Lebanon: The hotel by the cedars
Youssef Bazzi - 25/11/2008
A comical architectural jumble, the hotel had been built on top of a rocky hillside alongside the entrance to the Kadisha caves. We were gazing down at the village of Bishri huddled at the bottom of the slope, which perched in turn atop a further hillside looking over the valley of Kadisha (or Qanubein). Mohammed Abu Samra described this valley as “the wound” and looking down from where we sit to the bottom of Mount Makmal it does indeed appear like a sudden splitting, a deep gash opened by the heavy remorseless blow of geology’s knife.
We gazed on Bishri, not seeing it as it is now, but to remember, to trace again in our minds the imagined contours we had known as teenage readers of Jibran Khalil Jibran, to recall a countryside deserving of the name with its atmosphere of remoteness, of rutted bumpy distance, far away from the cities and the coast: isolated and alone. Perhaps, too, to recall that hard, harsh life full of fears and nighttime terrors. It was the landscape described by Jibran in stories inspired by life here, on the mythic hillside of this holy valley.
The valley was a historic bolt-hole for Christian communities who made their religious refuge between the forbidding mountain and the valley, the wound. The fear that drove them to run and hide here set down roots, nourished on the paranoia native to this landscape and their isolation. Yet from this trembling brew grew a monastic spirituality. It is as if the inhabitants of this remote spot drew their faith not from the credos and articles of religious belief but from terrifying and relentless nature; nature, that so taxed the ancient world.
We asked ourselves how they could have got here before the Americans and the Japanese gave us jeeps. We imagined how the idea of traveling, of leaving for the coast and its ports (as they began to do in the 19th century and during the famine of 1916), must have filled these inhabitants with unease. We thought of Jibran, who was whisked in one bound from this landlocked and timeless land to Paris and New York, to the heart of the New World.
We were on the hotel terrace looking out at the villages scattered over this mighty lip as the mournful sounds of bells rose into the air and the sinking sun of the late afternoon seemed almost within reach, when we noticed that the traditional Lebanese feast of mezze, Arak and grilled meat was being prepared and served by a young Ethiopian woman. So, it seemed that Sri Lankan, Philippine and Ethiopia servant girls had made it here, too, becoming guardians of Lebanese culinary heritage in the process.Here, in Jibran’s mythical land these girls answer the needs of the tourist trade, they serve up what’s left of authenticity.
In the slight autumnal chill, the mountain air freighted with the perfume of trees and moss, we slept like children and awoke early the next morning like eager students. We were surprised at ourselves: sleepless Beirutis who have to will themselves into drowsiness, only to get up the following day as the wounded drag themselves exhausted and spent from the field of battle. Up we leapt, eager to get on with our sporting activity for the day, our ‘hiking’, hot trudging around forests and hills, our goal on this occasion Black Horn Peak on Mount Makmal.
But first a fifteen-minute drive before we disembarked and started walking. It seemed that on this particular day the northern slopes of the mountain were being battered by all the winds of world. We were like those polar explorers you see seared by icy hurricanes on the Discovery Channel. We headed round to the south side of the mountain, taking in the desperate little patch of singed green, the tiny space occupied by the cedar “forest”, hedged in and outnumbered by luxury chalets and tourist shops. Before us we saw the vast, bleak, bone-white mountainside, while at its base lay sprawling cement villages that added to the bleakness the threatening image of forests and orchards under siege.
As we looked out and this wasteland of French colonial era villas we asked ourselves: If the foreigners and the European tourists had hung around just a few years more, would there be any cedars left at all? Then again, how is it that in all the years since the foundation of the Lebanese state in 1920 it hasn’t been possible to enlarge this pitiful forestful of the national symbol, the tree in the middle of the flag? It is a symbol threatened by death, by annihilation.
Here on the mountainside we met a man perched on some agricultural machinery who told us he worked for a foundation charged with re-foresting the mountain. He talked of planting 20,000 cedar saplings, an entirely imaginary boast for as far as we could see there were no newly planted cedars anywhere save for a small patch of twenty or so saplings. The problem, as he explained was that he could only plant female cedars; males didn’t take hold. It was as though sterility was not a naturally occurring phenomenon but the symptom of an unbreakable curse laid on this fractured land and its symbol
We descended into orchards glowing with yellow and red apples. Our friend Faidel could not resist and jumped up into the branches, plucking and munching, intoxicated by the sugary juice. An apple bursting with vitality hints at the power of this rocky soil.
Mohammed Abu Samra bellows out an old Lebanese song into the vast wilderness, laughing, mocking the ancient love song and aflame with his hard won ability to sneer at the rural romantic sensibility that lies at the heart of so much Lebanese art. This disdain let’s us take Jibran’s literary legacy, rich with the awesome might of this natural landscape, and convert it with technological insouciance into digital snapshots. The transformation is performed with an ease that destroys the fantasies and projections of identity and authenticity. It sweeps away literature itself.
Here we threw ourselves in to nature’s embrace only to be ambushed by mounds of garbage that perfumed the pines and oaks with the stench of decay. We walked for five hours down the rough track. Discarded gun cartridges carpeted the ground as profuse as pebbles. We could only imagine the quantity of birds slaughtered each season. Indeed, we went the whole day without seeing a single wing fluttering in the sky above us. We finally saw a lone pigeon by an oak tree it seemed to us like the last pigeon on earth.
Five and a half hours walking on Lebanon’s roof, next to its highest peak, while high above our heads planes flying to Europe and Asia passed back and forth with astonishing frequency. On the edge of the valley flocks of goats climbed upwards, sedate and orderly. Two movements: one earthly, one heavenly, one an image of the ancient Mediterranean, one of the modern world. We thought of the Ethiopian girl preparing stuffed meatballs for our supper and imagined Jibran’s hero, Khalil Al-Kafir, staying with us in the hotel, sitting beneath the bright lights of the kitsch lobby, dominated by a large photograph of snow=covered cedars.
Perhaps the photograph was placed there to awe and inspire, like similar images in school textbooks. It certainly doesn’t reflect the view from the lobby window. The photo seems like an attempt to make amends, to compensate those who have struggled out to this remote spot only to encounter a diminished reality. But this customer, this explorer, can set his imagination in gear and gaze upon Bishri as it should be, see the cedars as he wants them to be.
He can remember the land of Jibran Khalil Jibran with pride and dignity. But we, corrupted by modern ease, shed no tears for what has gone before. We fear nothing save the thought that corruption and fragmentation will one day stop us taking the pretty digital photographs we love so much.