Around the Middle East
in 80 days

February 25th to May 14th, 2004

Part 4:

Lebanon

         << Part 3: Southern Syria    -    Back to Index    -    Part 5: Southern Syria again >>


Recent History

During my stay in Lebanon I visited several sites that relate to the civil war of 1975-1990 and to the Israeli occupation of Southern Lebanon of 1982-2000. I'll quickly recap these two periods here so you know what these sites are about.

The Lebanese civil war

After independence from France in 1943, Lebanon got a political system in which the christian and muslim communities each got half the seats in parliament, and in which the president was always a christian. Through demographic change the muslims became the bigger group and were underrepresented, which was one source of political friction between the communities. Another source was the presence of Palestinian groups. In 1970, the PLO had tried to take power in Jordan (Black September) but ended up being driven out of the country, after which it set up camp in Lebanon which had and still has a very large number of Palestinian refugees.

As tensions grew more intense, different parties, ranging from religious groups to communists, formed militia. Then in 1975 came a spark that set off 15 years of civil war: gunmen tried to kill the leader of the Phalangists, a christian party/militia, who in response massacred a busload of Palestinians because they assumed the gunmen had been Palestinian. During the war, all sides including the Palestinians committed horrible atrocities on civilians.

The civil war ended in 1990, and since then Lebanon has had several elections - who says there are no Arab democracies? Although there is a lot of corruption, Lebanon has been rebuilding rapidly and is starting to regain its former prestige as a modern and prosperous country in an otherwise stagnant region.

Israel and Hizbollah

Israel invaded Lebanon in 1982 to fight the PLO, which had occasionally been attacking Israel from Southern Lebanon, but advanced as far as Beirut to link up with the christian militia there. The excellent book Israel's Lebanon War, written by two Israeli journalists, details how Ariel Sharon, then the minister of defence, was the driving force behind this invasion and misled everyone including the Israeli government about the extent and the goals of the operation. Israel later retreated but kept occupying the south of Lebanon until 2000.

The shia muslim faction Hizbollah ("Party of God") was formed as a reaction to Israel's invasion in 1982. While all other Lebanese militia disarmed or disbanded after the civil war, Hizbollah kept fighting against the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon. When Israel finally withdrew in 2000, Hizbollah claimed a military victory and gained a lot of prestige in the Arab world. It is mostly because of this that Israel is now acting extra tough in Gaza before withdrawing; they don't want Hamas to get a similar boost.

In the west Hizbollah is mostly known as a terrorist organisation responsible for suicide attacks and the like against Israel, but it is more than that. Just like Hamas (a similar organisation in Gaza) it is a social organisation that gains popular support by organising charity, and it is also a political party with elected representatives in the Lebanese parliament. It has two major goals: destroying the state of Israel, and establishing an islamic theocracy like Iran (which is Hizbollah's biggest sponsor) in Lebanon. Read all about it on their website.


March 12th (day 17): Baalbek

Baalbek was once a place of worship for the Phoenician god Baal, hence the name. Caesar founded a Roman colony here in 47 BC and magnificent temples for Roman gods were constructed. Nowadays Baalbek is a little mountain town of 12000. The temple ruins lie right in the center and are Lebanon's main tourist attraction.

Baalbek was my first destination in Lebanon; I arrived late in the evening of March 11th. I ate in an excellent snack bar (the first good meal of this trip) where the owner told me there had been a huge terror attack in Madrid that morning. So, ironically, upon arriving in the Hizbollah heartland (see below) the first thing I did was go to a cybercafe to read about a terror attack in Europe.

It was ice cold in Baalbek that night, but right in the middle of my hotel room was a big stove out of which a big pipe went up to the ceiling and then across the room to the window. All places in Baalbek have stoves like that, even the cybercafe, and when I got the hotel owner to light it I understood why: the freezing room became an oven within minutes and I had to leave the window wide open before going to bed so as not to melt. A few hours later I woke up shivering though; the stove had stopped burning and now the room was freezing again. Grrr!

When I stepped out of the hotel in the morning I was immediately cheered up by the sight of the temple ruins right in front of me. I'd arrived in the dark and hadn't noticed that they were right next to the hotel :) I first walked around the town though to shop for food and drinks.

