We’re driving from Beirut to the ruined Roman city of Baalbek, shadowing Syria’s war torn border into Hezbollah territory, a journey defined by its panoply of imagined risks. In newspaper reports about Lebanon, death morphs into mercenary configurations, stretching beyond car accidents into kidnapping and mortar attacks and bombs. Images that taint adventure and raise a question I’ve been trying to ignore. Is it okay to take children close to war’s borders?
Too late to turn back; too foolish to come this far and miss everything; we leave fear lingering in Gemmayze’s narrow streets of trendy bars, galleries, restaurants, and travel along seething motorway lined with grubby tower blocks.
When the interrogation comes, its voice is the chime of nine and six year old kids, ‘Are we stopping at the ice cream shop? Are we? Are we?’
‘On the way back,’ I say, determined we’ll return to our hostel in the capital, and stare out the window, letting Beirut glaze hillside over withered headlines.
Philippe, our driver, points at ships hustling Beirut’s waterfront, ‘When civil war came, everyone left for America. All the boats claimed they were going there.’
‘Where were they going?’ I ask.
‘Africa, Asia, all over. People believed it was America, even when they got off.’
We chuckle, and keep driving uphill, but between anecdotes, there are pauses; spaces for the past to take hold and imagine beginnings based on a lie. Such rushed departures must stoke a desire to return. I ask about Terry Waite – the British peacemaker who was kidnapped and imprisoned in Beirut, on a trip to negotiate the release of westerners.
‘He came back to visit,’ Philippe said. ‘He likes Lebanon.’
And, for a moment, it feels like he was returning to a special holiday destination. Flats peter out, until two or three mope alone – charred, split open, pockmarked. And the pull of trauma, the need to understand and reframe and experience safety in a place that was once dangerous, seems more valuable than the extravagance of sightseeing. ‘Bombs?’
‘Gunfire,’ Philippe answers.
The steep hill plateaus. Beside a grey, breeze-block house a cart sells oranges. We tumble out, smile at the Beqaa Valley’s verdant lack of soldiers, take a photo, scramble back in. The car meanders downhill, a clutched doormat on a tarmac helter-skelter.
Soldiers cluster round checkpoints. Guards wave through a carload of Syrian refugees: their back seat packed with half a dozen relatives, mattresses stacked on the roof like a messy sandwich, three or four smiling faces juddering up front. But, mainly, the road to the border is quiet. Lebanon’s stuffed full of refugees. Those compelled to come are already here.
A roundabout trundles towards us, hemmed with crouching men. ‘Who are they?’
‘Syrians. They wait for work. Paid by day.’
A few miles later, Philippe stops at a cart. I memorise the hills, the snow, the ruddy faces, rusty cars, absorbing helpful details in case something terrible happens. Minutes ebb into rusty soil. Philippe strolls back, armed with apple juice and coffee, generosity triumphing over prejudice. We eat, drink, drive.
The road flattens. It zips through fruit fields, past the odd hut, past breeze block buildings, past a refugee camp too distant to be seen. On the news, camps look less mountain-lined, less valleyed, more war-ringed. The road rises again, becomes dustier. Houses appear. Market stalls. A handful of buildings tattooed with black and red flags and skulls and masks.
‘Hezbollah,’ Philippe confirms. ‘Baalbek.’
Baalbek is a dusty, down-sized Belfast, grubby with murals, scarves and swagger; more market town than terrorist frontline. Passing through doesn’t grant an insight into war, rather it reveals why the Lebanese lady we’d drunk with the night before had shown me a scarf she’d bought there, on her visit three weeks earlier –
‘It’s lovely… But is Baalbek safe for us to visit – with the kids?’
‘But it’s really close to the border.’
‘Beirut’s only 70 miles from Damascus.’
Safety had different parameters in the Middle East; war’s proximity shifted with nightfall.
Philippe parks fifty metres from the ruins. We get out, wander towards the entrance, take photos. ‘I took a British man here before,’ he says. ‘John Prescott. You know him?’
We laugh. ‘Yes. Was he nice?’
‘Yes, nice… Take your time. I wait.’
The kids scamper up giant stone steps, backed by snow-splashed mountains, into a ring of columns and carvings and stones the size of huts. Tumbled temples, majestic arches, ancient squares woven with wizened trees. The site so empty, so unspoilt, it feels as if we’ve discovered it. Baalbek has outlasted too many wars to flinch at unrest in neighbouring lands. History, nature and sunshine merge into the glimmer of conquest. War has left the ancient city to breathe in wondrous isolation.