The veil of history

Beirut is rising from the ruins of its recent devastation - a shining new city built to efface appalling memories. Yet the violence - and miracles - that define modern Lebanon are indivisible from those of a long and turbulent past
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Did I see a woman burning to death outside the Myrtom House restaurant? I know I did, back in 1983; a woman trapped in her vehicle after a car bombing, cremated alive in front of our eyes as a young French soldier tried to tear off the door, leaving just a skeleton, the skull turned accusingly towards us. But I stand on the same road today and cannot believe my memory. There are brand new glass-fronted tower blocks on one side of the road, a repainted school and an international bank on the other, the highway resurfaced so that no trace of shrapnel remains. Only my memory holds the truth. Thus is history erased as Beirut is rebuilt.

And for visitors, of course, all the hoary old pre-war cliches have been exhumed. The Switzerland of the Middle East where you can ski in the morning and swim in the afternoon. The war? "Al-hawadess", the Leb-anese call it, "the events" - a little local difficulty - and, anyway, all the fault of foreigners. Had I not lived through all of it, I might even believe my fellow passengers on the MEA Airbus into Beirut when they tell me - thinking that I'm travelling to Lebanon for the first time in my life - that the entire problem was caused by Palestinians, Syrians, Israelis, Iraqis, Iranians, Americans, French - by anyone except the Lebanese themselves.

And I suppose it's just possible, arriving at Beirut's gleaming new airport with its friendly immigration officers and tourist bureaux, to forget the war, to ignore the modern roundabout that stands next to the very spot where a suicide-bomber, one Sunday morning in 1983, drove a truckload of explosives into the US marine base and killed 241 Americans. And on the way into town along one of Beirut's new superhighways, you can glimpse the magnificent British-built sports stadium that hides the muck of the Sabra and Chatila Palestinian refugee camps where, in September 1982, Israel's allies slaughtered up to 2,000 men, women and children.

The Lebanese would far prefer you concentrate on earlier events - of the Roman/Crusader variety - and in a sense, they're right. For only by understanding Lebanon's position on the fault line of history - by remembering the might of Roman power at Baalbek and the Crusaders who swept down the coast from Tripoli to massacre the population of Beirut and then Jerusalem - can you understand the strange, amiable, disconcerting land that has sucked so many armies into its dangerous embrace. In the new city that the Lebanese are building over the ruins of wartime Beirut, you can look at the just-uncovered remains of Rome, Phoenicia and Byzantium. There are chariot-wheel ruts in the stones and a line of sand that speaks of ancient catastrophe - the remains of a sixth-century earthquake that swamped Roman "Berytus" in a massive tidal wave and destroyed the ancient law school. Not far away is the delicate Great Mosque (Jami al-Omari), which the Muslims converted from the Crusader Church of St John in 1291. Perhaps Beirut's most famous saint, however, was St George - he killed the dragon about a mile to the east in what (after a day of research in the area) I discovered to be the mouth of a sewage system.

One of the joys of Lebanon is that you can go anywhere in a day - to the whispering cedars at Bsharre, where Lamartine carved his still visible name on the bark and where the mystic poet Kahlil Jibran is buried, or to the Crusader port of Byblos - eat at Pepe's and note the Roman columns supporting the front wall of his restaurant. Pepe himself keeps a museum of jars and figurines below the floor, all personally salvaged from the sea in his younger days. And there's an awesome collection of photographs showing Pepe kissing and being kissed by every female movie star of the 1950s and 1960s. It takes only two hours to drive to Baalbek - the most complete, the most splendid collection of Roman remains in the world. You can stand beside the six columns of the Temple of Jupiter (each trundled across from Egypt) and see to the west the snows of Mount Sannine and to the east a collection of houses wherein languished many of the western hostages kidnapped in Lebanon in the Eighties.

Hostages? A few of them have come back. Terry Anderson - the AP journalist who clocked up the longest imprisonment (almost seven years) - was strolling around the new Beirut only a few days ago, telling a group of American college kids what life was like in the bad old days. They were shown the Crusader castles but also the Sabra and Chatila camp. Because the ruins are still there with their bullet holes and collapsed roofs, because they have been fought over again, I find it all too easy to remember the heaps of bodies I found there on 18 September 1982, the dead horses, the young woman shot only a few seconds before I entered the wreckage of her home. They buried the 600 bodies they found in a patch of earth near the entrance to the camp. Today there is no memorial; it is a rubbish dump sometimes used by children as a football pitch.

