First Arab Spring

A long overdue post, which includes Beirut bike tales, outings to wine and hashish-lands, a Hezbollah Museum and more…

Bike Tales

March 17 2012

Got given a bike today.
Of course, I sorely miss my Cape stallion but what bliss, even on these mad streets, and a bit too low a saddle for my legs, to ride again. Hence, gross domestic happiness has increased plentifold.
I rode along the Corniche (Prom) and through small streets, back to the flat.

I start to feel home, particularly in Hamra, my neighbourhood.

The guy at Al Sheik Croissants where I walk past nearly every day en route to Mahmoud’s, and regularly buy croissants, waved and said “hello”, the old man next door at the hardware store where I bought spray to unblock the balcony door railings, remembered me and advised me to use the same spray to clean my “new” bike.
Willkommen im Libanon! said the guy at the ice cream shop who spent two years in Baden-Wuerttemberg, my home province.
Bought a white, sweet-smelling two-stemmed hyacinth from an old man running a flower shop on a corner in the old part of Hamra (I’d love to live here…). My mom always has some of these plants in her kitchen, comes early spring. The flower man carefully wrapped it for me. People smiled at the plant sticking out of my bag as I rode around my hood.

March 18 2012 Night Ride # 1 & Lebanese Wine Tour

Rode across town to a hip hood called Gemmayze. In the dark. Love night rides! Cycled there to meet with Leyla, a Lebanese filmmaker who lives in Sweden most of the year. She gave me 7 of her films, which I promptly started to watch.

I am trying to put together an article on Cinema in Lebanon, focusing on women filmmakers. Leyla must be 60 and therefore is part of the first generation of filmmakers here. Watched 2 of her films and was very impressed by a feature she directed and shot here in Beirut in the late 80s, when the war was still raging on.

“Martyrs” is about a young woman who joins a militia and decides to become… a martyr.

En route to Leyla’s, a Mercedes Benz stopped very suddenly in front of me in Gouraud (narrow & busy!) Street, so that I had to pull my crappy brakes not to drive right into the fancy car. I cycled past and told the man (MAN!) driving: “The way you drive is very dangerous!” He looked at me as if I was crazy. Which of course, as you would know, I am not.

I arrived safe at Leyla’s house and then rode back home around 8pm. I was close to home when a scooter came screaming down a one-way, which legally I was going up but I guess I am splitting hair here… traffic signs are really just cosmetic, they’re deco…..

So this scooter comes closer and closer, with a small bucket-like metal container filled with hot coals for nargileh (shisha/hookah smoking), the ashes and sparks of hot coal flying through the air – towards me. This was a nargileh delivery boy, by the way. Anything goes, delivery-wise!

I got very scared for a moment, slowed down and he swerved to the other side. Shoo, that was literally, one of my hottest bike manoeuvres ever!

In my building, Al Sheik, I live on the 3rd floor. I take the bicycle up in the elevator. But 2 girls from upstairs on the 4th floor, also wanted to come with me and my bicycle in the elevator. We managed to squeeze in and laughed but when I got out, they got scared because my neighbour has some stupid little white fluffy dogs that always fucking bark when you get out of the elevator. I was glad to arrive home…
Lebanese Wine Lands

Spring is here! Had a beautiful day, with S. a Lebanese guy I met via a travel site. He drove me to the Beka’a Valley, home of Hezbollah, hashish and good wines. I sampled only the latter.

He’s a peculiar man… Used to be fighting in the war and so I would like to interview him, if he agrees.

He’s a former guerrilla who picked up arms at 16 and brags about the amount of Muslims he killed.

As much as I felt outrage and disgust at his racist mind-set and keeping such {gutter} company, I also thought of Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela’s book on Eugene de Kock aka Prime Evil… Not that I can or even wish to compare myself to her or S. to Eugene but who am I to judge? You can say what you want about the TRC and the amnesty clause in SA – we got to hear some of the truth. We heard Nomonde Calata’s wail, we heard the terrible tale of the Gugulethu Seven, we saw even Tutu break down. We got to see Jeffrey Benzien show us how he’d torture his victims. Some bodies and bones were found and laid to eternal rest in dignity. We have images and sounds and stories and faces, some admissions of guilt, we have the names of many villains and heroes, we have a tapestry of truth, of violence, of injustice – a quintessential building block of the new South Africa.

Here in Lebanon, amnesia is like a thick blanket, covering and silencing all questions. History school manuals end with World War II. (Read this sentence again-then let it sink in!) A friend promised to look for his old history school book for me to take a look at, even though it is in Arabic. But I will start Arabic classes soon.

March 22 Tannourine

I spent the most stunning day in Tannourine, walking past snow-covered apple and cherry orchards, pine and cedar trees that grow even high up on rock faces, using “racette” (snow shoes) to manage 1.5m of snow.

