Sunday, 18 February 2007

Skiing With Hezbollah: Bisharre (skiing, finally)

We’re going skiing. Today is a very important day because, as one half of the title of the film, the skiing is crucial. On the drive to the skiing chalets in the hills above Bisharre, we catch a lift on this snowy, overcast day along winding, icy streets (always driving too fast. At every turn, I’m certain we’re going to slide off the mountain face).

La Casa seems to be the place if you want to rent skiing equipment. Pushing open the door of the rental shop, I’m surprised to see many of the same faces from the club last night (just below the shop) including a 12-year-old boy last night dancing on a podium, today playing a basketball video game. From amongst the slightly sleepy crowd, we’re greeted by Tony, owner of La Casa and the underground club beneath it. Tony is a mix between frightening and endearing, a real over the top character whose voice sounds like he’s been gargling cut glass and a face impossibly wrinkled and deep cut with grooves. He’s like a Lebanese Mafioso caricature, it’s often hard to take him seriously, especially in his “HOT ONE” jacket. Tony sets Federico up with all the equipment he’ll need for the day, pausing in between fittings to show us a few magic tricks.

Almost above the clouds, I stare up the endless pilons and cables of the ski lift. Federico seems at home here – he’s been skiing since he was four years old. I choose the perfect moment to announce to him that not only have I never been skiing in my life, I’ve never even ridden a ski lift before. My hands are already freezing as I try to film while we glide up the vast mountain face, our feet skimming above the snow. The panorama is immense, towering walls of pure, blinding white on three sides. Behind us, occasionally when the fog breaks, we see rows of this region’s famous cedar trees surrounding the tiny village of Bisharre and the modest ski resort below us.

The second life takes us up to 3000 metres and a plateau where the drama of the sheer walls of snow gives way to an eerie calm. The fog fills our lungs, I can’t see more than 50 metres ahead and everything sounds muffled and unreal. The only sound, when I hold my breath, is the motor of the cable car churning in the distance. Federico says his goodbye to camera, I wish him luck (pointing out that we never did, in fact, find any Hizbullah to ski with) and he pushes off, skating over the blanket of snow and disappears into the fog. In the dead air, it feels like I’m the only person left on earth.

Later, Tony (this time the owner of Tiger Hotel, not the ski rental shop owner) is talking about his life here in the mountains. We’re in Geagea territory here – the former militia leader turned “respectable” politician who spent 11 years in prison for a series of political murders (including a church bombing of which he was later acquitted). It’s a rarely discussed fact about this country’s civil war that some of the most intense and brutal fighting was not simply Muslim against Christian, Syrian against Lebanese or Palestinian against Israeli but inter-sectarian violence for control of the various militias that keep sprouting in various communities. Geagea came to lead the Lebanese Forces, a Maronite Christian militia with roots in the fascist Phalange, after overthrowing Elia Hobeika – another equally brutal Christian militia leader.

Tony’s own life story reflects this style of inter-sectarian fighting. Born and raised in Bisharre, he eventually left his home town for the relative safety of Juniah (just North of Beirut) during a feud between two neighbouring families in his valley. One murder led to another, and he took off before the cycle of violence threatened to swallow him and his family.

On the wall of Tony’s living room is pasted, rather unnervingly, a photograph of Samir Geagea. The photograph is split down the middle: on the left, the man in prison and on the right, the free politician and current member of the March 14 alliance (in general anti-Syrian, pro-Hariri).
“He represents the Maronites, and we love him” Tony tells me. “He’s from Bisharre. Even if he wasn’t from Bisharre we would still love him.” Knowing the Maronite, and particularly Phalange, hatred for Palestinians during the civil war, I find it wiser to introduce myself to Tony as an Egyptian – not strictly untrue (I’m half Egyptian) but not entirely true (I consider myself Palestinian). It’s an uncomfortable story to have to tell, not only because of the historical treatment of Palestinians by the Phalange militias, but because being Palestinian isn’t something I like to lie about.

Tony’s devotion to Geagea reveal a surreal, paradoxical aspect of Lebanese democracy: every sect has its own political party to which it is eternally dedicated, no matter what. Later, talking to Tony’s son Fuad, this is beautifully illustrated. Fuad is a 24-year old recent law school graduate, smartly dressed with a few days of stubble and slightly tired eyes. “Lebanon is the only democracy in this region,” he tells me over coffee in his father’s house. Later, I overhear him in conversation with Federico as we’re driving back into Beirut: “I’m from Bisharre, so of course I’m Lebanese Forces.”

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