Artwork: Paradise Lost (A Lebanon postcard)
I walked through the door of the airplane and saw the uniformed soldiers guarding the plane looking us over. I blinked my eyes to accustom them to the brightness, then walked down the airplane steps feeling the heat of the pavement rising up in waves to meet me. Security guards stamped our passports and searched our luggage; we exited the door into the throng of people advertising taxis, food or hotels in mixtures of French, Arabic, and heavily accented English. Still blinking in the sun, I felt the strong arm of my brother-in-law (maybe this should say future brother-in-law?) as he took my suitcase and steered us toward a waiting car. "Welcome to Beirut," he said as we pulled into the traffic.
My husband Al's sister, Carol, attended college and later taught school in Beirut in the 70's. While in Beirut, Carol met and married Mac, who was a history teacher at the American University of Beirut (AUB). In the 60's Beirut had been an exotic paradise, a favorite destination of Europe's jet set who came to enjoy the white beaches during the day and the cosmopolitan night life in the evenings. During the mid-70's that all changed. Hostilities between the Christian and Muslim populations escalated, resulting in a violent Lebanese Civil War. Carol and Mac stayed as long as they could, sleeping at night in the basement of their apartment building when the shelling was the worst. But the situation deteriorated and remaining in Beirut became more and more dangerous. In the summer of 1976 Carol and Mac fled Beirut and returned to the United States with their infant daughter,Sian.
In the United States they waited out the war raging in Lebanon. Mac taught history at a small community college. Sian learned to talk and to walk. The situation in Beirut improved, and in 1978 Mac returned to Beirut and to his position at the American University. Carol and Sian followed soon after, and they settled into a new apartment on the campus of the University. Sometimes there was still shooting at night, but the shelling had stopped.
It was to this mostly calm, but still tense, Beirut that Al and I journeyed to in April of 1980. I had just celebrated my 22nd birthday. I had never been away from the west coast of the United States in my entire life, and I was frightened by the sights and sounds of Beirut. On the ride from the airport to Carol and Mac's apartment we passed building after building that had been destroyed by the shelling, including a huge Holiday Inn that was grey and deserted, a grim reminder of the rich playground that Beirut used to be. There were army check-stations every other block, and there were occasional tanks, broken down and surrounded by rubble. There were no traffic regulations, just horns. The loudest horn got the right of way.
It felt good to be reunited with Carol and Mac and Sian, with whom we had grown close during their stay as "refugees" in the United States. We spent a delightful evening watching them open the presents we had brought them from the States, things unavailable in Beirut like a large bag of herbal tea (that had raised a few eyebrows at the airport security desk), a salad spinner, books, pantyhose and bottles of medicine. But we were exhausted from two solid days of traveling and grateful for our bed.
As the sun was coming up the next morning we were awakened by a sudden but short rain squall, followed by the most amazing cacophony of bird song I had ever heard. It was Easter Sunday and the rain had washed the sky to a clean, dark blue and had perfumed the air with the smell of exotic flowers. It was a taste of what the old Beirut must have been like.
I had never spent an Easter Sunday without going to church, but we were in the Muslim section of Beirut and a Christian church just wasn't available to us. We had a lovely day, nonetheless. After getting directions from Carol, Al and I walked to a Beirut-style sandwich shop where we purchased hot chicken sandwiches served with a potent garlic sauce, served up in hot dog buns. We then rejoined the family and spent the afternoon watching a baseball game on the AUB campus, the U.S. Marines vs. The Canadian Embassy. Following the game some friends of Carol and Mac's made dinner for us. It was my first real sample of Lebanese food: kafta, a mixture of ground lamb, bulgur wheat and spices formed into meatballs and grilled over charcoal. It was all very tasty, but having spent the last 12 years in Alaska, I couldn't help thinking that the kafta balls looked uncomfortably similar to moose droppings. As the sun went down and the stars came out, I noticed the Big Dipper pointing the wrong way in the sky; I felt overwhelmed and disoriented by the strangeness.
