Well, the sun is certainly bright out here, but nothing sunglasses can’t overcome. The only voice saying anything unto me is my translator. As for persecutions, we’re hoping to ward them off with bureaucratic talismans: accreditation from Lebanon’s Ministry of Information, a number for a contact at the Syrian equivalent. The Road to Damascus isn’t what it used to be.
We are fudging slightly. The journey that made the Road to Damascus a universally understood allegory for conversion is impossible to retrace today.
When first-century Jewish vigilante Saul of Tarsus set off for Damascus in around AD36, intending to deal some uppity Christians an exemplary smiting, he did so from Jerusalem. En route, Saul perceived a dazzling beam, heard the voice of Christ, changed his mind, got with the programme, and is remembered as Saint Paul. Thanks in no small part to the reluctance of Paul and other prophets to keep their revelations to themselves, his Road to Damascus is now blocked by barbed wire, sandbags, landmines, history, blind fury and bad faith – the only border crossing between Israel and Syria, at Quneitra, is only grudgingly open to Druze people from the Golan Heights. So we’re leaving from Beirut.
Not that this is a straightforward undertaking. This Road to Damascus has recently hosted its share of upheaval. In 2005, Syrian troops withdrew along here, forced to end 29 years of occupation of Lebanon by protests following the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri – whose death in an immense bomb blast in February 2005 is widely blamed on Syria. In August 2006, the road teemed with Lebanese refugees from Israel’s onslaught in response to the seizure of two Israeli soldiers by the Lebanese-based Hizbollah: Israeli aircraft struck several targets along the route.
At our hotel in Beirut, staff who help us wrangle a car and driver tell us that the road once thronged with Lebanese pilgrims visiting Syrian holy sites, and less devout voyagers seeking designer bargains. Now, with relations between the two countries at a sulky nadir – a steady tick of Lebanese politicians and journalists espousing anti-Syrian stances continue to meet spectacular ends – fewer Lebanese are visiting the neighbours.
Photographer Cristobal Palma and I have persuaded two locals to join us: a driver, who I’ll call Peter, and a translator, who I’ll call Sheila.When we start out on the Damascus Road – that’s what it’s called – in Beirut, most of the traffic is coming the other way. It’s early, and these are commuters descending from the hills. The first spectacle en route, past a district called Hazmi, is outside the Lebanese Ministry of Defence, the entrance of which boasts one of the weirdest lumps of art in the world: a 10-storey pillar of concrete, embedded with tanks and artillery. The work of the American sculptor Armand Fernandez, it was unveiled in 1995 as a monument to the civil war of 1975 to 1990.
The soldiers standing guard are used to bemused tourists photographing the thing, but they are edgy. Not far away – in tiny Lebanon, nothing is far away – their comrades have been fighting militants of Fatah al-Islam in a Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli. More than 150 Lebanese soldiers died in three months of fighting. The soldiers allow us to photograph the monument, but only from prescribed angles, to avoid capturing any images of nearby buildings.
From there, we detour through a verdant hill suburb called Yarze – the sort of place that boasts its own country club and a villa belonging to the billionaire Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi (which, Sheila laughingly notes, was commandeered by the Syrians for use as a headquarters, and is now in the possession of the Lebanese army).
We rejoin the road in a queue of belching trucks, groaning up the hill towards a suburb called Araya. The climb is now steep enough to make a difference to the speeds of the opposing lanes. Coming downhill, Lebanese traffic looks like a demented cavalry charge, the sleek stallions branded with the logos of Audi and Mercedes-Benz weaving through the ponderous high-sided carthorses trucking freight into Beirut. Going uphill, wheezing, groaning and grinding gears, the same array of vehicles resembles a depressed, weary retreat after a regrettable result at the point of contact. By the roadside, billboards maladroitly translated into the snappy gibberish of advertising mark our path: Shhhh Silent Parquet, Sexy Hot Summer Shower Gel, Loke International Hair Transplant Centre, Burger King – Welcome To Aley.
