I set off the following morning after hosing myself down. The bike felt superb and I continued towards ancient Tyr. I was told it was a lovely place and I was expecting to see something interesting culture. I passed the banana plantations; the air was thick with humidity and perfect for their growth. The sunrises very close to the zenith here so shadows are rather short. A man said something antagonistic to me but I continued along my way. As I looked for any ancient remains I passed through market areas; some Muslims were definitely being aggressive. I was told by the British embassy that this was the case and I would later learn that the Hezbollah dominate this region. They have the general support of the populace who are in fear of the Israelis, or so it seems. During the 30 day war they pushed back the Israelis from their positions around the border. If it wasn’t for them the Lebanese may have been defeated. I understand them to be militia; going around in plain clothes and numbering over a million. But not all of them have weapons yet they are considered to be more powerful than the army. As I passed through their territories I was ignorant of these facts. I eventually met up with a sympathetic Palestinian or two, in fact many including Syrians have fled to Lebanon. It is difficult to say whether the trip to Tyr was worth it. The archaeological remains were a travesty to see; buried under weeds and surrounded by decrepit fences. Parts of the grounds have rubbish up to your armpits. And besides, there isn’t much to see. I continued to draw a lot of attention as usual and eventually got myself to approach the UN who was patrolling the region. They looked oriental; nevertheless their reply was quite clear: they were not in a position to get me over the border, they don’t do that sort of thing. From here I was maybe only 20 km from Israel. I have already resigned myself to ending this journey and I have a very good reason for doing so. I just don’t think these people warrant any personal sacrifice. They should be left to their own devices. Despite all the international support they get there is this continual fermentation in their blood that would precipitate another civil war, and it could happen anytime. In my opinion they can be decadent and prone to corruption because of an unstable political situation; to give an example a bunch of youths stopped me going up a hill and as I humoured them one of them sort to pretend to help push my bicycle as I rode it. In fact he was going through one of my pouches but I caught him and retrieved the back lights. I was beginning to hate these people; they are rude and prejudice. But it is not the case with all of them, just generally the younger decadent generation. These Middle-Eastern Muslims have a bad habit of ordering you about, “come” they say; this is how they introduce themselves. As I left the town I popped into a garage for some water. They call all their mates over and expect me to perform to them. I understand them now to be manipulative people and I have started to react to their intimations. The garage owner was insistent that I was a Jew or something. I cleared the area as far as possible, pass the beach where earlier I took a quick dip and got arrested by the military police. I refused to show my passport and ended up going to HQ where a quick call to Major Housseini had them apologising to me. Don’t get me wrong, all this stuff may sound official but what they might do to potential suspects and general miscreants can make one shudder in their bones. I haven’t been lucky, I have been God-blessed. If it wasn’t for those meaningful coincidences of meeting the major and generally becoming well-known through my music I may well have been abused by now, even dead. But their addiction to mobile phones and internet extends to making short videos and posting them to each other. Many of these people have forgotten the values of being a true Muslim, they are too engulfed in tribal mentalities. And considering they have just been through a war it is quite understandable.
As I passed through another small town I decided to buy something hot from the grill. Not long after that I was asked to play some music. The next thing I knew the young many invited me to play at his house, and so I did. We had drinks as the whole family looked upon me. And then all of a sudden I saw the other side of Islam, coupled as it was with wealth. The house looked out over the sea and the interior was lush. When the father came to join us the mood completely changes and the guitar was put down. The night continued through conversation, and just this once I was almost tempted with a shisha. Everybody smokes them preferring apple flavours in general. The women remained in another room although I became a hit with the young children. There does seem to be a growing reality amongst these peoples, that for all those who maintain a working lifestyle there seems to be more integrity. Those who can support themselves financially practice the values of Islam. The youth though are quickly succumbing to modern technologies and where they are diverging from the family scene they are prone to wayward sentiments. I have seen enough good young people but only in the context of their families, and it is no different to a Western family. The one big difference though is that wayward children would still call themselves a Muslim where in the West they wouldn’t necessarily call themselves anything. That night they allowed me to sleep in a swing bed at the back of their restaurant. In the morning I said goodbye and I got away without paying for the grilled chicken the night before and headed on into Sidon. Straight away I was impressed by this town; it was much richer and the archaeology had been restored. From what I can gather in conversation the ruins are Phoenician – city states that maintained their power though trading ports. (The heavily forested hinterland was a factor in this decision.) There were some on-going excavations in process and I soon passed by a lovely market place. Satiated I decided that I would finish my expedition and head on to Beirut. Just then I noticed a bridge and a fresh water river passing under it. It looked incredibly appetising and I soon found a deep spot near a fallen bridge. I met up with some friendly guys and started diving with them off the pier. Not long after that I got out the guitar and played, meeting up with a nut seller. As I passed back along another route to leave I discovered a protest in the street. There were more friendly Muslims and the next thing I knew we were all taking pictures. I returned that evening to stay a night, deciding that Beirut could wait. They knew I was not a Muslim but they fed me, telling me I was their guest. Apparently for three days they had to ensure I ate three times a day and to protect me. I hung my hammock and thought, ‘How lucky can I get?’ I stayed about a week. Who were they?
