Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Around Lebanon: Jabal `Amel and Wadi al Taym

I'm back from my mini-tour of Lebanon trip. We visited fabulous places, met great people and took loads of pictures. Below is an approximate route. In yellow, Sinay, our first stop. In blue, Rashayya al Fukhar (not to be confused with Rashayya, a large town 20 km north). In turquoise, the AUB farm in Hawsh Sneid, and in green our last stop, The Cedars.

Day one, Friday August 22: we reached Sinay, our village in Jabal `Amel (South Lebanon) in the early afternoon. I have posted many pictures of Sinay (which I used to spell Sinai, but I'm tired of the confusion with the desert) before on the blog (use "search blog"), but I think I have never shown pics of the tiny house which I literally built with my hands with the help of my mason-carpenter cousin. It's only 2 large rooms on 2 floors. Here's one photo of the top floor room taken by my talented photographer friend Tanya Traboulsi.

We didn't do much on this first day, except that I taught my kids how to pick prickly pears without getting thorns in their hands. We used a special tool: a horizontal T-shaped tube at the end of a long pole. The end tube is placed over the fruit, and the pole is twisted which has the effect of detaching the fruit and of making the apparatus vertical, in order to keep the fruit inside. The fruit is then peeled, chilled and eaten. Delicious. Below is a photo of my daughter Thurayya picking what the French call "figues de Barbarie" or Barbary figs. This plant (Opuntia) is often associated with deserts and arid areas and specially with Arab desert villages. It is, however, native to South America, where they make a much better use of it: while we only eat the fruits, which don't have the prestige of peaches, cherries and apples, the people of Latin America consume the green part of the plant, which looks like a large succulent leaf, but in fact is a modified stem (the leaves are the thorns). But in Jabal `Amel, this part, called "mushut" or comb, is used sometimes when transplanting trees into marginal lands where irrigation water is not available: farmers bury a "mushut" near the roots of the seedling, where it serves as a water reserve for when the soil dries up. The tree seedling extends its roots into the decaying plant tissue, and can use some of the water that is released as the cells breakdown. On Saturday August 23 we left Jabal `Amel for Wadi al Taym and the `Arkub, both also regions of South Lebanon. We passed Nabatiyyah, the "capital" of this part of the south, through the famous Kfartebneet check point. This is where the Israelis and their Lebanese allies, the South Lebanon Army (also known as the Lahad Army) , used to terrorize those who were passing on their way to their villages. In May 2000, the liberation of the South at the hands of the Lebanese Resistance brought all of that to an end. There are no check points on this road anymore except one manned by the Lebanese Army on the Khardali river. From the Khardali valley, one gets a unique view of the Beaufort castle, a crusaders fort that has been repeatedly bombed by the Israelis over the years, but is still standing proud. The road continues to Marjeyoun and then Al Khiyam, where the Israeli had established a large torture camp. The camp was bombed to the ground by the Israeli air force during the summer of 2006 in an attempt to destroy this evidence to the atrocities they committed in Lebanon. You should really visit and hear the horrific stories from the mouths of the survivors who are now employed as guides. You will learn that it was rarely Israelis who did the torturing: it was the job of the South Lebanon Army men, many of whom still live freely in South Lebanon, while a large number has sought refuge in Israel. A man who spent time in the Khiyam prison once told me how they used to abuse his wife and his mother in front of him to make him speak, and how a few years later, after the liberation, he met one of the torturers in a shop in Khiyam. I asked him: "what did you do?". He said: "nothing, Sayyed Hassan (Nasrallah) had given orders not to seek revenge".

Jabal `Amel's ends right after Khiyam, and we enter Wadi al Taym. While Jabal `Amel is mostly Shi`a (but with a significant Christian population and a few Sunni villages, of Bedouin origin, I suspect) Wadi al Taym is Druze-Christian, with a significant Sunni presence. The capital of Wadi al Taym is Hasbayya, from which the Shihab, the emirs of Mount Lebanon, originated. They came from a Sunni family, but Emir Beshir II Shihab (1788-1840) converted to Christianity when he became the ruler of the Maronites and the Druze of Mount Lebanon. A large part of the Shihab family is still Sunni, and their identity cards still show the title "emir". Wadi al Taym is also known as the Hasbani valley, in reference to this much disputed river that starts in Lebanon and runs into Palestine to feed the Houla lake.

Rashayya al Fukhar is a tiny village tucked in the foothills of the Lebanese side of the Golan, an area also known as Al `Arkub. It has a beautiful and vast pine forest which is unfortunately inaccessible due to the thousands of cluster bombs that remain there courtesy of the Israeli war ethics. Pine forests grow on sandy soils, which originate from the early cretaceous era, and these soils are often layered with non-swelling clays, which are ideal for pottery (or fukhar), hence the name of the village. It has also an ancient church with beautiful vaults, which was severely damaged by the Israeli bombings of summer 2006, but has been rebuilt since. We stayed in a guest house recommended by an NGO called ANERA which promotes responsible tourism in Lebanon. The facilities were beautiful and the breakfast excellent and generous. Our host, Esber Esber, is a very welcoming, gentle and hospitable young man, whom the kids playfully nicknamed Esber the friendly host.

