Painting : March of the Evil Eyes
Arabic hospitality is legendary, so be prepared to expect the unexpected when traveling in the Middle East .
Sauntering aimlessly in a souq in Aleppo, Syria, I was stopped short by a man in a splendid thobe, his arms wide open . " I'll give your father a million camels, no ! Two million camels ," he said in impeccable English, " so you can be my Queen and I can be your slave , and I'll serve you for the rest of my life !" " I don't think my father likes camels......" I stammered in surprise, eyes darting wildly for the Candid Cameraman," but I'd ask him for you ! " I hastily made my escape, an alarming image of Hong Kong sinking slowly into the sea under the weight of two million camels flashed through my mind .
The men in our little tour group were not neglected . After a camel ride, two of our guys were hoisted up and forcebly kissed repeatedly on the cheek by the camel minder until rescued by their respective wife . Everywhere we went in Lebanon and Syria we were beseiged by platoons of school children , all clamoring laughingly to be photographed . Passers-by in the street constantly paused to greet us , " Welcome ! Welcome ! ", curious about where we were from .
Bright eyes and big smiles to begin and end the day .
Yet I was sad . How can a people with so much good will be made to go through so much trouble, with no end in sight ?
The Road to Damascus Tour was organized by the University of Hong Kong Museum Society , going through Lebanon, Syria and Jordan, in a bide to trace the cultural and religious heritage of the land . Present day Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Israel share a lot of common history. Situated at the cradle of civilization, they were the birth places of some of the most important religions in the world, saw great glories as well as horrific devastations, and all were at one time part of numerous succeeding Empires : Phoenicia, Persian, Armenian, Assyrian, Babylonian,Greek , Roman, Byzantine, Arab, Seljuk, Mamluk, Crusader, Ottoman and French/British. The unearthed layers of ruins from different dynasties and the changing face of religious houses from temples to churches to mosques, bear testimony to what humans would destroy in their relentless quest for Power and Wealth . Tragically, the same frightful drama of broken life and trampled homes, propelled by the same insane compulsion, is still being played out daily around us. There is nothing new under the Sun and we have learnt nothing from history.
The visible scars of war were most evident in Lebanon . On the way to Tyre and Sidon in the south , Marcelle, our beautiful Lebanese tourguide, pointed out to us destroyed bridges and roads , all incurred during the July War of 2006 .
The 34 day military conflict started with a Hezbollah anti-tank missile attack on an armored Israeli humvees patrol , killing 3 soldiers , wounded 2, and 2 were kidnapped . Israel blamed Lebanon for the raid, as 2 ministers serving in the Lebanese Cabinet at the time were Hezbollah . Israel's chief of staff Dan Halutz threatened , " If the soldiers are not returned, we will turn Lebanon's clock back 20 years "
True to his word, during the campaign the Israeli indistriminately unleashed massive airstrikes and artillary fire, causing serious damage to Lebanon's civil infrastructure . The macabre list of damages in Lebanon ran as follows : 73 bridges and 400 miles of roads , 31 other targets including Beirut's Rafic Hariri International airport , ports ,water and sewage treatment plants, electrical facilities , 25 fuel stations, 900 commercial structures , up to 350 schools and 2 hospitals , 15,000 homes totally gone , while some 130,000 more were damaged .
Environmental disaster struck when the Jiyeh Power Station was bombed, resulting in the largest ever oil spill in the Mediterranean, the slick killing the northern bluefin tuna and the green sea turtle , both on the endangered species list . The "toxic cloud " caused by the burning of 25,000 tons of oil at the power station rained oil downwind for days . The UN estimated the initial clean-up cost to be over 64 million US.
On the other side, over 4000 Hezbollah rockets landed on northern Israel, many in urban areas , the rocket attacks caused numerous forest fires inside northern Israel, which would take at least 50 years to rehabilitate.
