A Merry Dance around the Middle East
Holidaying in the Middle East? Why? When people ask me this question, I’d like to reply it is thanks to my romantic obsession with the Silk Road where for thousands of years caravans of merchants travelled between Rome in the west and China in the east through the Middle East and Central Asia. I have visited many famed cities along the route, such as Turpan, Kashgar, Samarkan, Bukhara and Istanbul. Trading not only silk, gemstones and spices, but also different cultures and ideas, the caravans have left, to greater or less degree, lasting impact on these cities, which made them fascinating. This time, while based in Beirut, I traveled around Lebanon and made trips to Syria and Jordan.
The images the Middle East conjures up are usually war and terrorists; what I see are fabulous Roman ruins, atmospheric ancient souq (market), sensational food, and of course, handsome robed men. It is the perfect place to indulge one’s sensual pleasure.
The trip started well indeed in Beirut. Upon my arrival, a charismatic Lebanese architect named George, who I had met a few years ago in London, picked me up from the airport and took me and my American host Irina out for dinner. Exhausted and jetlagged, I had expected to eat simply and locally. But George insisted in giving me a proper welcome by driving one hour to Byblos, a crusader town by the sea. The restaurant he took us sits on a cliff, over-looking the ocean. When George and Irina started to debate about the political situation – talking politics is the most favorite pastime in Lebanon – I gorged on hummus and grilled sea bass, then just stared at the lit-up harbor and the Roman ruins decorated with Christmas lights. In my slightly dazed state, the whole thing felt surreal.
After such a start, I almost worried that everything would go downhill. I woke up the next morning to face a warm sunny day. From Irina’s balcony, I could see the shimmering Mediterranean Sea. I thought, well, I could cope with life like this!
I have to stress that I went to Beirut because I wanted to go, not because some friends invited me. In fact, George was the only one whom I had known vaguely. When I told friends I was going to the Middle East, they started to introduce me to people there. Irina is a cousin of a friend. A famous Lebanese food writer introduced to me quite a few of her grand friends, among them Nayla, from the prominent Audi family, who owns a posh restaurant. Nayla immediately invited me to lunch at her restaurant set in a stylish shopping mall. A great place to see and to be seen. Many Lebanese are highly fashion-conscious and their looks vary hugely. Another guest was a local writer who has blue eyes and light brown hair. Well, as Nayla puts it, Lebanon is a ‘nation of bastards’. The others at the table included a wealthy Kuwait family who came to Beirut to spend Christmas as they usually do. I guess Beirut is always the playground for rich Arabs. Nayla’s food, Italian with local touches, is fabulous. I stuffed myself with mezze (array of small starters) before the hot dishes arrived. Just like the Chinese, the Lebanese love to show their hospitality by ordering far too much food.
The three-hour lunch set the pattern for my stay in Beirut. I am so lucky that I knew people there which meant I could muddle along to talks, dinners, drinks and parties, which led to more invitations. I guess I am exotic there – the Middle East is one of the few places where I have not seen many Chinese. And people there, the locals and expats alike, love to have a bit of fun, unfazed by the unstable political situation.
Nayla sort of adopted me. Whenever I didn’t have any engagement, I hung around at her restaurant or her very grand house, blessed with a courtyard garden. Everyone lives in flats in Beirut except the privileged few. Her Venetian style house features extremely high, painted ceilings, exquisite tiling works and fine marble columns sandwiched between large arched windows.
I have to admit that I fell in love with Beirut. By Chinese standards, a small city of 1 million people, it has so much to offer. People say that you can go swimming in the sea in the morning and go ski up in the mountain in the afternoon – few cities in the world can make such a claim. There are down sides, naturally: there’s a three hours’ electricity cut every day, for example, plus a water supply problem. And the destruction of the conflicts is still visible with ugly shelled-off buildings here and there. But the sunshine, stylish cafes/restaurants, vibrant and diverse cultures and easy life style compensate richly. I could have stayed there for the entire trip. I made a point of visiting Syria.Damascus
Damascus, only a little more than two hours drive away, lacks Beirut’s style and sophistication. But it has different things to offer.
