Saturday, 10 July 2010
Our Lady of Lebanon
Last night Bridget, Clemency and I walked through the old, strangely leafy, bustling, wonderful Ashrafiyeh district to a restaurant recommended to Bridget by a Lebanese friend. We found Abdal Wahab after a 15 minute walk and once the staff got their head around the idea that we didn't want to eat meat (You are vegetarian? Try this one it only has lamb....) were served what was, up to this point, the most delicious vegetarian meal of my life, no doubt about it, by a country mile. Just before 7 Bridget's phone rang. It was Scott from Doha airport. There had been a mix up in his bookings for the flight he had to board NOW and he desperately needed some information or he would be walking from Doha. The info was a mile away, and it was panic time. The waiters asked what was wrong, and in seconds, without question, gave us username and password to the restaurant's in house network so Bridget could access the net on her phone and get the info to Scott. Now think about this for a moment.This was a vibrant business and we were strangers. They trusted us with access to menus, accounting, staffing rosters, email.... It was humbling. Later, one of the waiters, not the one who was serving us, came to invite us to an art show in which he was exhibiting on Saturday.
These were Lebanese and Arabs. Muslims. The enemy. They were open, welcoming, charming, friendly, willing to put themselves out for us, willing to trust us strangers with valuable information, urbane, cultured, polite, decent men. And so it has proven, all day today.
It has been a long and wonderful day. We briefly considered hiring a car but after almost 5 seconds of in depth consideration opted for a taxi instead. A lovely guy in a fairly late model Mercedes estate arrived, and for $100 was at our service all day. He drove us first to the Jeita Grotto. There was an hour or so of dodging the heaviest, most chaotic traffic I have ever seen. - How many lanes is this road? How many will fit? - then a left turn and suddenly we were in another Lebanon. Steep hills. Winding roads. Blue sky. Forest. Then the grotto: think Waitomo Caves, multiply your thought by... Oh I don't know.... lets say 10, and you might have some approximation of it. They are huge limestone caves with astonishing formations and a lake in the lower one. Then, it was off to Biblos, another 45 minutes up the road to see the Roman ruins and have lunch. Biblos is some distance from Beirut but it is more or less built up all the way: this part of the country is a single, conjoined, enormous city, where one district seagues seamlessly into the next in a cacophany of colour and energy and variety.
Biblos is, so the locals say, the home of the first alphabet, hence the name. There is a market flogging souvenirs and fossils and "antiquities" and the oldest church in Lebanon (closed, unfortunately), extensive ruins and many restaurants at one of which I had the second most delicious vegetarian meal of my life before staggering bloated to the Merc for the trip to catch the cable car to Harissa.
In a district just a little south of Biblos called Jounieh we caught the Teleferique. It runs on a cable across the motorway and up through tower blocks of apartments, missing one by a matter of inches, then up the side of a very large hill to Harissa where there is the Basilica of Notre Dame de Liban - Our Lady of Lebanon. In 1908 the French gave a gigantic statue of the Blessed Virgin the the Lebanese people and she was mounted on the top of this hill. It is possible to walk up a circular stairway to the base of the statue, which we did, and the views are flabbergasting. We then walked into the nearby basilica which is an enormous modern church, seating about 5,000 people. Why do the Catholics do church architecture so much better than the Protestants? It is designed to mimic, depending on which way you look, the shape of the cedar of Lebanon, or a Phoenician trading ship, the Phoenicians being ancestors of the Lebanese. The roof soars perhaps 70 metres straight up and the light and sense of space is astounding. Through the enormous windows the statue is visible, and the volunteer guide told us about her, including a modern legend. It is said that she was built facing out to sea. During the civil war in the 1980s she slowly turned, and now looks instead towards Beirut. Is it true? I don't think so, but I found the story so profoundly moving I had to walk away for a while.
I suppose the statue of Our Lady represents all that is caring and motherly about God. She is the God who broods over her people as a mother hen over her chicks. The legend thus speaks of God's sorrow at the civil war, that God looked on, not in judgement or wrath but in profound sorrow and compassion and love for her foolish children. All day we had been meeting kind and generous people, relatives, friends, and who knows, participants in the terrible events of 30 years ago. And in that legend the utter tragedy and stupidity of the war - right up to the idiotic Israeli air raids of 2006- hit me with force. And the tragedy and stupidity of the current demonising of Muslims by the West.
We rode the cable car down the mountain. Then our driver: a kind and generous Lebanese, a Christian one, drove us to yet another restaurant. We were met and served by open and friendly Lebanese and Druse and Arabs. As a blood red sun sank into the Mediterranean, we had another delicious meal to celebrate Scott's 29th birthday before we were driven home by yet another good natured and bluff and humourous Arab.