Introduction for Lebanon
In April of 1999, I spent about three weeks visiting Lebanon. I had already been to two of its neighboring countries: Syria (3x) and Israel (1x). Beirut had a reputation as a kind of ‘Paris of the East’, which included being a very cosmopolitan city with some elements of a gay life. Therefore I was keen to check it out as well as visit some of its famous archeological sites and the fabled ‘Cedars of Lebanon’. The civil war – which had lasted from 1975 to 1991 – had ended and now Beirut was much in the news because of the amount of reconstruction taking place and for its revitalized economy.
It all seemed very promising.
However, after nearly a week of exploring the city, I had found nothing happening within the ‘gay scene’ … granted I had not done any extensive research on the places where gay men might meet (although I must have had some xeroxed pages from the latest Spartacus Guide with me). This was mainly because my ‘cruising’ preference had always been the street … and the parks, where things usually occur spontaneously. However, I noted that the regular eye contact that seemed to be the norm in other Muslim, or Muslim-dominated countries, did not seem to be very prevalent here. After days of wandering about, I had failed to meet a single person!
And so my initial optimism about being in a middle eastern version of Paris gradually faded … in fact, my analysis of the city was becoming a less and less positive one. To begin with, the old city center – built around a small park (a kind of Zocolo) surrounded by shops and bazaars – had been left as an empty and uninviting place, instead of being rebuilt on a human scale that, before the war, had indeed made it a famous, vibrant area.
In addition, the civil war – which had destroyed so much of the city – had provided an opportunity to redesign a public transportation system, perhaps a combination of a basic subway line connected to streetcars and buses. The city did present a challenge to anyone involved in designing such a system since, like Lisbon and Naples, it is built on very hilly terrain. However, the transportation system was now a muddle of small bus companies and taxis, almost impossible for any visitor to navigate. I tried to use a few buses but, eventually, gave up and spent my days wandering around on foot.
In short, instead of a rebuilding of the heart of this great ‘international’ city, all one now saw were immense office and bank towers, with the usual clusters of high-rise apartment buildings. I even found the seaside promenade disappointing – just concrete sidewalks and a roadway with large, off-putting (for my taste) cafés and restaurants. It seemed that both the locals and the huge international investment banks understood nothing about either aesthetic values or the virtues of life on a human scale.
The only place that I could relate to whatsoever was the old American University, located in a separate, protected enclave on a cliffside overlooking the sea. Its main buildings dated from 1866 and the grounds reflected an intelligent design combination of buildings, walkways and plant life. It struck me as the only refuge from the ugliness of the city itself. The neighboring area around the University was also attractive, with plenty of cafés and restaurants catering to university folk. The National (Archeological) Museum of Beirut was still closed – even 8 years after the civil war had ended. (Apparently, the Museum finally did re-open, later in October 1999. I’m sure that if the timing had been different, it would have been the highlight of my Beirut visit.)
My photos of Beirut are few and are, by and large, pretty mundane. I took a few photos of one rather disturbing scene: the concierge service … at a McDonald’s. (Does anyone know of another country where a McDonald’s would be so elevated in the public’s mind as to ‘merit’ a concierge service? My more than generous guess was that it had to do with the difficulties of finding a parking space.) A further irony to such absurdity was that I had found Lebanese cuisine, more or less, to be very much at the top of creative international culinary offerings. (Perhaps a certain group/class of Lebanese could get tired of all those ‘mezzas’ and crave a cheeseburger … but I’m certainly not one of them.)
From Beirut, I headed north to Tripoli as I was planning to do a circuit through the Lebanon Mountains, which run north-south and slightly inland from the Mediterranean coast. It was my intention to head down into the Beqaa Valley to see the Roman ruins at Baalbek.
I certainly found Tripoli far more to my liking. It had apparently survived the civil war intact, maintaining the more intimate human character one finds in medium-sized, older Islamic cities. It was built against a hillside and seemed packed with fascinating and intensely busy souks. In Tripoli, as in most of the rest of the country – with the exceptions of Baalbek and Tyre – once I had disembarked from my Alitalia plane in Beirut, I never spotted any clearly identifiable tourists.
After 3 or 4 nights in Tripoli, having snapped some reasonable photos (now posted in the gallery), I took a local bus up into the mountains, from there I continued by collective taxi to Bsharri. The remains of the once massive cedar forests around it impressed me since I had nothing to compare them to. As it so happens, Morocco’s three northerly mountain ranges also still have pockets of a surviving old cedar forest, but with what looked to be larger and older specimens. Both are in serious need of reforestation.
