29 SEPTEMBER 1984, Page 12

Terrorism's capital

Charles Glass


Do years after the departure of the LO from Beirut, Baalbek has super- seded Beirut as the ostensible terrorist capital of the world. Shi'ites have replaced Palestinians in the demonology of western propaganda, and Baalbek has become a kind of oriental Havana with its own Castro in the form of a Shi'ite Muslim militia leader, Hussein Musawi. Musawi may be a thin, well-groomed and soft- spoken man, but he does have a beard. His followers are the new Assassins who have been publicly blamed (on no known evi- dence) for last week's kamikaze raid on the US Embassy annexe in East Beirut, the destruction of the US embassy in West Beirut in April 1983, the suicide bombings of the US Marine and French Multination- al Force headquarters last October, the hijackings of aircraft, the kidnappings of western journalists and diplomats, and (why not?) the miners' strike.

Baal-bek, Phoenician for 'Lord of the Bekaa', has enjoyed many periods of prosperity, dating from the time of Augus- tus when it gained the status of Roman colony and was the pride of Coele-Syria. The Romans built three magnificent tem- ples in Baalbek, whose ruins today are the most impressive in the Arab world. Baal- bek's good fortunes alternated with periods of terrible decline, including its sacking by Tamberlane in the late 14th century. Since Ottoman times, Baalbek has been the more or less tranquil home of thousands of Shi'ite Muslims, with a minority of Sunnis and Christians. Mrs A.C. Inchbold, the inveterate English travel writer, noted a recurring feature of Baalbek life in her Under the Syrian Sun (Hutchinson, 1906): 'Religious feeling runs very high at intervals in Baalbek. The rival sects are not Druzes and Maronites as in the Lebanon [the Bekaa was not annexed to Lebanon until 1920], but chiefly Greek Christians and Metawilehs (Shi'ites), who are a martial race, proud of their religion, adhering strongly to its ceremonial observ- ance. They regard Christians as the Jews• do swine, having a perfect horror of defilement from infidels. . . their secret sympathies are all centred in Persia, which they consider the stronghold of their reli- gion and its Shi'ite doctrines.'

The Persians came to deliver Baalbek's Shi'ites in 1982, when a few hundred revolutionary guards were dispatched to confront the Isaeli invasion. Israeli tanks sit only 30 miles south of Baalbek, while the Revolutionary Guards spend their time proselytising among the Shi'ite Lebanese and reinforcing Musawi's Islamic Amal Militia. Liquor is now banned in the so-called 'Islamic Republic of Baalbek' (even while Shi'ite landowners continue to profit from the lucrative trade in hashish). Iranian artists have painted revolutionary clichés on walls throughout the area: lurid portrayals of Ayatollah Khomeini smashing through American flags; por- traits of a benevolent Khomeini looking benignly upon his people; Jerusalem being redeemed by Muslims; and slogans prais- ing 'Islamic Amal' and 'Imam Khomeini'.

Graffiti, sacred and profane, are nothing new to Baalbek; a walk through the ruined temples of Jupiter, Bacchus and Venus reveals handiwork by generations of semi- literate vandals. When Lady Hester Stanhope took her travelling companion, Dr Meryon, to Baalbek in 1814, the young physician, in the words of Lady Hester's censorious niece, the Duchess of Cleve- land, 'was carried away by his enthusiasm, launched forth poetry, and inscribed a Latin quatrain in Lady Hester's honour on the walls of the Temple of the Sun. But when it was translated to her, she promptly ordered it to be effaced'. Fifty years later, Mark Twain visited Baalbek and com- plained: 'One might swear that all the John Smiths and George Wilkinsons, and all the other pitiful nobodies between Kingdom Come and Baalbek, would inscribe their poor little names upon the walls of Baal- bek's magnificent ruins . . . It is a pity some great ruin does not fall in and flatten out some of these reptiles, and scare their kind out of ever giving their names to fame upon any walls or monuments again forever.'

Musawi's and the Iranians' reputations have helped to kill the tourist trade, which, if nothing else, should protect Baalbek's ruins from graffitists for the time being. Any foreigner travelling to Baalbek is advised to go in a group. Lady Hester took the bare minimum for her day: in addition to Dr Meryon were 'a dragoman and 13 servants, of whom five were women.' Twain was accompanied by a horde of American Protestant pilgrims, several dragomans, and dozens of porters and other servants. Our humble party in- cluded: two drivers, one a Lebanese Shi'ite can't get in because I handshake' the can't do

and the other a Syrian Sunni; an American humorist named P. J. O'Rourke, who came here to write on tourism in Lebanon for Tina Brown's Vanity Fair magazine; and myself.

