November 23, 2015

Rayak on a Monday

Rayak Station today, and in the past

I walked around Rayak this weekend. And when you walk through Rayak, a small town in the northern part of the Beqaa Valley, it’s as if you walk in a time capsule. Just like Cuba is forever caught in the fifties, Rayak is caught in the French colonial time, with many of the old houses and monumental buildings originating from the thirties, when money was in abundance.
The ticket counter is still intact (I thought the graffiti was rather interesting)

Rayak was once a little village with a few houses around a well: an agricultural town. That was until the French decided, in 1895, that when connecting the port of Beirut with Damascus, it should have a station in Rayak, where the line would split with a line going north (Baalbeck and then Syria), and a line east, to Damascus.
The train yard
Going hobo

Once the town had a railway station, it needed houses for railway officials. Then they built a factory where trains were constructed, so they needed houses for the factory engineers. In 1914, the Germans (The Ottomans were allied with the Germans during WWI) built an airbase. When the French took over, they established had a large army base. They built a huge hospital (with a jail), an officer’s club and barracks for their men. American and Australian troops stayed there as well. The town got restaurants, cinemas and even a casino, and they even had brothels, according to this source.
The place must have been fun.
The old French hospital (no longer a hospital)
It even had a pool with a dive board (no longer operating)

The jail built by the French army. It was later used by the Syrians when they occupied the town.

Nothing is left, of course. The war lords of the civil war plundered just about everything and what could not be stolen was destroyed.
It is almost impossible to imagine, but Lebanon was once a real country. Real, in the sense that things functioned, such as electricity, and water. There were proper roads. They built in stone, not cement, and the houses were well designed. When you walk through Rayak, you can actually feel the glory days. The old houses, once built by the railway company, are still inhabited, subdivided to host more families. The train yard is still there, as is the station and the factory. And in the town, many of the more traditional one story houses all have the year 1933 or 32 above the door (in Arabic). There is order in it all.
Then, in 1961, the Lebanese government took over the railway, and that was the beginning of its demise.
The cinema (no longer in use)
Not much left of it
In the tunnel that cuts through the mountain in Dahr el Baidar.

I’m not complaining; I came for the chaos and I stayed for the chaos. But every now and then it is nice to see things as if in a time machine.
So if you have a day off, drive to Rayak (take the main road to Damascus. Once you’ve cleared Shtoura, and passed Tanayel, there’s a sign somewhere to the left.); it’s a visit well worth it.
Fields around Rayak
And as you can see from the links, I am obviously not the first one to go there.


While in the mountains last Saturday, the day before Independence Day, hubbie pointed out a flag in the distance.
Look, that thing is huge,” he said.
It didn’t look that huge to me. Just a regular flag.
Yes it is, it’s at least 8 kilometers from here, and you can clearly see it.”
And indeed, it looked like an ordinary flag to me, but at 8 kilometers away.
We drove to the site to check it out. It was in a tiny cedar forest above Hammana, a place called Falougha, where apparently, some 72 years ago (November 21, 1943), the very first Lebanese flag was hoisted. Why there is a mystery to me. It’s not on a mountain top. Well, it is on a mountain top, shaded by an even higher mountain top right next to it, so why this one is unclear.
And yes, while standing under the flag pole, I had to admit; it was a huge flag.
The pole itself was of massive proportions, an iron construction bolted to the ground. It must have cost over $10,000 to install that thing.
There was a strong - and I’d like to stress on strong - south, south easterly wind coming from the direction of the Beqaa Valley, and the flag was flapping in the wind. It wasn’t exactly gale force, but you only need to look at the trees growing there on that mountain, and you get the idea of general wind directions and speed; many trees, especially the once standing alone, grow branches on one side only.
It was impressive how the wind pulled it, and the flag rocked in the wind. You could hear it fly. We discussed whether it was going to hold. I mean, the wind was ripping the thing hard.
Hubbie remarked that he hoped they had order twelve of those flags. He works at sea and knows what wind force can do.
This thing won’t last a month before it is ripped to shreds. They’ll need a new one every month if they intend to have a flag up here.
The sun was setting.
Now in Holland, we have the habit to bring in a flag between sunset and sunrise; you do not fly a flag at night. But the place was deserted, and it didn’t look like anyone was going to strike this flag.
They probably left it for Independence Day the next day.
We looked at it for a while. But night was falling, and it was cold and the wind was picking up, so we drove home.
And at night, as the wind was howling around our mountain house, I thought of that flag.
The next morning, as I got up, hubbie looked in the direction of the flag, some 8 kilometers away as the crow flies.
The flag is gone,” he dryly remarked.
I looked. Searched for it with my binoculars. I could see the flag post, but no flag.
Later, while on our way to the Beqaa Valley, we drove past the site.
The head of the municipality was standing at the bottom of the pole, the rope in his hand, with a bit of red cloth attached to it; one corner of the flag. During the night, the flag had been ripped of its post, and was now long gone. Gone with the wind.

