With this entry, I hope to inspire the readers to travel and experience the world – as well as remind us not to judge people or issues by what you see on TV.
Romain Tordo and I went to Lebanon for the weekend.
A couple of themes that I have touched upon over the past 6 months or so, themes that are important to me …. misinformation in the media is massive – do not believe all the crap on CNN. …and Adventures and experiences open our mind further to the world so do not be scared away from experiencing the world.
We stayed at the historical Phoenician Hotel. On Friday morning, after we had checked into our hotel – we asked the girls at the front desk where we should go visit. We explained that we wanted to walk.
The young women at the front desk took out a map and pointed out a section of Beirut that they told us not to go to …”it is too dangerous…”
I looked at Romain who was smiling and he winked at me because he knew exactly where I wanted to go.
As soon as we exited the hotel – Romain pointed the way to what we had been told was the dangerous section of town …and we started walking towards it.
Beirut is a city of roughly 3 million people made up of 45% christian and 55% muslim …. it is a mountainous, gorgeous city that even endless war has not destroyed.
There are 15 Starbucks coffee shops, at least two Armani stores, a Ferrari dealership and not to mention, Beirut has a big cigar culture. I saw men smoking cigars every where … and we stumbled upon 3 great cigar bars on our adventure.
Friday afternoon we walked for a couple hours in the section of town that we had been told was Hezbollah.
Until I came to Dubai for the first time, 4 years ago, I had no idea or understanding of what “Hezbollah” is. In America – we associate the word only with terrorism.
Hezbollah is a political party – America, Israel, UK, Japan and Canada consider Hezbollah a “terrorist organization” — however, other countries including France, and most of the EU and the Arab nations classifies Hezbollah as a “resistance organization.” According to Wikipedia, more than 60% of the Lebanese recognize Hezbollah as a legitimate governmental organization/party. Hezbollah loyalist hold a large number of seats in the government senate.
Friday afternoon, my goal was to experience and spend time with these people….
After walking a good 2 hours through the streets of Beirut – Romain and I arrived at a check point near the area on the map we were told to stay away from (all check points were man’ed by the Lebanese army) The guard, a sweet man in his early 20’s named George pointed down the road — and said to us in french “it is too dangerous…stay away from there.”
We thanked him and eagerly walked towards the area….as we got closer to the camps, we notice on the side of the high way was a shack-like tent with a couple plastic chairs outside it and a man smoking a shisha (water pipe).
Romain loves shisha and he looked at me and said in french “it’s the most exclusive shisha bar in the world.”
The man running the cafe/shisha bar spoke English and happily told us to sit down and he would bring us our shisha….we sat down on two old plastic chairs next to a young man, maybe early 20’s.
The man did not speak English.
I wonder what would happen if two Arab men walked into a cafe in the middle of america….
I seriously, doubt they would be treated with as much hospitality and warmth as we received by this man.
So there Romain and I sat enjoying shisha… inside, what we were told is the most dangerous part of Beirut (we never once felt in danger – and all the people were friendly to us)
The man we sat next to, and we smoked shisha with, pointed to a big poster of the leader of Hezbollah and told us by his gestures and hand actions (he did not speak English that he would do anything for this man, even kill himself…. and then he showed us his arm which had a big scar from where he said he had been shot by Israel.
The owner of the cafe came over to us and started to translate … we told the owner that we were French and that we wanted to see the real Beirut, not just the tourist places.
As we sat there smoking and talking with the man who spoke English…several people came over to see what we were doing, but everyone was friendly.
After we left the cafe we walked in and around the camps. On each corner was a group of young men, probably guards and nearly each group would say hello to us and invite us to join them for tea or shisha. Although we did not take any of them up on their invitations because we had just finished a shisha, we did small talk and show them appreciation.
We walked easily 4 hours all over Beirut and not one person was rude, aggressive or anything like they are shown to be on CNN.
There is no way I would walk around certain parts of Los Angeles … but we walked all throughout the sections of Beirut we were told was “dangerous” and we had no problems.
At night, after our dinner at a restaurant a good few miles away from our hotel, we walked back to the hotel along the corniche which was a big sidewalk along the sea…. (similar to the corniche in Nice and Cannes) we walked easily 1.5 hours in complete darkness along the sea. (all the lights had been broken so there is no light along the side walks) Many many many young and old Lebanese alike were parked in their cars or sitting along the sidewalk smoking shisha enjoying the beautiful evening.
On our walk back to the hotel, we decided to go the next day t0 the south of Lebanon and go all the way to the Israeli border to take a picture.
We had been told at dinner by our waiter that South Lebanon is the most dangerous place in all the middle east (excluding Iraq today) and a Google search back at the hotel confirmed this …. learning this made us want to go even more.
