Jordan, Syria and Lebanon

03rd July 2009

It is my thirty fourth birthday today. I am conscious of the fact that by the time it was my age, Israel had already been in four wars. I have decided to celebrate by enjoying a cappuccino in a trendy coffee shop in Aleppo. The stereo is playing a soundtrack of Tibetan monks chanting to a subtle backbeat. I am aging like a fine wine.

I have put my shoulder to the wheel on the automotive front and have just replaced the oil and all of the filters in the car without injuring myself. For someone as cack-handed as me that is no small achievement.

This blog entry will cover Syria, Jordan and Lebanon. My companion for this leg of the trip was Bojan, a Serbian hypochondriac, computer wizz and amateur rally driver. Bojan is a post-graduate student at McGill University and has a remarkably wide range of interests. I thoroughly enjoyed having conversations on more than the three default traveller topics: Obama, climate change and criticism of the Lonely Planet books.

I would like to thank people for their kind words about the blog and photos and to apologize for picking on the Lybians.

Some Numbers
11 - number of days in Jordan
5 - number of days in Lebanon
16 - number of days in Syria
46 - degrees in Syria. Highest temperature yet. Overpowering smell of melting rubber and cheap aftershave everywhere. Sightseeing was out, hiding in air-conditioned hotel rooms was in.
20 - kilometres driven with the handbrake applied. I only stopped when smoke started filling the car.

I am finally leaving the Arab world. It has been exceptionally rewarding. The Arabs offer unrivalled hospitality, great food and a fascinating history. The lack of alcohol has been a struggle but is probably good for me.

One gripe – littering. People just throw rubbish anywhere and there are fields of plastic bags outside most cities. I was amazed that I had to prevent my Touareg guide in the Sahara from throwing plastic bottles out of the window of the car. “The crows will eat them”, says he. What? When I first arrived, I would pick up cans or bottles I found in the street and put them in a bin with a smug look on my face. Now I just chuck stuff in the street like everyone else.

Harry's guide to the Arab World:

The Syrians are the Spaniards of the Arab world. An ancient people fond of knives and poetry, their charm and remarkable social grace is at odds with their reputation for political intolerance and superlative police brutality.

Although nominally a democracy, the country has been run for decades by an authoritarian clique in camouflage fatigues who keep a razor-sharp scimitar pressed against the jugular of modernisation. No-one is willing to discuss politics due to the omnipresent secret police, and citizens are expected to perform regular patriotic betrayals of their friends.

Syrians feel that Israelis should all be put in boxes and bulldozed into the sea. They are concerned about America's insidious influence over the world, but need only look at their own history for evidence that all previous empires have fallen and are now without pots to piss in.

There have been no famous Syrians since Saladin.

The Tunisians are the Greeks of the Arab world. They were big news in ancient times and now compensate for their political insignificance by constantly reminding everyone that they had a great civilisation while their neighbours were still living in caves. They discreetly gloss over an ignominious history of child sacrifice.

With an agreeable combination of endless sunshine, attractive girls and good food, life here would be paradise but for the fact that the economy depends on tourism. The locals shake their heads in good-natured disbelief every summer as a horde of slack-trousered illiterates arrive to drink, fight, get sunburnt and set records for sexual incontinence.

Notable Tunisians include the famous military underachiever and elephant jockey Hannibal and the historian Bin Kaldoun, who came up with a number of concepts that were way ahead of his time, like the fact that history is cyclical.

Liked and trusted by everyone, the Tunisians are often asked to host Arab summits on how best to bulldoze the Jews into the sea.

The Libyans are the Russians of the Arab world. The women are delicate and well-dressed, while the men are filthy, larcenous savages with three days’ stubble. Crowded onto the edges of their vast country like moss on a menhir, they are cordially despised by their neighbours, in whose political affairs they continually meddle.

Organ grinder to this nation of shuffling simpletons is a homicidal midget who looks like a Barbary ape in fancy dress. He is the only Libyan anyone has ever heard of.

