On the road to Damascus
An 8-foot Christmas tree fell over in the strong winds in London and smacked into a man on his way to work. I remember it was about two weeks before Christmas. Little did I know, but the company was about to be restructured and I would be out of a job.
The strange thing is I had been working long days in the office and long nights at events. And I would work unpaid overtime on the weekends when asked. My nights often involved too much leftover wine. I would drag myself out of bed every morning and did not recognize myself with a puffy face and bags under my eyes.
My job was about selling wine and making wealthy men drink more. Even if you sold thousands of dollars of wine, they would treat you like a waitress. Living in the city by myself never left me with very little money every month. I felt like I was living on scraps from the rich men's tables.
At one of these events, I had invited a friend who also worked in wine. Because we worked long hours, I thought it could be an excellent opportunity to catch up, even during work time. He bought fine wine for a wealthy press baron, so he may even buy from me. He could find the wine he needed for his customer’s cellar at our wine tasting of 200 people. It was always good to see a familiar face in the crowd. Then, out of the blue, he said,
“Do you want to go to Lebanon to see the vineyards?”
He asked, unsure, his phone in his hand, ready to make it happen.
The war in Syria had kindled into a wildfire by 2014. Refugees were escaping across every border. I only saw Beirut on the news; reporters at a safe distance from the Syrian war to file a report. I was out of the job in two weeks.
“Yes. I will go.”
On the Road to Damascus
Three weeks later, I am on a plane for Beirut. I did not know what to expect. I could read parts of a book from through the seats in front of me. The book by the late Robert Fisk, “Pity the Nation.”
We arrived after sunset. Beirut disappeared behind us as we drove to the Bekaa Valley. A highway sign pointed to the turn off for Damascus.
That’s what I wanted to know. The road to Damascus! Across the mountain was Syria.
As the saying goes, is this my road to Damascus?
The lights disappeared outside of the city. I couldn't help but laugh; how many times had I said it was a “Damascene moment”? And about ridiculous things. Now here I was on the actual ROAD to Damascus.
The truth is I wanted a conversion. A significant change of ideas. What was going to be changed?
“This is us, here,” the Arabic driver said, and we tumbled out into the dark streets into a power outage. The Christmas tree that could have been a Lebanese bonsai cedar was twinkling with lights.
The first thing we do after dropping off our bags is to try some local wine.
The next day, my phone died.
That was my internet and my camera for the trip. Gone. The reason why I was there. To take photos and publish them.
I had plugged the phone into the charger overnight. The next morning, I found the electricity shortages had short-circuited my iphone.
Outside for the first time, I could see the Valley mountains in the light. We drove to Chateau Ksara. They were founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks. They inherited a 25-hectare plot of land between Tanail and Zahle in the Bekaa Valley.
The monks planted Cinsault, Carignan, and Grenache grape varieties brought from Algeria. We learned on tour at Chateau Ksara; their planting had laid the foundations for the modern Lebanese wine industry.
I took notes by hand, with one eye looking for an electrical socket for a charger. The dead blank face of the phone stared back at me.
At lunch, we had skewers of chicken and roast potatoes. I happened to sit down next to the owner. He pointed out I had not touched the food. He could see my stressed face and asked,
"Was everything okay?"
The owner called one of the waiters over and whispered in his ear.
I was not making a good first impression on anyone.
“Stupid phone,” I cursed, under my breath, “There are more important things than you.” Although, at that exact moment, I was not so sure it was true.
I started to panic: Could you turn it on? Could you turn it off? Take it apart. Please put it back together. I was running out of time. After lunch, we would be at the next winery.
How was I going to buy a phone in the middle of the wineries of Lebanon?
The waiter came back from the market.
He handed me a second-hand Nokia.
“No, I can’t possibly take this!”
“No, it is too much!”
I wanted to throw all the money at him with happiness. He refused to take any money. It got to the point where my insistence felt insulting.
I humbly accepted the gift.
We finished the visit by meeting the Syrian women picking the grapes. They had just arrived in Lebanon as refugees from the civil war. There were over 3 million refugees camping in Lebanon.
We smiled and waved at the grape pickers. They covered their faces with their scarves as they sat in the shade for lunch. They giggled as we tried to say goodbye.
“I know you will have some great wines in Lebanon,” the owner said as he waved us all goodbye.
He looked over to the mountain range to Syria and said,
“I sincerely hope we have peace.”
About Red Wine from Lebanon
Red wine from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon is renowned for its freshness and age-ability. And yet, even though the red wines can be powerful “Southern French” red blends of Grenache, Shiraz, and Mourvedre, they have a lift and freshness all their own from the high altitude in the Bekaa Valley (about 1000 meters). It has 1 meter of clay and then calcareous soils – this maintains the water against the bright light and reflection of the area.
In the middle of a winery in the hills of Lebanon, it is hard to believe that there is a bloody and unpredictable war in Syria over the mountains. For a winery and most winemakers, the Beirut port explosion this year also stopped their plans in their tracks. If you see a bottle in your local wine store, you are lucky to see it. Worth picking up a bottle. Who knows when you could see one next?