Refried Flashback Friday, originally published 18 December 2008. This was my very first FF about the Middle East.
The late fall of 2004 found us living in Damascus. Ramadan had just come to an end. Ramadan is an oddly festive yet stressful time of year, what with the businesses closing early, people fasting all day, socializing (and maybe working) into the night, waking up before dawn to get in a good meal, and doing it all over again the next day. At the end of it all, there is a three-day holiday called Eid al-Fitr. Everything in the city shuts down so that people can celebrate the conclusion of the month of fasting.
Jeremy and I both had a few days off of school and work, so we decided to take a trip to northern Lebanon to visit the ruins of Baalbek. In addition to being a modern-day town that serves as the seat of the Hezbollah political party (or terrorist organization, depending on your point of view), it is also the location of some spectacular ruins that we had been looking forward to exploring.
We spent the night in Beirut at a friend's house and left semi-early the next morning for Baalbek. We shared the taxi ride with an elderly Lebanese woman who was going to a small town 20km short of Baalbek. She was happy to engage in light conversation with us during the ride, but after Jeremy made a teensy-tiny joke about Hezbollah, all the lightness in her mood disappeared. She immediately launched into a stern lecture on the importance of not saying anything bad about Hezbollah while we were in the area. We reached her village just as she was winding down with her important advice, and she got out of the taxi, wishing us good luck on our visit.
In order to get back to the main highway, the taxi had to wind through the small town with we two Americans being the only remaining passengers. The mood in the taxi was pleasant again, until I took a look outside the window at our surroundings and realized I was the only unveiled woman in the town, on top of being the only foreigner. This has really only happened a couple of times during all the time I've spent in the Middle East - once in a friend's neighborhood in Aleppo where every girl above the age of 7 or 8 was veiled, and another time or two in various remote areas. I was glad to at least be inside of the taxi and not walking around outside on the streets where I might have attracted a lot of attention.
That circumstance put me on edge, and I had already been fighting back minor feelings of nervousness because we were heading into the depths of Hezbollah territory. I hadn't thought too much about it until the old lady in the taxi had put the fear of the Party of God into us. As I looked around and saw all the party's posters, flags (above), banners, billboards, large Dome-of-the-Rock replicas, and brightly colored arches over the roadways featuring pictures of Nasrallah and others brandishing heavy weaponry, the nervousness turned into all-out fear. Although their days of kidnapping Americans appeared to be over (they have since moved on to Israeli soldiers), Hezbollah's relationship with America has never been a good one.
So it was in an on-edge, no-Roman-ruins-are-worth-being-kidnapped-for-no-matter-how-spectacular kind of mindset with which we continued driving through the town in the taxi.
Then came the part that actually scared me. I looked out the windows some more and realized that every kid in town had a gun and they were engaging in mini-guerilla warfare right there in the streets! They were toy guns, sure, but they appeared to actually be able to shoot pellets or something out of them, and the kids were having lots of fun shooting at each other and at a few passers-by. It was extremely unsettling. What kind of place was this?? I was sure at any moment that a kid would spot us in the taxi and decide that it would be fun to take a shot at the foreigners, and who knew what kind of trouble that would start with the local political party? We rolled up the car windows and tried not to make eye contact as the kids continued their war games. I slunk down as far as possible in my seat in a futile attempt to become invisible.
Somehow, we made it back to the highway unscathed, and continued to Baalbek. Within the site itself, you can almost forget about Hezbollah and kids trying to kill you with their toy guns, the ruins are that amazing.
And sure enough, when we got back home to Damascus, our landlady's son was busy taking shots with his new toy gun at his friends in the alley by our apartment.
And that's the story of the only time I ever felt scared in the Middle East.
Postscript: a few months after our trip to Baalbek, Rafiq Hariri was assassinated in Beirut and tensions between Syria and Lebanon flared. After that, it really was too dangerous for Americans to visit the area. Then, a year and a half later, there was a(nother) war between Israel and Lebanon. Baalbek was in the middle of it all during a skirmish in August 2006. So while I joke about being afraid while we were there, I don't mean to be insensitive to the actual bad things that have happened in Baalbek, both before and since our visit.