03 okt House of Stone, River of Tension
Most visitors to Lebanon stay in and around Beirut, maybe go for a day to Byblos or the Chouf mountains (Beiteddine), but only few venture to one of the borders or into the Bekaa valley. These days the tension in Syria fuels all sorts of crisis scenario’s, forbidding foreigners to go anywhere near potential fighting. Lebanese have developed a keen antenna for upcoming danger, so one is advised to trust their gut feeling. On the other hand, Lebanese want to prove that impossible is a word they don’t know. So when we mentioned Unifil – the UN-troops stationed in Southern Lebanon to protect the population on either side of the border against each other- our driver Michel smiled mysteriously. Through a friend he could arrange for a laissez-passer at the checkpoint if, in exchange, we would stay at the friend’s hotel in Khiam, a notorious Hezbollah village close to the border with Israel. We jumped at the occasion and off we went into the Litani valley, looking for mount Hebron, the blue helmets from Spain and Nepal and last but not least, Marjayoun. Only two weeks ago we had never heard of this Christian village, heavily bombed by the Israeli army in the first years of this century and the main location of a great new book on Lebanon, its people, its habits and culture. I am referring to Anthony Shadid’s ‘House of Stone’, a book about the house his great-grandfather Isber Samara built and that the author decided to rebuild to honour the old patriarch of his whole family. A family scattered all over the United States after most members fled the wars that have disturbed the peace in this paradise of olive and fig trees.
In an enchanting poetic way, the Lebanese American reporter Shadid describes how he spent years reconstructing not only walls, but memories, stories, myths and family ties long forgotten. The building of a house as a great metaphor of the Lebanese multi coloured soul, so complex, so proud and yet so lost. He takes us along on his journeys, drinking whiskey and coffee with his neighbours, analysing the attraction of the Litani for all those living near the river, the source of life, and explaining why people are ready to die for water as well as for their religion. Visiting Marjayoun, with its distinctive catholic churches and Italian looking square, we appreciated Shadid’s book even more. Yes, this is how wars leave villages and its people: scarred, happy to be alive and yet in a permanent state of alert. We easily imagined the war correspondent Shadid in the middle of bombed homes, his home’s second floor destroyed by a half exploded rocket. Marjayoun, the meeting point of exile and roots. On the square we remembered the inspiring pages but especially the author himself, who died of an asthma attack in February 2012 while fleeing Syria on horseback. It is a shame he didn’t see his book in print, but it is gift to all those who really want to understand Lebanon today.
Driving along the border where Israel is starting to build yet another wall (‘They don’t want to see us enjoying ourselves’, said Michel) the strangers we are thought how similar they all seem to be, in the end. Those who share the source of the river, those who share the sun and winds and views, that know no frontiers. If only they would realize that they –basically- also share the same God and the same longing for lasting peace. When we visited the former Israeli prison of Khiam, where Lebanese men and women were questioned and tortured, we realized that this dream is still far from true. Hate is still being fuelled by Hezbollah, Amal and others, using Khiam as propaganda. It was the only place we were allowed to take pictures. The guide hoped that we would contribute to a better understanding of the cruelty of the enemy. Responsibility for a war is always shoved into the shoes of the other. The tragedy of the Middle East could not be felt in a more powerful way than here in the surroundings of Marjayoun.