to survive in power. In addition Syria under its corrupt regimes has always been the source of instability for all of its neighbors. Are the Syrians themselves civilized? Of course they are and there is no doubt about it.

So your question should be answered in relation to the Israeli government. Is the Israeli government civilized in the sense that it is representative and will do all it can to achieve the well being, security and prosperity of its people. The answer is yes – at least with regards to those who have the Israeli citizenship.

The dispute over land with the Palestinians is another issue and will take a lengthier discussion and it is not what you asked for.

SH Said, “By the way Majid do you see any problems that in Jerusalem is an office of a Sudanese rebel group? If not why?”

Do you think al-Bashir should appear before an International court? Why yes? and why not? Give me answers please and I’ll be happy to carry on.

March 24th, 2009, 2:12 am


trustquest said:

From P-S-E
Palestinian (under occupation!) stock exchange: $13,038,087.80
The stock exchange: 2,607,703

To contact:
نابلس – شارع عمان- بناية ترست العقارية- الطابق الرابع
صندوق بريد : 128
نابلس – فلسطين
هاتف : 2390999 9 00970
فاكس : 2390998 9 00970

March 24th, 2009, 2:17 am


why-discuss said:


Your notion of what is to be civilized is strange. Israel is an occupying and aggressive state, yet it seems to care more about a single Israeli soldier than about the hundred of palestinians kids they killed. You may call that civilized, but it is certainly not.

March 24th, 2009, 7:57 am


Akbar Palace said:

Israel is an occupying and aggressive state, yet it seems to care more about a single Israeli soldier than about the hundred of palestinians kids they killed. You may call that civilized, but it is certainly not.


Please describe for us how much more Palestinian fighters care about “palestinian kids” when they fire on Israeli population centers from school playgrounds and residential neighborhoods?

Why should Israel soldiers care more about the welfare of Palestinian kids than Palestinian soldiers? Are Israeli soldiers tasked to care for Israelis or the Palestinian enemy?

March 24th, 2009, 4:08 pm


why-discuss said:

Akbar palace

“Why should Israel soldiers care more about the welfare of Palestinian kids than Palestinian soldiers?”

Fist we are not talking about ‘welfare of Palestinian kids” but about their right to live!
Israel keeps hammering the world that they are “civilized’ and that the stateless palestinian soldiers are “terrorists”.
There is a price to pay when you claim you are “civilized”, you must behave as such and not use the adversary as the reference.
The war in Gaza simply prove the opposite.

March 24th, 2009, 6:07 pm


Akbar Palace said:

Fist we are not talking about ‘welfare of Palestinian kids” but about their right to live!


Exactly. Israel is not denying anyone’s right to live, except those who are firing rockets and mortars into Israel. IF they choose to fire from the playpen of a Palestinian child, Israel cannot be held responsible. No country under these circumstances (even under international law) could be held responsible except for the brave Palestinian liberators.

That is why fighting from within the civilian population is a war crime.

Until now, no one on this website has offered any advice to the Israelis except to continue absorbing rocket and mortar fire. In your dreams, maybe.

March 24th, 2009, 11:34 pm


jad said:

“Until now, no one on this website has offered any advice to the Israelis except to continue absorbing rocket and mortar fire.”
Distorted complain and Distorted statement.
You’ve got many advices to your repeated question, by us the “terrorist” and “Jihadunce”, by Israelis citizens, by Americans and by Europeans, but you chose to be deaf, blind and illiterate to those advices:

End the occupation
Treat the Palestinians fair,
Give them their rights
Stop the settlement
Stop caging them,
Stop the killing
Stop the apartheid wall,
Stop the humiliation
Stop destroying their olives orchard and farms
Stop demolishing their homes
Let them celebrate their culture
Let them live as they deserve to live, with dignity and pride
Let their kids go to school and learn
JUSTICE and END OCCUPATION is all what everybody on this site was asking, advising and answering you with, but you are too blind to see and too deaf to hear and too illiterate to read.
When your “civilized” tribe “Israel” does all of that or even half that list you will have my full support when you get any Quassam rocket or even a stone thrown at any Israelis.
Your repeated charade is getting old and boring.

March 25th, 2009, 12:26 am


norman said:

Jad ,

I want to add one to your list ,

The Israeli should treat the Palestinians the way they like to be treated and expect from them what they give them .

March 25th, 2009, 1:54 am


jad said:

Yes Norman, it’s the Golden Rule:
Treat people the way you want to be treated.

March 25th, 2009, 3:26 am


jad said:

Isn’t this happening in the same ‘Arab heaven’ you wrote about couple days ago?

I told you so! Distortion.

March 25th, 2009, 4:45 am


why-discuss said:


“Israel is not denying anyone’s right to live”
Yes, but in a prison? without dignity…
Anyone encaged and deprived from freedom and his rights because of a false and illegal reason will fight in any ways in its means to get out and restore its dignity, wouldn’t you?

March 25th, 2009, 4:50 am


Shai said:

Norman said: “The Israeli should treat the Palestinians the way they like to be treated and expect from them what they give them.”

Amen and amen! Could not be summarized better.

March 25th, 2009, 5:15 am


Akbar Palace said:

Why-Discuss said:

“Israel is not denying anyone’s right to live”
Yes, but in a prison? without dignity…
Anyone encaged and deprived from freedom and his rights because of a false and illegal reason will fight in any ways in its means to get out and restore its dignity, wouldn’t you?


First I was told that Israel denies the Palestinians the “right to live”. So (for some reason) I had to explain that Israel doesn’t prohibit the “right to live” except to those that attack Israel. Furthermore, I had to explain (for some reason) that because some/most Palestinians fire from civilian-populated areas, Israel could not be held responsible for those hurt while combating these attacks.

Now the issue is “dignity”, “prison”, and “freedom”. You also asked me if I “…will fight in any ways in its means to get out and restore its dignity, [wouldn’t you]?”

As time marches on, the conflict seems to be closing on it own, yet there are still many thorns and traps hidden along the way.

Gaza is “free”. The “hard-line” PM, Ariel “Sabra and Shatila” Sharon left this land and gave it back to the victor. The Palestinians fought and won it back. Israel does not want to control a hostile group of non-Jews and is reluctant to incorporate the Gazans into a “Jewish State”. We all know this.

But in the absence of a peace agreement, and with hostilities perpetrated every day, Israel cannot permit the Gazans to rearm in order to attack Israel. Morevoer, Israelis cannot afford to hire Gazans because they pose too much of a security risk.

So when you ask me what I would do if I were a Gazan, I would merge with Fatah ASAP, and forge a peace treaty with Israel in order to build my state, my economy, and standard of living. The international community is BEGGING to fund the Palestinians with Billions of dollars to do just that.

You asked me, and I hope I answered your question.

March 25th, 2009, 11:15 am


soapmaker said:

My wish is for all people to live together in harmony, live by the Golden Rule, and for Peace to come to the Middle East.

Ali, I enjoyed reading your article about your travles and found it very interesting.

February 15th, 2011, 12:16 am


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