Webmaster's Note: Because the BikeAbout team is traveling in smaller groups for a little while, we have changed the format of the journal slightly. The rider notes for the lead group (today it's the guys, who are in Lebanon) are followed by notes for the other group(s). When the group rejoins in late February or early March, we will return to the original format for these pages.

topics: mana-eesh (food), social life, Lebanese civil war, Palestinian refugees, history, recreation; jump to dispatch

BikeAbout Log


Rider Notes: January 31–February 1, 1998

Food of the Day: Mana-eesh

Mana-eesh is sort of like the Lebanese version of pizza. You can choose toppings — cheese, zatar (a mixture of spices), a meat sauce, or a pepper sauce — and watch as the mana-eesh man bakes the small pizza before your eyes. When it comes out of the oven, you can then ask for cucumbers, pickles, tomatoes, and olives to be put on top as well. Then it is folded up like a pizza sandwich and handed over.

Word of the Day: Keefuk?/keefik? — "How are you?; mnih/mniha — "I'm fine"

Keefuk? and keefik? click to hear an audio clip, and mnih and mniha click to hear an audio clip are common Lebanese Arabic phrases. You ask people how they are by saying "Keefuk?" if you are addressing a man, or "Keefik?" if you are addressing a woman. If well, the man would reply "Mnih" and the woman "Mniha." The equivalent in English would be the common exchange, "How are you?" and "I'm fine."

Person of the Day: Janine Moussa click to view a photograph

A couple of days into Ethan and Padraic's stay at Leila's apartment, Leila's new roommate, Janine, arrived. Janine had lived in Beirut the year before and, after a short stay with her family in Washington DC, was returning to begin work at Najdeh, an agency that aids women in Lebanese Palestinian refugee camps. Janine expected to find a quiet, spacious apartment inhabited only by Leila. Instead, she discovered that her apartment was overrun with two (and soon to be three) uncouth male bikers. Yet, Janine not only didn't complain, she went out of her way to help the BikeAbout boys — introducing them to her friends and contacts, and showing them around the city. She became so involved in our project that within 24 hours she was much more concerned about Anthony's well-being in Syria than were Ethan or Padraic. (As Ethan said, "Eh . . . I've heard Syrian prisons aren't so bad." Padraic, as he ate his first full meal of the trip, was heard to say, "Anthony who?"). THANK YOU JANINE for your hospitality and kindness.

Place of the Day: Beirut Corniche

Beirut's Corniche is the promenade along the Mediterranean Sea. click to view a photograph click to view a photograph Before the Civil War, the Corniche symbolized Beirut. Showing off the city's two best geographical features — the gentle Mediterranean set off by the snowcapped Chouf Mountains — the Corniche was one of the focal points of the local social scene. To some extent, it has again become the place to see and be seen, particularly on warm Sunday afternoons. Here is a picture of Ethan being seen: click to view a photograph.

Group Dispatch, January 31–February 1

picture of Padraic

Breaking the Beirutian pattern of late nights and late mornings, Ethan and Padraic rose early on Saturday to take a guided tour of Beirut by car. Because most businesses in Muslim West Beirut were still closed for the Aid el-Fitr holiday, traffic was not as heavy as usual. We were only stuck in two or three traffic jams. Our friend first drove us to the old downtown — the dividing line (or Green Line) between East and West Beirut, thus Christian and Muslim Beirut — where the bulk of the fighting took place. Although most of the area has been bulldozed and rebuilt (or is in the process of being replaced) with huge high-rise offices, there are still a lot of bombed out and shell-pocked buildings.

Which brings us to the war — a difficult conflict to comprehend much less adequately explain. We should probably start with a short history lesson.

