"There's an old story," my landlord explained. "When the Sun goes out, there's a beast devouring the Moon." Which is why the battered old cars cruised the Mediterranean highway in Beirut yesterday, their passengers beating away at their tin pans, following some story they had heard from their grandparents but never understood.
And of course, it was impossible to ignore the effects. At around 1pm - it took the eclipse two hours to reach the deserts of the Middle East from Europe, across 2,000 miles at 1,000 miles an hour - the birds did stop singing. The Mediterranean waves no longer sloshed around the rocks outside my apartment; they slipped gently around them, a millpond sea humbled by God.
Our cat Walter, named after the editor of the International Herald Tribune, tried to grab my lunch of fish-fingers then suddenly retired to her basket under the bed. On television, they were showing Lawrence of Arabia; and there was Peter O'Toole in the Arabian desert, gazing at the stars and Moon before he persuaded King Feisal to attack the Turks at Aqaba. The movement of the stars and Moon and Sun surely guided destinies.
The Beirut papers had told everyone about the "dangerous rays" that emanated from the kasouf - the eclipse - which meant you could not look at it. No one understood that the dangerous rays poured from the Sun on every other day of the year. It was the eclipse that could blind you. And in a part of the world where the summer Sun is not a pleasure but a cruelty - Lawrence himself called the heat a sword - there was surely some meaning other than the conjunction of planets.
"My landlady closed all the windows," a young woman told me at the Palestinian camp at Bourj el-Barajneh. "There is no air-conditioning and she wanted me to sit there in the heat with the windows closed to avoid being killed."
And the message? Could it be that there was something greater than the region's eternal human struggle? No one chose to contemplate the fact that a hundred miles away, in the unmentionable "Zionist Entity", thousands of ordinary Israelis were staring at the same eclipse, with perhaps the same question on their lips. Peace or war? Peace process or collapse? The Moon duly skidded across the burning Sun and returned us to the usual sword-like heat of a summer afternoon. The windows were opened, the curtains pulled back to reveal the same old Middle East.
By the end of the eclipse, Lawrence of Arabia had driven out the Turks to give the Arabs their illusory independence. No wonder the young men on the Mediterranean highway banged those saucepan lids.