As soon as I arrived I headed straight to Umyyad Mosque, the heart of the city. As I entered the gate, I was awe-struck by the gliding mosaic of gold and lime green on the expansive stone wall: portraits of palaces and landscapes glittered in the late afternoon sun. It was magic. I have seen a few grand mosques in my life, but nothing is quite like this one. I walked across the vast yard and went inside. Cradling my shoes, I sat down to watch the pilgrims: press their heads against the ground, click their pray beads, mutter their prayers. One old man sobbed openly. Suddenly, someone poked me with a stick. I thought it was a staff complaining about my hood: all female foreign visitors have to wear a grey, hooded robe like a prison uniform. Whenever it slipped off, one staff would tell you off. But it wasn’t one of them. “Where from?” asked a Caucasian looking man. “China,” I replied. “China!” he sang, and sat himself down next to me, “I love China.” He introduced himself as Christopher, a local man who is a quarter German and a tour guide who can speak German, French, English and Japanese. He could give me a tour, free of charge if I wasn’t happy with his service. I am not sure about his linguistic talent but very sure of his German blood. In fact, I had no doubt that he would be a nasty Nazi if he were there and then. He blustered the complicated history, with his strong German accent. When I didn’t look at the direction he appointed, he stabbed me with his stick.
The history of Umyyad Mosque tells you a lot about the history of Syria. Damascus is believed to be the oldest continuously inhabited city in the world. And the mosque stands at a site regarded as sacred for at least 3000 years! At first, there was a temple in honor of a local deity, then a Roman temple for pagan worship before it became a cathedral, dedicated to John the Baptist. After the spread of Islam in the 7th century, it was converted to a Mosque on which thousands of Coptic, Egyptian and Persian craftsmen worked wonders. . “Go back as far as you will into the vague past, there was always a Damascus,” wrote Mark Twain, back in 1860s. “To Damascus years are only flitting trifles of time. She measures time not by days and months and years, but by the empires she has seen rise and crumble to ruin. She is a type of immortality.”
Of course, I didn’t really learn much from mad Christopher, although I did pay him. (He tried to refuse as he claimed he was in love with me.) I was thankful to one brilliant suggestion of his: when I mentioned that I would have to return, he told me just to keep the robe. I did and I even wore it later that night when it turned so cold. Of course I returned the ugly uniform when I was finally satisfied with my visit to the mosque.
My other favorite spot is the Christian quarter in the Old City. A British diplomat family I know live in the neighborhood. I enjoyed enormously finding their house, wading through the maze of back streets, where all sort of churches, Protestant, Catholic, Greek Orthodox, and Armenian Orthodox congregate. It is also here that some stunning old courtyard houses with high painted ceilings and lustrous titling works hide themselves. Interesting, they promise nothing from the outside. The diplomat’s house is just one of those. Looking festive, the narrow streets are burst with energy and atmosphere: veiled old women, priests in long black robes and sweets seller with their carts rub shoulders against each other. I love the area so much that I moved to a boutique hotel here.The friendly Syrians
What made me so fond of Syria is a sense of innocence that you don’t find in touristy parts of the world. And people are so friendly. Everywhere I went, people greeted me warmly, asking where I was from, followed by all sorts of personal questions. When I tried to buy a few fruits – I didn’t need kilograms of them – they often just gave them to me without charging. Old women in the street pushed whatever food they were eating into my hand, urging me to eat and worrying I am too thin!