Like so many countries in the Middle East, Lebanon was created by a Western imperial power. Having been given control of Greater Syria (today's Syria, Lebanon and parts of Jordan) as part of its French Mandate after the First World War, France eventually carved Lebanon out of this larger area, in part to create a Christian country in the Middle East. However, even with Lebanon's boundaries carefully drawn to ensure a Christian majority, the numerous religious groups in the country made it necessary to rule the country by coalition government. By splitting up the executive offices of government (President, Prime Minister, Speaker of Parliament, Cabinet posts) among the factions (Christian, Sunni and Shi'ite Muslims, Druze, etc.), the country managed to maintain a tenuous stability.

As time passed, however, changes in Lebanese society made the coalition less viable. Despite the influx of Palestinian refugees and a surge in the Shi'ite population, the government remained the same. Hence, by the 1970s, the Shi'ites had become the largest single religious group in Lebanon but remained under-represented in the government. In 1975, increasing tensions between political and religious factions — all boasting their own private armed militias — broke out into civil war.

Although the war began as a struggle for predominance between native Christians and Muslims, the conflict soon became much more complex. It wasn't as simple as Druze versus Maronite, or Sunni versus Shi'ite. Centuries-old antagonisms surfaced, and fresh wounds were added daily. A dizzying variety of factions and clans fought each other, often with great brutality, for political, territorial, and even for personal reasons.

Outside forces exacerbated and prolonged the Civil War. First, the influx of Palestinian refugees, and particularly the arrival of armed Palestinian guerrillas in the early 1970s helped spark further conflict. Then, while at first the neighboring Syrians clandestinely supported the Palestinians, the Syrian army later actually invaded Lebanon to prop up the Christian side. The Syrian army remains in Lebanon even today. The Israelis also invaded Lebanon in 1982, ostensibly to end Palestinian raids on Israel by ejecting the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) from southern Lebanon and Beirut, but also to install a sympathetic Christian government. The force of their attack accomplished the first objective: within weeks of the invasion, Beirut was surrounded and the PLO evacuated Lebanon. However, no Israeli force could secure a stable Christian government. After a costly and indecisive period of occupation, Israel pulled its troops back to southern Lebanon in 1983. Israeli troops remain in southern Lebanon even today [1998]. International peacekeepers, including the United States Marines and the French, moved in to hold the Green Line between predominately Muslim West Beirut and Christian East Beirut, but unfortunately inherited Israel's policy of trying to prop up the Christian government. The suicide bombings of U.S. and French military bases during this period cost the lives of nearly 300 soldiers and convinced these governments to withdraw their troops. And still the Civil War continued.

In 1988, following the National Assembly's inability to elect a new president, the outgoing president installed a military government under the leadership of General Michel Aoun. However, after a new president was finally chosen, Aoun refused to step down, claiming that the newly elected government was the puppet of the Syrians. Even after representatives from different factions reached a compromise agreement that set out a new formula for balanced government, Aoun waged war to stop the implementation of the agreement. Finally, in 1991, a Syrian — but widely supported — offensive defeated Aoun's troops and drove General Aoun into exile. With Aoun's defeat and the Syrians firmly in control, the civil war ended, and most of the militias began to surrender their weapons.

Lebanon is now a democratic republic, but not one that anyone used to American politics would recognize. To maintain the delicate balance of power and to avoid future conflict, the numbers of representatives in Parliament that each religious group and faction gets, as well as the executive position each party controls, has already been determined. The Maronites elect a set number of representatives and a Maronite will always be the President of Lebanon. The Sunnis can elect a certain number of representatives and control the Prime Minister position. And so on for all the factions. Hence if you are a Lebanese voter, your choice is limited to the candidates put up by your own party. The majority does not necessarily rule in Lebanese politics. Still, given country's history of divisiveness and conflict, a system that maintains the peace is probably better than a more strictly democratic way of electing a government that might destabilize the country.

After our tour of Beirut, we stopped in at the "Sporting" beach and swimming club, where we met Mr. George, owner of the club and alert philosopher. There we spent the rest of the morning enjoying the sun, the view click to view a photograph click to view a photograph click to view a photograph, and the conversation. We even took our shoes off and soaked our feet in the Mediterranean. (Although some people were swimming, it was way too cold for us).