We ordered it specially from Germany; It was supposed to withstand wind speeds of 150 kilometers an hour,” he said, rather disappointedly.
I guess they're not accustomed to Lebanese winds, maybe.
All that’s left is this video I can share with you. The flag never made it to Independence Day. Rather symbolic, I thought. 

November 22, 2015


A little orchard along a mud road in the mountains

Not much news these days. While Paris is still in pieces and CNN sounds like a broken record, Beirut, in the meantime, has recovered. It licked her wounds and continued. It’s called resilience. Not out of choice, but out of necessity.

Not that this resilience is helping us much. It has taught us to bend and bend and bend, but we never break. And so what we allow, because it doesn't break us, will continue.

Cherry trees give red leaves, fig are yellowish

One million and something Syrian refugees definitely is having its toll on Beirut. Although most of them live in the Beqaa Valley, and never make it to the big city, Beirut is overloaded with everything, except money. Too many people, too many cars, too much garbage. Not many people are making money these days; most are just hanging in there, waiting for better times. How come all this construction is still going on is a financial/economical mystery to me. I currently have a ‘chantier’, as we call road works/construction here, on three sides of my house.

The pre-teener is attracted to green grass. We don't get grass this green that often.

ne of the roads near my house floods when there’s a heavy down pour. Last month, water reached up to the car doors in a matter of half an hour. I was rather surprised when I noticed yesterday they were actually digging a hole there and installing sewer pipes. I did not know anyone was actually paying attention to these things, but apparently some people in the government are still working. There’s hope.

My work is steady, and so is my study. I’m slowly preparing to get back into writing.
It gets dark early these days; my favorite time of the year. Fall is in full swing, and the few deciduous trees that we have - mostly fruit trees - produce a nice Indian summer effect in the mountains.

Fall makes me happy.  If you like colors, than now is the time to go out and hike. Not in a pine tree or cedar reserve, but choose one of the forests up north, near Akkar, or Laqlouq. But you better be fast; one storm, and everything is gone.

November 15, 2015

Time for a Change

An olive tree in Sbaniyeh, next to the Mar Frem Monastery, overlooking the Beirut River Valley

A positive result, as far as I am concerned, of the attacks in Paris, is the stark realization among many that there’s a difference between the west and the rest of the world.
When people are blown up in Paris, we all change our Facebook profile picture, and Obama tells the world that this was not just an attack on Paris, but an attack on all humanity. Seriously now.
What about us?
Because when they are blown up in Beirut, or Syria, or anywhere else in the Middle East, it’s not even news.

Not much is known about the monastery. It was abandoned in 1860, after fights between druze and christians resulted in the monks being killed. It was partially restored some years ago, but is not in active use.

And that’s exactly why they’re being blown up in Paris. Because the west does not care what happens to people in the Middle East.

