Beirut is a beautiful city nestled on the edge of the Mediterranean, yet the scars of past conflicts still adorn its walls. Throughout the city, development runs rampant with cranes dominating the skyline. The Lebanese are hard at work rebuilding their war torn country.
As the Syrian civil war continues to spin wildly out of control and bring more outside forces under its influence, the threat to Lebanon grows. When I visited Lebanon, I embarked on a harrowing road trip up into the mountains in the east, on the border with Syria. Driving inland we came to the area of Lebanon under the control of Hezbollah. Now, I must be clear, we weren’t searching for an exciting Hezbollah encounter but rather just ended up there on our search for the Temple of Baalbek.
It soon became quite clear that despite not looking for a Hezbollah encounter, we were going to have one. At this point, I decided it was best I stash my camera. As we drove through the Beqaa Valley we soon entered a region where along the sides of the road hung banners and giant posters of Hezbollah leader, Hassan Nasrallah. Driving on, we continued in our search for the ancient Roman temple at Baalbek, instead we came upon a growing rally. Nearing the town of Baalbek, we were stopped at a checkpoint. Army officers stood around their armoured vehicles with large automatic rifles in their hands. I pulled up to the checkpoint and rolled down my window. I exchanged pleasantries with a man in a yellow Hezbollah t-shirt through my broken Arabic. He filled two cups of tea and passed them through the window for my friend and I. Hezbollah tea.
We continued to drive on despite the growing crowds. All around the vehicle there were people peering in, curious as to why two foreigners were in the midst of the activity. We turned down a couple side streets and attempted to follow the GPS to the Temple. However, each way we turned we faced more obstacles. First we encountered more soldiers with more guns but after too many turns, the men holding guns were not wearing army uniforms. They were dressed in all black. So, deciding we were officially lost, I hopped out of the car and went to speak to one of the men in black. I told him that I was searching for the Temple of Baalbek, he told me I wouldn’t be getting there.
At this point, alarms started ringing a bit more loudly in my head. I have been in tricky situations before and I know the best thing to do is just keep a cool head. I thanked the Hezbollah soldiers and got back in my little Ford Fusion. At this point, I began checking the mirrors and noticed that all around us there were hundreds of people taking to the streets. Maybe thousands. Now, I’m smart enough to know that this area of Lebanon is not the safest. When foreigners are kidnapped in Lebanon, statistically, it happens in the Beqaa Valley.
Still unsure of why this gathering was taking place, we began weaving our way through small side streets, attempting to find a clear path out. There were none. Instead, we had to head back through the thick of things. We picked our way slowly through the masses of people, smiling and sipping our tea. The tea was our passport to belonging where we were. It included us in the events of the day, our shield to the uncertainty surrounding us. Men with guns waded through the crowds around us. We were now attracting a lot of attention as the size of the crowd continued to swell. A man banged on the window. We kept our eyes forward and drove on. Eventually, we began to emerge from the crowd. We sped up and regained our place on the open road. As we left Baalbek, the uncertainty of the situation dawned on us. Hearts pounding, we made our way back to the main road. On our way, we passed by Syrian refugee camps. All we saw was kids playing football in the mud, shelters made out of whatever could be found, and people sitting huddled around small fires. It looked miserable.
Once we arrived back in our Beirut apartment, I immediately went to check the news. On the front page of the New York Times was an article about a Hezbollah rally with leader Hassan Nasrallah in Baalbek, Lebanon. Now, the large crowd made sense.
As the months have passed, the conflict in Syria has only become more extreme. Both the Free Syria Army and the Syrian government have committed atrocities. Both sides have lost sight of the costs and what they hope to gain. More Syrian refugees pour into Lebanon every day. Now, Hezbollah is getting involved. They have joined their forces with those of embattled Syrian dictator, Basher al-Assad. Whether the Lebanese like it or not, Hezbollah is dragging them into another war. Clearly, it will take more than a cup of tea to keep Lebanon safe.