Baalbek village

Baalbek lies in the Bekaa valley, which runs through the eastern half of Lebanon. This valley is Hizbollah's heartland and there is no way you can fail to notice that: the Hizbollah logo (the word Hizbollah in Arabic script with the middle letter ending in a fist holding a machinegun) is omni-present. Throughout the whole region, every lantern pole has a Hizbollah flag, and in towns like Baalbek they usually have two or three. I've literally seen thousands upon thousands of Hizbollah flags, which got me thinking that if they ever want to change their logo, they'll have a lot of work cut out for them.
During the civil war Hizbollah kidnapped many westerners in this region, but in the 90s they put an official end to that so Baalbek is now open for tourism. I was the only guest in my hotel though and saw only a few other tourists on the site.

The Temple of Jupiter

The temple of Jupiter was built in 60 AD. Some of the structures that surrounded its courtyard are still standing, but of the temple itself only the huge platform and six columns remain. With a height of 22m, these give a good impression of how huge the temple must once have been. While I was wandering around the empty, some 200 soldiers suddenly started filing in from one side, walked onto the temple platform and exited on the other side. It was a strange sight.

The Temple of Bachhus

The temple of Bachhus (Dionysos in Greek) was built around 150 AD. In its time it was known as "the little temple" because the temple of Jupiter next to it was even bigger, but it sure doesn't seem little now. It is one of the most well preserved Roman temples in the world, and in Roman times must have been one of the most impressive; the detail of the ornamentation is just fabulous.
In the crusader era the Arabs fortified Baalbek, and some of those fortifications still remain - I climbed on one of them to take the last picture. During this time the columns of the temple of Jupiter were filled up with masonry and on top of them a sort of castle tower was built - a really cool sight judging by the drawings I saw.

Racing to Beirut

Though the temple site is small I spent most of the day there, going around a second time because the sun broke through in the afternoon and I could make better pictures. In the early evening I picked up my luggage at the hotel and took a minibus to Beirut. This ride through the mountains was the craziest of the many crazy rides I survived during this journey. In Lebanon the minibusses aren't rusty old vans like in the other Arab countries, they're brand new vans with powerful engines, and this one raced - I mean raced - over narrow unlit mountain roads instead of taking the highway. Which for the umpteenth time made me reflect on how silly it is to worry about terrorism in the Middle East when you're 100x more likely to die in traffic.


March 13th (day 18): Beirut

I spent the next five nights in Beirut, making day trips to other places in Lebanon from here. To keep the cost down I slept in a dorm for the first time. I met some interesting people in the hostel and the nearby snackbar. Hostels like this, with dorms and a common room where guests watch TV, use internet, smoke and drink, are really the best places to stay on a trip like this, and they're cheap too. I stayed in similar places in Jerusalem, Petra and other places and always had a great time.

Sabra and Shatilla

On my first morning in Beirut I went to Sabra and Shatilla, which are two adjacent Palestinian refugee camps inside Beirut. In 1982 Israel, which had just entered the war and controlled this part of Beirut, allowed the christian Phalange militia to enter these camps to take out any Palestinian fighters hiding there. Those fighters had left, so instead the Phalangists massacred the population of the camps. Estimates of the number of people killed range from 800 to 2000.

Given the nature and history of the Lebanese conflict, this massacre was entirely predictable. The Phalangists hated the Palestinians intensely; their leaders were known to say things like "dead Palestinian kids can't become terrorists" and "we don't rape Palestinian girls younger than 12". On top of that, the leader of the Phalange had been murdered the day before and his men were eager for revenge.

Like the Israeli invasion in general, the insane plan of setting the Phalange loose on a Palestinian refugee camp came from Ariel Sharon, then the minister of defence. An Israeli governmental commission that investigated the massacre concluded that Sharon was indirectly responsible and should resign, which he only did after violent street protests in Israel.

