Road to Paradise: Under Construction
by Marilyn Raschka
George dreams of beans. Big fat beans like those on Jacks fairy-tale stalks. And as in Jacks story, gold plays an important role. George, his family, and hundreds like him have lived for generations in Lebanons Wadi Dahab, only a 40-minute drive from Beirut. So rich is the agricultural land there that the valley long ago picked up the name that in English means The Valley of Gold.
Long-term foreign residents of Lebanon knew this valley too and contributed to its golden reputation. So perfect was it that they kept its existence a secret from outsiders. At the end of the valley (a four-mile drive plunging clown to the river) was a village called Jahliyeh, meaning unknown and that is just how the foreigners who loved Jahliyeh wanted to keep it.
A 20-minute walk from Jahliyeh brought the picnicker to a glorious waterfall that cascaded into a deep pool. There was a village legend that the bottom was covered with gold: necklaces, rings and such that foreigners had lost leaping from the top of the waterfall or just swimming in the pool. Now and again, young bucks of the village would attempt to dive to the bottom. And so the legend endures.
So coveted was the peace and pristine quality of the waterfall and the numerous swimming areas it created that foreigners in the know would pass on directions to the spot only when they were leaving Lebanon for good. And then the information went out only to a family or individual accepted by the group.
During the Lebanese civil war (1975-1990) there were few people to whom to pass the treasured information. Most Westerners, including some of the waterfall club, had fled. Those who stayed could not reach paradise because of the war.
But their loss was minimal compared to those villagers, many of them Christian, who lived in a handful of villages along the road to paradise. During the civil war they found themselves on the wrong side of the sectarian fence. Their lives threatened, they fled, becoming refugees in their own country, forced to occupy abandoned buildings. In their own villages, looting and vandalism destroyed what they had lovingly and vigorously built through the years.
In Serjbal, nothing was spared but a roadside church. Villagers believe that had the militia destroyed it, the rubble would have blocked the road. Paradise untended meant olive trees unpruned, Georges beans dead on their vines, fruit trees strangled by the wild growth that quickly took over. For years, paradise was lawless and hoe-less.
By 1994, however, the Lebanese army had secured the area sufficiently to guarantee security for returning families.
Today, with help from CNEWAs Beirut office, the areas former inhabitants are finding their way back. Both beans and paradise show signs of recovery. Doors are back on their hinges and basic kitchen fixtures have been replaced. Food preparation is possible. The church building that survives serves the Maronite and Greek-Melkite Catholic communities.
On Sundays the church bell, the only one remaining in the entire valley, rings across from Serjbal to the tiny village of Shemaareen. When I first asked how to get there, I was told to park my car near the grove of umbrella pines just there and take the foot path. Take you half an hour, the man told me. Then he saw my city-slicker shoes. Maybe an hour, he added.
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Tags: CNEWA Village life Beirut Civil War