I’m not really sure where we’re going this morning, partly because it was late with arak in Hamra last night and my mind is fuzzy, partly because of the bewildering route from Jal el Dib out to the highway south, and the intense experience of traffic any journey in Beirut entails, which I’ll come to in another post, and in part because I don’t think anyone’s actually sure either. I do know we’re going to the South though, and D’s said that Jezzine is one of the few Christian areas there. At some point we talked about photographing here as a companion to the work I made in Maloula, Syria in 2008 and 2009.
Aziz, who’s from here and has brought us all down to see his father Maroun’s land, tells me about the Israeli occupation that lasted from the ’82 invasion until 2000 as we drive around Jezzine town, and up precipitous switchbacks and dirt tracks to the top of the hill above the valley. On the way back to Saida after sunset, he points out a hospital Hariri built which was stripped by the occupiers before they left, the distant hills to the south, and a village over a wadi, a mile to the north, from which Hezbollah fighters would mine the road under cover of darkness, targeting Israeli vehicles and those of the collaborating Southern Lebanese Army. We pass a Lebanese army checkpoint, abandoned Israeli lookouts on the tops above, and drive from what was until 2000, technically a country with which Lebanon is to this day in a state of war. You’d drive into a hangar below the road and switch vehicle plates before continuing your journey either way.
There’s a picnic afoot when we arrive to a pine forested hillside which is being developed as a camping and outdoor recreation centre by Maroun, complete with organic growing, horses and solar water heaters. It’s really good to be outdoors, away from the press of Beirut and the highway, and it’s relatively cool up here at 1200m. I decide to shoot with the Leica M3, partly as I’ve brought film, and fancy a rest from the slight accumulation anxiety of digital, and because it’s really easy to shoot too much with the 5dii, get distracted from just being here. We’re eating tabbouleh, hummus, mutabbal, meat and chicken on the barbecue; we’re drinking arak, measured 1:2 with water from an unmarked demijohn, and the company, view and pine fresh air make the shared meal even better.
I’ve left film in a bag in the car, so I borrow the key from Rea and walk down the track to get it, breaking into a downhill jog; I wish I’d known it would be like this to bring running gear. There’s someone behind a tree to the left, and they shift, it seems, to hide as I go past. I stop, get that this person is tied up, have a framed flash of an intriguing photo asking to be made, then field an Arabic request with my answer: I can’t understand, do you speak English? The scout, tied, parceled almost to the tree with thin jute cord, speaks over the tape that’s slipped from his mouth, ‘Mister, can you let me go?’ he asks. He’s a chubby boy of about 14, frightened and upset. I assume it’s some kind of fun scout game – there’s loads of them about, obviously enjoying themselves with a boisterous range of songs, games, rituals and activities – but he says no, he’s been punished by the leaders for shouting when one of them swore. I understand he’s genuinely done in, and he looks like the kind of kid who gets it all the time, so I decide to untie him. But first I ask him if I can take a photo. He says no, and I posture, half joking: maybe I won’t untie you then. He says ok, I take the best portrait of the last week then I get more and more indignant as I talk to him as I get to untangling the threads. Albert, Aziz and Karim have caught sight of a tree-bound scout, and, being former scouts themselves come down the track to revel in old-boys’ schadefreude; they see me loosing the poor, scared lad and laughingly ask me not to – he’s been punished, you don’t understand! I’m really pissed off now – the boy’s upset, he’s fucking crying, why would I leave him tied to a fucking tree! I let him go, consider showing him I’m deleting the photo, don’t, then watch as his two ‘leaders’, skinny slightly older boys with serious expressions and walkie-talkies come up the track and confront him about his escape. None of this I expected to happen.
Away from the scene and his dressing down, I begin to photograph scenes of the camp site, scratching the itch, feeling my way with compostitions, looking for form. I realise that digital is making me sloppy: shooting more, thinking less carefully. Surely one can fix up. I get a couple of rolls of Poundland 35mm from the car and D is walking back towards me, laughing. Apparently I shouldn’t have let him go, and now his swearing punishment – I misunderstood – will be worse. We joke about the neocolonialist white man rocking up with his arrogance, his ignorant, questionable intentions, intervening and making it worse for everyone. At least he’s learned not to ask the British guy for help again, I say. Metaphorical resonances abound, from T.E. Lawrence, Sykes-Picot, Balfour, to Al Qaida, Libya, Iraq and ISIS. Everyone else is highly amused: apparently my new name, the first of the day before I’m dubbed MI6 for lots of photos and hesitant answers later on, is UNIFIL.
We get back to the site from Aziz’s tour of the town, bustling in preparation for the beginning of Eid al Aadra, the Festival of the Vigin tomorrow, and the breathtaking views over the vineyard and the misty valley, and I sit and converse with Maroun; D suggested I should and he seems to be attendant of our talk outside his office. He’s got some funding support from a range of international donors, and is developing the pine forested land he bought some years ago along organic and socially responsible* lines. The aim is to bring more people and money to the area through tourism as a way of countering the complementary problems of depopulation and poor employment and educational opportunities for the young, who often leave for Beirut, or join the diaspora in Europe, Canada, Australia, the US. There’s no university here, and prospective students from Jazzine aren’t made welome at the university in Sunni majority Saida to the west. He also tells me about the local council’s powers to approve or prevent property sales to insulate the area from speculators, to control the legacies of the land here. The community will outbid offers to those who really need to sell to ensure a kind of homogenous continuity of ownership, apparently.
He shows me the polytunnel full of cucumber and a range of tomatoes, and I see for the first time fresh green chick peas and baby watermelon. He’s getting growing tips from one of Aziz’s Montreal friends, and I taste a few cherry toms and he gives me a stem of hummus to pick the green peas from. Beautiful. Maroun tells me it’s been a long day, and he’s been leading hiking tours round the woods for Saudi tourists since the morning. For the first time I notice evening fatigue behind his generosity and energy. I ask him to pose, shoot quickly, sloppy perhaps, and take my leave in the fading light, go to find them all packing the picnic away.
D tells me later that he’s said not to publish the photo of the bound kid as it’s not the kind of impression you want to give of the place. All her friends think it’s highly amusing that I intervened; I’m in the role of imperialist clown today. Maroun said too that he’d have done the same if he’d come across him, presumably not the prisoner photo part though, and he had a word with the ‘leaders’ about their discipline procedures: you don’t do that here.
Before we leave in the softening dusk, he asks after supplies of local pine nuts and honey, at the grocers opposite the park entrance, to send back with us. The suppliers are shut at this hour, and he says to D as they hug goodbye that he’ll send some after us. She tells him, no, don’t: that way people will return sooner. If you come to Lebanon, you should go there.