Sunday, December 16, 2007

Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley

After 3 days in Beirut, living amidst the glossy westernization, the soldiers and the hills, Ian and I left our bags at Hostel Talal and took a bus to Baalbek. The journey east took us past the bridge the Israelis bombed last summer, though the damage didn’t seem that severe. Either that or repair work has been rapid. Nobody I talked to in Lebanon, as opposed to in Syria, seemed especially outspoken in their hatred of Israel. Despite that, one could sense a clear anti-Israeli conviction simmering away, not without reason or justification of course. But perhaps the Lebanese, in all their various groupings, are prioritising above Israel the opposition they face in their particular ways from whatever group of Lebanese society they happen to be at odds with. Such an internal divisiveness is absent in Syria. Or rather, in so far as it exists there, it’s resolutely hidden and repressed. Perhaps needs for external enemies, I am wondering, may increase the more you can’t find or identify a scapegoat at home.

Baalbek is in the Bekaa valley, the sort of place you’re not supposed to visit if you’re accustomed to following the travel advice of your embassy. Actually, the website of the British Foreign Office said all inessential travel to Lebanon should not be undertaken. Still, foreign offices are notoriously conservative and risk-averse. I suppose this is a reasonable position if the majority of the people they represent are timid and uncourageous in their travel plans, which seems to be the case with most travellers as far as I can see.

Speaking for myself, I was aware of the risks, but they seemed too minimal to justify my hiding away. The recent attacks and violence in Lebanon were highly targeted, strategically focused affairs; and always inflicted upon other Lebanese people, not foreigners. Similarly, what did the violence recently ended at the Palestinian refugee camp and waged against the Lebanese army, have to do with me? In general, the only viable Islamic threat to my life that I can accept is from Al-Qaeda-style Islamo-nuts who want me dead because of my pearly white skin and Christian, Western predilections. Although I couldn’t be sure, I was confident that just as in Syria this element was in a considerable minority in Lebanon and so posed little more of a threat to me than in the UK. Regarding Baalbek in particular, given that Al-Qaeda style terrorists are predominantly Sunni, I felt the threat would be even lower than elsewhere since the Bekaa is a Shiite area. As such, in so far as it boasts terrorists at all (presumably terrorists are proud of being terrorists?), it is populated by a different breed, Shia Hezbollah terrorists, whose beef seems more exclusively to be with Jews and with Israelis (is there a difference, they may say?), of which I am neither.

On this interesting question of ‘Are Terrorists proud to be terrorists’, I received a fairly unequivocable answer from the chest of a yellow Hezbollah T-Shirt a shop owner pleaded with me to buy. He pleaded because the events subsequent to Hariri’s assassination, as well as last year’s war, have devastated tourism in the area. What it displayed was an arm holding a rifle aloft. Personally I found this image distasteful; and I felt this for reasons that had nothing to do with whether or not Hezbollah’s cause is just. Even if it is, and utterly just, I’d still hate to wear such a T-shirt, nor feel particularly at ease drinking coffee with anyone who was. Ok, for sure, no doubt Hezbollah will claim not to be terrorists but freedom fighters. But what difference does that make? Why valorize violence? Why not look upon it instead, if it is a necessity (I’m not saying it is), as an evil and shameful necessity which one wants to think about as little as possible? Naturally, this observation can apply for all glorifiers of murder and killing at all and any level, Governmental or non-Governmental, ‘legitimate’ or illegitimate.

That said, the people in Baalbek were friendlier than in Beirut. In no sense did I feel in any danger whatsoever. They were also more religious and quieter. The mainstream tourist reason to visit Baalbek is to see the ruins. I have waxed effusive about Ephesus before, and said that it was wonderful. But Baalbek was better. Hanging out there for two hours was a real highlight, not only of Lebanon but of my trip overall. Especially captivating is the Temple of Bacchus, the God of wine who in his better moments knows how to have a good time with the bottle. Inside I found a group of female American travelers of the New Agey, Paganesque, earth-worshipping kind. I sat down in front of the main altar next to one and when I did she took my hand. She looked over and smiled saying “Isn’t the energy amazing, can’t you feel it?” I was torn between being polite enough not to say “ No. of course not, but you are embarrassing me, which is making me quiver with a kind of energy” and actually wondering whether there was indeed an especially lively emanatory ambience circulating within the Temple. I am agnostic and also indifferent towards the question of natural ‘earth’ energies, so have no need to refute these claims. Why shouldn’t the earth be a living organism, and why shouldn’t this energy collect at specific places more than at others.

