Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Lebanon: The extreme South

Chapter Eight - The extreme South - An interesting journey

Having arrived at Saida's Sahet en-Nejmeh, the city's main square, I needed to find the only hotel in town, the Nazel esh-Sharq (Hotel d'Orient). I asked around. One man said he knew where it was and offered to drive me there. It wasn't far, but it would have been almost impossible to find, as I don't speak Arabic and the hotel's sign is in Arabic writing only. It's above a shop which sells sanitary products like soap and women's stuff. The guy who'd driven me, showed me the place, but expected a small tip for the ride.

A room in the hotel was $10 for a single, cheap to Lebanese standards. Rooms can be had at various places in the hotel. I chose one upstairs, with a small balcony overlooking the street. Although there's a mosque very nearby, I'd still recommend taking a room there; there's hardly any traffic at night and it avoids the noise from the lounge near the reception.

The rooms were only just acceptable. A toilet and shower were down the hall, but the bathroom was really awful. It took water ten minutes to sip through the dirt in the sink. Still, it's a friendly and relaxed place.

It was after dark when I had arrived at the Hotel d'Orient. I decided to go for a walk to the seafront. It had been a busy (market) day; the street was full of garbage. When cars passed me, I heard a sound as if something snapped. There was an awful stench. When I got into the light, I saw that the cars were running over the carcasses of slaughtered lambs, hence the breaking sound...
Yes, Saida (Sidon) was a pretty dirty city... Pretty gloomy too.

I went looking for the telephone office, which was supposed to be a large white building with a huge antenna on the roof, not far from the Government Rest House. Not so. The office is now to the east of Sahet en-Nejmeh. A friendly local whom I had asked about it, took me to it. It's a busy place, and I had to wait about 45 minutes before I could get on the phone.

Saida port The next day I went to explore the city. From the hotel it's easy to do a walking tour. First, I walked to the Castle of Louis. It's completely fenced off and not accessible. Not a great loss, although with some restoration it could be quite a fascinating place.

Then I walked down the road to the coast and proceeded in the direction of the port, passing by the minaret of the Great Mosque. The port's nice; fishermen are busy with their boats 'n' nets. Opposite the port is the Khan al-Franj, a 17th century caravanserai built by Fakhr ad-Din. It's being restored, but about one half has already been completed and is open to the public. The archaeologists have done a nice job. When I was there, there was an exhibition of modern art. It consisted of collages, involving press-cuttings and photocopies of official documents about the Israeli occupation and the cruelties against the Lebanese people. The work was often beautifully executed, but more important, it gave a lot of food for thought. How is it possible that people do such things to one another ? Really, this exposition called for an hour of silence, not just a minute...

At the Khan I also met the archaeologist in charge of the restorations. He was a friendly guy, only slightly older than me. He had some problems with chemical reactions between certain stones and other substances. I helped him out with that. To show his appreciation, he offered to show me to some of the monuments in town, some of which he had also worked on. Quite interesting. We walked around the fascinating souq area, not as fascinating as that in some of the more famous cities, but worth exploring nevertheless. The people were not exactly welcoming here though, and I even had garbage thrown at my head for taking pictures in the narrow alleys (although they can't have been compromising for anyone; I didn't photograph Muslim women or the likes). I visited an old hammam, a palace of Fakhr ad-Din, an old olive soap factory and finally the Great Mosque. Inside, this is a very, very beautiful place. It's very nicely restored. My new-made friend had worked on it himself. He told me the mosque had been largely destroyed by Israeli bombing. The archaeologists had rebuilt it, but had used the shattered decorations, both to keep the authenticity and as a testimony to what happened to the building.

One shouldn't just barge in here, but ask around if a visit is possible. Forget about it during prayer times. Not only will you be denied entry, but you may even arouse some anger (so I was told) !

Back at the Khan al-Franj we said good-bye, and I continued to the Sea Castle, the highlight of Saida. It's understandable why, when comparing it to the town's other attractions. In essence, this Frankish castle lies off-shore, only connected to the land by a causeway. I bought my ticket at the small booth. It was LL 2000. The guy selling them was a grumpy fella - Yes, you are right when you conclude Saida's not exactly the most friendly town in Lebanon...

View from the Sea Castle Having walked down the causeway, I came to the base of the castle. What I immediately noticed were segments of old columns, incorporated as building material in the walls. Quite odd. There's not much to see inside, but the location is superb and so are the views from the roofs.