One evening when I returned to my hotel, I noticed a party of some sort was going on in the downstairs restaurant. I went in to take a look and realized it was a wedding reception. I was immediately invited to join in. I gladly accepted and sat at the top table with the bridegroom’s family. When I presented a little gift to the newly weds – 26-year-old bride, a teacher and her 32-year-old actor husband, all the cameras and video cameras focused on us. They also invited me to dance in the middle of the stage with them while everyone else circled around us: I suddenly found myself a guest of honour! I enjoyed not only the banquet and the attention but also the chance to glimpse into local life. They are all Muslims. The bride clad in western white dress and her man in a suit. Some guests dressed up while others didn’t bother at all. And while some older women covered themselves up properly from head to toe, with headscarves and all, some young women wore showy evening wears. As they danced, their breasts nearly fell out of their low-cut dresses! I was glad to find the bridegroom’s brothers, a vet and an engineer, spoke English: it is harder to find English speakers here while in Beirut, apart from taxi drivers, just about everybody speaks Arabic, French and English. And compared to Lebanese, the Syrians are more reserved and much less winning to talk about politics.Palmyra
Palmyra, city of palms, is an oasis town 240 km northeast of Damascus. An outpost of the Roman Empire, it was founded by a general of Alexander the Great while others believed it was Solomon, King of Israel. In any case it had long been a wealthy caravan station on the Silk Road as silk and spices from China and India made their way westwards. Palmyra reached its heyday under Queen Zenobia who conquered the whole of Syria and beyond. Her death ended the city’s prosperity. It was later sacked by bloodthirsty Tamerlane from Central Asia. The city was half-buried in the sand for many years before being excavated in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The Roman ruins date back to the 2nd century AD. I shall never forget the sight, with the expanses of columns and arches, rising dramatically in the vast emptiness of the Syrian Desert as I approached in a car. It is the main attraction in Syria and one of the most spectacular historical monuments in the world. Yet there were so few visitors there, save a few locals and two German women tourists. In fact, they were one of the very few independent travelers I met throughout the whole trip. It was such a delight to have the magnificent site almost to myself; the downside is that as soon as I arrived, I was swarmed by tour guides, camel riders and peddlers trying to sell me all sorts of souvenirs.
What struck me most was the sheer size of the place – some 50 hectares, bounded by what is called Zenobia Walls. I had read it in the guidebook. Still it’s hard to translate that into reality. The great colonnaded street stretches almost 1 km where many of the original Corinthian columns still stand imposingly. The most complete structure is the Temple of Bel. It is interesting (maybe interesting is the wrong word) to notice how the Arabs tried to convert it into a fortress by erecting a bastion and some images of stone carvings were rubbed off – Muslims don’t allow the depiction of imagines of beings in monuments. Luckily, such effort was half-hearted. In the glorious sun, tailed by an ever hopeful camel man, I spent a few happy hours wondering through the Roman theatre, funerary tower and the market, rather the remains of it. I daydreamed I were the powerful Zenobia Queen, ruling a vast empire and boasting a beauty equaling to Cleopatra: ‘her large black eyes sparkled uncommon fire, tempered by the most attractive sweetness’. If only!In bed with the Bedouins
I spent the Xmas eve with a Bedouin family in the desert. I had the idea before I had gone there but no idea how to go about. When I told the two German women about my plan, they were horrified. They urged me not to go as they were told so by their travel agent and their tour guide, using an example how a Canadian woman went missing in the region. They even tempted me to stay with them by offering me to treat me a Xams eve dinner. But life would be so dull if we don’t take any risk. A very small risk in this case. And in the end, I wasn’t attractive enough for the Bedouins to kidnap me.
When I had mint tea at a tea house – tea tent to be precise, next to the ruins, I met the owner who is a Bedouin. For a fee, he arranged me to stay the night with his auntie’s family out in the desert. His English-speaking cousin, who turned out to be one of the camel men, a very handsome guy named Maher, was to accompany me.
The desert cousin named Mohammed, aged 34, lives in a real tent made from goat hair with his 22-year-old wife, their three boys aged 2, 4 and 5, his mother, and his teenager sister and brother. Only half-hour’s drive away from Palmyra, it is already a world away. The family has two tents. It was freezing. In the main tent, we sat around the stove and asked each other questions. Mohammed’s family became poor partly because his father died about ten years ago - so poor that they now don’t even own any stock but look after sheep and goats for richer people. While many Bedouins have settled, the family still live a traditional nomadic life style, moving around to look for fresh pasture. The whole family is uneducated. Mohammed’s mother, wearing black robe and facial tattoo, looks like a witch. Sitting in the back, holding the youngest boy, she didn’t utter a word. The young wife is pretty and lively. She alone asked lots of questions. She simply didn’t understand why I would want to travel on my own and she had no idea where China is and how long it would take me to come here. Maher, who speaks just about enough English, translated for me.
The story of 27-year-old Maher, also from a Bedouin family, is interesting. When his grandfather accumulated over 100 camels, he decided to divide them up among his four sons. His father asked his children want they would like to do, Maher and his brothers said they’d like to get a good education, for having visited a city once, the brothers were inspired to become city people. And education is the only way to a better life. Maher now runs a shop in Palmyra and has been to several countries. His brother runs a restaurant in Thailand and another one is an academic in Damascus. His father’s brother, on the other hand, decided to keep the camels, which have risen to 90. To look after them, all his children stayed behind and live a way their ancestors have always done and hardly set foot outside the desert.