On this topic I remember my chat with Dunja, my marvellous German friend, one of my former fruitless focuses-of-desire from my Durham student days. She told me that, apparently, Britain has three sites that are particularly bursting with natural pagan light or energy or whatever you want to call it. I am lucky enough to have been to all of them. I can attest that in each I had some particularly acute moments of consciousness, of a nature I’d call transcendent (yes I cannot prove this, blah, blah, blah). These places are Glastonbury, a place now famous for mindless revelry of an entirely conformist, corporate nature, but which is apparently the site of the earliest Christian Church, and a place visited by the young Jesus; Iona, a small island off the coat of West Scotland next to the island of Mull; and Durham, the City of Splendour on the Weir, host of my seven year long studious sojourn.

I should have asked my American hand-holding friend if she had been to these places. By her own account she spends her time rooting out such venues.

By this stage I was getting to know Ian pretty well as he was opening up about the issues in his life. As usual, the fact that he was an effective atheist (or agnostic) didn’t bother me at all. Having spent my life amongst the mystically uninterested I’ve got used to the empirical consensus as it frames the potentiality of discourse. Meanwhile, on the other hand, as is also often the case, as an atheist (or agnostic) he exhibited certain human attributes of kindness, authenticity and honesty that I find all-too-often lacking amongst the community of the faithful. Why this should be the case is a very interesting question; I’m sure 9/10th of it has to do with the fact that religious people are not encouraged enough to have a fearless sense of self. Therefore, they won’t that readily open their minds to certain possibilites. While atheists or the agnostic, without a fearful God over and above them, can perhaps feel lees of a boundary of prohibition encircling the vaults of their consciousnesses, and so can the more easily feel the freedom to let it all hang out. Of course, there will always be exceptions to this, since atheist parents might be as cruelly oppressive as any theist ones, and nothing in religion, in Christianity anyway, necessarily decrees that one must be frightened of God. Well, at least not in my Christianity (what a lovely get out clause that is).

Sunday, December 2, 2007


I spent my 36th birthday in a Beirut bar with Ian. This was a sober change from last year’s drunken experience in Shanti’s marvellously friendly International Bar in Fukuoka, Japan, although it was still appropriately inebriating. It had taken us ages to find a place to drink, weirdly enough, since there are so many bars in Beirut. I fully appreciated the copious quantities of nuts and titbits adorning our table. Ian for his part expertly played the role of egging on the birthday boy to drink an above average quantity, while I was glad not to be alone on this ‘special’ day of the year when we are supposed to feel happy about getting older.

Ian had been travelling with an Aussie guy in Syria for a while and he had seen pretty much the same places as I. We seemed, through whatever process that brings travellers together, to have decided to hang out with each other for a while. Certainly, from my side, finding a travel companion was very welcome. I’d not had one on the trip so far, only having found company in very particular places and for short periods of time: Jody in Athens, Geoff and Barry in Albania, Jana in Skopje, Emily in Gallipoli and then Damascus, Carlos, Justine and Olivia in Hasankeyf, Alfredo in Aleppo, as well as various random local characters encountered along the way. All this talk that I’d heard about people picking up proper companions for the road was beginning to sound like embarrassing baloney. Others can attract hangers on but obviously not I. So perhaps I was subtly sending out messages to the Universe to find me a certain someone, preferably female and gorgeous, or if not then at least intelligent, funny, with whom I could commune. Or more likely, especially if one is not given to the hypothesis of meaning and occult significance delineating the events in one's life, it was sheer accident that the universe dug Ian out from its infinite resources and plonked him beside me at Damascus bus station. It’s not often that with genuine conviction one is pleased with the manifestations the Universe presents one with, but in this case I can say that I was. Well done Universe……keep up the good work, ok?

