(LEBANON) – In the summer of 1957, Ralph Izzard, a journalist working for the London Daily Mail in Beirut, found out that he was about to be recalled to England after spending three years in Lebanon. Instead of spending his remaining months idle, he and his wife Molly decided to make the best of their limited time and take their four young children, ages four, six, eight and nine, on a 480 kilometer walking journey across the mountains of Lebanon. Despite warnings from friends about the dangers that could possibly confront them, particularly in the north of the country, which was known to be lawless, Ralph and Molly proceeded with their plans undeterred.
Thus far, Ralph’s job as a foreign correspondent had introduced him and his family to numerous places around the world, but this was something different. It was a journey on foot that would not only give them a rare glimpse into life in the mountains, but would be an educational experience for the children. With the aid of their Lebanese cook, who would accompany them throughout the entire journey and act as translator, they bought two donkeys (they added a third donkey later) and began their voyage. The couple would later recount their remarkable journey in a book titled, Smelling the Breezes.
In the end, the Izzards’ adventure into the Lebanese interior turned out to be an amazing journey filled with memorable encounters, but was by no means the first such foray by a foreigner. What made their trip unique was that they chose to go on foot, when other transportation was available, and they brought their children along, a bold step that most parents at the time would have never considered taking.
The mountains of Lebanon have lured adventurers, artists, writers and photographers for centuries. French Poet Alphonse de Lamartine toured the region between 1832 and 1833 and wrote so eloquently about his journey that, to this day, there is a valley that bears his name. Artists, such as David Roberts and William Henry Bartlett, were so enthralled by Lebanon’s stunning beauty that they let their impressions spill over onto canvas. By the mid-19th century, the photographic camera was introduced to Lebanon, and pioneers, such as Felix Bonfils, Frances Frith and others, journeyed through the Lebanese mountains documenting people, village life and the country’s rich archeological heritage.
In 2009, a little over 50 years after the Izzards made their epic journey, I was invited to be part of a team of six mountaineers to make the inaugural walk-through of the newly created Lebanon Mountain Trail (LMT), the first long distance hiking trail in an Arab world. Beginning in the northern Lebanese village of Al-Qbaiyat, the 440-kilometer LMT winds its way along the spine of the country, summiting peaks, traversing gorges and sweeping across vast grasslands until it reaches the southern town of Marjayoun.
The LMT is the brainchild of Joseph Karam, a Lebanese American engineer and sustainable development specialist, who remembered taking walks with his father around their ancestral home of Baskinta in the mountains above Beirut. Later, while attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Karam discovered the 3,500-kilometer Appalachian Trail and began to think about creating something similar in his native Lebanon. Decades later, and with the help of a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), Karam embarked on creating the trail of his dream.
Besides being a window into the rural communities of Lebanon, the LMT serves as an environmental protector. People who walk the trail are expected stay in local guesthouses, eat local cuisine, hire local guides and shop in village stores. The hope is that once villagers see the economic benefits from tourism, they will in turn take the initiative to maintain the trail and look after their natural surroundings and monuments as a way to attract more visitors.
Unfortunately, in the 50 years since the Izzards made their epic journey, the Lebanese wilderness has suffered considerable damage. The brunt of this came as a result of Lebanon’s 16-year civil war that literally ravaged the entire country. Even though the war ended in 1991, the scars are still visible everywhere from the coastline to the highest mountaintops.
More damaging to the environment than the civil war was the lawlessness that followed in its wake. I have been hiking in Lebanon since the early 1990s and it has been so disheartening to see the wilderness slowly wither away. It’s not uncommon to walk along a trail that was most probably carved out by generations of goat herders, then return the following year to find that same trail dug up and turned into a dirt road that leads to an illegal garbage dumb. The once pristine mountainous landscape is marred by cement structures left unfinished and abandoned, as well as rock quarries carved into the sides of mountains. Once a mountain is scarred it will forever be an eyesore, an ugly reminder of the disregard chaos has for nature.
Years ago, a friend and I learned firsthand that the horrors of war can linger long after the conflict is over. We were climbing to the summit of Mt. Sannine (2628m), one of Lebanon’s highest peaks, when we suddenly heard two shepherds yell at us from a distance. At first, we both thought that they were just greeting us, but when we saw them frantically waving their arms we knew that something was seriously wrong, so we stopped walking and tried to make out what they were saying. They didn’t come closer, but kept on repeating the same word over and over again, “lighim, lighim.” All of a sudden it dawned on me. I remembered hearing that same word being said to me in the same alarming tone while I was visiting the frontlines of the Iraq-Iran War as a press photographer in the mid 1980s.
I was on a press tour to the battlefront organized by the Iraqis. After being cooped up in a Land Cruiser for nearly two days, I was more than eager to get out. When we finally arrived to the frontlines, I jumped out and began taking pictures of everything that was newsworthy, from dead bodies to burnt-out tanks. Time was precious, and I knew that at any minute our hosts could call us back if the shelling resumed. In no time I separated myself from the rest of the group. When our escorts realized that I was gone, there was a panic and suddenly all the soldiers began looking for me yelling that same word over and over again, “lighim, lighim….”
It’s one thing to be warned about landmines when you are on a heavily fortified battlefront, but high up in the mountains of Lebanon, landmines are the last thing that come to mind. Luckily for my friend and I, after all those years, I never forgot the meaning of the word “lighim.”
During the Lebanese Civil War, both Syrian and Israeli troops were stationed in the country in order to secure their interests. As a way to protect their positions from attack, they sowed landmines. After the conflict ended in 1991, numerous NGOs, with the help of the United Nations, began the arduous process of extracting the mines. Their efforts were concentrated around population centers and in land traditionally used for farming. The high mountains, were few normally venture, remained a danger zone. Since that first encounter with the minefield on Mt. Sannine, I rarely stray into unchartered parts of the backcountry without someone who knows the terrain.
Eventually the scars of war will heal, but the same cannot be said for the damage to the environment. The illegal rock quarries, garbage dumbs, chemical waste dumps and indiscriminate construction are the new and more lethal enemy of this tiny country that was once coined the Switzerland of the Middle East.
Fifty years after the Izzards made their journey, the mountain communities are still as warm and welcoming to strangers as they were back then. The challenge now is to convince the people, who call the mountains of Lebanon their home, that it is in their best interest to try and protect the environment and preserve the remaining wilderness so that future generations can continue to enjoy one of Lebanon’s greatest treasures.