A few days later Mac rented a car and driver from the AUB motor pool for the day and we set out for Baalbek, a village in central Lebanon which was east and over the mountains. Baalbek has several acres of Roman-built ruins centering around a temple to Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus. It was all very lovely. Because the population of Lebanon is smaller and the industrial base is less advanced, the air was much cleaner which meant the ruins were in better shape than those in Greece. Now fully immersed into Lebanese food, we had a mid-morning snack of labneh sandwiches made of thin, soft bread spread with a mixture of cream cheese (lebna), olive oil, mint and pickles. After our tour of the ruins we stopped at a Baalbek cafe and lunched on baked chicken with a heavy garlic sauce, kafta on skewers, hummus, bread, baba ghannoush (eggplant dip), and fatoush (a salad made with cucumbers, tomatoes, toast and purslein). The Lebanese countryside was beautiful, with many red poppies in the fields surrounding Baalbek.
We stopped at a winery on the way home and filled jugs with cheap, potent Lebanese wine and Arak, an anise-based liquor similar to the Greek ouzo. Carol also bought onions and potatoes from a roadside vendor. The day had been a big success. I was developing a taste for Arab foods and my nerves had begun to adjust to Lebanese traffic patterns and the visible signs of martial law, including the military checkpoints that had by now become almost commonplace.
As we neared Beirut, Mac instructed our driver to make a detour in order for us to see the City, rather than return straight to the University. It was an eye-opening experience, as this was the first time we had been out of the area immediately adjacent to the AUB campus since we had arrived in Lebanon. We passed through the area where the war in 1976 had begun; the buildings and surrounding area were completely devastated. The shooting was very heavy. It was very hard for me to accept that at least half of the damage was done by Christians, since I'd been raised to believe that Christianity was based on the teachings of peace. What I was witnessing had nothing to do with peace. My sheltered life and Sunday School lessons were severely shaken, and I've never since viewed religion in quite the same light.
The next day we spent in domesticity. We accompanied Carol and helped with the grocery shopping: fresh oranges for juice, fresh bread from the baker, milk and cheese from a dairy stall and a case of 7-Up (TM) and Coca-Cola (TM) to help quench our unending thirst. The afternoon was spent on laundry, which dried quickly in the hamsine, or African wind, so called because it blows from Africa across the Sahara Desert. Carol explained that the word "hamsine" means "50" in Arabic because it sometimes lasts for 50 days. The wind was very hot and strong, accompanied by desert sand that stung our skin and eyes.
The next week Al and I set out on our own to see Jordan and Syria. We waited for two hours for the departure of our service: the taxi that was to drive us from Beirut to Amman. There was one other passenger, a Lebanese man who had "had his house sold" and was moving to Damascus. The people at the service office where we waited in Beirut seemed to be sympathetic with him. We surmised that he was a political victim or a casualty of the war.
At the Lebanon-Syria border our driver switched us to a Jordan car/driver after we obtained our Syrian visas. We were five then, plus the driver, with Al, I and the driver sharing the front seat. The roads were bumpy, narrow and curving; it was hot, and the driver chain-smoked. Part of the time the windows were open, but when they were closed, I became dizzy and queasy. Even so, the driver was polite and was patient with me when our Jordanian visas were held up because I had left our Syrian exit cards in the locked car and I had to go find him.
Shortly past the Syrian border we stopped so the driver could make some purchases from a vendor. There were children on the streets begging from us through the windows of the service. They were dirty, very thin, and had huge eyes. They were around us everywhere, in Lebanon and Jordan as well as Syria. I never got used to them. I hope I never do.
The Syrian and Lebanese streets seemed full of garbage. No one cared. No one bothered to clean up. There was no place to take the garbage even if they had wanted to. Jordan seemed to be cleaner, at least in Amman. I felt safe in the Amman streets. I never would have felt that way in Beirut, at least outside of the University community.
The Jordanian countryside was beautiful, with rolling green hills sometimes covered with yellow mustard, red poppies and an unfamiliar white flower, plentiful. Arabic herdsmen with flocks of sheep and goats roamed the hills, also a few horses and several small donkeys. The men loaded the donkeys with what seemed to me like huge loads of grass, rocks or dirt, and then the men balanced on top of the loads on top of the donkeys. But the donkeys seemed quite strong; they just plodded right along. I wondered, though, at their average life span under such conditions.
We arrived in Amman and checked into the Caravan Hotel, surrendering our passports at the front desk according to Jordanian law. Now my worrying began. In Muslim Jordan it was illegal for an unmarried couple to be sharing a hotel room. I was certain that the entire Jordanian army was going to come for us in the middle of the night. Al assured me that the country was far more interested in our American dollars than our marital status, but just to be sure I wore a wedding ring and we told everyone we were on our honeymoon, and that there had not been time prior to our departure to have my passport changed. For whatever reason, no one bothered us. I worried about it every night, though.
