The following are typed journal entries written by my father, from his trip to Beirut in 2005. It seems incomplete as it stops at the Gala. As you can tell from the beginning, my dad was a great writer, and it really comes through in this piece. I will upload pictures from his trip to Lebanon at a later point.
Saturday, June 11
This is the start of the return. Our Air France jet gliding down through the air, over the Mediterranean, headed toward Beirut International Airport. I look out the window and see the familiar folds of the Lebanon Mountains, brown and ancient, rising along the sea coast in steep, uneven slopes. The air is hazy, not bright and clear, but it’s a summer day in Lebanon like any other. I see the foothills of the mountains north of Beirut are laced with apartment buildings and houses, spread out for miles, and I immediately realize that the country has filled up with people in 30 years. The open spaces and lightly populated areas that used to count as separate villages outside the city are now suburbs. My glances quickly seek out the mountain heights. There’s snow nestling in the top folds of the earth, parallel slashes of white that seem to tease the senses in defiance of the June day. Then, as the plane skirts low over Beirut, I see the city, a sprawling collection of white and beige apartment buildings that seem to extend in all directions away from the shore line. The plane lands and taxis to the terminal. After three decades, I’m back in Beirut, with Joanne, who is seeing Lebanon for the first time.
The terminal, in size and design, looks familiar from the outside. But as soon as we enter it, making our way to customs and passport control, I can see that everything has been rebuilt and modernized. The scruffy, dirt-encrusted terminal that I left in 1975 shortly after the civil war began is gone. I remember sitting on a bench amid throngs of Lebanese jostling nervously to leave the country. Now, the terminal walls are white and freshly painted. There are large, well-lit hallways, and the passengers are filing quietly toward a hallway where Lebanese security men sit at desks behind glass windows. Overhead signs direct travelers to sort themselves out, Lebanese and foreign. Before we get in line, we stop at a counter with a sign saying, Bank of Byblos, to buy our visas. I find it curious that a commercial bank is the agent to sell visas, with a fee, for a government document. Then I quickly realize that this is Lebanon, where the business and the public sectors often mix. I look at a neatly typed printout of the purchase giving the exchange rate and the fee, and I wonder who is in on this deal. As we get in line, one of the lines for incoming Lebanese is closed, and a security officer directs a family to get in line ahead of us. Then, that line is closed, and we’re directed to another line for foreigners, losing our place in the process. Well, I tell myself again, this is Lebanon. I’m not going to let these things bother me, because I can’t do anything about them, and I’m here to enjoy myself. I’m a tourist, and a guest. I haven’t lived here for a long time.
We pass through passport control, after the obligatory metal snap that places a stamp in our passports, and we enter the arrival hall. It’s filled with Lebanese, all dressed casually. In some ways, it looks like an arrival scene at Miami International Airport. Jeans and short-sleeve shirts and cotton knits. As we wade into the crowd, I see a handful of tax drivers holding out signs with names. I hope there’s a sign with our name on it, and there is. Philip arrived here ahead of us on business and is staying in the same hotel, the Mayflower, in West Beirut. He’s sent Hassan to pick us up, and I immediately feel relieved that Joanne and I don’t have to hunt for a taxi and negotiate a fare. Hassan, wearing jeans and looking a little disheveled, takes some of our baggage and leads us to the parking lot. He’s driving an old Mercedes, apparently still the prized Lebanese taxi model, and we quickly load our luggage and head for the exit. Hassan pays a parking fee (another innovation – there was no paid parking in the old days), and mutters, “thieves” as we head onto the exit ramp. I make a mental note to include the parking in the fare.
The taxi heads north through a warren of apartment buildings toward the center of town. The old highway that went through the pine forest and bypassed the racetrack and the stadium is gone. So is the pine forest, which used to serve as scattered shanty town, and a large, new stadium is under construction in place of the old one. Some of the buildings look run-down and still have holes in their concrete walls from the bullets and shells of the civil war. I realize that buildings that were new and modern when they were built in the 1960s, when our family was living here, are now 40 years old or more. Then, too, I remind myself that the southern outskirts of the city are where many of the poor and dispossessed moved to after South Lebanon started taking a pounding from the Israeli shellings in the early bouts of fighting with the PLO that became a precursor to the war. The road is a new, divided highway, and there are large billboards along the way that were put up during the election. I see posters commemorating Rafik Hariri, the Sunni opposition leader who died in the March car bombing, and I can easily read the names and slogans. The elections in the Beirut and South Lebanon districts are over, and the opposition is trying to build on the groundswell of support in the wake of the Hariri assassination to take control of Parliament from President Lahoud and his pro-Syria coalition. Posters proclaim that Hariri’s son is taking his place. There are two rounds left, this Sunday and next, in the Mount Lebanon and North Lebanon districts.
The new road takes us downtown, which being entirely rebuilt from the rubble of the war. I see a huge new mosque under construction, with a green dome. This is the Iman Mosque, built with Hariri money, and it is the dominant building in the center of the city. It seems to proclaim that Beirut’s quaint Levantine past, the years of life along the Mediterranean as some kind of polyglot, multinational trading post, are changed forever. Lebanon’s Muslim identity, which used to be submerged in the country’s secular, commercial hustle, is asserting itself as a force that all must see and reckon with in the new Lebanon. The taxi turns away from the city center and heads north toward our hotel. When it comes over a crest and goes by the Central Bank (looted of its gold reserves during the civil war), I recognize we are on Hamra Street, West Beirut’s little Champs Elysees before the war. Now, when I see it again, it seems much narrower than I remember, with fewer luxury stores and sidewalk cafes. But it’s my old neighborhood, and I feel like I’m back home.
We check in at the Mayflower and take the elevator to the sixth floor. On the way up, I get a nostalgic twinge as the elevator car slides up. The buttons and the elevator style have a familiar tone, recalling the thousands of elevator trips I made in Beirut buildings before, and there is even a slightly familiar odor. It’s not unpleasant. Just a faint hint of mechanical journeys made in my youth, on the way to see family and friends. We turn a large, old-fashioned key in the door lock and enter our room. It’s actually a two-room suite, on the top floor, with a TV, air conditioning and, best of all, a wrap-around balcony with a table and chairs and a swing set.
