The Bekaa Valley: Syrian Soldiers, Ruins, and Wineries

Ruins at Byblos, including remains from Phoenician and Greek settlements (click on image to expand)

As-salamu Aleykum,” George says as we drive up to the potato vendor by the side of the road. The salutation sounds strange coming from him. George is a Maronite Christian in his mid-40s who lived in San Diego for several years and always greets me with what he still thinks is the standard American “Whaddup, yo?” But we’re a little more than an hour outside Beirut right now, in the Bekaa Valley, and if you want directions when you get lost in Hezbollah country, you say to strangers, “As-salamu Aleykum.”

Yellow Hezbollah flags and banners mark the road into Baalbek, and this is one of the few places in the country where Syrian troops seem to feel more or less at ease with the locals. Most Lebanese were angered by Syria’s presence long before the Hariri assassination brought that rage to a boil. Ordinary Syrians don’t profit much from the deal that has allowed the Assad regime to rape Lebanon’s economy since the civil war ended 15 years ago. These young troops don’t know why they’re here, ostensibly defending another country from “the Zionist entity,” and I don’t know why anyone thinks they’re capable of it. Some of the soldiers seem to have been given only parts of a uniform, and as a soft snow begins to fall, I feel bad for these teenagers, many in cheap sneakers or plastic sandals. A volunteer fire department from Long Island could probably overrun them in force—if it weren’t for Hezbollah.

Ruins at Byblos, 45 minutes up the coast from Beirut (click on image to expand)

Hezbollah drove Israel out of South Lebanon in 2000, a feat that earned the Shiite militia the right to be called a national resistance movement. Many Lebanese do not much care for Hezbollah, however, and they permit this self-description only because it is prudent not to ruffle the feathers of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and his colleagues. After all, it is an armed group. Still, since Israel is no longer in South Lebanon, and Hezbollah seems of late to have instigated many of its confrontations with the “Zionist enemy,” it is not exactly clear what they are “defending,” except their desire to remain armed. Maybe they want to make sure Western journalists stay interested. Here’s a tip for budding Arab-world political figures: If you don’t talk about imperialism and Zionist agents, the Western media will think you are too Westernized and ignore you; if you want attention, wave an automatic weapon in a reporter’s face, and he will write about the social services and educational programs your nice organization offers to the community. (I wonder what our journalists think the textbooks in a Hezbollah-funded curriculum might look like: Zeinab Has Two Mommies? The Middle East: A Wonderful Mosaic?) Yes, Hezbollah provides some social services, but, as George points out, so do many of the country’s other sectarian communities, including the Maronite church, which is not armed.

Still, George agrees that government’s public services are bad. He loves the United States because the government is accountable. “You can’t bribe a traffic cop in San Diego,” George says knowingly. And the American people, George believes, are law-abiding, too. “You have to stop at traffic lights,” he says. “Here, when I stop at a light, everyone is rushing through it, and I’m the dangerous one.”

And today George and I are very dangerous indeed behind the wheel, because we’ve been drinking wine and arak most of the afternoon in our tour of Bekaa Valley wineries. It has not exactly been a Hezbollah kind of day, but then again it started with the ruins at Baalbek, a monument to debauchery.

Since the Lebanese are among the most educated and sophisticated people in the world, it’s surprising that the guides and facilities at the historical tourist sites aren’t very good. In Egypt, the tour guides gossip with each other about the latest Pharaonic findings and archeological projects; in Lebanon you’re lucky to find a guide at all. At Byblos, about a 45 minute drive north of Beirut, our guide to the historical site was beautiful, stylishly blond, and surly. I still don’t really know why the town was called Byblos, after the Greek word for papyrus: Did the ancient Greeks buy paper there? Or trade for it? Maybe they ran out of paper at Byblos after making all the glossy picture books she wanted me to buy.

The temple of Bacchus, Baalbek (click on image to expand)

Here at Baalbek, our guide is a local guy who grew up in North Dakota and knows more about college hockey than he does about the ruins. There’s a similar problem with this government Web site, which suggests that no one really knows what the Temple of Bacchus was used for. You don’t have to be an archeologist to know what the temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and disporting while naked, was used for. This temple, like the other two here, one honoring Jupiter and another Venus, was built on top of an ancient Phoenician site devoted to Baal, a god of fertility (Baalbek = Baal of the Bekaa). Remember when Charlton Heston descended from the mount with the Ten Commandments only to find the Israelites in the midst of a sweaty orgy inspired by a golden calf? Chances are that heifer was Baal. The Phoenicians, probably the Greeks after them, and definitely the Romans after them in turn, all used this site for group sex and drinking. It was perhaps only the Arab conquerors who put an end to the bacchanalia in the eighth century when they built a mosque here and turned the structure into a fortress.

It’s an amazing site, and George and I have it to ourselves this sunny winter afternoon. The Baalbek International Festival takes place in July and August—last year’s featured a range of entertainment from Brazilian dance to Plácido Domingo—which suggests that’s the best time to visit. But the valley’s namesake was also a sun god, and a summer trip must be like walking into Baal’s kitchen. It is very hot here in the warm months, which is what makes Lebanese wine so high in alcohol content. I’m betting October, when Bekaa grapes are harvested, is the best time of the year to be here.

Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley (click on image to expand)

We stop by to see Ramzi Ghosn, one of the proprietors of the Massaya winery here in the Bekaa. His is one of the newer vineyards trying to break into the domestic and foreign markets where other local concerns like Chateau Musar, Kefraya, and Ksara have already established their formidable reputations. All of them except Musar, the most famous of all Lebanese winemakers, are located in the Bekaa. Kefraya’s property is the chicest, with a big dining room and nice menu; Ksara’s is the most historic, with its enormous underground cave; but Massaya’s is the hippest, with a small, charming restaurant and a guest room where the most enthusiastic consumers of Massaya wine can sleep off their visit.

Ramzi is in his late 30s and explains over lunch how he and his brother, both raised in France, reclaimed their parents’ property after the war. “There were a whole bunch of squatters here,” he says. “Some we were able to buy off, and some were less accommodating, so we brought in a bulldozer.” I’d been told that some of the squatters were Hezbollah members, but Ramzi is understandably evasive when I bring that up. “I know it’s strange to be serving a guacamole in Lebanon,” Ramzi says, elegantly dodging the issue. “But I love the stuff, and besides, the avocadoes were grown here in the Bekaa.”

It’s a spectacular guacamole and goes well with the various vintages of Massaya wine Ramzi pours for us. George prefers arak, an anise-flavored alcohol that the Lebanese typically drink with mezze, like hummus and tabbouleh. Ramzi hands out some cigars and just as we’re starting to settle into a good argument about Middle East politics and U.S. policy, George says we’d better leave soon or the roads might close because of snow. Ramzi gives him a bottle of Massaya arak, which George says he looks forward to drinking come summertime. George sticks an elbow in my ribs when I suggest the bottle will not survive the weekend, and we’re off, back to Beirut.