A few years ago, survivors of the massacre charged Sharon before a Belgian court, because Belgium had a law granting itself universal jurisdiction in cases of genocide. It caused a huge diplomatic riot with Israel, and Sharon avoided Belgium because he might have been arrested. If you're Belgian and watched the news in recent years, you've probably heard the names Sabra and Shatilla many times. Last year, Belgium finally repealed the genocide law, on the one hand because every activist group in the world started abusing it to promote its cause, on the other hand because the USA put a lot of political pressure. Pity.

Some people on travel forums had warned me that it might be risky to visit Sabra/Shatilla and take pictures, but that turned out to be utter bollocks. It is basically a poor but lively neighbourhood of Beirut; you could walk through it without even knowing you'd been in a Palestinian refugee camp, and people were as friendly as anywhere else.
From the book Israel's Lebanon War I'd copied a map of Sabra and Shatilla that shows what happened where. The Israelis had set up their command post on the roof of an apartment block at the edge of the area. The book described the conversations that took place there as the event unfolded, so I wanted to check it out though it's just a building like any other. The football stadion where the Phalange collected and executed Palestinians was replaced by a new flashy stadion after the war. It contrasts heavily with the neighbourhood.

Beirut's Scars

Anyone my age or older will remember the regular images of fighting and destruction coming out of Beirut during the 80s. Since the end of the war the city has been mostly rebuilt, but here and there you can still see buildings damaged or ruined in the fighting. They're an unusual sight, and some of them are somehow esthetic, so I took lots of pictures. Incredibly many of these buildings are still inhabited, probably because the rent is next to nothing.

Beirut proper

Don't think any of the above pictures are representative of what Beirut is like; I just showed them first because they're from the morning and early afternoon of my first day in Beirut. I spent the rest of the afternoon and the evening in the city center, in the pleasant area around the Place Étoile.
There were a lot of excellent snack bars in this area and they all had fish, so I returned here every day to have dinner. My stay in Lebanon was a welcome change after my strict falafel diet in Syria.

While eating on a terrace here this first day I got to know two very nice Lebanese ladies, both called Rania. After dinner they took me to some nearby Roman ruins, and then we drove to the other side of Beirut for a walk along the coastal promenade, where I got to see the Pigeon rocks which are Beirut's most famous sight.


March 14th (day 19): Southern Lebanon

While preparing this trip I had read about some politically interesting sites in the south of Lebanon, which was occupied by Israel from 1982 to 2000 and is now controlled by Hizbollah. To be allowed into that area as a foreigner you need a special permit from the Lebanese army, but I've heard that procedure is mostly to keep out Palestinians who might cause troubles with Israel, so getting that permit is easy.

During those preparations I also got to know Riyad, a Lebanese guy who offered to show me around on his free day. I met up with him in Beirut this Sunday and he let me decide where we'd go. I suggested doing a tour of southern Lebanon, feeling a bit guilty because I assume a Lebanese would rather show me the beautiful parts of his country instead of political hot-spots, but he didn't seem to mind. I was very lucky because making this tour alone and with public transport would have been hard and much less enjoyable.

We first drove to the ancient southern town of Sidon, found the army HQ there and got the permit after a little waiting. From there we cruised southern Lebanon's beautiful mountain scenery, visiting the sites I wanted to see one by one.

Beaufort Castle

The Beaufort castle was built by the crusaders in 1139. It is now much ruined, but of all the castles I visited this one has the most spectacular location: from the castle you can view huge distances in all directions, and wherever we drove in the region we could see the castle on top of its cliff. Because of its position the castle kept its strategic importance until our time. I read how Arafat visited it in 1982 to inspect the small group of Palestinian fighters that was to defend it as long as possible against the expected Israeli invasion.

About that invasion it is interesting to know that whereas the Palestinian troops were eager to fight, Arafat knew they wouldn't stand a chance and did all he could to stop them from making any attacks that would provoke Israel and give it a direct justification for the invasion. He did manage to control his troops for weeks, but it was of no use; Sharon was already committed to the operation, and when an Israeli soldier stepped on a landmine near the border (that may have been there for months), that was labeled a Palestinian agression and used to justify the invasion.