People in the Middle East already knew this. But many westerners who somehow have a link with the Middle East, are confronted with it now. Pray for Paris. But nobody prays for Beirut.
The western world does care about their interests though.
And if this involves supporting oppressive dictators who eliminate opponents without a process, regimes that do not allow women to drive cars, or countries that stone women on adultery charges, then so be it.
If it results in entire regions where people live in abject poverty while their elite own Lamborghinis by the dozens, or in entire populations being removed from their land to live in futureless conditions in cramped camps for many generations, then so be it.

Because it does not touch you. They're not your people. It's not your back yard.
And now our colonialism is coming back to haunt us.
Fundamentalism and radicalism do not spring from religion. They have their roots in poverty, injustice and a future without hope. This graph is a clear indication of that. Religion is all they have left, and so they cling to it with a vengeance (Research here and here).
A new bell tower.
Now they’re calling for a war on ISIS. I thought that one was already on. More bombing and ground troops.  It will only alienate more. You cannot bomb away poverty, injustice and a future without hope. What we’re doing right now, is obviously not working.
It’s time for a change. And so I leave you with the beauty of Lebanon. 
A beautiful Volvo

November 14, 2015

Growing Up with Bombs

We’re living in strange times.
Last Thursday, a Dutch friend of mine came over for dinner. While hanging out, her son from Holland called.
He’s asking if everything is okay. Apparently there’s been a bomb,” she said as she hung up.
My daughter had some friends over, and since none of their parents had called to pick up their children, I assumed it was something minor. Usually, after a big explosion, the first thing parents do is to get their kids back to the house. But no one checked in.

And then my son, also in Holland, called to check if everyone was okay.
The people in the dorm told me there was a big explosion in Beirut,” he said.
Now if two people from Holland call to check if we’re okay in Beirut, it must be big. But the girls were hogging the TV, and we couldn’t check the news.
Hubbie came home. Yes, he had heard that something had happened in the suburbs, but wasn’t sure if it was big. Slowly the news trickled through, and yes, it was something big. 2 suicide bombers, 45 dead, countless wounded.
A friend in Holland send me a message. ‘All’s well in Beirut?
As well as can be expected.
But Beirut hasn’t been well for quite some time now. Just like the rest of the region.
Now the girls got wind of it through their phones. You’d think they’d freak out. But no.
Oh guys, there’s been a bomb,” I hear one of them say.
Not somewhere close. Somewhere in dahiye. Not your neighborhood.”
“So no school tomorrow?”
Every time my son heard the word ‘infijar’ (explosion), he’d ask the same; So no school tomorrow?
These girls, only 12 years old, have lived through countless of these explosions. And a bomb for them is merely synonymous for ‘no school’.
While adults dread days like that, because of the unpredictability of the situation, they see it as a day off. A day when they don’t have to leave the house, and can lounge all days in their pajamas in front of a screen.
It’s probably the same in many Middle Eastern countries these days. Iraq. Syria. Libya. Yemen. Jordan. Turkey. A generation not fazed by explosions and violence, a generation not surprised by the phenomenon of people blowing themselves up.
I remember a conversation my daughter had when she was 3, with two of her friends. We were driving along the Corniche in Beirut, and one girl said (as we passed the St. George Yacht Club); “We go to this beach. A bomb went off here a few years ago.” Then we passed by the Sporting Beach Club. The second girl said: “We go to this beach. We also had a bomb going off,” upon which my daughter piped, “How come we don't have a bomb at our beach?”
A generation not fazed by explosions, violence, and people blowing themselves up.
 I wouldn’t say they’re desensitized. This is their reality.
And now Paris. The whole world is upset. Obama sent his condolences to the French president. Did he sent them last Thursday as well, to our president? Oh, I forgot. We don’t have a president.
I am slightly surprised. So is she. And she. And he. This is our reality. A reality partially created by the west. And now it looks like this reality is coming to Europe.
We’re living in strange times.

