This blog is not an official US Department of State website. The views and information presented are of the author as a private citizen and do not represent the Fulbright Program or the US Department of State.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

A Day In The South

Some lovely new friends took Nicole and I to the south. We had been to Saida and Tyre numerous times and had even made our way to the village of Qana (where many believe Jesus performed his first miracle at the wedding feast, also the site of two infamous Israeli attacks, one in the '90s and one in the '00s) back in October, but this was the only foray on much less-traveled paths of the south. Nouhad, an AUB student who works with the literacy program I've been observing all year, and her auntie Nissrine took a day to show us around--thanks for the hospitality guys and for showing us things we would not have otherwise experienced.

The day's highlight was the beautiful church in Maghdousheh, not far from Saida. Because village life feels so different, it seemed like worlds away. Many believe the cave here is where Mary used to wait for Jesus who frequently visited these parts early in his life, some say to preach, some say to fish. Probably both. Jewish women could not enter into Canaanite cities so Mary stayed in Maghdousheh, now known as Our Lady of Mantara, or Our Lady of Waiting. Pilgrims visit the site to pray, both Christians and Muslims (who have a deep devotion for "Mariam"), but this is nothing like going to Our Lady of Lebanon in Harissa, where you'll often find tour buses and the like. But actually, it feels like an even more sacred place, likely due to Jesus and Mary actually having walked the hills.

Like Harissa, a large statue of Mary looms over the whole complex here. You can climb the tall tower (it's like being in a lighthouse) to her statue and see great views of the villages of the southern valleys and even Saida, with the sea in the background. In the tower are images of Mary from around the globe (Guadalupe, Lourdes, and so forth) and a chapel on the ground floor. The four of us also entered the holy grotto, where a handful of people were praying. Inside the cave are small shrines with candles and statues and pilgrims often leave photos or personal items of people for whom they are praying. Just like San Xavier and the other Spanish missions in the Sonoroan desert.

The church itself is Greek-Melkite and, while the outside does not appear to be very special, the inside is amazing, full of stained-glass windows that narrate much of the Old and New Testaments. Nouhad told us which stories are also in the Quran (Noah, Moses, Cain and Abel, the tower of Babel, etc.) and, well, we were pretty much in awe of how different the place is. The icons indicate the Greek influence, but the stained-glass work really sets Our Lady of Mantara apart from other historically significant Christian places we've seen in the Middle East.

We left and ended up taking a few wrong turns and then got caught behind a funeral procession. It appeared that every man in the village was walking, slowly, and of course it's improper to pass the procession. Nouhad explained that the women would probably all go to the cemetery after the burial. A herd of goats also slowed us down at one point. So we were hungry enough to stop at the first site of a saj. I love typing that sentence. I enjoyed a tasty jibnee wa soujouk (a slightly spicy sausage of sorts that's very popular at Armenian restaurants) and, thanks to Nouhad's translations, got some saj tips from the old couple running the stand.

We next visited Mleeta, the newly opened "landmark about the resistance." This has gotten some attention in its eleven-month history as being the beginning of "Hezbollah World," an attempt at "Jihadi tourism." What to say about Mleeta? It's complicated, like any war memorial is. Mleeta is a remote mountain area that the Israeli army occupied for eighteen years. It was a place that saw fierce fighting, and deaths on both sides. The landmark is in part a memorial to those Lebanese--they call themselves the resistance because they believe they are resisting they claim was an illegal occupation--who died here. Yes, they consider themselves to be holy martyrs. One of the buildings at the landmark houses Israeli weapons and supplies that were found in the area after the war. One display ("The Abyss") is a huge, outdoor pit with Israeli tanks caught in what look like webs. You can also walk through the underground bunkers dug during the war where soldiers lived, hid, prayed, ate, and strategized.

I hate war and can't say that seeing these memorials and displays was fun, but it is a site that is extremely educational if you want to try to understand a group's point-of-view. It's sad to see reminders of death. It's sad to see displays that illustrate how long this war (it's ongoing...things are peaceful right now, thank God, but I think it's accurate to say that both sides consider themselves in a state of war) has gone on. It's sad to see a land so beautiful and know it's been the site of so much fighting. And, to American readers especially, whether you agree with the cause, whatever you think of the state of Israel or the actions of Israel, it's interesting to learn why many people in south Lebanon feel the way they do. It appears that they feel that no outside force should occupy their land, many feel it's a "holy" cause, and some feel it's a cause worth dying for.

On to less intense things. Well, slightly less intense. Nouhad wanted to take us to Bint Jbeil also. Bint Jbeil is a small village where many of her friends and relatives live and where many Dearborn residents come from. So this was an exciting opportunity. We got close, we were almost there, and then, a checkpoint. A pretty common thing in Lebanon and normally you get waved right through. We got waved to the side of the road and asked for our papers. When the "plainclothes soldier" (in a No Fear t-shirt!) saw we were Americans he wanted to talk to us separately, but luckily Nouhad insisted she come with us to serve as translator. We were questioned on the side of the road and told that only Lebanese could go to villages on the border. Americans would need special, written permission from the Lebanese army. Ouch. Bummer we couldn't get to Bint Jbeil this time, but we were thankful we weren't kept at the checkpoint longer and that we left with our papers.


  1. You went to Mleeta! I went there with my friends. I hope you can get to Bint Jbeil before you leave. I never let you know the villages I visited but I have them marked on a map if you still want to know!

  2. We'll have to talk about Mleeta at some point. I'm curious to hear other impressions too. When you went to B.J., was there a checkpoint outside the village and if so did you have to show your passport? Nouhad wants to take us back--she said we can stop in Saida and ask for this documentation from the army there. Yes, if you get the chance, tell me which villages in that part of the south you went to--I think N wants to share all the places around Fatima's Gate, and then heading toward Litani area. Those villages are something else. We had a really special day with N!

  3. Well, my impression of Mleeta is complicated. We'll talk. As far as checkpoints and documentation in the south, I'm sure it all depends on who you are and who you're with. I sat in the back seat and was told it's best not to talk as we stopped. I didn't. My driver made all the difference I'm sure. He knew about everyone south of Beirut and chatted it up in most stops. It's just so lovely down there and I'm sure even more so as the weather gets better. Hope you can make it. I'll get out my map for those villiages.