I took a taxi to the Temple of Echmoun, only a short ride out of town (they'll hit you for LL 9000 if they notice you don't know how far it is !). There's no charge for entering the site, just a couple of unfriendly soldiers. It's one of those places that are actually only appealing to archaeologists; there's little to see for the 'ordinary' traveller. The mosaics were said to be fine, but I found them only mediocre. I only saw mosaics with patterns, not depicting anything in particular.
The area where the temple is located is quite nice, so I decided to walk back to town (it's not exactly a place to catch a cab anyway). Most of the walk is out in the open, and it was bloody hot. The way back - especially if you came by taxi - is not so obvious, so I asked a guy for directions. After I had continued for a couple of hundred metres, this very guy came after me on his small motorcycle and offered me a ride into town. He didn't expect anything and was just being friendly. I was very thankful.

By the time I arrived back at the hotel it was late afternoon, and I decided I could better move on to Tyre, instead of spending another night in the rather grubby room I had stayed in the night before. At Sahet en-Nejmeh I asked around about service taxis to Tyre (Sour). A man told me there was a minibus as well; he was going in the same direction himself. Once on board of the bus, I asked the man how much the ride cost. He signalled me not to worry about it. He had to get out somewhere along the way, and when he did, I noticed him paying for my ride. Incredible ! A total stranger paying for my ride !...

Distances in Lebanon are never long, but travel can take quite a while if you've got to go through the mountains. Saida and Tyre, however, were both located on the coastal strip, so it didn't take long to get from A to B.

Tyre is Lebanon's southernmost city, and hence it was - and still is - very vulnerable to Israeli raids. Not surprisingly, tourist business is not too much to speak of and there are only three hotels. I chose the cheapest, the Hotel Elyssa, right near the coast where - according to the locals - Israeli gunboats still occasionally blast Lebanese boats to smithereens. A decent single room with A/C was $35. I recommend taking a room at the back. Those have good views of Sour's el-Bass district with nice mountain backdrops. The hotel used to have a restaurant, but due to extremely bad business, it has been closed. So now you can't have breakfast or even a drink. Luckily there's a good Lebanese fast food restaurant only a short distance down the road. It's called the Jawad Food Center. They specialise in juices, and have quite excellent burgers, pizzas, and the usual stuff. They also sell the tasty local honey. For breakfast I recommend a patisserie at the el-Bass end of Rue Abu Dib. Their croissants are lovely and not too expensive. Not a very friendly place though.

Tyre. The sights. There are three sites. One is called the City Ruins (because that's where the centre of the city was located), next to that is a fenced-off site with the remains of a Crusader Cathedral (inaccessible to the public) and finally there's a big, spread-out site at the suburb of el-Bass.

Tyre is a city with an incredibly rich history. It would lead too far to summarise that here (there are more than enough other sources for that). Suffice to say that it was a major Phoenician seaport from about 2000 BC onwards through the Roman period. Today all of tyre is situated on the mainland, but in the old days the headland was an island. Probably the most famous episode in the history of the city was its resistance to the Macedonian conqueror Alexander the Great, whose army took it after a seven-month siege in 332, using floating batteries and building a causeway to gain access to the island. After the defeat of Tyre, 10,000 of its inhabitants were put to death, and another 30,000 were sold as slaves. Alexander's causeway, which was never removed, converted the island into a peninsula. I decided to walk to the City Ruins first. Easy enough from the Elyssa hotel; you just follow the coastal road north-west for a couple of hundred metres. I'd just started off when a teenager crossed the street in front of me. He looked at me and smiled. I said : "Good afternoon". Instead of replying, he just groaned at me, groaned as if he was cummin' during sex. I was rather taken by surprise by that, and just walked on. I hadn't walked further than, say, twenty metres when I heard someone running towards me, behind me. I suspected it was that weird guy. Not paranoid but always at the ready, I prepared myself to give that someone a good kick in the nuts. The running halted. When I looked after me it was that weirdo indeed. He just stared at me. I asked him : "What do you want ?" "Sex. I want sex", he said. "Well, go and find it somewhere else !" I continued. He came walking next to me, eyeballing me, wetting his lips with his tongue and groaning loudly. I was really bothered by that guy, but decided to ignore him rather than starting a fight. After all, he hadn't physically hurt me himself. But he didn't go away. He followed me all the way to the ruins. There I stopped and told him to fuck off and threatened to go to the police. That scared him and he disappeared, luckily not to come back again. Who said that only women are the targets of sexual harassment ? :-)

Tyre's city ruins with el-Bass in the background Anyway, I was at the ruins. But the entrance is not (anymore) at the end of the coastal road. No, you have to turn right at the closed gate and follow the site around a bit. There's the entrance now. It costs LL 5000 to get in.

