Monday, September 7, 2009

Lebanon in Fragments (part 3)

Alright here it goes...

After a failed attempt at teaching a Lebanese girl how to ride my bicycle (my fault not hers), a great swimming trip up the coast and some more general insanity, I left Beirut. Pedaling up the windy road crossing the Mount Lebanon range, I was drenched in sweat. The general stickiness was amplified by the humidity. Near the top (after some stunning views) I hit some low clouds. Quite suddenly I was cold for the first time in months and loved it. The clouds/fog became quite thick and soon my visibility was limited to less than 50 feet. I accidently ended up on a small road though some eerily quiet towns. Stopping for a drink from my water bottle, the fog temporarily lightened and I found myself in front of a Scooby Doo style abandoned mansion. Getting higher and higher I ended up stopping to chat with some Greek Orthodox guys who, after some offers of tea and biscuits and a pleasant discussion about the mountains, launched into a tirade against the Shia and Hizbollah. I finally reached the top and after accepting a free water bottle and bread from some Indian migrants who were delighted that I knew three words of Hindi and I began my descent to the Bekaa Valley. Quickly emerging from the mists I was greeted by a specacular view of the valley and the Anti-Lebanon Mountain Range. Stopping for food in a small town on my way to Zahle, I met Khalid who insisted that I come break Ramadan fast with his family at sunset (this quickly transformed into an invitation to stay a few nights).

The town was Sunni Muslim and I was asked what I believed. I said I didn't really know (usually you just say whatever is convenient because these matters are rarely up for debate). I went into some details about my philosophy and how I try to live my life. They were positively delighted.

"You're almost a Muslim!"

I was taken for a late night invitation to sweets at Khalid's father's friend's house. The man was incredibly fascinated by my trip and my knowledge of Islam. Though Khalid spoke decent English, the man brought out his daughter, who studied English and computer science, to act as a translator. At first glance I could tell that the family was very conservative. She wore a traditional black hijab and long, loose dress. covering all but her face and hands. The girl acted very professionally as if she was a translator for a business meeting. Half way through, she paused and her father explained that I had ridden a bicycle here from Georgia. Her otherwise serious face cracked a huge smile. That moment made all the suffering of pedalling up the mountains earlier that day worth it.

I agreed to fast and perform Salaat (prayer) with them the next day. We woke at 4:00, finished eating before 4:24 went to pray at the mosque right away and then talked witht the Sheikhs in the mosque. They were so intrigued by this curious American that they invited Khalid and I to sleep the rest of the morning in the mosque and then speak with them after. Six more hours of sleep and I was already hungry. Ramadan is cruel to a cyclist, especially if that cyclist has just come over a mountain range and needs nutrients. We chatted with the Sheikhs for a few hours, during which we discussed Islamic philosophy, Quranic Arabic and, most excitedly, Lebanese food. After a little time on the internet and a few hours helping Khalid at his volunteer program teaching young Muslim Children about the Quran and playing games (like Christian Bible School) I laid on the balcony, miserably willing the sun to set. I think the volume of food I consumed that night was taken by the family as a compliment to their cooking abilities and hospitality. Khalid's mother smiled and piled more and more food on my plate. After the last prayer at the mosque Khalid gave me a traditional robe and a Quran with the promise that I keep thinking and trying to understand the world.

I left for Syria with a bundle of food from Khalid's family. In the next town I had to borrow a few tools from a mechanic to adjust my seat and realized that in 3km the population had become solidly Christian. I passed through what appeared to be another Palestinian camp while racing a young boy with his bicycle I came to the city of Aanjar (with it's massive Armenian population) and bought some drinks at a road side vendor. After paying, I began chatting to the guy in my horrible Arabic and told him I was headed for Damascus. "I'm from Damascus!" he cried in Arabic and reached into his cash box to return the money I paid him for the drinks. "Ahlan wa sahlan!" (the welcome I had heard thousands of times.

The haul from the Lebanese border post to the Syrian side was long and hot. Arriving at the Syrian immigration controls I met another American also waiting for a visa (Americans wait 4-8 hours for a mysterious "fax from Damascus"). We feasted on the food Khalid gave me and enjoyed a welcome rest. Welcomed by the familiar face of President Bashar I rode afew more hours and, suddenly, I was in Damascus.

1 comment:

  1. President Bashar looks like G-Man from the Half-Life games.