November 10, 2015

Just Sharing

Just sharing something today.
A very long time ago, I must have been 6 or 7; we had a large jigsaw puzzle at home with a fall theme. It was a typical American house (or at least what I thought was a typical American house) on a winding country lane, surrounded by trees, during fall. A white picket fence surrounded the lawn. I cannot find the actual image, but it was similar to this.
For a 6 year old, in a time when TV consisted of only two channels in black and white, and no emissions before 6 PM, everything in Dutch of course, this colorful puzzle really captured my imagination. This is what America looked like, I thought.
And they say that images and experiences made before the age of 12, 13, are the longest lasting one. These will eventually make up your cultural identity. Making jigsaw puzzles was a winter activity. It’d be dark by the time you got home from school, too cold, windy or rainy to play outside, and so we’d puzzle. I have warm memories of those days, because these would be the days it was warm and light inside, dark and gloomy outside, and the holiday season was up and coming, with Saint Nicholas and Christmas.
And so, fall, trees in colors, country lanes, white picket fences and blowing leaves always make me happy;  almost like that puzzle. I know, a little on the mushy & kitsch side, but they remind me of those days.

The Lebanese landscape is totally different; very few white picket fences to be had. But now and then, I stumble upon one. And then when it happens to be fall, and the wind is blowing the leaves around, then it’s perfect.
Just sharing.

November 08, 2015

On 16K and the Beirut Marathon

Can't think of anything hipper than this; two monks running the 10K

I walked the 10 K today, together with what seemed like the rest of Lebanon. It annoys hubbie to no extent that thousands of people are willing to go out for a city walk among throngs of people, AND PAY for it, while nobody is willing to go out and demonstrate against the current mess we’re in.
I don’t mind. I’m a big fan of urban festivities. It is good to see happy people. There’s a contradiction in it all. Lebanese take the car to bring their kids to school, less than 2 kilometers away. They’ll pay valet parking rather than park the car 3 blocks away from a restaurant. They’ll complain aloud if the line-up to the cash register is more than 4 people. They’ll honk their horn if traffic is not fast enough for their taste. They’re absolutely intolerant to everything that inconveniences them.

But ask them to pay 40,000 to be seriously inconvenienced, and drag their sorry @$$ all over town in the heat, and they’ll do it with a smile, a great mood, balloons, music, dance and what not! It is related to the ‘walk appeal’ of the event (there’s an entire science that figures out how far people are willing to walk for something), but I am all in favor of stuff like this.
I’m not sure how these marathons are done in other countries, Lebanon being the only country where I joined the crowd, but here, entire companies, schools and institutions sign on their complete staff to join, it seems. Is it voluntary? I wonder. They print T-shirts for the event, have balloons printed, and their employees bring their kids along as well. Talking about corporate spirit!
Heck, I see lots of housekeepers joining these days as well. Now if that's not good news!

Don’t let this 10K fool you though, in reality it’s at least 14K, if not more. To get to the race, you have to park your car a god-awful distance away, and walk all the way through town. By the time you are crossing the start line, you’ve logged your first 2 kilometers already. And then when you make it to the finish line, your car is - of course - on the other side of town, and so you pull yourself (in my case) uphill again.
Aregu Sisay Abateh, our housekeeper, ran for the first time in 5 months after breaking her fibula last June.  No podium position for her either, but she’s working on getting back her form.
My daughter has reached the age where she will no longer accompany me, unless I organize a diversion. In her case, that means friends. She hikes great distances every summer, so there is no issue there. I wasn’t sure how her friends would do 10K. One was under the impression that we’d walk 5 kilometers.  There was some mild confusion in the beginning, when after what seemed like an eternity, or at least 7 kilometer, the ladies were rather taken back by a sign saying ‘3K.’
How’s that possible?” wondered my daughter.
Well, just another 2 to go,” replied her friend, still under the impression that this was going to be a 5 kilometer walk.
Can't get them tired
But whether you walk 5, 10 or 20 kilometers, for (pre)teenagers it is exactly the same; they do not get tired.  And as I hobbled – relieved as ever, and seriously contemplating of giving this event a pass next year – over the finish line, with hip pain and back pain, and a left arm that somehow did not like to hang straight alongside my body, they bounced right back, ready for the next thing.
All in all, a good day.

