From Beirut to London in 100 Dishes

Another side of the Bekaa — Lebanon and Syria

IMG_4346Welcome to Arsal.  This is in a very different part of the Bekaa from where I used to go as a child.  There are none of the lush orchards or fields of wheat here.  Nothing to wax lyrical about.  Its desolate rocky landscape rises a little above the Bekaa just after Baalbek. I have no memories of this or other such places where people live harsh, uncompromising lives far from the glamour of Beirut. A young artist in Achrafieh, one of the most upmarket areas of Beirut, said he wouldn’t even begin to know how to communicate with people from such a place.  Not out of snobbery, either class or cultural.  Just he could see that there would be a blankness of incomprehension there — strange for such a tiny country.  It’s like saying someone in London would have nothing in common with anyone in Winchester or Brighton.  Maybe that was true not so long ago.  IMG_4447But if a place like Arsal has traditionally been a forgotten backwater in Lebanon, it now has a darker cloud above it for Beirutis.  The people in the picture above are not from Arsal at all — not even Lebanese.  They are Syrians from Homs and the towns in the Qalamoun mountains on the other side of the border.  They’ve been driven here by the worst of the war.  Arsal now shelters more refugees than anywhere else in Lebanon.  Stories from here frighten Lebanese from outside the town away.  They think they’ll be kidnapped.  Gun-toting jihadists maraud through the streets.  Assad’s warplanes fly low on bombing missions.  Gangs run the camps. Keep away, they say.  It’s dangerous — and who ever wanted to go to Arsal anyway…


 The dun-coloured hills and gullies that make up Arsal are now dotted with dozens of small refugee camps, each housing a hundred or so families.



The one on the right is an extension to what’s called the Martyr’s Camp.  The tents here are a little more spacious, the amenities a little more like home as a reward for families whose sons have been killed in the war against President Assad.


I think it’s a cliche, but what catches the attention here and makes an emotional connection possible with these upturned lives — as in pretty much all refugee camps — are the children


Here, three brothers and their sister pose in what is now their home.  As their parents and the other adults have had to accept, who knows when they will have another?  Or if they will ever see their own home again — left just a few months ago, often in ruins.IMG_4416

Not far away in the same row of tents, another couple of brothers sit with their sister.  The boy in the middle lost his leg when their house was hit by a shell.  He’s twenty-three.IMG_4425


I have to confess something.  I grew up in Lebanon with a very different idea of Syria and the Syrians.  At one point, they were our saviours — at another our destroyers, trying to turn the country into a police state where no-one was free to talk. There were the leather-jacketed thugs we knew were associated with the mukhabarat — secret police.  That was when the Syrians were running Lebanon after the war finally ended.  Damascus to me was a place where an innocuous sounding suburb, Mazeh, was a terrifying black hole where some of my relatives had been taken and vanished for good.  If you caught the attention of the secret police, you were sent to the prison there.  No trials, no case, no reasons given.  You didn’t return.

IMG_4429Growing up, I felt as if Syrians — ordinary Syrians like the father here expostulating half-humorously, half-raging against the world’s indifference — knew all this and just didn’t care.  That they were somehow complicit in what was going on, that they must approve of it.






Now, here they are in the main street in the martyrs’ camp in Arsal.  I grew up thinking we were the martyrs. IMG_4405We lived through the sudden checkpoints, the shells that shattered our windows and our homes, the kidnappings.  One moment, you might be taken for being a Syrian spy by the Israelis, then by the Syrians for being an Israeli spy.  And there was the humiliation of the Syrian army checkpoints when they controlled things in Lebanon.  ” Yalla, woulaa!” they’d say.  I suppose it translates as something like — Come on, move it, you idiot, you donkey.  You could express what it meant with a lot of English words.  They weren’t necessary in Arabic.  And the irony was that what we saw of this power that controlled us was something we as Beirutis looked down on — poor, illiterate, uneducated conscripts, scruffy and badly paid, ordering us about…


In a makeshift clinic in Arsal, it’s a very different image of Syrians for us Lebanese now.  Fighters from the Free Syrian Army who’ve made it over the mountains to here, nursing wounds that not being fatal mark them out as the fortunate ones.  They are the veterans of the battle in the Qalamoun mountains that Assad’s forces have won.  IMG_4340And how did they win?  With the help of the Lebanese — Hezbollah, to be more precise. One thing the Syrian conflict has that is very familiar to those of us who lived through the Lebanese civil war is an almost comforting complexity — layer upon layer of allegiances.  These fighters must think of Hezbollah as we used to think of the Syrian army.


And what are the children thinking?  I was the age of this girl when I was in the Bekaa at my grandmother’s house in her village, working out how to pass the seemingly endless time until we could get back to Beirut.  Now, those formless days of racing around through the farms and orchards, scrabbling for fruit and learning my grandmother’s recipes seem like a blessing.

IMG_9606What will she find here in this part of Lebanon, unwelcoming at the best of times — a hard smugglers’ town.  What will she have seen and lived through before she can take the road back to her own home on the other side of the mountain?



 { I just wanted to add a little note here.  I am writing this blog with my husband, who is a journalist.  I told him that I didn’t want to come across as if I had a bad feeling towards Syrians.  That I had met many since moving here to London — and I count many as friends.  But this is about the past — how I felt and what I knew when I was growing up in Lebanon.  From a psychological point of view,  it is perhaps interesting that I felt nervous about using the word “thug” in reference to the plainclothed Syrians who once enforced the will of Damascus in Beirut.  I must still deep down be scared.  What if they still came for me after all these years.  My husband said not to worry: if they were thugs, then call them thugs.  This is not a political blog.  It’s about cooking and reflections on my life in Lebanon and here in England — the influences that have affected me as a person and as a cook…}



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