“The bus continued to climb up through the hills of Lebanon. So high that the shore line of Beirut City disappeared in a shimmering haze of heat and petrol fumes. It then became apparent to me that as the city vanished from my sight, that I was nearer to the border of Syria then to the Port of Beirut.
Lena D Walton Beirut Bus June 2018
For a tourist interested in Crusader History in the Middle East, Sidon (Saida) seemed an ideal destination for me to visit. Situated on the Mediterranean coast south of Beirut, I was reassured by my hotel that for someone travelling on their own it was relatively easy to get to by local bus. One bus to what is called Cola Intersection and then another bus from there to Sidon. I was further encouraged by the knowledge that Sidon had not one but two crusader castles – Sidon Sea Castle and Castle of St Louis.
I became quickly distracted before we had left Beirut by the appearance on the left side of the bus by the Palestinian Refugee camp known as Chatila. I had not been prepared for it being so much part of the city of Beirut. I had not been prepared for the glaring but invisible line that differentiated this community from the rest of the neighbourhood. I had not been prepared for seeing a place that had hit the headlines so many times in the west for the repeated destruction and massacre of the group of people that lived in what were meant to be temporary homes. A nation displaced since the creation of the Zionist state of Israel.
Driving past, the bus slowly fought through the traffic and we headed along the coast. I took a last glance at the camp and then the bust veered away towards the south.
Sidon was once a Phoenician city famed for its glass and purple dye. Named after the grandson of Noah you can guess just how old this city’s heritage is. Mentioned in the Bible – Matthew – “Then Jesus departed thence, into the coasts of Tyre and Si-don”, also praised by Homer, and one modern claim to fame being the birthplace of former President Rafiq Hariri.
When the Crusaders arrived in Lebanon they built the Sea Castle at Sidon on the ruins of the Phoenician Temple.
Probably a lesser known snippet of information is that Tibauld Gaudin, the Treasurer of the legendry Knights Templar order was residing at Sidon when he learned that the remaining knights from the defeat by the Mamelukes in April 1291 in Acre, ( Now in modern day Israel) had elected him the new Grand Master of the Order of the Knights Templar.
The order in total disarray retreated to their Sea Castle, where it took only a further three months for the Mamelukes lead by emir Shujai to enter and destroy the Crusader castle. Within a year Tibauld was dead and the last and probably the most famous Grand Master of the Knights Templar was elected, Jacques de Molay.
Whilst clambering over the remains of the castle I am once again catapulted to more recent events. In 1982 the Lebanese Militia occupied the Sea Castle. And in 1985 the Lebanese Army occupied St Louis.
But Sidon for many people both In Lebanon and for those who followed the tragedy of the invasion by Israel of Lebanon in the West will be remembered as the city where the Israeli army ferociously attacked and killed unarmed civilians. Even supporters of their Zionist country could not but have reservations about just how a community could be massacred and still those who ordered the massacre be in such denial. The interesting thing is at this point the Israeli government tried to censor any Western journalist’s reports of this crime, and one of the places they would regularly escort journalist to was the Sea Castle and the nearby souks, which had survived the bombardment. As if by showing the relics of the Crusader past they could hide behind the ancient stones the horrific actions of the present.
As I walked through the Souks of Sidon I veered off the path and found myself staring at what looked at first like a laundry. Lines of washing hung across old decaying buildings. As I ventured further I found myself outside the entrance to what was obviously a Jewish building. The Star of David was etched just visible above the entrance. I had found the once Jewish Quarter of Sidon.
All traces of the Jewish occupants had vanished. The synagogue and its environs now housed Palestinian refugees. There were children as usual playing in the streets. There were all the ubiquitous signs of poverty but the washing strung up on the lines in the blistering sun suggested running water was available.
I stood hesitating for a moment, once again, like Chatila I had not expected this. How close to they were living their lives to the Lebanese people. Palestinians are not accorded the same rights as the citizens of Lebanon and I assumed there would be barriers between their homes and the citizen’s homes but of course there were none.
Suddenly I had a flash of memory of my first contact with the local gypsy community in Epsom as a child. Caravans with lurcher dogs tied up outside barking at us kids walking past. And washing laid across hedges and hanging on makeshift washing lines. And it dawned on me the only barriers that we make are ones made in our heads and within the invisible rules of society.
Walking back towards the Souk I saw a building slightly less in disarray then the previous ones and saw on the side of one wall a swastika. Was this still the reason why the world looked away from the plight of the Palestinians? Our collective guilt at the Holocaust still entrenched in our psyche? Was that why we looked away at the massacre at Chatila and the refugee camp at Ein Halweh just north of Sidon?
