Today we are headed to South Lebanon, through the ancient port city of Sidon, with the goal to get to the place they call Fatima Gate. Fatima Gate is at the former border crossing with Israel and Lebanon, closed since 2000. Sidon is the third largest city in Lebanon, sometimes called the “Mother City of the Phoenicians.” I recall from our trip two years ago, that we will pass through a number of security check points, usually with David giving us the stern reminder, “Keep you cameras down. Act normal.” My typical thought in response is, “Yeah right, David, Normal? Normal, like when soldiers at roadblocks in Atlanta peer into my van, take my passport, and ask a series of unintelligible questions in Arabic, the only words of which I can ever understand are “Americans?” That kind of normal?
We all pile into our van at 8:45 am with Yamen, my husband’s friend and our Lebanese guide for the day. David discourages us from having breakfast before we leave as we have plans to stop in Sidon and dine on Manoosheh and Nescafe. Manoosheh, a traditional Lebanese breakfast dish, are round discs of bread covered with zaatar (thyme, sumac and sesame seeds) and are delicious when eaten with Lebneh, or Lebanese Yogurt. First, we make a pit stop at the local military intelligence barracks. We’re told to get out the van with David and Yamen reminding us, “No pictures of guys with guns. In fact, leave your cameras and everything behind.” Yamen takes our passports while we are left waiting outside with a guard sporting a Lebanese Army beret and a machine gun. This street scene is hardly Beirut, there is no familiar Starbucks or H&M nearby. We’re basically on a busy street standing outside a military barracks with sand bags and the guy with the machine gun as our only street partner. In the 2006 war, this is the kind of place that would make a perfect target for the Israelis. I’m thinking we kind of stand out, waiting at the curb in our floppy hats and sunglasses. Indeed, families in well-worn Mercedes slow down and can’t resist the temptation to stare and give a little hoot of the horn when they pass. We do try to act “normal” and chat about inane subjects. Dee compliments Lynn on her outfit, a kaftan top and simple slacks. Thea and I agree, it’s the perfect travel outfit and then pass the time reviewing a complete historical play-by-play of Lynn’s outfits on the trip. The car exhaust, heat and waiting on a street corner are starting to get to me when Lynn grabs my arm and shouts, “Look, look, look!” There, walking out of the barracks, is a middle-aged bleached blonde wearing high heels, designer sunglasses and dressy beige slacks. She disappears around the corner and we’re left to wonder about the mystery woman until Yamen emerges looking glum. We completely forget to ask about the blonde as Yamen describes the current situation. By current, he means yesterday. Turns out, that nine people (3 of them soldiers) were killed in violent clashes around the city of Tripoli in Northern Lebanon. Turns out some Alawites (a Muslim sect who hail from the same background as Syrian President, Basher al-Assad) were continuing to fuel a long-running feud with the local Sunnis. Dozens took to Tripoli’s Nour Square and it all erupted into violence. Even though the violence was in the North and the shooting had nothing to do with Americans, all the officials at this security checkpoint are focused on Tripoli and no doubt cautious about travel of any kind. Yamen’s favorite contact is nowhere to be found and the official just shakes his head when Yamen tells him we’re nine Americans traveling in a van to the Israeli border. Yamen and David suggest we get in the van and advise us that while our chances to get to Fatima Gate don’t look good, we should hang around the South and see if our passes comes through.
I’m reminded of a Canadian filmmaker friend of ours named Michael Rubbo. Michael’s an acclaimed documentary director who in the mid-1970’s made a film called “Waiting for Fidel.” In the film, you follow his escapades when he flies to Cuba for an important meeting with Fidel Castro. His plan is to cover this meeting and create a grand documentary about the leader. Michael does indeed go to Cuba and he meets with all sorts of official characters who talk to him about the impending visit with the boss, but the tête-à-tête with Fidel never materializes. We had a waiting for Fidel kind of day.
Indeed have a great meal in Sidon and a few of us trample over to the Sidon Sea Castle, a grand structure on the sea, built by the Crusaders in the 1200’s. The rest of us wander into the souk (market) and buy olive oil soaps and bags of herbs that smell delicious but we have no idea what they are used for. While we are waiting, David suggests we drive in the direction of the next security checkpoint and visit Beaufort Castle. It’s a rocky, muted landscape dotted with portraits of martyrs and murals painted on every available surface. Comic-style drawings of Israeli soldiers, the Star of David and the Israel flag feature prominently in many of the murals, never in a positive light, usually Israeli soliders getting attacked or a tank squashed by a missile. This entire area was repeatedly bombed by Israel during the 2006 war with Hezbollah. McMansions dot the landscape. The whole area seems to be in a constant state of buildingand rebuilding. “That’s the way it is in Lebanon,” Yamen explains, “When something gets bombed, we don’t want to leave it. We have to rebuild right away.” When we arrive at Beaufort Castle, David reminds us to stay on the beaten track, not to wander off looking at flora and fauna for the entire region is still flooded with Israeli cluster bombs.
Like the Sidon Sea Castle, Beaufort, was built by the crusaders. It’s been a strategic outpost for whichever invading army controlled the country. Over time, the place has been manned and occupied by the Marmalukes, the Ottomans, the French, the PLO, the Israeli Defense Forces and Hezbollah. Last time we were here, we saw the Hezbollah flag, this time there is no flag at all. They call these places “ruins” for a reason as there are more stones piled in a heap than there are stones in the castle.
Today, there are workmen wandering about carrying stones from one place to another. A sign tells us about the “Rehabilitation and Restoration Project of the Castle” and explains in detail exactly how much money is coming from Kuwait and the United States for this purpose. I love reading these signs translated from Arabic/French into English. This one reads, “Following South Lebanon Liberation, the Director Generale of Antiquities prepared a complete file for the rehabilitation and restoration of the castle in the framework of a preliminary global study…… and “among other things, the CDR is responsible for the update of tender documents.” There are no signs telling us the history of the castle, so we wander about among the ruins. The view is extraordinary and it’s obvious why this is such a strategic outpost. It’s on very high ground and you can see all the way to Israel from here. Mendez, one of our travel partners, and I wander up pathways hoping to get to the tippy top of the castle. There are no signs, just rubble, so we stumble into dead-ends. I find an empty shell casing and pocket it as a memento. Mendez spots a hand-made wooden ladder and starts to climb. I tell him that I think he can get up but we debate how we’ll get back down and decide we’ve reached the highest safe point. By the time, we make it back down, everybody is waiting in the van. David is shouting “Yallah,” Arabic for let’s go. Yamen tries one more time to phone the Military officials but gets no answer. Our visit to Fatima’s gate will have to be delayed until next time we’re in Lebanon. As they say in Arabic, Insha’Allah, God Willing.