After an impromptu invitation from a woman at church who works in southern Lebanon, we journeyed on Friday to Tyre. After Arabic, Nathan and I met our NEST friend Marjorie and headed off for the Cola “bus terminal.” The terminal turned out to be a jumble of mini-buses and touring buses hanging out under an overpass. We were accosted by a man and directed to a mini-bus going to Sidon, where we would change for Tyre. Now I knew there had to be a real bus going directly to Tyre, but who was I to blow against a very strong wind? We boarded the mini-bus, a very high class one I might add, and headed into the Beirut traffic. Once we finally pushed out of Beirut, we only stopped a few times: for the driver to buy cigarettes from a stand, purchase a small coffee, and leave the bus to retrieve a phone number from a fellow bus driver.
The drive to Sidon wound around the coast, which was quite pretty. Upon arrival, I summoned my French and asked for a bus to Tyre. I was directed to a rather small, forest colored vehicle, a cross between a van and a mini-bus. Already full of burly military men, lanky students, and a few others, we were ushered on board. I found a seat in the last row, but they had to fold out chairs for Nate and Marjorie. Crammed inside this bus, where upon take-off the man next to me lit a cigarette, I felt really like I was having a serious adventure. Along the road the lamppost banners displayed a happily waving Achmadenijad, alternating with the rather stern Ayatollah Khomeini, punctuated by a smiling Colonel Sanders peddling his latest chicken sandwich on the billboards.
Dropped off in the heart of the old market sector, we could barely hear ourselves think over the loudly broadcast sermon from the minaret. After finding some hummus and parsley salad for lunch, we caught a taxi for the famous Al-Bass archeological site, home of the largest unearthed Roman hippodrome. I really thought our taxi driver had scammed us because the place has no real entrance: just a dirt drive and two huts. I don’t know how they manage to hide a giant Roman arch that once marked the entrance to Tyre or the 480m hippodrome, but they do. We paid the fee and walked past a huge necropolis, filled with jumbles of sarcophagi and tombs dating from Roman and Byzantine days. No lie, you could actually see shards of bones through broken holes. At the back of the site stood the giant stone arch with the old road leading through it, colonnaded on both sides. To the left of the columns and arches stand the remains of three sections of stadium seating and the center of the old hippodrome where they held chariot races (think Ben Hur). Photographing the beautiful columns and scrambling up the ancient stadium seats, I felt overcome by the history. I’m not sure I’ve been surrounded by anything quite so ancient.
There I stood, hidden in the ancient yet squarely in the heart of modernity. I am constantly amazed at how Lebanon manages to juxtapose its past and present: standing amidst the lovely Roman ruins, I stood only meters from a camp filled with the ruined lives of Palestinian refugees. Left with nowhere to go after being run off their land, many of the Palestinians who fled from Israel still remain in sordid camps in Lebanon. I do not wish to delve into the controversy of Israel-Palestine, but the presence of the Palestinians is key to understanding Lebanon. With the influx of these refugees, the delicate balance of Christian-Muslim power balances in Lebanese politics was upset. I’m wicked oversimplifying, but this event did greatly help along the civil war in Lebanon. Even today the Palestinians are often a source of strife as politicians wrestle over complicated questions of citizenship.
This blog aims to keep you up-to-date on our lives, but it also aims to tell the story of the country we’re exploring. Lebanon is a fascinating place, full of beautiful relics of the past- like Roman arches and columns by the sea- but also filled with hallmarks of a war torn history- like the bombed out shells of buildings in Beirut or the refugee camps. Theirs is a complicated story- much more so than most of us realize. So while I ended my day in Tyre sipping Almaza and munching baba genoush while watching the sun sink into the sea from a beach café, the questions and the complexities of this country continue to resound in my head.
From Beirut, where I not only spend my time thinking about history, but I also spend lazy days eating dates and playing backgammon,