When the conversation ran dry, we started to sing songs, between our giggles, me in Chinese and English and them in Arabic. They did a much better job. What struck me is, poor as they are, Mohammed’s family seem to be content with their lives.
The dinner was a modest affair of fried rice with vegetables and tomato salad. I would have eaten better food if I had stayed with the German women. But I loved my eye-opening experience with the Bedouins. The only bad moment came when I had to go out of the tent to relieve myself in the middle of the night. It was a beautiful night with a bright full moon but so freezing in the desert at night.
On Xmas day, I was woken up early by the baby’s crying. I found him on the mud floor of the kitchen – a semi-open tent, where he picked dirt into his mouth. To pretend him from throwing himself to the hot stove, he was tied to a pole by a string. It was another glorious sunny day. The brightness magnified the family’s poverty. I gave the woman extra cash and some little things like body lotion, scarf and perfume, which I could go without.
Then I had to rush back to Beirut, basically for a party in the evening. I should have moved on to Jordan. But I hated the idea of spending Xmas day on my own, even though I don’t really celebrate it. My unscientific approach to my travel route meant that I passed through Syria three days and each time, I had to pay $52 for a visa. At least, it was straight forward. An American tourist I shared a service taxi with had to wait at the border for days.
The Xmas party was thrown by a photographer friend and her American TV journalist friend at his beautiful flat, decorated by amazing art works he had collected in the region. There was free flow of drinks and a huge amount of food. It was a sharp contrast with what I saw in the morning.
My stay with the Bedouins, once again, reminded me the lucky position I have in life.Jordan
After Xmas, I headed to Jordan, via, Syria. I visited capital Amman, which I found a little boring, and of course, Petra.
The treasury in Petra, like Taj Mahal, is one of the few great monuments in the world that actually live up to the expectations. Just about everyone who visits the site has seen the image from the film Indiana Jones. Still the Hellenistic façade carved out solid rock never fails to take one’s breath away. First of all, the sheer size of it, standing at 40 meters high. Secondly, just imagine how old it is. The date of its construction is still a subject of debate, ranging from 100 BC to 200 AD. And its beauty and sophistication are simply astonishing. Again the treasury is a mixture of different civilizations. The carved figures on the top level are believed to be Egyptian goodness Isis, Nabataean goddess Isis and Roman goddess Tyche.
I’ll have to mention the Siq that leads to the treasury. Siq is a narrow passage in the rocky mountain, like a canyon, except that a canyon is carved out by water. This one was caused probably by earthquake and then carved out by floods. When you walk through this narrow path, you’ll suddenly come to a square dominated by this imposing monument, glowing wistfully in the sun – if you come at the right time. Without the foreplay of Siq, the climax of treasury may not be so dramatic.
It is the legacy of Nabateans, originally an Arabic nomadic tribe, who settled in southern Jordan over 2000 years ago. Like Palmyra, Petra, meaning ‘rock’ in Greek, became wealthy by collecting tax from passing caravans.
Apart from the treasury, there are dozens of other great moments scattered around in the arid mountain. I spent the whole day walking, refusing the temptations from camel riders who offer you the standard jokes: please lady, air-conditioned camel – it doesn’t quite work in this season. The donkey men have their tricks: please, my donkey can jump higher than Michael Jackson. Why should I give a damn about that freak when I have the most breath-taking moments in front of me.Story of an Arab woman
Monuments are all very well, but what fascinates me most are people.
I met array of interesting people during this trip. Having returned to the planet single recently, I had not done many adventures on my own. I discovered it is quite a different experience as you are more likely open to things.
I shared a service taxi from Damascus to Amman with a 60-year-old rather grand Syrian lady named Dora. She wore a head scarf, a posh-looking coat and fur scarf around her neck. With her pale complexion and pale grey eyes, she looks very much Caucasian. The first thing she said to me, in English, was: “Why are you traveling alone? No friends? No husband?” I told her that I have plenty friends in the world but no husband as I am divorced. She flashed a big smile: “Good, you are free!” Over the 5-hour long journey, she told me her life story. I don’t think she would have been so open if I had had someone else with me.