Later we returned to Leila's to begin working, trying desperately to catch up on our long-overdue dispatches. Of course we took a break when Leila's new roommate, Janine (see the Person of the Day) arrived, fresh from the airport.

Having celebrated Janine's arrival until a late (or, depending on how you look at it, early) hour, we woke late the next morning and treated Leila, Janine, and Basel to an American-style brunch at Casablanca, a restaurant near the Corniche (see the Place of the Day). Given the décor, food, and prices, we could easily have been in a restaurant in New York!

Afterwards, we took advantage of the weather to hit the Corniche, walking most of its length in the warm sun, observing the mass of humanity fishing, playing, or simply strolling. click to view a photograph These idyllic scenes made the recent war difficult to imagine. Similarly, the bustling streets of Hamra through which we walked on the return home, made the war seem distant. Indeed, outside of the old downtown and the eastern and southern suburbs, it's difficult to find much sign of the recent war at all. But maybe Hamra's well-stocked shops, Western chainstores, fashionable people, and fancy cars do give some indication of the recent troubles. Our friends — both native and recently arrived — noted the carefree and spendthrift behavior of the locals. People, and in particular the young people, who lived through a war, now want to have some fun. And they do. The bars, discos, and nightclubs are packed seven days a week. Even people who can't afford it drive expensive cars, dress fashionably, and carry cell phones. If our sources are to be believed, few people live within their means in Beirut.

The still-unreconstructed infrastructure provides a more concrete sign that the city has not yet returned to normal. The huge luxury apartments and office buildings being built all around take attention away from the poor condition of some of the roads, the lack of public phones, and the limited public transportation. Further, most apartment buildings suffer from occasional electrical failures or water outages. The startling fact that no one pays income taxes might explain the lack of organized or concentrated spending on infrastructure.

Once back at Leila and Janine's, after dinner, we set to work on our dispatches (yet again). Since the next day was a workday for Leila, we turned in early to let her get some sleep.

picture of Anthony

Since Padraic and Ethan were not out on the town, they were completely unaware that Anthony, like a thief in the night, was at that very moment arriving in Beirut. After having wasted most of his morning obtaining a reentry visa for Syria, Anthony found himself without enough time to bike the 145 km (90 mi) separating Damascus and Beirut. Still, he was anxious to get to Beirut that day, so he biked out to the bus station and hopped onto the next bus to Beirut.

It would have been a spectacular bike ride as the road immediately climbs up over the Anti Lebanon Mountains (also known as Jabal Lubman Al-Sharqi) that run along the border between Syria and Lebanon. Sometimes called the Impenetrable Mountains, this range was covered in snow — lots and lots of snow. And, once across the Lebanese border, the snow level increased to over two feet of fresh flakes. It was obvious that the snowplows had just finished clearing off the road.

Not long after crossing the border, the lights of Beirut came into view. It is hard to imagine a country smaller than Israel, but Lebanon is less than one half the size of its southern neighbor. From the mountainpass heights, Anthony felt like it was possible to see most of the country — even by moonlight! Given the tight quarters, the steep descent down to the city was a test of faith in both the driver's ability and the bus's brakes. Anthony arrived relatively safe and sound at 8 p.m. in Beirut.

Arriving at night in a strange city is no fun, especially when you have only the most basic idea of where you need to go. After getting some vague direction from the bus driver ("Go that way!"), Anthony was off on his first bike ride in Beirut. He did not realize how lucky he was to be biking late at night when the roads were relatively empty. Actually, he had little time for anything other than concentrating on the dimly-lit road that seemed to be torn up 10 different ways by 20 different construction projects. There seemed to be construction everywhere! The shells of bombed out buildings, both old and new, loomed over the road. After a short time cycling through this maze, Anthony managed to find a hotel and collapsed exhausted into bed.

Meanwhile, the ladies were still relaxing in the company of their new friends in Paphos, Cyprus.

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