01 Feb 18: The beautiful & the damned (Lebanon)
Tripoli to Tyre, Lebanon (30 Dec – 8 Jan)
Total miles cycled: 3,646 (5,868km)
Thigh status: Obese Witchetty grub
Tripoli at dusk is a dispiriting place. As I cycle from the boat into the city centre, around me loom a series of sombre, grey tower blocks, rising like skeletal sentinels among a wasteland of debris. Several are sprinkled with bullet holes, I note with mild alarm, and I nudge Maud along a little faster. I’m fairly sure the local mercenaries have downed tools for the time being, but I’m already far too far behind schedule to risk being shot on my first day (though it would admittedly do wonders for my social media profile).
I’m hoping to stay with the friend of a friend of a friend, but am yet to hear back from him. It’s worrying, as the motels look poky and miserable, oozing an aura of indecency and regret. I distract myself from my plight by buying a tea in a grimy café and counting the perplexing number of passing Mercedes and BMWs, which seem by far the most popular car in this far-from-affluent city.
Two hours later, I finally hear from my contact, B. I am hugely relieved, and almost immediately the city’s shadowy nooks seem sunnier, its sharp edges softer. Within ten minutes, I’m being warmly welcomed by B and his Filipino housekeeper (apparently all houses have one) in his carpet shop just half a mile away. The sectarian conflict in the city is under control now, I’m told, and I feel a little foolish for conjuring spectres out of the undergrowth. How different everything seems when you’re no longer alone and abandoned in the dark!
B is a 27-year-old Australian who moved to Lebanon seven years ago. He enjoys the ‘freedom’ here, he says, which seems to boil down to driving without a licence and not paying his taxes. I ask him about the cars and he tells me it’s due to people’s idolisation of Germany and their superficiality. Plastic surgery is reportedly huge, and often deliberately conspicuous. Everyone wants to flash their cash and status.
‘It makes my job easy,’ B says. ‘When I sell a carpet, I say, “You don’t want that one, they’re for ambassadors’ wives,” and hey presto, it’s sold!’
In Tripoli, curiously, this showiness goes hand in hand with a strong social conservatism. Most women wear hijabs, and B tells me he wouldn’t want to be seen drinking in public. Here, the vast majority of people are Sunni Muslims (80%), with the rest divided evenly between Alawite (similar to Shia) Muslims and Maronite Christians.
Another friend later tells me that the city is surprisingly tolerant, despite its image. ‘You sometimes get burkinis and bikinis on the same beach, and nobody minds,’ she says. ‘But all people remember are the bloody jihadists splashed across the papers.’
We meet a Christian friend of B’s at dinner, who grew up in a remote mountain village called Bikaakafra. There, people marry young, he says; his cousin was just 13. Yet their conservative values clearly have limits. He recently found a stash of porn mags under his Dad’s bed involving women, horses and dwarves, he recounts, and brought it up over the family Sunday lunch. ‘Nobody was bothered,’ he says cheerily. ‘We talk about everything.’
The next morning, as I prepare for my cycle to Beirut, B warns me that ‘the biggest storm of the year’ is due to hit today. But it’s sunny in the morning, and therefore – with the logic of someone who’s never lived in Britain, or indeed anywhere – I reason it will most likely stay that way forever. Plus, I’ve been looking forward to this for a while: the retracing of a cycle I did in 2013 that planted the seed of this trip in my mind. So I vow to try my luck nonetheless.
As I stand drowning under a lashing sheet of rain that soaks me instantly to the core, following yet another puncture 30km down the road, I can’t help feeling that it may have been the wrong decision. For half an hour I wait, helpless and sodden, as the sky turns leaden and swampy and slowly engulfs the entire Mediterranean sea. Then, just as I’m losing hope of rescue, a car finally stops beside me and two textbook murderers (dirty trousers, rakish facial hair) get out and offer me a ride – an offer I know I should on no account accept.