Libyans know that they are secretly ridiculed by their less well-armed neighbours and nurse a chip on their shoulders the size of Greenland. They were taught to read and given elementary toilet-training by the Italians and now feel that they should be running the show in North Africa.

Their economy rests on the three pillars of oil, goats cheese and spousal abuse. Through a geological accident they are sitting on abundant natural resources, without which they would still be herding camels across their blasted, post-apocalyptic landscape and picking fleas out of each others' matted back-hair.

The Egyptians are the Italians of the Arab world. They lead the world in marital infidelity and the use of hair oil. Laughably unsuccessful on the battlefield, they are still bragging about the conquest of their Nubian neighbours in the second millenium BC.

A happy and boisterous people, they remain cheerful in the face of endemic inefficiency and corruption, and accept that criticising those in power invites a short lifetime of unnecessary surgical procedures in a government detention centre.

Egypt is known for making the world's most absorbent towels out of Egyptian cotton, which gives the country its name. Fated by their geographical location and the yoke of history to be the fulcrum of events in the region, they would love to bulldoze the Jews into the sea but the Americans pay them not to say so.

The Jordanians are the Swiss of the Arab world. Meticulously clean, polite and hard working, they are constantly criticised for not participating in local wars by neighbours envious of their standard of living. The only violent deaths in the country are fatal accidents from celebratory gunfire at weddings.

The country was invented by Churchill on a Tuesday evening in 1921 after losing a bet in Whites. Jordanians look down their noses at other Arabs whom they regard as an unruly bunch of degenerates and are usually asked to arbitrate disputes in the region because of their good hotels and incorruptibility.

The Lebanese are the Irish of the Arab World. The only people still there are those too poor to go to America. Their hobbies include civil war and jumping up and down to Ricky Martin in nightclubs full of people wearing sunglasses. The country is a total disaster but all the other Arabs are jealous of the fact that they still seem to be having a better time than anyone else. They have never ruled anything, not even Lebanon, but don't seem to care.

Largely controlled by their bigger neighbour to the East, the political system consists of arm-waving operatics on television before elections and mass murder after them. They are famous for their heavy drinking and good humour, but can go from back-slapping jollity to shooting each other in ten seconds flat.

God has cursed them with the most combative neighbours on earth, all of whom have agreed to fight their wars by proxy on Lebanese soil. They agree on the need to bulldoze the Jews into the sea but also wish that everyone would just get the hell out of their country.

Their most famous literary figure is Kahlil Gibran, a deeply spiritual and humane writer whose philosophy they are less in tune with than any other country on earth.

The Algerians are the Welsh of the Arab world. Mainly known for sheep and goat-related activities, they inhabit a beautiful wild country that nobody ever visits and is known for its wide open sky, lousy cooking and blood feuds.

Numerous and fleet of foot, the Algerians win gold in the 5000m at every Olympics and spill across their borders in all directions.

The Algerian contribution to world cuisine is olive soup and to popular culture is the song Aisha by Khaled. Algerians have never heard of Israel.

Best Moments:
  • Driving round Wadi Rum for 2 days. The scenery in Wadi Rum is as beautiful as any that I saw in the Sahara and I would strongly recommend a visit as an introduction to desert travel. The key difference is that there are so many visitors that you never have that feeling of total isolation that you get in the deserts of North Africa.

  • Walking round candle-lit Petra at night.

  • Swimming in the Dead Sea with Ed.

  • Top notch massage from an 80 year-old in the Hammam an Nahaseen in Aleppo.

  • Throwing snowballs at Bcharre in the Lebanese mountains.

  • Visiting Chouf Cedar Reserve.

  • Seeing the sunset over Palmyra from Qala'at Ibn Maan.

  • Staying at the monastery at Mar Musa.

  • Visiting the Beiteddine Palace.

  • A day at the Riviera beach club. Rich kids with gold medallions spraying champagne over pneumatic gold diggers in bikinis. Auri sacra fames.

