Time travelling in the Levant

Ziyad Faisal offers snapshots of a sojourn in Lebanon

Time travelling in the Levant
As we get used to Beirut, we find it so charming that it starts to get overwhelming. So it is a Friday night, and we find ourselves all pumped up to go partying, and unable to decide how to pull it off. Eventually, we agree upon a compromise – to begin our evening at the Bar Abu Elie, Beirut’s famous ‘communist bar’.

We had been introduced to it the previous night by novelist and academic Tariq Mehmood, who currently teaches at the American University of Beirut. Upon first entering this glorious little corner of Beirut, I saw the display that greets you covering an entire wall: a Cuban flag, assorted weapons and my favourite, a Thompson submachine gun – the good old Tommy gun! (I know, I speak of the weapon as though it had served me well in many a gunfight) And I started laughing loudly and joyfully, declaring “I can’t believe it! This place is totally crazy! I love it!” A few people turned from their drinks to stare at me for a moment, and then went back to the important business of discussing how humanity might liberate itself. We had to wrap up the gathering at a pious hour, because I had a work deadline to catch up with, back at the hotel.

Bar Abu Elie, Beirut

And now, within 24 hours, we find ourselves back at Abu Elie, trying to kick off a night of clubbing and partying. We are surrounded, yet again, by jovial, politically aware people having discussions: not-quite-so-sober people having very sober discussions.

The walls of the bar are covered with so many photos of revolutionaries from around the world (including the Arab countries, of course) that – well, suffice it to say that I’ve never seen so many photos in one place. The overall feeling for me is like entering a dream sequence where the history of the 20th century and its revolutionary aspirations whirl around you in some sort of afterlife situation. But to me at least, the place is certainly far more than mere memorabilia for a ‘bygone’ era of now deceased radical ideas. It is a living connection to the turbulent history of the region, especially, the Lebanese Civil War and the lofty hopes and aspirations that people on Lebanon’s left fought and died for.
In effect, what the Roman Empire tried to do, I find myself thinking, is to build a sort of spiritual CPEC to stave off Christianity - to take the existing polytheism of the Mediterranean world and give it a new lease of life by pouring money into religious infrastructure

Abu Elie, the late founder of the bar, had himself fought in that war, alongside stalwarts of the Communist Party. He was also the kind of man who liked to provide a place for his comrades to gather and share food and drink. He has passed on, but his legacy survives.

Abu Elie’s bar provides the solid material basis for propelling our Friday evening into a most memorable night of revelry across some of the more ‘left-wing’ spots in Beirut’s Hamra district. Abu Elie is probably the most visibly ideological, but is certainly not the only one.

People in this city still dare to dream, despite a civil war and the long years of Israeli aggression.

Temple to a deity identified with Venus


The drive to Baalbek had been a whirlwind of contrasts. From urban Beirut, through the mountains, across the Bekaa valley – we felt hot, cold and hot within the space of an hour! I don’t really think I was prepared for the glory of the great temple complex at Baalbek. It is a UNESCO World Heritage site, but if you’re picturing a few tottering ruins here and there, broken beyond recognition and leaving the most to your imagination, in this case you’d be wrong. Personally, I don’t think I ever felt so connected to Classical Antiquity at a site from that era.

The temples most definitely existed even before the Roman era, but for the Empire, the modern-day Bekaa valley was a key agrarian region and of immense strategic importance. It was here that the Romans founded Colonia Julia Augusta Felix Heliopolitana in Julius Caesar’s reign (meanwhile, Beirut was Berytus to the Romans). The main deities worshipped here were Jupiter, ruler of the gods (Ba’al before the Roman Emprie arrived); Venus, the goddess of love (a far more ancient deity before the Romans: Astarte, more commonly known as Ishtar) and Bacchus, the deity of wine, who needs no introduction.

The Romans adopted the architectural and religious symbolism of the region, even in the case of this temple complex. They simply poured resources into it until it became the single grandest such temple complex in existence anywhere in the world. “You won’t find anything of this scale even in Italy!” I wagged a finger at an Italian visitor who I met in the complex itself – he’d asked me to take a photo of him. “This is it, my friend! It didn’t get any better than this. Not even on the Italian peninsula, the home of the Roman Empire!” I insisted. He agreed. Anything to get me to capture him at the right angle – even my unwarranted finger-wagging lessons.

One possible motivation for Roman investment on such a scale might have been the need to push back the rising tide of a certain monotheistic sect that had arisen amongst the Jewish people. Today we call it Christianity. In effect, what the Roman Empire tried to do, I find myself thinking, is to build a sort of spiritual CPEC in an effort to stave off Christianity – to take the existing polytheism of the Mediterranean world and give it a new lease of life by pouring money into religious infrastructure.

Or so, at least, was the fond imagination of Rome…

The abode of Bacchus at Baalbek, Lebanon


That Friday evening which began so solemnly at Bar Abu Elie, eventually turned into a club-and-pub crawl. We were supposed to travel to the seaside town of Anfeh early next morning, with my dear friend Jamal Awar – actor, left-wing activist and celebrity in Beirut (hopefully he will pardon me for that last descriptive term, but there is really no other way to describe that level of popularity!)