My prophetic calling was coming to me again. During this period I finished my book; even I was impressed by the completeness of the narrative. I had electricity, shelter and food and water, surrounded as I was by the ever-friendliness of Muslims. What more could I ask for? I started writing another song in Spanish, only my second ever. It goes as follows:
Marcha, marcha hasta la guerra sanguienea
Anda, anda tu futura es en las manos
Se va, se viene, otro muerto vale la pena
Quien is responsible por esta felonía
En que se puede hacer por justo
Los locos del mundo tiene la fuerza
Se controla el resto de la populacion
Por que se ocurre esta situacion?
Estamos en juntos contra el malo
La tierra es demasiado pequena ser volver solo
Aumenta la voz del unido gente
Y nunca mira detras si quiera Victoria
Se les ensenan quien tiene autoridad
Avanza sus derechas con facilidad
Se conoce si mismo por mantener el vision
Del ganar el amor de cada individual
Canta, canta levantan sus vasos
Dar las gracias y recuerda los viejos
Ni una persona murió por nada
Sus vidas se reflejan en las cristales
I talked amongst many of them since a few had a grasping of English. For the first time I lived deep inside a Muslim community being accepted into their brotherhood. As usual word had got out and local business owners soon plied me with free ice-cream and wraps. I was eating everything offered me and noticed that I was putting on weight. There was a general set up in the camp. I was with the security at one end of the road-block facing a most beautiful mosque. The mosque was finished in limestone and surrounded by a lush garden of ornamental flowers. Slowly my hosts would introduce me to everybody in the camp, which over the course of time may have numbered a few thousand although I didn’t meet them all. The night I arrived I heard somebody speaking over a loud speaker and I was jokingly informed that it came from God. In fact, these Muslims had a really nice sense of humour and wanted to impress me. On that first day I met them I was given quite an extensive description of their protest. It concerned the Hezbollah. They were protesting against the desire for the Hezbollah to own weapons and were asking for their disarmament. They said that they have more power than the military and in fact are feared by them since they dominate the south of Lebanon. They feel that Lebanon is nearing another civil war similar to the one that ended in 1992. They would prefer that weapons were maintained amongst the military only, but their popularity means that most of the population wants to keep them. The reason being is due to the fear that Lebanese people live in from another Israeli invasion, for it was the efforts of the Hezbollah who kicked them out. There are about 5-6 million Lebanese in the country; the true figures remain unofficial. In places like Brazil that number is nearer 10-15 million. This camp, under the spiritual and political leadership of Sheik Al-Hassir, told me they were fighting for their integrity. I have already noted a problem in the previous blog. The death of tourism here is factor of this fear in Lebanon. When I talk to individuals it is apparent that people want to leave the country. On reflection I realise that the nut seller by the river only offered to help me out because he wanted me to aid his visa application. Likewise there were Muslims in this camp who also pampered me with false motives. The truer picture of Islam was coming through. What about all those Turks who expressed the same desires to travel to Spain? These people aren’t happy in their own country, and the more they listen to Western music, watch internet from their mobile phones, or see Westerner’s segregated lifestyle on the beaches and in the lucrative shopping centres, the more they pine after it. This is obviously assisted by the ‘freer’ values of Christianity since this is a mixed culture. And this highlights another disparity in the country – Islam is political but Christianity isn’t. That is why they have wars here, not over religion but over politics. Religion is the moral fibre that gets eroded away in the process; hence one need only look at the evolution of Christian theocracy and why Christian countries continue to go to war under political banners; they do so in the name of economics. And because Islam is now in that stage where more and more people favour secularism it fears for its own existence through the degradation of traditional values. Christianity has already been through this phase; the difference between them is that the strength of Islam is more apparent through its extant keeping of the religious law and the brotherhood that supports it. In this vein members of the security I was staying with introduced me to the sheik because I wanted to know what does the Qur’an say about all the junk left on the streets and on the beaches. I gave an example to those Muslims for every morning I would go around the site and collect the crap left lying around. I had tried to explain some of my environmental values and they decided that I needed to speak to the sheik. I had to be introduced obviously for security reasons and he gave me 10 minutes of his time. When I put it to him