The Lebanon Adventure

The Lebanon Adventure

May 23, 2016  

Did You Say Lebanon?

I think I once said that I like to travel. I’m not sure when it started but there seemed to be period in my life when I was forever hopping on and off planes and finding myself in Hong Kong or Rio or Vancouver (I did enjoy Vancouver!). I think it must have been around this time I went on my first trip with Global Care, a small organisation that tirelessly works with disadvantaged children all over the world and punches well above its weight.

I’ve been on two trips with Global Care. I started working with them in the wake of the 2004 tsunami. I’d had this crazy idea to record a song with a bunch of like minded musicians from across Coventry, a kind of local ‘band aid’, to raise cash for the victims. The plan was to give the proceeds to the DEC but then I read about Global Care in the local paper. They supported a school in Sri Lanka and many of the kids there had lost their homes in the disaster.

We sold a few thousand copies, got the song to number 14 in the UK indie charts and raised £13.5k. Much of it went to the DEC but some went to Global Care, starting a relationship that has rewarded me with some incredible experiences.

In 2009 they asked me if I’d like to join them visiting a project in Bangladesh. It was a two week trip to an orphanage in the rural south west of the country. At my gigs we’d managed to raise enough money to build a fish farm so the kids could grow fish for food and to sell, now was the chance to see it in action. Armed with my Bengali phrasebook, guitar and hat, I set off for what would be a life changing trip in the company of, among others, John White, now CEO of Global Care and a very good friend. Then a couple of years later I went to Ethiopia to see their schools project and help raise funds to make primary education available to kids in remote areas.

Then, last year, after multiple music and family trips to the USA, my globetrotting took something of a sabbatical. I toured a lot around the uk, discovered the splendid isle of Arran along with its distillery and apart from a trip to a friends birthday party in Switzerland, remained firmly grounded. So I felt a twinge of excitement when John suggested that I go with him to see the work that Global Care were doing with Syrian children in the refugee camps in Lebanon.

“I could make a video of you” he suggested.

Not that I doubt John’s skill with a video camera, well actually I do doubt John’s skill with a video camera, so I suggested that my friend Jimmy Norden come along and make a film we could actually use to raise the profile of these kids and the incredible work Global Care do.

John talked it up and it all sounded great until I stopped and thought “Lebanon?”

Me, Emma and Jimmy overlooking Beruit

I mean what do I know about Lebanon? Well, I remember hearing a lot about it in the news when I was a kid. Revolution, war, Beirut, plenty of things that would make the average holiday maker scratch their chin and think “hmm, not sure even a nice hotel room and an ensuite will dull the discomfort of war”.

But that was years ago, surely the country is doing better now? Well, yes it is, but it’s an uphill struggle. Lebanon is a small place. For you Bible nerds out there, we’re talking about the land of Canaan. It’s roughly the size of Devon and Cornwall (not sure what that is in American measurements I’m afraid). It borders Israel to the south and let’s just say the neighbourly relationship is strained, and Syria to the east. You may have heard there is a war going on in Syria with millions of people fleeing the fighting and destruction of their home. Lebanon has provided temporary sanctuary for over 1,100,000 (in a place the size of Devon and Cornwall, remember).

Without refugees the population is split into three – Christians, Druz and Muslims. And the Muslims in Lebanon are Shi’ite and don’t get on with the Syrian Muslims who are Sunni. In short Lebanon is a melting pot of history and culture, volatile and yet promising. John was bought up there and, pointing to a UK government travel advice map, he happily pointed out that most of it was green, some was orange and we wouldn’t go to to the red bit.

So now I find myself sitting in the departure lounge between flights at Istanbul airport, with Emma, a radio presenter, and Jimmy, wondering what on earth I’m doing.

 

May 24, 2016   

The Lebanon Adventure – Day 1

I was looking up “facts about Lebanon” on the Internet the other day and found this.  

“Lebanon is roughly two hours ahead of us.”

Roughly?

Is that how it works generally in the world clock offices or does Lebanon have a kind of relaxed attitude to time in general? “Let’s say we call it 6pm then. What’s ten minutes either way?”   

Well, apparently, and I find this somewhat appealing, the Lebanese attitude towards punctuality does have something of a ‘take it or leave it’ feel. If you say we’ll meet for dinner at 2, allow for 2:30. That’s not to say nothing happens or the place is idle. Goodness me no, this place is buzzing.

