Posted by: sean | December 4, 2007

Weekend in the Chouf

I spent this past weekend in the Chouf mountain, otherwise known as the personal fiefdom of Walid Jumblatt. I was looking forward to visiting the Moukhtara and its beautiful castle, and given the tense situation, I was surprised when my friend told me that conforming to Druze tradition, I could go have tea with and briefly meet Jumblatt — or even ask him for something. Saturday morning is the time when the Moukhtara is open, and all are given tea while they wait for an audience with Walid Bek.

My timing was off, though, because it seems that US ambassador to Lebanon, Jeffrey Feltman, was due to arrive shortly for a lunch with Jumblatt and no amount of wasta with Jumblatt’s private security detail was going to get us in.

One thing that bothers me about Lebanon is the checkpoints. They’re a hassle, but given the situation, they seem necessary. What really gets to me though are those run by militias. Any journalist covering the south or Bekaa, or even parts of the Dahiye, are familiar with Hezbollah’s stops, although I’ve never personally had to show my ID to anyone from Hezbollah, and despite my frequent trips to and through the sit-in downtown, I’ve never seen a member of the party armed.

Now March 14 and its allies are fond of complaining about the “state within a state” that is Hezbollah, but what you hear less about are their own states within a state. (Incidentally, I’m not fond of the expression, because in order for it to be true, there’d have to be a state within which to have a state — something that just isn’t true here.) While there are army checkpoints all around the Moukhtara, the guys with machine guns at the gate are PSP militia. They’ve got neither badge nor uniform — their gun and the confidence of Walid being their only license for checking my ID. But these are the higher ranked guards, down the street, working at the local mechanic and sitting in a little booth are kids with walkie talkies.

When we decided to take a walk around the Moukhtara, we were immediately stopped by a kid who couldn’t have been over 20 years old. I think he was intimidated by us, so when we refused to show any ID and only gave our first names, he called someone else as we were walking away. The second guy was only a little older and looked like he should be working second spatula at a saj stand. But there he was, asking for our ID. My friend looked him in the eye, immediately getting angry, and asked him where his ID was. After some prompting, the young and round boy opened his wallet and flashed a normal ID without letting us take it out or look at it too long. When we asked what gave him the authority to stop us, he lifted his shirt and showed us his walkie talkie. The Chouf, it seems, isn’t so different from the south after all.

The rest of my trip, barring an embarrassing run-in with the way-too-friendly (and touchy!) tour guide at Beiteddine, was a welcome change from the city. Like true mountain men, we ate heartily and shot guns, and the clean air cleared my persistent cold right up.

Also, the Cedar reserve reminded me of something out of a fairy tale:

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