he told me that half of Islam was about cleaning and that the problem was not with Islam but the people. Those who call themselves Muslims are not Muslims. This has been a problem since about 100 years ago. These Muslims were seeking to clean up Islam and reinstitute traditional values. I pondered over his comments; the man came over very friendly and obviously has a lot of charm in his manner. I asked him why then does this camp not clean up after itself. He said this is the work of others and afterward there are people who will go around and clean up the junk. In fairness though, most of the junk was related to surrounding buildings including residential and a cement block’s works. I don’t know how long this camp intends to stay around but in my reasoning and discussion with the other Muslims I told them that the face of Islam, the first impression they give to outsiders who they wish to enjoin, is through their front gardens and checkpoints. They had informed me that all peoples were welcome to join their cause, including Christians. The sheik respected my point of view. He told me that the knife was at the throat and that there were other priorities. Apparently the Hezbollah were intimidating them at other mosques, hence the security here were being armed with batons. There was a further military checkpoint at the road closure but all in all most of the local community seemed to favour them, despite closed businesses. I don’t know how long this could last for but it is obvious that some people are better off than others and favour the nightly talks and increasing audience who purchase food and drink. I maintained a passive viewpoint.
Over the course of days my immediate area became devoid of all junk and I enjoined a respect from everybody there. Many Muslims knew my name and I tried to remember theirs. As it goes half the community is called Mohammad. I got on well with the children and was fed regularly, too much actually considering I was just sitting around. As I awaited news of the Syrian conflict and possible passage I decided that as a conclusion to my journey I could set up a garden here. Other issues were also coming to the forefront, for instance this type of Islam does not encourage Western music. I continued playing in surrounding locales but was increasingly bored by the non-action of this community. In an interesting way it could mirror a Buddhist set up; people praying at set times, basic chores need to be accomplished, eating together in small groups, teaching and instruction during the evening etc. On this last aspect the talks of Sheik al-Hassir were becoming more and more invigorated, at times there was shouting and intense passion, including other speakers. It only dawned on me later, after speaking to some Christians and other Muslims from the American University for Science and Technology that this was a form of fundamentalism. I had asked for tools to dig over unused, neglected ground and put out a wish list, but nothing was forthcoming, not even a reply. Instead what I got was a subtle push to make me into a Muslim in an atmosphere that nulls the centres. I tried learning Arabic but I am awful at new languages and people’s names, and ended up repeating words I couldn’t remember. People began to wonder why I didn’t pray, and some answers to whether I was a Muslim seemed apologetic. I stuck to my own integrity and on one occasion down by the river this nearly caused a situation. I went back to the bathing area near the bridge (this whole section of river has become a street of bars and cafeterias) and some youths approached me, questioning my guitar which I carry around with me and my Speedos swimming wear. I was obviously bigger than them but one grabbed a bottle and smashed it. It seemed to centre around whether I was a Muslim or not, and I told them ‘no’. As I say, the youth from the poorer communities here are just as territorial and decadent in their moral values. I walked away from that potential fight unharmed because I think someone recognised me from the camp. The larger person in the group ushered me away and looked embarrassed somewhat. I would stress that I believe in the lineage of prophets but will not follow any particular religion, certainly not when I consider myself to have studied worldly religions for 10 years. I take from all of them, which many would call spirituality. I had just finished my other book, number five in the series, and it exerts such a strong independent viewpoint that it is unimaginable that I could ever change my respectable position; I am an anthropologist, spiritual at that, and believe myself to bridge between East and West, ecology and religion. As for the inherent divisions within Islam I raise an interesting point. The difference between fundamentalism and orthodoxy is this gaping misunderstanding of spirituality. I don’t think the protest camp was fundamentalists, but they may evolve to become one. I had turned up not long after they established themselves; they were in a primitive state from which one could imagine that through their popularity they would distil their tolerances and change certain values. I don’t doubt, that much fundamentalism evolved from this position.
