Postcard from Lebanon
The proprietor of my local Milk Bar in St.Kilda is a Lebanese man in his fifties named Frank. Frank is short, thickset, mostly unshaven, often in shorts and thongs and always looks unhappy. Frank grimaces rather than smiles. He calls regulars “mite” but he says it like a threat. Frank is generally bitching about something, how the local prostitutes steal from him and the attitudes of the Irish backpackers or the rise of street crime.
One night a few months ago, late from work, I dropped in to pick up some milk and in the shop is a young woman, attractive, dishevelled, early twenties, confused. Her hands are trembling and her body tense, her hair is messed and maybe she slept rough last night. She is wearing a short lime green cardigan which looks odd over her pale floral cotton dress. The girl is asking Frank the where she can stay. Frank doesn’t do help so I ask if I can assist. The girl’s mental health doesn’t look so good and at the moment I am guessing that she is spiralling, looking for something to hold on to and afraid. In the wild in Kenya I once saw a male gazelle walking toward a lion, he knew the lion was watching and he wanted to see if the lion was hunting or if he could graze in peace. So he kept walking closer and closer, it was the weirdest thing. This kid knows she is getting closer to her craziness and she doesn’t know whether to be afraid or not, so she is tense, scared and walking in to it all the same.
I ask the girl what she wants to do and she says she wants to find backpackers hostel to stay in. So I buy her a carton of chocolate milk and I take her big red hard plastic suit case and put it on the back seat of my Volkswagen and we drive to a backpacker place up on Chapel St. The girl goes in and comes out and says it is full, and we go to another place on Fitzroy St. The girl goes in and comes back and says it is full as well. And after several more hostels I ask her what she wants to do. It is getting late and we have been driving around for an hour. I talk her into going back to her Grandmothers place which is where she says she has been staying. I know the street near Ripponlea Station and we drive there and I drop her off. As I see it, all of us are on a continuum of mental health, not good or bad, just better or worse and the girl has the right to make her own decisions.
We stop at a californian bungalow on Oak St and she goes up the path to the front door and I drive off but park 200 meters up and watch my rear view mirror. In a few minutes the girl comes back out through the gate to the street, dragging that big old heavy plastic suitcase, her determined little body leans forward against the weight. I wonder if it really was her grandmothers and anyway she just wanted to do something different. In the dark she has more courage than me. I wonder if there is something more I can do. She needs help but I don’t feel it is right to take her home to my house and I know she is not sick enough for a CAT team. I drive off feeling confused and unsure.
Next day I drop in to the Milk Bar and tell Frank that I tried to help the girl but ran out of options and took her back to her Grandmothers. Frank says “Mite why didn’t you just take her home and !V<% her”. Frank says it sharp, he means it, he seems to resent me for not trying to take advantage of her. Like I said, Frank doesn’t do help.
“Love gives naught but itself and takes naught but from itself. Love possesses not nor would it be processed; for love is sufficient unto love.” Today I am in Lebanon, the home of Frank from the Milk Bar and also the land of the great poet, mystic and artist Kahlil Gibran. Lebanon stretches 150 km end to end and is about 50 km wide. The Mediterranean laps up against its western coast, its southern border is with Israel and the rest of the county is surrounded by Syria. Damascus is less than 100km from Beirut.
I am here for work. We are involved in youth initiatives for young people in the Palestine refugee camps. Some camps have been there since 1948. The camp we visit is really a small city, a patchwork chaos of concrete houses pressed in against narrow lane ways and streets. The tangled spaghetti mess of electrical wires go from house to house room to room all external and at head height so you have to duck and you know some must be live. In this one camp last year during the rains thirteen people died, electrocuted from live water streaming of the wires into the lane ways. The travel advisories all say the camps are unsafe for visitors because of kidnappings and extremists. But there is no feeling of danger as families go about their business and young men stare with curiosity not hostility at the western visitor. I am afraid that my grandchildren will say to me, “what did you do when the Palestinians were being persecuted, did you learn nothing from what happened to the Jews in Hitler’s Germany?”
On my day off I have arranged to have a look around. The taxi driver I hired is named Fouad, which he proudly tells me means “heart”. Later on I forget his name and just call him Mr Heart. The late model Nissan saloon smells like an ash tray. Right now we are on our way to Byblos, which is one of the oldest continuously occupied cities in the world, going back over seven thousand years when it was used by fisherman and sheep and goat herders. It is my first time in Beirut and as we drive along the main north south road through the city, I still can’t get over how almost every building has shell and small arms fire pockmarks on at least one wall. Often there is distinct shell peppering around a window and I imagine that there was a sniper there once whose life was changed forever during one of the civil wars or invasions of the last thirty years. I read some of a local newsprint guide book in print since the 70’s and come to know that Lebanon, one of the smallest counties on earth with a population of just over four million, has been ruled by just about everyone; this is including but not limited to the Canaanites, the Hittites, the Egyptians , Alexander the Great, the Romans, the Byzantine Empire, Muslim Arabs, the Crusaders, who lost it to the famous Saladin, who lost it to Cyprus who lost it back to the Muslim hordes, who lost it to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, then back to the Egyptians, back to the Turks, then the French, then back to the Turks, , then the Allies in WW1, then the French again, then back to the Allies in WW2. And since independence there has been more or less been constant conflict between the Shiites and the Sunnis and the Muslims and the Christians and some organisation called Druze, a faith in which three quarters of their two hundred and fifty thousand loyal followers, are not allowed to know what they believe in. I am wondering what this means for a sense of identity. The history and the politics here are just too complex for me to get a handle on. And I am thinking that actually the history and politics everywhere are too complex for me to get a handle on and I am wondering whether it is important to even try. I see no evidence around me to suggest that Santayana’s statement, “those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it”, is true, in fact it is those who focus on their history that most seem to have trouble moving forward. I am thinking it is just as likely that the future is forged by those who survive and keep on moving, like Lots wife, looking back can be a problem. I mean birds presumably don’t lose any sleep grieving ‘once we were dinosaurs’.