We had looked away in 1940 -1945 not believing. We looked away in 1982 not wanting to believe. Today in 2018 we see across the border from this little country to Syria and again we didn’t see it all coming did we? Or perhaps we did and looked away again. For, “Though every prospect pleases. And only man is vile.” Bishop Reginald Heber.
I strolled back through the Souks a refreshing change to those in Turkey and Egypt, no one hassled me. Was it that so few tourists visited still or was it really a true Souk where people shopped and drank coffee and men played backgammon? And then I remembered Damascus and the silence as we walked through that Souk with the same lack of harassment and wondered was this again the calm before the storm?
My last stop before the bus back to Beirut was the Rotary Club. Once called the Government Rest House it is situated right by the Sea Castle and from there drinking a cold bear I got my last few photos of the castle.
The bus took the same route back to Chola Intersection. We passed once again Chatila and this time I noticed on the one street corner near to the invisible line a police sentry box. No not like the one in Dr Who – this was a waist high concrete block with a small canopy to protect the armed police man from the sun. I can only assume that these were dotted around the boundaries of the camp.
I had been told by the hotel, that it was a number 15 that would take me to and from Chola, along the corniche and past Pidgeon Rocks where I had aimed to jump off the bus to see the sunset on the Mediterranean.
I jumped on the number 15 and sat behind the driver, he and his friend paid me little attention as they were in a chat on the mobile with a girlfriend. The bus filled up and we drove away, back past the camp and then up one of hills of Beirut.
I thought this was odd but did not think too much of it at first. Perhaps it was like my local number 21 bus at home stopping everywhere and taking far longer than the crow would flying. We climbed higher and higher, at some places the bus was struggling with the bends in the road. Still I thought nothing of it. The names of the villages meant nothing to me, why would they? But then one caught my attention- Aley.
I found it on my map and saw that we were miles away from Beirut. The last sight of that city had been 10 minutes before. Just as we had climbed another bend. More people got off and less people got on.
Up to this point I had been happy to go along for the ride. But my limited history of the area made me think I should not now be here on the bus. Aley was a Druze town and was also another place that saw conflict during the war with Israel. The Druze were and still are a bit of an anomaly within the Middle East, neither Christian nor Muslim but still Arabic people. They have their own unique cultural identity.
The Palestinian Fatwah men who lived in the surrounding villages had put up a certain amount of resistance to the Israeli march towards Beirut. Finally they were defeated it seemed but that was perhaps not the right word for armed Palestinians later opened fire on an Israeli army convoy and killed 6 Israeli soldiers and wounded another 22.
I felt it was time to call a halt to my tour through the bandit villages, home to the new PLO and freedom fighters and get myself back down to the Corniche and the prospect of my last cold beer of the day.
My first attempt at communicating since boarding the bus seemed futile. Neither the driver nor his friend spoke much English. ”Where are we and where are we going?” elicited the sight of the two of them staring at each other as if they had forgotten I was on the bus.
I pointed at the map. “I think I am on the wrong bus. I want to be in Beirut.”
The driver’s face creased in to a worried frown. He spoke to his friend, his friend jumped off the bus to return with two friends on mopeds. I thought initially the idea was I would convey where I needed to be and they would explain how I could get there.
But Immediately I spoke and said, “I’m on the wrong bus.”, the two boys burst in to laughter, presumably repeating to the driver my famous last words to them, before they sped off.
“I was told number 15 bus.” I said. Pointing at the window were the number 15 was clearly displayed. We all stared at the number as if suddenly by magic it would solve my situation and they could get rid of this crazy woman quickly.
They both shrugged their shoulders, and then pointed down the side of the number were Arabic writing presumably displayed the actual places this bus was driving to. Later I was to establish that all the bus had number 15 on them. It was not the number but the name of the village that was important.
The three of us sat in silence for a few minutes and then the driver had a light bulb moment. He drove further up to the outskirts of Aley to a crossroads, where a police man was inspecting the boot of a car that had a family of about 15 sitting in. Alongside the car was a bus, words were exchanged, and I was told in very short words. “1$ to Beirut.” Quite frankly if he has said 50$ I would have said yes.
I climbed out of the number 15 I was on and climbed into another number 15. We drove down what was now familiar territory to me back through the village of Aley where the new PLO had held up such a fight against Lieutenant Sharon in 1982 and I found myself back into the chaos of Chola Intersection where I got into a red service taxi back to the corniche and a cold beer.
So in one day I had covered the Crusaders, the Palestinians, the Jews, the Druze and the wonders of the number 15 bus that can just about get you anywhere you want to go in Lebanon, or not where you want to go in my case.