From Rashayya al Fukhar, one MUST absolutely take a trip into the `Arkub. This is an area that has tremendously suffered since the 1960's when it used to be known as "Fateh land", as the PLO had established a very strong (and often oppressive) military presence in the area. The Israeli occupation was very harsh on this region, which counts a very large number of patriots from the left (essentially communists) or from the SSNP (Syrian Social National Party), and from other anti-zionist religious groups. Unlike other areas of South Lebanon, the `Arkub has a very limited Hizbullah presence, as there are few Shi'a in the area. The difference with the rest of the South is clear: while the signs of destruction are less pronounced than in Jabal `Amel, the absence of an organizing structure (Hizbullah) means that the services are very minimal. The feeling one gets is that this is a land that has been forgotten by state, parties, sects and confessions. The people there have little electoral weight and an even lighter political role. Economically, the small villages are at a standstill, while in the other border villages of Jabal `Amel, reconstruction and money flow appears to be much more intense.

The trip through the `Arkub inevitably takes one to the regions of Sheb`a and Kfarshuba. The extensions to these border towns, known as the Sheb`a farms and the Kfarshuba hills, are still under Israeli occupation. They are one of the main causes-excuses-reasons for the Resistance to continue arming and preparing. Sheb`a is reached after a seemingly endless climb to over 1500m. The landscape is parched, with a sparse land cover consisting essentially of thorny and aromatic plants. This is goats country (the little black dots in the picture below).

Sheb`a appears suddenly, as one reaches the mountain top. It is a surprisingly large and green town located in an otherwise barren mountain. Situated near the summit zone, it is fed by a powerful and generous spring, Nabe` `Ayn al Jawz. This water allows local people to produce excellent quality fruits and vegetables and to operate noisy waterside restaurants serving barbecue, mezze, fruits, argeeleh and cheap Arabic music. No alcohol there.

Sheb`a is literally a stone-throw away from the Syrian towns of Banias, Majdel Shams in the Syrian Golan and from other Israeli-occupied Golan areas. The main activity of the village was, for the longest time, smuggling between Syria and Lebanon. Sheb'a donkeys were reputed for knowing the way in the mountains without the need for a conductor, and they fetched prices only slightly lower than those of pick up trucks. Today smuggling has receded as Syria has opened its economy.

The drive back to Rashayya al Fukhar took us through Hasbayya. This is a major town, in the center of an area that produces one of the best olive oils in Lebanon. Last year, I worked as a consultant for a Swiss organization funded by the Swiss Embassy to prepare the study and the application file for the registration of the Hasbayya olive oil as a Geographic Indication of Origin or, as the French say, "une appelation d'origine controlee". I visited many of the coops and of the mills in the 40 or so villages of Hasbayya, where 20,000 small and medium olive producers mill some of the finest oil in the world, not to be missed. If you are in the region and you don't know where to go for olive oil, ask for directions to the press (ma`sara) of Sheikh Mahmood Derbiyyeh in `Ayn Jarfa. His oil is incomparable.

In Hasbayya, we visited what is left of the Shihab Palace, where the poor relatives of this once powerful family continue to live very modestly. The palace is run down and needs serious rehabilitation, but it is still impressive. Below is a photo of the main wooden gate taken from inside the palace, showing the vaulted ceiling of the entrance hall and the minaret of the town's mosque right at the palace's gate.
The Shihab's palace has, unfortunately, a dark spot in its history. It is said that, during the sectarian war between the Christians and the Druze in 1860, thousands of Christians who had sought refuge in the palace were massacred in the main courtyard by Druze fighters allied with the Ottoman forces. The Druze also sacked the town and killed 17 Shihab princes to punish them for sheltering the Christians.

For such is Lebanon: a veneer of beauty and culture barely covering a terrifying reality.

Tomorrow: The Biqa` and the Cedars.


j anthony said...

Thank you, Rami.

Marcy / مارسي said...

beautiful post ya rami. makes me miss you and the fam ketir, ketir! i love the pictures--especially of your house. you should post more--especially of the bed with the tree behind it. that house is paradise.

Ms Levantine said...

Great post. Do you have pictures of the inn in Rashayya al Fukkhar?


Leila said...

Yes this is all lovely. I am taking notes for my trip itinerary in October... Sinay looks close to MIeh-Mieh, I think I could drive there in twenty minutes with no traffic insha'allah. It seems to be on the road to Nabatiyeh?

I will try to get olive oil from Hasbayya on your recommendation.

Re: the prickly pear cactus - my grandparents' neighbor had one growing against an old abandoned house and I used to see it from my bedroom window. Now here in California it's also grown (a few nice big ones in my neighborhood) and you can buy the fruit and the flat parts at produce stands.

Years ago at a culinary school I saw a chef demonstrating slicing fresh cactus leaf for a salad. However I've never made it myself.

Look at this post for history of the nopalito, picture of the plant on the Mexican flag (yes!), and photos of the pear and leaves, au naturel and in salads.


What a great plant for drought conditions. It can also be planted en masse for a barrier to keep out predators. Won't protect against Merkavas however...

Anonymous said...

Rami, your post was amazing, just great, you covered things in a very entertaining, informative, and precise manner, a way in which any Lebanese person from this region would have described it...However, near the end, you fell out of order, and your description of 19th century events between the Druze and the Christians revealed your own Sectarian Bias, Please re-evaluate what you know about this way, and correct your ideas and posts, appropriately, Thanks again