Lebanon: A Tale of Two Governments and Two Visits (part III)

Part I and Part II

We divided our overnight stay in the north between a B&B in a small village high in the mountains surrounding the Qadisha (holy) valley and a hotel in Ehden.  The latter, perched at around 1800 meters above sea levels around the same valley, is the summer residence of former president Suleiman Frangie and current Marada movement leader MP Suleiman Frangie jr and an Aoun and Hezbollah political ally.  Opposite Frangie's den, and only few kilometers away, is Gea'gea's village Bsharre.  Samir Gea'gea' is the chief of the Lebanese Forces militia who fought in the civil war and is suspected of having played the main role in the slaying of the actual Marada movement leader's parents Tony Frangie, his wife and his daughter.  He was pardoned in 2005 by the new Lebanese parliament for other crimes and got out of prison to become an MP for Bsharre. Another Qadisha village, Diman, is also in the surroundings, is the summer residence of the Maronite Patriarchate.

The Qadisha valley is known for having contionuously hosted Maronite hermits and other Christian hermits since the 13th century, according to records, but probably before because there were hermits in the Maronite religion as soon as the 5th century.   Its mountains are interspersed with villages that reach for the sky.  Lebanon's mountainous regions have vibrant rural communities.  The Qadisha valley is at the heart of the Maronite religion history and yet, around it, the civil war has left the memory of dramatic events and deep divisions that run in the Maronite community until today.  There is a beautiful description with pictures of the valley on this blog.

During our stay we made frequent visits to my native village. 

On our first visit to my village, my cousin promised me that for every meal we eat with them he was going to accompany us on a tour of the land.  The land is outside the village and although I am acquainted with it, I couldn't remember its limits.  And for three consecutive days, we would arrive around 10 a.m. to the village, spend the morning visiting relatives, eat lunch with my cousin around 1 p.m. and head to the fields between 4 and 6 p.m.  

The village has expanded.  Nobody really leaves the village, even though they work outside, villagers keep houses in the village and so do their grown-up and married children.  Part of the agricultural land has been invaded by houses and I discovered the price went significantly up from what my father told us, partly because of housing expansion, partly because the dramatic increase in prices in Beirut is having a snowball effect on the rest of the country, and also because many wealthy Christians are fleeing Iraq and other Arab countries and settling in Lebanon, so much so that the Lebanese government had to set a limit on how much land and property a foreigner can buy. 

We visited the house where we were born my brothers and I.  It is uninhabitable right now, it has been empty for more than 20 years.  I arranged for an architect to visit and we are working right now on plans for renovations.  It was quite emotional to visit my parent's house.  There were some pictures and books covered in dust.  I rescued some of them.  I remember that at the start of the civil war my father, afraid that Christian Phalangist militia, who were executing their political enemies in the village, would find socialist litterature in our house, made me burn some books.  I remember my rage and my sadness but I also understood that my father was trying to protect us.  I promised myself that we would bring the house back to life.  Only thing left was to convince my brothers.

Outside our village visits, always warmly welcomed and eagerly expected, we toured the Qadisha valley, its mountains, villages, trails, fields and monasteries.  We also trekked the LMT in the area.  There  are beautiful Cedar reserves around Tannourine, Bsharre and Ehden, and we visited some of them.

One of the most beautiful monasteries is Saint Antoine of Qoshaya.  It hosts the first typographic printing machine of the ME on which the first Arabic bible was printed. 

We also went to the beach in the north.  One day we hired a fisherman boat to Rabbits' island near Mina, Tripoli (Lebanon's northern city).  The island has some insignificant ruins from the time of the crusaders and became a training ground for Palestinian factions before and during part of the civil war.  It is now a natural reserve.  

Tripoli is a very poor city and poor children were lining the Rachid Karame street begging drivers for money on red light stops.  It is also a recruiting ground for Hariri militia.  Another day on the beach was spent in Byblos. There was a big family reunion in Byblos.  My husband's niece, who was studying Arabic in Damascus, came for the day all the way from Damascus to see us. 