  • Visiting Baalbeck. My favourite of all the Roman ruins in the Mediteraenean.

  • Wandering round the ancient souk in Aleppo.

  • Swimming in the river with local kids in Hama.

  • Riding the telepherique in Jounieh, known by the locals as the ‘terrorifique’. The views from the top are incredible and you get to look straight into people’s homes as you pass between apartment blocks

  • Krak des Chevaliers. I am not a fan of crusader castles, with their blocky, functional architecture, but this one is phenomenal. Wandering around the dungeons with a torch and looking out from the top of the battlements was amazing.

  • Windsurfing in Aqaba.

  • Watching a Beduin kill, skin and gut a goat. An interesting experience – it is worth being reminded every now and again of the reality that animals are killed to feed you, otherwise you risk becoming one of those vegetarians who can only eat fish if the head is cut off.

  • Visiting Qneitra. This Syrian town was overrun during the Six Day war by the advancing Israelis, who destroyed it utterly. It is now used by the Syrians as a propaganda exhibit.

    Worst moments
  • Interrupting a suicide attempt in Petra. I tried to get into the dormitory and found the door barricaded. “Erm, this a dormitory, dear boy. A sharing arrangement don't you know. Perhaps you might open the door.” “No”, comes the muffled reply. No? After helping the police kick in the door, which I have to admit was highly enjoyable, we found he had taken a load of booze and sleeping pills. A healthy 24 year-old Norwegian, and all because he had run out of money. Sad story.
  • Visiting Shatila refugee camp in Lebanon. I am not the sentimental type, but I lost a chunk of my innocence forever in that camp.
  • Hearing daily news of the worsening situation in Iran. Bad news for me and worse news for the poor unfortunates trying to change things over there. It's an ill wind.
  • An Israeli I met told me the following joke. Technically it’s not a bad joke, but it illustrates a thoroughly sinister mindset. Question: “Why are there no Arabs in Star Trek?” Answer: “Because it’s set in the future”.
  • My ‘most played’ list in iTunes charts a worrying decline in musical taste. Apparently, I listen to nothing but Rage against the Machine, Tarkan and Foreigner. I have been away from civilisation too long.

  • Imagine a dog turd on a slab of black volcanic rock frying in the blistering sun out in the desert, a thousand miles from civilisation. The turd is squashed flat and has a bootprint on it. It is God’s bootprint.

    I was that dog turd for 5 hours at the border post in Aqaba as I waited for my carnet to be stamped. Running the show like a demonic Laurel and Hardy were a hatchet-faced, elongated ghoul and his fat halfwit of a boss. I sat for hour after hour in the cold fluorescence of the halfwit’s office, practically sobbing with boredom, forbidden from even going for walk due to ‘sechority’.

    The ghoul was three inches taller than me and had a habit of clamping an arm around my shoulders and whispering garlic-breathed reassurances from a distance close enough for me to check the cleanliness of his nostrils. Personal space doesn’t exist here, even as a concept, but I had to fight back the temptation to punch him. Finally they located the sechority guy, who had been taking a nap. He arrived and stamped my carnet using the stamp that had sat on the desk in front of me throughout the 5 hours. A new record for border irritation.