Joanne is thirsty, and as soon as we unpack I go downstairs to buy some her some water. It’s my first trip on the streets as a consumer with the new currency. I still am not used to 1,500 Lebanese pounds to the dollar, when the.old fixed exchange rate used to be about three pounds to the dollar. Devaluation is another legacy of the war. I find a small grocery store on the corner and try out my colloquial Arabic with the owner. We exchange a few words as I hand the bottled water over the counter, but he knows I’m a foreigner and quotes the price in English. When I return to the store a few minutes later for a second purchase, the shopkeeper knows me and shifts entirely to English. I’m not surprised to see that the Lebanese merchants have retained their multilingual skills.
It’s late in the afternoon, and Philip meets us to give us a tour of the city. We start walking around Ras Beirut, the old family neighborhood, and I immediately find that I have difficulties orienting myself. I remember the directions that I want to walk in, but I have to pause to get my bearings. All the streets seem narrower than I recall, and I don’t recognize the intersections the way I used to. We walk down to Bliss Street, and then turn into the AUB gate. Here the memories are vivid, and things look the same. You’re supposed to have an I.D. to enter the campus, but Philip finesses us in with some colloquial and a promise to the guard that we will only be looking around for a few minutes. We immediately see a new academic building that was rebuilt after the bombing that took the life of the university president, Malcomb Kerr, who was killed in a bombing during the war. The campus itself is lush and beautiful, the way I remember it, and still commands a view through the trees of the Mediterranean and Mount Sanine. I think back to the many times I used to walk through the campus on the way to ACS. Philip guides us to the black iron gate that shuts off access to the stairs that we used to go up and down every day on the way to and from school. I remember climbing those stairs for the last time in June, 1965, after graduation and, by coincidence, encountering the headmaster, Dwight Knox. We talked briefly and then went our separate ways, never to see each other again. That’s the way it was with most people you knew in Beirut. The city was always a transitional passage in life, an inflection point, a personal place to take stock, soon transformed into a place of fond memories and broken connections. Now, I was coming back to see my old school and reconnect with others from the school after a lifetime, and to share the experience of the country with Joanne, Philip, Maha and Karim.
Philip leads us back to Bliss Street, to the Qahwah Restaurant. It’s basically an AUB student hangout. The place had a very relaxed atmosphere, with lots of honey-blond wood, comfortable tables and chairs, and only a few customers. Some people were smoking narguilehs, another change. Before, the young people never smoked narguilehs in public – only the old men in the coffeehouses, and they’re long gone. Now it’s considered fashionable. We have a few Lebanese dishes and then take a taxi downtown.
The city center, on first sight, is hardly recognizable compared to the way I remember it. Here some of the heaviest fighting took place, and the Green Line became a jagged canyon of streets separating combatants in East and West Beirut. You crossed only if you wanted to gamble with your life. In the end, old historic buildings dating from the Ottomans and the French colonial days were knocked into rubble. Apartment buildings were ravaged by machine gun fire, RPGs, rockets and even artillery fire. Now the Old Beirut, with its taxi stands in Martyrs’ Square, movie theaters, shops and coffeehouses, is gone. So is all the rubble. The government-sanctioned coalition, Solidere, is leading the rebuilding effort. Buildings that survived are being restored in traditional Lebanese architectural style, with traces of 18th century Italian influence featuring masonry designs, iron grills, and tall windows with oval tops. People stroll through arcades and closed streets, sitting in restaurants and open-air cafes. Minarets and church spires compete for attention on the skyline, an apt contemporary metaphor that also serves to remind you of the country’s competing religious heritages, and a faint marker of old conflicts.
We got out of the taxi by the Iman Mosque, near what used to be called al-Khandaq al-Ghamiq, which means Deep Trench. It’s the neighborhood that used to house the Daily Star, the newspaper where I worked for a year in 1974 and 1975, until the war started. Except for one large traditional Lebanese house which has been preserved and restored, the whole quarter is gone. There’s a parking lot where my office building used to sit. All the shops, including the sweet shops that were famous for their large, round metal trays of baklawah, are gone. About the only other thing I recognized was a statue of Rashid Solh, Lebanon’s first prime minister. We walked into Martyrs Square, which is now a large vacant area and parking space. The original statue of the martyrs, who died organizing resistance to the Ottomans in the 19th century, is all that’s left. You can stand on the east side of the plaza and look straight down to the port, and across the bay to the mountains. Nothing blocks your view. The burj, as it was once called, with its famous red light district, is gone. The Rivoli movie theater, that was once Beirut’s biggest and oldest movie theater and sat at the west end of the square, is gone. In fact, I later learned, most of the theaters in Beirut are now shuttered and out of business, replaced by internet cafes, cable TV and home computers.
Around the corner from the Iman Mosque, across from Martyrs Square, we find the shrine for Rafik Hariri. There’s a huge picture of him inside a pavilion, plus pictures of Lebanese companions who died with him. Floral displays and recorded verses from the Quran broadcast over a sound system. Mourning inscriptions in his memory appear in Arabic on banners. A collection of mourners are keeping watch over the site, while others wander in and out.
Philip takes us to the Virgin Records building, situated on the southwest corner of the plaza. Instead of taking the elevator, we walk up from one flight to the next. This is Beirut’s outpost to the New Lebanon. The first floor is loaded with books, CDs, computers and other electronic gear. In appearance, the displays look like those in any mall in the U.S., with all kinds of contemporary artists. The only difference is that if you look, you’ll find shelves with Arabic pop artists and music in addition to all the Western CDs. You can pick out any CD and listen to segments to decide if you want to buy it. We wander on the floor for a while and then walk to the next floor, which is loaded with computers and electronics. We continue up to the roof, which has a café restaurant. This is what we came for. The sun is setting on the Mediterranean, bringing back memories of sunsets past, and in the fading light we look across the port to the mountains. We order drinks and linger, watching the soft night take command over the city in a cooling breeze. The city lights come on, and if you look across the water, you see the lights twinkling along the foothills along the sea. This is the Lebanon I remember and came to see again.