I say to Fouad,
“Lebanon is wonderful, the mountains are breathtaking, the men are handsome the woman are beautiful, the food is rich and delicious and people are so friendly. Your country has been beaten up by every other country in the region for seven thousand years why isn’t Lebanon neutral like Switzerland.“
Fouad’s dark eyes fixed me in the rear view mirror and he said louder than he needs to,” Because every Lebanese people is stupid…….every 15 years they make it war”.
We pass a supermarket sized Berretta gun shop with dummies wearing camouflage suits in the lit windows and holding high power rifles with long magazines and there is big stuffed deer with antlers.
I point to the shop and say, “Is there any game to shoot”
Fouad’s face lights up and he becomes animated and says, “You want buy gun now?”
“No, I am just interested is there anything to shoot in Lebanon except people?”
“Now just bard. “ he says somewhat sadly
Fouad flaps his elbows impatiently as he drives “bard….bard”
“Are still any deer”
“What about pigs?”
“All gone, just bards now”.
And I am thinking hitting a bird with that high powered rifle in the window would be like hitting a hitting a man with an anti tank rocket, wouldn’t be much left, but ……. we pass more buildings with bucket sized rocket scars.
So many apartments, office blocks and hotels sit gutted, rooms and parts of rooms exposed or missing, frequently on one corner the upper floor is folded against the level below, other buildings seem abandoned and then alongside themthing some brand new. Most buildings are two and three storeys with the top floor unfinished waiting for the next generation to add another storey to the expectant concrete pillars and rusty reinforcing steel sprouting out of the top floors like bad hair.
In Afghanistan during the late seventies, before the Russians went in, I was in the hills near Musarsharif watching the Pashtun game of buzkashi. Horsemen drag a headless goat around a field and you can’t predict where the reckless bravery of the riders will take the game. You are squatting on a dusty rock strewn slope in the sun and your heart is racing, your muscles are tense and you know that this game has no exact field of play and every rider is out for themselves and you are there at your own risk and you are not playing, but you are in it all the same. Lebanon is like that.
In the centre of the Lebanese national flag is the picture of the famous Lebanese Cedar . Fouad tells me the two existing remaining old growth cedar forests are not worth visiting “don’t go, the forests are finish and very bad but new tree coming”. I get the sense that Fouad thinks that the last seven thousand years has been a rehearsal for Lebanon’s eventual greatness, like an aging spinster with no suitor preparing for a wedding, all expectant and almost believable.
We reach Biblos and park at the old souk of cobbled stone lanes and curved stone archways. I wander from there down the hill past some roman looking pillars in a field, past a little cave grotto with people praying outside, to the old harbour. It is a natural inlet the size of a soccer field filled with twenty or so small fishing boats, The port is partly surrounded by Greek and Roman ruins including a small tower one side of the mouth. I take a table at Pepi’s Biblos Fishing Club which overlooks the harbour.
This restaurant was made famous by the glitterati who visited during the 1960s, before the civil war. On the wall are pictures of Pepi in a sea captains hat surrounded by presidents, politicians and film stars. Anita Ekberg, Kim Novak and Ginger Rogers in black and white behind big texta autographs on photo paper rippled with age an moisture. I stand beneath the flotsam ceiling of the glass floats, nets and cray fishing baskets that have been painted and made in to lamp shades, I stand where the dead Stars stood look at the view of the small harbour. I wait for my seafood lunch alone except for a German tourist who is messing with his big Canon camera.
I walk back up the hill and when Fouad sees me he guiltily puts out another fag and though I have paid him for the day he bustles around the car, opening the passenger door for me like he can’t wait to leave. “You want go now?” he says expectantly. But I just leave my heavy camera and go to the market and by a piece of flat shale with a fossilised fish the size of sardine embedded in it. The fossil comes a certificate which attests to its authenticity as an extinct species over one hundred million years old.
When I return to Melbourne I give the rock with fish to my mother who passes it around to the other ladies at ‘mix and munch’ at the outer suburbs retirement village where she lives. And everyone is amazed by the stark perfect skeletal relief of the tiny hairlike bones and no one can picture what one hundred million means. And so I tell my Mum that if every year was one millimetre then a meter would represent one thousand years and so that makes Jesus two meters away and the ruins at Biblos seven meters and the life of that fish a one hundred kilometres. And I have no idea what this really means and Mum looks at me troubled, like she doesn’t recognise me. And I am thinking how mad it is for that sea fish in shale, chiselled out of a mountain 800 metres above sea level in Lebanon with a history that can be described as 100 kilometres long can turn up in a suburban living room in Melbourne. I am contemplating that maybe it is better to drag our big old red suitcase out into the night into a new future than trying to make too much sense of where we came from.