    Culinary High and Lowlights
  • Lambs testicles in Homs. Revolting. I tried them as a joke. The joke was on me.
  • Semolina ice cream in Damascus.
  • Chicken porridge, Aleppo. Much better than it sounds.
  • Sweets in Triploli. Every possible combination of nuts, pastry and honey. I heard that Lebanese expats get these shipped to America. Now I know why.
  • Mouhamara in Aleppo. A traditional dip of pomegranate molasses, walnuts, toasted breadcrumbs, olive oil and roasted peppers. Made a nice change from Hummus.
  • Macdonalds ice cream in Beirut. I hate to admit it, but it was bloody good. I flayed myself with barbed wire in contrition.
  • Raw meat kebab in Beirut. Not bad. Once was enough.
  • Gazpacho in a trendy French restaurant in Gemaize. Much as I like falafel and chicken shwarma, western food occasionally hits the spot.
  • The best Baba Ganough of my life, Aqaba.
  • Hamwi Bursa in Hama – pureed aubergine topped with beef, tomato sauce and chopped pistachios. Fabulous.
  • Kuneffe, everywhere. Superb Palestinian desert made out of baked cheese topped off with honey and fried vermicelli. Served hot out of the oven.
  • Turkish coffee. I had never been a fan of this style of coffee, with its thick layer of sludge at the bottom, but I am getting into it. A month in Turkey should complete the job.
  • Kebab with stewed cherries, Aleppo.
  • Locally grown fruit and vegetables are delicious, which reminded me of one of my pet peeves. In Europe our supermarkets are only focused on producing fruit and vegetables that look perfect and don’t go off. They taste like total crap. Tomatoes in Britain are a case in point – beautifully round and ruby red but taste of nothing.

    Which brings me onto genetic tampering with our food. There is no need to cross a cabbage with a Siberian halibut to make it more resistant to cold - nature did a fine job designing the thing. The food industry claims that there is a ‘knowledge gap’ – in other words, the poor public just needs to be educated and they’ll all get on board. As has been pointed out by perceptive commentators, this is bullshit. There is in fact a ‘trust gap’ - we don’t believe that the industry is giving us correct and impartial information or that they have our best interests at heart. This is because we know that they are a bunch of lying, self-serving bastards. Let it be known.

    The friendliest people I have ever come across, bar none. You can’t ask someone for directions without him inviting you home for a cup of coffee.

    If you visit Syria, I strongly recommend that you visit Mar Musa, a monastery in the middle of nowhere between Damascus and Hama. This ancient place of worship has been restored by the gloriously eccentric and charming Father Paolo, who still lives there. Accommodation and food are free, and the silence and stunning location make it the perfect spot to totally unwind. I met an American there who had been at Eton and is now studying Arabic at Yale. He was spending a month in one of the hermit caves dotted around the mountain, reading Gibbon’s Decline and Fall and pondering career options. Amazingly, he feels that his best plan is to join the Marines, where he will no doubt put his studies to good use translating the screams of detainees in secret interrogation centres.

    I had lots of contact with Syrians - dinner at a doctor’s house and countless coffees with locals. In Damascus we went out for drinks with Lubna, a delightful friend of a friend of Bojan’s. A trendy, well-educated, non-political Christian with Diesel jeans and a Facebook account, she didn’t exactly conform to the western image of a Syrian.

    My time in Jordan was a holiday from the rest of my trip. A friend from London has married one of the royal princesses and happened to be in Amman for a wedding at the same time. I spent several days as a guest of the charmıng royal family, being taken round the sights by military escort and enjoying the luxury of room service and hot showers.

    My stay reminded me that I'm a simple man - all I need is air conditioning, a silk dressing gown, decent WiFi, satellite TV and a butler.

    The country has two big tourist draws, Wadi Rum and Petra, both in the far south of the country. Petra brought me back into contact with package tourists, who I watched with my usual self-indulgent mixture of pity and contempt.

    It is well worth the gruelling walk up to the High Place of Sacrifice for the panoramic views of the site. Although less famous than the Treasury, I found the Monastery to be the most impressive of the surviving structures. One thing I hadn’t known is that human sacrifice was a part of Nabatean religious life. An inscription found some distance from Petra states “Abd Wadd, priest of Wadd, has consecrated the young man Salim to be immolated to Dhu Gabat. Their double happiness!” Ah, the innocence of past epochs.

    Amman lacks the extravagant history of Damascus or the top-drawer nightlife of Beirut and is thus ignored by most travellers. I liked it. It is a buzzy place with an appealing hilly topography and a friendly, industrious population.

    I had not intended to visit the country because of their blanket ban on diesel vehicles but I came up with the idea of leaving Syria with the car, ditching it in the no-man’s land between the two border posts and entering Lebanon as a foot passenger. A couple of back-handers to border guards and the problem was solved.