We take a taxi back to Ras Beirut, heading to the Corniche. We drive past the site of the old American Embassy, bombed during the civil war and relocated now somewhere outside the city, a distant fortress against the jihadists. Now a vacant lot, filled with old debris. I remember going in on occasional visits and seeing the Marine guards in the foyer, with the flags of the 50 states hanging overhead. Philip received his Eagle badge in scouting from the American ambassador. The Corniche, still a splendid walkway along the sea, with the jagged rocks and surf oozing in and out in hissing sprays, is filled with walkers. These are the West Beirutis, more Moslem than Christian, working middle class people relaxing and taking relief after a day in the heat. The cart vendors selling chestnuts, corn and ice cream hold their places and sell to small knots of people.
We walk over to Ain Mreisseh, which is where our family had our second apartment before leaving in June, 1967, after the Arab-Israeli war. In the dark, we can’t see the old building. It’s eclipsed by a huge new building with luxury apartments. The old Lebanese-style two-story homes along the shore line are gone. In fact, the whole Ain Mreisseh inlet has been filled in to extend the Corniche toward the city center. You used to see small fishing boats pulled into the cove, but no longer. The builders left a tunnel under the highway for the fishermen, but there isn’t much fishing left here. We head back up the hill toward the Mayflower, stopping at an internet café to send an email to our kids at home and tell them we’re here and safe, enjoying the beginning of our stay. Instant communication home. No postcards, and no letters or phone calls. In the internet café, we talk briefly with Khalid, who runs a franchising business. He says he wants to extend some big Lebanese brands to the Gulf as franchises. He shows me a business card that says he has a Ph.D. in public administration. We end the day on the balcony of our hotel suite, across from the Napoleon Hotel, which has a neon sign almost as high our building. The city is quiet, with only an occasional car passing below, and we can tell that there are lots of vacancies in the hotels and apartments in the neighborhood because the rooms are dark. I’m restless and sleep lightly. In the early morning hours, I wake up and walk out on the balcony to listen to the call of the minaret. The words are very slow and drawn out. A blue neon hotel sign for the Sheikh Hotel nearby burns brightly.
Sunday, June 12
Our first breakfast in Lebanon, in the Mayflower. You have to be selective, because there’s a table, covered in white linen, that is loaded with food. Green olives, lebneh, fresh cut grapefruit, American-style breakfast cereal, olive oil (for the lebneh), omelettes with tomato, fava beans with side dishes of chopped tomato and parsley, Arabic bread, French bread, apricot marmalade, English-style toast with cheese, manaish (a doughy bread with spice). You tell the waiter whether you want coffee or tea, which comes in steaming pots. The lebneh is the best and freshest I’ve ever tasted. It’s creamy and soft, and I have to restrain myself by making sure I put other things on my plate.
Since it’s Sunday, Joanne and I decide we want to go to the Maronite church that we saw downtown. There’s a mass at 11:00 a.m. We take a taxi to the city center, and since we have some time, we climb up the hill to visit the Presbyterian Church that I used to attend when I lived here with my family from 1962 to 1965. Apparently much of the church was damaged during the war, because now most of the structure has been restored. We walk through the gate, and the building looks similar to what I remember, but I can tell that the only original part of the exterior that remains is the left-hand entrance and tower. I recall that I used to meet the other young guys in my youth group at the church, and we’d always congregate in the rear of the sanctuary after the service. There’s a plaque outside the church, and Joanne takes my picture next to it.
We walk down to the Maronite church, which is now next to, but overshadowed by, the Iman Mosque. Before the mass begins, a group of priests stand off to the side and help each put on their ceremonial garments. The mass is sparsely attended, but there’s a mix of young people and older people. The entire mass is accompanied by a beautiful choir, and the liturgy is similar to that of any Catholic church, so we are able to recognize the various elements despite the Arabic. By chance, the homily is delivered by the Maronite archbishop. I don’t understand most of what he says, but at one point he starts talking about the sectarian differences within the country and the need to get along. “Competition is good, and it’s a natural part of life,” he seems to say, “but we have to recognize that we all share the same God, and we must be obedient to the same values of respect and generosity and kindness to others whatever course we’re on.”
When the mass is over, we ask for permission to take pictures inside the church, and we have a chance to talk briefly with the archbishop. He tells us that during the war, the church was so badly damaged that trees were growing up through the floor. Now it’s all restored, with gold painting on the walls, mosaics, and icons depicting Mary and the saints. In the center, behind the altar, is a picture of St. George slaying the dragon Beirut. This is the Cathedral of St. George. Joanne is very moved when the archbishop agrees to bless the gold Lady of Lebanon medallion on her necklace. When we finish taking pictures, we step outside and see the archbishop leave in a black limousine.
We stroll around the downtown area to take some more pictures. We find a plywood barricade about eight or 10 feet high that served as a place for all the opposition demonstrators to write graffiti when they massed to protest Hariri’s death and get the Syrians out of Lebanon. There are also some counter-slogans scrawled on the boards by the pro-government demonstrators. I find a sprawling demand in black spray paint: “No American intervention.” For fun, I ask Joanne to stand next to it while I take her picture. When you turn the corner and walk down to Martyrs Square, the site itself still has the makeshift remains of the demonstrators who camped there from one day to the next to keep proclaiming their message. Several Lebanese flags are stuck in the ground, tilting at odd angles, the red and white bars beaming brightly against the blue-gray mountains. Since this is Sunday, the third round of elections is underway, this one in Mount Lebanon. It’s a mixed Christian-Druze area, and we’ll know the results tomorrow.
We take a taxi back up to Ras Beirut and have lunch on Bliss Street. Then we meet Philip at the hotel. From there, we walk through the AUB campus, where we meet up with two Lebanese students who are speaking English easily to one another. The western edge of the campus next to the Corniche is under construction, closing the gatehouse that used to lead under the roadway to the beach. We take a detour and find our way across the Corniche. When you’re in a group walking along the streets, you have to split up in ones and twos to make it through the traffic. No stop lights. Proceed at your own risk. At the AUB beach, the guard asks for IDs, and Philip tries to finesse his way in, speaking his gentle colloquial. I used to be a student here, he says, which is true. Finally, the guard agrees to let us pay the guest fees and go in.