Minutes later, we’re zooming down the road to Byblos. The men give me a satsuma, which I devour like somebody who hasn’t eaten for ten years (it’s been about ten minutes), and stop every mile or so to check Maud hasn’t fallen out the back (she hasn’t). They then drop me directly outside the restaurant where I’ve arranged to meet a friend; and, with a wave, they’re gone. Once again, human kindness trumps doom-laden distrust, I think relievedly. Is the world really crawling with as many psychopaths as the media would have us believe?
R, my friend, is a 34-year-old atheist from a deeply religious Maronite Christian family, who lives with his parents in Byblos. As we devour a feast of shawarma (kebab), makanek (sausages), tabouleh (parsley salad), mahshi warak enab (stuffed vine leaves) and baba ganoush (aubergine dip), he tells me about the disastrous state of Lebanese politics.
No president has been in office for 20 months and no effective government since 1975, he says. ‘There’s a semblance of democracy, but it’s actually a feudal system based on who you know. It’s corrupt to the core.’
Politically, the balance of power in Lebanon is designed to reflect its tripartite demographic: a Christian Maronite president, Sunni prime minister and Shia parliamentary speaker. The country as a whole is reportedly 40% Christian, 27% Sunni and 27% Shia, though no formal census has been conducted since 1932 for fear of stoking sectarian tensions.
In truth, Lebanon’s socio-politics are unforgivably complicated for such a tiny sliver of a country. The Civil War alone illustrates its complexity. Here, you had Christian (Lebanese) vs Sunni (Palestinian); Shia (Syrian) vs Sunni (Palestinian); Jewish (Israeli) vs Sunni (Palestinian); Shia (Syrian) vs Christian (Syrian); Jewish (Israeli) vs Shia (Hezbollah); Christian (Lebanese) vs Sunni (Lebanese); Shia (Syrian) vs Christian (Lebanese) – in no particular order of significance.
Throw in interference from the West (Christian/Jewish), Saudi Arabia (Sunni) and Iran (Shia), plus a devastating conflict on their eastern flank, and it seems less surprising the country is on the constant brink of collapse and more surprising that any of it remains intact at all.
For me, Lebanon barely exists as a political entity in its own right. It’s more a proxy for the region as a whole, reflecting the chaos and discord of its neighbours, with little substance of its own. Yet this is also perhaps also the country’s strength. Suffused in a state of permanent perplexity, the momentum and sheer uncontrollability of the forces whisking it into a frenzy seem to give it its unique character – like a vortex that must spin and spin to ensure survival.
As the storm continues to swirl down around us, R drives me the final few miles to Beirut. I am spending the next few days at the flat of Paddy Cochrane, another friend-of-a-friend who owns several bars and (I later discover) is the son of renowned Lebanese aristocrat Lady Cochrane Sursock, owner of the stunning 19th century Sursock Palace. I suddenly feel like Eddie Murphy in Trading Places, and can’t help wondering who the poor lass is who’ll be assuming my role as a bummelling wino for the remaining 5,000km of the journey.
Worryingly, my first night in Beirut is New Year’s Eve. Event tickets can cost hundreds of dollars, but Paddy has kindly invited me to his party free of charge. He tells me to ‘dress us’ – and just as I’m wondering how to fashion a slinky gown out of some thermal leggings and a pair of padded underpants, I discover a scrunched up silk scarf from Turkey at the bottom of a pannier. I wrap and tie it around my torso, brush my hair and put on make-up for the first time in six months – and suddenly feel less like Eddie and more like Eliza Doolittle. Will they know I’m really just some vagrant imposter with a leathery arse, I wonder? I genuinely feel nervous.
The bash takes place at P’s bar on Beirut’s fashionable Gouraud St, frequented by expats and the Lebanese elite. For me, the night is fun but exhausting. It’s a long time since I quaffed endless spirits and bubbly with society’s haut monde, even in London. But Beirut is basically a city on a permanent bender, and nobody is exempt from its hedonistic clutches. Here, you party until you’re 60, and then you move seamlessly into your second childhood. Middle-age, like the middle-income, has been squeezed into submission.
Around 4am, at the after-party, the discussion turns serious. ‘It’s got to the point where people don’t mind the corruption,’ one man says, in reference to the mountains of garbage piling up in the streets, which the government has failed to clear for half a year. ‘They just want the government to do something. Anything.’