On arrival, we toured the ruins with a retired guide, suddenly come out of retire- ment at the sight of the first westerners to arrive in a year. His prejudices quickly manifested themselves. 'These temples were built,' he told us, standing in a temple where splendid orgies once took-place, 'by Christian slaves working under the Ro- mans. You can see where they would carve disguised Christian symbols, like a cross in the middle of a rosette. Of course, most of the destruction came during the Arab occupation.' No prizes for guessing his religion. His version of events was a reminder, if any were needed, that history lives here. Battles end, but the wars go on. Today's victor is tomorrow's refugee. The balance of power has been upset so many times that there is no reason to suppose it won't be upset again. After the ruins, we toured the modern town. There was much jubilation and shooting in the air for Shi'ite pilgrims returning from the ha], or pilgrimage, to Mecca. But the Iranians and Musawi mth- tiamen were keeping a low profile. The positions in the town had been turned over to Syrian military police in red berets, following a confrontation this summer be- tween Islamic Amal and the Syrian arilaY. The turn-over was part of a game the Syrians have played here for years: syria supports armed groups who make them- selves so unpopular that people beg the Syrians to do something. Syria did this in the 1970s with the PLO in Beirut and South Lebanon. They did it with several militias in the northern port city of Tripoli. And they have done it with Hussein Musawi and his Iranian supporters. The Syrian army enters as a saviour, delivering the Lebanese from the very militias it installed. Syria is rather like the chef at an Indian restaurant who is standing by to offer post-prandial Alka-Seltzer. Many people in Baalbek know the game, but sill' prefer to have the Syrians in control than to let Musawi — who after all represents only one of many rival clans and families in the town and is from north Lebanon any way — remain in sole charge. If the Syrians keep Musawi in check for another year, the. restaurants may dare to serve alcohol again. Hussein Musawi received us, after his guards had searched us for weapons, in his modest house at the end of a narrow street. He was friendly and polite, but his inter- preter had the annoying habit of asking at the end of each translation, 'Do you get the point?' My original reason for approaching Musawi was to ask about Jonathan Wright, the 30-year-old Reuter correspondent who disappeared on 29 August. Jonathan, a talented journalist who speaks Arabic fluently, set out for the Bekaa to cover the aftermath of an Israeli air raid on a Palestinian position south of Musawi's

operational area. Musawi said he knew nothing about Jonathan, which is what he has said in the past when asked about other suspected kidnap victims. Jonathan in the event escaped — or was released, depend- ing on which of Reuter's two published versions of the story one chooses to believe. (Most of the hacks who descended on the Commodore bar after the US Embassy annexe bombing . don't believe either version.).

Musawi spoke reasonably about the plight of Lebanon's Shi'ites. Then he sud- denly leaped into space: 'Real and eternal peace will come when, with God's help, the believers expel the Israelis from Pales- tine'. He noticed my astonishment and elaborated; 'You see this as very far. I see it very close, because Saddam Hussein and Iraq will not hold. He will fall in a short time, with God's help, when Saddam falls, the road to Jerusalem will open in the face of the 40 million Muslims of Iran and the Muslims who will join them from Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq. Syria and Turkey.' His interpreter added, 'Get the point?' I did. Musawi invited us to lunch, but we de- clined.

Our only refuge in Baalbek was a hotel built too late to offer its hospitality to Lady

Hester and Mark Twain. The 1910 Macmil- lan's Guide to Palestine and Syria listed the hotel simply as 'Palmyra, near the ruins: comfortable: from 8s. to 10s. per day'. Mrs Inchbold and her husband Stanley stayed at the Palmyra Hotel in its prime. Its yellow stone façade and balconies are overgrown with jasmine and face the tem- ple complex. Its public rooms ooze late Victorian charm. The grandfather of the owner, Michel Alouf, was the archaeolog- ist in charge of many of the excavations .

Young Alouf dusted off the hotel's livres d'or to show us the names inscribed on the yellowing pages: General Allenby, who conquered Palestine; General Gouraud, who annexed the Bekaa valley to 'Le Grand Liban'; Marie of Roumania; Alfon- so of Spain; the Duc d'Orleans; and the Empress of Abyssinia. One book had the signature of a French officer who would achieve glory when he left Lebanon: C. de Gaulle. There were also Jean Cocteau, Jeanne Moreau and Ella Fitzgerald, as well as the leading lights of Lebanese society, and missionaries, diplomats, 'travelling gents,' even journalists. The Palmyra Hotel is still clean, still good. But its belle époque is definitely over. For the time being, anyway.