The AUB beach, of course, isn’t really a beach. It’s a collection of jagged rocks and boulders, fused together. Concrete decks and a pool are built on top, and rails angle toward metal ladders that guide you into the sea. You have to hold on to the rails, because the walkways are treacherous, covered with slippery green fungus. But none of this matters. We’re here for the swells of the Mediterranean, and it’s as glorious as I remember it. Warm, salty, frothy. And as you paddle in the water, you look across the harbor to the mountains. If you lift your gaze, there’s Sanine, shrouded in haze and streaked with gray-white scars of snow. It’s like a silent sentinel, watching over your life in Beirut from day to day. I always felt a sense of security, inspiration, even, when looking at it. This is the Lebanon that’s sold to the tourists. Sun, warmth, water, brassy open sky, mountains. It hasn’t changed. It’s relaxing and pleasant. You watch the sun ease toward the horizon, a blue-purple crown, and you don’t want to leave. But you know tomorrow will be just like this day, and you’ll be back.
We go back to the hotel, and Philip and I take a tour of the old neighborhood. We walk north, toward Clemenceau. Our family’s apartment used to be near the Wardieh church, off a service line that forked at the old Jordanian embassy. It was an old building with turrets and a guard on the street, but it’s been gone for many years. Philip and I walk down the alley that led to the Rizk Haddad building where we had an apartment on the fourth floor. The building is in good condition, painted white, and still has the shutters and balconies on each floor. Philip tells me that the building’s concierge, Salim, a Druze with a black moustache and high cheekbones, is still there, but we don’t see him. Next door, the old Lebanese house that was rented out to the Ngovikys, the Lebanese-Vietnamese family that befriended us, is gone. A new apartment building is its place, squeezed in to access the alley and the street. Philip says the Ngoviky children, now grown, have all married and moved to France. The father, who used to be in the French Army, met the mother when he was stationed in Lebanon. During the civil war, one of the militia gangs ransacked the house and took his medals. The younger daughter, Marie-Louise, moved with her family to Paris and opened a restaurant. She used to speak French with me, and I would help her with her English lessons when she was in grade school.
We’re back at the hotel, and it’s time for drinks on the terrace. Philip has brought a bottle of Kassara blanc-de-blanc. Decent Lebanese wine costs $8 or $9 a bottle, and I’m surprised it doesn’t cost less since it’s made locally. Later, the merchant at the wine store on the corner tells me that the supply can’t keep up with demand. He also complains that the wholesale distributor has a lock on the market.
Since it’s evening, we decide to walk up to Raouche and look for a place to eat. The service takes us by the first apartment building our stayed at in 1962, until we could lease the one in Wardieh. The neighborhood is more crowded now, with more buildings, and I have trouble getting a sense of direction in the gathering darkness. But we find the apartment building, and next to it is a building that was taken over by the Syrian Army during the occupation. It’s abandoned and damaged now, boarded up on the ground floor, and covered with graffiti. An empty reminder of another time, another regime of rulers who have gone back home.
In Raoche, we find Pigeon Rocks, their limestone ridges bathed in artificial light. The moon is almost full, pieces of broken light on the dark waters as we look along the coastline that falls away from the city to the south. You can see the lights of the airport, and beyond that the lights of the apartments and houses clustered densely in the coastal plain and the foothills. I am thrilled to see those lights again, cutting a graceful line across the black of the Mediterranean. They twinkle in the haze, like they always do, and I feel once again I’m standing in my past as well as the present. The sidewalks are packed with people, the West Beirutis, many from the South, who are out enjoying the cool evening air. Snacking and sitting on the concrete benches overlooking the sea. I notice some of the young women are wearing headscarves, and I’m reminded that West Beirut is largely Muslim. A parade of cars, blasting their horns and waving flags of the Hezbollah-Amal coalition, makes its way through the traffic on the boulevard. The lead car bumps a car in front, and an angry young woman jumps out to berate the driver. Screaming, she waves her arms in frustration. A traffic policeman suddenly appears on the scene to calm the situation.
We decide to take a taxi to Ashrafiyeh, to find a restaurant. On the way, the driver complains to Philip and says the commercial system is corrupt. He lost $30,000 in a restaurant business, and he wants to emigrate to Canada. In Ashrafiyeh, after we sit down to eat, we hear gunfire crackling down the street. The Lebanese at the restaurant continue eating and talking, as if everything is completely normal. We learn that there are rumors that Amoun, the Christian general who returned from exile, won big in the elections today. The gunfire is to celebrate his victory.
Monday, June 13
At 9:15 in the morning, we leave the hotel in a taxi, with Amir as our driver. Joanne and I are going to Nahr al-Kalb (Dog River), that I recall as one of the places where I went camping with friends when our family lived in Lebanon. I am eager to make this trip, and consider it a good introduction for our tourist adventures, because the mouth of the river has stone carvings with inscriptions left by Lebanon’s conquerors throughout the centuries.
The car takes us through downtown, and we pass the street where Hariri was killed. The street makes a nearly 90-degree turn as it passes by the St. George Hotel, one of the country’s elite residences for tourists during the glory years before the civil war. Nearby, the Phoenicia Hotel was rebuilt and expanded, proclaiming that the New Lebanon was open to tourism and business once again. Now, the street is like an open wound, a giant gray scar that serves as reminder of the troubled present, the lingering risks and uncertainties of Lebanon’s unsettled politics. The St. George is still gray and charred, with its old blast wounds and open floors. It’s hard to tell the new damage from the old. The story is that the owner, a Christian, was prevented from rebuilding. Hariri’s motorcade was proceeding past the St. George when the blast went off, blowing the facades off both, and ripping through other buildings up and down the street. Dozens of charred and wrecked cars remain along both sides of the street, which remains closed while the investigation goes on. The opposition charges that the security forces are holding back to protect the government and demand an international investigation. It’s a new tourist site, Lebanon’s little World Trade Center, telling a tragic story and raising troubling questions about who was behind the bombing. Then we drive by the port, where all the debris from the buildings damaged during the war, and the reconstruction, was piled up to create a new landfill. The Solidere plan calls for this to be the site of new luxury apartments and office buildings, plus a yacht basin.
