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).

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