The rest of the night is a bit of a blur, and I spend the next day mainly lying in the foetal position in the dark. On January 2nd I go to visit the father of a friend, C, another property mogul with a Gouraud St penthouse. He tells me how lots of Christians prefer to speak French to avoid identifying as Arab, with merci frequently used instead of shukran for ‘hello’.
‘The Muslims need the Christians to have a foothold in the West,’ C (a Christian) says. ‘But they don’t want them gaining too much control. Hence the power struggles.’
We talk about women and C tells me that Lebanon is deeply patriarchal. Women are severely discriminated against, he says, and sexual violence is common. ‘Women won’t get promoted unless they’re sleeping with the boss,’ he says. ‘There’s a strong cultural impulse to see men as the providers.’
The next day, I brave the sprawling glut of Beirut traffic, which seems constantly paralysed yet somehow faintly functional – reflecting perfectly the general state of the country – to buy a pair of the city’s best tyres. They look distinctly flimsy to me, but I’m reassured that they’re ‘puncture proof’ – and it turns out they are, for a full six minutes. I do a swift calculation: if things continue at this rate, by the time I complete my trip I’ll have racked up an inconvenient-if-impressive 15,000 punctures. I decide to grab a few more patches.
My second host in Beirut is the sister of a friend, B, and her family. They are lovely and welcoming, and the flat is enormous. As she shows me around, she points out a small cubbyhole off the kitchen around six metres square. ‘That’s where migrant workers are meant to sleep,’ she tells me. ‘Most homes employ housekeepers, but they’re often treated terribly.’
I learn about this in more detail at a meeting with the Migration Community Center (MCC), which provides support for migrants and refugees. Their members come predominantly from Africa and Asia, and earn around $200 a month as domestic workers. All need Lebanese sponsors to work here, and most are forced to give up their passports. The majority suffer some form of abuse, I am told.
‘There are lots of problems,’ says MCC co-ordinator Ramy Shukr. ‘No-one’s checking if workers are being overworked, locked in, beaten. Sometimes they don’t get paid for months.’
On January 7th, I take a trip down the coast to Tyre. My plan is to spend the night, before returning to Beirut to fly to Jordan: the only escape route that doesn’t involve illegally entering a war zone or plunging head-first into the Mediterranean. Escaping the city proves a challenge, however, as a fiendish gauntlet of gridlocked Mercedes conspires to cast me and Maud prematurely into the afterlife. We then lose our way – a particular skill of mine on straight roads with little scope for error – and find ourselves deep in Shia territory in the south of the city.
This area is clearly poor and neglected, comprising a labyrinth of winding alleys, maniacal children, errant mopeds and blackened shacks. Old tyres and husks of rusty cars line the streets, while mangy dogs snuffle in swampy puddles and furtively lick their balls.
However, after a brief and mildly traumatising stop in the public loo, I finally escape Beirut’s clutches and reach the ‘old coastal road’ to Tyre. This transpires to be neither old nor particularly coastal, and the next few hours are spent rolling through a series of shabby, nondescript towns, with occasional glimpses of the sea. After a series of army checkpoints, I stop for lunch in Sidon – one of the oldest Phoenician cities, dating from around 4,000BC – before resuming my journey south.
The light starts to fade as I approach Tyre. Here, the Shia Islamist group Hezbollah, funded by Iran, rules the roost, and large portraits of Ayatollah Khomeini, the Supreme Leader of Iran, loom from the sidelines. Alongside hang dozens of photographs of young men, who I later discover are ‘martyrs’ killed by the Israelis.
Then, with unsettling swiftness, night falls and – having cleverly forgotten my lights – I struggle to orientate myself in the gloom. Tyre seems to comprise a series of interlocking construction sites, and I soon find myself lost in a maze of covered walkways filled with garbage and shisha smokers. Just as I’m about to give up hope of finding my friend’s flat, a hand extends from a darkened doorway with a cup of tea.
‘Everything ok?’ the man asks – and suddenly, with that simple gesture, everything absolutely is.
To be continued…