Harissa, Lebanon. Image by author, J.Ponig

Layers of Lebanon, Part 1

When I first came to Lebanon in 2002 I wasn’t a naïve traveler but my assumptions about the Middle East were idealistic. I knew very little about Lebanon so my journey to this little Mediterranean country was one of discovery and exploration. I expected as much and this is why I came here, but little did I realize that there are layers to Lebanon’s history, cultural heritage, political alliances and religious factions, which are still nebulous to me today, fifteen years later.

For me, this means that there are many layers to my understanding of Lebanon. It would be easy to follow one straight line, adhere to one political voice or only befriend expats, but I am not the type of person to make life easy for myself or anyone else, especially my daughters. This is their country more than it is mine. Being Lebanese, they are a part of its many of layers.

It is one of my duties as a parent to give them opportunities to learn about their country’s heritage and history. Exploring and discovering Lebanon with my daughters, and seeing things from their unadulterated perspective is an incentive for me to learn about the country we live in.

J.Ponig in Baalbek, Lebanon. Pic taken by W.Taylor

The place to start our discovery is in the land, the physical territory — the cities and hinterlands, the sea and mountains, along the volatile border — which is akin to the body of Lebanon. Lebanon is 10,400 square kilometers. While its territory is small, it’s history is deep. The seaside city of Byblos is one of the oldest inhabited cities in the world. The modern cities of Baalbek, Tyre and Beirut have history on display in the form of Roman ruins. Most of Lebanon is standing on terra firma steeped in history. As high rises go up in the capital city construction crews excavating for building foundations find ancient ruins seven layers down.

The border of Lebanon merits a chapter in of itself, but I will summarize the conflict that has transpired along the border. Lebanon’s border with Syria has been a flash point and battle ground lately with Hezbollah and the Lebanese Army fighting ISIS in the north east. This fight has ended with an ISIS defeat.

Troubles along the southern border started in the 1970s, when the Palestinian Liberation Organization launched attacks against Israel from farmlands of a weak southern Lebanon. This led to the Israeli Defense Force allying with the Southern Lebanese Army militia in 1982, and occupying the south until 2000.

Many would argue that the southern border conflict started over 100 years ago over water resources. Laura Zittrain Eisenberg writes in My Enemy’s Enemy, that during the time of the Sykes Picot Agreement of 1916, “the Zionists launched a campaign to ensure the inclusion of the Litani’s vital water resources in Palestine.” The Litani river runs through Lebanon near its southern border.

Barbed Wire Border. Image by J.Ponig

I traveled the contours of the southern border in 2004, tracing the barbed wire fence into the fertile Beka’a Valley. The road was dusty and desolate, we hardly saw anyone except a man and his flock of goats, and a couple of blue UN Patrol Humvee. We were experiencing the calm before the storm that descended over Lebanon in the July War of 2006.

July War. Images by J.Ponig

In the last four paragraphs, (if you, the reader have read this far, thank you)you’ll notice that I fell into the western narrative of a turbulent Middle East existing in a constant state of war. This is what we see on the surface; this is what makes the news and what circulates around social media. While conflict is part of the narrative it isn’t the whole story. A wider and deeper picture emerges when we dig for truths. That’s why uncovering the layers of Lebanon is important.

There is no history course on Lebanon taught in any public or private schools. “The 1989 Taif Accord, which ended the 15-year Lebanese civil war, called for civic education to be uniform across the country to promote national unity. But the goal remains unrealized.” They’ll sing the Lebanese national anthem and have a parade on Independence Day, but my daughters will never learn about their country’s history and heritage unless I give them the opportunity to do so.

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