Part of the gang were George, a local guide who also runs a guest house with his wife and together with Charlita works for the Tannourine Nature Reserve, and Nabil, Lebanon’s most famous entomologist, who also runs some very successful environmental projects.

I can’t wait to be back in spring, when the orchards are in full blossom, in summer when the cherries are ripe.

March 25 2012 We’re Used To That…

I headed south with 2 friends today, in search of Mleeta Resistance Landmark – also known as the Hezbollah Museum. Mleeta is situated high up on Mount A’mel  and has played a pivotal role in the southern-Lebanese based resistance movements. This particular landmark was established by Hezbollah, one of the strongest parties in the Lebanese government. To dismiss Hezbollah merely as a terror organisation is counterproductive and short-sighted. Hezbollah, in many areas of Lebanon, plays the role of a Welfare Department, providing social services and even food. Beyond that, it has liberated the south from Israeli occupation.

On the day we went to Mleeta, Israeli planes had overflown the area in the morning. “Mleeta lies 45km from the border with occupied Palestine.”

The centre piece of this theme park with lots and lots of weaponry was The Abyss, a big circle inside which tanks, weaponry and even helmets and boots captured from the IDF were exhibited. The Merkava Mark 4 tank had its canon tied in a knot, the Hebrew letters on display were meant to remind the pilots flying by that this was “the abyss”…

Following the trail through the bush along which weaponry was exhibited, I realised that even after 15 years of living in a violent country, I still am a child of peace. I lack the vocab for all these murderous tools on display…

Going towards the cave, an underground system where control rooms, the kitchen, praying rooms and living quarters were dug out and hidden away, I overheard subdued sobbing behind me. I turned around and saw an elderly lady, dressed in lavendar colours, behind me, holding a handkerchief against her mouth, to muffle the sobs, wipe away the tears. Suddenly it hit me – how this was not just a museum, or what others have labelled, a grotesque terrorist museum, Hezbollah’s Disneyland – it was a site of memory…

I turned around and touched her shoulder, asking her if she was okay, even though I didn’t expect her to speak English. She seemed as surprised as I was myself, about my gesture. She was fine. We parted and I walked ahead.

Once we had gone past the point where martyrs had prayed their last prayer, a make-shift open-air hospital, and we were through The Cave, en route up, I saw the woman in lavender resting on a rock. As I came close, she addressed me in French. How are you? Fine, thank you. And how are you?? Oh, I’m fine too, it’s my legs that are giving me trouble. And your heart, I ask? How is your heart? “Shwei-Shwei”(so, so, in Arabic).

Back up, I saw a Filipino nanny, posing in front of an over-size bullet (ca. 1m high), which actually was a donation box/bullet, a little Lebanese boy sitting on her lap. 

Walking into The Bunker, I couldn’t see what would be awaiting me, once around the corner. I jumped, when I saw this killer machine on a tripod. The three of us crammed in there and took some pictures – the view was pretty spectacular. I felt a guy behind me, keen to come inside. I turned around and said:

We’re almost done.

So? What’s it like?, he asked me.

Scary, I replied.

We’re used to that, were his words…

Mleeta is impressive and important, even though there were other fighters and groups operating in the South, way ahead of Hezbollah and their story is not alluded to. Jean Genet wrote about it. I still know too little myself. What I would welcome, was more human stories, less weapons. But I am a child of peace, I’m not and have never been “used to that”…

Chatting to one of the guides on the way out, I wanted to find out whether guides had at some point lived on the mountain. I thought of the District Six Museum and Robben Island… His answer: We’re still fighting for our freedom. You in South Africa, you have it. I can’t tell you more…

Might write a feature about Mleeta. I have the business card of the Hezbollah PR director…

En route home, we stopped in Saida, a sea side town half an hour south of Beirut (Sidone in the Bible) and had some great late lunch. Without beer. The town is dry. And conservative, to put it mildly. Some tavern that served beer got bombed out, a while back. That means, I am sure, that there is some busy shebeen somewhere on the outskirts of Saida….

March 31 Critical Mass Beirut #1

Attended by 10 intrepid cyclists. Countless close scooter/SUV, bus and truck encounters, busy roads and highways, zigzagging through cars seriously stuck in traffic and insane levels of pollution. Cycling in Johannesburg on a tandem now has been down-graded to “picnic” status.

love and chick-peace.


About Tales from a Small Country

I'm a project coordinator and features writer with a passion for the seventh art, a keen interest in culture and mobility, as well as social and environmental subjects. Half French, half German by origin possibly explains why I am drawn to divided countries and diverse societies: I called Cape Town in South Africa home for over a decade before coming to Beirut in early 2012. Besides people watching and cats, I also love Tripoli, Lebanon's second city.
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One Response to First Arab Spring

  1. brendon says:

    “The way you drive is very dangerous!” He looked at me as if I was crazy. Which of course, as you would know, I am not.” I wouldn’t call you crazy…….. as such 😉

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