As the days past (I was there about a week) with the onset of Ramadan I planted up melon seeds in plastic recycled cups. I generated a lot of interest but no assistance. That they didn’t welcome my music, offer tools, always asking where I had been, but always friendly, I resorted to writing and swimming in the sea. I ventured into the city a couple of times but I prefer the solitude, only that I was in a landscape barren of real vegetation. The cement block’s works operated all night and I found it hard to sleep properly. The hammock itself actually contributed to blocking the pavement towards university access. As I waited for those seedlings to come up I was slowly vegetating. It dawned on me also that competitive sport was not encouraged in the camp, it was a cleansing of the mind, as I say not unlike a Buddhist retreat. Slowly Islamic values were being introduced to me. News came over that 3 major Syrian officials were killed in the war and everybody was celebrating. If it isn’t one cause they are fighting here it is another. I quietly took myself away as I don’t find the death of people cause for celebration. When you talk to a Muslim face to face you get another picture. They tell me that there is nothing wrong with Islam; what people who call themselves Muslims do in their own time is not Islam and Islam must not be judged by the actions of its people. In this respect I share a lot of basic sentiments with Islam, but I am too educated to fall into blind acceptance. I believe I have an Islamic manner rooted in my religiosity. That means I see Islam as a way of life epitomised by all the prophets, and that means it has evolved through different cultures of many tribes that have lived in these lands. If a culture stubbornly adheres to out-dated values then it breeds discontent and eventually arrogates the need for change. The popularity of the sheik appears to be a revolution in the process, and I was told that it could be the beginning of another civil war. Sidon has 18 different religions, forms of Islam and Christianity. There must be cross-cultural influences going on since it is only in these mixed cultures that one feels safer. The economic segregation in Beirut still harbours friendly relations, and if one goes to fast-food outlets one generally finds Christians and Muslims working side by side. I asked another devout Muslim whether he thought Islam was progressive, and that all the wealth is somehow introducing secularism into their culture. I also asked why they think Mohammad is the last prophet and their retort is sometimes, ‘Why has there been no other then?’ The fact that they don’t want to recognize another prophet is cause for blind acceptance of the Qur’an, written as I say by a number of scribes who Mohammad dictated to. Apparently it shows the way to everything in life. The answer always comes back that Islam is the word of God. I believe Islam is progressive but these are such a minority that truly the greatest indicator for this observation is probably on foreign soils where Islam freely mixes with other religions and cultures. It will be in countries like America and Europe where one will see progressive Islam, and the small city states like Beirut. On this note we must take the message of Islam and read it from the life of the prophets, as I was recommended to study concerning Mohammad, as well as the life of his companions who supported him. In this way one gets the cultural milieu of their times and can draw from their existence the deeper interpretation of their message, which I believe to be the true meaning of submission, and not intolerance to other ideas. On this note then I allowed them to create me in their own image, leaving my beard unkempt and keeping it trimmed around the mouth. I refused to shave my armpits and pubic hair as I told them this is for women in their vanity. How can they claim this to be an act of hygiene when they eat too much meat and cheese? The first education is always the health and integrity of one’s own body. The natural oils in the body are self-cleansing, and all hair serves to protect vulnerable thin skin.
On the first day of Ramadan I decided to fast with them. By mid-afternoon I took flight. I understood something about the rite. It quells the tensions of the people and humbles them in their aggression. Mohammad must have known this and the effects of heat on the body. It also balances out excessive food consumption and strengthens the integrity; this is how I understand it. When I fasted for One and a half years during my life in London I did so in order to cure myself of bodily ills. I think a deeper look into the life of Mohammad may throw life upon this topic. Here, in Lebanon the sun goes down after 7pm and so everybody eats at 8pm. Every day is a celebration and I unfortunately missed out on that opportunity. They then eat at 3am before sunrise and go back to bed for a late morning. The tranquillity of that morning is all too apparent, as the streets emptied themselves of cars and people. Shops close early during the day and look quite empty. Obviously they can still sell things from them. The true Musli m would not smoke, eat or drink water; this fasting is a national cleansing program. If the West think they can make headway into the Middle-East it is going to take a very long time. One need not wonder why the brotherhood of Islam is so strong. It is a lost part of Christian culture, which hence has been replaced by progressive ideals and materialism (with all its own problems).
