The Global (formerly Foreign) Affairs website was advising Canadian travellers to Lebanon to avoid the UNESCO World Heritage Site at Baalbek; partly because of a volatile security situation and partly the presence of Hezbollah, designated by the Canadian government as a “listed terrorist entity”. That was disappointing because it’s a fabulous complex of temples: originally a Phoenician centre of worship, then Greek and finally, as Heliopolis, one of the most important sanctuaries of the Roman empire, with some of largest temples of the ancient world. Today it is one of the best preserved. While I’d never suggest disregarding these warnings (not least because doing so can invalidate your travel insurance), it’s worth remembering that they are, after all, only advisories.
I’d been invited to Beirut for the launch of a book to which I had contributed, and to present a seminar at Rafik Hariri University some 30 kilometres south of the city. In accepting I mentioned to my Beirut host that I intended to remain in Lebanon for a few days afterward to explore. His immediate recommendation was “Go to Baalbek!”. Since he had recently published an excellent and authoritative book on Hezbollah I reckoned he should know. When my gracious host at the university learned of my plan he arranged for a vehicle and driver, and one of the vice-presidents volunteered to be host for the day.
It’s about a 90 kilometre drive from Beirut to Baalbek. The Beirut-Damascus highway leads eastward through the rugged, cedar forested Chouf district of Mount Lebanon, heartland of the minority Druze community. Of course Lebanon wouldn’t be Lebanon without good food so, as we dropped down into the storied and strategic Beqaa Valley, we paused at Chtoura for mid-morning pastries – knefe, ma’amoul and baklava – washed down with a glass of cooling kefir. Suitably refreshed, we carried on northward to Baalbek, one of those places to which photographs don’t really do justice, but can at least give some sense of the grandeur of the place. Some of its most striking features, aside from the sheer scale of the site, are massive blocks of carved stone, up to 20 metres (65 feet) in length and twice as thick as Hassan, our guide, was tall, fitted together with such precision that you couldn’t slide a credit card between them. And yet, for all that monumental size, the temples are graced with the most superbly detailed and intricate stone carving. It is truly a monument to human ingenuity and artistry.
Memorable though Baalbek was, my most vivid memories of this too-short introduction to Lebanon are of people – the generosity of hosts; conversations with locals in the cafés and restaurants of Beirut; the only bother from a “listed terrorist entity” at Baalbek being a persistent fellow trying to sell me a Hezbollah T-shirt. But the most memorable of all is a conversation on the road back to Beirut. After dropping my host off at the university the driver was taking me the 45 minute drive back into the city. He spoke no English but had been listening to the conversation all day so, once we had settled onto the main highway, he asked shyly “You – Canada?” After I confirmed he said haltingly “My son – Canada!”. We were both equally pleased and I asked where. With a bit of pronunciation difficulty he sounded out “Ha-li-fax”. When I pointed to myself and said “Me – Halifax too!” his face lit up with delight, he pulled out his phone and promptly dialed his son who, it turned out, was taking a postgraduate degree at Dalhousie University, answering the call from his place just a few blocks from my own apartment.
Media reports about Lebanon are rarely cheery these days, but whenever I think of the place I smile a little and remember speeding along the highway to Beirut, chatting to this lovely man’s son back in my Canadian home town, while his father beamed with parental pride. Sure, there are nasty people in the world, but there are far more proud parents, good kids, gracious hosts and helpful strangers, and they are much the same everywhere. It is indeed a small, small world, and it’s not going to be made any more livable by retreating behind cultures of fear or intolerance of the other.