It's a visually appealing site, although there are hardly any focal points, except perhaps the Palestra Colonnade. The location is superb with the sea, hills and an unparalleled view of the city in the background. The mosaic road leading to the sunken harbour, the baths and the water reservoirs looking like tombs are the main points of interest.

I left the site and was walking towards the Crusader Cathedral when I bumped into a guy selling the typical Lebanese basket-like breads with sesame seeds. His name was Fadi; everybody called him 'Fadi American', because he always greets everybody in English, very unusual for an Arab. The weird thing is that his English is not at all good, but he "loves the sound of it". He's a bit crazy and poor too, but nevertheless a very joyous chap. He took me to a dental lab in the vicinity. There Mohammad and some associates, all Palestinian, produced false teeth. It was kinda strange spending some time there, but they all spoke English and were very friendly and fun to talk to. Fadi left, but said he'd be back later in the afternoon and would take me around town.

The guys at the lab and I talked about the usual things, to make an acquaintance, and about the history of the city, both in ancient times and in more recent days, namely the conflict with Israel, which is still not finished. I asked about the el-Bass site and got out my Lonely Planet guide which contained a city map. Mohammad took it, looked at the map and explained how to get there. When he closed the book, he noticed the regional map on the back. He raved about it ! I asked him why. He said it was because the map shows the Palestinian Territories separately, whereas all Lebanese maps show only Israel. Everybody got excited and it resulted in Ahmad and Ali offering me a ride to Qana. They had some deliveries to make, and I could come along. What a lucky surprise ! I had planned on going to Qana on my own, but this would save me both time and money. Great ! These guys were absolutely friendly.

Qana has a reputation for being the site of a cave where Jesus performed his first miracle. But for me, it was more interesting as the site of the infamous Qana Massacre, which is known all over the country as the culmination of Israeli aggression. In the night of April 18th 1996, during Israel's 'revenge tour' baptised Grapes of Wrath, Jewish planes fired four phosphor rockets at a UN compound where local people, civilians, had sought refuge from the perils of war. 107 were burned alive, among them also UN soldiers. Israeli military sources claimed it was a computer error which was to blame; they had never intended to strike at civilians. What a load of rubbish. Reconnaissance planes had been observed above the area in the days before the attack. Furthermore, when you drive to the village you can clearly still see the craters of the rockets that cut off the roads, the only roads by which medical assistance could arrive. And phosphor rockets ?...

The drive to Qana from Sour only takes a short while. We passed an army checkpoint and Ahmad said : "These are the last Lebanese soldiers. Now we are entering a grey zone." About one kilometre further on, I think it must have been, I saw a destroyed building, painted all white with the big UN letters on it. An African soldier with the typical blue helmet waved us on, no real checks here. Ahmad continued : "This is the UN buffer zone. It is safe now, but Israel sometimes still fires rockets in this security zone." After another ten minutes, I think, we arrived in Qana. It's a quiet, Shiite village. There's nothing going on really. But that this is not your average village speaks from the big concrete banner across the street. It greets you when you enter and says : "Our message to the world, is the blood of our victims." A bit further on, there's a signpost pointing to the site of the Qana Massacre. It's painted brown, just like the signs to a tourist attraction. And actually it is one too, however a morbid one. Personally, I think people visiting Lebanon should be obliged to visit Qana too, as it'll give them a better insight in the cruelties of war. Like I said before, it's impossible to visit Lebanon and not be confronted with the war. I hate to get involved in politics, and I try not to, but in the case of Lebanon it's just impossible. I don't take sides. I condemn all killings, no matter who does them, but it's pretty obvious who's done them in Qana.

We stopped in front of the UN compound and I entered the site. I guarantee you that it feels odd to suddenly see all the tombs of the victims, laid out at your feet. All graves have the pictures of the dead on them. I must confess seeing this brought tears to my eyes. It's really horrible. It's not like visiting a war cemetery. These people are civilians, not soldiers. I'm not at all very religious, but I did say a prayer for the deceased. There's a board with photographs taken after the attack. They show people burnt beyond recognition, torn away limbs, lifeless children and the UN personnel that had to take care of them. A nearby sign puts the thoughts of the people here into words: "The New Holocaust"...