Ours was not an erotic bond, it need not be stated but just was. Rather, it was essentially cerebral. Ian is very bright and likes thinking deeply. Not a quality one often finds in people – here in this world of vicarious existence, where many are often very happy for powerful, influential people to think and live their lives for them. People such as those who work in the media and the celebrity industry; people such as certain parents, teachers and priests, who dish up for the multitudes minds nailed down into ossified, fossilised forms; minds that render it quite a painful process for independent thoughts to take flight and autonomous delight in; people such as politicians and academics who crucify our expressive mechanisms, our language, with various forms of sclerotic abuse, such as salesman-sloganeering or political correctness; people indeed such as salesmen and advertisers, whose job it is to shamelessly manufacture previously non-existent desires in a career pitting them as far from the example of the Buddha as it is possible to get.

That said of course, Ian is an Academic. Well, nobody’s perfect. And of course one must worship at Mammon’s throne somehow, or so it’s insisted. I’m pretty sure there are many worse ways of living ones soul’s time on the blue planet than being a Sociology lecturer. Actually, Ian is trying to get me into academia. He says, with a great deal of justification it must be said, that I should become an academic or at least do a Phd because I’m so often reading and thinking and wanting to engage in the depths. I tell him I may do this, that I’ll think about it. Am I being sincere? He says I lack confidence, that it's this which stays my enthusiasm. I don’t think he’s right. I think it’s mainly a money thing. Doing a Phd is expensive. I don’t particularly want to be poorer than I have to be. Nor do I especially want to study ‘part time’ and hold down a job, though this makes study more feasible, I realise. Also, if you’re not certain you’re going to become a lecturer afterwards, serious questions have to be raised about the vocational wisdom of doing a Phd, I'd have thought. Then the question of what to do it 'in'. The desperate need for originality in a world already splintered in a mass mosaic of fragmented specializations leaves the soul panting for some kind of remedial holism, does it not? And what of readership? Who will read my Phd except those few other stranded souls, equally lost on a nearby, equally remote, island of whatever specialised research archipelago we'll have chosen to inhabit.

You might well at this point declaim: ‘But nobody reads your blog!’ And you may very well be right (though I know a handful of people who do, though beyond this I don’t know). But the thing about my blog is that I write from my heart and soul in an idiom that makes me feel that when I write I haven’t put my existential reality into cold storage at the bottom of a cellar behind a thick iron door marked ‘Thou Shalt Not Be Thyself’. So, I have an investment in writing my blog that pertains to the genuine meaning of ‘communication’ as a reality of inter-connection between two authentic beings - the reader who reads because he or she wants to, and not because of some secondary, pretended or ulterior purpose, and the writer who is giving of themselves in their act of writing. How much communication goes on, exactly, between the dusty pages of a Phd and the tired, dutiful eyes that read it I'm not entirely sure? You tell me.

Of course I realize what will be thought:...but Jonathan, you are not interesting. Except to yourself and perhaps some close to you such as family and friends, or perhaps a few you might possibly manage to beguile, you are not interesting. Nor do you matter. Like all individuals, wriggling in their subjective psychodramas, it’s all been seen and it’s all been done before. There is nothing about you which in-itself is significantly different from, or therefore remotely interesting to, the world in general. The point and purpose of academia, indeed of all intellectuality, is not to navel gaze in a manner more sophisticated than the one that one might pursue if one lacked rational or expressive tools to be complicated, but to actually address and try to compass objectivity, or, to put it bluntly, to engage with and confront that about the world which is not you….

A crushing retort to my narcissism I know…:)

But the thing is, I have no argument with this - that the focus of intellectuality should be on a content which is not private or merely personal. I have never denied this. Academia’s interest in the depersonalized is not what I object to. It is its manner of being interested that worries me. By approaching objective topics in a style, in a way, that is depersonalized, we humans, we thinkers, have basically abdicated our humanity and devised for ourselves a world to discover that in-itself is alienated from our actual experienced reality and become drenched in the appearances of the strange, the mysterious, the inert and the oftentimes hostile.

That is my charge against the academic method, not at all that it doesn’t give me a platform to rant on, about my personal dramas, dramas which I assure you often bore me as much as they would or already do you.

Anyway, that said, it still could be true that, as Ian said, in the academic milieu, I could meet a lot of like-minded people. It's also true that I have very warm, nostalgic memories of my times at Durham. But then, there are the questions of what subject and under whom I should study. And do I really want to get back into the minefields of academic theology again, after having almost had my brain fried to a cinder during my MA. Maybe I've calmed down since then in crucial ways. Maybe. We will see.