The month-long conflict caused significant loss of life. Israel counted over 100 soldiers dead and over 600 wounded , 43 civilian dead, over 4000 wounded ; in Lebanon over 1500 were dead, 500 of them Hezbollah fighters , the rest were mostly civilians, the UNICEF estimated 30% killed were children under the age of 13, while over 4000 were injured, 15% permanently disabled .
About one million Lebanese and up to 1/2 million Israelis were displaced from their homes. Parts of southern Lebanon are uninhabitable to this day due to the unexploded Israeli cluster bombs. So far 29 had died and 215 were wounded post-war from stepping on the bombs, 90 of them children .
This is certainly a war that nobody comes away a winner, but the danger of a re-play is only too possible . As recently as January 2009, Hezbollah was caught launching Katyusha rockets at northern Israeli cities .
Other troubles in Lebanon are home-spun. Traveling north to Tripoli, Marcelle told us in May 2007 , Fatah al-Islam militants ( allied with Al Qaeda) hid in the Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp near Tripoli after being accused of taking part in a bank robbery, and fought against arrest by the Lebanese Internal Security Forces (ISF ) in a day long battle. The conflict unleashed a wave of car bombings across the country lasting 5 months . The violence ended with the fall of the camp to the Army, but not before 85% of homes in the camp were destroyed . In 2008, Hezbollah and Amal resistance took over Western Beirut in an armed attack, triggered by a Government decision to ban Hezbollah's private communication network . The confrontation put Lebanon on the brink of another civil war, until the Government blinked .
Marcelle was just a year old when the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) broke out . She's a Maronite christian .
" How has it affected you and your generation, growing up in wartimes ?" I asked her. " Well, I was not too affected because where my family lived, there was not very much fighting . Everybody tried to live as normal a life as possible, children went to school and grown-ups went to work ," she said matter-of-factly, " You know, my dad was working for the Coca Cola Company at that time , but the office's on the other side of the Green Line; he carried on working for as long as he could, but after his car was shelled and he was nearly kidnapped , he stopped . " " When you get together with your friends, do you ever talk about the war ?" " Not really, " she said, " We talk about things young people in other countries talk about, we're no different ." " But there must be kids who'd lost family members , or witnessed killing, were there any studies on how their psychology's affected ?" Marcelle laughed " You know, in the July 2006 War, several thousand people reported psychological distress, almost all of them foreigners living in Lebanon ! " then she became serious , " We deal with it, we don't make a big case out of it ; life goes on "
Not everybody thinks the same, there were massive emigration during and after both the Civil and July War, most of them Christians .
Though Marcelle was most emphatic in her assertion about religious and political tolerance in Lebanon, history says otherwise .
The origin of the Civil War can be partly traced back to Lebanon's colonial past . After World War 1 and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire , France gained control of Lebanon and Syria under the League of Nations mandate . Lebanon is a parliamentary republic, but France designed the Confessionalism system to guarantee political dominance of its Christian allies : the President has to be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni and the Speaker of the Parliament a Shi'a Muslim. The Parliament seats were divided according to a 6 to 5 Christian/Muslim ratio, but as the constitution gives the President power of veto over any legislation approved by Parliament , this virtually ensures the 6 : 5 ratio cannot be revised even if the population demographics changes .
After independence in 1943, Lebanon was quickly embroiled in the 1948 Arab- Israeli War . During the war 110,000 Palestinians fled to Lebanon, more than to any other Arab country . Lebanon was to feel the weight of the conflict in the Middle East more heavily than most other areas .
Lebanon had no conflict with Israel during the period 1949 - 1968 , and concentrated in developing the country, reaching the peak of its economic success in the mid- 1960's to become one of the banking and tourist capitals of Western Asia. Fashionable Beirut was dubbed " Paris of the Middle East " .
After the Six Day War in 1967 more Palestinian refugees poured in, and refugee camps soon became centers of guerrilla resistance. In 1970, Jordan drove Yasir Arafat's PLO into Lebanon in the Black September conflict, and the consequence of PLO presence in Lebanon continues to this day. By mid 1970's , Palestinians in Lebanon numbered more than 300,000 .
