The Study Begins - A Journey and Meetings
After our day of becoming acclimated to the city, the core of the program began in earnest. We saw more of the country itself, and then began a system of meetings with important figures from many aspects of Lebanese society.
My journey into the heart of Lebanon began with tour of the northern area, crossing the mountains into the Bek’a Valley before returning to Beirut. The journey from Beirut began by winding up the coast toward Tripoli. The coast is well developed, with the outlines of buildings standing against the blue of the Mediterranean Sea. There was some tension as we began passing a few checkpoints, but these are a normal occurrence that I soon became accustomed to. Soon, our bus veered eastward to enter the sparse, rugged landscape of the Lebanon mountain range.
The landscape began changing dramatically as the elevation increased, giving way to steep mountainsides which the bus winded perilously around and providing a stunning view of deep, lightly forested canyons. Once these mountains had been dominated by forests of cedar, but now they are mostly stripped with forests of smaller trees clinging to their sides. Numerous towns and villages followed the road into the mountains, the heart of Maronite country and featuring prominent churches and buildings untouc largely untouched by the war. The towns seemed to cling to the sides of the mountains, often with patios overlooking the steep valleys. This landscape remained largely unchanged as we reached Bcharreh, the resting place of the famous Lebanese writer and artist Khalil Gibran.
Gibran’s tomb is tucked quietly into a mountainside overlooking the valley above which Bcharreh rests. It was once a home, and is filled with paintings from throughout the artist’s life. The artist himself is laid to rest there, and I visited his coffin where it lay tucked into the side of the mountain, and beside which he left a message in Arabic, French, and English for future passerby. It was a reflective and somber experience.
Next we headed further into the mountains, and the elevation increased sharply. The sparse trees nearly disappeared completely, not at all suggesting our next point of destination: the Cedar Forest. The forest is the last of its kind in Lebanon, the centuries-old trees untouched by a 6000-year-old demand for their wood. A winding path led me through the massive and twisted trunks, and the atmosphere was very serene and peaceful.
Finally we reached the crest of the mountains, where hard-packed snow still sat on either side of the road, and descended into the Bek’a Valley. The valley forms the eastern part of Lebanon, extending to the Anti-Lebanon mountains that form the natural border with Syria. It is still considered the agricultural heart of the country, but our purpose was to visit the city of Baalbek, and the largest and most complete Roman ruins in the world. Space requires that I make my description of the ruins brief, but the center of the complex is dominated by the colossal Temple of Jupiter, whose columns, sacrificial alter, and inner sanctum stand to this day, albeit in roofless and weathered condition. Nearby is the more intact Temple of Bacchus, and the connecting wall built by the Muslims to turn the complex into a fortress. I was incredibly animated and excited throughout our tour of the ruins, and it was by far the highlight of the day. We returned to Beirut by way of Zahle in the south of the valley.
The next day began the many meetings that from a core part of the trip. We first met with three independent Lebanese journalists: Michael Young, Hanin Ghaddar, and Lokman Slim, who shared their insights into the complex Lebanese political system, the problem of the effects of voluntary amnesia about the Civil War on the youth, and the nature of the free press in a country that is so politically charged. We also met with the head of the Lebanese Business Association, from whom we learned that in the face of an almost completely inactive government the Lebanese have turned increasingly to the private sector and NGOs to get the actual work of the country done.
Everyone that we have met in Lebanon has had similar stories to tell. Although Lebanon has been a Republic for nearly 100 years, its confessional system, by which Parliament and key positions are determined by religious affiliation, have gridlocked the government. This fact, frequent invasions, and the question of the Palestinian refugees have left the infrastructure lacking to the point that blackouts are commonplace even in Beirut. In response, the business sector is stepping in to fill the gap, as are a plethora of NGOs. In addition, small movements like the Renewal Democratic Movement are attempting to end the current legislative system and institute a more open, merit-based election system.
Overall, the visit so far has been an intense and in-depth look at Lebanon as a whole. Our days are marked by a rigid schedule that, sometimes unfortunately, must be kept closely if everything is to get done in time. But the experience is incredible and we have enjoyed nothing but the best hospitality both from our hosts at the LRF and by the Lebanese who we have met both formally and on the street.
The halfway point has been reached, but it doesn’t quite feel like it. More official meetings and a journey to the south still lie ahead.
Until then, I am adhering to the phrase of the day: “Yalla,” meaning “Let’s keep moving!”
— Robbie Nixon, a junior history major