Last week, Beirut pulled out the stops to commemorate the fifth anniversary of Rafiq Hariri’s death and huge spectator stands were erected for the parades and performances downtown. We decided to escape the crowds and roadblocks, and head south for the weekend. We followed the coast until Sidon, Hariri’s home town, and then turned inland past Nabatiye and across the Litani River. Here I brandish proof of my newborn nationality before a sign announcing that foreign nationals need to obtain permission to cross from the Ministry of the Interior.
We stop in a village within sight of Israel. Chickens peck on the grassy verges and sheep graze on the rocky hillsides. Mount Hermon looms white in the dusk. As we wander down the main street, lined with cream stone buildings and various small stores, we realise this is a special kind of village. The shops, all open late, have numerous national flags painted on their façades and bold signs in English and Spanish welcome credit card users.
Like some sleepy town with one well-known tourist attraction and a disproportionate offer of ice cream and snowstorm ornaments, here the retail displays are out of sync with local life. The windows showcase boots, branded rugby shirts, men’s flip-flops, knives, watches, pc accessories and mini camcorders. The offer is techy, outdoorsy and predominantly male. Snack shops offer fajitas and the universal chicken nuggets.
Stepping into a clothing store I nearly bump into a large camouflaged behind. Blue beret peaking out of the pocket of her army fatigues, a substantial female UN soldier is halfway up a ladder extracting a shoebox from a teetering stack on a high self. Cuánto cuestan? she asks. Veinte, replies the shop assistant, looking on as three other soldiers browse through her goods.
Village life here is deeply influenced by the two UN camp bases on the outskirts. We can see them from our room, the Spanish contingent in a strip of long low white buildings and the Indian contingent on a neat hillock a little to the north. “There even used to be two bars with Russian girls,” a local tells us, “but that didn’t work out in the end. After all, it is still a village.”
The camps also call the tune on emigration trends. The shop assistant’s sister has just wedded a Spanish soldier and moved to Spain, while her cousin is in Norway married to a former UNIFIL trooper. They are not alone.
The next day we continue south, alongside a lush valley plane, bordered with poppies and rolling hillsides covered in silvery olive trees and a purple haze of apple trees not yet in leaf. A heron spreads its wings by a trickle of water. A handful of labourers are working the land and women gather herbs. Straight ahead, a red-roofed town perched on a hill looks out across this peaceful country setting, a plume of smoke rising into the clean air with picture postcard perfection. We can see stone walls, garden sheds and more apple orchards. The visual harmony of the scene is broken only by a formidable fence right ahead dividing the Lebanese valley from Israel’s northern most settlement. There is a persistent drone of aeroplanes overhead. The only other vehicles we pass are white UNIFIL jeeps and tanks, which make lighter work of the craters in the road than our battered sedan.
The road swings west at the border, and we turn our backs on the Shebaa Farms and the northern tip of the Golan Heights, both elevated vantage points occupied by Israel, which suspects that the panoramic view over its own land might be used for purposes other than tourism. Another hill we pass on Lebanese territory is a former Israeli outpost, from which shells were fired at the capital and other targets. Next up in the category of military cast-offs is an abandoned hangar built by the French as it struggled with the British army to cling to its protectorate mandate during WWII. Later we pass the remains of a handsome fortress occupied by the Crusaders in Medieval times standing proudly on a clifftop.
Unlike most Crusader castles destined for a humdrum retirement as mere tourist attractions, Beaufort Castle experienced action throughout the 20th century as brigades of varying colours took advantage of its vertiginous position and underground tunnels which allow covert entry and exit far below the fortress. Partly restored by the French in the 1920s, it was used by the Palestine Liberation Organisation to fire rockets on Israel in the 70s until the IDF sent in fighter bombers in the early eighties and captured it, upon which Hizbollah shelled it on regular occasions until Israel withdrew from Lebanon in 2000. Defiant though decrepit, it is now guarded against further opportunism by the Lebanese Army. Like the grassy meadow nearby, which turns out to be a fenced-off minefield, it could still bite.