The castle fell quickly (as it did several times during the 12th and 13th centuries) and was an Israeli command post throughout the occupation. Since Israel's withdrawal in 2000, Hizbollah has taken control of it so it now flies a big Hizbollah flag on its highest point. Before it stands a billboard that proudly recounts (in Arab and in English) how Hizbollah attacked it 194 times during the occupation, killing 19 Israeli soldiers in total. This amazed me. For 18 years they attacked this place about once a month, managed to make only 1 kill every 10 attacks, 1 kill per year on average, and they boast about it? It says something about the inferiority complex these islamic resistance groups suffer from if a pathetic record like this makes them proud.

Khiam Prison

During the Israeli occupation, the prison of Khiam was a torture camp where people were locked up for years without a trial. Until 1995 Israel refused to let the Red Cross inspect it, despite international pressure. The prison guards and interrogators were Lebanese, members of the SLA militia (Israel's ally in southern Lebanon). Israel denied any knowledge of or responsibility for what was going on in the prison, until its own High Court of Justice confirmed that Israeli intelligence agents were directly involved in the practices. After the Israeli withdrawal in 2000, the prisoners were finally liberated by the villagers, which led to great scenes of joy.

Nowadays Khiam prison is a museum run by Hizbollah for propaganda purposes. You can walk around freely, visiting all the cells. Signs explain the functions of the various rooms and indicate where prisoners were killed. It's pretty much like visiting an old nazi concentration camp.
The walls of the prison now feature various propaganda posters and wall-paintings. I'm a bit of a fan of propaganda art so this interested me. The masters of the genre were of course the nazis and the soviets, but I must say Hizbollah & co are doing a fine job as well.
After walking around the prison, we were invited to watch a Hizbollah movie about the prison (with English subtitles) in a dark room. This was a most interesting experience. While Hizbollah master the art of graphic propaganda, this propaganda movie was just hilariously bad. It showed actors reenacting the prison's torture practices, while all the time a gloomy voice-over was trying to break the speak-evil-of-Israel world record. Not one image was shown of actual prisoners, not one mention was made of international reports (e.g. by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch) that support the accusations. The makers don't understand that a documentary either has to seem neutral or present undeniable proof to be convincing. This movie took the form of a documentary but did just the opposite.

Fatima Gate

Fatima Gate is a (closed) border crossing between Lebanon and Israel. There is no minefield here, no no-man's land to separate the two sides; there is just a fence. On the Lebanese side of the fence you are in the middle of an ordinary Lebanese village, while right behind the fence there's an Israeli bunker and on the hill behind it a typical (but perfectly legal) Israeli settlement. I don't think you can get so visibly close to Israel anywhere else in Arab controlled territory.

Since the Israeli withdrawal, Fatima Gate has been a popular spot for Lebanese and visiting Arabs to celebrate that withdrawal or protest against Israel by shouting slogans and throwing stones at the soldiers in the bunker just a few meters behind the fence. This in fact became a sort of tourist attraction, to the extent that you got street salesmen selling Hizbollah merchandise to visitors - I'm not kidding. The last four pictures on this page show various celebrities - a professor, a bishop from Jerusalem, an Egyptian actor - throwing stones here.

At times Israeli soldiers in the bunker have fired at the protestors, wounding three Jordanians one time and a five year old boy (who was standing between rock throwers) another time. While these incidents occured frequently in the first months after the withdrawal, nowadays they only happen on special days - the last time a month ago on the 4th birthday of the withdrawal. When I was there it was totally quiet, and if there were any soldiers in the bunker they weren't showing their faces.
The first picture above shows what Fatima Gate is like. On the left the two obelisk-shaped border stones carry round metal plates with portraits of Ariel Sharon and another Israeli minister. These are targets to thrown stones at and have been well used apparently because you can hardly make out the faces anymore. Right behind the obelisks is the border fence and right behind that the Israeli bunker. Why it has to be so close to the fence I don't know; they make it very easy for stone throwers this way.

To the right of the bunker you see the hill with the Israeli settlement. This is the first one I got to see (I'd see many more in the West Bank) but it's very typical: clean identical houses in a geometric pattern on a hill that overlooks the surrounding landscape.