    Warning: Beirut is not cheap. We stayed in a hotel room that was the most expensive of the trip so far and yet was dirty and infested with bed bugs. Motley Crue kept a better hotel room.

    Lebanon was one of the most pleasant surprises of the trip so far. I had expected a flat desert landscape like eastern Syria and was amazed by what I found. It is a picture of surpassing beauty, blessed with clear, gloriously blue skies, stunning landscapes and a mild climate. The country is made up of parallel mountain ranges that roll like two gigantic waves down to the Mediterranean. A fertile flat-bottomed valley with alternating wheat fields, orchards and vineyards is spread like a patchwork quilt between the two.

    Driving over the coastal mountain range is wonderfully scenic. On one side you can see the open valley criss-crossed by tiny twisting rivers and on the other the towering skyscrapers, apartment blocks and luxury hotels of Beirut. From here you are blind to the seething current of political alliances, feuds, pacts and enmities that run below the surface.

    I hadn’t realised how much I missed greenery. After five months in desert countries, the sight of trees was a tonic. The mountains are covered with cedar and pine forests that are still home to wolves, wild boar and antelopes. Purple Lupin grows in the open spaces between the trees, an impressionistic smear of colour that seems to float above the ground like a lilac mist.

    The downside of this wonderful country is the disastrous political situation, which derives from a population deeply divided along religious and political lines. We went out for a drink with Amir, a young doctor. He intends to leave as soon as he finishes his studies: “I hate everything about Lebanon”, he said. “Corruption is in the soil here. We drink it in the water”.

    We were there just after the election when the coalitions were being put together. News programmes were full of politicians greeting each other with sickening false bonhomie, shaking hands and kissing rivals who they wouldn’t normally spit on if they were on fire. No doubt they will be murdering each other again shortly.

    Middle Eastern Politics
    I have been mulling over whether I should comment on this monumentally complex hot potato given my paper-thin knowledge of the situation. Well it’s my blog so I’m going to, but with full disclaimers.

    Without getting involved in the history, it is worth pointing out that many of the current problems in the Middle East relate to the breakup of the Ottoman Empire and the imperial ambitions of France and Britain. We share the blame.

    I have considerable sympathy with the Israelis insofar as they are surrounded by countries that would eradicate them utterly if they could. Nevertheless, their recent attacks on Gaza struck me as indefensible. I see no chance of peace for Israel unless a viable two-state solution is found. Who shot first is largely a matter of timeframe and calling the Palestinians terrorists is an irrelevance, especially now that Hamas can claim democratic legitimacy.

    A solution will only be possible when public opinion changes sufficiently for moderates to be elected in both Gaza and Israel, which is currently the case in neither. In turn, this will not happen unless the violence can be interrupted for long enough to allow bitter memories to fade and blood pressure to fall.

    Since Israel has the whip hand, the onus has to be on them to break the cycle of tit-for-tat violence before the last battered and atrophic vestige of human decency in the region disappears. Despite their immensely superior firepower, they will never be able impose their will on an urban population in Gaza. If they try to take out the ‘bad guys’, they will continue to cause huge civilian casualties, which will further isolate them internationally and create another generation of embittered Palestinians.

    A mediator needs be found to replace the thoroughly discredited Americans. It is hardly surprising that the Arabs hate the US, given that American money, weapons and complicity are all requirements for Israeli military campaigns.

    A solution acceptable to both sides will require a great deal of compromise, which some elements will refuse to accept. My feeling is that the best solution is to marginalise them through economic prosperity. The key is providing alternatives to young people who currently have no economic prospects whatsoever.

    Such is the power of this blog that after my withering attack on Gordon Brown, he is now on the verge of resignation. I will draw up a list of other targets.

    Next up is Turkey for a month. I am looking forward to participating in more traditional backpacking activities like lying in a beach bar hammock and putting myself on the outside of a few beers. It might be gilding the lily, but it would be nice if they could also set up a big screen outside so that I can watch the third Lions test.