November 06, 2015

Paradise Lost

The entrance with the double staircase
Still rummaging around in the hills around Beirut, still into remnants of our once so illustrious past. This particular house – at least, that is what I thought it was for years – stands along the main road of Sawfar, facing the (now also derelict) train station in Sawfar.

 And it is not a someone’s private residence, but rather a hotel, built in 1890, because once the train was running between Beirut and the Beqaa Valley (Rayak), it was thought that people would be enticed to take the train up into the mountains to enjoy the cool weather in summer. And so it was. Bhamdoun and Sawfar became synonymous for summer. And the hotel, called Grand Hotel, was doing brisk business for many years. Apparently it once housed Lebanon’s first casino.

The lights on the top floor is sun light coming in from the other side
Edward Said shares his memories of those summers, and the hotel in Paradise Lost.
We would stop at the Grand Hotel Sofar for tea after having lunch at the neighboring Hammana's Shaghour Spring (or mountain rift, with its small cascade of water) and sit awkwardly in the elegant garden surrounded by all sorts of meticulously dressed, distinguished guests among whom my parents would point out an Egyptian pasha or two, a former Syrian cabinet minister, a super-wealthy Iraqi industrialist, a Jewish department store owner.'

You can imagine how ‘grand’ life must have been back then just by walking through its halls. Ground floor only, I’m afraid. The elevator is gone, and the fancy double staircase has been destroyed in order to make it difficult to reach the upper floors. Nothing is left. In 1976 the Syrian army moved in, and they acted like a Hoover; anything of value got sucked in, and spit out somewhere in Syria. First the furniture, the cutlery and the chinaware.  Than the curtains and the towels. When all that is gone, it’s the turn of the toilets, the sinks and the kitchen cabinets and anything else that is bolted to the wall. But still more can be taken apart.  I’ve visited villas in Bois de Boulogne, where the tiles were chipped off the wall, the electrical wiring was taken out and even the copper piping was dismantled and taken home.
Right now it’s the perfect setting for a Halloween party. It seems the owners do not have the money to restore it to its former glory, and investors are hard to come by, because ever since the war broke out in Syria, the ‘Arabs’ (as we generalize inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula here) are not coming to Lebanon anymore, so why pour money in the place? Who’s going to stay in the hotel anyway? It may be packed in summer, but come fall, it will be empty again.

In old pictures, the hotel is sat all alone on the mountain, in a bare landscape, with just a few houses around it. Nowadays, it is surrounded by a couple of fantastically majestic trees. A cedar, a buckeye and a platane tree are standing on its right, where once there was a dance floor. With some imagination, you can see in the picture that the cedar tree was just planted then.
I was especially pleased with finding that buckeye tree. I grew up around buckeye trees, and every fall, every teacher of every class would suggest we make a fall diorama in a shoe box. And the buckeye would always be there, because they were so shiny and smooth. Yet I had never seen a buckeye tree in Lebanon. We have chestnut trees, but not many buckeyes. Buckeyes remind me of autumn in Holland.

Buckeye Galore
If it were mine, I’d divide it into apartments. Would love to have a place in such a grand palace.
Well, there are many more beautiful stories to share about this place, but since I am blogger number umpteenth to write about this abandoned hotel, I’ll just share some other bloggers with you here:

November 04, 2015

On the (T)rail

Stretch of railroad tunnel
I walked an interesting (t)rail this weekend. It is part of yet another – and very fascinating – remainder/reminder of our once more illustrious past that you might want to visit. This one will take a little longer, with the stress on ‘longer’.
 Once, a long time ago, we were a civilized nation with a public transport system; we had a train.
You may argue that the current service and the mini-busses is also a form of public transport, and it is, but the train allowed people to travel fast, cheap and safely, from
one end to the country to the other.
And I stress on the safely here. Have you ever sat in one of those mini-busses and travelled all the way to Hermel? You will be a believer if you arrive with a blood pressure of 120 over 80.  