Once I was on the road towards Beirut I knew I had made the right decision. As for the melon seedling this was my legacy. If they don’t have the foresight to support a food-growing program they can’t be intending to stay around for long. I got into Beirut looking for the British embassy. It was closed but an interesting freak occurrence happened. My wheel got stuck in a drain and on pulling it out protruding sharp metal stuck into its tyre. I messed around with the tube and eventually resigned myself to sleeping on the rocks by the sea. As I say, nobody was about during Ramadan and so I washed and pondered the day’s activities. In this survival mode I am b rilliant. Not long after that I gave up the idea of fasting off water since I think this is biologically stupid, and headed towards Miena (Port Beirut) to enquire about a boat to Cyprus. My only advice was to get a plane out of this place as soon as possible and leave your bike with a friend. I continued along the coast and searched out some travel agents. There is no ferry: they were adamant. Just then I met a couple of Christians and had a banana and coffee with them. Apparently, from Tripoli, the port I came through, there is a boat to Girne in North Cyprus. It was like a breadth of fresh air since I can’t afford a ferry back to Turkey and then to Cyprus where I would leave my bike under my family’s care. So with my spirits uplifted I decided to head for that world-renowned tourist site, the Caves of Jeiti. Apparently considered to be one of the natural wonders of the world I took myself to its hills. Not long after that I was soon camping within its vicinity, playing music and back on form. Free food, free drink, only those things that nature can provide this. The embassies can wait until Monday.
Jeita is a prize. For me it was a lovely way to say goodbye to Lebanon. The natural limestone formations of stalagmites and stalactites remind me of Gaudi architecture. The cathedral interior was like something out of Lovecraft and the Cthullu mythos; twisted, contorted shapes that are indescribable. This is a superb attraction for a mere 18,000LL which works out at $12 or about 9 euros. For the ticket you are taken on a concrete stairway through the length of the cavern where the temperature dramatically drops. The price also includes a ride on a lift to the upper level and a ride on a train to the lower level where a boat awaits you and takes you through a lake. If that isn’t enough then you can admire an expedition of carved stone where you can relax in the African garden. The Lebanese have really got this one right, the spectacular mountainous scenery around is worth the visit itself. Coming through reminded me why I came on this journey and how I sustained myself spiritually. The tranquillity of the environment is a welcome retreat from the hustling city life and makes one want to stay here. I made a few lira busking and prepared myself for the trip back to Beirut. Unfortunately taking photos inside the cavern is forbidden so I have very little to show you. Whilst I was here I met many a taxi driver who spoke English, considering that many work from hotels. In one particular conversation I learnt a little more about the Hezbollah. Firstly, a man named Wassim told me how being a Druz (another religion which includes all the holy books) meant that they were the brunt of oppression against the Hezbollah who tried to take over the region in 2008. Since they dominate most of the southern lands they inflicted tension against the small pockets of Sunni; the Shiite has joined with the Hezbollah since the Israelis were defeated. All of a sudden I began to see another picture, but it is always a puzzle that I put together from engaging people directly. The Druz live in large areas of the mountains with other pockets of Christians too distributed here and there. In retrospect, Lebanon may be the one saving grace for religious organisations and individuals fleeing from oppressed regimes. Consider though, that the civil war began through the militarization of the Palestinian refugee population (100,000), numbering some 10% of their country after the occupation of Israel, and with the arrival of the PLO guerrilla forces which sparked an arms race amongst the different Lebanese political factions. It “changed the demographics of Lebanon and provided a foundation for the long-term involvement of Lebanon in regional conflicts.” I understand something of the dilemma that faces Western governments, and yet I see no end to the crisis here, never. If you take away the military presence you will get a civil war for certain. If the segregated pockets of religious groups retreat into other areas then it only encourages further expansion from dominant forces. The sheik has a real case here. He saw that taking away the military capacity of the Hezbollah, who receive funds from Iran to buy land and spread under the ideology of the Ayatollah Khomeini, and who also provide arms, was a means to prevent any further fermentation for another attack on Lebanese people. They remind the country of the assassination of the Lebanese president who many loved. Unfortunately the government supports and needs the Hezbollah and puts on a friendly face to all sides. As I say, it is a mess, but then you can pick holes in any worldly culture. The Muslims like anybody else just get on with living here. As I look at the stream of tourists coming to Jeita I wonder where the French are, the Italians, Spanish, German, Dutch, British and the rest; most are Lebanese. It is a gem waiting to be discovered and maybe one of the few places that will survive a civil war.
