Hiking Lebanon: on the difficulty of disentangling violence and disease from nature
Every Sunday morning , many Lebanese head to specific locations in Beirut to catch appointed buses for their weekly hiking trip. The buses gather around in Downtown’s martyr square and the end of Forn Al Chebbak. They wait for the hikers, who appear wearing their full-geared hiking clothes, except for those trying out hiking for the first time, stumbling around feeling a bit “under-dressed” for the trip.
Hiking has become a main attraction for middle class Lebanese and for foreigners, professionals and students alike, who seek a day of promenade, exercising and dwelling in nature away from the polluted, noisy, disease-afflicted, explosive and violent city of Beirut. in the last few years, USAID took on the task of funding the project of creating hiking paths all around the country. well , in the “civilized” regions that is, with the exception of most South Lebanon whose nature was deemed too insecure and dangerous for hiking promenades.
Since this funded project, hiking established itself as one of the main Sunday attraction and leisure sports in Lebanon for people from different ages and gender. Becoming a hiker is not a simple endeavor. it is a inter-relational production of a middle class appreciation of nature as peaceful, healing, full of wisdom and knowledge, and as spiritually empowering. Nature is a shelter from the city’s sudden explosions and from the everyday terror that people experience as a result. Hikers are also those who scream in disapproval over littering in nature and bulldozers “eating nature’s essence”. However, in Lebanon, hiking is not just about nature. Everyone who has hiked with one of the mainstream hiking groups was able to notice that this activity is one of the main ways for “hooking up” or “finding a boyfriend/husband” in Lebanon that does not requires drinking and nightlife. Hiking in Lebanon is not a solitary dwelling in nature but is more of a socializing and romantic kind of getting together in nature.
However, being a hiker in Lebanon who can appreciate nature through specific modernized and civilized practices is very difficult. It takes a lot of work to ideologically perceive, produce and imagine nature in Lebanon as esthetically beautiful, peaceful and healing while hiking. And this work requires building the ability to detach from, disregard and become blind to the signifiers and markers of violence that overwhelmingly inhabit nature in Lebanon and renders it diseased and in conflict. Producing the modern nature/culture dichotomy, separating nature from culture, seems to require an ideological process of “forgetting” and “blinding” “things violent and diseased” that are so entangled with nature that they themselves become “natural”.
Hiking in the Chouf region on a Sunday morning, a good middle class hiker encounters many obstacles in his quest for natural healing and enjoyment. Hiking peacefully, one first walks between lands entangled with explosive devises. Suddenly, one is surrounded by lands full of mines: “if it rains, one of them might explode all of a sudden” remarks a hiker to another in passing. “danger of death, mines” signs stand at the edge of the land, although quite far away. After crossing the explosive nature land, one is exposed to a much more visible marker of violence: countless colorful hunting cartridges lie on the earth, entangled with its dirt and trees. Red, blue and green, they soon become part of the natural landscape and their violence is forgotten
Walking further and further up, hikers next arrive to the middle of the woods. While they walk through, few notice three of four well-made and maintained stenches on the top of a hill and look at each other “is this..a trench?”, “perhaps it was used in the civil war…look how it overviews all of this area in Lebanon” others continue hiking, while commenting on trees and plants.
One of the hikers noticed a strange looking web covering small young tees on the side of the trail path. He horridly snapped the disease branch and threw it on the floor while stepping on it “look, all these trees are diseased, it is a kind of a worm that kill trees…” One of them comments: “it is diseased nature”, while distant gun shots are heard intermittently. But no one seems to hear them.
It is exhausting to hike in peaceful nature in Lebanon. One has to put on her ideological blind glasses in order to imagine herself in a healing natural landscape.