My life’s partner and I, dutifully sticking to Jamal’s deadline for setting out early next morning, were planning on wrapping up the night soon – all I want is a plate of what they described to me as Armenian qibbeh. All around us, the people of Beirut are having a great time, and we find ourselves wishing we had more time to join in the revelry and dancing rather than going to bed. I find myself engaged in a discussion with some people about the arak that they were drinking, how it is made and what its history is.

As we prepare to leave, in walks none other than our would-be host for the following day, Jamal. Everyone around us greets him and conveys their whole family’s good wishes (I exaggerate, but you get my point).

“Aren’t we setting out early the next morning?!” I ask, seeing that his night appeared to be just beginning.

“Oh…yeah, I can wake up. I do this all the time! It’s all good!” comes the reassuring reply.

I turn immediately to the people who had been drinking their arak as we ate our kibbeh. “Did you know,” I addressed a newly made friend, “that I was reading the other day: in the Mughal empire apparently, arak was very popular? So, basically this”, I point at the arak on their table, “is my heritage. I see it, and I think of what might have been…”

Needless to say, everyone took their time setting out for the sea next day.

When the Caliph brought the Kaiser to the temple of Bacchus - one of the commemorative plaques is in German


In Baalbek, in the temple of Bacchus, there is a most fascinating throwback to a far more recent time than Classical Antiquity. Two plaques – one of them in German – testify to a visit by the German Emperor Wilhelm II in 1898. The German Kaiser portrayed himself as a friend of Islam, who sought to help colonised Muslims and those facing Western aggression to free themselves – especially since his own colonial dominions did not include significant Muslim populations and those of his British and French rivals did. The Ottomans were all too keen to play up such a sentiment. And so, among other places on the Kaiser’s itinerary in the Ottoman Levant, there was also Baalbek.

What they were trying to do was to build an alliance that brought the two empires, German and Ottoman, closely together in strategic terms. This included not just German loans, but also investments in industry and infrastructure to provide a new lease of life and prosperity to what was popularly seen as the “Sick Man of Europe” – the tottering Ottoman Empire.

A key aspect was to be the Berlin-to-Baghdad railway, a most ambitious infrastructure project. Soon after the Kaiser’s visit, work on the railway began in earnest. The British, French and Russians, with their eyes on Ottoman domains especially the Levant and the Caucasus, were not fans of the concept.

As I stand and look at those plaques, I think to myself, “Another CPEC of its era!”

It bound the Ottoman Empire so closely to the German that eventually the former followed the latter into the horror of the First World War – which resulted in the dissolution and breaking up of both.
The German Kaiser portrayed himself as a friend of Islam, who sought to help colonised Muslims and those facing Western aggression to free themselves


The town of Anjar boasts a large Armenian community. It is also home to the ruins of Gerrha - a settlement built by the Umayyads during the time of Caliph Al-Walid, in the 8th century AD. The ruins are those of a stronghold, built in the Roman/Byzantine style which the Umayyads found in their conquered Syrian territories and sought to emulate. The town is laid out in a classical Roman pattern. One of the things that always struck me about the Umayyads is how few people in South Asia seem to realise that their aspirations were not so much to build a new civilisation as to claim the legacy of their Roman/Byzantine predecessors. The whole aesthetic at a place like Anjar is proof of this. Much of what we today associate with an ‘Islamic’ culture or aesthetic came from the Persianisation of Islam.

Hundreds of shops have been discovered here in this ruined settlement, I am told. And baths and palaces too…

It is quite possible to stand at a main intersection, look all around you and imagine yourself to be in an Umayyad version of the Lahore Cantonment, with its own mega shopping malls!

We are also told that the charming settlement did not survive beyond the short-lived Umayyad rule.

A view of the streets of Gerrha - a settlement built by the Umayyads near modern-day Anjar, Lebanon


As the party drags on that Friday night (or to be more accurate, Saturday morning?), I find myself hanging out with a large number of young men from Palestine and Syria. We are united in jumping up joyfully to dance when a song plays on the sound-system, and the lyrics mention Dr. George Habash, the famous left-wing leader of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) – an immensely charismatic man, second only to Yasser Arafat in the PLO.

They ask if we have a comparable scene where I’m from in Pakistan. Such questions sadden me.

I think of a recent incident where a mullah called a policeman and told him to go shut down a certain party by young people, before his own righteous young men joined in the fun, presumably with sticks and stones. “Is this what we created Pakistan for?” the mullah asks the policeman triumphantly, in the recordings of the call that did the rounds on Whatsapp. The police official, of course, agrees to all the moral premises of the mullah, pleading only that he restrain his people from violence. The party was duly shut down before the mullah ‘lost control’ of the young men at his beck and call.

I relate the incident to the young people I’m talking to in Beirut.

“Oh, even here we have people who want such things. It’s just that if they showed up, everyone here would fight. These young people that you see – many of them grew up in refugee camps. They don’t take s### from anyone…”

Ziyad Faisal may be reached at ziyadfaisal@gmail.com