Take the traffic for instance. I’ve been on some crazy roads but here there seems to be a perfect mix of sensibility and chaos, just to the point where it’s rather thrilling without feeling like your life is in danger.  

I fell in love with the the flight from Istanbul to Beirut. I felt like I’d stepped back into the 1980’s, the retro in-flight entertainment with screens hanging from the ceiling, faux leather upholstery and food that may have been prepared in the 80’s. And I’m not complaining. Not only was the service good but the cabin was alive with chatter , kids playing and people milling around as if it was an annual family gathering. Such an eclectic mix of people all there with the common aim of getting to Beirut. And before you point out that people on a plane usually do share the destination as a common purpose, when was the last time you heard them all talking to each other about it? It was wonderful.

We arrived at a seemingly deserted Beirut airport, rows of empty chairs in deserted arrivals halls, possibly because we were the last flight in, and headed towards immigration. At the gate there were crowds of women in burkas sitting in the middle of the floor and a few short queues at passport control. Wherever I am, airport immigration always makes me feel like a criminal. I blame America. “What are you doing here? Why have you come? How did you afford the ticket on your salary?” And the forms! “Are you part of a terrorist group?” Seriously?

I needn’t have worried coming into Lebanon. We were through immigration, visas sorted and passports stamped in no time and reunited with out bags almost in one piece.

John White picked us up from the airport with his brother Steve, the headmaster of the Lebanon Evangelical School for Boys and Girls and drove us through Beirut to the apartments we’d be staying at.

Like a good tourist, wide eyed and ready for surprises, I had my camera poised for action.

“This is a Hezbollah area, behind these buildings are Palestinian communities, the police rarely  come here.” He chatted away as we drove onto the Damascus Highway.

“Do you steer clear of this area?”

“Oh no, they have some great food places here. Ah, put your camera away for now”

We came up to an army checkpoint. The guards waved us through and the camera was back out. We drove over the green line, the infamous line of demarcation during the civil war, separating the Muslims in the west from the Christians in the east, where signs of the war that ended in 1990 still remain.

But as John explained, there are still problems but the majority of Lebanese people don’t want to return to the days of war so they make it work. Beirut is a tri-lingual city with Arabic, English and French not just spoken but filling up huge billboards across town. Some people may use all three languages in one sentence.

There are still areas, ghettos of culture and faith but they live alongside each other in a baffling way. As we drove the highway the next morning we passed through Shia, Sunni Druze and Christian areas, the give away being the huge posters of the chosen cleric or saviour displayed on the side of the road.

We arrived at the Lebanon Evangelical School at 11:30pm and Steve showed us our apartment which was basic but comfortable. “Don’t use the AC at the same time as the hot water”, he warned. “You’ll trip the electrics. Oh, and you need to be up for 6:40. We’ll meet you downstairs, you’re doing two school assemblies tomorrow”

 

May 27, 2016   

The Lebanon Adventure – Day 2

I don’t care how laid back you are about time and appointments, 6:30am is too early for a meeting. Especially when my flat mates for the trip don’t have to go to said meeting. I had in fact been volunteered by John to take two school assemblies but before that I needed to attend the staff prayer time at the Lebanon Evangelical School (LAS). Leaving Jimmy snoring I headed over to the school wondering what on earth I was going to say to 300 Lebanese teenagers. I needn’t have worried. The assemblies were great fun and the kids were awesome, even if my shell-shocked voice wasn’t. I find it amazing that despite language barriers and cultural differences, beliefs and taste, when it comes down to basics humanity is a common language (and no, I’m not plugging my song but if you’re interested, ask me and I’ll sing it to you.)

While I waited for John I watched the kids turn up for school (at 6:30am? When I was at school I didn’t know there was a 6:30am!). Apart from the unearthly time of the morning, I could have been watching kids from anywhere. In the first assembly I had year 9 to 13, the older kids up to 17 years old. They were teenagers, enjoying the fact that something different was happening but too cool to make too much noise about it. (I know they enjoyed it, they liked me on Facebook! I’m down with the kids you know.)

The second assembly was for the younger kids and they enjoyed it, clapping out of time, laughing in the right places and singing along, even when the power went out and we sat in the dark. I felt even more ‘down with the kids’ as they walked past giving me high fives. Oh yeah!