Leaving the city, we cross the Beirut River. Amir says that during the civil war, it was nicknamed the River of Death, because that’s where the militias dumped the bodies. Past Antelias, Amir points out the site on a hilltop where the Palestinians used to have a refugee camp. He says it was removed by the Syrian army. Amir goes on tell a little about himself. He worked for Doctors Without Borders during the civil war, which lasted 15 years until 1990. He has four children – two girls at AUB, one at the Lebanese University, and a boy aged 10. He lost a baby boy only 15 days old when a shell struck his house during an exchange between the Syrian and Israeli armies, when the Israelis came to Beirut to chase out the PLO. I ask him, foolishly, whether the baby was killed by Syrian or Israeli fire, but he doesn’t answer, because it doesn’t matter.
When we reach Dog River, Amir pulls the car over and we get out to explore the inscriptions that are carved into the hillside on the eastern side of the roadway, overlooking the dry river bed and the Mediterranean. I am really excited to see these, one by one, because I read about them in detail in my guide book. I want to see the actual words left by the conquering generals. And there they are. The one exception is the two white tablets, the most recent of all the monuments, that proclaim Lebanon’s independence in 1946 in cursive Arabic script. There’s a Latin inscription left by the Romans next to the bridge on the old road to Tripoli. Two inscriptions in Greek. Other stone plaques carry the names of French, British and Australian army units that came through in the last century, wiping away the last traces of the Ottoman empire that gripped the region for 400 years. There’s one from the French General Gouraud dated July 25, 1920. Another left by the French in 1860 when they intervened in fighting between the Maronites and the Druze. I am especially thrilled, after a climb along the face of the hillside, to find faint etchings from the ancient Egyptians and Assyrians. You can barely make out the profiles of the kings depicted, but they’re a testimony to the two big regional powers whose armies marched in and out in the centuries before Christ. Taken together, the stone carvings serve as a silent reminder of the succession of powerful outsiders who came here from Europe and the other parts of the Middle East, left their mark, and retreated.
The taxi takes us on our way, north toward Jounieh. The new coastal highway is a divided roadway, the north- and southbound lanes jammed with traffic that moves along begrudgingly. Both sides of the roadway are filled with apartment buildings and stores, jammed together and blocking any view of the sea. Far more crowded and chaotic that the roadway I remember when I used to leave the city with my friends when we would head out on our camping trips. This is the residential tangle that Joanne and I saw north of Beirut when we were landing, Lebanon’s growth. Election posters with the short slogans and large images of the candidates stand sporadically along the way. The election results in the morning papers proclaimed Aoun a big victory in Mount Lebanon over the opposition coalition. The opposition apparently fears a return of the Christian right. Jumblatt is quoted calling the Aoun victory “an end to the era of Christian moderation.” However, the opposition pledges to redouble its efforts in the critical final week of elections in North Lebanon. It can still win control of the legislature, but it needs to win most of the remaining seats that are up for grabs. Next Sunday we’ll know.
In Jounieh, Amir parks in the lot and guides us to the entrance of the cable car that goes up to Harissah, which has a church and a statue dedicated to Our Lady of Lebanon overlooking Jounieh Bay. The cable car ride up shows a successive collection of views that grow increasingly delightful with the climb. The buildings below grow smaller and then give way altogether to the slabs of red earth and pine trees of the steep mountainside. At the top, we find a small park with benches and, as a reward for our climb, full views of Jounieh Bay, still looking blue and regal in the mid-day haze. This is the Jounieh Bay of poster Lebanon, the classic mountain-sea pairing that the Lebanese love and proclaim proudly to the world as their as own. A sign at the foot of the statue of Mary says, “Our spirit is with you, Lady of Lebanon,” a note to everyone who visits of the melding of the Christian and national identifies. A young Arab from the Gulf strolls through the park in casual sports clothes and sunglasses. His wife walks behind, wearing a long dress and a veil. After climbing to the top of the shrine, we walk along the village road to visit the Church of Saints Peter and Paul. Inside, there’s a beautiful basilica with icons set against gold backgrounds, and gold mosaics and paintings on the walls and the dome. Inscriptions on the icons are in Greek and Arabic. The Greek, for Lebanon’s early Byzantine Christian heritage, and the Arabic for the contemporary liturgy and life of the faithful. But today, no worshippers are present, and we explore the sanctuary by ourselves. Outside, an old man who claims to be the caretaker, says he has watched over the church for more than 50 years. He hands us a fresh-picked orange as a gift for our visit.
On the return trip, Amir says that two years ago tourism was booming in the New Beirut. The restaurants were full downtown and you had to wait half an hour to get a table. Everything changed after the Hariri assassination. The Lebanese stayed home, fearful of going out. The Arab press corps covering the funeral and the political aftermath reported that Beirut was empty, encouraging the Gulf Arabs who were the country’s largest bloc of tourists to stay away. The elections, the demonstrations, the drive to get the Syrians out, a handful of car bombings in East Beirut, all combined to sustain the tension and uncertainty and discourage people from coming to Lebanon and spending their money. The hope is that the elections will go smoothly, the car bombings won’t go on, and the situation will stabilize so that the tourists come back. Right now, though, the taxi drivers are talking mostly to themselves as they hang out in front of the hotels, and fare discounts are easy to get. The restaurants are mostly empty. The country is hurting, and on edge.