The second picture shows a billboard that stands just to the left of the obelisks and celebrates a suicide attack in which a lot of Israelis were killed. It describes the attack in Arabic and English and includes a big portrait of the attacker and quotes of Israeli ministers saying what a big blow it was to Israel. I think Hizbollah and other groups systematically idolise their suicide attackers like this to attract new candidates for such attacks: these billboards and posters tell every loser who sees them that he too can become an instant hero. It's a smart but viscious policy. I wonder if the Israeli soldiers in the bunker know what's on that billboard; if I were them I'd take it down.

When I was in Quneitra in the Golan heights I regretted that I hadn't brought my mobile to see if I could connect with an Israeli operator, and dammit I forgot it again this time. Well, I'd be inside Israel one week later, just 50km south of this fence, after traveling through Syria and Jordan which is the only way to get to the other side of it.

Back to Beirut

From Fatima gate we headed back to Beirut, stopping for dinner along the way. When we drove out of the mountains towards the coast we got a spectacular sight on the Mediterranean; I'd never seen a sea from so high and so near (see the Jounieh pictures below for something similar). While driving through the beautiful mountain scenery we had very lively discussions, about Israel of course, what else :) It was both fun and interesting to discuss this so frankly with an intelligent and well-informed local. This was a great day in great company, thank you Riyad!


March 15th (day 20): Byblos

I'd seen all the political hotspots now and would visit some of Lebanon's historic towns the next two days. First up was Byblos which lies some 40km north of Beirut. This town was called Gebal in the bible and is still called Jbail by the locals; Byblos is its Greek name. You know a town is really old when it got its new name from the ancient Greeks...

Byblos was already inhabited in the Neolithic period 7000 years ago, and was the port from which the ancient Egyptians imported cedar wood in the 3rd milennium BC. It got conquered by the Persians, Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Arabs and the Crusaders. The latter built a castle using the stones from the Roman temples.

I took a bus from Beirut which dropped me off on the coastal highway. I had no idea where I was except that it wasn't anywhere near Byblos. A local indicated that I had to walk back and after a half hour walk I reached Byblos - I guess the bus driver had remembered my destination somewhat too late.

All the ruins of ancient Byblos are to be found on one site of about 300 by 300 meter. Here you can find traces of 17 civilisations, including the remains of 5th millennium BC huts, 3rd and 2nd millennium BC temples and rock tombs, various Roman structures, and the crusader castle. Unfortunately, except for the castle and a handful of Roman columns, all that remains of these buildings are foundations which all look pretty much the same. The Mediterranean provides a glorious background to it all though.
The house by the sea was there before this site was excavated, which is why its entrance now sticks out some 5m above the terrain. I'd like to live in that house.

The old streets around the site have been completely restored, including the 12th century crusader church, but it all looks way too artificial and touristy with lots of souvenir shops. Since tourists were painfully absent, it looked more like a prettified ghost town. Byblos as a whole seemed a very attractive place to live though, like most of the Lebanese coast.

From Byblos I took a bus to Jounieh (halfway back along the coast to Beirut) where I wanted to take the cable up to Harissa, but after looking for the ground station of the cable cars for an hour I discovered it was closed on Mondays - just like the Lonely Planet guide mentioned, my bad. But I returned the next evening, see below.


March 16th (day 21): Tripoli and Jounieh

My last full day in Lebanon was a very busy one. First I headed to Tripoli, then I went back to Jounieh and did the cable ride up to Harissa.

Tripoli

Tripoli (Trablous in Arabic) is Lebanon's second city and lies 86km north of Beirut. Whereas most of Lebanon is rather westernised (with supermarkets instead of souqs, for example), Tripoli has kept its middle eastern atmosphere and charm and is very much like cities in other Arab countries.

The Grand Mosque of Tripoli lies in the middle of the souq area but isn't all that grand.

The small Taynal Mosque took a long walk to reach but is much nicer. It dates from 1336.
I consider the first picture of the Taynal Mosque to be the most beautiful of the 3000 pictures I made on this trip. I didn't change any camera settings or edit the picture to get these colours, I just used natural light (the sunlight coming through the yellowish roof windows) and a long shutter time. To hold the camera still and get as much of the small hall on picture as possible, I had to stand on my toes facing the wall with the camera resting on a shelf above my head and pointing to the hall behind me. Since I had to aim blindly it took about 10 tries to get it right.