Aley, like its succeeding suburb, the resort of Bhamdoun, boasts glorious views across the barren hills (the cool hills around Beirut – at least when not hosting invading armies or wars – are popular holiday destinations. In summer, Arabs vacation away from the heat). Peter begins concentrating ostentatiously, hunched over the steering wheel, scanning with the nervous intensity of a sniper. “Very dangerous road from here,” he mutters.
Proof is not long in coming. We pass a three-car tangle of metal, sprinkled with shattered glass, a Range Rover being loaded on to a recovery truck, and beyond that, bystanders rescuing a four-wheel drive with its front wheel in a gutter.
Aside from the cool haven of St George’s church, still beautiful despite civil war-era shrapnel damage and a children’s funfair, whose depressed owner offers to sell me the business, the buildings along the road are functional, modern and ugly. Around here, there’s little point dallying with attractively carved columns – you never know how long your building’s going to stay up.
A few years ago, a mighty bridge was built linking the suburbs of Sawfar and Daher el-Baydar. Last year, an Israeli bomb punched the middle out of the bridge, returning traffic to the winding slog through the valley beneath. The span is being repaired now. By the valley road, a billboard erected by Hizbollah calls last summer’s war “A Victory From God”.
Political posters festoon the landscape, reminders that Lebanese politics is, as a pastime, as dangerous as driving on Lebanese roads: Rafik Hariri, blasted all over Beirut’s seafront; George Hawi, the former communist party leader killed by a car bomb in June 2005; Gebran Tueni, the journalist and MP killed by a car bomb in December 2005; Pierre Gemayel, Minister for Industry – and nephew of an assassinated Lebanese president – gunned down in November 2006; Walid Eido, the MP blown up in June 2007. “Martyrs for Justice” says the slogan beneath the portrait of Eido, and his son, who died in the same explosion.
We first glimpse the Bekaa Valley from the top of a winding road. When we reach Chtaura it’s time for lunch, and Sheila, unlike baffling numbers of Lebanese, disdains the Kentucky Fried Chicken and McDonald’s, and directs us to the Jarjoura laiterie – a purveyor of the local specialities of yoghurt and cheese. The proprietor Antoine, who has worked here for 47 years, labours beneath a portrait of his identical father, who founded the shop in 1922. As he organises our lunch of (fantastic) haloumi cheese wrapped in salty flat bread, I ask him how business has been.“Not great,” he says. “But, thank God, better than last year.”
Apparently, people fleeing bombardment tend not to stop for sandwiches. In downtown Chtaura, we ask Peter to pull his air-conditioned Volvo into the taxi station to see how the locals travel. The cars that ply the route between here and Damascus, for around €4 per person, are yellow, battered, rusty American sedans, mostly Dodges and Pontiacs dating from the 1970s. Given that they are, by definition, being driven by Arabs who don’t speak much English, Chtaura is somewhat evocative of New York.
Stalls sell cheap watches, dodgy electronica, dubious cosmetics, including “breast-firming cream”, “sex appeal gel” and Saddam Hussein lighters.
I notice a shop window stacked with multi-coloured glass hookahs. The young proprietor is reluctant to give his name, but happy to chat. He sells to Lebanese, but not locals – to the diaspora when they return to visit the old country. Since last summer’s war they’re staying put and if business doesn’t pick up soon, he will join them, in Canada or Paraguay.
“The Israelis bombed a bridge 300 metres away,” he says. “I was scared they’d hit that one,” he continues, pointing directly out his window at the canal covering we’ve just driven across. “I don’t want to live like this.”
I ask if he fears another war. “Who knows?” he shrugs. “It’s nothing to do with Lebanon. It’s all between Israel and Hizbollah.” On one wall of the shop hangs a portrait of Saddam Hussein.
The Lebanese border crossing is an infuriating shambles, the failure of which to escalate into violence is unbeatable testament to the extraordinary courtesy that defines day-to-day interactions in the Middle East. Cris asks if he can photograph the chaos, and Peter brandishes our Lebanese press credentials. These elicit mirthless laughter. I pass the time by calling the Syrian Ministry of Information in Damascus, seeking assurance that we’ll be allowed to take pictures if we ever get across the border.