That first night in Amman we had omelettes for dinner, along with bread, butter, jam and Pepsi (TM), at the cost of one dinar for the two of us. Although I had grown fond of Arabic food, this small taste of the familiar was a welcome change.
The next morning we bought two spaces on yet another service and set out from Jordan to Petra, where our travel books told us there was a modern resort where we planned to spend the night. Al and I shared the back seat of the service with a Jordanian student/teacher who was headed for England to complete his studies, so he was glad of the opportunity to practice his English with us. He and Al talked at length about Jordan and Palestine. I couldn't hear much, but it was obvious that the other fellow was proud of Jordan and King Hussein and the stable government and environment of his country.
The people of Jordan seemed much more relaxed and at ease than those we encountered in Syria or Lebanon. There were no soldiers in evidence once we passed the border, traffic was orderly, and even though the people still threw garbage and litter through the car windows, it seemed to be someone's job to clean it up because the streets seemed quite clean. The weather was dreary, but the ride was short and we arrived at Petra just before noon. We checked into the Petra Rest House, which did seem quite modern, and had a quick bite of lunch before visiting the city.
It was windy and a bit wet at some points when rain actually fell, but Petra was spectacular. There were buildings, caves, tombs, and a huge and well-preserved treasury building and amphitheater, all chiseled by hand directly out of the rose-red walls of the desert mountains. For the first couple of hours we were followed closely by two Arabs who were trying to get us to rent their horses, but we insisted on walking, so as to go at our own pace and save our money. Our prize for the day was a large "Christian Hermitage," or monastery, at the top of a 750+ stair climb up the side of a mountain to the top of the City. It took us over an hour, and I was really tired by the time we reached the peak. It was worth the climb, especially when the clouds broke and the sun revealed the ancient city below.
If those fellows with the horses had been patient, we probably would have hired them to transport us back to the Petra Rest House following our descent from the Hermitage, but they had given up on us and returned home. When we arrived back at the Rest House, the air had begun to cool. We went to the dining room, where we had hoped for a hot, abundant meal to restore us from the chill of the air and the long hike we had made. It was not to be. Although the menu was in English and boasted steaks, chops, fish and sandwiches, each time we requested something the waiter said they had run out. Finally, hungry and impatient, we asked "What do you have?"
The waiter said "eggs."
"Okay", we said, "can we have omelettes?" Blank stare. He didn't understand what omelettes were. "Scrambled?" Still blank. "Fried?" No change.
The waiter, trying to be helpful and sensing our frustration, said, "Egg's eyes?" in his heavily accented English.
Now it was our turn to look blank. What in the world were egg's eyes, and did we really want to order them? The waiter drew a picture in the air with his hands, and we were able to visualize two fried eggs, sunny side up. "Egg's eyes."
"Yes!" we said. Our dinner finally arrived, adequate but not spectacular, and we retired to bed.
Our room was freezing. The Rest House was built right into the rock wall of the Petra, making it cool in the summer. In the chill of this spring evening it was almost unbearably cold. I put on every piece of clothing I had brought with me, and still could not warm up. I thought a hot bath might help, but we had no hot water. Finally, bundled in blankets and holding close to each other, we slept.
The next day was Al's birthday. We arose at 4:30 a.m. in our freezing room and caught a service back to Amman just after 5:15 a.m. The car was filled with men headed to Amman for the work day. No one spoke English, my only language, or French, in which Al was fluent, so the ride was quiet and uneventful. After some confusion we obtained directions in Amman to a service to Damascus. This time we shared the back seat with a Palestinian student headed for the Arabic University in Beirut. He spoke good English, so he and Al talked of lots of little things to pass the time. The student taught Al how to count in Arabic, which would be helpful the next day when we planned to shop at the Damascus market.
Our new Palestinian friend delayed us at the border because the guards were cautious of Palestinians due to the continuing tension with Israel, but we were underway again in about an hour. I found, somewhat to my surprise, that my blonde braids and western smile had a certain appeal that I had never known in the United States. They got us through Syrian Customs quickly.
