Following is the penultimate excerpt that I will post from my book Coffee with Hezbollah prior to publication by New World Digital, Inc. on February 1, 2010. The book chronicles the post-July War hitchhiking trip that photographer Amelia Opalinska and I conducted in Lebanon in 2006. The first three excerpts can be read here, here, and here; the book’s promotional video—courtesy of Amelia, with music by Marcel Khalifé—can be viewed here.
The publishers have agreed to donate 1 dollar for every book purchased to SOIL, an NGO in Haiti which prior to the earthquake dedicated itself to such projects as installing composting toilets. Read SOIL’s mission statement here for an explanation of how these projects combat the environmental and economic degradation to which Haiti has continuously been subjected.
To view Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times video about SOIL’s pre-quake activities, click here; for examples of the group’s post-quake commitments—and analyses of the current situation in Haiti—read posts by SOIL’s Sasha Kramer here and here.
For additional information about Coffee with Hezbollah or to PRE-ORDER the book, please visit: http://belenfernandez-writings.blogspot.com/.
Belén Fernández (email@example.com)
Location: Beirut-Damascus highway.
Context: Hitchhiking from Beirut to Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley, Amelia and I are picked up by a man named Mansour who is quickly dubbed “Monsoon.” We meanwhile introduce ourselves as Maria and Maria to simplify matters, unaware that we will end up spending a great deal of time in the company of Monsoon, who is on his way to visit a hospitalized relative in the town of Zahlé and offers to drop us off in Baalbek afterwards.
We arrived to Zahlé to find that we recognized more of Lebanon than previously thought and that Zahlé was the location of the Ksara winery. Monsoon visited his relative, and Amelia and I waited under the hospital awning with the bottle of arak, watching as an elderly female pedestrian panicked at being caught in the rain and tried to launch herself into a passing car. She was ultimately unsuccessful, but Amelia and I applauded the attempt at autostop.
When Monsoon had finished his visit he offered to drop us off in Baalbek in the rain, pointing out, however, that we had just made him reverse the car into the ambulance space so that we would not get wet. We permitted Monsoon to revise the schedule, and he drove us to Musa Castle near the town of Deir al Qamar in the Chouf Mountains.
Deir al Qamar had been the capital of Mount Lebanon under 17th-century Druze emir Fakhreddine II. Musa Castle was from a later historical period and was named for the man who had single-handedly built it out of stone, having felt compelled to do so after:
- his elementary school teacher had beaten him for drawing a picture of a castle during class when he had been told to draw a tree.
- a girl had rejected him for socioeconomic inadequacy.
The interior of the castle was composed of life-sized dolls, also crafted by Musa and engaged in traditional Lebanese pastimes such as making bread, being hit by enraged teachers, and staging the Last Supper.
From Musa Castle we proceeded to Beiteddine palace, summer presidential retreat and site of music festivals, where Monsoon declared that the only life-sized doll was Lebanese President Emile Lahoud. After touring the palace hamam, Monsoon invited us to stay in Sofar that night; we agreed, and Amelia practiced responding to the name Maria.
Back in the car, Amelia and I asked Monsoon if he knew any Druze. When he replied that he was Druze, we formulated the following questions:
- Why has the radio been tuned for the past several hours to a woman passionately reading excerpts from the Bible in English?
- Why is nothing hanging from your rearview mirror?
Monsoon invoked the principle of taqiyya, according to which Muslims of certain sects were permitted to conceal their religion under threat of persecution, and pointed out that there was a five-colored star hanging from the radio knob. Amelia and I began to understand some of the obstacles facing a faith-based Lebanese census, and requested the secrets of the Druze religion.
Monsoon informed us that the secrets were not available to all of the faithful and that the Druze were officially divided into the Knowing and the Stupid; after failing to establish a clear link between the five-colored star and the Greek mathematician Pythagoras, he admitted to being part of the latter group. Progressive Socialist Party leader Walid Jumblatt was also a Stupid; Monsoon’s aunt was not, and wore a white veil.
Amelia and I were bequeathed the first floor of Monsoon’s house in Sofar, as there were neither Saudi families on holiday nor Shia refugees from south Lebanon at this time of year. Monsoon’s family lived on the second floor of the house; the dogs lived on the third. We arranged our bags and went upstairs, where a number of Monsoon’s cousins (all Stupids) had dropped by to be fed and to see why there were two Marias.
That evening we went to the billiard hall Monsoon had opened on the side of the Beirut-Damascus highway, which consisted of one billiard table and a poster of a Lebanese pop star. While the cousins took turns playing pool, Monsoon set up plastic chairs, Ksara wine, and cashews for Amelia and me, and offered the following tips on national sovereignty:
- Hassan Nasrallah was going to the street in 12 days.
- Hezbollah guerrillas survived off of cashews.
- Monsoon had also survived off of cashews for a year in Germany, although he had absorbed different ancient wisdom from them.
Monsoon had traveled to Frankfurt from Prague in 1996 with the help of the Thai mafia. We did not cover how he got to Prague, or why the mafia was Thai; we did cover that the purpose of being in Frankfurt was to purchase a passport from an Arab living in Holland in order to travel to Canada.
In Frankfurt Monsoon had lived in a house with a group of drug traffickers, who trafficked drugs while he waited for his passport. When not waiting for his passport, Monsoon fended off requests by Al Qaeda to use his checking account:
MONSOON: I am not Swiss bank.
Amelia and I pressed for additional details:
US: What will Hassan Nasrallah do on the street?
We were forced to fine-tune our investigation when Monsoon replied that Dutch passports of the 1990s had been technologically inferior and could be adjusted with a stapler. Amelia and I asked how it was, then, that Monsoon had ended up in the hands of German airport security, and arrived at the crux of the matter:
MONSOON: I cannot tell police I am from Lebanon because then they will send me direct the Lebanon. So I tell them I am from Iraq.
Monsoon ignored our next question, and proclaimed that no nation could alter the path of the soul as it wove through time, which he had read on druzenet.org. (I was already accustomed to unpredictable flows of information, as my father had started painting portraits of Yasser Arafat.)
 International term for “hitchhiking.”