Sunday, January 11, 2009

Free Lunch for Canadians

Beirut, Lebanon

There is a widespread belief in Canada that people throughout the world love Canadians just for being Canadians, because we’re a big, peaceful country, an honest broker, a peacekeeper and giver of foreign aid. This belief is untrue. In the developing world, most people have never heard of Canada, and in the developed world, they’ve heard of us, but usually only as the punchline in a joke.

Except in Lebanon. Lebanese people actually love us just for being Canadian. They don’t love us as an abstraction, as a big peaceful country that never hurt nobody — they love us concretely and from experience. Many of the people we’ve talked to have relatives living in Canada, (they say there are 4 million Lebanese in Lebanon and 20 million elsewhere) one guy we met was about a year away from moving his family to Montreal, and another guy had just moved back from Montreal a few years ago. There is a Lebanese-Canadian bank here and the museum at Byblos was built using money donated by Quebec after the Lebanese hosted Francophonie in 2002. Our country is connected to this country, and as a result, Erin and I have been well received everywhere.

I suspect these people would have treated us well wherever we are from. People here are just plain friendly and they’re not getting as many tourists as they did before 2006, so we get a bit of extra attention. We did get invited to lunch by one future Canadian, though, and one former Canadian who owns a nice Italian restaurant gave us a free dinner, I suspect entirely because we are Canadian and we’re good conversationalists. And because I’m good-looking.

Yesterday Erin and I visited Byblos, which is in the running for being the oldest continuously-inhabited city in the world. They have evidence of human habitation there dating at least back to 5000 BC. There’s a big archeological dig site there and it’s an incomprehensible mess. They swear there are Paleolithic dwellings there, but you can’t see much of that. On top of them are the foundations of a Phoenician city from the Bronze and Iron ages. Then the Persians took over and built walls out of giant blocks of stone, some of which are still there, for all the good they did, because they didn’t keep Alexander the Great out. The Greeks didn’t leave too much of their own stuff behind, and they were supplanted by the Romans, who built a big temple, which then fell over, as everything eventually does.

The most impressive thing that is still actually standing is the Crusader castle, which our guide told us is the least important thing there. The Crusader castle was built in the 1100’s mostly out of recycled materials. They used the big blocks from the old Persian fortifications, and they cut up a bunch of columns from the Roman temple to stick in their walls as reinforcing members. The walls of the castle are full of carved stones, but the carvings don’t match up with each other because they were originally carved as parts of different buildings.

There actually isn’t that much to see in Byblos. We wouldn’t have understood a tenth of what we saw if we hadn’t hired a guide, who told us all about the myths of history and archaeology and Lebanon. We had to go to the National Museum today to see all of the pottery and jewelry and sculpture they found there. Byblos is really just a bunch of rocks and conjecture, but the idea of Byblos was absolutely amazing. Seven thousand years of history all in one spot. Lebanon’s seen eighteen major invasions, our guide said — Egyptians, Persians, Greeks, Romans, Mamluks, Byzantines, Ottomans and every other mother with a few dozen chariots to his name has taken this place over. Practically every civilization that our civilization is founded on drove through this place.

What? It was cool!

Okay, so I’m a dork — I get a hard-on over a bunch of old rocks. What, you don’t care where our civilization came from?

Yes, the civilization that produced the World Wrestling Federation and Brittney Spears.

Actually, I kinda get your point.

Okay, fuck Byblos.

But Beirut is hella-wicked cool. I got a bunch of photos, but I don’t have any of them with me. We’re leaving Beirut soon, but I’ll post some photos soon, anachronistically-like.

Yes, as anachronistic as a grown man in 2009 who still gets a hard-on about old rocks and gets a little giddy from standing in a spot where Alexander the Great may have once stood.

Sigh. I should have been an Egyptologist or a tomb robber in the 1830s. I’d have been cool back then.

I love Lebanon. I don’t mean to harp on the subject, but one of my favourite parts of every conversation I have here is the look on people’s faces when I tell them that my family is worried because Lebanon is so dangerous. It’s priceless. It's like telling someone that they're taking an insane risk taking a shower without putting one of those little rubber suction-cup mats in the bottom of the tub.

The Lebanese do have a different standard of risk from us, though; you should see the way they drive.

Great things I’ve seen in Lebanon so far:
Byblos — the idea of Byblos, anyway.
The National Museum in Beirut.
A kids’ book entitled “My Trilingual Dictionary.”
Beirut — the awesome new parts and the bombed-out bullet-pocked soon-to-be-new parts, too.
A 12 year-old girl with eyebrows like Groucho Marx’s moustache.

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