adventures in travel: reading undercover
Posted by adiamondinsunlight on July 4, 2007
When my flight landed in Paris this last time back to Beirut, I was feeling quite tired – and a bit nauseous, thanks perhaps to the disappointingly lackluster fare. And Air France usually has such wonderful special meals – oh well. To soothe my complaining stomach and my tired mind, I did what I always do: I reached for a book.
And not just any book. This was an Amazon used-book find, “recommended” to me by a friend: Barbara Newman’s The Covenant: Love and Death in Beirut.
As you may surmise from the cover, this was no 2007 release. The book is Newman’s account of how a trip to Israel for a story on terrorism (on which she served as a producer for – no joke – Geraldo Rivera, who was apparently at that time considered a serious journalist) led to a follow-up story (suggested by the Israeli military) on Lebanon and the battles its Christians were fighting against Palestinian terrorists.
The Israelis not only suggested the story – they told her where to stay (the Alexandre, in Achrafieh), and provided her with an introduction to, Bashir Gemayel. As Newman tells it, Gemayel was not only political inspiring, but personally irresistible. They fell in love, enjoying a trans-oceanic romance that lasted until his assassination. The book ends with her returning to Lebanon a year after his death to determine who killed him: Elie Hobeika, because, she believed, Gemayel knew that Hobeika was working for the Syrians and planned to send him abroad once he assumed the presidency.
The book is full of fascinating “signs of the times”, starting with the fact that even before the Israeli invasion, Israel’s military could provide Newman with contacts who could do everything from arranging an entry visa and book a hotel room to introducing her to Gemayel.
When Newman returns to search out Gemayel’s killer, she does so under the guise of doing a story about Hizbullah terrorist activities. At the time, the Syrians were eager to demonstrate that 1) Hizbullah was a radical organization and 2) not one affiliated with Syria, so she traveled to the Bekaa with Hobeika and with a Syrian military escort.
The historical texture is rich and absorbing, even when presented by someone who seems (in my view) to understand very little of what was going on in Lebanon at the time – and to filter what she did see through a fractured Israeli/Phalangist lens. It was a perfect travel book – totally engrossing narrative with no intellectual rigor required.
The inset photo of Bashir on the cover, however, made it a rather awkward book to read in a group of Lebanese people. For a while, I coped by reading it in the waiting area of a flight bound for Osaka. No one there was interested in Bashir Gemayel.
When I finally made my way to the gate, I kept the cover well hidden under my ticket, passport and other odds and ends. I thought I was doing a fine job, until a Lebanese woman in her mid-20s came up to me and said: you are reading a book about Lebanon.
Oh Lord, I thought. She’s about to ask how I am enjoying my time with this book.
But she didn’t – in fact, we had a very nice conversation. She turned to be not a Lebanese citizen returning home from a trip, but a Lebanese citizen who had been raised “outside”. And not just any outside – she was a Lebanese Swede.
Interesting, I thought. I wonder whether she’s seen this article: Swedes fall for Lebanese food, written by Jordanian-Swedish journalist Rami Abdelrahman. It made the rounds of the blog world a few weeks ago, and was the first I had heard of a Lebanese community in Sweden.
We have long-ago Swedish ancestors in my family. While I appreciate their flaxen-haired contributions to our genetic pool, I’ve always been grateful that the connection was sufficiently far back in time to spare us any Swedish culinary influences. Had the Lebanese food infusion begun 150 years earlier, however, I would have delighted in family picnics that featured Great-Great-Grandma Jennie’s “Stockholm sajj”.