The next morning we went to the front desk to hire a car and driver – but we quickly discovered that no one would take us because they said “it was too dangerous….” We went outside to hire a taxi, but none of the taxi’s would take us.
South Lebanon is the toughest, poorest and most loyal Hezbollah land in Lebanon.
After 2 hours of searching, finally a travel agency that we had called earlier in the morning found a driver that would take us.
Our driver, a 58 year old whose name is Souheil, is a Christian and has lived in Lebanon his whole life. As we drove away from the hotel, he asked me where I was from …. and when I told him “america,” he screamed “oh my God! Don’t tell anyone you are from america !!!!
We will tell people you are from Holland….”
This part of our trip …. begins the most amazing, adventurous day of my life.
I am lucky that Romain was with me to witness with me because people would think I was exaggerating what happened ….it was incredible.
We noticed that the further south we drove, the rougher the country looked.
We stopped in Tyur to visit a roman archaeology site.
We were the only people at the site. After and hour or so of looking and taking photos, we walked back to the car which was parked by a police office and there was 2 police officers and a woman drinking tea– they invited us to join them for a tea so we did. The woman told us that she was a singer named “Layal.” Later our driver would tell us that she is famous in Lebanon.
As we drank very good tea, we explained that we were tourists from Holland …
We all sat at a plastic table and faced a view of the Roman ruins as well as the city.
Layal spoke English so she explained to us that one day last year, as they sat smoking shisha….they watched an Israeli plane fire a rocket into a building that was in front of us (but no longer there) and they witnessed the building collapse and 150+ people died in it.
I noticed that they did not speak aggressively, nor negatively. They spoke as if it just happened and that was just the way life was….
During our three days, No one ever said anything negative about America and or Israel. Surely, they do not like both …. but throughout the three days, I noticed people were not focused on negatives.
We left our new friends and drove further south.
Now we were driving on a two lane dirt road that went along gorgeous Mediterranean landscape – banana farms, lemon orchards, and olive tree groves … gorgeous.
But we also began to see houses that had been blown up and or shot up and destroyed.
We saw many UN vehicles and tanks. We saw people driving tanks that had someone man’ing the machine gun in the tank.
About 15 miles from the israeli border – you have to go through a final check point. I am not sure why the check points are there – but we were told that no journalists and or outsiders are allowed in/ past the check point.
At this final check point, Souheil thought that maybe they would let me through if they knew I was American … so he gave the man from the Lebanese army my passport and explained that all I wanted to do was to see the Israeli border.
The man from the check point told my driver excitedly to get back immediately (he told us to “get back get back get back get back”) and then told me and the driver not to tell anyone else that I was American. He explained that no one gets past this check point unless they have “an order” (whatever that means)
As we backed up and drove away…Souheil said to us “well guys that’s it, now we go back to Beirut….”
I told the driver …. that there is one more check point we can go to … and that we must try again…..and Romain made a joke about the man at the top didn’t fall there ….so we could not quit now.
We drove a good 10 miles or so to the other check point and this time we pretended I was French …. and Romain showed them a yellow post-it note with a number on it that by chance was on the outside of his passport, and luckily it worked and the guard let us through.
By now we were in the heart of the land most destroyed when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006.
We saw large posters along the road of young men who had died in battle.
We also saw many large bill boards of the Ayatola Komeni as well as the main Hezbollah leader.
The closer we got to the border the rougher the roads were. Many houses had been destroyed and there was gun shot marks on everything.
We saw many children playing. Souheil pulled up next to a group of children who were eating ice cream to ask them which road to take to get to the border.
A young boy, maybe 10 years old came to the window and told us “you can’t get too close because it is very dangerous – they will shoot you.”
It makes me sad to think as I type – this young boy has no hope. He does not have the same opportunities that my daughters have.
By now we have discovered that there is no wall separating the two countries …. the border in this area between Israel and Lebanon is just land — and in some places barbed wire and land mines.
We drove down a small dirt road (since the last check point, all the roads were dirt – no cement) and we came across an old man, probably in his 80’s dressed very sharp, wearing a tweed sports coat and walking slowly up a hill with a cane.
Souheil stopped and asked him where the Israeli border was — and the old man chuckled softly, and pointed his cane to the land below the hill we were on and he said this is all the border.
The old man said that he has lived in this village his whole life.
We were in Bint Jbeil which is the small village that Israel invaded and destroyed in 2006 — and I learned later that night it is the most contentious place in Lebanon.
We continued to drive slowly along the dirt roads looking down the valley at a big Israeli, ultra modern guard tower below.
The scenery was gorgeous …. lush and green.