Dora was born into an upper class family in Damascus. When she was 16, her family arranged for her to marry a wealthy 28-year-old Jordanian business man. They did meet before hand. He was taken by her beauty and she was excited that she would be able to put on lipsticks, like her elder sister. (One of her sisters married to a prince of Saudi Arabia.) Obviously proper Arab girls are not supposed to wear make-up before they get married. After it, they can – for the pleasure of their men. By the time she reached 30, with 7 children under her knees, Dora began to discover other women in her husband’s life: she could smell their perfume and she even found women’s pictures in his wallet. But he always denied his infidelity until her brother caught him red-handed with a secretary. “What’s wrong with me?” she confronted him. “Yes, there’s something wrong,” he said, “your private part became too loose. I have no pleasure in doing that with you.” Dora went to see the best doctor in Jordan who then conducted a very painful operation to tighten up her vagina. Did that make him faithful? Of course it didn’t. He continued to fool around and refused to take her on his frequent trips abroad. “I suffered so much all of these years,” she said. She became far more religious. About five years ago, when they went on a rare holiday together to Sri Lanka, he was swept away by waves. After a four months mourning period, Dora went to Mecca, for the first time in her life, to thank God for freeing her. “I have a good life now,” she said, smiling brightly.The New Year
I spent a very happy New Year’s Eve with George, the architect, and his friends at his great-grand father’s house up in Chouf Mountain, one hour’s drive south of Beirut. Like many well-educated Lebanese, he lived abroad – he taught at Harvard at one point and speaks perfect French and English and, as a good Arab man, he is extremely charming to women. With his curly hair and bush beard, he looks like somebody straight from the Bible. He is certainly very witty and humorous. As we neared his house, he pointed at a patch of cedar forest behind the house and said: “Look, that’s what I call ‘pubic hair’. There’s nothing more pleasurable than sleeping under public hair.” The spacious one storey stone house boasts of an amazing vaulted interior, interesting niche on the thick wall, plenty of rustic charm and a medieval feel. With all the necessary ingredients for a good party – a great setting, great company and huge amount of food, we had a ball and danced until small hours.
The next day, we had a white milky drink seasoned with cinnamons for breakfast: the Lebanese believes it is important to have eat something white on the first day of New Year to ensure a happy year to come. After that, we took a long walk at Cedar Nature Reserve nearby. It was sunny with unbelievable blue sky. What a great way to start a year.
It’s very interesting to walk around in George’ village where most of the residents are Druzes. The Druze is an offshoot of Shiite Islam, highly conservative. In the village, you hardly see any woman walking in the street alone – they are not supposed to go out of the house unless they have to, such as attending a wedding. If there are women about, they are always in pairs – to ensure their chaste. George’s builder boasted to him that his wife is so good that she doesn’t get out of the house at all, not even go to visit her sister in the neighbouring village.Tripoli
The medieval town turned out to be one of my highlights. It lies 80 km north of Beirut and not too far from the Syrian border. I didn’t realize that Lebanon is so tiny that you can drive from one end to another in three or four hours. With 4 million people (10 million outside the country), it is actually one of the smallest nations on earth.
If you know the history of Tripoli, you know the history of Lebanon. It was founded by the Phoenicians in 1500 BC. Since then until the French Mandate, the city was ruled at different stage by Romans, Byzantines, Arabs, Crusaders, Mamelukes and Ottomans, who all left their legacies.
There’s so much to see in Tripoli. Behind a tomato seller stands an elegant Roman column, smeared with years of rotten vegetables; you turn a corner, you see a medieval gate. A knowledgeable local man named Ali absolutely made my day. At 18, Ali went to London to visit an uncle and stayed after the war broke out. He lived in various parts of Europe for twenty years before returning. He shows foreign tourists around, taking pleasure in helping them understand his hometown. History came to life once he pointed things out to me: how inside the grand mosque’s minarets there’s a bell town as it was converted from a Crusader cathedral; how a tailor’s shop used to be a crusader house and how an original caravanserai is now used by Syrian squatters who don’t even pay electricity!
