Sometimes not heeding advice most people deem reasonable could be the most sensible thing you’ll ever do.
If you were to listen to the travel warnings of the powers that be in Australia, you could be forgiven for never venturing off the island. Or, for that matter, out your front door. Out in the big, bad world, threats to personal safety lie at every turn: you should reconsider your need to travel to Lebanon, for example, “because of the unpredictable security and political situation. The situation could deteriorate without warning”. If you were to brave a visit to Lebanon and stuck to the areas considered safe, you would never leave Makdisi Street, the bar strip in Beirut’s Hamra area. Which, to be fair, is easy to occupy no matter what the security situation.
But this is no way to learn about a country as fascinating, beautiful, historic and modern as Lebanon. Yes, there are some security … concerns … to consider in this tiny sliver of land on the Mediterranean Sea – this cannot be denied. But if I had stuck to the green zones I would never have seen anything more than the inside of Captain’s Cabin, my favourite Hamra watering hole, and the outside of Barbar, my favourite manouche stand. I would never have seen what lies outside the cosmopolitan capital of Beirut. I would never have fallen in love with this unique little corner of the world. And, most importantly, I would not have a collection of pictures of me with a variety of tanks.
Recently, a friend in the UK thought I might be interested in Britain’s travel advice for Lebanon.
“Funny,” I replied, “I’ve been to just about everywhere on the red list and all of the orange list in the past ten days.”
The red list (‘advise against all travel’) included: Tripoli (where I was reading the list); anywhere within five kilometres of the Syrian border (a day earlier, near the border, I saw the misery of the masses of refugees and itinerant workers who lived there); the Hermel area, including Baalbek (home to some of world’s most stunning, World Heritage-listed Roman ruins); and the Beqaa Valley (where Baalbek is situated). On the orange list, where ‘all but essential travel should be avoided’, was the area south of the Litani River, which Israel designated as the ‘red line’ between its soldiers and Arab forces in 1976, and below which is the city of Sour, where I was based; and Saida, which you travel through on the way from Sour to Beirut.
This is not to trivialise the real threats the Lebanese often have to deal with. On my first visit last year, I vaguely wondered if anything would happen while I was there, without ever really believing it would. I didn’t want to stereotype the place. However. The following occurred on December 27, 2013.
9:40am. I am in my apartment in Sanayeh, Beirut, dressing to go to the southern city of Sour with my American friend Belen and our Saudi friend Ali (affectionately nicknamed ‘The Terrorist’). As I jump into my jeans, the poster covering the missing pane of glass in my balcony door is sucked outwards, then blows back in. I look around, confused. Belen comes running down the hall, crouched over, asking if the building is shaking due to a bomb. I assure her nothing of the sort has happened in an attempt to avoid her panicking. She’s not satisfied.
“Ali, was that a bomb?”
“What the fuck, you think just because I’m a fucking Saudi I know whether that was a bomb?”
Minutes later, Belen confirms via Twitter a bomb has in fact exploded about one kilometre away, as the crow flies. When she asked me later what I possibly thought had happened, I said I thought I was just really hungover (the previous evening having been spent at Captain’s).
If you were to brave a visit to Lebanon and stuck to the areas considered safe, you would never leave Makdisi Street, the bar strip in Beirut’s Hamra area. Which, to be fair, is easy to occupy no matter what the security situation.
Politician Mohammad Chatah was assassinated in the carbomb blast; and seven others, including a teenage boy who had taken a selfie in front of the car moments earlier, were killed. Unable to contain our journalistic curiosity, Belen and I eschewed the advice of various friends who warned us against going to the bombsite. On the short walk there, and throughout that day, when we asked people what they thought about the bombing there was an almost universal reaction: they would shrug their shoulders, raise their hands and say, “This is Lebanon”. Carry on.
A couple of days later Belen and I joined a friend of a friend – who we will call the ‘Madman’ – as he drove to Tripoli, a section of which was at that time engaged in a mini civil war. The neighbourhoods of Bab al-Tabbaneh and Jabal Mohsen had for months been firing mortars at each other across Syria Street, while people were also being targeted by snipers from both sides. Naturally, we wanted to go there. And naturally, because the Madman was captaining the ship, we drove the wrong way up Syria Street in a car with a large rental sticker on the windscreen. Way to remain inconspicuous.
Our motivation for wanting to put ourselves in such a situation was widely questioned. For me, I wanted to understand – albeit for a mere minute – what it would be like to live under such conditions. And I was surprised at my reaction. I thought I would be totally calm: an outsider observing the situation, apart from it.
I found myself edging into the middle of the backseat in case of potential sniper fire, while watching people go about their business on Sniper Street. (I had rationalised earlier that, if there were any snipers out that night, there would be no-one on the street, and we would not go.)
After scaring the shit out of ourselves with a trip down Sniper Street, Belen and I rendezvoused with the Madman six months later to take on the south. When the Madman arrived he suggested the beach. I was disappointed. The beach? How pedestrian. Where had his sense of adventure gone? It appeared to have only momentarily been waylaid, because minutes later we were on our way to attempt entry into the UN compound at Naqoura, and on to the border with occupied Palestine (aka. Israel) – or, as the street sign we posed under as a disgruntled Austrian soldier took our picture called it, “Palastain”. Much better. And the beauty of Lebanon is you can take a summer drive through delightful mountain villages, hit up a bar at the beach, and see how close you can get to the Israel border before drawing the attention of the soldiers, all in the same day.
Subsequent trips with the Madman outside the green zone included an eerie night visit to the famed Forest of the Cedars of God (Lebanese cedars are mentioned a bunch of times in the Bible, don’tchaknow?), a day trip through the Beqaa Valley, and a drive along the Syrian border north of Tripoli.
I would also return to Bab al-Tabbaneh with the Madman after a truce had been reached between the warring neighbours. Sniper Street was buzzing with market stalls. I could not have appreciated the difference had I not gone during the conflict.
If I had followed the Government’s advice, I would never have gone to Tripoli that day in December last year; nor would I have got to know Lebanon as well as I have. I would never have repeatedly returned to the home of what has become my northern Lebanese family: where I am fed treats from the oldest and most famous Middle Eastern sweets company, offered an array of fabulous nighties by my 83-year-old adopted Lebanese grandmother, and regaled with tales of Lebanon’s rich history. And I would be the poorer for it.