Lebanon & Syria Part I


24 December 2009 For the first time in a year, I am writing in this travelogue. Plenty have happened. Not in a good way... It has been the worst year of my life. Our flight from Masai Mara to Nairobi was terrifying. There was heavy rain and even though I could control my panic attack, I was very frightened. Our pilot was again the same F.! While we were waiting for our plane to arrive in Masai Mara, we saw a family of baboons walking in front of us; they were as big as humans. They were significantly big and carrying their babies. It was good to see the baboons as well. Our flight from Nairobi to London was very comfortable considering the terrible experiences we had earlier in smaller planes. Though, one of the hosts was very rude to the African passengers and annoying because he shook me violently to wake me up to serve food. Anyway, we spent that New Year's Eve in Istanbul with my parents. [...] The effects of the global financial crisis on F. and I, the problems I have encountered at work, the troubles I had with my visa in the UK, [...] and the worst of all [...] departure. As such, life, as I knew it, has ended. I lost all my hopes, joy of life and reason to live. Anyway, this is a travelogue and I don't want to write all this here. [...] my heart, brain, lungs, veins, breath and God know what I have lived and felt. The reason why I wrote this much here is to explain why I couldn't write about my journeys to places such as Santorini, Cornwall, St. Tropez. Thank God, these were places I always wanted to see and I saw them; I even loved them, became very happy but every morning when I woke the first thought that came to my mind [...] and during a period when I could not find the strength to leave the bed, my heart felt as heavy as tons, I could not find the energy and willingness to hold a pen in my hand. Photographs will need to explain my memories in these places. Whatever I lived, felt and saw right in front of my eyes will remain with me. Even though I was smiling in the pictures, my entire body was in an incredible pain and sorrow. Now F. and I are waiting for our Istanbul plane in Heathrow, Terminal 3. Our final destination will be Beirut. We will be travelling in Lebanon and Syria. And tomorrow is the second anniversary of our Bangladeshi wedding. Friday, 25 December 2009 We started the day in Beirut Airport. Our flight to Beirut was interesting. Smell of sweat was overpowering in the plane. As soon as the plane landed in Beirut, the Lebanese got up and started collecting their carry-ons from the upper compartments. Even though the plane was still moving [...] By the way, I should write that we met with my mother at Istanbul Airport. Because we didn't have too much time until our Beirut flight, we saw each other only for an hour and had coffee. F. and I congratulated each other for our 2nd Bangladeshi wedding anniversary at Beirut Airport, across the customs officer, while he was checking our passports. At midnight, my first impressions of Beirut was of the similarities with Cairo. Because it was Christmas night, there were still lots of people on the streets. The roads are quite modern but in the darkness of the night, the buildings looked old and run down.

Around 9 o'clock in the morning, we met with our guide here, Hala. The weather was incredibly beautiful. Blue skies, sun, summery spring warmth...And in this season. Hala first took us to a small town called Byblos after visiting the Pigeons' Rock by the seaside.

While we were by the seaside, it became clearer that we were very close to Israel and that this region and all the lands, which affect the world's order, the relationship among civilisations and cultures are actually very small and narrow.

On the road, Hala told us constantly that Lebanon is not an Arab country because the Lebanese come from the Phoenicians. Then, with everyone we need to go back to Neolithic ages. Then should we say that we are not Turks but Hittites, Phrygians or Lydians? [...] As far as I can tell, because she is Christian, she doesn't want to be put in the same basket as the Arabs. But my impressions on the road were that Lebanon is a mixture of Greece, Egypt, a bit of Istanbul/Ankara and that quite show-off [...]. Even Hala said so. She said that the Lebanese love showing off. Anyway, Byblos is the oldest commercial harbour in the world in use since 7000 B.C. It is a cute town.

The Phoenicians, Romans, Crusaders and the remnants of the Middle Ages have created layers. While we were in Byblos, Hala mentioned that Turks were in Lebanon for 400 years but never mentioned the history or remnants left by the Ottomans. I even thought that she didn't want to talk about it because clearly she did not have good thoughts. They don't mind having been a French colony and call France the "Mother Country." Interesting! The Armenian population is also quite high [...]

After Byblos, Hala took us to the mountains by the funicular.

She repeatedly told us; "look at the scenery; it is just like Monte Carlo, isn't it?" Here there is this casino, this famous person was on stage etc.

They are in belief that when small celebrities take the stage in their casinos and Versace, Armani and similar brands open stores in their country, they become very modern, Western and special. I even understood how superficial and funny some Turks looked when they tried at some point to forcibly make themselves look so modern to the Westerners. On the mountains, we went to a village called Harissa where France presented Lebanon with a statue of the Virgin Mary. It is like the Christ statue in Rio. It was quite crowded because it was Christmas day.

There are 18 different religions and sects in Lebanon. Maronite Christians, Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Sunnis, Shiites, the Druze, Armenians etc. Their constitution stipulates that the president always has to be a Maronite Christian, the prime minister a Sunni and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shiite. When we returned to Beirut, we saw things that we couldn't see at night. The buildings which were damaged during the civil war have been bought by a firm called SOLIDERE and a very ambition restoration programme has started.

Beirut city centre is really no different than Paris, Milan or Geneva. It is even cleaner and more beautiful because of the restorations. As I wrote earlier all the high-end luxury brands and their stores are here and nothing is cheap in Lebanon. Taxi, food etc. are even more expensive than in London.

A beautiful building built by the Turks is now used as the Council of the Ministers.

Everything is good and nice but I don't know why I have this feeling of unease and disappointment. Maybe it is because I haven't seen anything new. I mean, what does Lebanon have in relation to its own culture rather than the European imitations? What is its difference than France and Italy? That's why I could guess how the Westerners feel when they go to Istanbul and think that we imitate certain things (even though that is not the case). Maybe this is Lebanon's culture and history. Maybe they are not imitating but it felt as if even an ugly city like Tel Aviv has more character because at least it is not imitation. Maybe I am thinking wrong. But everything feels superficial (even though beautiful). I always knew from the books I have been reading throughout the years that Beirut is the Paris of the East but I had always thought that it had its own style. Perhaps, what has disappointed me is not being able to see an authentic style.

By the way, Hala said that the Phoenician alphabet is the mother of the Greek and Latin alphabet and that the story of "Europa" from the mythology takes place in Lebanon. Tomorrow we will first see the Baalbeck Temple, then pass the Syrian border to go to Damascus.

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