In the north, mostly Christian, very few were supporters of the western Saudi leaning March 14th movement led by Mr. Saad Hariri and his Christian ally Ge'gea'.  Despite the difficult situation in neighbouring Syria, and probably because of it, most Chritsians were apprehensive and wary of any western political influence and most Lebanese Christians in the north supported the Hezbollah-Aoun led coalition that was in the process of forming the next government.  Dennis Kucinich understood it better when, appearing on New TV (Lebanon) after a visit to Bashar El Assad in Damascus, one July morning, he said to the interviewer that after meeting El Assad for about three hours he was convinced that foreign intervention won't resolve tensions in Syria and that the best solution is dialogue.  The new Lebanese Patriarch, Al Ra'i, who took it upon himself to tour Maronite communities everywhere in Lebanon during this summer, visited my village on the day we left the country.  We saw the preparations and we were told that he will be met with orange scarves (orange is the color of the political movement of Hezbollah's Maronite ally Michel Aoun).  Al Ra'i got the message of the majority of Christians in Lebanon, they don't count on the West anymore.  It is no surpirse then to see his most recent statements about Syria and the necessary support for the resistance in Lebanon.

One thing is certain, Lebanese want to move forward, they don't want to make wars.  Past governments since Taef  applied neoliberal economic policies which saw Lebanese savings evaporate.  Lebanese used to be savers and not borrowers.  It isn't the case anymore.  The country is in a very difficult economic situation.  On our way to the airport, the taxi driver described to us how he lives.  He has a family of four.  He earns around 3000 dollars a month.  As real estate is high and exceeds budget he decided to live outside the city, but then gaz prices are high.  Good schools and good health are private.  By the end of the first week of every month, he has already spent most of his salary, mainly on reiumbursing borrowed money.  He goes to the bank, borrows again and waits for the next month.  Driving tourists is an additional income for him and he works as intermediary in real estate deals.  He told us that Lebanese don't possess their country anymore, they don't possess themselves.  He was hoping the new government would do something but was skeptical.  He was an angry man.  Most people who live on fixed income in Lebanon are like him.  

During our stay in Lebanon we watched on TV the debates in parliament around the confidence vote for the new Mikati government.  The debate was at times very acrimonious.  This is the first non-Hariri, non neoliberal, pro-people government since the 90s.  I had come to Lebanon in a first visit in Januray for my father's funerals with some anxiety over what might happen after the fall of the Hariri government and finished my second visit in July after a new government from a new coalition was formed.  Lebanon was in a post Hariri mood and it was hoping for some positive change.


Jad said...

Dear Sophia,
Very nice post, I felt that I was there through your nice images and history telling.
Great to see you back online :)

"My husband's niece, an Italian, who was studying Arabic in Damascus, came for the day all the way from Damascus to see us."

Did he tell you anything interesting of how was Damascus treating him as a foreigner?

Sophia said...

Dear Jad,

My husband's niece is 'she'. Actually she came with a #Syrian friend. She was in Damascus for 6 months and July was her last month. She didn't feel any threat, even during the protests. She was happy there.

Jad said...

Dear Sophia,
Thank you for the reply :)
It's so nice to see you writing again.
All the best!

Anne Rettenberg LCSW said...

Hi Sophia,
Quite interested to read your recent reports. Sorry to hear about your father...I hadn't been reading your blog regularly so I think I may have missed your news of his passing.
I've been meaning to ask you what you thought of the film "Incendies" if you saw it.

Anonymous said...

what a nice post

did you hear about the 3,000 plus killed in Syria?

You are strangely silent given you defend thi8s murderous regime that raped Labanon for 30 + years.

Naj said...

Ah, a breath of fresh air ...

Sophia said...

Hi Naj,

Nice to hear from you on the blog.

Sophia said...

Hi Ann,

I have been tweeting like crazy and neglecting my blog.

Incendies is a beautiful movie. However, Mouawad who, like many lebanese, left Lebanon just before the civil war is trying as an artist to recreate repeatedly the events of this war in his work and mix it with his Quebec identity, part as a creative search and part as an identity search.

It is touching but totally fictionalised like a Greek tragedy and also mixed with a western ego (Mouawad's ego) and so it makes it far from the reality for someone who actually lived the civil war.

There is however a real story behind this, the story of Soha Beshara, a communist resistant who was imprisoned in the prison featured in the movie for trying to assassinate the leader of the south lebanese army, the army that was installed by Israel during the occupation of south Lebanon.

This is what she had to say about the movie:

I hope everything is going well for you. I have to return to writing on my blog which is way more satisfying than twitter. But believe me only heavy traffic blogs survived the twitter era and nobody visits mine except the people I knew before Twitter came to be, like you.

Since March 29th 2006