A Talking Tour of Beirut

In the Chouf Mountains With a Modern Druze Chieftain
Dispatches from the front lines of travel.
March 10 2005 1:12 PM

A Talking Tour of Beirut

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A fountain at Beiteddine in the Chouf Mountains (click on image to expand)
A fountain at Beiteddine in the Chouf Mountains (click on image to expand)

Watch out for the Lebanese army's ski troops. Whenever local parents see a group of skiers in white suits making their way to the top of the mountain, they know to keep their children close. The army is made up mostly of Shiites, poor kids who have never skied before, so they just barrel down the hill in a straight line. I don't know if this technique intimidates the Israeli Defense Forces, who apparently have their own ski unit, but here at Faraya-Mzaar, Lebanon's chief ski resort about an hour's drive from downtown Beirut, I'm on high alert for guys in white ski outfits. Instead I just see a lot of Saudis, who, to my slight disappointment, are not taking to the slopes in flowing white robes with their headscarves rippling in the wind; they're just wearing the latest ski gear from Europe and the States.

While travelers to Lebanon are usually interested in Beirut and its Mediterranean appeal, the mountains have been a central part of the country's identity for centuries. In fact, Lebanon was long known as a mountain refuge where the persecuted minorities of the region, especially but not exclusively the Maronite Christians and the Druze, could escape their Ottoman overlords. This narrative is somewhat controversial, since it suggests that neither the Ottomans nor the region's Sunni Arabs were as tolerant as some would like to believe. It's an argument best pursued elsewhere (like here, here, here, and here), but suffice it to say that modern Lebanon is the one Arab state where the system of government accounted for the existence of multiple religious identities.

Gardens at Beiteddine (click on image to expand)
Gardens at Beiteddine (click on image to expand)
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The civil wars that lasted from 1975 to 1990 represented a breakdown of that system, and some of the most brutal fighting occurred in the Chouf Mountains between the Christians and Druze, a somewhat Gnostic variation of Shiite Islam that has its origins in Egypt. Much of Druze religious practice is reserved for initiates, but their public history involves the origins of the modern Lebanese state. The 17th-century Druze leader Emir Fakhreddine Maan is usually credited as the country's founding father. Along with building up the silk trade and strengthening ties with Europe, he united the various regions now comprising Lebanon. And yet, describing the lands under Fakhreddine's sway as the precursor to modern Lebanon is, like much of the country's history, also contentious, since that narrative has been used to support the political ambitions of the Maronites. At any rate, Fakhreddine's seat of power was in Deir al-Qamr, a small town in the Chouf, close to what is perhaps the country's greatest architectural masterpiece, Beiteddine, a spectacular complex of buildings and gardens combining both 19th-century Italian and Ottoman influences that was built by Emir Bashir.

The Chouf Mountains, 30 minutes' drive from Beirut (click on image to expand)
The Chouf Mountains, 30 minutes' drive from Beirut (click on image to expand)

To my mind, the Chouf Mountains are the most beautiful of all Lebanon's various landscapes, and today my friend Elie Fawaz and I are driving through the mountains for lunch at Moukhtara, the home of Chouf MP and the current leader of the Druze, Walid Jumblatt, who has recently taken a very public and dangerous stand against the Syrian occupation. We're lost, and when we stop to ask for directions, the guy by the side of the road recognizes Elie, a pretty famous face in Lebanon since he used to play power forward for the national basketball team and starred for one of the local clubs. About half an hour later, when we're lost again, it occurs to us that the guy was probably a fan of a rival team.

At last, we get to pass by the Chouf nature reserve, which is carefully maintained, since Jumblatt is something of an environmentalist. Once we finally get to Moukhtara, a 19th-century mansion only a little less grand than Beiteddine and Deir al-Qamr, the armed guards wave us through. The tension is high—although this was weeks before the Hariri assassination—and Jumblatt seems a little distracted.

A mosaic design at Beiteddine (click on image to expand)
A mosaic design at Beiteddine (click on image to expand)

The biggest hassle about being an American traveling in the Arab world is that a European or someone else may be looking for any excuse to say how stupid, venal, arrogant, or ignorant you as an American, like all Americans, are. Arabs will argue with you about U.S. policies, which is one reason I like being in the Middle East, but there's nothing more annoying than being used to burnish the pro-Arab credentials of another Westerner. At lunch, a Latin American diplomat is praising Fahrenheit 9/11, which only seems strange because this guy's nation is famous for having thrown political opponents out of airplanes in the past. It gets worse when he starts to talk about the neoconservatives in the Bush administration. "Isn't Leo Strauss' influence on them similar to Nietzsche's influence on the Nazis?" he asks. I start to argue that the relationship in both cases is probably overstated when I look down the table and see that Elie's jaw has dropped. "Wow," he says, shaking his head in amazement, "this guy's comparing the neocons to the Nazis." "Yeah," I agree, "that's pretty crazy." I guess I'm accustomed to comments like that, but it's always good to be reminded that sometimes the "Western diplomatic sources" cited in the press are just well-manicured lunatics.

Jumblatt asks when the Americans are leaving Iraq, and I explain that, as far as I know, the only Americans talking about an "exit strategy" work in newsrooms or on university campuses. I don't know if anyone in the administration is talking about leaving anytime soon—and, I add, I'd be appalled if they were.

In spite of his past record of anti-U.S. rhetoric, Jumblatt, unlike some of his guests, isn't trying to bait the closest American at hand into an argument about the wisdom of invading an Arab country. He wants to know how far he can afford to stick his neck out, an issue for many political figures in the Middle East this last year or so. While Arab reformers or opposition leaders may not love Bush or how the president has handled the situation in all its particulars, they recognize an opportunity for positive change in the region. U.S. support, as Jumblatt himself made clear in the Washington Post, is not the "kiss of death"; rather, as we all learned watching Saddam slaughter the people we had encouraged to rise against him in 1991, it is the withdrawal of U.S. support that costs lives. The problem isn't our idealism and innocence in conjunction with our power, it's American fickleness, our national Attention Deficit Disorder, that is dangerous to the world.

Jumblatt has to adjourn early, and there's no time to see the library of this famously avid reader who keeps up with the press in Arabic, French, and English (even The Nation) and is always recommending books or giving them away as gifts. He gives Elie a copy of Robert Stone's Damascus Gate and hands me Images d'un destin, a photography book about his father, Kemal Jumblatt, who was assassinated by the Syrians in 1977. That fact must be as present in his mind now as it was close to his emotions during the two decades he was at peace with the Syrians. "A man just wakes up one day and realizes he's had enough," he had explained to me when I first met him in his Beirut home. "So his life changes."

I made light of this at first, figuring it was easier for a man to go after the main chance when his enemies are burdened with 135,000 U.S. GIs on their border. But seeing him today, also seeing how Elie admires him and how he's inspired his countrymen, I'm starting to fathom Jumblatt's courage—a force that's turned yet another Druze chieftain into a national figure.

Lee Smith is a visiting fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, D.C., and author of The Strong Horse: Power, Politics, and the Clash of Arab Civilizations.

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