Lebanon always invoked a touch of romance and mystery, thanks to the verses in the Book of Psalms and Song of Solomon in the Bible. Its cedars, pomegranates and beautiful men and women contribute in no small measure to that air of enchantment.
But my more journalistic interest in Lebanon stemmed from the stories and pictures the media carried on the civil war in the country towards the end of the 20th century. Lebanon in our minds has a “Visit at your own risk” tag, but nevertheless I was excited when I got an offer to visit Beirut as part of a week’s assignment in July last year.
Signs of the strife were visible on the older buildings in Beirut, ridden with bullets, as we were transported from the Rafik Hariri airport in Beirut to Antelias where we stayed at the Armenian Orthodox Catholicosate (the headquarters and the winter residence of the Orthodox patriarch). But looking at the swank new buildings dotting the city, one gets the impression that Beirut is a city that is trying hard to wipe out memories of the war.
Lebanon has an interesting landscape – the sea on one side and mountains on the other. And the mountains are dotted with buildings, their numbers having gone up with the refugee influx. Hence Lebanon does not want people overstaying. My entry is sanctioned for 15 days only, though the visa can be procured for three months according to rules. My visa application had in the first place been facilitated by my husband’s stable income in the UAE, and secondly by my written assurance that I will return to where I came from.
Beirut airport sits on the coast and our aircraft taxied on a runway not far from the sea waters. In the distance, the mountains with the famed cedars beckoned to us.
The genocide memorial at Antelias has a powerful symbol — skulls recovered from the Syrian desert are encased in a glass case. These were Armenians who were led like lambs to the slaughter into the desert; many died of starvation while others were shot dead by the Turkish soldiers. A recorded audio message plays while we bow our heads in sorrow inside the memorial.
Beirut to Byblos
The horrors of the Armenian Holocaust became very evident to us in the ensuing days. And when I looked at the Armenians around me, it gave me a deep sense of the pain their forefathers went through – a collective sense of their suffering seems to be infused in their bodies to this day.
It was carefully portrayed at the Birds’ Nest orphanage in the coastal old town of Byblos, 40 km away, and which preserves all the photographs of the genocide events – of Armenians living in prosperity before the holocaust, the shaping of the persecution, and the massacre over a four-year period. Birds’ Nest was run by a Dutch lady who called it so because the children gathered around her like birds at feed time.
Byblos, like the Bible, means book in Greek, and refers to the main item of trade – papyrus – from its port during the Phoenician/Canaanite civilisation. It apparently is one of the oldest inhabited cities of the world and has seen continuous human settlements for 7,000 years. The original alphabet also came from there. Byblos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has ruins from the Pheonician, Egyptian, Greek and Roman periods. There was no time to visit the ruins.
In the evening before my departure, I made a short sight-seeing tour of Beirut city, once the Paris of the Middle East. Roman ruins like the Bath are preserved in the middle of downtown Beirut – they blend seamlessly with sleek office spaces, restaurants and outdoor lounges. Downtown Beirut has the Parliament, a modest slim structure in yellow that has very little of the grandeur and inaccessibility of the Indian Parliament. However, one can see gun-toting soldiersstand unobtrusively under any available shade in the summer heat.
Just as the sharing of power in Parliament between Lebanon’s Christian and Muslim population (the Prime Minister is elected from the Muslim community and the President from the Christian), there is a sharing of space between churches and mosques in downtown Beirut. After visiting the Greek cathedral, I hesitated in front of the Blue Mosque next door. A mosque official ushered me in, once I had enrobed myself in the abaya rented out to female visitors. For the first time I bowed my head in prayer in a mosque – my previous trips to mosques like the Big Mosque in Abu Dhabi or the Jama Masjid in Delhi had been touristy and photo-op.
Our last stop was the corniche along the sea, from where we could see the Pigeon’s Rock – a natural rock formation in the sea that resembled the Gateway of India. We made the arduous walk down to the sea through an unkempt path, rocky and bushy in parts, along with our portly Armenian driver Aram. Aram seemed a very common name among Armenians; the first Aram I knew of was a character in my high school English textbook – a young humorous boy in William Saroyan’s “My name is Aram”. Aram our chauffeur told us that every Armenian surname ends with a -ian or -yan.
After buying some traditional sweets and wine (the supermarkets and the airport duty-free shops have a dedicated section and mind-boggling collection of the latter), I headed back to the guesthouse. By night, we bade goodbye to the Catholicosate and its beautiful church. It had been heavenly to wake up to the sound of church bells ringing every morning for a week. And the bed in the modest guesthouse rooms had been the most comfortable and heavenly I had slept on – maybe I am overreacting, and it is just the nostalgia of a relaxing week cocooned in the Catholicosate.