I spent hours and hours wondering through the maze of the ancient Souq, a great place to experience the sensual pleasure of daily life. Fresh orange juice is sold at every street corner; so is coffee. The locals are obsessed in drinking Turkish coffee laced with cardamom and plenty of sugar – black as hell, strong as death and sweet as love, as a Turkish proverb suggests. Too strong for my liking but I love its aroma. The coffee sellers walk around the Souq carrying a silver pot and clicking the metal cups to attract clients. I love the soothing sound, and mixed with Arab music shops were playing and of course, the haunting sound of pray-calling. Immersing yourself in the atmosphere of some exotic land, for me, that’s the greatest delight of travel.Baalbek
In Baalbek, the ‘Sun City’, boasts the most splendid Roman ruins in the world, rated as one of the wonders of the world. I would say it is even more spectacular than the ruins in Palmyra. Two thousand years ago, Julius Caesar ordered the construction of the largest temple in the whole Roman empire, dedicated to the god Jupiter. A temple for pagan worship, it was a focus for all sorts of sexual and hedonistic behavior. Why to build such an extravagant temple? To impress the locals with the power and civilizations of Romans, obviously. It was also probably because the rulers in Rome felt the threat of Christianity. Later when Christian Theodosius became the emperor, the Baalbek temple was converted to a basilica.
Baalbek is only three hours drive from Beirut, in Bekaa Valley. Once again, I found myself alone there. Having no one else to work on, the tour guide insisted that I engage his service: “Without my guide, you only see stones; with my guide, you see the wonders,” he wooed. One of the wonders he pointed out was, as it turned out, a stone, a massive piece of slab measures 19.5 by 4.3 meters, with an estimated weight of 1000 tons. How did it get there? The UFO junkies always insist that the Baalbek temple was the works of aliens; other suggest that the giants built it.
Nowadays, if Baalbek gets in the press, it is not because the highest Roman columns, but because of Hezbollah – Party of God, a Islamic radical group who used to kidnap western tourists. Bekaa Valley, an outlawed territory, is Hezbollah strong-hold, which may partly explain the absence of visitors here. A friend told me that he saw video footage which shows richly decorated Temple of Bacchus, where orgies used to take place, was used as the training ground for the terrorists. Oh, dear, don’t they know it is much more fun to make love than to make war?
I had an interesting encounter in Baalbek. Backpack traveling on my own in a region where I don’t speak the language isn’t always easy. I dozed off in the mini bus that took me to Baalbek. When I woke up, I found I was somewhere in the outskirts of a town but no ruins in sight. “Baalbek?” I asked the driver. “Yes, Baalbek. Where do you want to go?” I rolled my eyes. A tourist came to Baalbek where there’s only one attraction – the ruins. Have a wild guess. I found the picture of ruins in my guidebook and showed him. He nodded and mumbled something like: oh, why didn’t you say so earlier and pointed me a direction. I started to walk towards it, no idea how long it would take me. Then I saw a boy about 12 or 13 driving a quad motorbike, like those used in ski resorts. Where on earth did he get that? And how could a child be allowed to drive it? I stopped him. “Where are you from?” “Sin - China” – that’s one of the few Arabic words I’ve learnt. “Where do you want to go?’ I showed him the picture of ruins. He stood up and cocked his head to gesture me to join him at the driver’s tiny seat.. Then we charged ahead at full speed, zoomed through the busy town center, fighting space with cars and donkey carts. It must be such a straight sight: this boy and me on this strange vehicle. Everyone in the street waved and cheered.
Oh, the joy of travel.My last Ramble
Having resumed my swing of life in Beijing, I often find myself dreaming about Beirut. I dream about sipping coffee in the warm sun and gazing at the shimmering sea.
Before I went, some friends thought I was mad to visit a dangerous war zone. There has been a political crisis in the country: it has not had a president since November 2007. In December, a senior Lebanese general was blown up and an American embassy car was bombed recently. But such targeted assassinations pose little danger to a tourist. In fact, I feel very safe there. Yes, there are soldiers and tanks stationed in street corners. But they are just part of the landscape that you get used to quickly. The Syrian government might be a little doggy but its people are lovely. In fact, people in all these three countries are incredibly friendly and would go out of their way to help you. That, counts a lot.
We tend to stay in our comfort zone, regarding travel and life in general. But once we step outside of our comfort zone, we often find ourselves richly rewarded. Overall, I find the Middle East an extremely rewarding place to visit.