So, I stayed one night at the caves, looked after by the security who fed me. They also guaranteed good money from busking, and as usual I made a little. The joy of being in the mountains and playing out of passion was good enough reason to stay here. I considered another night but was convinced by everybody to go into town and busk the night away. On leaving I was reminded maybe of the worst road conditions one is ever likely to encounter – they are killers. Ripped up crash barriers line all the major roads around Beirut; huge gaping drainage holes consistently appear in the hard shoulders which can be no more than a few feet wide. They measure some three feet square and sometimes look down six to ten feet where junk collects. On the odd occasion they disappear to the road below them. The shitty conditions are also a hazard for cars also; God help the motorcyclists. But the other fact that one is reminded of is the litter; it is the most unkempt city by far. On this particular occasion I sought a quick swim and decided to go to the sandy beach where that police officer told me was very dirty; I thought he was bullshitting, a little bit of prejudice. Well, I eat my words, for I decided to go for a quick dip on that beach. Interestingly I met the same officer who remembered me and shook my hand. I took his advice two weeks ago and should have stuck to it. It was like swimming in a landfill site. No wonder nobody was about, these free beaches are reserved for Syrians and other refugees coming into the country; you have to pay for the clean beaches here. The police again helped me out, since they looked after my bike (no lock) whilst I swam. Feeling dirty I managed to play some music and get some lovely free food. Wassim picked me up and took me to his home where I would take a welcome shower and eat more. I was preparing myself for my last days here, but as I told him, if I could click my fingers and reappear in Barcelona this would suit me fine. I had one last venture though, I wanted to cycle to the cedars in the north of the country before heading for Tripoli. It is interesting though, how on arriving back into Beirut the tyre deflated again. Maybe I should not have looked back, and just carried on from Jeita. But I suppose the British Embassy may have something useful to say to me, maybe even suggest a possible route to Palestine. I age in these days, using up every last store of genetic development before deciding to call time-out in the Middle-East. I think Wassim wanted to show me something of the better side of the country; maybe some Lebanese truly are embarrassed by this mess. If you want to know what it is like living here, well one need only look at his personal case. He is married to a Welsh lass, has two daughters in Wales and has been waiting over 3 years for a visa application to go there. That is how difficult it is to leave the country. But if you want to know how bad the situation is out here, in the last day or so 20,000 Syrians crossed into the country. That says it all. In the morning Wassim’s father dropped me off at the embassy. I also had a meeting with a freelance reporter who found out something about me the night before. Apparently as I was leaving with Wassim we stopped for an ice-cream, and the small boy who’s phone I had used to contact Wassim was approached by a local who got the number off him. So the reporter rang Wassim and arranged to meet me today also. I decided on the embassy first which was only fleeting. They offered me nothing new and I wondered why I bothered coming here, in fact I informed them that there were boats leaving Lebanon to Turkey from Tripoli. It is interesting how their reception looked upon me also with difference as I sat there waiting to be called. I had now missed Ahmad at the Cafe Raouché but a quick phone call brought us together at Starbucks. There he bought me yoghurt and a bap. I tried using wifi there but was told that I would have to pay. So despite the inflated prices this is what it has come to, corporate bodies protecting every possible income loss from free users in the vicinity. The interview started with a general talk about religion and politics and at one stage I was putting up with an ear bashing, but I tolerated it. He was undoubtedly anti-Jewish and at times it pained me to cast a neutral light. Then afterward he took the video camera out and filmed me answering a set of questions. He had promised me half his profits if he sold the story, told me I needed a new bike, and was very interested in motorised accompaniment for the trip to Africa in two year’s time. It went well, although he told me to act a little to make it more interesting; I couldn’t. I think I made the mistake then of asking for an ice-coffee because a few hours later I would become very tired and ill. Anyhow, we finished the interview in his flat with me singing my new songs and getting a few shots outside and it was so late that Wassim had to bail me out again; we managed to hide the bike in the storage area of a building. That night I could barely stay awake; I even went for a short jog to get my metabolism going. We tried going for a short ride in the car and playing some music but I was so constipated that I felt like a knotted balloon. I quietly apologised to the group and went to bed. The following morning I had dysentery; after taking multiple showers I still managed to shit my pants. Eventually I cleared my whole system out and decided that I would still go for the cedars in the mountains. First though, I took the cool shade of the garage area where a couple of planks of wood provided for a snooze. After feeling rejuvenated I set off, very slowly. Another fortuitous encounter or two opened up my possibilities. There was a cruise passing by Limassol in Cyprus just starting this week and they would only charge me for that section of the journey, but that was a whole week away. Then I found a very cheap bicycle store and picked up a spare inner tube. I should say something about the condition of the bike at this stage. Mechanically it is still great, but the brand new panniers I bought for it are falling apart at the seams; my stitching is obvious a mile away and am looking forward to doing the ceremonial burning in Cyprus if that day ever comes. Everything else seems fine, although I still get the occasional callous around my bum, the pedal arm once every few weeks loosens off, and the back tyre is looking very bald now. (Remember that this is, in fact, the front tyre since the bigger back tyre wouldn’t initially fit into the tight frame, but its double thickness still sustains it over broken glass.) I decided then to go straight to Tripoli to double check on the ferry services but that turned out to be a typical thief’s paradise. The unscrupulous agent, who happened to be passing checkpoint in his car, stuck his head out the window and wanted to charge me $175; significantly more than the journey here. And when he told me to give him my passport now I said, “No thank you very much” and got out of the place. I mean, the boat wasn’t leaving for another two days, what a twat! So to the mountains it was.