No wonder the Lebanese want you to keep your eye on earlier history. At Tyre, you can pay the local fishermen to take you a few metres offshore where, beneath the waves, you can see entire Roman columns and pilasters. Much of the Roman city is intact on the surface, a place of mosaics, Corinthian columns, sunlight and lizards basking beside the ancient bath-house, all rimmed by the dark blue Mediterranean. Tyre used to stand on an island and the long curved road that leads to it - an uninspiring highway of car repair shops, stricken houses and the local telephone office - is actually the isthmus constructed by Alexander the Great when he laid seige to the city.

It was Tyre's old King Hiram who sent the cedars of Lebanon down to King Solomon to help build his temple in 1011 BC, and just east of Tyre, on the road to Qana, you can see the massive stone tomb in which he was said to have been buried. Qana may or may not be the

place where Jesus turned water into wine - the town's tiny minority of Christians will tell you so. But its name is now synonymous with another of Lebanon's more recent massacres, one that occurred only three years ago when Israeli gunners - embroiled in a hopeless bombardment with Hizballah guerrillas - fired heavy artillery shells into the local United Nations barracks when it was crowded with refugees. More than a hundred of them were torn to pieces and they lie now in a mass grave of polished marble just outside the still-damaged UN base. Local people - most of them Shiite Muslims - do not resent the foreign visitors who wander through their rather shabby town to look at the graves, with their pathetic glass noticeboards containing snapshots of the more-than 50 children who died there.

Nor do the Fijian UN troops who cheerfully wave you through their checkpoints and to whom you must shout the imperishable phrase: "Bula-bula". In the Fijian language, it appears to mean hello, goodbye, cheers and how's your mum? all rolled into one. In any event, every Fijian soldier to whom you utter these words will bellow exactly the same back at you: "BULA-BULA". Further down the road at Tibnin - under the protection of the UN's Irish battalion - you can sit in the ruins of the little Crusader castle and look across the nearest range of Lebanese hills where Israel's occupation army has dug in its guns. Reinforced with iron and concrete, this is the modern-day version of the crusader fortress, the continuum of the Lebanese war.

Beirut publishes a mediocre English-language paper (The Daily Star) and a very good French-language daily (L'Orient le Jour) and any visitor to Lebanon should glance through the headlines at breakfast - just in case the Israelis and the Hizballah have gone to war again overnight. Taxi drivers listen to the radio - ask their advice on any journey out of town (but name your price before you leave).

No one will think it strange if you want to visit the scenes of Lebanon's most recent - as well as its most ancient - history. But one word of warning. This is a country that has never lost its spy-phobia - a hangover from the days when Beirut was the biggest CIA base in the Middle East. Do not take photographs of checkpoints, tanks, roadblocks and other military installations.Lebanese soldiers (you'll recognise them by their US-style fatigues) will take your camera away for a day. Syrian soldiers (lighter camouflage fatigues, often in red berets and even more often with real bayonets fixed to their rifles) will probably take your camera away forever. And if you snap away at Hizballah headquarters just north of the airport, you're likely to be drinking many cups of tea with intense, bearded men for several hours afterwards.

And they will be interested in recent history.

Traveller's Guide

Getting there: Middle East Airlines (0171-493 5681) and British Mediterranean (0345 222111) each fly from Heathrow to Beirut. Lowest fares, under pounds 300, are likely to be with MEA.

Red tape: The consular section of the Lebanese Embassy, 15 Palace Gardens Mews, London W8 4RA (0171-229 7265) will issue visas, for two photos, an employer's statement confirming your occupation, and pounds 12. Visas are also available at Beirut airport and at overland crossings from Syria. Visas are not granted to anyone whose passport shows evidence of a visit to Israel.

The new second edition of Travellers' Survival Kit: Lebanon by Carole Cadwalladr and Anna Sutton has just been published by Vacation Work, price pounds 10.99.