Behind this unusual cemetery, the barracks which were destroyed by the explosion of the rockets can still be seen. After the victims had been removed from the site, a roof was built over it, making this a very vivid reminder of the conflict. Immediately to the right is the present UN base. There's lots of barbed wire and sand-bags, and there are lookout posts. The occupied territory is very nearby !

We drove to al-Dalafeh, a hamlet of Qana. This is the location of the Cave of the Lord Christ. In that cave Christians celebrate Christmas.
An army post overlooking the valley is located at the start of the steep path which descends to the cave. The soldiers here are very careful, and guns are at the ready, but they were never unfriendly and once they had verified that we were OK, one of them even accompanied us to the grotto. On the way to it we passed several rocks which had persons carved into them. There are also several similar rocks further on. One of them shows a central figure surrounded by 12 others. This is thought to be Jesus and the Twelve Apostles.

The cave is only small and not very interesting, but when you're inside you're standing on the ground where Jesus actually slept ! At least, that's what I was told. As with all Biblically-historical sites, it's hard to prove or deny anything.
Ahmad made his deliveries and after that we returned to Tyre, bypassing a monument on the right side of the road, just out of the village. It's supposed to be the tomb of Hiram, a Phoenician king who ruled Tyre. It's a bit odd, nowadays, to find his grave right there... After all he was a king who maintained friendly relations with Israel...

Back at the dental lab, it didn't take long before Fadi arrived. He had sold all his breads and was now ready to take me on a "city tour"... We walked to el-Bass first, to visit that part of Tyre's ruins. We dropped into several shops on the way. It's a really long walk from the headland to the site, especially since the gate you pass first, namely the one at the end of Rue Abu Dib, is not open. You can climb over the fence if you like, but I don't recommend it. We walked all the way 'round the fence to the eastern entrance, which is the only one open. There's a lonely ticket booth, where you pay the LL 5000 entrance fee. They also have a fair guide book available for LL 3000.

Again this is a site with few distinct landmarks. It's very extensive but except for the Monumental Gate there's little in terms of focal points, making it less appealing. I looked at the funeral complex, the mosaics, the Apollo shrine, the Roman chariot road, the aqueduct and finally arrived at the Hippodrome, which - being 480 metres in length and 120 metres wide - occupies a large part of the site. It had a capacity of about 30,000 spectators. Unfortunately, only a small part has been restored. Still it's supposed to be the best preserved in existence. Under the Hippodrome shops were located.

It was an extremely windy day that day, and at times my eyes were full of the fine sand of which there is in abundance at the site. I decided not to take longer than absolutely necessary. The archaeological remains in Tyre are extensive and historically interesting, but they're only mildly interesting for the more casual visitor, I think.

We headed back downtown. It was late afternoon. Fadi showed me several interesting shops in the old souqs. In the evening we went to eat some great pizzas, and dropped by a games hall. Games halls are slightly different here than at home : it's a house's converted living room, stocked with PCs. You just choose a game and a guy will boot up the CD-ROM for ya'. The PCs performed poorly so it wasn't great fun, but Fadi loved it - he was doing his utmost to please me. And you know what ? Poor Fadi paid it for all expenses that day ! All the money he had earned that day was spent on me ! Unbelievable ! I tried to tell him one time that I'd pay the next time, but I had to use all my humour after that to let him believe I'd been joking... Hospitality is not taken lightly by Arabs ! Truly, it's unbelievable the friendship one encounters in the Arab world. It's unparalleled.

I needed to make an international phone call. There's of course the telephone office at the Western end of the harbour, but there's a closer one not far from Hotel Elyssa. It's back on Rue Abu Dib, a couple of houses to the left across the street (when coming from the hotel).

Late at night, we met Ali (from the dental lab) again. Together we went to visit the bakery where Fadi buys his bread. It's a centuries-old bakery located somewhere in the souqs, still functioning in the traditional way. The freshly-made bread is truly delicious ! After that, we went to Fadi's house, a poor man's residence amidst the dark souqs. I was welcomed by his mother and sister, very nice people. I only stayed for a short while because it was getting rather late and I didn't want to disturb these nice folks for too long. Ali drove me back to my hotel where I said good-bye to him and Fadi. It was the end of an extremely interesting and friendly day. I have good memories of Tyre, especially because of the people I met there. If you make it there, just ask anyone for Fadi American, everybody knows him. Don't take advantage of him, that's only too easy, but send him the best regards of his Belgian friend Patrick, the guy he went to play games with. We'd both highly appreciate that ! Thanks.

After my two nights stay in the Elyssa, I checked out and left for Beirut. I flagged down a passing minibus on the main road. The trip cost LL 5000.

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