Tuesday, January 31, 2006
When I tell people that I've lived in Damascus, the first thing they ask is if I was scared. I'm always happy to tell them that it's the safest place I've ever lived, and that I was never scared - except for this one time...
At the end of Ramadan, there is a three-day holiday called Eid. Everything shuts down so that people can celebrate the conclusion of the month of fasting. Since Jeremy had a few days off of school, we went to northern Lebanon to visit the ruins of Ba'albek. 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 I have been very anxious to visit.
We spent the night in Beirut at a friend's house and left semi-early the next morning for Ba'albek. We shared the taxi ride with an elderly Lebanese woman who was going to a small town 20km short of Ba'albek. After a stern lecture on the importance of not saying anything bad about Hezbollah while we were in the area, the taxi driver dropped her off in her village and then wound through the town to get back to the main highway, with we two Americans being the only remaining passengers.
First of all, it's always a little uncomfortable when I realize that I'm the only unveiled woman in town, on top of being the only foreigner. This only happened a couple of times - 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 of the country. But this town was definitely conservative.
So I was already feeling a little uncomfortable, or at least conspicuous (that's probably the better word for it). Then, you have to understand that, as mentioned above, this particular area of Lebanon has a heavy Hezbollah presence, as the posters, flags, banners, Dome-of-the-Rock miniature replicas, and colored, sloganed arches indicated. Although their days of kidnapping Americans appear to be over, Hezbollah's relationship with America is not a good one.
Lastly - and this is the part that scared me - every kid in town was playing with a toy gun in the street! What's more, these toy guns 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. It was extremely unsettling. I was sure at any moment that a kid would spot us and think it was fun to take a shot at the foreigners. And I'm not just saying that they'd do it because they're Arab - kids all around the world are known to do stupid things like that without thinking of the (potentially painful for me) consequences. We rolled up the car windows and tried not to make eye contact as they engaged in mini-guerilla-street-warfare. Again, I'm not saying anything pejorative about these particular children. American kids used to play games like that (think Cowboy and Indian) until it became politically incorrect and too "dangerous" to do so.
In retrospect, I wouldn't be surprised to find out that we are the only Americans who have ever been to that little village, and I don't think we'll ever go back. Somehow, we made it back to the highway unscathed, and continued to Ba'albek. It was an absolutely amazing place. The biggest columns in the world are there. To give you an idea of how big these columns were: to get the entire columns in the frame of a picture, we had to set the camera on its tripod so far away that the self-timer didn't give Jeremy enough time to make it over to be with me in the shot. That's what's going on in the picture above.
To finish the story, on the minibus back to Chtoura (where we could get a ride back to Damascus), we met some nice Lebanese guys who talked with Jeremy. He asked them about the children playing with toy guns and it turns out that it was just for the holiday, Eid. In other words, young children in that town don't usually play war games in the streets with pellet guns. They laughed at us when they realized that's what we had thought. And sure enough, when we got back home to Damascus, our landlady's son was doing the same thing with 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.