I headed back to the apartment and told Jimmy and Emma what an excellent time they’d missed. I’m sure they felt remorse though they did well to hide it. Our main aim of the visit was to travel to the Syrian refugee camps that Global Care are supporting. Emma is a journalist collecting stories about Global Care’s response to the refugee crisis for local radio stations. Jimmy is a friend of mine I’d known for a while. He’s here to make a film that Global Care can use to increase the awareness of what they are doing in Lebanon. I’m here to carry his cases, at least that’s what I was doing at 8:30am this morning.

We carried bags, stands and cameras to the car and met George. George is a teacher at the LAS and pastors a church near to the camps. Now somewhere in his 40’s, at 15 he was fighting with the Christian Militia in the civil war that devastated Lebanon. After 6 years of fighting, when he was 21, he left Lebanon and moved to France.

It’s interesting hearing him tell his story. Although he fought for the Christian Militia and would say he was ‘Christian’, that was more an identity than a faith. It had little to do with belief, rather it was the people he identified with. so he says he didn’t become a Christian until he was 22 somewhere in France. Almost immediately he began to travel, doing missionary work in Africa and then Bangladesh and having studied theology, began to take on pastoral roles in the countries he visited. Now he works for Out Of The Wilderness, the agency Global Care has pert erred with in Lebanon.

George is a big character, keen to show us as much of Lebanon as possible in the short time were here. My diary means I’ve had to limit this trip to four days, including travel. It means we only get two days to do what we need to do. As we drive along the Damascus Highway, John and George are already talking about next time we come we can visit this place or that place, and to be honest, there’s a lot to see and even more, it seems, to eat. We stopped for breakfast at ‘the best place on this road’ for Manakish, dough topped with herbs, cheese or meat. There’s way too much on the plates to get through so we pack it up and take it with us.

The road isn’t bad, the driving, especially the overtaking, is creative and the views are spectacular. Lebanon’s mountains stretch for over 90 miles along the length of the country with the highest peak of Mount Hermon reaching an impressive 2814 metres. John points across the huge valley to the mountains.

“Just over the other side of those mountains, about 10 miles or so away, is the Syrian border.”

After half an hour or so we pull off the main road and head down a road that seems to be more potholes than tarmac. The car scrapes its floor as George negotiates the crevices and dips, groaning every time we feel metal and stone grind against each other. There’s a few building projects going on but very soon we see the makeshift tents and shanties that make up just one of the many refugee camps in this area.

This camp is home to around 80 families and by families I mean children, parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. It’s been here a while and seems to be quite well ordered. John explains that often the local farmers allow the Syrians to stay on their land if they work for them. They do get paid but it is often a very minimal wage.

“When they first came,” George says, “this was just a field. When it rained their shelters filled with water and when it snowed the roofs collapsed under the weight of snow. So they start to get some help and some order. The concrete was put down so now there are no floods. In the winter they have learned to move the snow. It’s a different life for them”.

The school is on the edge of the camp and we park next to it. You can hear the lessons going on – two classes, one for the older kids and one for the youngsters. The school is built in the same way the rest of the camp is built. A wooden frame covered in tarpaulin with old tyres on the roof to stop the wind blowing it away. There’s not much privacy and often the noise from the camp and the road can make lessons difficult.


The camp does have electricity supplied by the government and two energy saving bulbs are rigged up in each classroom. The children sit on plastic patio chairs around plastic tables and are all hard at work. The teacher, Naveen, has the children under control. Strange English visitors make for some distraction and some of the bolder children forget their work as we walk in and practice their English on us. “What is your name?” they ask with cheeky grins.

The distractions increase as James sets up his cameras. I feel a bit like a spare part so I ask Dimitri, the leader of the school, if we can visit one of the homes.

“Of course”, he replies. One of LAS’s former pupils, Dimitri is a big man with a big smile. He teaches the older children and has obviously won the trust of the people in the camp. “We have a family whose son comes to the school. They are very friendly with us”.

We walk through the camp, dodging the randomly placed drainage holes and ducking under washing lines strung with brightly coloured clothes that stand out in stark contrast to the drab surroundings of the camp. The ‘house’ we come to is typical of all the shelters in the camp. It has a main living room where the parents or adults sleep, a second room where the children sleep and a small kitchen area. Many families left in a hurry with little time to pack any belongings so the rooms are sparse.

