09 January 2020, The Tablet

Lebanon: Country at a crossroads

Lebanon: Country at a crossroads

A watercolour of St Anthony’s monastery, Qozhaya, painted by Page


As anti-government protesters fill Lebanon’s streets and the economy slides deeper into crisis, an English travel writer recalls walking the country’s length by way of the mountains. His extraordinary journey gave him a glimpse of another world behind the headlines of violence and revolt

On the first morning of the protests that grew into what they are calling a revolution here, I stood on the balcony of my hillside flat and looked out across West Beirut. In eerie silence, towering columns of thick black smoke billowed up from every neighbourhood. The air smelt sweetly of the burning tyres used to block the normally hectic roads, now dead still.

Headlines followed swiftly: instability, corruption, proxy politics… Lebanon is back in the news. But there is another side to Lebanon, and I stumbled upon it last spring when I walked the country’s length from north to south, by way of the mountains. I encountered a land of hidden monasteries, kindly shepherds, snow-covered plateaux and lush terraced valleys of apple orchards and almond groves. As Kahlil Gibran put it: “You have your Lebanon, and I have mine.”

In a kitchen, around dusk, on the other side of Lebanon, a candle flickers in a rusty Vaseline jar, gilding Ahmad’s trembling beard and throwing shadows into Zeinab’s laughter lines. Behind the glowing faces of my hosts, the narrow kitchen is lit by the moon-white gloam light entering through a high gable window. On the table sit bowls of hummus, raw green chillies, green beans and a pile of thin unleavened bread. In the intimacy of the power cut, Zeinab excitedly asks questions while Ahmad sits hunched over his swollen leg, occasionally breaking bread to share with me. We were unexpected companions.

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