Tripoli was another one of those dirty cities but it is thriving. I was looking relatively smart in my new trainers given to me by Ahmad after the interview. I was aware again of the poverty here. I was soon asking for directions to the Cedars and on some occasions these French/Arabic speakers looked at me in disbelief, “No, it is impossible”. This is the mentality of the car-culture, especially this one with its repertoire of banged-out, rust buckets that require no MOTs and go around sounding like tanks; everyone here is a DIYer so it does make for a bit of self-resilience. Lebanon is like that, the ‘City of Pollution’. It is such a small country that you could drive to any part of it within a day easily. On my trip to the mountains I was about to experience a very quick change in climate. I remember Wassim telling me that up here there were communities of Christians here and there so I was looking forward to that ‘Western’ feel again, but if I recall this is not far from Hezbollah country too. I had also caught a news drift that somebody threw a hand explosive at the protest at Sidon where I had been staying with the Sheik al-Hassir. City life was really bogging me off despite the massive amounts of money brought in by foreigners and the temptation to play in bars or special events which could easily pay for my flight out of here. So I trundled up the slow incline all the way to my first major stop, the town of Ehdin, but not before nightfall. Along the way I had stopped on a number of occasions and even snoozed because I was significantly weakened by my ill condition, but by the end I had gathered my strength, taking a wash at a petrol station, and was walking into a quaint town that looked like a street party. Immediately I hitched up with some young men who bought me food and drink. They were going for a camping trip up the mountain and it turned out on the following day that they had looked for me to invite me but by then I had engaged some pretty young teenagers at the oldest Maronite Church in Lebanon, dating from 749AD and having ancient inscriptions in Syrian and Greek. They were just kids and no sooner had they left was I inside snoozing away on a pew; the bike was well hidden. Whatever you may think about me, if I told you that I had a natural emission that night in the Church you should not consider it an act of profanity. I was in a state of transcendence, coupled with the reality that my psychological defence was down. I have mentioned to readers before this relationship between body and mind, and how natural emissions seems to equate with a downturn in my biological integrity. Not only that, my magical will power dwindles. Effectively I climax in mind and body, like a crossing of wires. That morning I needed to ring the travel agent because there was also the boat leaving for Mersin in Turkey if the Cyprus boat failed. I tried contacting the travel agent but had no success. In the meantime a couple of guys befriended me, one being part of the group going up the mountain. They bought me hot chocolate and I sat down in the market square and played a few tracks. They were all Christian here; the relatively few Muslims kept themselves away from the general Christian revelry that highlights these mixed cultural backgrounds. There were South Africans, Australians, American accents, and of course French since this was a French colony once. I asked for advice to the Cedars and apparently there was a quick route going through the bush country laden as it was with apples, pears, apricots and cherries. This was lush country but even though the temptation of the landscape was appetising I wasn’t feeling that great at all. John, who works for the Red Cross, had told me some more of the history here; they seem to pride themselves on being all Christian. The reality of the Hezbollah is that it came about as a militia because during the civil war between 1975 and 1990 the Lebanese army had slowly given up on the south of the country and allowed many Jews to occupy it. The Syrian post-war occupation was particularly disadvantageous to the Christian community too. The government had become corrupt and were accused of embezzlement. In my extended stay in the country I conclude that the disparity of rich and poor here can only be a legacy of that. Beirut is like a colony with materialism demarcating its boundaries with private beaches, hotels, restaurants, and military checkpoints. Lebanon has enough ports to launch in all directions. After the war there were continuing tit-for-tat skirmishes between the locals who sought to protect themselves from the Jewish occupation, and so the Hezbollah slowly gathered in small pockets of strength in view of a Jewish succession. Prisoners were bartered between them but on one occasion two were captured from Palestine territory and this seemed to incept a huge massacre upon the Lebanese. The war was inevitable between them but with Israel owning some of the most sophisticated weaponry around I believe it is only a matter of time.
