Thursday, October 31, 2002

Imagine you are in a sauna...

Imagine you are in a sauna and it's hot. Really hot and sticky and uncomfortable, and all you want to do is get out. And you know that there is a cool room with fresh running water and green grass and plenty of shade, and all you have to do to get there is step through the door. So you do.

This, according to our Syrian guide around Lebanon, is what the leader of Hamas said goes through the mind of a suicide bomber.

But I'm skipping ahead.

The last email had us in Palmyra, with one casualty (broken elbow, two badly sprained ankles) on the truck. He's healing up now, but spent most of yesterday on the back of a donkey whilst the rest of us clambered up and down the hills and mountains of Petra. But I'm jumping ahead again.

Syria first!

From Palmyra to Krak des Chevaliers, via the city of Homs. Krak was a crusader castle, so well designed that it could be defended completely with only 200 men and it was never taken in combat. I have to agree with Paul Theroux too - it is the 'epitome of every schoolboy's fantasy castle'. With walls, moats, turrets, a drawbridge, cunning defensive features and all in incredibly good condition. Lots of history here about invaders, Salah al-din, crusaders and so on.

One of the best stories is about one surrender of the castle. The soldiers inside got bored defending the place, so they parleyed for safe passage in return for the castle. The Arab commander agreed and the 200-odd soldiers left in peace. However, when the commander crossed the drawbridge he saw that both corridors leading off the entrance hall were zig-zagged. Fearing an ambush, he left the castle and used his catapults to fire against the south wall for a week or so until the tower caved in and he entered that way instead - finding an empty castle. Oops.

From Krak back to Homs for lunch then on to Damascus where Mike (the driver) got a bee in his bonnet about the truck not being spotless and got us all to spend the afternoon stripping it bare and cleaning it out. One of the fringe benefits of an 'economic expeditions' trip!

The next day I left Syria behind and journeyed, with about 10 others, Westwards across the border to Lebanon with our strongly-opinioned guide. He spoke about Lebanese history, about 'greater Syria' (some Syrians want to join with Lebanon - and perhaps eventually Iraq and possibly Jordan - to form a new, Islamic, country. The Lebanese, who are 40% Christian, are not so keen on this idea.), about the noble struggles of Hamas, the evil of the Jews, the countries bordering Lebanon (The Sea to the West, Syria to the North and East, and 'Palestine' to the South). All very interesting, and the insight into his opinions, rather than just dry history and facts, probably made him the best guide I've had since Central Asia.

Lebanon itself was astounding, from the jaw-dropping ruins of Baalbek - enormous temples using the biggest stone pillars ever cut, intricately carved facades, 19th century grafitti from pre-Victorian tourists and the spiritual and physical headquarters of Hamas - to Beirut. Beirut, totally destroyed by more than 20 years of civil war. Beirut, where the street of the 'green line' that divided Christians from Muslims can still be made out today (the buildings that are not caved-in shells (or partly destroyed 'by indiscriminate Israeli rocket attacks' are full of bullet holes). Beirut, where the Central Business District was a collection of rubble in the early 90s. Beirut, where the same CBD is now full of shiny glass and steel and modern reconstructions of the period buildings that used to stand there. Beirut, where the economy was in tatters after 25 years of war. Beirut, where 'drop-dead gorgeous' men
and women walk the streets in designer clothes and the central streets are lined with cafes selling coffee and ice cream in scenes that could be lifted straight out of Milan. Only it's cleaner and newer and sparklier and the people are better looking.

Beirut is the cliche. Beirut is the 'city of contrasts' and the living example of a people who have decided (for now at least) to put the bloody past behind them and get on with rebuilding the country and having a good time.

It's a thin line, though. The constitution mandates that the top three posts in the country must go to persons from certain religions - ie. the president must be Lebanese Christian, the Prime Minister from a certain Muslim sect and so on. And the traditional balance of religions and their proportions (as used in drawing up the constitution) has been distorted by the influx of 700,000 Palestinian refugees (Lebanon has a population of about 3.5-4 million), who have no country and hence no passport and no vote, and have to live in refugee camps. Some of them have been in the camps since the 60s, many have been born there. To top it all, Israel still occupies a 'buffer zone' in southern Lebanon, to go with the Golan heights (part of Syria) and the West Bank (formerly part of Jordan).

As darkness fell, we left Beirut and headed back to Damascus.

And the next post.


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