We’re given a warm welcome and invited in so we leave our shoes at the door and go in. A grandmother and her daughter are preparing some food in the main room, stuffing small cucumbers with rice and using vine leaves to wrap meat and rice into small ‘packages’. The granddaughter appears with a tray of glasses and a pot of sweet tea.

“Please drink it”, said Dimitri. “It is the culture, they must show some hospitality to visitors.”

As we sat on the floor drinking sweet tea, the grandmother told us they had left Idlib when the bombing started. They left quickly she said, with only what they wore. She tells us that recently 47 members of her family were killed in one bombing. When they first arrived in Lebanon they had hoped to return home but as time, and the fight, wears on, hope for a return has faded.

“The school here has provided us with hope” says the mother. “They have been good to us. We trust them.”

This was the first of many stories, all similar, that we heard again and again today, and in chaotic lives the school in the camp provides something stable. We talked to some of the children who told us they’d been learning how to write their birthdays and for the first time had celebrated their own birthday in the school.


I spent the afternoon holding a microphone as Jimmy filmed two of the children talking about their experiences and dreams. It was strange as we stood in a field listening to them speak. The camp, bordered by an open sewer and only a stone’s throw away from some houses and a farm, with home an unreachable 10 miles away.

We’re back tomorrow. There’s a lot to process before then.

May 27, 2016   

The Lebanon Adventure – Day 3

Lebanon is old. It’s got real history dating back 7000 years. My daughter who proof-read this said I didn’t need to say ‘real history, just ‘history but I decided to leave that in. Lebanon has REAL history.  Abram looked out on this land and nearly sacrificed his son here. The Canaanites did just that and the altars are still there to see. In Baalbek there is a Roman temple that is reputedly the best preserved Roman temple in the world, or so I am reliably informed. There are archaeological sites galore that tell an amazing story of a land full of intrigue and colour.

The Nahr al-Kalb, or Dog River, flows from the heart of Lebanon to the Mediterranean Sea. At it’s estuary there are some impressive limestone cliffs that used to fall down to the sea. It’s now surrounded by reclaimed land that carries the main highway from Beirut to Tripoli in the north. If you’re driving and you didn’t know it was there, you’d completely miss one of UNESCO’s prized sites. In the cliffs are over 20 inscriptions from armies that have had some, albeit transient, success in invading Lebanon. The oldest date back to the Pharos including one apparently placed by Ramesses III. Napoleon has one and in 1946 an inscription was erected to mark Lebanon’s independence. That was it until 2000 when some
protesters marked the departure of Israeli troops by putting another one up.

Now another very different kind of  invasion seems to be taking place, one I doubt will be marked on the cliffs of Dog River. Lebanon is now home to over five million people, a fifth (20%) of whom are refugees.

Yesterday gave me a lot to think about. We met children and families who were at the school in the refugee camp supported by Global Care and run by Out Of The Wilderness, a Christian organisation based in the Middle East. We were back in the camp today to do some more filming and visited another family.

We were invited into their home, the same layout as most of the shelters, with a main room, children’s bedroom and kitchen. The toilets are communal ‘squat toilets’, slightly better than a hole in the ground. Fresh water is delivered by a charity once a week. The mother was in, feeding her baby who had been born in the camp nearly a year ago. I asked whether he would be classed as Syrian or Lebanese as he’d been born in Lebanon.

“It’s tribal”, explained John. “These are Syrian people so the children will all be Syrian”.

That in itself presents a problem. As we talked to the mother she said that the longer they stay the less hope they have of returning to Syria. What that means for the children I don’t know. But as she talked about the children she had some hope. The school, she said, meant that the children still receive an education and that gives them hope for the future.

“Shukraan” she said – Thank you so much for what you do.

It was interesting hearing what the children dreamt of for the future. One said he wanted to be a pilot, to fight to get his home back. Another said a dentist “to fix the world’s teeth”. There were extremes of kindness and revenge but one young girl, Sidra, summed it up. “I want to go home” she said.

We stayed around the camp for a few hours talking to people, having fun filming with the kids and somehow communicating despite the language barrier. Ten year old Mohamed taught me how to write the Arabic letter ‘Saad’. Dimitri and Naveen, the teachers, came with us as we filmed and helped translate. They’re great with the children and have earned a lot of respect in the camp. Global Care’s role is simply to provide the teacher’s wages. For three teachers at the school it costs around £10,000 per year. It really is a tiny amount for something that has such a huge impact on the lives of so many vulnerable families.

