As the plane was landing at the Beirut airport, a thought came into my mind, that I saw an overturned Ukrainian flag: an alluringly blue sea below was spreading under yellow, orange, golden and reddish sky. I have never seen such a sky.
Obviously, when I landed, my first question was about that sky. “It is khamsin”, they explained to me. It means fifty in Arabic. It is the wind that blows for fifty days in spring, mostly in April and May. The wind from hot deserts, which brings the sand that freezes in the air, as if covering everything with a sandy blanket.
The sky in our part of the world can be orange when the sun sets over the horizon, while khamsin in Lebanon veils the world, makes the air impenetrable and hot like smoke. It seems like some epic battle takes place somewhere over the skyline, rising up the dust and smoke from fire, and what is left for you is just to desperately look at this deadly beauty and wonder who will win the combat.
Lebanon is primarily a country of questions, not answers. And the very first among them is how so much could fit into such a small piece of land. Is it a kind of Babylon where everything is mixed? Or is this the Noah’s Ark of the future, where a little bit of everything will be preserved?
There is only one region in Ukraine, Chernivtsi oblast, which is smaller than Lebanon in terms of total area (Dnipropetrovsk and Odesa regions are three times larger than this country). But in Lebanon one can see the snow-capped peaks of tall mountains from the seacoast, and get from the quarter of skyscrapers to a several millennia-old town by only one-hour drive. Only here one can see a girl in a mini skirt, a woman in a hijab, an old carpet-weaver and a Hezbollah member with a gun over the shoulder.
The streets here are full of luxurious restaurants, but the most delicious food can be found in small port cheap eateries, where they fry fresh fish simply on fire. Here you will get so many appetizers that there won’t be any space left for the main dish. Here they don’t spice sweets with cinnamon, they use it for meat. They generously pour lemon juice upon the fresh lamb just taken off the pike, and they add the plant resin to the delicious ice-cream so that it does not spread out in the heat.
Half of Lebanon is a blessed Mediterranean beach, but one can hardly find a real beach here. Marine-related tourism is poorly developed in the country: the Lebanese do not like serving others, for them it is a humiliation of their dignity. The mountains here, however, simply swarm with posh villas and fashionable hotels – a tourist destination of rich sheikhs who come here from the Arabian Peninsula to stay for the summer in a cool mountain climate or to ski in winter.
Every “tourist” of this kind leaves millions in the country, so there is no sense to exert oneself for the sake of backpackers who choose hostels for an overnight stop. Perhaps, that is the reason why there is no quality public transport in the country, and one needs a car to get somewhere. And what a challenge this is! The jams on the roads here remind Kyiv subway during peak time, there are no traffic regulations, and drivers compete in agility and rudeness.
There are so many archeological sites and history itself just under your feet that locals do not feel its value any longer. People often find some artifacts simply while working in their vegetable gardens. There is even a joke saying that the Lebanese do not really like building new houses because when laying the foundation, some remains of antique buildings will definitely be found. If, however, serious builders suddenly discover some ancient ruins or shards, they rush to bury all their findings under the concrete in order not to have trouble with the Management of the Cultural Heritage Protection.
If in Europe we are often proud of our fake multiculturalism, in Lebanon it is truly alive – a mosque here stands side by side with a church, the president can only be a Christian, the prime minister – a Sunni Muslim, and the speaker of the Parliament can only be a Shia Muslim.
Half a century ago, Lebanon was called “Switzerland of the Middle East”, the country was rich and fashionable, but then the civil war destroyed everything. There is a shaky peace here now, but if you come to Sidon on the election day, where every hundred meters you can meet a Hezbollah’s terrorist, and the entrance to the city is guarded by the military checkpoint of the legal army, you realize that the truce here is weak and uncertain. Especially, considering that after the war, the power in the country was divided equally between Christians and Muslims, but since then the division of forces has changed significantly. Christian families have few children, the Sunni ones have a little more, and the Shia families can have over ten infants. Therefore, for the first time in the history of Beirut, which used to be the largest Christian city in the Middle East for a long while, a Shia Muslim won the elections. “Beirut belongs to Shia!” (in the Arabic language Beirut has female genus). This is what they actually screamed in the streets that night when I could not fall asleep.
And in the morning, the sky was covered with a yellow blanket, and the plane dived in it like a float dives after a fish, to bring me from the world where there are more questions than answers. Khamsin was left behind, and a narrow strip of land above the sea in it, and a grand battle of civilizations and millennia on it, and there… the sand veils the horizon, and nothing is visible any more.
The author’s trip was organized by the Embassy of Ukraine in Lebanon within the framework of the program “Ukrainian Writers In Lebanon And About Lebanon” (curator – Maryna Hrymych).