Skandar Keynes (of Narnia fame), who is studying Arabic, Persian and Middle Eastern Studies at Pembroke College, Cambridge, is writing a column on his experiences in Lebanon for Cambridge University's student newspaper The Tab.
(There will be 8 installments in all.)
Foreign correspondent SKANDAR KEYNES touches down in the remote Beqaa Valley - but he has his reasons.
In a house in the Beqaa Valley, late at night, no lights to be seen for miles, surrounded by ten burly men (whom I’d met about ten minutes ago), the man next to me pulls a handgun out from his belt, causing me to question - what are you doing here, Skandar?
It’s a question I have had to address frequently on my travels, although normally somebody else is doing the asking.
Officially, I’m studying on a year abroad as part of my undergraduate degree in Arabic, Persian and Middle Eastern Studies, perfecting (or at least trying to perfect) my colloquial Arabic. However – in a country where non-vocational degrees are viewed with skepticism – upon telling someone what I study, I’m usually then forced to answer another question: “What on earth are you doing that for?”
One taxi driver sticks in my mind in particular as he went on to rant about how stupid I was to leave Britain, “the best country in the world” (his words, not mine) and come to Lebanon. Not only is Lebanon “a dead end”, a “graveyard of dreams and possibilities” necessitating emigration, but Arabic is a “dying” language, and learning it is a “waste of time”.
Back in England, people ask me why I’m staking so much on such a dangerous region of shifting sands. Cambridge’s AMES faculty even recently advised me to leave, due to the precarious political situation. While all are valid responses, they fail to take into consideration the wonders that Lebanon has to offer, with every adventure whetting the appetite for another.
Returning to the house in the Beqaa Valley, I had tried to hide my anxiety. When he holstered his gun, satisfied that he’d shocked the ajnabi (‘foreigner’), I felt silly for allowing myself to be momentarily worried. I should know better than to let my heart skip just because somebody whips out his gun in Lebanon.
The story of my travels is less one of how I have journeyed to Lebanon, but more a tale of how I have been received. To the outsider, Arab hospitality is a truly remarkable social institution.
The aforementioned Beqqa Valley, as it turns out, is the setting of a well-known anecdote in Lebanon – one that is apt as an introduction to my voyage:
At the beginning of the civil war, Deir al-Ahmar – a small village set into the Lebanon mountains overlooking the Beqaa valley – was attacked. During the assault, the villagers earned their reputation as hardy warriors, taking 17 prisoners in total. Following a heated debate about what to do with their captives, which involved relatives of those killed in the assault, baying for blood, it was eventually decided not to kill the assailants.
Lacking adequate facilities to house their captives, they turned to an old woman who lived in a relatively large house to take them in. However, instead of treating them as prisoners caught launching an attack on her town, she took them in as her guests, providing for them in the customary fashion dictated by the ancient, yet living, tradition of Arab hospitality. She cooked whatever they asked for; she washed their grubbied clothes, giving them clean clothes for the meantime; she tended to their battle wounds inflicted by the sons of her village.
When the head of the militia entrusted with the security of the village wished to question his captives, the hearty old woman refused to allow him to enter her house, for fear that he might offend her guests with his prying questions! Unwilling to break his way into the old woman’s house, he saw no alternative but to leave the men be.
Eventually, a group from the Red Cross came and collected the captives, taking them back unharmed. Through the insistence of the old woman, and to the frustration of the head of the militia, they were never questioned.
When the prisoners returned home, they spread word of their experience and the old woman’s hospitality. Throughout the course of the 15 year civil war, were anyone from Deir al-Ahmar to stumble across a checkpoint manned by any of the released prisoners, they were promptly escorted back to the outskirts of their village, unharmed. The significance of such a gesture was soon explained to me: the point of these ad hoc checkpoints was to kill or kidnap anybody whose identification card gave them away as being of an opposing religion.
Although under greatly differing circumstances, I too have been taken in by the Lebanese people.
Now it is my turn to relay my experiences.