Lebanon: A Brief Trip During the Civil War, 1977
Descending the Cairo Side – a novel of the traveling life
Available as an e-book on Amazon.com
Two years after visiting Morocco, I entered Lebanon from Syria. I had persuaded a taxi driver in Damascus, with the help of hard American currency, to drive a small party of hardy but gullible travelers across the border to Beirut. It was in the late 70s, and the Lebanese Civil War raged. My curiosity was piqued by an American Jew from Philadelphia whom I had met in Jordan a few weeks previously. He regaled me with hilarious snippets from his own journey to Lebanon. Apparently he had gone to Beirut and stayed during the thick of the fighting with an active participant in the mayhem. His host had climbed to his apartment building’s roof with my friend to show off his prized toy, a mortar tube. The Lebanese host fired off a round for the benefit of his guest, who politely inquired, “What are you shooting at?” “I don’t know; it doesn’t matter,” came the reply. So. Like a kid with a firecracker, this Beiruti was mostly interested in the volume of noise he could make, not in the damage he might do.
The American, whose name I forget, then told me about going to Ba’albek, the great sacred city of antiquity that had become a focus of cannabis production and terrorist training, two pursuits I would have thought as mutually exclusive. There, he had bought a great sack of pollen, the raw ingredient for one common variety of Lebanese hash. He had carefully sewn most of it into his down sleeping bag for safekeeping, not wishing to attract the unwanted curiosity of border officials or police. A fine idea, was it not? The scheme sounded well-conceived to me. Until he told me the sleeping bag was stolen at a Jordanese youth hostel a week after his return from Syria and Lebanon.
Intrigued by the Philadelphian’s adventures, I decided it would be a lark to visit Lebanon. Perhaps the biggest attraction was Ba’albek. Here, unknown to most of the world, rested the biggest single stone monolith ever worked by human hands. Called the Hajar el Goubel, the rock was a massive thing, some seventy feet long. It had been cut and squared, and now lay discarded in a field, a few kilometers away from the Temple of Jupiter, where three of its only slightly smaller companions formed part of the foundations of the famous Roman temple.
No modern crane exists that could lift these stones. We may never comprehend how the ancients manipulated and raised them.
None of these forays into dope-running and archeology meant much to me upon my first glimpse of war-torn Lebanon. At the border, we found the Lebanese police post closed and shuttered. Travelers were free to enter the country without official scrutiny. However, a long line of refugees, more than a mile’s worth, pressed against the customs station on the Syrian side. They clamored to escape a country that was descending into the low reaches of hell. We entered the war zone and saw stunning views of the Beka’a Valley, but we were able to proceed only a few miles before artillery fire forced our dauntless taxi driver to hightail it back to Damascus. Those of us in the back of the cab breathed nervous sighs of relief as the cab jumped the queue in front of the hapless war refugees and slipped back into Syria. In a short hour or so we were safely ensconced again in the Damascus Youth Hostel, drinking black coffee and congratulating ourselves about our escape from live combat.
NOTE: Extracted from the manuscript of Descending the Cairo Side