Hotel shopping in Damascus was a chore. The Palestinian student interpreted for us and got us to a hotel district near the shopping area, but it took us awhile to find a room we could be comfortable in for the duration of our stay. The first room was quite dirty and noisy and had no bath. We were willing to do with the lack of a bath, but the shared toilet was Arabic style -- the kind where you balance over a none-too-clean hole. The second room was a bit cleaner and had a western-style bath/toilet down the hall, but our room was about 20 feet from the loudspeakers of the Mosque across the street which five times a day blared forth the Muslim call to prayer. We would get no sleep there. Finally, we found a room at the Grand Hotel which had a private bath and hot water. I felt a bit embarrassed by our western reliance on these small luxuries, but I was glad to have them.
The next day was my first experience in an Arabic souk, or marketplace. We purchased five embroidered tablecloths, a brass tray and folding wooden table legs, a carved and inlaid Backgammon set, a glass chandelier, some silk, a batik tablecloth for Carol and Mac, and a brass vase for my mother -- everything that we had on our list. But it did not start out to be a very good day. The souk was very overwhelming. The only thing I could compare it to was Pike Street Market in Seattle, Washington, only it was about 10 times as large with at least 10 times as many people, and culturally they were very different.
Syria is very conservative, with lots of Shi'ite, very strict, Muslims, and their women are veiled. We had to be careful not to walk holding hands, as that was not considered polite. But I was uneasy. I was blonde, obviously American, and those western looks which had breezed us through Customs the day before were cause for much curiosity in the souk. I was stared at all day. I wanted to hold onto Al, and I could not. About half way through the morning a young Arab boy with a toy gun appeared in front of us in the throng of people. He pointed his gun at us and said "bang!" It was the kind of gesture any boy might make anywhere in the world, in play, but for me it was all too much. The noise of the souk, the exotic smells and sights and the people crowding around me, starting, and all the salesmen shouting "such a deal, just for you! I have a cousin in America. See what I have to sell you!" I came apart. I was afraid. I wanted to be away, alone, and safe.
We left the souk and returned to our room. I took several deep breaths, scolded myself for being so thin skinned, and I changed from my western-style slacks into a skirt. I tied a scarf over my blonde hair. Al was concerned, but he supported my decision to return to the souk. The afternoon went more smoothly. We discovered that I am a poor barterer, so we developed a new strategy. I would quietly tell Al what I wanted, and then I would go away and browse someplace else, while Al skillfully bartered with the salesman away from my influence. We learned about the upstairs rooms where salesmen would take "special customers," where we'd be served tea or Coca-Cola . That's where the real pressure started, where they'd unfold tablecloths for us to admire, hold up embroidered caftans or pull out trays of scarves or jewelery. "Special price for you, my friend!" Al was good at saying no, and I learned quickly not to show an interest in anything or we'd be stuck in a shop for another 45 minutes while the shopkeeper brought out more to show us.
That night, shopping completed, we dined at the "Ali Baba," where I fed some of my steak to a couple of the stray cats wandering in and out of the restaurant. I was beginning to relax, finally.
The next day we somehow stuffed all of our purchases into our suitcases and hired a service back to Beirut. Back in familiar ground, Beirut seemed quite tame and safe after Damascus. The next day Carol and Mac threw a party for us, since both Al and I had celebrated birthdays in April. We bar-b-qued steaks and had banana cream pie, very un-Arabic food. We each received AUB t-shirts and I received a Lebanese cookbook, complete with notes from Carol to help me figure out American ingredients when I returned home.
We made one last shopping trip into Beirut and bought some wine glasses for me and a carved olive-wood song bird for my grandmother. We also bought silver puzzle rings, one each for Al and I, symbolizing the puzzle of paradise and disaster that Beirut had become.
On April 27, 1980, we left Beirut. Carol, Mac and Sian remained, and Sian's sister Cara was born in the fall of that same year. But hostilities again increased and the family was forced to leave in June of 1982, arriving back in the United States just in time to join our extended family for Al's and my marriage. They have not returned to Lebanon.
I suspect it will be our niece Sian, now a 20-year-old college student and keenly interested in the Middle East of her birth, who will make the journey back to Beirut. Hopefully she will see the beginnings of a new era of peace in the region, and perhaps witness the return of the paradise that once existed there. I hope she will find it.
Artwork: Paradise Lost (A Lebanon postcard)
About Moondance Contents Contributors Editors
Please send comments and suggestions to Moondance.