When you Google “Lebanon images”, the first results you will stumble upon are cedar trees. Cedars are Lebanon’s national symbol, they are the center of the flag and emblazoned on every conceivable tourist tchotchke from t-shirts to key-chains. The cedar tree seems to cross party and religious lines. You’re as likely to see this symbol in Hezbollah strongholds, as you are chic Christian neighborhoods. I’m convinced that the cluster of cedar trees most likely to come up in Lebanon Google searches is one near a small village called Jej. We see this in real life, every time we visit our best friends in Lebanon, the Abbouds.
David met Gaby Abboud when he started visiting Beirut in 2001 to do a documentary about Hezbollah for the PBS series, Frontline. Now to be clear, Gaby has nothing to do with Hezbollah, he’s a Christian and a firm supporter of the Christian leader General Michel Aoun. However Aoun did forge a political alliance of sorts with Hezbollah. Aoun leads a political party as well as a coalition of parties called the ”Change and Reform” bloc. He famously agreed on a controversial “Memorandum of Understanding” with Hezbollah a few years ago. It was the first time a Christian party formed any kind of political alliance with Hezbollah.
David calls Gaby his Lebanese brother and our most relaxing times in Lebanon are typically with Gaby and his family. Once when my kids were little, David was traveling in Beirut. It was not long after 9/11 and the U.S. State Department issued a stern warning to all Americans advising them to leave Lebanon immediately. At that time, a proselytizing missionary had been killed. While I knew my husband was hardly the proselytizing type, I called him on the crackly cell phone wires. David listened to my entreaties and responded with, “Don’t worry. I’m with Gaby.” He put Gaby on the phone who calmed me down with, “Danica, That’s ridiculous. We’re sitting in a Starbucks. The sun is shining and besides, If anything crazy happens, he’ll come stay with us.” That’s all I needed to hear and David stayed another 10 days.
Gaby has two homes in Lebanon. One is in Jounieh, the fashionable Christian suburb overlooking the Mediterranean and an old family home in Jej. Jej, perched high in the mountains, is my favorite spot in all of Lebanon. To get to Jej, you drive East out of Beirut and basically straight up the side of the mountains with the help of winding roads likely to induce carsickness in the vulnerable. The scenery gets more and more beautiful the further you get from Beirut and the drenching hot summer airs cool the higher you get. You drive by tiny villages nesting on the edge of mountains with terraced farmland somehow carved out of the rocks. Along the way, we often stop at the monastery of Saint Charbel, one the key figures in the Maronite Catholic faith, the predominant Christian group in Lebanon. Charbel’s face is as frequently seen in Christian neighborhoods as the Ayatollah Khomeini’s stern visage is seen in others. Christians originally came to the mountains, to places like Jej, to defend themselves against attacks from the majority Muslim population. They survived by holding the high ground.
Jej is hardly a tourist destination. It’s a tiny village in the mountains. There are all of two little stores and a large church. Gaby’s house is the largest in town and sits on a hillside. The day we visit Jej on this trip, it’s unusually cold. We arrive at Gaby’s house and he has a fire going in the fireplace. Remember this is June in the Middle East so we’ve all shown up wearing thin blouses and capris in anticipation of a sunny hike. Gaby runs upstairs and comes down with a pile of polo shirts and passes them out among his chilly guests. In between bursts of rain, there’s a fierce wind, which dashes our hopes of sitting outside on the patio. Gaby has an older American friend who is perched near the fire smoking a hookah. Whenever Gaby entertains, he invites a large collection of fascinating friends. Today, he has the former US Ambassador to Lebanon, Vincent Battle, and some friends from Biblos, Beirut and the states. Gaby’s sister, Lamia, whom we know from Massachusetts is here, so she’s got an eye on meal preparations while Gaby cracks open the champagne. I’ve had the best meals I’ve ever had in Lebanon in this house.
Marie is in the kitchen preparing the lunch. She’s Lamia and Gaby’s cook from childhood. As an elderly Lebanese woman, Maria is the exception to the household help rule. Nearly every home we visit in Lebanon (whether, Sunni or Christian) is staffed by a Filipina maid. We’ve become accustomed to being served our Turkish coffee by petite Filipina women in starched uniforms with aprons. Maria stands all of 4 feet 10 and is as Lebanese as they come. She commands the kitchen like a general alternately frying French fries and fashioning grape leaves into a towering structure. She hands meat kabobs off to two male helpers who are manning the grill. We’ve seen this grill in other homes in Lebanon. Every meal in Lebanon features some sort of grilled meat or fish, yet there’s not a Weber in sight. The typical Lebanese grill is a rudimentary metal affair with twigs in a metal bin with a crude device that allows meat or fish to be flipped. How the Lebanese manage to produce as large a quantity of grilled fish and kebabs on something so tiny I’ll never know. I try to take a picture and Marie shoos me out of the kitchen with a scowl.
We munch on carrot sticks and pistachios (standard Lebanese pre-appetizers) when a movement is made to take a hike. There’s a momentary burst of sunlight so we all climb into our vans and cars for a dash up the mountain. The roads are tiny and winding and I’m reminded of Gaby’s friend Zeina. Zeina drives a Porsche and I foolishly asked her if she’d been to Porsche driving school. My friends in the States who drive Porsches all rave about it. Zeina just threw back her head and laughed when I asked this question. “ Yes, I know about this but I don’t need Porsche driving school! I learned how to drive during the war. Can you imagine driving up these roads trying to miss the bombs? That was my driving school!”
There is a hike above Gaby’s home that will lead us to the cluster of cedar trees and beyond. It’s the beyond I want to hit. For deep in the woods, somebody, long ago, built a simple wooden church. You hike along the trail, passing a deep grotto like cave where Gaby and childhood friends nearly met their peril and suddenly, you come across a simple wooden cross-fashioned out of two large limbs of a tree and a simple stone church with a bell. To get there, you hike a good 30 minutes into the cedars. It’s about the most beautiful church I have ever seen, and mind you I’ve visited Notre Dame, Chartres and nearly all the great Basilicas in Rome. Today, as we are about to embark on the trail, the skies open up and it begins to rain. I think of the word “rain check” and decide I must come back to Jej soon.