Couchsurfing in Beqaa
by MICHELLE MAY
12 Oct 2010 20:20
[ passport ] Lebanon may seem like an unlikely place to recover from a semi-traumatizing run-in with the Basij, but I was certain it could be a great spot to regroup if I played by certain rules: steering clear of all things Hezbollah, staying in a hotel in the popular Christian quarter, and avoiding political conversations with strangers at all costs.
My first few nights I stayed in Gemmayze, Beirut's popular Christian district. Aside from the Virgin Marys scattered all over the hotel, the neighborhood seemed to be the center of drunken debauchery more than anything else. From the hotel steps, I watched more than one car of women disrobe from their hejabs, revealing miniskirts and tight shirts, ready for a night on the town. The thumping club music and singing of drunken crowds often woke me at all hours of the night.
The stench of stale beer and fresh vomit on the steps of my hotel (compliments of my fellow travelers) finally got to me. It was too stark a difference from post-election Tehran. In hope of a more peaceful place, I went to the Couchsurfing website -- an online resource that matches travelers with places to stay in local homes.
I contacted a woman on the site named Leila. Her wild mane of hair, giant smile, hippie clothes, and words about yoga, dancing at the beach, and peace made me think that staying with her would be like a taste of California in Lebanon. She said she had a spare bedroom in south Beirut. It sounded perfect.
Leila wrote back right away, suggesting that we escape the city and go to her family's villa near the mountains. She told me to wait for her on the Corniche, a picturesque yet rough-around-the-edges promenade along the Mediterranean. From the Corniche vantage point, I could appreciate how bombed-out buildings riddled with bullet holes contrasted with Beirut's newer posh hotels and rooftop pool clubs. Good-looking, sculpted Beirutis jogged and worked out at exercise stations on the promenade. A plumper variety smoked hookahs while reclining on the jagged rocks, unfazed as waves occasionally sprayed them with foam.
Leila pulled up in a tiny white hatchback. She wore a purple dress, John Lennon sunglasses, and had a daisy in her hair. She was even more welcoming, warm, and pretty than her Couchsurfing profile suggested. We left the heat of the city behind and made our way up windy hills into the fog surrounding the Lebanon Mountains.
Although she could easily pass as 25, Leila is in her 40s, has a 16-year-old daughter, and recently left her husband. She changed the subject, asking what happened to me in Iran. I tried to give her the condensed version, but she pressed for details. I spoke of the Basijis' accusations that I was a spy and how I tried to jump out of their moving car.
Leila roared with laughter. I was not used to that sort of response to my story, but I thought it might do me good to learn to laugh at it too.
We exited the freeway and drove into a valley of brown fields that led to a small village made up of basic cinder block buildings and a giant mosque. Women wore more covering than in Beirut. Store signs in neon squiggly script and vendors selling street food reminded me of happier days in small town Iran. In a strange way, it was a quaint, familiar feeling and I was sure I would be able to relax there.
Flags of yellow with a green design that I could not quite read were hoisted on a flagpole. I saw a familiar face on a sign in the distance. As we drove closer, a large banner of a dour-looking old man with a white beard, furrowed brows, and gray lips looked down on us. I knew him from somewhere.
"Jesus Christ, why's the Ayatollah here?" I flinched.
Leila laughed. "Don't worry."
My mind raced backwards, remembering my self-imposed rule: Do not go south of Beirut or to the Beqaa Valley -- both Hezbollah strongholds. I was not quite sure where the Beqaa Valley was, but I was starting to think that this was it.
Then another familiar face. The current Supreme Leader. And then another character: less familiar but recognizable from the news, Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah.
"Leila, is this a Hezbollah village?"
"Yes, silly. But Hezbollah is different from what your news in America has told you."
"Yes, but you know I just had a traumatic..."
She interrupted. "Michelle, I am Hezbollah and so is my entire family. Relax. You're with us now. This is how you are going to heal from what happened in Iran. It's meant to be."
She gunned the car up a steep driveway and into a covered parking spot. In front of a large white house with faux roman columns, Leila's extended family picnicked. Their housekeeper, from Bangladesh, came out to help us with our bags.
Leila's parents shook my hand and welcomed me to Beqaa, as Leila picked up and peppered her nieces and nephews with kisses and tickles.
As she greeted the children, she spoke to her family in Arabic. The only thing I understood was the word "Iran." Her dad shook his head. His barrel chest rose and fell with his breath. He took a handkerchief to his brow and swept his white hair back from his forehead. Her mother, like Leila, giggled.
