Lebanon, My articles, Syria

The Geography of Small Places


Hello, everyone. This blog has been a little sleepy for the past year or so, as I’ve wrapped up the long-running book projects that have kept me so preoccupied. With those now off my desk, I thought I’d try turning the crank and seeing if everything still runs here the way it used to.

Here’s an essay I wrote for The New York Times opinion page, about summers in Lebanon as a child in the late 1980s and early 90s. Maybe some of you will be able to relate to the experience described here. And if you have pictures of mountain views from your own grandparents’ balconies, share them in the comment section if you’re so inclined.

A Lesson in Emotional Geography

When I was a child, I spent most summers at my grandparents’ home in the Lebanese mountain village of Roumieh, overlooking Beirut and the Mediterranean coast. From the porch swing on the veranda, an expanse of umbrella pines and terracotta-roofed villages tumbled steeply toward the sea.

In the evenings, my grandfather would set up a tiny portable television outside to watch the news, and my grandmother would point out the constellations of lights across the hills, naming the villages and towns: “There’s Bhannes, near Bhersaf. Beyond them is Bikfaya, but you can’t see it from here.”

The mountain’s geography was mystifying. Elevation seemed to both stretch and compress space. Villages separated by a few hundred meters of fragrant air were as distinct as planets, while the great city by the sea seemed close enough to touch. Maps showed the road to my grandparents’ house neatly branching off the main street of the village. In reality, it torqued as it rose steeply up a hill, tracing a question mark toward the sky. (keep reading)



6 thoughts on “The Geography of Small Places

  1. My first trip to Lebanon was not too long after those years: 1995. The occasion was the funeral of my father-in-law. At that time, there was a spirit of optimism in the air, despite the Syrian occupation. I went to several of the same places you mention: Baalbek, Beiteddien… We missed the Crusader castle in Sidon, but were taken to the ruins of the one in leveled downtown Beirut by our friend, the archaeologist Leila Badre, who had uncovered it and recognized it for what it was, based on a description in an old manuscript. And, on a subsequent trip, Deir Q’anubin, and Zahle, and Dhour el Choueir, where my wife spent summers growing up. Based on what I was told at the time, the number of Syrian workers and soldiers in Lebanon exceeded the number of Syrian refugees now said to be present. At the time, I could joke that I wanted to buy a Hizb’ollah tee shirt to take home. I got some very upset responses from people who could see into the future far better than I.

    Posted by Peter S. Shenkin (@samadamsthedog) | November 18, 2016, 8:01 pm
  2. Thanks Peter! Dhour el Chweir is one of the loveliest spots. Photos?

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | November 18, 2016, 8:09 pm
  3. I probably can dig up a few, but not of Dhour el Chweir. I don’t think your blog is set up to allow the posting of photos in comments, though….

    Posted by Peter S. Shenkin (@samadamsthedog) | November 18, 2016, 8:26 pm
  4. Hey QN,

    Thanks for resuscitating the site:D

    The article reboots old memories of my childhood and birthplace of Zahle. It is still so beautiful; and every time I go to Lebanon and visit Zahle I feel “secure” and get the special feeling of belonging to that land and air.

    Once your books are published kindly let us know how/where to buy it from.

    Much appreciated.

    Posted by Danny | November 22, 2016, 7:32 am
  5. Thank you for this piece. I am not Lebanese but I spent a lot of time there. People my age (60s) remember going from their homes in Saida to listen to concerts in the cedars at Bsherreh and at the festival in Baalbak. Along the way to Baalbak they would stop and have a meal by the river in Zahleh. It was “routine,” something they took for granted in those days. I wonder what sense of geographic space young people growing up today in Lebanon will have.

    Posted by Jim Reilly | December 4, 2016, 7:53 am
  6. Glad to see you post again Professor. I spent this past summer in Lebanon, where I made it a case to visit all the places I never went to as a child, as my parents always felt fearful of entering areas that weren’t “ours”. I must say there is a special connection you feel to the land and the air. I managed to escape the bustle of Beirut, let go of internet technology, drove up to the mountains, and hiked around the beautiful cedar trees. I haven’t felt so serene in a very long time, and it was everything a man can ask for.

    Thanks for reminding us all of the magic that will always exist in Lebanon. It is timeless, indifferent to contemporary conditions, and will remain there under all conditions.

    Also, upload more baby pictures, as it’s the first time I’ve seen you without facial hair!

    Posted by Josiah Carberry | December 9, 2016, 3:30 pm

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