Amir drops us off late in the afternoon at ACS, my former high school just off the Corniche. We’re going to register for the reunion celebration. This is, of course, a place of many memories. My friend Sam Tichenor, who played a Fender guitar and led an early Beirut version of a rock ‘n’ roll band. Sam’s father was a combination theologian, historian and linguist who taught me Latin my sophomore year and Middle East history my senior year. Paul Mallory, who was forced to repeat his junior year because he flunked English, and wanted to join the Marines. His father was an oil company executive. Mike Adrounie, whose father taught at AUB and discovered his Armenian heritage in Beirut. I had my first beer with him at a small grocery store with a few tables in front of it, just above Bliss Street. Char Dennett, my prom date, who helped me run the International Relations Club our senior year. Our big project was collecting clothes that we donated to the poor in a village in the Bekaa Valley. Char returned to Beirut to work as a reporter for the Daily Star and was there when I returned in 1975 to work as foreign editor. She’s writing a book now about her dad, who was with the CIA and died in a plane crash in East Africa shortly after she was born. My French teacher, Mr. Robert Shoucair, a Lebanese with a square jaw and slicked-backed hair who used to wear gray wool suits to class and rant on and on about how American students were not trained in English grammar, making it impossible to learn French grammar. I still remember his vehement lectures, gesticulating and passing nervously in the classroom. His tests were unannounced. “Prennez un crayon et du papier,” he would announce.
The school building looks the same, except there is a large banner at the front entrance welcoming back the ACS alumni. Joanne and I go into the courtyard to the registration tables, where I meet Elsa Turmell, who was dean of students at the school for many years, deep into the civil war. Her husband, now deceased, also worked at the school. I haven’t seen Mrs. Turmell, as everyone called her, for 40 years. She remembers me, and I recount the story of going into her office my senior year to report triumphantly after I received my SAT scores. I also meet Miss Onoff, my former American history teacher during my junior year. At the time, she was on her first teaching assignment after college. She and a couple of other American women who were teaching at the school took trips together to Syria, Jordan and Turkey. Later she told me that when they went to Jordan they ran out of money and decided to pool what they had left to buy her a plane ticket in Amman so she could fly back to Beirut and collect more money to get the others back. This was before 1967, when Jordan still controlled the West Bank and East Jerusalem. Joanne and I tour the inside of the high school, visiting my old classrooms and the auditorium, which served as the study hall. On the ground floor, the students have essays displayed, and I read one about Aristotle in Arabic. The school is now made up mostly of affluent kids from West Beirut, and it offers three courses of instruction: a straight American-style degree, the Lebanese baccalaureate, and the international certificate. When I was a student, nearly all the students were American, and there was no baccalaureate or international program. With the civil war, the school had to reinvent itself to survive, and now it’s thriving. But it remains a private school, like so many in Lebanon, and tuition is beyond the reach of most Lebanese families. The school offers some scholarships, and is trying to do more, but the costs keep rising.
We go back to the Mayflower and sit on the veranda, enjoying the evening. Philip brings another bottle of Kasara blanc-de-blanc. He talks about his work with the Americans for Near East Refugee Assistance (ANERA), and how he’s trying to make arrangements to import medicines tax-free. Lebanon has a budget deficit of $40 billion, a legacy of rebuilding, and the government wants to collect an import tax. Philip is meeting with different Lebanese organizations, including a Muslim organization, that have tax-exempt status and may be suitable to accept the medicines for distribution.
We take a taxi to the Faluka Restaurant, below the Corniche and next to Pigeon Rocks. The restaurant is large, with hundreds of seats and dozens of tables covered with white linen tablecloths, all empty. We’re the only customers. Philip orders sultan ibrahim, a small, tasty deep-fried fish that is a favorite of the Lebanese. We go to a tank and pick out the ones we want. We order some arak. The menu lists at least 10 different kinds, varying in price. After we eat, we walk along the concrete deck below the restaurant, an area that is open to sunbathers and swimmers during the day. We see Pigeon Rocks, and, beyond, the lights of several small fishing boats floating on the Mediterranean. Two fishermen have brought in a large eel, and one keeps whacking it about on the concrete to get rid of it. We go back to the restaurant for Arabic coffee, and we sit next to the window gazing out to sea. On the way back to the hotel, we stop at the amusement park on the Corniche, and Joanne and I join a group of young men on a small ferris wheel. From the top, we can see the lights of West Beirut, the sea, and the lights along the coast to the south. When we get back to the hotel, I sit on the veranda and smoke a cigar. Joanne watches cable TV in the room, dropping in and out of an eclectic collection of programs. Bloomberg financial news. Some documentary on Jackson Pollack. Philip has been watching the news from his room and calls to announce that Michael Jackson was found not guilty. We flip to a cable news channel and see the verdict read aloud, with the “not guilty” answer to each charge. The U.S. news, though, seems remote and detached here, almost unreal, and not very relevant.
Tuesday, June 14
This is the day we go with the ACS alumni and friends to Barouk. We meet at ACS at 8:45 a.m., and find a convoy of unmarked buses lined up to take us into the mountains. I arrived with nagging fears of our vulnerability to terrorist attack. A bunch of Americans in a tour bus in Lebanon. But as we mingled with the Lebanese from ACS who were joining us for the trip, I felt reassured.
At 9:15, the bus left and headed downtown, past the St. George and the site of the Hariri assassination, east along the Beirut River, toward Baabda. We’re soon climbing, going past the site of the Presidential palace, and heading toward Aley. As usual, there’s plenty of traffic on the highway, but it thins as we continue to climb through Bhamdoun and the mountain resort towns. Near Sofar, we take a rest stop at a large restaurant and food store, shelves filled with pastries and snack foods. Standing coolers filled with bottled water and other drinks. From this point, the Arab Highway meets the main roadway linking Beirut to Damascus. We’re told that it’s being built by Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to facilitate truck traffic between the Beirut port and points inland across the border. Another novel idea, to break down Lebanon’s historic isolation and link the country more closely with the Arab countries to the east. But the highway isn’t complete, although some sections are open to traffic, so the pan-Arab commercial vision isn’t yet reality. The bus turns off the main highway and heads to the village of al-Muasar, where we start climbing again toward the Barouk Cedar Reserve. We enjoy a delightful walk along a cool path, in the shadows of the cedars, to a promontory overlooking the valley. You can smell the cedar pine nuts. Baby cedar trees have found places to grow among the rocks. We’re told that it takes 40 years for a young tree to start seeding. The older trees, with their gracefully spreading branches and large trunks, are magnificent. The exact age of the oldest trees isn’t certain, but certainly they go back many centuries. In ancient times they covered the mountains of Lebanon, but over time they‘ve been harvested by successive conquering powers. The Egyptians, the Assyrians, the Jews, the Turks all took their cuts, gradually denuding the country’s aging, rounded slopes. The British, among the last of the triumphant occupiers, cut down the cedars to build a railroad along the coast to Egypt and then used the wood to fuel the trains. Now, of course, the cedars are protected, surviving in small pockets around the country, and they’re being replanted.