Since 1968 the PLO had used southern Lebanon as launching pad for attacks on Israel , and escalating Israeli retaliations inside Lebanese borders polarized Lebanese society on the Palestinian issue, deepening the divide between the Christian and Muslim communities . The Lebanese army was powerless in controlling the PLO, leading to the signing of the 1969 "Cairo Agreement " between Arafat and the Lebanese Government, granting PLO autonomy over Palestinian refugee camps, in effect the permission to operate a " state within a state " in southern Lebanon, in return for PLO recognition of Lebanese sovereignty .The agreement incited the Maronites and pro-Maronite paramilitary groups ( Phalangists ) were formed to counteract the PLO.
By this time Muslims already made up the majority of the population in Lebanon, and resentment against the constitutionally guaranteed Christian control of the Government boiled over. The National Movement was formed to force a change in the Government structure, and allied itself with the Palestinians against the Maronites , while the Phalangists, armed by Israel, joined the Lebanese army in opposing them. Political tension became military conflict and the slaughters began . Beirut was divided along the infamous Green Line, with Christian enclaves to the east and Muslims to the West .
The Civil War left 150,000 dead and 200,000 wounded, 900,000 people were displaced from their homes and 250,000 emigrated permanently.
In spite of the post-war rebuilding , busing around Beirut we saw many buildings were still pock-marked with bullet holes, and there was strong army presence in the streets, which is perhaps unsurprising as 1% of the population's in the army . Lebanon was in the run- up to a General Election in June, and big posters and banners featuring candidates from a myriad of political parties were everywhere. Marcelle said the Lebanese talk politics 24 hours a day, it's everyone's favorite topic . In a country that habitually kills off its Presidents, Prime Ministers, politicians , and recently journalists, usually by car bombs, I'm perplexed why anyone would still want to be involved !
" Why have you not emigrated ? " I asked Marcelle. She was young, educated, sophisticated and beautiful, a sure asset to any country." What is it about Lebanon that makes you want to stay ?" " My family's here, and to the Lebanese family is everything . And after all we've been through, it doesn't make sense to leave now that things are getting better ."
Family is in the center of MiddleEastern life, which naturally leads to my next concern . " What's the place of women in society ?" Hisham our Syrian guide was adamant that Syrian women enjoy full equality. A widower with 5 children, he recently got married again to a divorcee who used to run a boutique shop." Do you want your wife to stay at home, and cover her head when she goes out ?" I asked." No, she can do whatever she pleases, she's her own boss " and he's just as happy having a daughter as a son. Fadi our Jordanian guide,went further," It's true the Jordanian man'll always have the last word in any argument, " he declared, " but usually it's 'Yes, Ma'am !' ". He'd have no problem working for a woman boss, but admitted other men might not feel the same. Marcelle was less ebullient. Pressure on women comes not just from the Law but from Tradition. Young women are constantly scrutinised for conducts that might be construed to bring shame on the family. Being a non-Muslim she already enjoys more rights than her Muslim counter-parts, in particular in inheritance, but while there is free choice in courtship, pre-marital sex is a definite No No, and as a single woman she's expected to live with her parents. " But I'm 35 years old !" She sighed in exasperation . The reality is only in 2003 did the first Jordanian woman successfully filed for divorce , and at present there's no civil law to protect women in domestic violence in any of the 3 countries . But such is the paradox of the Middle East : we ran into a wedding in Syria, and I was astonished to find while the Muslim bride was posing for a group of male photographers in the hotel lobby, dressed in a low- cut western gown which exposed most of her bosom, her male and female guests were segregated and celebrating in seperate banquet halls upstairs !