Finally, we came to a fork in the dirt road, two roads that slopped downwards towards a beautiful green lush valley, and the Israel border– and just like in a movie, there was a late 80’s model white Mercedes Benz parked, that had 4 men sitting in it — facing the Israeli tower, but because they were sitting, looking down they were a bit higher than the ultra modern, super high tech Israeli border tower that was below down the road.
It seems as though these 4 men were the watch tower for Lebanon.
Romain and I were pressuring Souheil to find us a fence we could take a picture next to….so we made Souheil stop and ask the men where the border was.
The men pointed at the guard tower that was maybe, 500 meters down the road from us. All the men were very friendly and told us not to go too close or Israel would shoot at the car. (they were not joking and sincerely believed we would be shot at if we got too close)
We smiled and waved …. and drove on the dirt road towards the tower. (The same dirt road that the Israeli tanks took when they invaded the small town in 2006) Souheil, our driver was very scared and was nearly crying – he said that we will be shot if we go closer….and he stopped the car, maybe 200 meters from the tower. He was very scared, but stupidly both Romain and I were not.
We heard a car horn and saw flashing head lights behind us — our new friends in the old white Mercedes came speeding up to us and told us to get back immediately…. then when we were back to the spot where we had original met them, they told us that Israel would surely shoot at us – or blow the car up because they would think we were a car bomb or something because there is no reason for anyone on the Lebanese side to go up to the tower.
For the first time…. reality hit me and I realized that I was in the middle of something that I had absolutely no control over.
We took a few pictures and video and we drove back towards where we came from to go back to Beirut … our driver was sweating and he was obviously nervous. He kept saying over and over “you guys are crazy…you guys are crazy….”
As we started to drive, a blue 750 BMW with 4 men drove up to us and flashed its lights for us to stop (apparently, they had been called to come and check on us).
…. I am an american and we had essentially snuck into a place that we had no right to be in. I am in the area of Lebanon that Google had told us was the most dangerous …. Stupidly, I had my american passport in my pocket,
As we pulled over, our driver told me “no matter what, do not tell them you are american and hide your passport under your seat…” 4 nicely dressed men got out of the car and stood at each of the 4 doors of our car — with the leader reaching in and very nicely shaking hands with us and telling us very gently to relax….
He asked us how we got past the check point and what we were doing. He asked us if we were journalists – and he told us journalists are not allowed. He stated that absolutely no photos were allowed (we had been taking a video and many photos)
He asked for our passports – and Souheil explained in Arabic that my passport was at the check point -and we gave him Romain’s french passport. Souheil explained that we were two french tourists that just wanted to see the border.
The 4 Hezbollah police men, although they were very stern, were very kind and gentle.
We apologized over and over if we had offended them – but they kept telling us “don’t worry” “it’s OK and they explained their concern (Souheil translated for us) is that Israel would blow our car up if we had gotten too close because Israel does not take any chances.
However, their main question was how did get past the check point …. and what was our ”order number” (whatever that is) Finally, they accepted our excuse and let us go….
Our driver was absolutely scared shitlesss….he drove very quickly and explained that if they had known I was american they would have thought I was a spy and surely would have arrested me …. and he wanted to get past the check point asap in case the men changed their mind or contacted the check point to verify our story.
On the way out, we drove by many tanks, at least 20 tanks– one of them was laying on its side, tipped over. We drove by children playing in the streets….oddly, there are also many very modern mansions ….. massive houses that looked brand new. It was a strange site — to see several gorgeous 10,000+ square foot homes in the middle of a war zone. The beautiful homes seem to be untouched by the war.
Everyone waved and smiled to us. No one was unfriendly. Romain and I never felt like we were in danger.
We drove out of the check point with no problems…..and as we drove back to Beirut the driver kept telling us over and over how dangerous of place Bent Jbeil is … and how the Hezbollah would have taken me to jail, etc.
We drove straight to Beirut and arrived at 8:30 pm to “Munir” the most famous restaurant in all of Lebanon … it is in the mountains and is very modern and beautiful– the meal was one of the best meals I can remember having.
Souheil ordered a lot of food for us and he finally admitted that he had never been to the areas we had gone today. As he toasted to “life” …. I thought about the group of children playing….children who have no running water. Most probably they live in houses with no glass windows….. they have no hope. It is very sad to think about.
On the 3 hour flight back to Dubai, I reflected on all the great adventures we had over the weekend – and how stupid we had been on trying to get as close as we could to the guard tower.
Lebanon is a gorgeous country. In my opinion, what makes Lebanon so gorgeous are the people.
I am proud to have experienced Lebanon in the way we did.
It is horrific to think about how many women, children and other innocent people are destroyed because of geopolitics.
Do not let others tell you what to think.
Experience the world for yourself.