The St. Gilles Citadel was built in 1103 by the crusader Raymond de St. Gilles (the count of Toulouse) but has been altered many times since. It still dominates the city. I first walked around it before climbing the hill below the walls and going in.

Jounieh

In the afternoon I took a bus south to Jounieh, a modern town some 20km north of Beirut that lies wedged between the Mediterranean and a steep mountain. On top of that mountain wall, 600m above the city, there are two churches and a big statue of Maria which you can see from very far away. It's a most impressive sight.

The only way to get up there is by cable car. The cable ride begins in the middle of Jounieh, and the cabins literally fly in between the city's apartment buildings. The ride takes 9 minutes.

I'd been here the day before (see above) and not having a map I'd had to find my way to the ground station by following the cables hanging between the buildings. This time I knew where to get off the bus and found the station in no time.
Up in Harissa (the area on top of the mountain) I first visited the Basilica of Our Lady of Lebanon. During my whole trip around the Middle East I've been saddened by how all of the many new mosques and churches being built in the region are just poor replicas of older churches/mosques. With all this money apparently available to raise new temples, what a wasted opportunity to create some interesting architecture this is! You know a culture is long past its prime when it can only imitate itself.

Anyway, you can see where I'm going with this rant: this basilica is the only modern church or mosque I got to see on my trip, and what a breath of fresh air it was! The materials used aren't too fancy, but the design is superb. Unfortunately I couldn't walk around it and you'd need a wide-angle lense to show its interior properly.
Back outside I climbed the spiraling stairs of the statue's socle. It was rather crammed up there, but the view was spectacular so I held my ground.
The Lebanese are very religious people, christians as much as muslims, and this statue has some legends attached to it (people saw it move etc), so locals come up here to pray to the statue, a somewhat weird sight. I just wanted to watch the sunset, so I faced the sea and reflected on how the bible literally forbids people to worship statues while enjoying the sight.
While I was up there, a muslim in a suit climbed up and had a companion with a camera film him while he loudly improvised a clumsy speech about how muslims and christians worship the same god and are brothers (no mention of jews though). When he was done he came up to me and asked if I'm a muslim or a christian. He obviously had a routine speech prepared for both answers, so I rather enjoyed telling him I am neither and have no religion. He turned away so I guess I'm not his brother :)


March 17th (day 22): Beirut to Damascus

Meeting a President

On my last morning in Beirut I made another walk to the city center, to make a picture of the Place Étoile in the sunlight (I'd always been there in the evenings). I found a lot of activity there: soldiers, a military band, journalists and a small crowd. Among the journalists I spotted the Italian photographer I knew from my hotel and he told me the president of Hungary (Ferenc Madl) was to arrive for a state visit in 5 minutes and would receive a ceremonial welcome here.

That I wanted to see, so I got out my camera and waited with the journalists until the president arrived in a limo. He walked right by me; it amazed me how lax security was. There was some music and some ceremony and then he was led into the parliament building.

The Dukes of Damascus

In Beirut I once had dinner with a freelance journalist from Australia, a guy who'd been living in Lebanon for months and had a lot of interesting stories (see below). From him I also heard that all taxis that drive between Damascus and Beirut are Dodge Coronets. That name didn't mean much to me until he told me it's the car from the Dukes of Hazard. OMG, that was the coolest car ever!

One evening while returning from a day trip I looked around the bus station and sure enough, I found a number of Dodge Coronets lined up, waiting to take passengers to Damascus. Syria used to be a heaven for old American cars until new safety regulations put an end to that a few years ago, but somehow the Dodges survived. Like all Syrian taxis they are painted yellow, which looks pretty good on them in my opinion. I took some pictures, which amused and pleased the taxi drivers a lot.
So this day when I was making the return trip to Damascus, I wanted to make it in a Dodge Coronet :) I was traveling with a German girl I got to know in the hotel. At the bus station we got assaulted by the taxi drivers and negotiated a good deal with one, but then it turned out he wanted to find two more passengers before leaving. Of course, since all the drivers fight with each other over each passenger, none of them ever get a full car - they're not very smart. After waiting by the car for half an hour, we just took a bus.