After leaving the cedars, the group has lunch at the home of a Druze notable in the valley below. Then the bus continues on to Beiteddine and Deir al-Qamar, the mountain homes of Lebanon’s first independent leaders under the weakening hand of the Ottomans in the 17th century. At the palace of Beiteddine, we see a large, beautifully preserved collection of floor tiles from the Byzantine era, that, remarkably, were discovered by Lebanese when they were digging up the foundations of their homes to rebuild during the civil war. At Deir al-Qamar, I walk through the streets and recall the summer of 1972, when I stayed a youth hostel up on the mountain for a month after a trip to Syria.
The bus continues its descent as shadows steal their way across the mountain slopes, and then we’re riding through the Damour River valley, which open into banana groves on the coastline before emptying into the sea. We return to Beirut, and to our hotel. That evening, we enjoy an open-air reception on the roof of the boarding department at ACS. Philip and I meet the sister of Jihad Azkoul, a classmate of ours who was unusual at the time because both his parent were Lebanese, and virtually no Lebanese attended ACS then. Jaz, as we called him, stayed behind to graduate from AUB and then went on to become an internationally recognized guitarist. After the reception, we take a taxi to La Plage Restaurant in Ain-el-Mrieseh. We sit outside, on the deck alongside the water, and smoke a narguileh while we look out at the lights along the coastline to the north.
Wednesday, June 15
The newspapers today say that the opposition coalition led by Hariri and Jumblatt needs 19 of the 28 seats up for grabs in North Lebanon to take control of the government. Aoun got enough seats in the last round so that he is threatening to block the opposition’s drive to build a New Lebanon free of Syrian influence. Aoun doesn’t like the Syrians, either, and as a general he fled the country at the end of the civil war as the Syrians moved in to take control. But he’s getting votes with an appeal for new leadership, free of the old-guard families of the past half century who continue to run the country’s political machinery. He has a special appeal to the hard-right Christians, giving them a loud voice in the mix of Lebanese politics. It will all come down to next Sunday’s election.
This is the day we set aside for shopping in Bourj Hammoud, the Armenian district that we’ve been told is the best place to buy gold jewelry. Philip negotiates a low fare of 5,000 pounts with a taxi driver, who takes us there and then complains because the heavy traffic through town is chewing up his time. We add to the fare as we climb out of the car, and Philip continues on his way to a meeting. After Joanne and I walk along the street with most of the jewelery stores, examining those that interest us, we settle on two. The way to determine the price is to find out what the going price per gram of gold is, including workmanship. When you pick out a piece that interests you, the merchant will weigh it for you and then quickly calculate the price on a handheld calculator, fingertips dancing rapidly over the keyboard. The gold is 18 karat, unlike the 14-karat gold in the U.S., or, if you want it, 21 karat. Most people buy the 18 karat gold, because the 21-karat gold is too soft, and we settle on a beautiful bracelet for Joanne that the merchant says is the Gulf design style. We also like a set of earrings, with fine hand-made filigree, in a style that we’re told comes from the Armenians in Aleppo but is no longer produced. But we decide to think about it some more before we buy. For Justine, we order a gold necklace with her name in Arabic, which I write out and hand to the merchant so he can deliver it to the factory. Puzzle rings, which used to be the rage in Beirut, are no longer in style. We found some in one store, where we were shopping for our son, Philip, but we couldn’t find his size.
Our shopping is interrupted as the shops close for a political protest. It seems that the Turkish prime minister is in town for an Arab economic forum, and the Armenians want to proclaim their cause. The shops empty and people in the neighborhood converge on the square, down the street from the jewelry stores. There’s a speaker’s podium, and large banners in Arabic cry out for justice. The Armenians, of course, will never forgive the Turks, or forget the massacres of 1917 and the forced march, the uprooting from the Anatolian homeland. Hundreds of thousands settled in Lebanon and other parts of the Middle East. I remember when I was living in Beirut and used to meet Armenians in the street, the first thing they would ask was, “What do you think of the Turks?” Watching the people gather for the demonstration, we meet a man who says he owns a collection of four jewelry stores, including one we visited. He has a daughter in Detroit. In another shop, we meet a young woman who says she’s going back to Oakland, California, to join her fiancée and get married, and get U.S. citizenship.
Late that afternoon, we scout through some bookstores in Ras Beirut. On Bliss Street, I find some little readers for grade-school students. They’re paperback, abridged translations of classic Western novels, like Jane Eyre and Huckleberry Finn. I buy several to build up my reading skills. That night, we have our class dinners at two restaurants in Ras Beirut. We sit at a table with Miss Onoff, who spins stories about traveling around the Mideast with other young women in the 1960s when she was a teacher at ACS. We’re joined by Mrs. Freeman, who remembers teaching my sister French at the elementary school. She’s married to a Lebanese and has lived in the country for many years. She’s learned enough Arabic to play bridge with their neighbors.
Thursday, June 16
Today we take our trip to Byblos, one of the country’s ancient Phoenician seaports. But first, the bus takes us to the National Museum, which I had never visited before. It’s a wonderful place. It’s small, for a national museum, but that makes it easy to navigate, and it’s elegant. We spend a lot of time examining the large stone sarcophagi with the Phoenician inscriptions, on the ground floor to the left of the main entrance. I’m thrilled to see these ancient writings, to see some remaining physical testimony to such a distant past. On the top floor, there are fabulous collections of tools, weapons, pottery, vases, jewelry, figurines, glassware and other items that cover a stream of history dating as far back as the fourth millennium BC. The gold-leaf figurines of the Phoenician soldiers are amazing. Many of the pieces show Egyptian and Mesopotamian influence, another reminder of how the country was frequently a pawn of the big regional powers throughout the centuries. I wish we had more time, but we’re behind schedule, and we still have to make the tour of Byblos.