I stood for awhile in the field next to the camp looking at the mountains bordering Lebanon and Syria. “What’s that one in the distance with snow on it?”

“That’s Mount Hermon” said John.

I thought for a while and then it dawned on me. In Psalm 133 it talked about how good it is when we live together in unity. “It’s as if the dew of Hermon were falling on mount Zion, for there the Lord Commands his blessing”.

How apt, I thought.

 

June 1, 2016  

The Lebanon Adventure – Day 3.5

I have some experience of life in front of the TV cameras. Not a lot but enough to know that the process of recording a sequence on film can carry the same degree of excitement at recording a tricky vocal part in a recording studio.

“That was great, can you just do it one more time, please?”

“Again?”

“Take 42!”

So I did feel some empathy for the young man who had eagerly stepped up to be filmed for our Global Care piece on the refugee camps as he walked yet again around the camp doing his best to look serious as a cloud of his mates jogged along beside the camera finding it slightly more fun than him.

I did a piece for “Songs of Praise” once on BB1, all very exciting as they were making a video to one of my songs. I have no idea how many times I walked up and down that pathway but I had blisters on my toes at the end of the shoot. And as an aside, why do they always have me walking through a leafy park looking wistful or pensive? And why do lighting technicians always choose pink lights to backlight my stage? I hate pink!

Anyway, what was I saying? Oh yes, filming. It can be repetitive and a drag.

Jimmy, our filmmaker and all round top bloke, has been with us in Lebanon to film life in the camps for some of the Syrian refugees. We also wanted to take the opportunity while we’re here to film some footage for a music video based around the plight of refugees.

Once I had been filmed walking around the camp like a pied piper followed by crowds of excited kids (immense fun, I assure you) and all the rest of the filming and recording had been done, we headed up to Mount Lebanon to find somewhere that, as my mate John kept saying, I could look wistfully up to the mountains, singing the song.

Mount Lebanon is an incredible place. It averages over 2,500 metres down the middle of the country, effectively cutting it in two. If you travel into the heart of Lebanon you climb a long way before dropping down into the valley on the west side of the Mount Lebanon range. Come off the main road and you find yourself in a jaw dropping landscape of peaks and valleys.

We were pushed for time which meant we didn’t have long to explore but the scenery left us spoilt for a backdrop to the video and we found an old derelict building that would serve us nicely. The writing, just visible on the walls told us it had been a mushroom farm. The bullet casings on the floor and scars in the concrete told us it had more to its history than growing fungi.

We had a look around and as Jimmy set up his cameras I sat on the ledge remembering the song we were filming. “The Boots I Never Wore” started life in Nashville last year. I had seen a pair of boots in a boot shop and I loved them but wasn’t sure I could spend that kind of cash on a pair of boots. Bill Bleistine who was with me said “Don’t worry Guv, you can come back and get them later”. We never did go back and the next day in the car Bill said, “Don’t worry Guv, you can write a song about it. Call it  ‘The Boots I Never Wore’!”

And so it started there but it was written when I got back to the UK and began hearing the stories of refugees, of how some had travelled for two nights in a trucks disconnected fuel tank across Europe, of the violence and torture some had experienced. We don’t know what these people have been through. I thought about the kids and families we’d met In the refugee camps that day, about their own stories of loss. They’re the boots I’ve never worn.

As I strummed away, blown away by the scenery, I could see someone coming towards us. He stopped and stood, arms folded, head on one side, listening. When I finished the song I jumped down and went across to him, held out my hand. He shook it, grinning and said, “I am Malik. It is good you come”.

“It’s very good to be here”, I said “Thank You”.

He pointed to some tents about half a mile away and said, “You can come to eat?”

I was gutted that we had such a tight schedule. I thanked him but we had to be moving on soon. It would have been quite an experience to eat with the Bedouins in their camp. I hope there’s a next time.

We carried on filming and other Bedouins, shepherds with their flocks, came and watched us. When we finished and were packing up one came over. His name was Hamza, he didn’t speak English but we managed to communicate with awkward sign language. He left, then, just as we were about to leave he reappeared holding a lamb which he bought over to me.

“It’s a gift!” said George, our Lebanese friend, laughing. “For you!”

So what do you do with a lamb? I can just see me trying to board a plane with a sheep in my hand luggage! I can’t say I felt that comfortable holding it but I must say it was rather cute and to be given a sheep by a Bedouin shepherd in the land of Canaan is quite something.