Later in Damascus I found the parking lot of the Damascus-Beirut taxis: a hundred Dodge Coronets parked together! I reckon these would be quite valuable in the USA. Since we've already had movie remakes of old TV series like Charlie's Angels, the Hulk, the Avengers etc, I'm sure some Hollywood producer is thinking about a Dukes of Hazard movie. Someone should tell them about this treasure!
If you're reading this report chronologically, you'll want to go back to where I left off in part 3 about Southern Syria.


Epilogue: About Lebanon

Lebanon is the first country I finished visiting (since I returned to Syria and later to Turkey), so I'll finish this part of the report with some general impressions and some things that didn't fit in elsewhere.

Economy and Politics

I don't know if it's because of its Phoenician roots, its large Christian population (30%), its mediterranean location, the effect of democracy or something else, but Lebanon is very different from the other Arab countries I visited (Syria, Jordan, Palestine, Egypt). The biggest difference is the economy. Whereas in these other countries everything seems sluggish and half the population seems to be making a living by selling things on the streets (a sure sign of a massive shortage of real economic activity), Lebanon is dynamic and its population well educated. It has supermarkets instead of endless souqs, clean snack bars instead of unhygienic food stalls, a lot of modern cars and minibusses instead of charming scrap-iron on wheels, and so on.

Although the Lebanese always complain about the bad economy and the lack of opportunities, they seem to be doing pretty well, and the complaints probably indicate a desire to keep improving. If there is no new confrontation with Israel and if another civil war doesn't flare up, Lebanon has everything to become the prosperous and democratic middle eastern model state that is so desired by the rest of the world.

Since I visited so many trouble spots, the above report may seem to indicate the opposite trend, but keep in mind that these spots all relate to the past. Hizbollah is now so impotent that I don't see them causing another major conflict with Israel, and as for the internal conflict: I've only seen friendly relations between muslims and christians. This surprised me a lot and seems incredible considering the visciousness of the civil war, but most Lebanese seem to blame that war on their leaders rather than on each other.

Palestinian refugees

Lebanon's biggest problem is the massive presence of Palestinian refugees: 400 000 of them, or 10% of the population in a country that is already densely inhabited. Israel would want these refugees to settle down in Lebanon permanently, but the Lebanese are strongly opposed to this. Still, there is a strong sense of solidarity. The Lebanese want these Palestinians to go back, but they don't blame them for being there; they blame Israel.

The Australian journalist I mentioned before had some amusing stories to tell. When he visited a Palestinian refugee camp in southern Lebanon and was asked by the inhabitants where he was from, he caused extreme agitation with his answer. Women started crying, men started shouting, and he thought he was in trouble, until he understood the reason: "Australia" sounds similar to "Israel" and they'd misunderstood him. Later in the West Bank I heard about another Australian who'd had the exact same misunderstanding! So Ozzies, watch your pronunciation.

How about this: the people in these camps don't want to speak Israel's name, so they call it... Disneyland. Humour thrives in the most unexpected places.

Cars

The Lebanese have an obsession with Mercedes; you'd think Mercedes is a Lebanese brand because there are as many on the streets as there are Volvos in Sweden. Many are new but most are old. The principle seems to be: rather a 20 year old Mercedes than a newer car from another brand.

Many cars are imported from Europe, especially Germany and Switzerland. These second hand cars are considered to be more valuable than second hand cars from Lebanon because Europe has better roads and calmer drivers, so the Lebanese leave the country sign and sometimes even the original license plate on the car to show that it's imported. Some of them are obviously cheating though: I once saw a D with a Belgian instead of a German flag next to it, and another time a D that was pasted upside down.

Lebanese girls

The nicest thing about Lebanon are the girls, and this can't go unmentioned in this report :) I'd been told about this beforehand, and Lebanon certainly lived up to its reputation: this country is just full of gorgeous girls. They are pretty, very very stylish, always nicely dressed and tastefully made up. On top of that they're generally highly educated, fluent in several languages (Arabic, English and French), friendly and very flirty. Don't think for a second you can easily go beyond flirting though.