I trundled up the long winding road that went through the bush, loaded on either side with apples and pears, unripened figs and grapes. As usual people wanted to know who the stranger was. At times I jumped on the bike but I was too weak. Just before reaching the Cedars I hit a bend in the road that gave me a view to the Kadisha Valley. It was hazy but spectacular. It reminded me of Chaf Grabbab in Albania, looking down upon the womb of the world. This obviously was millions of years of natural erosion that carved out this canyon, abundant as it is in rivers. No sooner had I settled down a couple came by and noticed me pondering the occasion; they were on 4-wheel buggies, toys for the well-off. They turned out to be Australians. In that moment I was convinced of something. This was Christian country and here values were much more liberal. I had to use their phone and so rang the travel agent; the cruise to Cyprus had been cancelled. That meant my other option was to get to Tripoli today for the ferry to Mersin within 3 hours, which was about doable, but it meant forsaking my time here at the Cedars and surrounding landscape. And even then, I might be refused at the port because (yes!) they require my passport 2 days in advance. As I slowly worked it out it made sense what Simon had told me; hang about here for a few days then head down to the next village and the week is over. I could then catch the next boat. It was great decision and over the days some proper sense came to me. I decided I didn’t need to see the cousins in the west of Cyprus, besides, they knew I was about but didn’t invite me over the last time I was there. There was also no guarantee they would look after my bike. And my funds were so short that the travel agent’s advice sounded more secure – take a flight from Beirut; it avoided all the hassle of two ferries and another flight. All I wanted to do was bring back the front panniers and wheels, everything could fit into a large suitcase. Simon would feed me and help me out, making sure the locals got to know me. He also offered to store my bicycle. It was a fantastic period, a climax to my journey after 5 months. Even though some loose ends in London were unravelling themselves and required my attention, not least the car being taken away and gardens left unmanaged, all these things could wait. For now I was in a fragile part of the earth where a tiny population of Lebanese cedars awaited my trepidation. Jo’s cafe filled me up and I ventured into the cool forest.
Simon’s family house was fantastic. Why he took a liking to me only God knows, but that night we would be celebrating St. Simon’s Day in the local church. This is the area where he was brought up, surrounded by fruit trees. The story goes that St Symeon the Stylite (389 – 459), derived from the Greek for pillar, “stylos”, lived for almost 40 years in the open air on a stone pillar (some 18m high) on a hill top in northern Syria. Pilgrims visited him from all over the world accorded to his miracles and sanctity. Though there is indication that Christianity was already prevalent in the region it is thought that he asked for seven crosses to be put up in the surrounding mountains. On doing so waters gushed from the rocks and have never ceased since. Written sources held by the Vatican tell of setting up stones on all borders of the villages. I watched the Lebanese dance that interesting step where they all hold each other side by side. The music seems to go on forever but enjoyable all the same. The church was looking a little forsaken but the fresh water stream was so cold that one could not keep their hand in it for longer than 30 seconds. Again that night I didn’t sleep too well. The following day I would check out the village, situated as it is on a steep decline. My instincts were soon clicking in, and whilst I left my trusty bike opposite the cedars without fear of it being stolen I ventured around the “womb of the earth”. There was a multitude of Marian shrines here; it seems that every nook and cranny is a hermitage in the making. My guitar is like an extra piece of clothing, almost negligible on my back. I saw an old Phoenician tomb, the word the Greeks used to describe the Canaanites (because of the purple, phoinikies dye they sold) who inhabited this region around 4,000BC. And then quite unexpected the burial place of Kahlil Gibran who’s classic The Prophet is one of the most beautiful reads ever. Born in Bsharri, his tomb was originally a grotto for monks seeking shelter in the 7th century, the Mar Sarkis (Saint Serge) hermitage and is now made into his museum. Gibran was Lebanese who as a child moved to New York with his family and sought to flee the misery of his native lands. I also learnt that he was a painter, although I do not rate much of his work. Some of it though captures the transcendence of his poetry and prose and is obvious in the expressions his portraits give. His love for the Kadisha Valley extended to his desire to buying the later monastery the Carmelite monks built between the 17th century and 19th centuries for his retirement. He died young though and his remains were transferred to the hermitage in 1931. On this occasion I took some photos for you but again I say to you, it may be one of those areas that could survive a full-scale civil war. In one of his biographies he is thought to say that “I am not a politician, nor do I wish to become one” and “Spare me the political events and power struggles, as the whole earth is my homeland and all men are my fellow countrymen”. He loved his homeland and it is ironic that Gibran’s exhilaration was manifested in a sketch called “Free Syria” of al-Sa’ih’s special “victory” edition after the Ottomans were defeated. He expressed great hope for national independence and progress, distinguishing it from both Lebanese and Arab nationalism, believing that nationalism stood side by side with internationalism in his thoughts. Maybe there is some clout in the prophetic words of my new song. All this feels like I am coming home both spiritually and physically, back to the Mother Womb.