"My parents want you to promise them you will not go back to Iran again. They said it is very dangerous there." Leila smiled.
I had Leila ask her parents if they had ever been to Iran. They hadn't. Regardless of whether or not they were Hezbollah, it was just like having a conversation with my own parents. They wanted to compartmentalize the Islamic Republic into a neat category: all bad.
Leila's mother put lentils and salad on the table for us to eat, but Leila told her we needed to visit a few people in town before sunset. We went back by the mosque and the ayatollah signage, turned onto a side road made of dirt, and stopped at an entrance to a gated garden.
Leila's aunt welcomed us into her shaded courtyard lined with grapevines. Leila then informed me that her aunt rents rooms in her home to Hezbollah mullahs.
"I want you to talk to them so that you see they are very nice people."
She handed me a bag of cheese. "This is special cheese that you can only get at one shop in Beirut. I always bring them a gift, but this time you give it to them."
A man in a black robe and turban entered, nodded at me, and sat next to us as Leila's aunt poured us Coca-Cola. The mullah was younger than I thought he would be -- he looked no older than 35. I handed him the cheese, giving him a somewhat hesitant mashallah. He thanked me with the same hesitation.
Neighbors from across the street joined in. Apparently word traveled that Leila had brought another foreigner to town. I got the feeling that she took many Couchsurfers to this spot, maybe using the cheese as some sort of informal peace offering to start the Hezbollah conversation rolling.
Leila told a story in Arabic. The mullah's eyes became bigger and bigger as she continued. Her aunt put her hand on her chest, looked at me, cracked a smile, and burst out into laughter. Leila was telling the story of my final day in Tehran. Again.
The mullah had some questions for me. The same questions that my friends back in America had: Why would I want to go to Iran? Isn't it dangerous there? And could I actually walk around freely as a woman?
I was confused. Wouldn't this guy want to go to Iran if he hadn't been already? Leila let me know that Paris interests him as a travel destination, not the Islamic Republic.
I asked what the signs of the ayatollahs in the village were all about. Leila's aunt explained that Iran sponsors Hezbollah, like "Pepsi-Cola sponsors America," but just because they accept the donations does not mean that they necessarily like or want to be like their sponsor. I could not help but wonder if maybe they were saying this for my benefit. Then again, I am no fan of Coke or Pepsi either, and I don't like it when people assume I drink them for breakfast simply because I'm American.
Another one of the mullah boarders joined us. He spoke good English, so I asked him a few questions. I had heard that Hezbollah wanted to turn Lebanon into an Islamic state like Iran. He replied "Never," since Lebanon is half Christian and half Muslim. Islamic moral code would not be democratic, he reasoned, and they would lose all support from their Christian brothers and sisters if they tried.
A 20-something male neighbor chimed in, "We have joie de vivre in Lebanon. It is not in our blood to cover our women and prohibit music or dancing like they do in Iran." Just like the folks back home, these Hezbollah did not consider that Iranians might have a joie de vivre of their own.
Chatter in Arabic continued. Leila translated, "They want you to try the special Lebanese pizza." I had tried manouche in Beirut and was a huge fan. No one needed to twist my arm to eat more. "The ovens they use in this village make the best manouche you will ever taste," Leila insisted. "It's special Hezbollah pizza made just for Americans." She winked.
The non-English-speaking mullah returned a half hour later with the goods. It was the best pizza I had eaten in all of Lebanon -- the entire Middle East, for that matter.
On our way home, Leila and I stopped on a side street still within view of the ayatollah signs. It was a spot for teenagers to cruise on ATVs, in cars, and by foot, checking each other out and trying awkwardly to pick one another up. They were dressed in tight jeans, their hair stiff with gel, many blasting hip-hop from their stereos. It's where Leila met her now ex-husband nearly 30 years ago -- before the ayatollah banners were erected.
I couldn't ignore the Supreme Leader looking down on at this scene, just as he had looked down on us from murals in Iran. However, these kids neither recognized nor reacted to him, and were in no way hiding what they were doing. I thought of my American counterparts awkwardly cruising the shopping malls back home, and the more subtle pick-up spots of north Tehran. The kids in this Hezbollah village seemed to have it much easier than both.
Leila caught me smiling at the sight. "See, you are laughing again. I told you my village had the power to heal you."
Michelle May is writing a book about her travels in Iran and the Middle East. She blogs here.
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