For two countries so close together, Lebanon and Syria keep their distance. Between their frontiers is 7km of black asphalt winding through rocky red jebels, lined with trucks awaiting permission to cross. There’s one startling no-man’s-landmark: a gleaming duty free mall, complete with a Dunkin’ Donuts franchise. The border is marked by stone arches bearing portraits of Hafez al-Assad, who ruled Syria for 30 years from 1970, and his son Bashar al-Assad, the young British-educated ophthalmologist who inherited the family business upon his father’s death in 2000. As if to banish doubts about who is in charge, the road beyond the border is punctuated at approximately 10-metre intervals with images of Bashar overlaid with a fingerprint in the colours of the Syrian flag, above the dedication “We love you.” They continue all the way into Damascus.
Peter pulls into a petrol station, the forecourt of which is upholstered with posters of Bashar and Hizbollah secret-ary general Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah. (Since last summer’s war, Hizbollah’s clenched-fist-and-Kalashnikov logo appears in Syria with frequency that can only be officially encouraged.) The petrol is cheaper here, Peter explains – 20 litres costs €11 in Lebanon, €8 in Syria. Back on the road, he slams his foot down, the identical Bashars lining the central reservation whipping by. I ask him if he’s taking advantage of the better road but gradually it becomes clear that there’s another reason for Peter’s haste: he doesn’t want to be in Syria, especially not with a journalist and a photographer. Most of Cris’s requests to stop so he can take pictures meet a flat, “No. Not here,” and when Peter does pull up by roadside fruit stalls, alongside the town of Dimas, the extravagant greetings of the 14-year-old proprietor, Bilal – “Welcome in Syria!” – do little to calm him.
His agitation is difficult to take seriously. I’ve travelled in many police states, and it’s no exaggeration to say that the fear can feel like part of the weather, as tangible as sunshine or rain. Syria doesn’t feel like that to me – the only soldier we see in the rush from the border to Damascus, waves – but it certainly does to Peter.
“You have to understand, they won’t just take the cameras,” Peter says. “They’ll take you to the police station.” He’s also asking me to understand that while the probable worst that could befall me and Cris would be a recital of the Riot Act and deportation, matters might be somewhat less amusing for a Lebanese citizen accused of ferrying foreign spies. Back in the car, even though Cris resigns himself to photographing on the move, his every click of the shutter provokes winces from Peter and exclamations of “Oh my God,” from Sheila.
The geography has become less hospitable, as well. Lebanon is green, fertile and hilly, much more reminiscent of Italy or Greece than of any preconceptions of Arabia. Syria is desert, a beige ocean of sand, and while the view as we hurtle towards Damascus has a rugged grandeur, it’s hard to enjoy it properly for the inescapable gaze of the president, staring peevishly from hundreds of posters.
Peter and Sheila cheer up only once, upon noticing a silver Mercedes that pulls up alongside us, before disappearing at hilarious speed. It contains Nancy Ajram, the Lebanese pop starlet, who we’ve already seen, back on the other side of the border, pouting from dozens of Coca-Cola billboards.
Saul of Tarsus’s journey to Damascus ended on the street called Straight (Acts 9:11), and so does ours – after a diversion via Syria’s Ministry of Information where, with the aid of a wall-sized photograph of Damascus, the press officer who issues our accreditation tells us which parts we are permitted to take pictures of.
In Damascus, the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, the New Testament is almost an A-Z, and the street called Straight is now the main artery of the Old City’s bustling souk. Somewhere along here, Saul received baptism and salvation from a disciple called Ananias. All I get is a scoop of the fabulous local ice cream, and a camel-hair rug for the hall. (Still, as Saul/Paul would later write to Timothy: “And having food and raiment, let us be therewith content” – 1 Timothy 6:8.) The deal for the carpet is sealed after the traditional hour’s worth of tea, bickering over the price, and survey of politics.
“We’re actually pretty busy,” says the young shopkeeper, in impeccable English. “It’s still a surprise to me. After September 11, we started getting more Americans coming – they seem to want to find out more about the Middle East.”
Seeking a neat validation of the Road to Damascus metaphor, I ask if any of them have left with their minds changed. “I don’t think so,” he grins. “They still don’t understand us and we don’t understand them. But it’s nice they try.”