Byblos has undergone a lot of exploration and additional archeological work since I last saw it in the early sixties. But the beauty of the place, with the small port protected by the Crusader castle and the view from the site itself overlooking the sea, hasn’t changed. The large Crusader castle above the port, in the middle of the ruins, is still a dominant feature, and if you look closely at several points you can find old canon balls lodged in the exterior walls. There are also, mysteriously, some Stars of David engraved in some of the large stones that make up the outside walls, possibly going back to the Canaanites. As our tour group proceeds through the ruins, I hear the call to prayer from the minaret of a small mosque nearby. I stop and, looking north toward the town, listen carefully and can understand all the words as they rise and fall in elongated wails calling the faithful to prayer. I used to hear these words many times before, but this is the first time I can actually recognize them. For me, it’s a moment of great inner satisfaction, a reward for the hundreds and thousands of hours spent studying Arabic over so many years.
All together, the Lebanese count some 17 invaders who came through Byblos and left their mark. Even the Phoenicians themselves, our guide tells us, are believed to have come here to settle from the west – although where exactly no one knows. This surprises me, because I always thought of the Phoenicians, who are still credited with inventing the modern alphabet, as the original Lebanese. In fact, it’s more complicated than that, and today’s Lebanese are actually descendants of people living along the seacoast as far back as the stone age. If you walk to the western edge of the excavations, nearest the sea, you can see the ruins of the oldest settlement. It’s doesn’t appear to be much more than some collections of stones, but it’s an elevated spot with a beautiful view of the sea, and the coastline pointing south toward Beirut.
Friday, June 17
The morning papers say the U.S. is issuing warnings about ongoing Syrian interference in Lebanon, despite the withdrawal of the Syrian army. A member of Parliament held a press conference yesterday saying that weapons are being smuggled into North Lebanon from Syria,
information that he attributes to the Interior Ministry. An-Nahar reports that arms are coming in to the country from a Syrian army base across the border and that UN officials have been charged to investigate.
Our ACS group is privileged to participate in a tour of downtown Beirut to get a first-hand view of the reconstruction. The tour begins with a presentation by Solidere executives, including AUB sociologist Samir Khalaf, who proudly explain how the revitalized center of the city has become a focal point drawing people from all over Lebanon. While it’s far from completed, it already serves as a kind of urban theme park that enables people to relax, socialize, and feel connected to their past at the same time. The central vision of the Solidere planners calls for a high-density mix of commercial and residential buildings surrounding Martyr’s Square, which will remain open and preserve a full view to the harbor and the open sea beyond. Building height restrictions will help achieve this and prevent the city from being turned into another Hong Kong. A total of 18 churches and mosques in the area are under protection, including the giant Iman Mosque on the edge of the square. Investors are buying in, encouraged by the departure of the Syrians.
Prof. Khalaf takes us on a walking tour of the downtown area. There’s a nostalgic moment when a small knot of us stand at what used to be the end of the tram line, near what used to be the ABC Department Store. I remember going her once with my family and ordering a chocolate frappe, a mixture of ice cream and syrup, after I came back from my summer trip to France. The tram line, the ABC store, and other buildings we recognized in the past are gone, and we have to look carefully to orient ourselves amid the new construction. Everyone who is older has memories of the trams, and I recall the first weeks and months our family was in Beirut were a time to have adventures on the tram cars, which ran on overhead and electric wires and rattled noisily between downtown and Bliss Street. There were two or three classes of fares that ranged from something like 10 piasters (three and a half cents) to 25 piasters, depending on whether you stood or sat. Philip used to think it was great fun to literally jump off and on the moving trams and try to ride them for free, evading the efforts of the uniformed conductors who tried to jostle through their way regularly through the crowded cars, passing out little paper receipts. By tradition, you could ride for free if you only traveled one stop. We would stay on as long as we could, and then, when the conductors spotted us and approached us to pay, we would say, “Bas wahad,” meaning only one. When we knew the conductors were onto the game, we’d jump off, running rapidly as soon as our feet hit the ground to carry some momentum with us and avoid sprawling head first onto the pavement. From the old tram line, the tour climbs up toward Wadi Jamil, the old Jewish quarter. I recall our family doctor, named Buchbinder, was Jewish and had his offices in the Clemenceau section of Ras Beirut. Now, most of what’s left of this neighborhood is in rubble, apparently slated for future rebuilding. Two noticeable buildings that remain are the Jewish school and the synagogue, but both are shells, still bearing burn marks and holes from the shelling during the civil war. Toward the end of the tour, we see the remains of the hot Roman baths that were discovered below the Serail, or government house, that was built by the Ottomans and sits overhead. The rows of tiles that were used to conduct heat onto the tiled floor appear largely intact. A short walk away, we see the Roman columns at another site that is being restored and will become the Garden of Forgiveness, turning an ancient collection of ruins into a modern appeal for national reconciliation. I wonder if the new memorial will be a permanent success.
That afternoon we take a taxi back to Bourj Hammoud to pick up the gold necklace that we ordered for Justine, and we buy the earrings from Aleppo. For lunch, we are directed to a restaurant where the manager invites us into the kitchen to look at all the dishes in order to make a selection. You just point, and they take it hot off the stove and bring it to your table. When we get back to Ras Beirut, I take the card from my digital camera to a nearby Fuji store, which transfers the images onto a CD for storage so I can continue to take pictures. This is definitely something I could never do 30 years ago in Beirut, or even a few years ago in New York, for that matter. There’s an added convenience at the Mayflower, which has electrical outlets that run on U.S. specifications for power and don’t require a converter. So I can plug the battery of my digital camera in every night to charge it the same way I would at home.
That night, it’s the gala