‘The first railway in Lebanon was also the first in the Arab world. It was opened on August 3, 1895, when a steam locomotive took the first passengers from Beirut to Damascus. (…) The 147km trip from Beirut to Damascus used to take nine hours, passing through Baabda, Aley, Bhamdoun, Sofar and Dahr al-Baidar before descending into the Bekaa towards the Syrian border.’ (source)
The train started in Beirut (Station), passed (among others) through Jamhour (Distance from Beirut) 11.9 km , Araya 16.1 km, Aley 20.4 km, Bhamdoun 26.4, Ain Sofar 30.5 km, and ended some 144 kilometers later in Damascus Baramke, Syria (the place where you used to get off when you’d go by cab to Damascus).

The proverbial light at the end of the tunnel
That train system has disappeared. The line to Jerusalem was cut in 1948, the line with Damascus was destroyed in the first two years of the civil war (1975-1977).  And that was the end of the Lebanese railways. Sort of. Wikipedia mentions that parts of it operated as late as 1993 but I cannot vouch for that information.
Commuter service between Dowra and Jbeil ceased in 1993 and the last regular rail operations in Lebanon—trains carrying cement from Chekka to Beirut—ended in 1997.The Polish diesel locomotive for this line continued to be run once a month at the Furn el Shebbak stockyards as late as 2002, but service was not resumed. (source)
For what it’s worth, the Syrian railways are not doing well these days either.
The railway station in Sawfar. The one in Bhamdoun is currently on the verge of extinction
And to repeat the words of The Lord of the Rings again (sorry, family is having a marathon viewing); ‘Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it. (. . . ) And some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. ’  

 But as I said, remnants of this illustrious past (how I wish I could get on a train and ride to Baalbeck, or Tyres for the day!) are visible all around us.
There are the old train stations, built in their typical uniform architecture of French railroad house of the late 1800’s, of which quite a few are still standing.
Ain Sofar
And then there’s the rails.
To get back to this weekend’s hike; I walked along a short stretch of those rails. It is a part that runs between Sawfar and the Beqaa Valley. It runs right alongside the Damascus highway (highway?), but cannot be seen for most of the way as it lies down in the valley. Once you get into the valley though, it is very visible.
 The rail is no longer there, ripped out and sold off decades ago, but there’s a railroad house (inhabited by goats these days), remnants of a water tower, there are long stretches of tunnel (presumably to protect against snow drifts, can’t think of another reason) and then there’s the near level path of where the rails once ran. And you can basically, with some diversion, walk all the way into the Beqaa Valley, from the end of Sawfar all the way to Mrajat (town before Chtoura).
Pretty sturdy workmanship. After some 90 years, all it requires is the wood, and it will be a bench again.
It’s a nice trail; I wonder if anyone has ever walked the entire railroad, just like they have a trail set out to walk the Lebanon Mountain ridge, all the way from the north to the south (or the other way around, depending on where you start).
 When you walk in the narrow valley, you do not hear the cars above. There are no roads down below, so it is quiet, there are birds (hard to get here for hunters who are often car-bound, it seems), and lots of roaming sheep.
There are enthusiasts that are trying to revive the old railroad system. Zeina Haddad, a film maker, made a documentary, about the Lebanese railway (short trailer here), there’s an entire facebook page dedicated to the old trains, and Elias Maalouf, co-founder of leading Lebanese advocacy organization Train/Train Lebanon, is lobbying relentlessly for the re-introduction of the train in Lebanon.

I can only hope that one day I can catch a train early in the morning to Tyre, walk around town, make some pictures, hang out in the old harbor, eat fish, and catch the late train back to Beirut. In the meantime, I think I will walk the entire railroad, and keep you posted.
All that's missing is the rails