Actually, in all Arabic countries I've visited upper class girls are just like this; in Lebanon there are just a whole lot more of them. Especially in Beirut you can just sit down and watch them parade by. No country I've ever been to can compare to this.

Mountains

I didn't really do Lebanon justice since I didn't go into the mountains, where the scenery is said to be gorgeous, especially in the Kadesha valley in the north. However, it was still very cold and snowy up there in March, and I didn't even bring a coat on this trip, so I decided to skip it. The best time to visit Lebanon is said to be late April, when you can spend the morning skiing in the mountains and the afternoon lying on a hot sunny beach only 20km away.


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Godsmurf Tue 24 Feb 2009 @ 11:55
About equally funny I'd say. And I have no problem with anyone calling my clothes funny. Still, it's hard to beat men who wear women's shoes and put plastic bags over their big black hats when it rains. But there can never be too much funny-ness in the world so bless 'em.

Marvin Tue 17 Feb 2009 @ 15:02
You keep mentioning the "funny" clothes that religious Jews wear throughout your writings of the Israeli portion of your trip. Are they as funny as the strange copies of middle eastern attire that Catholic priests; nuns; and the Pope wear?
You look strange as well wearing funny European clothes.

My suggestion look in a mirror before you comment on others.

Flylice Tue 10 Jul 2007 @ 09:17
Alright, thanks for helping me waste 3 hrs at work...but anyway great travelog! I'm going to Syria & Jordan in august, but only have 3 weeks :(

Silvia Thu 29 Jun 2006 @ 04:13
I just love your website. It's excellent. Didn't read everything, but great pics.

Godsmurf Mon 10 Apr 2006 @ 13:41
I wouldn't recommend it, based on what a German girl who lived in Damascus told me (cfr the last paragraph of part 5), but on the LP forums I often see female solo-travelers who say they had no problems.

Ira Sun 09 Apr 2006 @ 20:58
Nice pics...very interesting.
Is it safe for a single woman to travel to Syria? Do we have to wear head scarf too?

Zoltan Fri 07 Apr 2006 @ 17:15
Hi Godsmurf!

Excellent site;I spent hours to read Your comments and check out the photos.
Good Job!

zeituni Sun 02 Apr 2006 @ 12:29
Hi again!

According to my sister(who until recently lived in East Jerusalem), there are quite a few Christians living in the old quarter and other parts of Jerusalem. However, they might not use the churches most commonly visited by tourists. When I was there there was also a grand celebration taking place at the convent of St Mary Magdalene and the neighbouring Greek Orthodox convent. There were hardly anyone but Palestinians there, admitedly, some of them were from areas like Bethlehem or Beit'Jallah.

I know I'm not bringing firm statistics to back up this, but that was her notion and my impression as well.

Anyway, just a comment!

Still a very great travelogue! And on point on the Israeli border personnel!

Godsmurf Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 22:05
Thank you! If you have any questions feel free to ask, my mail is linked at the bottom of each page.

Vedica Thu 30 Mar 2006 @ 09:17
i love your travelogue!!....it is amazingly interesting!
Am planning a trip to middle east myself (around July - yes i know itll be hot) and your site has been an EXCELLENT guide and resource! thanks for sharing!

cathleen Tue 28 Mar 2006 @ 08:36
great writeing and photos you really have a talent at breaking things down e.i. the formation of the isreali state etc. very objective

Godsmurf Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 23:04
Thanx for the compliments, glad to have readers :)

Well I'm not sure (I said they're *probably* not christians) but firstly I don't think I ever saw a Palestinian in any of Jerusalem's churches, and secondly I sensed humour instead of devotion in the way they were selling christian souvenirs. But I could be wrong of course. Am I?

zeituni Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 08:25
Fantastic travelogue! Are you writing a book?

One question however; why do you assume the Palestinians in the Christian quarter are not actually Christians?

hasof_TT Sat 25 Mar 2006 @ 00:11
Great trip report. Was going to just scan, but got intrigued and am reading it word for word. Thanks for sharing!


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