The HK Museum group did some celebration of our own. Karina's birthday coincited with the " Dress-Up " party, a mandatory feature of each trip, and we arranged a dinner party at Al Khawali. The theme this time was "Arabian Night " , and for 2 days the ladies in our tour went on a frantic shopping spree, gathering thobes for their men, Jelabiyas, veils and jewellery for themselves. Inside each HK lady must lurk a fashion guru , because the final ensemble was spectacular ! Vogue , eat your heart out ! The evening went merrily, all the more so with the aid of Shisha, the Arabic water pipe. " This pipe tastes a little different from what I had in Egypt " I wondered aloud. The Headwaiter whispered in my ear " That's because in Egypt they put in a little hashish, " then he winked, " if you come with me to a secret room , we'd see what we can do "
Hisham and Fadi were both heavy smokers . I was alarmed when told 70% of Syrian man are smokers, and the legal age for smoking is 15 . Fadi explained as a Muslim he couldn't drink, so smoking was his only pleasure, and only vice. This would account for the Cardiovascular Centers , but not the multiple Fertility Clinics I saw. Both Syria and Jordan are weighted down by high population growth, burgeoned further by the huge influx of refugees . Of the 20 million Syrians in the country, 1 million are Paleastnians and 1.3 million are Iraqis ; and of the 5.8 million people in Jordan, 40% are Palestinians , and 1.5 million are Iraqis . Fadi was a Palestinian refugee himself, his family came to Jordan after the Arab- Israeli War some 60 years ago. I asked tentatively," If you can have any wish come true, what'd you wish to happen to resolve the Israeli- Palestinian conflict?" Fadi was indignant " The Peace-Talks are a farce ! I think these people just go into the room to have tea or watch a movie , then come out and pretend they had a meeting ! Why do we have to have 2 seperate States for Israelis and Palestinians ? Why can't Israelis and Palestinians both live in Israel ? Ethnicity is not nationality, and religion is not nationality ! A person does not need to be Chinese to live in HK, and a person does not need to be Buddhish to live in Thailand and still have citizenship ! You know why the conflict can never end ? It's because there're just too many people with vested interest who doesn't want it to end, the arms dealers, the US, the Saudis, the Egyptians.........." Fadi's the sanest person I've talked to to date .
This trip dispelled a lot of misconceptions I had about the Arabs of Syria and Jordan . Hisham and Fadi were both Sunni Muslims, and at the outset told us no question's out of bounds . Questions on al-Qaida and Telaban were inevitable, and both men were quick to condemn terrorist acts, which were un-Islam, drawing a clear line between their countrymen from the likes of Osama bin Laden.The population of Jordan is 92% Sunni Muslim and 6% Christian, but Islam is not the State religion : Jordan is a secular Arab country. Jordan has consistently followed a pro-Western foreign policy, and strives to maintain peace with neighbouring countries, including signing the Israei-Jordanian peace treaty in Oct 1994. The 3 simultaneous terrorist bombings at hotels in Amman in 2005 by the " al-Qaida in Iraq " were met with horror and outrage by Jordanians across the country, as much victums of terrorism as non-Arab countries.
I find Syria the most intriguing and interesting of the 3 countries. Syria traditionally has strong ties with Hamas, Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah and Iran, and after being accused of supporting the insurgency in Iraq, was branded a terrorist state by the US . The centrally controlled economy, compounded by US economic sanction, rendered Syria in deepening fiscal mire, which makes the huge poster of the new President Bashar al-Assad hanging outside the Aleppo souq, with big letters proclaiming :" I believe in Syria" that much more poignant. Yet the Syrians are among the warmest and most welcoming people I've ever met, humerous, cultured, they're the last people I would associate with terrorism. Salam Moilaikoi, Hisham told us the story of the two angels. Through our life, all of us carry an angel on each shoulder, one to record all our good deeds and one all the bad . On Judgement Day they would go forth and spread all we've done before God. Can a people who believe in angels go with the devil ? Except of course the devil was once upon a time an angel .
The last evening of the trip we had a Sunset Cocktail, held on the hotel balcony overlooking Petra . It was an occasion to thank the Commettee for organising the trip, and to celebrate Linda's birthday. It was a fitting end to a memorable trip. As Petra slowly disappeared into the night, we learnt that Linda just had a phone call from HK, she and Arthur were expecting another grandchild. So the edd and flow of human history goes on, sure as Petra will emerge again into the living world with the rising sun .