After surviving the freezing temperatures (as I was without any adequate clothing) and after taking endless, mostly mediocre, photos of snowy cedars, I found an isolated hotel ski lodge in which to stay overnight. I recall enjoying a fine and seemingly endless assortment of mezzas for dinner … after which, a young Syrian decided to keep warm by sleeping in my bed.
The next morning, I headed down the eastern slope of the mountains, entering the Bequaa Valley. The Roman ruins are among the most impressive that have survived anywhere in its vast empire and are well worth the trip to Baalbek. (I took far too many photos and am only now beginning to work with them in an effort to create a separate gallery.) The town is just a few hundred meters down the road from the site and, after taking a few exhaustive tours of the ruins, I decided to try and get a better balance of subject matter images by heading into town.
This next foray almost resulted in my murder.
After only a short distance, I came upon an area where it looked like there had been some sort of small carnival and playground, now either in disarray or in the process of being dismantled. I remember walking around looking for something worthy of photographing. My camera was around my neck and just as I brought the viewfinder to my eye to check out a possible composition, I also spotted two men some 50 meters away, standing on either side of a dirt roadway that led up a forested hill. Their faces looked dangerously brutish – almost inhuman – something out of a horror film. They had readied their machine guns and their eyes were focused on me. One then made a phone call on his portable and, within seconds, I was surrounded by several thugs who proceeded to lift me off the ground and carry me over to an old Mercedes.
Once I was inside the car, the windows on the rear side doors and the back were covered … and the man next to me put a pistol to my head. As none of us shared a common language, I was about as terrified as I had ever been in my life (except for my experience in a Caracas barrio, where a handsome young thief had pushed me to the ground and pointed a pistol at my head, ready to kill me if I didn’t immediately hand over my 6×6 Bronica camera. However these men, in Lebanon, had another motive for abducting me … and I was to soon find out what that was.)
After traveling some 5 to 10 kms, the car stopped in front of a countryside house and I was taken inside. My camera had already been removed from my neck but now my pockets and shoulder bag were also emptied. I was ordered to the floor in what would have been a sitting room. I waited in silence to find out my fate. After about two hours, a man came in to interrogate me. His face was covered with a black and white keffiyeh. His English was rather good. He immediately struck me as someone who was the complete opposite of the thugs whom I had met up to that point. I wondered what his education level had been and what his life was outside of this group. Only later was I able to figure out that this was the Hezbollah headquarters for the Baalbek area and that the person interrogating me was likely a higher-up within the organization.
Meanwhile, over the next few hours, he questioned me about every little thing they had taken out of my bag, my pockets and my wallet. It soon became clear that I had been abducted because I had walked by the guarded entrance road to their headquarters … with a camera around my neck. To the thugs who saw me, this translated into my being some sort of spy, specifically an Israeli spy.
So my interrogator asked me every sort of question, went through my passport visas, asked me about my job, asked me if I was married. When I said no, he communicated this to all the men standing around and they smiled at me, as if to say, ‘you must be one of those western gays!’. In their culture – even if you were gay – chances were that you’d still be married in order to fit in … and survive. Some minutes later, my interrogator reached his conclusion and told someone to bring me a glass of tea. After that, they gave me back everything, including my camera … but without my film. I was then taken back to the car, its windows still blackened. They drove me back – likely way past their guarded entrance – and, sometime thereafter, my door was opened and I was thrown out of the vehicle. Fortunately, I was not seriously injured and managed, somehow, to find my way back to my hotel.
Once back in Beirut, I made the decision to go to the American Embassy to tell them my story. However, no one seemed to be the slightest bit interested in what had happened. I found that rather incredible and decided to visit the Canadian Embassy (I have dual citizenship) and to also relate my tale there. Again, I was met with total indifference! (I guess both embassies would only have been interested if my dead body had been found somewhere in a ditch … and even only then, perhaps, because they would have been forced to make a report about a murdered tourist.)
I ended my stay in Lebanon with a day trip to see the ruins at Tyre … and then spent a final few days trying to see if I could warm up to Beirut. I did come across one very good bookshop where I bought a couple of volumes of the “L’Univers Des Formes” art history series, published by Gallimard. As the place was run by a gay man, I initiated a discussion with him about censorship in both our countries. It sounded as if things were pretty arbitrary in Lebanon, more likely left up to the individual customs officer(s) to interpret the laws or guidelines. I had found that it was also very much that way in Canada during my entire 21 year career as a bookseller! I do recall him proudly showing me a copy of the coffee table-sized Taschen volume of Tom of Finland’s artwork that had managed to slip past the country’s censors.