Along the Road to Bacchus

by Mark on November 21, 2009

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The bus rambled through the arid country side.   Tanks, artillery and other weapons-filled vehicles – all pointing east – lined each side of the road.  Helmeted soldiers clustered in small groups and shared smokes.  Syrian flags flapped every half mile.   What was the Syrian army doing in Lebanon?   Why were their guns pointed at their own country?  What was I doing in Lebanon?

In autumn 2000 I worked for Heidelberg, a German printing giant, who planned a meeting for their Middle East and African sales managers in Beirut.   An invitation arrived for a colleague and me to join them in Lebanon to present our new digital printing products.  Our state department cautioned us that the area remained dangerous given the recent kidnappings of Western personnel.   While my employers avoided business with the ‘Axis of Evil,’ they were not as diplomatically encumbered as U.S. firms. They insisted we come.  I considered shaving my body in case the kidnappers elected to wrap me in duct tape.

At twilight we skimmed over the Mediterranean Sea toward our destination. Having recently watched ‘Navy Seals’ – featuring Charles Sheen, I expected rockets smashing into buildings as armies fought among the ruble. Instead, glimmering lights from the repaired skyline reflected off the harbor.  During the fifteen-year civil war a ‘green line’ separated the Christian and Muslim armies.  The line symbolized the fears and sadness where over 100,000 Lebanese died.  The next morning, rather than hiding beneath our hotel beds, I strolled along the line.  Paint and plaster did not hide all of the bullets that pockmarked buildings.   The horizon filled with construction cranes as oil money recreated the “Paris on the Mediterranean’.  Everyone I met from bell hop to traffic cop projected joy, if not giddiness, about their future.

My presentation was in a sparkling new ballroom that a few years before was a crater.    Applause came from my Heidelberg colleagues from Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Nigeria, Zambia, South Africa and many countries in-between.   The only empty chair was from one of Lebanon’s closest neighbors – Israel, who chose not to join us.

Since the Lebanese golf courses remain full of more holes than the standard eighteen, the next day’s recreation was a bus trip to the world’s largest Roman ruins, Baalbek, home of the Temple of Bacchus. The site is 53 miles east of Beirut, 35 miles west of Damascus.    Bacchus, the Roman god of partying, was pleased with our first stop, the Ksara Winery.   Morning prayers echoed from near-by minarets as we tasted a generous portion of red wine and gazed at a vineyard on the mend.  It resembled spooky crop circles with clusters of infant vines carved within the mature vines.   No doubt the wine cellar is missing a few vintage years.

Baalbek began in Phoenicia.  Consistent with the history of Lebanon, many armies conquered the land before the Romans arrived.   In its prime this was a massive city of temples, including a major monument to Jupiter.   Now, only a single wall of pillars remains.  A series of earthquakes destroyed the site. Only Bacchus survived probably due to its experience swaying as pilgrims toasted their god. It all made me wonder why so many former powerhouses, like the Romans, Egyptians and Greeks ruled their worlds, but now were reduced to selling t-shirts at their ruins.  I bought one.

The next stop was an oasis where we  feasted on hummus, lamb, stuffed grape leaves, pita and cheese.   I avoided the fruit, fearing ‘Mesopotamia’s Revenge.’  Our guide seemed curious with his first Americans on the tour.  It was an opportunity to ask him why the Syrian army was camped on the highway and why were their guns aimed toward their own country.   He looked around in a conspiratorial manner and pulled me into a corner.  He described how the Syrians depend on Lebanon, the Middle East breadbasket, for food.  As the civil war reached a bloody stalemate, they moved in to protect their political and food position.  Their arrival brought peace and prosperity.   Then he whispered, “They are like visiting relatives that eat your food and refuse to leave.”   Why are all these weapons aimed east?   He smiled.   “The Israelis are fighting the Hezbollah in the south.  When the Israeli air force decides to bomb them, they fly to northern Lebanon, turn and make aim their bomb run to the south.  It is only a hundred miles between Tel Aviv and here.   As they make the turn, the Syrians shoot all those weapons at them, hoping to bring a jet down.”

Our bus lumbered back to Beirut.  All of the rockets and artillery aimed at our rear fascinated me.  What if there was an air raid?   What a roar!  With my luck they’d knick a jet enraging the Israelis to strafe the highway in revenge.   Lebanon struggled in the nine years since my visit.   A major assassination forced the Syrians out, yet they remain in the shadows.   Hezbollah rockets led to an Israeli invasion.  Explosions rocked the Beirut skyline.  Ksara workers again fled the bombs.  Lebanon is surrounded by enemies that for centuries coveted its fertile soil and position by the sea.  While future strife seems inevitable, no one has yet robbed the soul from its people.

My final and lasting memory of Lebanon occurred as we approached a check-point on the out skirts of the Beirut.  Agents came aboard to inspect passports.   I noticed a building to my left that resembled Swiss cheese, completely riddled with bullet and rocket holes.  A corner, facing the road, had collapsed like a triple-decker ice cream cone melting in the sun.   Beneath the lip of the most vulnerable point stood a fruit stand.  Customers, shaded by the brittle structure, picked through the figs and melons.  The bus lurched forward as the vendor and my eyes locked.  He raised his palms, looked up, shrugged and smiled.

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