David has a friend named Hikmat who lives in the Bekaa Valley. I have never met Hikmat but know him well from the scene in my husband’s Frontline Documentary, Lebanon Party of God. In this scene, David is driving in downtown Baalbek with Hikmat when suddenly, Hikmat pulls over to the side of the road, hops out of the car and chats with a fellow on curb. Hikmat gets back in the car, lurches it into gear, careens away and leans over excitedly to my husband, “You are lucky David. Very lucky. Today is your lucky day. That man? He hijacked Jordanian airplane. He fly it around to many city and he bring it back to Lebanon to blow it up.” I am looking forward to meeting Hikmat but do not feel the urge to meet any hijackers.
Hikmat’s son, Rami, meets us at the Hotel Palmyra in Baalbek. The Palmyra is a storied old hotel in the middle of the town square. The Palmyra is the place where all the CIA agents stayed, along with the likes of Winston Churchill, Lawrence of Arabia, Kaiser Wilhelm, Ella Fitzgerald, Jean Cocteau and others. Their ghosts may be roaming in the faded glory of the hallways of this place. A wizened old man runs the hotel and allows us to visit Room 19, a place perhaps last refurbished in the 1940’s. “The author” gets us all to snap lots of photos which makes us wonder if there isn’t some intrigue going to happen in this mysterious venue. We leave the Hotel Palmyra, the ghosts, the dusty courtyard, overrun with sagging cedar trees and head up the hill to Hikmat’s compound.
There is an old saying that goes, “What happens in the Bekaa valley, stays in the Bekaa Valley.” We’re in the heart of Hezbollah and hashish country. Truth is, we’re on best behavior today. Hikmat reminds us, “They know you are here. You are being watched. But it’s okay, you are with me.”
Hikmat introduces us to “one of his wives, Mona” and his cute as buttons seven-year old twins. Much later in the day, we begin to embrace Hikmat’s bizarre sense of humor and realize he only has one wife. By the end of the day, we think he might ask the divine Miss K to be his second. She sidles up to him and he plies her with her favorite Almaza beer and other treats. Hikmat’s wife, Mona does not sit with us but serves us massive platters of cherries and plums from local trees and thick Lebanese coffee. The twins dance around, trying out their French and English, showing off their matching outfits, posing for every photo opportunity like pin-up models. This is just the start of a very long, fascinating day for Hikmat gets up suddenly and it’s “yallah” which is Arabic for “Let’s go!”
We have a driver and a large 32-seat touring bus but Hikmat advises that he should drive ahead and we will we follow. We need Hikmat’s car as escort when we drive through the many villages leading to his hometown of Yamouni. Indeed, along the way, Hikmat stops and waves or even shouts out greetings. Our first stop is at one of the many memorial mosques that dot this land. This one is dedicated to the second leader of Hezbollah, Abbbas Mussawi, killed in his car by mortar in an attack by Israeli helicopter. Mussawi was riding in his car with his wife and young son when the helicopter took them out. The burned out shell of a car is on display in the parking lot of the mosque. David once attended a Hezbollah rally here where Hassan Nazrallah spoke along with the leader of the Islamic Jihad. This is back in the day when I avoided hearing any stories of his time in Lebanon – back in the day when what happened in the Bekaa valley really truly stayed in the Bekaa Valley.
The women in our group all gather to one side to don our very colorful versions of scarves. I keep trying to trade my thrift store fringed peachy number for Finn’s Hermes, but she’s not buying. Every mosque has different rules and in this one, we are able to enter into the same doorway as the men and wander around freely. At other mosques, we have to leave the men, hand over our pocketbooks to an attendant and can only view from an upstairs galley.
This mosque is a stunning display of mirrors and bright blue tiles. The whole place sparkles like a feverish blue holiday display. In the center of the mosque is a glittering tomb, which holds the remains of Mussawi. Our driver lays out a small rug, a stone and leans down in prayer. We don’t know if this means he’s fond of fallen Hezbollah leaders or just taking the opportunity to pray. Hikmat introduces the author and our group to Mussawi’s brother who happens to be lingering around the mosque. I don’t know quite what to say, “Gee, sorry about the car bombing thing?” and I figure silence under my headscarf is probably the best etiquette. He encourages us to take photos, another big no-no in most mosques so we pull out our cameras, eager tourists we are, and snap pictures of the shrines to Mussawi, the display featuring his young son’s shoes and the glittering tiles.